Some people march in demonstrations, or knock on their neighbors’ doors, or serve in soup kitchens; I write. I believe I should use some part of my abilities for the good of a larger community, and why not use my best developed talent? My blog Linguistics in the Writing Classroom is read by about 450 people a month from dozens of countries, so I guess that is having some influence. I have given speeches and workshops on the subjects of language rights, contemplative pedagogy, and linguistics. My work is regular and serious, in the same way that my mother showed up twice a week at the local food pantry to feed the poor. I, like her, receive no payment.
My most energetic enterprise over the past few years was doing a year of research on the history of abortion — this was triggered by the statement in a student’s essay that she “wanted to go back to the time before Roe v. Wade when there were no abortions,” a fact-free statement if there ever was one. The story I uncovered in my reading was rich with anecdote, fact, and moral reflection. I wrote a long article, The History of Abortion, and consulted with Melissa Rosati, a savvy expert in literary marketing, about what to do with it. I told her I’d what-the-hell send it to The New Yorker, and she advised against doing that. “If they like it, they’ll just pass your work on to somebody who is better known and get them to write the article.” I thus noted with interest that many of the specific points I made in my piece appeared in an article on abortion which appeared in the magazine a couple of months later…written by a Harvard professor. I’ll never know what really happened there, but from now on I will heed Melissa’s advice. I was annoyed by my stupidity and their (probable) duplicity, but also happy that the facts and observations that had meant so much to me were being published, even if by someone else.
At a writer’s conference, I mentioned the article to an agent, who advised that if I was going to present myself as an expert on the subject of abortion, I would need to spend a couple of years networking, publishing, and speaking on the subject to give myself the necessary gravitas. This crusade did not engage me enough to do that. I finally posted an incompletely edited version on Kindle Select and it has sold, I think, three copies. Another lesson in literary activism — choose subjects where you can have some impact.
I read a recent article in The New York Times about a young social activist who ran herself ragged after Hurricane Sandy helping families in the Rockaways. Tragically, she died suddenly, and hundreds of people attended her funeral. Politicians have massive funerals as well. Mine will be much smaller. Another image from The New York Times struck me more intimately than this woman’s story. The article was about the construction of a building by Cistercian monks in California out of stones imported decades ago by William Randolph Hearst from a Spanish monastery. The accompanying photograph was of a monk, his hands clasped before him, walking quietly on the grounds. He had done his work, the building was finished, and he went about his life. I, like the monk, am trying to sever any strands of personal ambition from my continuing humanitarian contributions. I’ll be happier that way.