I'm finishing my burnout book and realizing everything *else* I won't get a chance to say in it.
|Jonathan Malesic||Oct 21|
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.
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Thank you for reading,