Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Know yourself ... and your audience too

My neighbor flattered me yesterday with a question.  "Why don't you write for the New York Times?"

I never let these questions get to my head.  Because, I have a good idea of my mediocrity.  I am not at the level at which those big boys and girls play ball.  But, it is always a treat when somebody says such wonderful things.

The other thing that sometimes I am told is this: "You should write a book."

A long time ago, I read a rather sarcastic essay, which said that there is a book within every one of us, and it is best if that book stayed inside us ;)

Is there a point in writing a book that nobody would ever read?

Of course, academics do that all the time.  They proudly display their tomes in order to impress the gullible students and the universities faculty committees.  But, rare is an academic book ever read by anybody, even within academia!

In an essay that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, back in 2001, I quoted from Chekov's play, Uncle Vanya, in which the uncle finally lets loose at a retired professor:
"All our thoughts and feelings pertained to you alone. Our days were spent talking of you and your work, we were proud of you, we uttered your name with reverence, our nights were wasted reading books and magazines for which I now have the deepest contempt! ... But now my eyes have been opened! I see everything! You write about art, but you understand nothing of art! All your works, which I used to love, are not worth a copper kopeck. You've swindled us!"
I then added:
Would people be disillusioned if they knew that only a few of professors' publications are ever read by more than a handful of other scholars? Would people be disappointed in higher education if they realized that most academics' publications would not sell even for a penny? Would people agree with Uncle Vanya that professors who write but are rarely read and cited are swindlers? Could it be that people already grasp the truth, and that their knowledge is one cause of the decline in the prestige our society accords to faculty members? If I did not teach at a university, would I agree with Uncle Vanya?
I don't care much for book-writing, academic or otherwise.

How about building on many of the ideas that I blog about here and writing books?  I don't think so.
You can tell a story to anyone who’s willing to listen. But writing a book that people will pay money for or take a trip to the library to read, requires an awareness few storytellers have. It is not performance, not a one-person show. It’s a relationship with the reader, who’s often got one foot out the door.
Which is why even in this blog I keep the posts short--I am fully aware that the reader is ready to move on, especially in this FOMO world.
If you want to write a book, do it. It’s wonderful and horrible and fulfilling and soul-crushing all at the same time. But do it because you want to, not because someone suggested it one time. Be mindful of what it fully entails before you start, so you have reasonable expectations and set reasonable goals. You don’t have to write with the aim to get published, and you don’t have to publish with a traditional publisher.
In the past, I have collected posts from this blog, re-formatted them as vignettes, and printed them. All for one reader: My father.  He keeps them in his safe, and refers to them by "volume numbers."  That's priceless!

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