It was late and getting later on a Sunday night, and I had been on the verge of tears all day. I knew I had to say something. I had already waited much too long, and now it was the day before the deadline. So tense I was practically nauseous, I picked up the phone to call Allison, my writing partner. “I think we need to change topics,” I said, trying and failing to sound relaxed.
Six on a Sunday morning and still middle-of-the-night dark in Seattle. I have pulled myself out of bed hours before sunrise and gone to shiver at my desk for the sake of an administrative task: I must make a list of my 2013 goals to share with Bruce Burgett, dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington-Bothell, where I am a third-year, tenure-track professor. I am particularly vexed by this assignment because I have been given only the weekend to prepare, and I am struggling with it because I am burned out.
If you had asked me to describe myself a couple of years ago, I would have replied with a sentence of five words:
I am a word person.
I have recited that sentence countless times. I have nodded in agreement when people used it to describe me. What moved me most, I would have told you, were words – their beauty, their authority. I was made of words, I was convinced, constructed out of story. Words and stories: that was my whole story. This idea felt right. It felt like fact.
Stories that matter and the shaping of a writer’s early career
Dessert plates clinked in the room full of writers and science policy scholars. They seemed to be waiting for Gary Dirks to continue, but his words echoed in my head, both then and since. It was May 2013, Tempe Arizona; the final gathering I would be attending after three years of involvement in To Think, To Write, To Publish (TWP)—an effort to produce impactful stories by pairing creative writers with science policy scholars. Why create these interdisciplinary partnerships? Dirks’s statement provided both an apt response and a summary of my experience.
When was the last time you ever heard of someone getting killed by history? Generally speaking, my chosen profession as a historian at the University of South Carolina is relatively safe. I’m not dodging bullets or scaling skyscrapers. Compared to the mortality statistics of fishermen, firefighters, pilots, and steelworkers, you may think that my greatest battle wounds involve paper cuts and embarrassing stapler injuries in the archives. But even though I am not in an active combat zone, in my own way I am a quiet revolutionary.
“The client is having issues with the word ‘revolutionary,’” said one of our account managers while wincing and reading the email from her phone. “They think it might make people remember 9/11.”
The client was a graduate-level business program. Not the best program in the world, of course, but they had their share to brag about. They could claim the third best such and such and the most improved this and that. The real problem wasn’t the actual program, though. It was the client’s nearly pathological disdain for self-promotion.