My New Hat - Issue #1
Or, how I'm abandoning the clamor of public opinion in favor of generous conversation
TL;DR: I used to blog a lot, until it began to feel shallow and empty, but I missed good conversations with thoughtful readers, so I’m getting back into it in newsletter form. If you haven’t already, subscribe…or don’t. But maybe do? I hope you do.
Whenever I get excited about launching into a new endeavor, my wife, Steph, likes to say that I’m putting on a new hat. This is an old joke in our family, one that actually goes back to my childhood. When I was a kid, I was a big fan of playing dress-up—donning the costumes of different characters from Ghostbusters to Ninja Turtles to (the origin of the hat joke) Dick Tracy. Do you remember that movie with Warren Beatty and Madonna? Not sure why I was so enamored by it at 9 years old. Anyway, I was always all-in; my parents can attest to that. My dad, in particular, seemed to have endless patience with my quest for authenticity, often modifying my toys to be more “realistic.”
Well, apparently, I still do this as an adult—in my mind and sometimes in real life, I’ve been a student, a poet, a fiction writer, a journalist, a web developer, a professor, an author, a researcher, etc. The truth is—and by now this is probably obvious to most functioning adults, even if I’m just figuring it out—we are never just one thing, but some combination of all of our interests. While that’s true, I still go all in. So, when I told Steph that I wanted to start writing again—not quite blogging, but certainly more casually and frequently than the kind of academic writing I’ve been doing—she pointed out that I was changing my hat again. She’s not wrong.
By way of background—since I suspect many of you haven’t been keeping close tabs on the hats I’ve been sporting lately—for about a decade after college, I worked on building a career as a freelance writer (alongside web design work and college teaching). This is the period during which I worked with David Sessions on Patrol Mag (RIP). It is also when I contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, Time Magazine, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The Boston Globe Magazine, and a lot of other outlets. And this all led to publishing Not Your Mother’s Morals with Bondfire Books in 2012.
But then, in a grand gesture of hat swapping, I decided to stop all of that and go back to graduate school to get a PhD. In addition to being a necessary career move since I realized I’d never get a full time faculty position without the “Dr.” before my name, the decision to go back to school was also borne out of frustration with my writing life. I felt like I’d become enmeshed in a world of hot takes and constant commentary. Any time anything newsworthy happened in the realms of religion and culture, I felt like I was obliged to comment, and, honestly, I got sick of reading myself opine (I’m sure some of you did too!).
So I stopped that kind of writing and went back to school. Over time, I found I was engaging with social media far less frequently, and I poured myself into my dissertation project, which was/is a history of literary journalism that takes as its starting point the role that women played in the genre’s founding. This work is still ongoing as I’ve been converting the diss to a book, which I’m about to pitch to publishers. Just over two years ago, I defended my PhD and was beyond fortunate to get a job as assistant professor of Humanities at Regis College.
But recently—blame the pandemic, or the election year, or both and everything else too—I’ve been missing the kind of writing I was doing before I went back to school. I don’t miss the self-imposed pressure I felt to publish an opinion on everything, and I don’t miss the mean-spirited nature of internet commenters, but I miss putting my thoughts out into the world. But more than that—and I know this is quarantine-fueled—I miss the intellectual stimulation that comes from writing and responding and engaging in conversation.
Early on in the quarantine days, I read what immediately became one of my all-time favorite books, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. It’s a beautifully written book that also makes a compelling argument. Odell isn’t literally suggesting we do nothing, but rather the key is in the latter half of the title, the resisting. She identifies the milieu we are all immersed in as “the attention economy,” in which just about everything is competing for our time and that time is constantly being measured. If we fight back and reclaim our attention, Odell argues, we’ll have time for the kind of deep, sustained thought that is actually necessary to navigate our increasingly complicated world.
Odell emphasizes that while it is necessary to pull back from the attention economy (read: social media), this doesn’t mean becoming anti-social. Rather, she distinguishes between the “clamor and undue influence of public opinion” and actual conversation, and suggests we need less of the former and more of the latter. She writes, “It is public opinion that social media exploits, and public opinion has no patience for ambiguity, context, or breaks with tradition.” She contrasts this with conversation, which she indicates, can be broadly defined to include the conversations one has with other people, with a book, or with nature. It is from these conversations that ideas emerge. She writes, “Any idea is actually an unstable, shifting intersection between myself and whatever I was encountering.” Importantly, conversations have the power to change one’s mind—something “public opinion” has proven particularly abysmal at.
So that bring us to this newsletter. I want to have conversations. I want a kind of slow-blogging (to jump on a bandwagon that may have already, albeit slowly, passed). What I was doing before was trying to be a part of public opinion, which often amounted to making pithy arguments to get a rise out of readers. There’s no room in that kind of writing, as Odell points out, for ambiguity or patience. For example, did you know that my most read post on Patrol—the only thing I ever wrote that could be said to have “gone viral”—was a criticism of the theology of a spoken word poetry video on YouTube? I mean, really.
Anyway, having been out of it for a bit, I was just going to set up a new blog, but the more I looked into it, the more I kept reading that newsletters are the new blogs. And indeed, I’ve subscribed to a few and have been enjoying them precisely because they feel more personal, more conversational. The cool thing is, the writing also lives on the newsletter’s site so it’s kind of the best of both worlds. What’s more, commenting is enabled on the site for people who subscribe so the kind of dialogue with readers that I missed can resume, albeit in a bit more of a gated fashion.
I plan to write a few times each week but email less frequently so as to not be super annoying. I’ll write about the things I’m always thinking about: religion, culture, politics, and media, plus a few newer interests including sobriety, care ethics, medical humanities, and higher education. I’ll welcome your comments and feedback, and I’d even love to have guest writers join in too, if that’s something you might be interested in. I’m starting small; but I’d love to grow into a kind of community, so please do feel free to share liberally. Also, soon I’ll be joined here by a friend and colleague, but more on that later.
And, of course, if you don’t want any part of this, you can just choose to not subscribe and I won’t be offended at all. That said, I hope you’ll try on this new hat (or helmet, in case it’s a rocky ride, see below) with me and see where it goes. As a subscriber you have access to comments, and you can always just email me directly or find me on Twitter. I really have missed the intellectual stimulation that comes from good conversation with thoughtful friends.
See you on the internet!