Rowan Williams on the Purpose of the Economy

Sharon November 19th, 2009

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has given a lovely speech on the central question of our times - what is our economy for?  Thanks to Rod Dreher for pointing it out:

“‘Economy’ is simply the Greek word for ‘housekeeping’. Remembering this is a useful way of getting things in proportion, so that we don’t lose sight of the fact that economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in. We are still haunted by the dogma that the economic world, ‘economic realities’, economic motivations and so on belong in a completely different frame of reference from the sort of human decisions we usually make and from considerations of how we build a place to live. And to speak about building a place to live, a habitat, reminds us too that we look for an environment that is stable, ’sustainable’ in the popular jargon, a home that we can reasonably expect will be an asset for the next generation.

Economics understood in abstraction from all this is not just an academic error: it actually dismantles the walls of the home. Appealing to the market as an independent authority, unconnected with human decisions about ‘housekeeping’, has meant in many contexts over the last few decades a ruinous legacy for heavily indebted countries, large-scale and costly social disruption even in developed economies; and, most recently, the extraordinary phenomena of a financial trading world in which the marketing of toxic debt became the driver of money-making – until the bluffs were all called at the same time.

If we are not to be caught indefinitely in a trap we have designed for ourselves, we have to ask what an economy would look like if it were genuinely focused on making and sustaining a home – a social environment that offered security for citizens, including those who could not contribute in obvious ways to productive and profit-making business, an environment in which we felt free to forego the tempting fantasies of unlimited growth in exchange for the knowledge that we could hand on to our children and grandchildren a world, a social and material nexus of relations that would go on nourishing proper three-dimensional human beings – people whose family bonds, imaginative lives and capacity for mutual understanding and sympathy were regarded as every bit as important as their material prosperity.”


“Earlier I mentioned the work of Kenny Tang. At the end of his wide-ranging recent book (pp.137-60), he sketches four scenarios for the second half of the twenty first century, varying from a ‘golden age’ picture in which economic stability offers a secure background for sustaining the planet’s assets, through a model in which good intentions for sustainable and ethical behaviour in respect of the environment are undermined by boom and bust cycles in the economy, a more serious model in which patterns of consumption do not basically change, so that we face ‘resource wars’ over our finite supplies, and finally a nightmare scenario of a planet that has become a jigsaw of ‘protectionist nation-states’, where each state both refuses to challenge its aspirations for material growth and helps to inflate commodity prices worldwide by protectionist strategies.

What is most sobering about Tang’s fourth model is that so much of it reads like a description of what is already happening in many quarters and what some of the rhetoric of the wealthy world seems to take for granted. And what his analysis points up is a message that can be derived from any of the economic forecasters I have quoted: without a stable economy, the rest is idle dreaming. And a stable economy depends on our willingness to question the imperatives of unchecked growth – which in turn is a moral and cultural matter. The energy for resistance has to come from the sort of stubborn moral and cultural commitment to humane virtue that I have been speaking about.

I realise that the word ‘virtue’ is hard for many to take seriously. But it’s high time we reclaimed it. We have no other way of talking about the solid qualities of human behaviour that make us more than reactive and self-protective – the qualities of courage, intelligent and generous foresight, self-critical awareness and concern for balanced universal welfare which, under other names, have been part of the vocabulary of European ethics for two and half thousand years: fortitude, prudence, temperance and justice. In the Christian world, of course, they have been supplemented by, and grounded in, the virtues of faith, hope and love that, in their full meaning, are bound up with relation to God. But there has always been a recognition that the four pillars of ordinary human virtue were not a matter of special revelation but the raw materials for any kind of co-operative and just society. Without courage and careful good sense, the capacity to put your own desires into perspective and the concern that all should share in what is recognised as good and lifegiving, there is no stable world, no home to live in – no house to keep.”

The combination of graceful prose and intellectual clarity is just lovely.


Come and Play…

Sharon November 18th, 2009

There was a lot of attention last week to Sesame Street’s 40th birthday.  For Eric and me, 39 and 37, well,  we just can’t remember a time when Sesame Street didn’t exist.  My family didn’t always have a television, but Sesame Street is one of my enduring childhood memories - and my parents liked it too.  My father sang the number songs to us - the Alligator King and his 7 sons, the 8 penny candy man, the 12 Ladybug picnic.  It was an often-present part of my childhood in all the places we lived - the apartment in New Haven, the housing project in Naugatuck, CT, the apartment in Lynn, MA.

None of these were affluent places, and one of the things I remember best about Sesame Street is that it looked like home - the stoops were a little worn looking, the people looked more or less like my neighbors, and did the same things urban, working class people seemed to do, except of course, for their strange obsession with the alphabet and the presence of muppets. 

Sesame Street tracked me even after I got too old for it.  My youngest sister, 7 years my junior, still watched, and I would pass by and find myself stopped in front of the “D” song again.  Then I went to college, and our Sesame Street memories would come up in conversation - there was something foundational about it for many of the people I knew. One friend remembered how she learned english, a new immigrant child, from Sesame Street, heartened by the fact that there were people with accents on the program. 

I know there’s a lot to be said against television, and I can agree with almost all of it - but I have a hard time thinking that Sesame Street did me any harm.  In fact, I think it was the opposite - and I admit, while we went into parenthood wanting to minimize television exposure, Sesame Street was a single exception.  Both Eric and I loved it, and we wanted our children to know Cookie Monster and have the same sense of familiar comfort.  Our debate about whether to allow the occasional video was ended when Eli, autistic, responded to television in ways he could not respond to human teaching - he learned to read from Sesame Street and Between the Lions.  The judicious application of Kermit was in.

The problem was that the Sesame Street we’d loved was gone.  By the time Eli was old enough to watch, Sesame Street had responded to pressure from cable and other sources of television and dumbed down.  Faced with more competition and pressure on public television, Sesame Street responded by choosing a much younger audience, shortening the required attention span, cutting back on real content and replacing it with a lengthy “Elmo’s Room” segment - and it had switched from telling kids “it is ok to live an ordinary, lower-class or lower-middle class lifestyle, that lifestyle has a culture that is valuable” and had started telling them, along with everyone else “it is good to be affluent.”

The first Sesame Street had begun with Stevie Wonder singing “Superstitition” and had encouraged, with in-jokes and smart material, parents to watch with their kids.  My father recounts sitting with my sister and I and hearing the Count tell children “I am the finest counter since formica!”  That’s gone from contemporary Sesame Street, which talks down to kids, and is intolerable to every adult I know. 

Now it is not wholly Sesame Street’s fault that these changes came about.  There are a lot fewer parents home to watch tv with their kids, so why spend time writing scripts that are compelling to adults?  Now kids as aged as four or five are “far too old” for something as slow paced as Sesame Street, and have long since graduated to more advanced material.  And the culture has suburbanized as well - now more than half of the world’s poor live in the suburbs.

But some of this was Sesame Street’s fault.  Consider the rise of  Elmo as an example.  Consider Elmo, if you can bear it.  Fully 1/3 of Sesame Street’s content was at one point devoted to the happenings in Elmo’s bedroom.  What do we see in Elmo’s room?  Well, first of all, he has a lot of private media - he has both a television and a computer in his own bedroom.  The drawn landscape outside his window is resolutely suburban.  His room is full of possessions, and Elmo rarely goes out of it in these segments - instead, he watches people demonstrate things on his tv, or through his computer.  When he wants to learn more about something, he doesn’t go to the library, but back to the computer - that is, his is a multiply-mediated experience.  By now, I’m sure he has a blackberry too.

There’s something really troubling about setting your three year old to watch a muppet watching something on tv.  What does that teach? What was valuable about Sesame Street to millions of children was that it mirrored their own material reality, and validated it, and said that they could learn in that context.  It said that your real home, small, not wealthy, often ethnic, not shiny, clean “American” but a mix, somewhat gritty, filled with people like you and unlike you in close proximity, hanging on stoops and out windows, was ok, and good, and a wonderful place to learn and grow.  It reminded us that community was more important than affluence - I knew suburban kids growing up in the 80s who envied Sesame Street.  It was one of the most powerfully formative counter-balances to the growing culture of white flight, suburbanization and the valorization of affluence.

Contrast the indoor sequences of Bert and Ernie with the indoor sequences of Elmo.  First, and most importantly, Bert and Ernie had each other - it is implied that Elmo lives with his parents, but the experience he offers is primarily solitary (with the occasional exception of  a guest that comes out of the closet) - people mostly appear through screens.  Bert and Ernie read books and interact, and Ernie drives Bert crazy - but they also care for each other.  Elmo interacts with a variety of animated household objects - lots of furniture and machinery, but no people - he loves his blankie, and his tv and his computer.   

It is true that many low income children do have tvs in their rooms - but Sesame Street presumably sets out to validate not pernicious trends, but good ones.  And we know from every sort of research that one of the worst possible things for children is for them to be left unsupervised with lots of media.  Ideally, no one would watch tv, perhaps.  But in a world where most people do, Sesame Street can at least be minimally expected to respond to that trend by emphasizing community - instead, they gave us Elmo and his room, and his private intimacy with the screen.

And that’s the big loss from Sesame Street over the years (we’ll skip over the depressing Abby Kadavy entirely here) - is that there’s no there there anymore.  As Sesame Street became more suburbanized - it added a playground, spiffed up and reduced the communal elements of its programming, it gave us a vision of childhood that is probably accurate, but empty of the culture that Sesame Street once offered.  And since by sticking to its past, Sesame Street had the chance to offer a vision of what we could get back - but instead, it accepted the emptying of culture into an affluent blank.  Moreover, we got the dumbing down of everything.

It is true that most neighborhoods don’t have as many people hanging out on stoops anymore. It is true that more parents are gone during the day, and more kids are alone with their media. It is true that community isn’t something we value anymore.  It is true that parents don’t let their kids out into the neighborhood as much anymore.  It is true that we hate anything that smacks of being poor, and we have a harder time imagining validating it.  And it is true that in some small respects, the actors and writers of Sesame Street have truly tried to make it possible for children to imagine a place where you play outside, where people talk to one another and help one another out. 

But in the main, Sesame Street gave up on its most basic message - which is “here are the things you need to know - that these numbers and letters are important - but also, that people are important, and how they live together are important, and how they get along is important,  but stuff isn’t important.”  The culture of low-income urban life was a communal culture at its root - people needed each other. I grew up in that culture - my mother babysat for the neighbors’ kids, they babysat for us, the big kids walked with the little ones to school, the parents shared tips and gave each other rides.  It wasn’t perfect or idyllic, but it was valuable and worth having - and the only way to live a good life in a place where no one had enough money - the community compensated.

The culture shift that overtook our society overtook Sesame Street.  It wasn’t acceptable to be poor - the backgrounds got shined up, and Elmo got rich.  The community stopped being the center of things - and an hour of fairly sustained, repeating narrative that covered a theme got shifted to short segments with a letter here and a number here, but no overarching context for the child’s mind to return to.  Elmo got his own spot, and so two and three year olds got to spend their time watching Elmo, in his room, a priveleged little boy with talking tv, watching more tv, so that things were happening only very faintly and far away.

The friendly neighbors, there, that’s where you meet - you don’t meet them as much anymore.  I admire Sesame Street for its ability to continue, and to preserve it’s cast - there’s a part of me that is pleased that the Maria of my childhood is still the Maria of my children’s childhood.  But as we head back to a time when then neighbors are more important than anything, when learning in community, and the ordinary acts of every day, low income life are more normative, I wish that Sesame Street had been able to continue in the courage of its own convictions - but maybe that’s asking too much.  Asking Sesame Street to keep valuing things that we as a society have not valued may be unfair.  And yet, that’s how it started.


Hunger in the US

Sharon November 17th, 2009

So here are the numbers.  One in nine (and probably soon one in eight) families need food stamps to keep food on the table.  And despite the fact that we are subsidizing food at a vast rate - seriously, think about the enormous impact of subsidizing food for 37 million Americans - they are still hungry.  The USDA report that was just released apparently shocked the President, who equally apparently, hasn’t been paying attention.

In a year, despite food stamps and other resources, the USDA reports that 17 million Americans went hungry.  One out of every *FIVE* children went hungry last year - a jump from one in six last year.  Child hunger is increasing dramatically, much faster than adult hunger.  In some states in the midwest, including Ohio and Illinois, the numbers were one out of three.  Think about that - about the fact that in the middle of the densest stands of calories in the world, one out of every three kids in a classroom goes hungry.  Half a million children are frequently hungry.

For those who think that the food crisis is over, or somehow conveniently far away, this should be a reminder that it is present, and it is now.  The hunger numbers have been going up steadily since 2007 - and we mostly pay attention at the holidays.  But annual attention isn’t enough anymore - we have to pay attention all the time.

We have spent trillions bailing out the banks, and stimulating the stock market - while we have failed miserably to provide for the most basic needs of our citizenry - food, shelter, health care, protection of the elderly and disabled, a defensive military.  This is what government is for - not to micromanage the banks, not to remove risk from those best able to bear it.  But we’ve abdicated our real responsibilities.

I’m fortunate in that I write to people who, if they can’t make their government act, know how to act themselves.  We’re going to need more gardens, more cooking teachers, more food preservers, more neighbors looking in on one another, more friends lending a helping hand - because someone has to pick up the slack when the government falls down.


Turkey in the Straw:The Homegrown Thanksgiving

Sharon November 17th, 2009

If you want to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner wholly from scratch, you start ahead of time. If you want to make it from food you’ve raised yourself, you start way, way ahead of time - like in January of the year before.  In some ways, it starts even earlier, but January is the new year - and when you grow your own, you are always thinking of the future - even if not consciously about any particular dinner.

It is in January that we order seeds for the vegetables we’d serve at Thanksgiving, that we debate which varieties of pumpkin and carrots, celery root, sweet corn and leeks we’ll need. 

We are thinking Thanksgiving, faintly, distantly,  in February, when we order turkey poults, or begin watching the turkey hens for signs of setting her eggs, and when we place the order for seed potatoes, or begin organizing last year’s potatoes for replanting.

We are thinking vaguely of  Thanksgiving in March, when I set sweet potatoes in water on the window to develop slips for next year.  And in April when we finally go out on the first warm day and plant potatoes.

We are thinking Thanksgiving in May, when I carefully start “winter luxury” pie pumpkins in newspaper cups filled with soil, to ensure a healthy supply of pumpkin pie, and when we watch the apple blossoms anxiously on cold nights, to track our future apple pies.  We wait for the turkey poults to arrive, or for the hen to hatch her eggs.

In June, when we hoe the corn, we recall that we will want this corn, creamed at the groaning board in November.  In July, on hot nights, when the dream of roast turkey seems unappealing, we are still, in some measure, aware of Thanksgiving at the back of our minds as we go out to pick slugs off the squash vines, and pull the garlic that we  will use  to flavor the potatoes.

In August, we know that summer is winding down, and it is in small part Thanksgiving that we are driving towards as the turkeys range around the yard chasing bugs and we are putting up raspberry pie filling and pickled peaches.  We dry the sweet corn, after we devour our fill, thinking, again, of days to come.

In September, as the first breath of cool air floats through the barnyard, we’re thinking Thanksgiving as we dig potatoes and watch for frost, hoping for a few more nights to ripen the pumpkins to rich netted orange, a little more sizing up for the Hubbard Squash, already huge and warty and green.

In October, as the day approaches and the turkeys reach maturity, Thanksgiving appears from the back of our minds and occasionally touches the fronts.  When will the turkeys be ready for butchering?  When can the ones we’ve sold be picked up, and do we have enough freezer space?  We pull a parsnip from the ground and taste its frost-sweetened flavor in anticipation.

November, of course, is the culmination of our efforts - we mash and roast and sauce and sautee.  The turkey gets the most attention, but Thanksgiving is the feast of roots, the only time we, as a nation, all fully celebrate those under-loved vegetables that come up from the ground.  It is the only meal many Americans actually cook for themselves, and sit down with family for.  At our house, we have done most of the long anticipatory work, and we rest on our laurels - at least until it is time to cook.

Now it doesn’t always work this smoothly - last year we had no turkey hens that were worth wintering over, and so we had to order poults.  But for some reason the hatchery’s hatch failed, and we were told that we wouldn’t be receiving our turkey poults until early July.  Since these are older breeds, that need a full six month’s growth, rather than the modern hybrids which can’t breed on their own, we needed them earlier.  But we weren’t about to go sit on the eggs ourselves, so we shrugged and accepted it - sometimes farming is like that.

So now we find ourselves approaching the holiday with turkeys a bit too small for butchering - we weren’t able to provide customers with Thanksgiving turkeys this year, although plenty are happy to take them for Christmas or Chanukah.   Ah well.  I still can’t imagine my barnyard without some turkeys.  We’re going to my mother’s, and had planned to bring the bird, but she’s sourced a lovely local one near her house, and life will go on.

Now if you are thinking of raising your own turkey, you should know two things. The first is that all the comments about turkeys being dumb as rocks are pretty much true.  The second, much less commonly known thing is that turkeys are extremely endearing.  Their profound stupidity only makes them cuter, somehow.

I know people who claim that only the hybrid turkeys are dumb, but we haven’t found this to be true.  We’ve raised the broad breasted whites, as well as Blue Slates, Bourbon Reds and Black Spanish (we have all three of the latter this year, since I’m doing a comparison).  The whites may be a bit more dim, but this is a comparison mostly without meaning.  All of them are easily confused.  One of my Blue Slates last year killed himself because he panicked at the sight of our dog (who was not paying any attention to him) and ran straight into a metal fence post and brained himself.  If the gate to our goat pasture is open, it forms a V shape with our fence - in order to go out the gate, an animal simply needs to walk around the gate and go out.  The turkeys of all breeds are completely incapable of figuring this out, and inevitably have to be rescued from panicky misery as everyone else heads into the barn, and two poor birds who have forgotten that they could either walk around or fly over the fence stare in painful dismay.

But unlike hybrid meat chickens, which are dumb and repulsive, turkeys are vacant and sweet.  They make endearing little peeping noises (they don’t gobble until they are full adults) when they are small, and they really like people.  Ours follow us everywhere we go, and will sit on the fence and talk to us, while we talk back to them.  Even their faces are sweet, to my eyes - in that Lyle Lovett, so-ugly-they-are-cute sort of way.

We will be keeping three of the bourbon reds over the winter, to hatch out our own poults again next year - hopefully avoiding future hatchery mishaps.  I may also add the old standard bronze - not the hybrid, but the smaller one that can still breed normally, since they too are endangered.  My hope is that the following year, we’ll have enough broody hens and enough good turkeys to offer poults through our local farmer’s market. 

I know that relying on distant mail order for breeding stock for my birds is not sustainable, and we are gradually picking and choosing breeds of birds to focus on, and hoping to begin small scale hatching locally to provide one more pocket of resilience in our community.  We know that no matter how hard times get, most people won’t want to give up their Thanksgiving turkey, and so propagating stock locally is essential.

Just as we trying to grow our own, and save seed, and share seed with others, we are trying to recreate what once existed - Thanksgiving is a meal that echoes with the tastes of the past, and with a local cultures whose vestiges still exist, and that can be restored.  We want to have food worth being grateful for, after all.  Besides, we like turkeys.  Brains aren’t everything, you know.


The Writing Life

Sharon November 16th, 2009

I get requests for advice about writing fairly often in email.  Some of them are people who have written something already, and want to know how to get more attention for it - how to get a manuscript published, or how to get more readership for their blogs.  Others have broader questions about how to become a writer.  I’m never sure how to answer these emails, because I’m  not sure my experience is either typical or easy to mimic.  I didn’t set out to become a writer, it just sort of happened.  But because people ask,  I thought I’d try and describe my experience, and how I came to write the books, so that people can judge for themselves.

In terms of getting published, I tend to analogize it like this:  there was a brief period of decade or so in the 1920s and 30s, when a few young movie stars were actually “discovered” sipping sodas in a soda shop or acting in a community theater.  That is, there was a brief moment in time when it was possible to be going about your life in more or less ordinary way, and have someone pull out a pen and say “do you want to be a movie star and become rich and famous” (not really, but sort of).  This was because the movies were going really mainstream and the industry was changing rapidly and they needed to fill a lot of berths.  But long after that stopped really happening, people wanted to know how they too could get discovered - but what mattered most was the moment, not what you do.

We exist right now in a period that is rather like that in publishing - the industry is in transition, budgets are tight, and they are looking for people who are pretty certain to sell some books.  They don’t want to take risks.  At the same time, the invention of blogs and the expansion of the internet has thrust completely open new media and new ways of connecting.  The two overlapping things mean that there’s a brief period, going back a few years and probably lasting a few more, where it is possible to go out and start a blog, and pick up a following, more or less just by doing your thing, and then have someone say “wanna write a book?”

And that’s honestly what happened to me.  I started blogging in 2005 because I wanted to write about this stuff, and a few people had asked me had I saved something I’d written in comments or on a forum, and could they find it again.  So I thought if I wrote everything on a blog, it would be there.

My expectation was that I’d have four readers, and that maybe my Mom would look at it, since she’s my Mom.  I had no assumptions about readership, and honestly, was doing it for myself, because writing things out helps me figure them out - sometimes I don’t know exactly what I think until I’ve done the exercise of organizing and sketching the idea out, and have figured out where my reasoning has been leading me.  It was useful to me.  I also figured that several people had said they were glad there was at least one woman out there writing about this stuff (to be fair, there were a few already ahead of me), and I figured there had to be three or four other people who would think that was a good thing.

When people ask me what I did to promote my blog, and what services I’ve used, I look at them kind of blankly.  I don’t use digg, or any of that sort of thing -  I don’t know how to use them or even put them on my site.  I have never paid anyone to promote my blog, or done anything at all to promote it, other than occasionally mentioning it on other sites that I participated in.   I have no idea what my technorati rating is, I have never tracked my readership and I have no idea what it is, except by comments, and I’ve honestly not done much to increase it, other than write stuff, and give people permission to pass anything they wanted along. 

This is why I’m not sure my experience is replicable - I didn’t *do* anything to end up where I have, except write, and write a lot. Aaron and I had started to write _A Nation of Farmers_ before I found a publisher, and were just at the point that we were about to shop around our couple of chapters and book proposal, when I got an email from New Society, asking if I would consider turning one of my more widely read essays “Peak Oil is a Women’s Issue” into a book.  I just about fainted when I got the email - I expected to do what all writers are supposed to do, which is paper your walls with rejection slips.  I expected it to be a long arduous process. In fact, I got incredibly lucky, and got an incredibly kind editor who really liked my stuff.  When I mentioned I was already writing another book, Ingrid, my editor was interested in that one too, and we somehow signed two book contracts, even though I’d never even written one. 

And before _Depletion and Abundance_ even came out, I tentatively mentioned to Ingrid that I’d been writing a ton about food storage and preservation for my classes, and would New Society be interested?  Again, a weird miracle happened, and New Society was willing to take a risk on an author with no books, and no record of successful publishing of anything (I’d given my writing away free, but never charged even when places reprinted), and bought a third book.  This is the sort of thing, like being discovered at a soda fountain, that happens once in a blue moon. 

The problem is that once it happens, people think they can replicate it - and some of them probably can.  But there are more blogs now than there were in 2005, on peak oil, on climate change, on everything.  So it is harder and less likely for people.  No merit accrues to me for being in the right place in the right time, and this leaves me completely incapable of offering good advice about doing this the normal way, with hard work and rejection and perseverence.  My only advice is that I wouldn’t recommend that people hope to be in the right place at the right time - that they do it the hard way, because mostly, that’s how it happens.  Sitting around the soda fountain, hoping an agent will come along, doesn’t work so well of the time.

My other advice on that front is this - write a lot, and expect to do it for free for a while.  I probably wrote 10,000 pages of blogged material over four years before I got asked to blog for money, and at least 5,000 pages before I got asked to write a book.  There are simply so many people who want to write that building space for yourself requires the luxury (and it is a luxury and damned difficult) of making time to work for free for a while.    The reason people started to remember my name was that I wrote a lot, and said yes to everyone who asked if they could repost or forward or publish in their magazine or newsletter. 

 I also tried as much as I could to say things other people weren’t saying - which is hard, but worth the effort. It seems obvious, but most people want to write about mostly things other people already write about.  You can do that - there are a lot of sports bloggers, say.  But if you stand out in some way - quality, sense of humor, a different perspective, you are a lot more likely to get noticed.

 Try and find a niche that isn’t taken, or at least too crowded when you start your blog or other site - I was noticeable because I was female, and fairly young by the standard of a middle aged community, and was writing about family and kids along with all the other stuff.  Now there are a lot of ecologically aware mothers writing, and it would be harder to stand out.  But now I find that people are asking me to speak a lot because I talk about religious life in relationship to climate change and peak oil - one woman I met said, “Oh, I read something you wrote, you are that Jewish Climate Mother Person.” Pleased to meet you.

My own theory (and I’ve done absolutely no surveying of my readers to find out if this is true) is that one of the reasons I’ve done fairly well is that while I found a niche or two, and this was important, I also covered material fairly widely - while also fitting some unfilled niches.  Now I know people who love to delve deeply into a single aspect of life, and that can be fascinating too, but I get bored.  I figure eventually an all-chicken blog will wear out people’s interest in chickens - not that you can’t go a long way on chickens, but I think it can be helpful to ask “what else do people who like chickens like to read and talk about?”  It can be worth covering the spectrum, if you can pull it off, while also differentiating yourself - complicated, I know, but true.

 Honestly, for covering a range of things, you need ego - you need to be able to say to yourself “just because I’m not an expert, doesn’t mean I can’t learn enough to tell other people something they didn’t know.”  In this, I recognize that I’m extremely arrogant - so I’m willing to write about whether we’re going to go into space, and the EROEI of nuclear power, at the same time that I write about knitting mittens, milking goats and gardening.  In a world of specialists, sometimes being a generalist is more unusal - but it does require you to both push your intellectual limits and also to give yourself permission to stay three piano lessons ahead of the people you are writing for ;-) .  As we all know, sometimes I don’t even succeed at that ;-)

But all of this will be bad advice if you don’t write well. Now not everyone’s standard of writing is the same - there are people who hate me because I’m wordy or whatever.  There are people who love writers I find totally unbearable.  But you have to write in a way that at least some people find endearing.  And this is a harder proposition.  When people ask me how to become a better writer, that’s an easier question for me to answer.

The mechanisms for improving your writing are to do a lot of work.  First of all, you have to read a lot - and a lot of good writing. It helps if you start when you are very small, and it also helps if you read a lot of different genres and styles and periods of writing - don’t get fixated on modern stuff, or say “I don’t like poetry or science writing.”  The best way to become a writer is to be the kind of person who reads the cereal box if that’s the only thing around, but who mostly makes sure that they have a book *all the time* that is not a cereal box. 

I also recommend that you *not* only read in your field - there’s a tendency when you specialize to specialize your reading too - after all, there’s so much to learn, so much to gain. But some of the best things you’ll ever learn come in places you’d never expect them - that explanation in a novel that suddenly makes things fall into place, that random quotation in a different context that is perfect to your thought, that new idea that makes  you see everything differently.  So don’t just read one kind of thing - and don’t disdain fields that seem alien to you - you might not have imagined yourself ever reading military history or icelandic poetry, but there’s a lot to learn there, maybe more than you think.  The best writers I know read widely, quote widely and are influenced by a lot more things than most of us know.

The other requirement is that you write a lot - but not in your room by yourself - or at least, you can’t learn to write all by yourself all the time.  You need to get your ass kicked a lot by people who will tell you what is wrong with your thinking and articulation.  And again, my experience here is pretty unusual.   I went to graduate school in English literature for some years, and would turn in lengthy papers that had to be produced fairly quickly (often much more quickly than the *had* to be done, since I was a terrible procrastinator), and get back a lot of commentary.  Often the paper then had to be rewritten.  Do this 30 or 40 times over the years, with 30 or 40 10-50 page papers and you get better - or just sick of doing things over.  I also had to learn to *teach* writing - and while they say that those who can’t do, teach, well, it is easier to teach writing if you sort of know how ;-)

For those who don’t have this, and who are not already natural writers you need a system in which you write a lot and get a lot of peer review (and criticism from people who are not your peers, but know a lot more than you do).  My second schooling in this was on the internet - I found the really good internet groups on peak oil, climate change and simple living, and I hung out there - on Running on Empty 2 and 3, Energy Bulletin, Real Climate,  at Homesteading Today, and at a host of other sites, and I read people’s ideas, and thought about them, and asked questions, or argued.

And the good thing about the internet is that people will tell you what they think.  You need a much thicker skin here than in academia - I think people who start complaining that other people aren’t nice to them won’t be able to get that kind of an education.  But I think it is more useful than all the warm fuzzy writer’s workshops in the world, where people will praise your good intentions, and deliver limited constructive criticism along with undeserved praise (this isn’t to say there aren’t good writing workshops, but they are hard to find).  On the internet, if you listen to the right people, you won’t get anything you don’t deserve.

And what I got was a great education in the material - if I made a mistake about a scientific concept, or expressed myself poorly, I’d have to pay the price.  People kindly corrected, and well, they did it unkindly too.  They mostly kindly answered my questions - and I began to track who knew what they were talking about and how thoughtful they were.  So when I did have a question I was too embarassed to ask on the internet, or didn’t understand a concept, or needed help getting started for someone, I could email.  And often I got directed to things I hadn’t seen and people I hadn’t known existed.  There are a lot of really knowledgeable people out there in each community who generously share that knowledge.

I’m not really sure how to explain, though, the most important stuff about going through internet bootcamp, which is how to sort out the stuff thats nuts, or pointless.  That, at least for me, is mostly about instinct (and I’m sure I’m wrong plenty).  That is, it is perfectly possible to get really bad advice, or caught up with people who are so invested in one theory that they can’t offer you a balanced perspective, and knowing when you’ve run into them is hard.  Its like the old comment about pornography “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.”  Honing your bullshit detector is an important part of the process.

I didn’t consciously set out to do a course of study before I began promulgating my own thoughts, but that’s pretty much what I did.  I started reading forums on homesteading, women’s issue, parenting and environmental issues back in the late 1990s, and reading peak oil material going back to around 2002 (I knew about peak oil before that, because of a college professor of mine, but hadn’t looked on the net).  I read for a while before I posted, and asked questions before I spouted answers (mostly), and I’m sure I made a major ass of myself a number of times.  But it was several years later before I felt sure enough about my material to really go ahead and write about it - I didn’t start blogging until 2005.

That’s about the sum of my writing advice - read a lot, write a lot, and get a lot of feedback, preferrably honest feedback.  The only other thing that I think helps me with the writing is something I doubt could be replicated - and that may be totally unique to me.  I was past 30 before I realized that there was something unusual about the way I see writing - quite literally.

As far as I can tell, I have a mild form of synesthesia, in which written language appears to me as color and texture.  People talk about books that are dark or use other language of color and form to describe books - I actually experience them that way.  I would dislike a book or a writer because I thought their language was too grey and too “gritty” or because I disliked the pattern of their language - but it wasn’t a metaphor.  But I honestly didn’t realize that this wasn’t normal - I figured everyone saw it this way.  And it was until my 20s that I realized that if I like “soft blue, deeply textured” writing, or writing in a specific kind of texture and pattern, that if I reproduced it, if I made my own words feel like the colors and patterns I liked, that other people might find them likeable too.  I figured this out in college - that my goal wasn’t to imitate the heavy, darkened and convoluted academic writing that I often encountered, it was to write brighter, more pleasingly textured words with the same heavier ideas made clearer.  It was a revelation, and it made writing immeasurably easier for me. 

It is hard to explain to somebody who doesn’t see the world this way - I think of it as a gift - I can decide that I want my writing to sound “purplish” today and do that  - and the mood and the ideas that go with it follow, in some degree - it is circular - the words make the color, but the color makes the words right.   That’s as close as I can come to describing something deeply internal.   I don’t think you need this to write - other people who are far better writers than I don’t have it.  But I think writing does need to become intuitive in some way - this is mine.  Other people experience it differently -

A lot of developing an intuitive, automatic grasp of something is just repetition.  You know this because the first time you picked up a brick and mortar, a pair of knitting needles, a cleaver it felt weird.  You watched someone else do it, with smoothness and ease, and wondered in frustration at yourself why you were working so slowly and painfully. 

And in a long time or a short time, you became competent, and then good - able to use your tools the way other people you admired use theirs.  They become an extension of your hands, and you can’t even recapture that sense of awkwardness and slowness, or figure out why you made so many mistakes.  That’s all that writing is - I still have plenty of days when I write 5 drafts and delete them all, or think everything I did sucked.  But the keyboard and the words have, through long, long experience, lots of reading, lots of practice become extension of my hand and eye. 

I don’t know any way to get to be a writer other than reading and writing. I don’t know any other way to be a good writer than narrowing the odds, so that you swing and miss your first 10,000 times in a place where it doesn’t do any harm to your reputation, so that when you need to hit the sweet spot more than occasionally, you’ve lowered the odds.  And I know nothing about becoming famous at all ;-) .


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