To Be a Writer Rather Than a Storyteller
My development as a writer, and the role this Substack will play in it
Many years ago, when we were engaged to be married, my wife and I had an argument about genre fiction. Unimpressed by my defense of its literary merit, she explained that genre was about storytelling while literature was about writing. She also told me that if I didn’t read The Great Gatsby, she would not marry me. Having a strong desire to marry her in spite of her low opinion of Heinlein, I went along with her demand, and went on to read The Count of Monte Cristo and a few other classics I had never been assigned—and therefore never pretended to read—for school. I am very glad she encouraged me to do so.
I liked her neat little dichotomy between storytelling and writing, even if both of us were quite aware that it was too neat by far. But there’s something to it. These days I am absolutely in love with anything and everything written by the science fiction and fantasy novelist Martha Wells. Her wild plots suck you in from the first page, her characters delight, there’s a great sense of humor but also an emotional intensity that is addictive. But it isn’t the quality of her prose that keeps me coming back; not like that quality is bad, but it’s sort of besides the point. Wells isn’t trying to write beautifully, she’s trying to tell a compelling story. These two things needn’t be in conflict, but they needn’t go together, either. Pulling off one of them is hard enough!
F. Scott Fitzgerald was trying very hard to write beautifully. In Gatsby, at least, he succeeded. It is a very different enterprise, a very different sort of writing.
Catherine, my wife, was an English major, and is a long time lover of the written word. I have always written, but have also largely been in love with stories. As a child I would write stories that rested somewhere between fanfiction and plagiarism, and in middle and high school I wrote, well, fanfiction. In class I would write essays, and found I was pretty good at it. In my college days when—after a rather long streak of letting my academic record fall into the toilet through sheer inaction—I more or less got my act together, I found it took very little effort to get good grades on essay assignments. This isn’t really a brag so much as a sad commentary on the state of public education in our country; the average undergraduate essay at a large state school like GMU was less a piece of writing than an act of violence against the professor who assigned it. I had grown up with a father who loved to write and had a strong editorial eye, and a high school program that at least forced me to keep at it on a regular basis.
The blogosphere is where my writing, for the sort of writing that would lead to Liberal Currents, truly began. From 2004 right down to this very day, I have written online in some form. Before I got my act together in college, I was posting dozens of times a day on my blog, interspersing commentaries on current events with essay length philosophical digressions (of questionable merit). After grad school Eli Dourado, with whom I had taken a law and economics class, and Jerry Brito, with whom Eli worked, invited me to be a part of The Umlaut, which was great fun. There I wrote, more or less weekly, about technology, and philosophy, and social science. The Umlaut was, if not exactly my big break, the beginning of having something like a stable audience for my writing.
After that came my beloved Sweet Talk, born out of my intense fascination with the work of Deirdre McCloskey and my desire to have a group blog that was primarily an active conversation among cobloggers. At Sweet Talk I began to write in order to really wrestle with ideas I had great difficulty understanding. I read and I read and I churned out post after post trying to sink my teeth into the substance of what I had read. Most significantly, I became close with Dave, who is the best writer I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Dave really is a writer in Catherine’s sense of the word. Don’t take my word for it, read this work of art, or this exhilarating diatribe, or this meditation on fatherhood which so directly inspired my own. His novels, which remain tragically unpublished, are among the best I have read at all, and certainly the best I have read by a living author. They are beautifully written and have high expectations for their readers, who will be rewarded with wisdom that simply is not possible to convey in philosophy or similar genres of nonfiction.
By the end of Sweet Talk I had stopped posting each time I had a single thought I wanted to wrestle with and instead invested in making each individual piece of writing something I would be proud of. Not, of course, for its prose so much as for being an interesting engagement with an idea or ideas. The way such things are written matters, but in a different sense than the way the writing in Gatsby matters. Like a plot-driven sci-fi story, my essays are about the payoff, though it is the payoff to an argument rather than a narrative.
At Liberal Currents, in addition to growing as an editor, I have continued to refine this style of nonfiction writing. There are some essays there that I am very proud of, most of which are quite recent. What such essays have in common is that they required substantial legwork before the writing could begin; both in the research phase and in carefully thinking through the subject matter in order to find something of value to actually say. My exploration of early coverage of the pandemic was nearly two months in the making, as I gathered source material and assembled it into a timeline alongside a timeline of events, and considered how one goes about evaluating a media ecosystem as a whole in the first place. My reviews of Alexander Keyssar’s book on the Electoral College and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez’s book on ALEC painstakingly laid out the institutional machinery investigated in greater detail in those books. My essay on liberal democracy was the culmination of several years of intensive reading of both political philosophy and political science. Once again, while this does not fit into the neat little dichotomy of storytelling vs writing, these are all works in which careful attention to the subject matter was the dominant concern.
But I have had a growing interest in writing well, one that has grown as my friendship with Dave has, but also as I have branched out more and more into reading good writing for pleasure. And then, I fell truly in love with one such writer: James Baldwin. Baldwin had been on my radar for some time, and in 2019 I read his essay called “The White Man’s Guilt” and found it absolutely stunning. So in January of 2020, I picked up Library of America’s enormous essay collection, intending to read it over a very long period, in which I could pick it up to read an essay or two and then put it back down again for a while. Well, in January I had no idea what sort of year 2020 was going to be, and somehow, though he is not exactly what I would call consoling, I nevertheless made frequent escapes into Baldwin’s writing, and had finished the collection by August.
In Baldwin—and Dave as well, and all great writers—it becomes clear that it is not quite right to say that good writing is largely about the skill of assembling beautiful prose. There are many skillful writers who can turn a phrase and are enjoyable to read, but Baldwin’s writing is great because he combines this skill at the highest caliber with a boldness that is truly awe inspiring. Baldwin writes about difficult topics, and he does not supply clear answers or payoffs the way that the analytical essay writer must in order to be successful. What he offers instead is a commitment to the frank exploration of his topic. The fearlessness with which Baldwin writes about his country, his communities, his own life and observations, is unrivaled. My deficiency in this area is far greater than my inability to measure up to Baldwin’s skill as a wordsmith.
I cannot be Baldwin, but I have learned from him. Early last year, Jason Briggeman, fellow Liberal Currents editor and co-founder, suggested that we run a piece on what would have been the 36th birthday of Mohamed Bouazizi, the man whose self-immolation began the Arab Spring. I decided that I would try to approach this topic a little less like I usually would and a little more like Baldwin would, or a writer of Baldwin’s type at any rate, as my life and my history are far too different from Baldwin’s to truly emulate the man. I am proud of the result, and have continued to yearn for opportunities to grow as a writer, to get better at this kind of writing and to do more of it.
On April 23rd, the Friday before my birthday, I took the day off and did a few things I had not done since the beginning of the pandemic. During this outing, I also decided to write an essay for pleasure, one that couldn’t be shoehorned into a topic appropriate for Liberal Currents. The essay on fatherhood which I ended up writing was surprisingly well received, and it only heightened my desire to do this kind of writing on a regular basis.
I have long thought that writers who had to produce every single week to a formula tended to be ruined by the arrangement; those who were capable of flourishing rather than withering have been very few and very far between. Yet I wondered whether this had more to do with the nature of their confinement rather than with the regularity. Writing is, in the end, a craft, and craftsmen hone their skills through their frequent use. Is it possible that the contemporary column writer develops poor habits simply because of the nature of the thing they are asked to write over and over? Imagine a carpenter who is rewarded for nothing but shoddy work; would they ultimately lose any ability they once had to produce work of the first rate?
Chris Morgan, another writer whose abilities far exceed my own, has a delightful set of “maxims for budding intellectuals.” One of them encourages flexibility: “If essays fail you, try memes. If podcasting is too involved, try Substack.” Essays have not failed me, exactly, but I have nevertheless decided to try Substack.
The End of Safety is something of a challenge to myself: write something every week, all year, and do it in a way that develops my skills as a writer of Dave and Baldwin’s sort, rather than cornering myself the way columnists seem inevitably to do. To that end, the focus will be entirely on the quality of the writing. However simple, however obvious the idea I am writing about might be, I will try to write about it skillfully, in a way that is enjoyable to read, but not frivolously so.
I expect the typical piece to run between 500-1500 words. So far what I have written in preparation for launch have been closer to 500, but as this essay and my other work should make clear, I’m quite capable of going beyond 1500 words. I will not aim for any specific length but presume that I am more likely to be able to write well on a weekly basis if the scope of what I write is not allowed to run away from me.
I cannot guarantee the result. But I can offer some samples of what to expect, which will remain, along with this very essay, freely available to non-subscribers:
Dreadful Sorry, Clementine, on the strange and difficult place dogs can occupy in our lives.
On Those Who Hate Twitter But Cannot Quit It, on the fools, such as myself, aptly described by the title.
Reporting as a Genre of Writing, on a much maligned and yet widely read style.
The about page links to a few things I have written elsewhere that fall into the general kind of writing I want to engage in here.
I do not expect to make my fortune off of this. Instead, it is my hope that, while doing something I love, I can help provide another source of funding for Liberal Currents beyond what we manage through Patreon. For that reason, paid subscribers will receive not only my weekly writings but the Liberal Currents newsletter that goes out to patrons every other month, and other Patreon benefits like an invitation to our Discord. Liberal Currents patrons will likewise be offered access to the subscriber-only posts here. Incidentally, this means that if you want to sign up for $3 rather than $5 per month, you can do so through the Patreon; Substack simply does not allow anything less than $5. If you subscribe at the Founding Member level you’ll also get access to the $12/month Patreon benefits.
That is the tale, more or less, of my development as a writer, and the role I wish The End of Safety to play in it from now on. If you enjoyed this essay, or any of the linked works, or any of my writing elsewhere, I hope you will consider subscribing. If you do, I hope you will feel at liberty, as one paying for my work, to be candid in your opinion of it. I am not one of those who believes that writers or artists of any sort grow through solipsism; to the extent that I have improved at all as a writer it is because I have relied heavily on friends and family who were discerning readers and valuable critics.
When Baldwin said that “real change” always involves “the end of safety,” he was speaking primarily of changes to society. But he could just as easily have been speaking of changes in an individual, an ambiguity in his phrasing that he was plainly aware of. The beginning of growth of any kind must involve the end of safety, a willingness to take risks. I will try, at The End of Safety, to take risks even when they make me uncomfortable, to display even a fraction of Baldwin’s fearlessness, even though that feels like an impossible task. But I will try, and I hope that you will join me as I do.