Published and Perished

Yesterday, nearly a year and a half after I decided to leave academia, I had my first piece of academic writing published. It’s just a book review (you can find it here, if you really want to), but it’s my book review. Coming as it did on a rather bleak Monday, the publication stirred up a mess of emotions I had hoped to have left behind. It’s everything I should have been getting out into the world six years ago, while my nascent doctorate still had a smiley-face sticker on it.

There’s not much to say about my publication history, because there’s not much publication history there. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my advisor and I, no matter how cordial our interactions, amplified each other’s weaknesses. He was laissez-faire and I was independent. He never pushed me to publish (nor did any of the professors in my department). It was all about conference presentations—my track record on those was much better. I knew I was supposed to be getting stuff out there, but I had a small child and heaps of reading to do and no guidance on how to go about it. If I’d been on top of my game, I would have asked for that guidance. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t, and now I’m not in academia anymore.

Right now, I’m not really anywhere. I continue to tread water. The lightly baffled optimism of June has evaporated along with the summer teacher hiring season. I applied, I interviewed, I got a familiar mix of polite rejection e-mails and declarative silence. Next week I’m going back to the substitute mines, only with a longer commute. Oh, I’m still applying for late-breaking openings and the oddities that result from the firing/resignation/tragedy of current teachers, but few of the things that were supposed to happen last month did.

Sometimes things are slow. The book I reviewed was published in 2012, back when I was still officially a graduate student. I drafted my review back in December. I did revisions a month ago (accepting nearly all of the changes proposed by my awesome editor). Now that the review is out, a handful of academics will read it. Some might buy the book and/or consider using it in their courses…next semester or next year. More likely, the book will end up in university libraries and be cited by one or two students each year. Those students will pick it up not because it’s good (though it is), but because it showed up in their keyword search in the library catalog. The author’s research will thus diffuse, slowly, over whatever the half-life is for books on New York jazz.

I got to be a small part of that process. Part of me appreciates that. Part of me looks at the timeline and the number of people the work will ultimately reach and thinks “thank the FSM that I got out of that racket.” I mean, there’s a significant chance that my post comparing NaNoWriMo to writing a dissertation has, thanks to being Freshly Pressed, reached more people than my book review ever will. Writing for academia is not so different from blogging: laboring in obscurity and hoping that somebody gets something worthwhile from your work. I like to think I have done that here for a few people a few times.

But that, too, is slow and uncertain. Occasionally somebody clicks “like.” More rarely, somebody comments. Once in a while a post of mine is reblogged somewhere. (Once or twice,I’ve even been reblogged by actual human persons rather than aggregators.) It’s good to have that evidence that somebody has read and appreciated your work, that there is a distinction between publishing and perishing.

It’s a small distinction, and I can’t help feeling like I’ve done both. I published in an academic review. Sometime in the next year I hope to publish a novel. Yet I am still a failed academic and a teacher who, while hardly a failure, has yet to succeed. I thought I was over the former. Seeing my name in (virtual) print showed me I’m not there yet. I should have been proud, but mostly it just stirred an old ache. I liked more about academia than Friday happy hours and community in-jokes. I liked my work. I liked scholarship. As I continue to hang between my old community and wherever I manage to land, being published reminds me more of what has perished than the potential for what comes next.

-—*—-

That would be the poetic place to end this post. It completes a thought with a tidy bit of wordplay. But I don’t want to leave it there, because as much as what’s up there captures my feelings, it doesn’t wholly capture my thoughts. It is, among other things, too mopey. If I truly believed that publishing and perishing were indistinguishable—even mostly indistinguishable—I wouldn’t be writing this in a public venue. Maybe I’d scribble it in a diary. Maybe I’d compose it as a soliloquy in my head while staring moodily out the window. But I’m putting my words here, where you can see them, because no matter what vagaries I’ve gone through getting through and getting out of academia, saying something matters. A mopey blog post probably doesn’t matter that much. There are better mopers than me, better writers than me, and certainly far more widely-published examples of both. But I keep doing this small bit of publishing.

This is where things get a bit postmodern: publishing is itself the resistance to the suffering publishing prompted. Even when I feel mopey and down and useless, the way I fight perishing is to publish. That’s true of many artists I know. There are days when it feels like Zeno’s paradox, gaining (or losing) half the distance to the goal over and over again without achieving final victory of final defeat. I keep doing it anyway, because the alternative is to stand still.

And when we’re not where we want to be, standing still guarantees unhappiness. That’s why I work to get back to publishing when I’m moping. It keeps me from standing still. It keeps me, to force a second and less poetic final line to this piece, from perishing.

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