It's almost like cramming for a final exam

I'm finishing my burnout book and realizing everything *else* I won't get a chance to say in it.

Three years ago today, I arrived at Santa Fe Regional Airport, the smallest and cutest airport I have ever visited, rented a car, and then drove down a pitted gravel road for the better part of an hour to a destination that would change, if not my life, then my thinking about many things that matter. The destination was the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. I wanted to learn about how the Benedictine monks who live there fit work into their lives. The five days I spent in the remote canyon were more than educational; they were exhilarating. I left feeling more full of life than I had in years.

I think the exhilaration came from realizing that the way I lived was not the only way. Most of the time, when I travel, I carry my ordinary routines with me as much as possible. I get hungry at the normal times. I waste time in my usual ways. I certainly carry my phone, which facilitates those routines. But at the monastery, I was totally on someone else’s schedule (a schedule that began at 3:40 a.m.), and there was no cell reception. There wasn’t much to do. I went to the Liturgy of Hours with the monks, I read, I walked around, I met a few other guests. I have since gone back to my normal routines, but more aware of their contingency, perhaps.

I wrote two essays based on that trip. The first one was a short account of work, anxiety, and restlessness that was published in Notre Dame Magazine. The other was a much longer feature (my first cover story!) about the role of work in Benedictine life that was published in Commonweal. I am proud of both pieces, but I thought the Commonweal one represented my very best work. It was certainly more ambitious than anything I had written to that point. And just yesterday, I learned that it was selected as a “notable essay of 2019” in the upcoming edition of Best American Essays. What makes this a great honor in my eyes is the fact that my name is on a list with so many writers I admire.

This is the second year in a row one of my Commonweal essays has made that list. My essay on burnout and the last days of Thomas Aquinas was a notable last year. I’m extremely grateful to Commonweal and to associate editor Matt Sitman in particular for sharpening my writing and being the perfect venue for this work that I don’t think is an obvious fit for many other magazines.

Also, I found out that my New York Times Magazine Letter of Recommendation for cheap, mediocre sushi was named a notable in The Best American Food Writing! It’s on a list with actual food writers like Helen Rosner, as well as the great Texas journalist Rachel Monroe.

So this has been a great week for validation. But I need to get back to work. The current task is revising that essay about the monks in the desert so I can include it in my book on burnout. (I think the monks offer an alternative to burnout culture that people in secular work can learn from.) I am down to the last six weeks before I need to turn in the revised manuscript for the book, and while I have no doubt about making the deadline, I do have anxieties about how the book is going to end up being pretty much what it is now. The window to improve it is closing. And yet all the deficiencies are glaringly apparent to me. Maybe there’s time to fix some of them? Should I interview this person? Have I adequately represented that perspective in the manuscript? Do I need to address this controversy in the research literature that I just discovered?

I am looking at my bookshelves and realizing how many books I meant to read for this project that I now just won’t get to. Sorry, books. The insecure scholar in me fears that someone will call me on not citing whatever key text they think would have unlocked the phenomenon. Even if I can’t read the book, I think, I can at least mention it in a footnote. But if the footnotes grow too thick, will normal readers be turned off?

Who knows? I need to remember, I’m not alone. Editors will help me out here. And, if you’ll allow me one last toot of my own horn, I take some confidence from the comment by one of the readers my publisher, University of California Press, asked to read my first draft. The reader, a European scholar whose book on a related topic is really outstanding, began her report by saying, “First things first. I love this book.” Honestly, I do, too.

I’ll close with a quick update on my most recent Commonweal essay, “Drinking Alone,” which you may recall was about drinking and (not) belonging in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I wrote in a previous newsletter post that I worried my friends and former colleagues in Wilkes-Barre might not like what I had to say in the essay. Guess what: Some of them didn’t! Two former colleagues wrote letters to Commonweal offering their critique and an alternative take on the culture of Northeast Pennsylvania. The editors were kind enough to let me reply. You can read that exchange here.

If you know someone who might appreciate these (for now, sort-of monthly) posts, please click the red “Share” button at the bottom of this message and share it with them or post it to social media. The full archive of these posts is here.

Thank you for reading,

Jon

Labor Day in a pandemic

What does it mean to honor labor at a time when work is in disarray?

Here we are, on a day to honor organized labor — and by extension, workers more generally — at a moment when everything about the way we work is in complete disarray. The unemployment rate is still at recession levels, millions are still working from home, and now that school has started, parents are, in many places, working as unpaid teacher’s aides at home while also doing their normal jobs.

The university where I teach as a part-time adjunct is holding classes today, as it will do on Columbus Day, in an effort to have no in-person classes after Thanksgiving. (I don’t teach on Mondays, so there is no effect on my schedule.) I am teaching my one class in a strange “hyflex” model, in which some students are in the classroom and others are simultaneously on Zoom. If it were up to me, I would teach entirely by Zoom from the safety of my home. But it isn’t up to me.

I teach a writing class with a thematic focus on social and ethical issues to do with work. This week, my students will begin reading and talking about the dignity of work, a concept American politicians talk about a lot even though there is no agreement about what it even means. The students will read Booker T. Washington’s claim that “there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found.” They will read an article about how black workers are overrepresented among “front-line” and “essential” workers — jobs that disproportionately make less than a $16.54 an hour living wage for a family of four. (Which surely contributes to the disproportionate death rate due to Covid among black Americans.) They will read an argument that to promote the dignity of work, the government should not reinstate the $600-a-week unemployment supplement. And another argument that calling front-line workers “heroes” is pretty empty if those workers don’t get greater protections (of all kinds).

I am eager to hear the conversations that come up, since the students and I will be trying to make sense of conditions that are changing all around us — conditions they and their families and their professor are undergoing in the midst of our conversation. Who knows where it will lead?

One thing I’m sure of is that it no longer makes sense to say that your dignity — your social worth, your right to “count” in American society — depends on your having a job. As I wrote in a short article for Journal of Religious Ethics (if you click that link, scroll way, way down for my contribution to this symposium),

When tens of millions lose their jobs virtually overnight, and through no fault of their own, the link between employment and dignity begins to look absurd. It simply can’t be the case that 15% of the country’s working‐age adults suddenly had no dignity. A waitress whose employer closed down in March was no less worthy of respect than she was in February.

Workers across the board need better conditions, and organizing is one way (a difficult way) to secure them. I don’t think it’s enough, though, on its own, to make the changes we need in the way we work. There also has to be a change in how we connect work and dignity. As I have argued many times and in many places, we have to see each other’s lives as dignified even before we work a single day, and even if we never do. Then we can argue that our jobs need to live up to our dignity, and not the other way around. And we can imagine models of the good life that don’t depend so much on work at all.


I had a great conversation recently with Danny Anderson, who teaches at a small college in Pennsylvania, prompted by my recent Commonweal magazine essay, “Drinking Alone.” And in fact, Danny recorded the conversation as an episode for his podcast, “The Sectarian Review.” We talked a lot about the class and cultural divides in the country and what role churches and colleges can play in bridging them. We also discussed those “best steakhouses in America” ads in airline magazines.

One person who thinks very intelligently about the erosion of workers’ rights is Elizabeth Anderson, a philosophy professor at University of Michigan. Her book about workplace tyranny, Private Government, is well worth reading. She has also written a book about integration, and she recently spoke with Yascha Mounk on his “The Good Fight” podcast about integration and much more. Anderson offers some criticism of Mounk and his Persuasion project on the podcast, and I appreciate both her critique and the fact that Mounk seems to have heard her out. The whole interview is an excellent example of intelligent disagreement.

Finally, I have been reading the essays of Elisa Gabbert, who is best known as a poet but whose essays are really beautiful and incisive. It shouldn’t be surprising that a poet is a great essayist, since, as Gabbert has said, in opposition to critics who think poetry is essentially different from prose, “Poetry is just prose chopped up into lines. I mean this to be final, categorical, and no slight on poetry.”

Gabbert’s new collection is The Unreality of Memory, and deals with various failures of knowledge, particularly knowledge of self and knowledge of disasters — like the disaster we are currently living through. I’m convinced that our multilayered crises are really, deep down, the result of a crisis of knowledge, and Gabbert makes a good case for how our minds are just not constructed to function in the environment they have created. I loved The Unreality of Memory so much, I started rereading it as soon as I closed the book, because I wanted to see how the essays were put together, paragraph by perfect paragraph. Then I reread Gabbert’s earlier collection, The Word Pretty. Obviously, I recommend both.

Kindly share this newsletter with anyone you think will appreciate it. New readers can find out more about me at my website, jonmalesic.com. And thank you for reading!

Jon

The eternal 1993

Today's culture war looks an awful lot like one we had three decades ago.

Welcome, new subscribers! The mailing list for this newsletter got a nice bump following the publication of my Commonweal essay, “Drinking Alone.” The newsletter currently goes out once a month and features updates on what I’m publishing, where I’m speaking, and what I’m thinking about. As you know, it’s free. Please tell your friends. And please drag and drop this message to your “Primary” email tab (if you’re using Gmail), so it won’t get lost in the spam folder. If you want to know more about my work, please visit my website, jonmalesic.com. My big project is a book on occupational burnout, which will be published sometime next year by University of California Press.

Thank you, continuing subscribers, for sticking with me for so long.

Quick announcements: There was more interest in my summer online Spiritual Nonfiction class than we could accommodate, so I will be offering it again through Writing Workshops Dallas, beginning August 31. For more information and to register, click here.

Also, I am a guest on today’s broadcast of “The Attitude” radio show, hosted by Arnie Arnesen, at noon Eastern. You can listen at the WNHN website. Arnie and I spoke about Rust Belt culture, burnout, and what the two things have to do with each other. An archive of the show will be posted at https://www.wnhnfm.org/category/attitude-3/.


As you may be aware, we have a culture war going on within our institutions concerning identity, speech, and what social justice demands of us. This past month the battles were waged in open letters, counter-letters, and multiple levels of metacommentary on the letters. I will confess to having read way more about this debate than was good for me. If you missed it, then I envy you. I won’t rehash it here.

When I wasn’t reading about open letters, though, I was reading Wendy Kaminer’s 1996 essay collection, True Love Waits. Kaminer, now in her 70s, signed the open letter on speech and justice that was published in Harper’s last month. In the 1980s and 1990s, she was writing cover stories for the Atlantic about debates within feminism. She was, at the time, considered a “contrarian,” confounding the ordinary battle lines. As she jokes in the volume’s introduction, “I have always believed in complaining, and in one view, that makes me a liberal. But I complain only in private, to friends and relations, not to the public at large, and maybe that makes me a conservative.”

Kaminer was dismayed that a growing segment of feminists seemed to value “protectivism” more than they valued equal rights. That is, feminist figures from Carol Gilligan (whose 1982 book, In a Different Voice, articulated a feminist ethic of care) to the anti-pornography activists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, argued that women needed a protected sphere within law and culture. To Kaminer, these disparate thinkers, along with the burgeoning talk-show self-help industry, wanted to preserve femininity more than promote equality.

(In some ways, the 1990s debates echoed the 1970s debates over the Equal Rights Amendment, so brilliantly dramatized in the FX miniseries, “Mrs. America.”)

Kaminer thought the protectivists had an overblown view of women as victims of predatory patriarchy. She also criticized their suggestion that femininity made women inherently more moral than men. She thought they were making a mistake in calling for limits on First Amendment rights, arguing that once you curtail one right, you invariably give up other ones. All of these concerns are back. The principles that were debated within (white) feminism in the 90s are up for discussion today within the broader liberal-to-left political spectrum.

As a result, much of Kaminer’s writing seems uncannily topical right now. For instance, here’s a passage from a 1993 essay:

This exaggerated fear of images and ideas we don’t like, this tendency to imbue them with magical power reflects, in part, a pervasive sense of victimization shared today by even the most privileged. “Women aren’t free. Women don’t have First Amendment rights,” a Harvard undergraduate once told me. When a Harvard student tells you she is oppressed, you know you have stepped through the looking glass.

Kaminer laments the lack of nuance in public discourse, distorted by writers’ economic incentive to build a following through personal branding. “What is most marketable is is absolutism and attitude undiluted by thought,” Kaminer writes, citing Camille Paglia as an example. Or, as she also wrote in 1993:

Today the concept of a feminist movement is considered to have commercial viability once again. The challenge is to make public debates about feminist issues as informed as they are intense.

Leigh Stein’s hilarious new novel, Self Care is about that exact same challenge in the era of Trump (which is to say, the era of social media). For a few days last month, I was alternating an essay of True Love Waits with a chapter of Self Care. I found remarkable resonances between the books. In Stein’s novel, the founders of a social media platform for women (think Goop meets Instagram) are great at turning likes into venture capital but ultimately cannot control the discourse on their site, which devolves according to a pattern that will be familiar to anyone who has been online recently.

We are often led to believe that the internet has changed everything, that life before 2005 or so was Ye Olden Tymes, essentially the same as the 1950s or the 950s or the 50s.

No: the internet has changed nothing. At least not in our fundamental intellectual situation. We are having some of the exact same debates we had before the internet. Only the vocabulary has changed, and it really hasn’t changed that much. It’s true that there is more attention now paid to the role of race in society, culture, and law, but the way we talk about race still falls into the basic protectivism vs. equality framework Kaminer identified within feminism.

Indeed, Kaminer wrote, again in 1993, “Nearly thirty years after the passage of landmark federal civil rights laws, we still have no consensus on the relationship of individual rights to social justice.” And nearly thirty years after that — we still don’t.

Why is that? Why have we not only failed to resolve these debates but failed even to change the way we debate them? Is it because the intellectual architecture of the debate is simply fixed, just as that architecture always seems also to force debate between, say, realism and idealism? Or is it because we live in an exhausted, decadent culture that can’t imagine progress and just wants to re-tell its old stories, as Ross Douthat argues? I fear that I know the answer.

The philosopher Richard Rorty said that when you find yourself going around and around the same debates, it’s time to radically change the terms. I don’t know what new, more pragmatic terms will help us find consensus on the relationship between individual rights and social justice. But we desperately need some.

Links and recommendations:

My friend Anne Gray Fischer wrote an eye-opening essay on the history of sexual violence perpetrated by police for Boston Review.

Agnes Callard drew an important distinction between literal speech and “messaging” to help answer the question, “Should We Cancel Aristotle?

L.M. Sacasas, writing in his always-thoughtful newsletter, “The Convivial Society,” re-examined James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book, Culture Wars, with an eye toward illuminating present conditions.

Meghan Daum has a new podcast, “The Unspeakable.” This week her guest was Leigh Stein. Great conversation about Self Care and much more.

I was in despair over Twitter discourse recently, but then I watched this discussion of George Scialabba’s new book, How to Be Depressed. It’s a lovely example of the ideal of conversation. It renewed my belief that the intellectual life was still possible. It also strengthened my belief that serious, nuanced discussion is only possible with intimacy.

Again, my Spiritual Nonfiction class begins August 31. More information is here. And while I know budgets are tight in colleges, universities, and religious organizations right now, I am still available to speak via Zoom about burnout and many other topics. I have spoken a few times about “Burnout and the Academic Vocation” at colleges and universities and would love to talk with you about how I could bring my expertise on burnout to your organization.

If you like what you read here, please share it by clicking the “Share” button at the bottom of the message. Believe it or not, that’s one of the best ways you can support my work. And as always, thanks for reading.

Jon

My new essay on social class, drinking culture, and (not) fitting in as an academic in a small Rust Belt city

"Our economic system depletes communities, and you can gain wealth and status within it if you’re willing to pull up your own roots again and again ... while others, more firmly planted, wither."

I have a new essay called “Drinking Alone” in the current issue of Commonweal magazine. It’s hard for me to say concisely what the piece is about, because it’s really about my entire 30s, and the economic devastation in cities like Wilkes-Barre, PA, where I lived during that time, and it’s about strange drinking customs, and it’s about how people form insider/outsider distinctions through those drinking customs and in response to economic devastation.

Basically, I lived in Wilkes-Barre for 11 years, a cosmopolitan outsider in a decidedly not-cosmopolitan area, and I never felt like I fit in, and all the while, I drank. By myself, with friends, with strangers. I sought community, but I never quite found it beyond my fellow-cosmopolitan coworkers at the college where I taught. And meanwhile, the working-class culture of the city was crumbling, and its residents were drinking themselves to death. I want to believe in the possibility of solidarity between people like me, who move all the time for work, and people who never dream of living beyond Wilkes-Barre. But I found that such solidarity is nearly impossible to put in practice. What would be the medium for it?

Here’s the opening scene of the essay:

One night in August 2005, just after I’d moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for a job as a theology professor, I needed beer. To get to the distributor, I drove over a concrete bridge, its four pylons etched with words like “Perseverance” and “Industry” and topped by monumental eagles. Once there, I wandered through the pallets of warm cases trying to find a thirty-pack of PBR until the thin, gruff man behind the counter asked what I was looking for. I told him, he pointed to the right pallet, and I met him at the register.

He asked for ID, and I showed him my Virginia license. He looked me in the eye. “I figured you had to be out of state,” he said as he handed it back. “The young people around here don’t drink Pabst.” I told him they did in Virginia. I didn’t tell him it was because hipsters fetishized white working-class culture. I mentioned instead that I’d just moved here. “Oh yeah? For good?” “Yeah.” “That’s too bad. You should go back. Welcome to one of the worst drug havens in the country.”

I told him I’d heard of the local drug problem. He then expanded upon his point, and began riffing on racist and misogynist themes. He told me there was no nightlife in town because the cops were always out waiting to nab you after you left the bar and tried to drive home. I stood impassively at the counter, hoping his rant would burn out if I didn’t feed it with dialogue. “And the people!” he continued. “Some of the most ignorant, idiotic people anywhere. They’re petty and vindictive, and they got no personality!” When I said I’d just gotten a job teaching at a local college, he told me to stay one semester, then get out. He was getting out, he said. “I might not be here next time you come in. I’m going to Arkansas.” At that, I bid him goodnight, threw my beer in the trunk, and went home.

The next time I came back, weeks or months later, he was still there.

This essay was in the works for quite a long time. In one sense, I began it fifteen years ago, soon after I arrived in Wilkes-Barre and wrote an email to a friend that ended up becoming the beer-store scene. But I didn’t think of writing this as an essay until I was in a writing workshop led by Anne Helen Petersen in 2017, and she assigned us to write a scene based on our expertise. I said my expertise was drinking in bars in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. So I wrote a scene that ended up in the middle of the essay. The following year, I was in another workshop, this one led by Meghan O’Gieblyn, where I researched and drafted the whole thing. Then there was a long period of revision and figuring out where to try to publish it. Early this year, I realized it was a Commonweal essay all along. I’m grateful that the magazine agreed.

I have received a lot of positive feedback on the piece so far. What might be most gratifying is hearing from former students of mine and others who grew up in Wilkes-Barre saying the piece put to words things they had thought about the region where they grew up. Still, I fear it’s only a matter of time before I get some negative feedback. Meghan Daum tells writers, “No one will love you if someone doesn’t hate you.” What I think she means is, readers respond to writing in which something is at stake. And you know something is at stake when you can imagine someone emailing you an angry response. (Sometimes you don’t even have to imagine!) In writing this essay, I could easily picture the angry email-writer, someone from Wilkes-Barre who thinks I emphasized the negative too much, or who thinks I’m just some out-of-town jerk who never gave the place a chance, or who thinks I’m an elitist looking down on struggling people and therefore I’m the reason Trump won. (I managed to write 4,500 words on Wilkes-Barre without mentioning Trump at all! Surely this is a new record.)

I can also imagine people I used to work with being hurt by some of what I said. Some of the things I wrote were hard to write, both intellectually and emotionally. I think that’s because there is so much suffering in Wilkes-Barre, and some of it is self-inflicted, and there is no obvious way to heal it. Still, many people are doing their best to heal it. My former colleagues are among them. I am somewhat awed by the work they do, because it is hard, and it is often thankless. Ultimately, it was too hard for me, and I burned out and quit. They keep going.


The entire current issue of Commonweal is outstanding. There is a series of articles on George Floyd’s murder, the ensuing protests, and racial justice from a Catholic perspective. In addition, the three feature essays — Tara Isabella Burton’s “Bad Traditionalism,” Matthew Sitman’s “Muddling Through,” and mine — resonate with each other in remarkable ways. Matt’s is a book-review-turned-personal-essay on clinical depression, politics, and how we often need others — just their mere presence — to help us get out of bed some mornings. Burton’s is about her dalliance with traditionalist Catholicism, which coincided with an engagement she ultimately broke off, and how her friends became the community, the Body of Christ, that she needed to reorient her life.

Burton writes that she embraced traditionalism as a refuge of meaning, against what she termed “our sclerotic liberal modernity.” Matt connects depression to the precarious position our economy puts so many people in. And I see the economic devastation of places like Wilkes-Barre as creating a deep sickness of spirit, in which drinking alcohol according to longstanding working-class customs is a collective coping mechanism and a defense against the predatory world beyond the Wyoming Valley. It seems we’re all saying something is deeply wrong in our society, something that long predates the pandemic, but which surely has exacerbated the pandemic’s toll. Economic and political and romantic and professional and social and spiritual life are all braided together, such that you could claim that a problem in any one area is a consequence of the problem in any other. But in fact, they are all the same problem, and they all admit of the same solution: seeing the irreducible human dignity in each other. I failed at that when I lived in Wilkes-Barre, and maybe Wilkes-Barre failed, too. But I have hope, because the people around Matt and Tara managed to succeed.

I of course read these pieces separately online, but I cannot wait to see them all together in print. The connections among them remind me that a print magazine is more than the sum of its parts. You will read Burton’s essay differently after you’ve read Matt’s. Commonweal is running a subscription special right now, $9.95 for your first year. Please consider subscribing.

Book update

I submitted a full draft of my book on burnout to University of California Press at the end of May. It’s now in the hands of readers who will offer a critique that will guide my revisions. If all goes well, the book should be out sometime in the middle of next year. Over the past seven weeks I have barely thought about the book at all. Lots of other things have been going on in my life and, you know, in the world during that time. I have needed the break from thinking about burnout. (I also needed a month’s break from this newsletter.)

But now I’m itching for other stuff to write about. I have a long list of articles I’d like to do, and I probably ought to give at least some thought to pieces I can publish around the time the book comes out. I am also teaching a spiritual nonfiction class through Writing Workshops Dallas. So there’s plenty to do, yet I also find I’m still a bit worn out from all the work on the book, plus, you know, everything that’s happening in the world.

All of this is to say: Don’t expect much new published writing from me for a while. I will keep posting this newsletter, probably monthly. I’m grateful for your interest in my work. You help keep me going.

Jon

A big step for my burnout book

I'm so close to sending off a draft of my burnout book, I'm teaching an online class I'd love you to take, and I have some book recommendations.

I’m very, very close to sending a complete draft of my burnout book to the publisher, University of California Press. Next to me is a stack of printed-out chapters, which I am currently marking up. It’s starting to feel like a book. It was just a year ago that I signed the contract for this project. I hoped I would be able to write the manuscript in 12 months; it seemed ambitious. In writing, there may be some benefit to setting goals that seem like a stretch. One thing it does is make you feel like you really need to lean on generous friends and readers to help keep you on track.

The book’s title on my contract is Drained: Why the Burnout Epidemic Keeps Us from Flourishing and How Compassion Can Cure It, but I have been calling it Burnout Culture in my head, to reflect the way I’m looking at burnout as a pervasive cultural phenomenon. (In all likelihood, its actual title will be something different altogether.)

To address all the ways our culture causes us to burn out at work, I had to do a bunch of different kinds of writing, often well outside my comfort zone of armchair pontificating. There is history and science writing in the book, philosophy and cultural analysis, immersive reporting and memoir. The book is, in a sense, my answer to the question, Why did I burn out and quit my dream job as a tenured college professor? If I hadn’t burned out, I of course would not have written it, but I also could never have written a book like this if I had remained in academia. I never would have developed the skills I needed to write it, and I would not have felt like I was allowed to.

We’re probably still a year away from publication, so don’t get too excited just yet. But it feels good to know that the heaviest lifting is done.


I will be teaching an online class in spiritual nonfiction beginning in June through Writing Workshops Dallas. More info is here. Here’s a description:

Writing nonfiction about spirituality, whether your own or other people’s, is so rewarding because it is so challenging. It demands that the writer tell the truth about something elusive and often invisible that nevertheless motivates consequential human actions. But like other nonfiction genres, it rests on a foundation of characters, scenes, and the archives of memory, interviews, objects, and written texts. Whether you are religious or spiritual or neither, this class will help you meet the challenge and write more incisive, more inspiring, and more beautiful essays about religious lives.

Each week, we will analyze classic and contemporary spiritual nonfiction from St. Augustine to Meghan O’Gieblyn, to see how the best writers in this genre deal with self-representation, conflict, structure, and other elements of narrative nonfiction. We will also discuss works of craft and criticism to guide the process of writing your own essays. And, most important, we will practice workshop norms of respectful dialog and critique, with the aim of making everyone’s work better through revision. You will have the opportunity to workshop and get instructor feedback on two pieces, up to 4,000 words each. This class is open to beginning students and more experienced writers alike.

It would be wonderful to have you in this class! Again, info and registration is here. If you have questions, please just reply to this message.


I want to tell you about three new, and quite different, books by friends of mine.

The first one is by someone who’s more than just a friend: Love and Depth in the American Novel, by my wife, Ashley C. Barnes. It’s a work of literary criticism that focuses on the love story in later nineteenth-century American fiction, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Henry James. But it’s also about falling in love with literature, and with other people, through attention to the world around them. If that interests you, you can order the book at the publisher’s website (and get 30% off with code 10READ). Here’s an essay Ashley wrote a few years ago on a topic related to the book: sentimentality and the movie 12 Years a Slave. Ashley is truly brilliant, and I have seen her working on this book over many years and from coast to coast. I’m really proud of her!

Next is The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, by my friend and fellow Dallas nonfiction writer, A. Kendra Greene. I promise you have never read a book like this one, which is a series of essays on tiny, idiosyncratic museums in Iceland. (There are 265 museums in Iceland, a country of just 330,000 people.) For a sense of what Kendra is up to, you might read her essay on the Icelandic Phallological Museum that did not make it into the book. The essay, “Upright Members in Good Standing,” is about collecting specimens of penises, and getting rid of one. Kendra is an uncommonly good reader of her own work; she read the audio version of The Museum of Whales You Will Never See. She’s also an accomplished artist, and she did the illustrations. So maybe get both the print and audio versions?

And finally, my friend Elizabeth Barbour, who is a life coach in the Houston area, has just released a short e-book, Smart Self-Care for Busy Women, which is especially relevant at this moment of mass quarantine, when (if you are a busy woman) you perhaps still have to do your regular job while also doing a job you never signed up for: full-time teacher to your children. Elizabeth has a terrific knack for getting across her insights through brief, well-crafted anecdotes. Check her book out!

If you enjoy getting these (currently irregular) messages from me, please share them with others by clicking the red “Share” button below. And thank you for reading!

Jon

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