About Books and Writing

My admiration for authors, people who have written books, goes back to my childhood and runs deep in my psyche. This admiration is threefold. I grew up idolizing those authors–Anne McCaffrey, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, and Michael Moorcock–who filled my youth with their imaginative worlds. At the same time I grew up in a traditional Jewish household, and from a young age I was exposed to traditional Jewish scholars, many of whom are referred to by the title of their books (e.g., The Tur for Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher and Beyt Yossef for Rabbi Joseph Caro). Being a member of “The People of The Book” for me was understood to mean you were expected to write a book. Finally I grew up in academic household, with a father and an uncle who were prolific writers and publishers (even as my uncle struggled to find an academic position, he had no problems writing and getting published). A big part of my parents’ social world were scholars, and I was frequently introduced to them with “this is professor X, she just published a book on Y”. My decision to be an academic, specifically to go to grad. school, was, more than anything, a decision to write books, to be published (yes, I knew there were other elements to being an academic and that they were important, but this part felt like it was fulfilling a childhood dream).

Also at a young age, although not quite as early as my idolization of authors and their books, we discovered that I have a learning disability that affects my ability to write: dysgraphia http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/dysgraphia/what-is-dysgraphia. As a child this manifested itself in an inability to write legibly, and an inability to learn how to spell properly (in two different languages).

In the public Israeli school system, there was not much awareness ( at least at the time I was a student) of how to deal with this, and my parents tried to work on this on their own–this included buying my a computer at what was then a fairly young age (13, with my Bar Mitzvah money), taking me to special tutors who would try to work with me on spelling and on techniques to improve my handwriting (I spent a few weeks during a summer in Oxford working with an older gentleman, who insisted that the way to fix things was to have me use a fountain pen–by the end of it I could write my name fairly nicely, if I spent 15 minutes doing it…).

The only real accommodation I had in school in Israel, and I confess it was big, was that I got to dictate my answers to someone on the final subject exams required in high school.

Then I came to college in the U.S.– first a junior college (Vista College in Berkeley), then UC Berkeley. Both schools had facilities to deal with my disability, and I looked into it, but I did not take the required tests to get my disability officially recognized. Why? Not because I was ashamed of it, and not because I was too proud to ask for help. But for two (contradictory) reasons: part of me was unaware (or in denial) about the scope of my challenge: I thought that it was mostly an issue with spelling (and most of my assignments were typed by then). I had made into college (and at Vista I had straight As), so I did not expect Berkeley to be much different. I expected that the nature of the assistance would resemble what I had had in high school, even though I hadn’t done the tests to verify my disability.

Also  I was scared that someone would say, “Oh, with this you will not be able to write at a high level, you cannot be a professor”.

If there is any lesson in this for anybody reading, it is in that aspect–don’t make the same mistake. My whole life would have been easier if I had taken the steps at that point to get my disability properly diagnosed and get the help I needed.

I got through undergrad. primarily because I spoke a lot in class and most professors gave me credit, looking beyond that obvious flaws in my writing to the kernels of good ideas there. Some were not so forgiving, and I know (even then I kind of knew, but now I really know) that from their perspective the gap between who I was in class and who I was on paper likely indicated either that I was lazy, did not care to put effort into writing, or arrogant and did not care to produce something respectful.

The first indication that I was going to have problems moving forward was when I asked a professor for a letter of recommendation for grad. school, and he said that he would have to say in the letter that my writing skills were not ready for grad school… But I got the letters of recommendation, and I got into grad school.

Then things got really hard. To be honest, I could not complete all of the final essays required at the end of the term, and I had to take “incomplete” for one out of every three courses I took. It was not hard for me to think of ideas for any paper, and even to talk about them with profs, but I could not actually carry out writing them in the allotted time. Also I was beginning to realize that writing papers (and longer scholarly texts) was just a small part of the writing an academic is expected to do. The other forms of writing–emails to profs or classmates, reading lists for exams, casual notes that might be circulated, etc–were as hard or even harder for me to carry out as written class assignments.

It became clear, although not until year three, and after some pretty biting comments from profs (again, from their perspective, I was turning in very substandard work, and, since I had done well enough to make it into Berkeley, clearly this was by choice), that I had to tell my professors about my learning disability. I explained, and they were understanding and some even very supportive.

I stuck through it, in part I told myself that every one has difficulties in grad school, and my in-class talents and other advantages (for example, coming from an academic home, being multilingual) balanced things out. I also told my self: just get through to other side (PhD, a job, grants, etc), and you will be able to pay for copyediting and everything will be solved.

I did not publish or even try to publish anything while I was a grad student. Some profs actively encouraged this (not just of me): “Grad writing should be a time for experimenting, feeling ok with not producing things for the sake of publication”; “What you publish stays with you, especially during the long process of writing a dissertation. Do you want people to come to associate you with something you published in grad school, even as you become a more mature scholar?” Many of my peers ignored this advice, but I didn’t; it made my life a bit easier (I wonder if having to face the process of submitting and getting rejected earlier would have actually helped later…).

Writing the dissertation was almost impossible, and I probably would not have been able to finish it without support, some from parents, but a lot a lot from my wife, who copyedited each section (even while working full time at her first academic post, parenting two young boys, and all that goes with it).

I also realized by that point that things will not get easier: no magic hand will produce funds for me to pay for proper copyediting for papers and books; in fact, presses are cutting back on any such services that they once had–authors are expected to handle more and more of that themselves.

Finishing my dissertation felt like a big accomplishment, but I felt as far as ever from achieving the dream of publishing a book. I also tried to be more reasonable, focusing on getting an article (or articles) published. I still have little to no success. Now I am aware that it is hard to get published early on, even in the best of circumstances, and my Dad loves to tell me how many times he has had articles rejected. But its just not the same for me. First, it takes me much longer than most people even to produce anything. Second, that little voice we all have, that “imposter syndrome” voice, rears its head each time a submission is rejected (and it is compounded by failures on the job market), whispering that since I have dysgraphia I will never be able to publish something.

It is not just about my childhood dreams, or even about the very real need to get published to advance my career; it is very much about the need to be a part of the academic community, to express my thoughts in writing, to have people cite them, argue with them, review them.

This is part of why I have really taken to Twitter–it has given me a measure of this feeling, communicating with others, in my field and not, sharing discoveries answering questions, etc.

We live in a time of change in terms of academic writing (among other things)–blogs for example offer a chance for academics to augment more traditional forms of academic writing. Last year, I figured that a blog might offer me a bit of a solution to a growing crisis over my inability to get published. I told myself that I would allow myself not to care about typos, formatting, etc That it would give me an outlet for expressing my ideas, and that perhaps I could use the blog as a stepping stone to producing writing that I could then edit and turn into more traditional academic writing.

But I have realized a few things. Even if I don’t care how things look from an ego standpoint, I can’t put stuff out there that looks bad, or people will just have the same reaction my profs in grad school had–its lazy scholarship done by someone who does not care to put the work in (and here some of the prejudices against blogging that some have might reinforce this). This impression might be confirmed in a reader’s mind if they checked the list of my publications (or the lack thereof).

Which brings us to this post: I had to write it to explain (to myself) why I need to try to blog (even though it might seem that I should be spending my time producing more traditional academic writing), why my blogs may not look as good as they do in my head, why they may appear in fits and starts, etc.

Also, I wanted to say that I am so happy about the other parts of academic work–particularly teaching–and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

As soon as I can afford it, I plan to experiment with voice transcribing software which may be a way to meliorate some of the issues of dysgraphia.

(Even this post, which is intended to express something I feel is very important is very different in writing from how it appears in my head–but if I try to get it to be closer to that, I don’t think it will ever be written).