On Persistence and the Counting of Things

Kameron Hurley did a blog post on what it took her to become a writer, which I ran across via Harry Connolly's follow-up. These are fairly long, but well worth reading for insight into what it means to be a writer-- and they're both very good at what they do. You should buy their books, right now.

As always, reading these made me feel really guilty. Maybe I ought to add "the writing life" articles to the list of topics I just don't read, with "Let's make fun of religious people!" and "The Higgs boson is the greatest thing since sliced bread!" Except unlike those two, which just irritate me, stories about struggling writers provide a useful corrective.

The issue, and the source of guilt, is that while I can, in certain countries, call myself a best-selling author, I backed into this. If you haven't heard the story, I was in a silly mood one day, and wrote a blog post where I talked with the dog about the Many-Worlds Interpretation. That got picked up by Boing Boing, and 50,000 people read it, one of whom was an agent who contacted me and convinced me it would be a good basis for a book. That did reasonably well, so I wrote a second one on relativity, and now there's a third one (not featuring the dog) in the works.

Around the time of the initial blog post and developing the book proposal, the novelist Walter Mosely spoke on campus. Somebody asked him how he became a writer, and his answer was "The worst people to ask about the writing business are writers, because they all got into the business through some ridiculously unlikely path that would never work if you tried to do it deliberately." That really resonated with my ridiculously lucky story.

So, I always feel a little guilty when I read pieces like Hurley's, because I never had to put in that kind of toil. I haven't had to endure the repeated rejection and struggling to make ends meet, and all that sort of thing. While it occasionally makes me nuts, I have a pretty great day job that pays the bills, and my first book came about via a bizarre accident. And I've done very well as a result.

Note that I am not claiming that I never needed to work at the craft of writing. Far from it. At the time of that blog post, I had been running this blog for several years, writing stuff for people to read online, and before that I spent most of the 90's hanging out on Usenet, communicating with a variety of people primarily through written text. All of that, in some sense, counts as writing practice. And, of course, I have a Ph.D. and a bunch of scientific papers with my name on them, through which I learned about the importance of editing and revision. All of that work, in a roundabout way, feeds into the books.

But it never really felt like part of a struggle to get to a particular goal. The blog was an outgrowth of Usenet, started on a hobby basis because I enjoy the process of typing words and having other people read them. I've often said that when it starts to feel like a job, something that I have to slog through, I'll shut the blog down. That's not quite true, in that there have been times when I have said "Oh, God, I need to write some sort of blog post..." without me pulling the plug, but on balance it has continued to be more enjoyable than not. And when I've had to suspend operations for whatever reason, I miss it a lot.

So, well-written accounts of toil and suffering in pursuit of a writing career always make me feel kind of guilty, because I've found myself with a writing career without facing that kind of struggle. (Sadly, this doesn't really bring with it the power to help anybody else out-- the publishing business is highly individual and compartmentalized, so there's really next to nothing I can do to ease the path for anybody else who's struggling.) They are, however, a useful corrective, in that they remind me that no matter how much I may grumble about whatever petty problem I'm having, things could be much, much worse. This verges on "too much fucking perspective" at times, but better too much than too little.

This also plays into the conversation Rhett and I had the other day about blogging in academia. Both of us were of a similar mind, though by different paths-- Rhett started his blog after getting tenure, while I blogged through the tenure process, but have always kept it quiet. Neither of us have ever tried to get credit for blogging per se on our faculty evaluations, in large part because we haven't needed to. (Rhett is also concerned about keeping the blog separate from the university, lest they decide to claim control of the product; that's not something I've really worried about directly, though I do take care to be somewhat circumspect when blogging about stuff that happens at work.)

I've come to a sort of awkward compromise position on the whole question of blog output-- if something I write here gets reprinted in a conventionally cite-able venue (a magazine, an Open Lab anthology, whatever), I list that among my professional output for the year, because I figure that a significant part of what they're looking for is stuff that enhances Union's reputation, and my author bio in any of those will always include mention of the college. And, of course, I list the books, because, hey, they're books, and again reflect well on the college (I hope). And book writing is where most of my activity is directed these days-- I've more or less suspended work in my regular research lab, particularly since becoming Chair.

But I've never really been able to figure out what to do with the blog itself-- it doesn't quite feel like professional scholarly production, what with the regular inclusion of cute-kid photos and other miscellany. I could list it under "service" as an outreach activity, but that feels like under-selling the blog (due in part to a quirk of our local merit evaluation system). And while there's a substantial educational component to what I do here, I don't really use it in my classes directly, so putting it under "teaching" feels wrong. Listing it under all three feels like overkill. And so on.

Every time I have to do paperwork for our merit review, I dither about this for a while, then leave it off. Picking a category is too difficult, and particularly this year, I don't really have the emotional energy to invest in fighting about getting that counted as whatever.

And, of course, I feel a little guilty about this, too, in that I probably ought to fight the good fight to make sure that some future faculty member who needs it gets proper credit for blogging. But again, I don't really have the emotional energy to spare at the moment, and that's the only thing that would really be at stake, here. Not getting a small amount of extra cash isn't going to hurt me, but having a select committee of my colleagues say "No, this stuff that you do isn't worthy of recognition" would be a slap in the face. To be honest, our review process is so shrouded in mystery that I'm not really sure that the books will be given full weight as scholarly-- they're trade books, not traditional academic monographs, and I suspect there will be at least some "they're only popular writing..." sentiment. Which is kind of demoralizing and cynical-making, but then again, the amount of money involved in our merit pay is less than I get for writing the books in the first place, so it doesn't make that much practical difference.

So, in that sense, it's easier to not try to count the blog. Which is kind of spiritually akin to Connolly's warning against hope, back in one of the posts that kicked this off. If I don't expect recognition for the blog through our merit system, I can't be stung if it's denied.

Then again, if the college's official newsletter is going to cite my informal hangout with Rhett in the news of the week, maybe I really need to push this harder...

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Fwiw, as an interested reader of your blog and books, and as a former faculty member at a SLAC, I recommend counting the blog as outreach. I'm a chemist, not a physicist, and have served for many years writing activities and doing community outreach through National Chemistry Week and other venues. I always counted those activities as professional service. I believe writing for Science Blogs fills a similar (and more contemporary) role. I also believe it's very important for the readership and, as you hinted, to "fight the good fight" on behalf of the next generation". My daughter is a PhD candidate in chemical biology who wants to teach someday at a SLAC. Do it for all young scientists! (I know that seems like a lot to put on any one person, but to paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, the future scientists will need shoulders to stand on!)

By Irene Cesa (not verified) on 01 Feb 2014 #permalink

Chad: "Science outreach to the lay public."

In an era when militant obscurantism has real political power, and when post-secondary education is coming to be seen as nothing more than job training, it's important, and it's worthwhile to go activist about it in academia.

Really: department heads and prominent scientists need to understand this. They are at risk from all sides, operationalized as funding cuts that sooner or later will eventually hit them. The "it can't happen to me" mindset is the flip-side of the lottery mentality, whereby people somehow think themselves favored by the universe because they're "special."

Think of where Texas would be today, culturally and politically, had the Superconducting Supercollider been built there. Between that and NASA, we would be singing the praises of Texas as "the Science State, where the future is born and built."

Lastly, I agree with your sentiments about "let's make fun of religious people." Though, I often hang out in those places to attempt to get anti-religious militants to cool off their language just a bit. The scientific worldview suffers in the minds of the vast majority of the public, when it can be identified with attacks on intimately personal beliefs. Better to promote science the way you're doing it, by writing books that appeal to the public.

I didn't start blogging until I was fairly senior, but I did write open-source software, and I mostly didn't try to count it. But now that I'm higher up and it doesn't matter I think it's useful to count blogging and software to make the point that they should count for other people.

By thomas lumley (not verified) on 04 Feb 2014 #permalink

One other factor regarding whether to try to count blogging that I didn't manage to get in despite all the rambling above is that even if I did cite it on my merit paperwork, it would have very limited value as precedent for anyone else. The evaluations are mostly confidential-- arguably overly so-- and the membership of the committee that does the evaluating turns over on the same time scale as the evaluations themselves. The only people who see any given faculty member come up for merit evaluation more than once are the deans, who are ex officio members of the committee.