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A fourth month of daily essays

Believe it or not, but we’ve reached the end of another month of essays. This month was an interesting one, in that I set what feels like a very different kind of writing goal for myself: Instead of writing about issues and things, I wrote about people. I think it’s worth stepping back and reflecting on what I’ve learned in this month.

I remain frustrated that I do not write well, particularly in writing profiles. By that, I mean that I don’t feel that my writing sufficiently expresses the feelings and ideas that I have [1]. I feel so lucky to be associated with the many people I write about, and I find that the words I use are inadequate to describe these people. So I need to find ways to work on my writing. It may mean that I need to write less. Not that I need to write fewer essays, but that I should write fewer words in each essay and think more carefully about the words I use [2]. But I’m not sure that will be satisfactory, because one of my concerns is also that I don’t say enough. Maybe I should spend more time reading and focusing much more on the style of what I read. In any cases, that’s certainly a subject for further exploration.

I think my subjects appreciated the profiles. Even if I do not write eloquently, I do express my care for people, and it’s nice to feel cared about. I’ve heard a lot of thanks from my subjects and from others. Here are a few [3].

These are such lovely things to see written about me by someone I respect so much, and whose work I think about all the time when trying to be an effective and compassionate teacher.

I appreciate your words more than I can express, and it’s humbling to see what you have written [4].

Wow! I sound interesting!

This makes me feel incredibly . . . loved [5]. Thank you.

That is an incredibly kind and gracious essay for you to write, and I really appreciate it.

You have inspired me to reflect on my experiences.

This is a very cool thing you’re doing for the community.

You do know that I have two children, not one, right?

I know you’re the computer whiz . . . but I’m pretty sure there’s no attached essay.

Okay, it’s not like you really expected me to have a 100% success rate, is it?

Nonetheless, here’s an important moral: When you think good things about other people, and write them down and share them, it reminds those people that they are special. Anyone can do that; it doesn’t require special skill, and it makes the world better. I suggest that you try writing similar essays every once in a while.

I did miss the opportunity to write some topics that I planned to write about. I considered writing about the protest issue of the S&B to help myself think through those issues, which I find complex. I may still write that essay. I thought about writing my speech on the current status of the department. I’ve given that already, but maybe I should still turn it into an essay. I should have posted an essay about donating on Tuesday November 29th, which was some giving event. I know that there were other things I thought about, and forgot to write down. That’s frustrating. I really prefer to have a bit more freedom each day.

Writing the profiles also set my timing off a bit. Since I felt that I generally needed permission to post essays for people I know well, I’d have to write those essays in advance, and then cross my fingers that they would approve them in a timely fashion. That approach meant that I couldn’t always follow my muse as directly as I’d like. When I sat down to write at 9pm (or later) some nights, and my muse said Write about this person, I’d reply, Sorry, they won’t reply tonight. I’ll write about someone else first, and then come back for a few notes if there’s time. Any suggestions of someone whose permission I don’t need? [6,7] That strategy also meant that there were nights in which I posted an essay that I had written previously, and then sent out for approval. But even on those nights, I wrote, because I always re-edited those essays [8].

Having to come up with essay on the nights in which I had not pre-written an essay sometimes felt like more of a chore than a joy. Many of those essays would have benefitted from more background research [9]. But I guess that’s one of the hazards of setting a subject for the month and forcing yourself to stick to it.

I’m not sure what this month did to my audience [10]. I think some people are reading my essays less often, perhaps because they don’t really care about these profiles [11]. But my sense is that I’ve picked up a few readers, too. I’ve had at least one student (one who I didn’t know read my essays) ask about the profiles and how I wrote them [12], so I may be gaining some audience.

Will I continue writing profiles? Almost certainly. I definitely have a large backlog of people to write about, and that backlog is also clearly incomplete, so feel free to suggest others. I worry that I’ve privileged [14] certain people by writing about them

Will I do another month of profiles, will I mix them into my regular essays, or will I do both? I’m not sure yet. I was frustrated to have to have a more limited set of things to write about, so I probably shouldn’t limit myself so much. But I also kind of like having a theme. Maybe I’ll even get decent at writing about people if I try doing it for another month in the future [15]. But I’ll definitely insert open writing months in the middle, and probably months with other foci, too [16].

I hope you’ll keep reading [17]. Feel free to invite others, too. I’m pretty sure that I’ll keep writing.

[1] The best example that comes to mind is my essay about the bookstore, in which I do not feel I came close to expressing the wonderful intellectual home and place of exploration a bookstore can be. I have the vision, but not the words.

[2] I think I remember an article about Borges in which it said that he made sure that each sentence was perfect before he moved on to the next one. I’m not sure that I can ever achieve that level of care, but I certainly could think more about each sentence before moving on to the next one, or go back and edit more, or whatever.

[3] I know that I have a responsibility to cite, but in these cases I think I also have a greater responsibility to preserve the confidence of the authors. So, let’s call them all Anonymous (2016). Personal Communication.

[4] I’m humbled by all the things you do.

[5] You are.

[6] No, I don’t really have conversations like that with my muse. But I did have to put off essays I wanted to write so that I could write essays that I could post the same night.

[7] The John Stone essay ended up being somewhere in the middle. I had originally planned to write a long essay about John and ask for his permission. Then I realized that John would not want any essay posted about him. So I wrote the one-sentence essay instead. One reader found that frustrating. Most others thought it was perfectly appropriate.

[8] And, in many cases, started the next essay.

[9] Yes, I do research once in a while.

[10] I’m also not sure that I care about the effect on my audience. At this point, I’m writing most of these essays primarily for me. The occasional one that serves a purpose (e.g., promoting Grinnell or CS at Grinnell) gets directed to appropriate people at appropriate times.

[11] Or because they found that my writing was going downhill.

[12] The student asked where I got the information for my profiles. I had to admit that most of the information is somewhere in my head, which means that parts are probably fictitious, or at least not quite accurate. But I’ve been at Grinnell for a long time; I do build up a fund of knowledge about Grinnellians and additional knowledge about where I can find more information. I probably also should have mentioned that in some cases, I write the essays after the subjects visit my Learning from Alumni course, and those visits have allowed me to both learn new things about the person and dredge up past memories.

[14] Or punished. At least one person has told me that they would prefer not to see an essay about them, and I don’t think that was intended as reverse psychology.

[15] Or another ten months.

[16] You can expect a month of essay about C and Unix in January.

[17] Yes, even though I write for myself and not for you, I appreciate having an audience.

Version 1.0.2 of 2016-12-07.