Why I Can’t Write: A Collection (of Excuses)

A few evenings ago my partner wandered into my office and saw that I was sitting at my computer writing a blog post. I have been writing less than I would like lately, but I had found myself starting to pace after dinner and figured that getting words out of my head might help put me at ease. I have written before that I find writing meditative, after all. But writing is also an anti-social behavior that means not spending time with her, so I asked if she minded if I ignored her for the next hour or so.

“Writing seems to be good for you,” she responded.

I spent that night writing, but also wanted to reflect on the reasons why I don’t write.


I have no strong feelings on an issue. This was always my issue when writing to a prompt in high school writing contests. This is different from not knowing how I feel about a topic: when I am interested in a topic I just need to start writing to find my voice (and my thesis). When I am not invested in a topic, writing feels like an exercise in pushing mushy peas around a plate until I’m dismissed. If I am not invested in what I’m writing, then why should I expect anyone to read it? And thus begins a circle.


On the other end of the spectrum, I struggle to write when I have too much to say. Sometimes this means that I am too invested in a particular topic, sometimes it means that I just have too many thoughts all jumbled together. The solution here is often either writing more as thought to card my thoughts like a jumble of wool or trimming the topic into manageable chunks, but sometimes I just have to let the topic go.


I haven’t read enough. In my academic writing, this is perhaps the biggest sticking point. Writing without having done enough reading is a futile exercise in my experience. This is not to say that I need to have read everything before starting to write, but I can’t write cold. I can vomit words on the page as a way of articulating my initial thoughts, but that writing is functionally meaningless. More often, I find myself staring at that accursed blinking cursor at a loss for where to begin.


The most common reason I haven’t done enough reading is that there are times, particularly during the semester, when I am busy. There is always something else that needs to be done, so I jealously defend my writing time. However, that is easier (if not easy) to do for long-term writing projects than for writing whimsical blog posts on the writing process or keeping a regular journaling habit.


When I get tired I get distractible, and when I get distracted I can’t write. I have developed numerous strategies to help me focus over the years—logging off social media, setting concrete blocks of writing time, writing in the morning, music and headphones, etc. —but they don’t always work. For instance, I have had a harder time convincing myself to get up early to write during the pandemic, but I also struggle to string together sentences in the evening after I finish teaching and have recently resolved to more seriously protect my weekends for rest with the idea that I will be able to better write (and teach) if I’m not exhausted.


I am worried someone else said it better. At basically all times, no matter what I am working on. One of the (not)joys of experiencing depression and anxiety is the perpetual fear that whatever I am writing is going to turn out to be a steaming pile of shit. (Pardon the language.) The specific fear changes—that my ideas are stupid, that my writing is bad, that someone else already said whatever I’m trying to say and did so much more brilliantly and insightfully.


Sometimes I don’t feel well. Among non-debilitating ailments, headaches are the worst because that is the body-part I am using—usually—when I write, but all manner of physical ailments interfere with the process. Hunger is another one. I can write on an empty stomach if it is first thing in the morning, but if my stomach starts to rumble I need to address that before I can focus enough to write.


Listing reasons why I can’t write has always struck me as though I’m aping Goldilocks or assuming an “artistic” temperament where I can only work when the conditions are just right. But I also believe that anyone who declares that they are able to write most of the time is showing their privilege. That is, the statement announces that their financial, emotional, and physical conditions are almost always in the right place to be able to write. They still have to address distraction and writing still takes discipline, but it is worth acknowledging that there are a myriad of reasons why someone isn’t able to write at a particular moment.

My hurdles are mild compared to those faced by a lot of people, but they are still hurdles. Acknowledging that is the first step toward overcoming them.

Teaching Thursday

With apologies to Bill Caraher, who offers regular reflections on teaching under this title, it was appropriate. Today I read two pieces—including one by Bill—about teaching worth engaging with.

The first came in Keith Law‘s newsletter where he talked about his experiences teaching one course on communication. Klaw is one of my favorite sports-writers and his blog is one of the reasons I write about books in this space. He described the course this way:

It’s turned out to be one of the hardest, most anxiety-inducing things I’ve ever chosen to do.

Teaching is not rocket science, but that doesn’t make it easy. It takes continual adjustment and the ability to adjust on the fly when the best laid plans fail to survive first contact. This reality is something that is hard to appreciate when your only experience with teaching is as a student taking classes that you may or may not have enjoyed.

I am all-too familiar with the fear that Keith Law explained is haunting him:

I’m constantly plagued by the fear that I’m not doing enough for the students – that maybe what I’m teaching them isn’t useful enough, or that I’m just not giving them the information or insight they’ll need.

Any time a class goes well I am reminded of how I posted a sign that I read about on the internet on the inside of the door of my first post-PhD office. It read:

You are only as good a teacher as your next class.

No class is going to be perfect, there are only so many hours in the day, and only so many of those are spent in the classroom. All you can do is reflect, adjust, and move forward. I suspect that KLaw, someone who is a reflective person and who I think came into the experience with a healthy appreciation of teachers, is doing fine. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but laugh knowingly when I read the entry.

For college teachers who want to improve, you could do a lot worse than read Bill Caraher’s regular Teaching Thursday column.

Today’s entry was the latest in a long series of posts that document how he has adapted his World Civilizations course over the years.

World Civ can be a hard course to teach and a frustrating one to take. In the first “half,” it is a course that tackles several thousand years of human civilization spanning the entire globe and taught as a general education course to first-years and non-majors. There is no chance at comprehensiveness and I find that approaching it through a series of themes and broad connections easily become abstract to the point of uselessness except to students who are already passingly familiar with the specific examples that illustrate the theme.

(I often think that World History would be a more valuable course at the senior level, but this is not the system we have and I can see an argument that such a radical inversion would hurt enrollment.)

In this series , Bill has talked about his solution to the problems of a World Civ class, namely flipping the class and challenging the students to produce material together in class, as well as the reasons he made the change. I wonder a little bit about how this assignment would work in a class that meets multiple times per week rather than in long blocks, but I also recognize wisdom in how he has developed the class. It can be a surreal feeling to walk around a classroom where the students are working in groups and I am just eavesdropping. Bill calls it “boring;” I can’t disagree. But if the students are engaged with the historical material while I am bored, doesn’t that mean that I have done my job?

I am not sure that I will — or even should — go quite as far as Bill has in moving the class material to class time, but our courses also have different demographic contexts. And yet, in my first time teaching my World Civ class in its current institution and current iteration, I am finding myself thinking about almost all of the same issues. There is only so much that I can change mid-stream, but I have a lot to consider for next time. In addition to the mechanics of a World Civ course, Bill’s post engages with outcomes and ungrading more generally and both are worth considering. Check it out.

Summer Reset

I feel like the spring semester just ended, so when did it get to be mid-July?

(I submitted the grades nearly two months ago.)

Since then I have:

  1. submitted a book manuscript
  2. presented at two conferences
  3. worked revised/re-formatted an article
  4. moved
  5. read some (okay, ~20) books

I think I managed to get some rest in there, too, but it is hard to tell sometimes.

July is often a hard month for me and I am finding this one particularly difficult. I thrive on routines, but this time of year is basically the doldrums. I have almost no immediate external deadlines, and it is still too far from the start of the semester to trigger any sense of urgency about preparing for classes but also too far from the previous semester to coast on those rhythms. I usually like to take a week or two post semester to decompress before settling into a summer routine. This year I spent the first month of the summer staring down writing deadlines and then the second month moving, so I am just now settling in to think about how I want this summer to look.

The irony here is that I have actually had a productive summer already and the best thing I can do at this point is to make sure that I am rested for the start of the semester.

Rest is certainly on the docket for the next couple of months, but I also know from past experience that doing nothing usually feeds back into my anxiety and undermines that recovery. It is better for me to find a balance that includes some work, some exercise, some hobbies, and some downtime nearly every day.

To that end, a few goals for the remainder of the semester, by category:

Research and Writing

  1. Spend at least an hour every workday writing. What I am working toward:
    • Submit the revised article mentioned above. I put this one on the back-burner last year in order to work on my book manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader report, but it is on the cusp of being sent off again.
    • Convert the longer of the two conference papers into an article for an e-book the organizers want to publish of the proceedings.
    • Re-write the second conference paper to sharpen my argument.
    • Looking for a book to review this year
    • Slosh around in a playground I have been invited to participate in to see if I have anything to say.
    • Dust off some of the projects I put to the side when I thought I would be leaving this profession to see what still runs, setting in motion a more fully-developed research pipeline.
  2. Read at least a chapter every day from an academic book not strictly for research
    • My goal is to finish three (3) books by the start of the semester

Teaching Prep

  1. Obviously I need to prepare my syllabuses, but, also:
    • run each course through a backward course design process that I haven’t had the time to do properly in while adjuncting.
    • pre-design a number of the course activities I want to implement, particularly in my World History courses where I was inspired by a numismatics activity Lee Brice and Theo Kopestonsky presented about at this year’s Association of Ancient Historians meeting. The goal of these assignments would be to introduce students to a range of evidentiary material from the ancient world that give them the tools to think historically about the world around them (see backward course design).
  2. Usually I read a book on teaching each summer, but I suspect that will not happen this year, so:
    • Find 2-3 articles on teaching to read this summer
    • Update my pedagogy reading list
    • Identify a pedagogy book to read by the end of the year
  3. Work through the Athenaze textbook. Book 1 has 15 chapters, so if I do roughly a chapter each workday I should be able to finish before start of the semester. This project is not for immediate use, but I was taught using a different textbook and I want to be more familiar with the other options in case I am ever given the opportunity to teach Greek.

Exercise

  1. I am currently nursing a calf-strain, but I would like to get to where I can run 2 miles at a time by the end of August. My actual goal is a good deal further, but I have found that running is a humbling experience for me and I need to set ambitious, but reachable goals. Before this strain I could run between 1 and 1.5 miles at a time.
  2. Gradually expand my weight routine past what I am currently doing — i.e. past a lot of pushups, which is effective, but also pretty repetitive.

Hobbies

  1. Read six (6) more books before the start of the fall semester.
  2. Finish the main storyline in Ghosts of Tsushima and decide whether to pick up a new game or return to the mythic quests in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
  3. Maybe finally write about Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and/or other hobbies
  4. Definitely write more here. However, my guiding principle for this space will remain whatever I feel like writing about that I don’t have an outlet for.
  5. Spend a little bit of time overhauling this site. I have a few overdue changes I want to make, including archiving an article that is no longer embargoed by the journal, updating my Commonplace Book, and making headway on the forever-incomplete teaching section.
  6. Make a point of sketching in my sketchbook once a week, perhaps looking online for lessons.

This is a long list of projects and goals given that the summer is already 2/3 over, but there is a lot of overlap between categories and only a few of these points actually have measurable targets. The rest are (a) things I have to complete anyway where working on them sooner will relieve stress later; (b) things I’m likely to be doing anyway; or (c) building or reinforcing habits that can continue after the start of the semester.

Now I think I’m ready for summer to begin.

I did this thing, it’s rubbish, but here it is. Let’s never talk about it again, okay?

I like blogging for a lot of reasons. In part, I use this space as an outlet for all sorts of topics that I would not otherwise get to write about — book reviews, pop culture discussions, thinking out-loud about teaching or academia or random historical tidbits. It also encourages me to write a lot, which I firmly believe is how one learns to write well. I also like how, at least on a personal blog, it can be done quickly. My process involves writing a piece, a quick editing pass, and then hammering the publish button. Sometimes, if I think the issue might receive a lot of blowback I will ask a trusted reader for feedback first.

This is how I have published more than 536,000 words on this site, some of them excellent, some of them bad, most of them just okay.

I also like the ephemerality of blogging. Certain posts routinely get traffic — my review of the novel Basti is perennially popular among what I assume are Indian students who had to read it for school, for instance, and apparently people liked my review of The Fifth Season — but most posts get all of their traffic within the first week of going up unless I do something to promote them later and, even then, that tends to be much lower than the initial burst. (Even a week is generous; I’m lucky to get three days.) These are the same trends that lead to concern about the future of blogs, but I like using the space to think through issues with the reassurance that I am not writing a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεὶ, a possession for all time, as Thucydides characterizes his history, but rather something of the moment with a slightly longer residue.

I cringe when I read my earliest posts, which I actually imported from an earlier iteration of this blog. I have considered purging them altogether on more than one occasion. They are very different from what I write about now and I don’t agree with everything I wrote back then, though these tend to be issues of historical interpretation rather than moral stances. What stops me from purging the record is two things: those posts almost never receive visitors and if someone were to look at what I wrote then and what I write now there is clear evidence of maturity as a writer and thinker.

Which brings me to the title of this post. It comes from a conversation I had with a friend a couple weeks back about the importance of self-promotion. I like writing things and putting them out into the world, but I also do very little by way of promotion and struggle to do it even in applications where it is absolutely essential. The line was hyperbolic, a play on managing expectations downward.

The single biggest factor behind my reticence to self-promote is that when I put something out into the world I immediately become anxious about how it will be received — no matter how proud I am of the work.

Some fear is normal. Academic reviews are frequently sharp, cutting pieces apart with analytical skills honed through years of training. I have done pretty well passing my scholarship through the peer-review process, but deeply negative reviews still hurt and so I get a flutter every time I send something out. What’s more, I also recognize that the peer-review process is imperfect such that even a piece that passes muster there can meet with a negative reception once it goes out into the public.

Other aspects of my anxiety is more idiosyncratic. Imposter syndrome, the feeling of being a fraud about to be exposed at any moment, is rampant in higher education and I am no exception.

I have struggled with feeling inadequate since my time as an undergraduate at Brandeis, where I was at the “best” school I applied to but surrounded by people saying that they should have been at Harvard. When I went to graduate school, I ended up at a lower-ranked institution because I was turned away from the better programs. Multiple times. The Shadow-CV movement ostensibly meant to de-stigmatize “failure” a few years back had the same effect because it made me feel like I was failing wrong. Just recently, the discourse around Princeton changing its requirements for the Classics major once again reignited these insecurities. I went on to receive a Ph.D. in ancient history, but my B.A. was “only” Classical Art and Archaeology and Ancient History and thus distinctly remember being informed by an otherwise very nice individual that I wasn’t a “real” Classics major.

Then there is an aspect of self-assessment. While I have become a significantly better writer than I once was, I still don’t consider myself a good writer. I like to think that I am a good historian, but others are better — stronger linguists, more creative researchers, more clever thinkers. Comparison is not a useful exercise, but I am perpetually in awe when I read the brilliant work of my colleagues and a little voice whispers that this thing is better than anything I can hope to do. I would like to keep the appreciation for other people’s work, but ditch the little voice.

One thing I have done well is produce. The same habits that led to a half a million words published here have helped me put out a steady stream of articles and reviews despite heavy teaching loads, limited institutional support, and contracts without an incentive to publish.

Self-promotion will probably never be my forte. I’m good for a tweet and blog post promoting my work and recently recorded what will be my first podcast talking about some of my research, but much beyond that my sense of reserve starts to kick in. What I need to remember is that there is a difference between promoting what one has done and promoting one’s own brilliance. The latter is self-indulgent vanity, but the former is normal, expected, and not incompatible with wanting to craft an academic persona based being a dedicated teacher, a generous and supportive mentor, a kind colleague, and, yes, a scholar.

I am proud of the work I have done and think that the pieces currently in the pipeline are better than what has already come out. There are a few pieces in the works, but the biggest one is this. A little over a week ago, I sent a complete manuscript to my editor for a book based on my dissertation. There is a long way to go yet, including another round of reader reports, copy-editing, indexing, and all of the little things that turn a manuscript into a book, but this also marked a major milestone in the project. The butterflies of anxiety immediately began to flutter, but I am immensely excited to be one step closer to seeing this project into the world.

75 Luftballons

Every couple of weeks it seems something sets academic Twitter buzzing. Yesterday it was a well-established professor with a light (2–1) teaching load who shared three secrets to having put out 75 publications since 2005 and invited her readers to respond with which of her strategies were the hardest for them. I quote:

  1. I sleep 8 hours a night.
  2. I write for 1–2 hours every weekday
  3. I don’t get in my own way.

I don’t think that the author meant anything malicious by her tweet, but the self-congratulatory framing seemed tone-deaf at a time when a lot of people are struggling. Many academics I follow on Twitter pushed back, challenging her the privilege of such a small teaching load and secure employment, debating whether we ought to measure our academic worth by simple volume of publications—to say nothing of how disciplines count different publications—and still others cast side-eye at what exactly “not getting in one’s own way” means.

When I saw the tweet I mostly just felt tired.

I’m not going to rehash my CV here — I keep a public version on this site that I update every few months if anyone cares. Suffice it to say that since graduating four years ago I have published more than some people, but less than others, while also teaching a whole bunch of courses on part-time contracts at multiple schools.

I exercise daily, make sure to read outside of work (because it is something I enjoy), and try to sleep 8-hours a night. I’ve even had more success with the sleeping since the start fo the pandemic and have started actually taking one day entirely off each weekend!

(Okay, fine. Most weekends.)

I also write for about an hour almost every weekday. The exact time changes, but I try to carve out an hour or two, usually in the morning, where I turn off email and social media in order to just wrestle with words.

It wasn’t always like this. When I started tracking the time I spend writing a few years ago I was in a very different position than I am now. Fresh off my dissertation and only teaching one course a semester, I had time to write and wanted a way to keep myself accountable. As my teaching load snowballed, I found it harder to find time to write and the amount of time I gave my writing plummeted. About the same time, I discovered that I missed that time I spent writing in much the same way that I miss physical exercise when I go more than a couple of days without doing anything. My recent writing sessions have been motivated in part by the terror of several deadlines that just passed for projects I committed to delivering, but I also find peace in the daily practice separate from those commitments.

I want to do good research and to have it taken seriously, but I also can’t define my academic existence by my publication record. My post-PhD life has been defined by teaching positions, often without support for research or publication. I have continued to do both, but approaching them as a second job demands finding other measures of academic success. I can block off time for writing, but the fact that my teaching contracts demand a lot of the time I would otherwise dedicate to focused reading means that I haven’t had the brain space recently to fan the spark of an idea into fully-realized papers. At the moment this isn’t much of a problem given that I am in the final stages of completing projects, but it does mean that my research pipeline will (temporarily) run dry.

But guess what? I’m okay with this! I have jotted down notes for a couple of articles that I would like to dig into, to say nothing of ideas for three more book. None of these things are actually in a research pipeline right now so much as sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Inevitably some of these will never amount to anything, whether because I get distracted by other shiny objects (projects) or because I will take them down to find that the idea half-formed years ago just doesn’t work, but others will eventually enter into the pipe and emerge sometime down the line.

The reason I felt tired when I saw the original post is because I momentarily felt the pressure that comes with using the raw numbers of publications as a metric of academic success. I’m tired enough as it is, I don’t need any more pressure.

As I wrote above, I don’t think the author meant anything malicious by her comment — and may have believed she was trying to help contribute to some sort of self-help productivity discourse that operates in some sort of abstract space where the real world doesn’t apply. This discourse operates in a space of extreme privilege, but it also both responds to and reinforces an academic culture of publication where the goalposts are forever just out of reach. Whatever you demonstrate to be your pace becomes an expectation and however fast you publish you could have put out one more. After all, should we not always strive for maximum efficiency and ever greater production?

Of course we shouldn’t. Fast scholarship isn’t the same as good scholarship.

Now fast scholarship is not actually what the original tweeter called for, but by setting the volume of her publications as a the metric of success she has nevertheless implied that we ought to bow to the pressure to produce more and more quickly. I might be be able to reach 75 academic publications (including reviews), but I also may not ever publish 75 academic pieces in my career. Not only would either of these outcomes be fine with me, but it is also critical to resist the simple quantification of academic production.

Working in higher education has enough challenges already. Rather than focusing on someone’s prodigious output and trying to replicate their method, every discussion of academic productivity needs to start with sustainability, support, and the academic communities we want to create.

Hey, I wrote a thing!

A few months back I received a message on Twitter from a friend. An editor had come to him with an idea for a piece bridging the ancient and the modern, using ancient Greece to confront modern dilemmas, but he was drawing a blank on the specific idea. Do I have anything that might appeal to the editor and, if so, should he pass along my information?

To be honest, I was in a bit of an end-of-semester daze, but I can usually find an argument once I start writing, so I said sure. One phone call and a month and a half of allowing my thoughts to percolate later, I pitched a piece that tied together Hesiod’s Works and Days, methods of divination in ancient Greece, and a doomed invasion of Sicily in 415.

That piece came out this morning on The Conversation.

In short: we live in an iron generation Zeus decrees that people are going to suffer. Risk mitigation requires both human preparation and appeasing the gods, but the steepest consequences of failing to adequately prepare for risk happen when a person’s action or inaction puts the community at risk.

AcWriMo 2020

I had a rough go of things last fall, taking on so much work that I was forced to give up my regular writing practice. And yet, reading about my struggles to stay on top of my teaching and job applications all while thinking that it might be my last year in higher education strikes me now as blissfully unaware of what was lurking just around the corner in 2020.

These past nine months have been an emotional rollercoaster that has tested my mental and physical endurance like never before. #AcWriMo also bridges the end of a fifteen week sprint of a semester that has stretched both me and my students to the breaking point.

And yet, I’m still writing. Not as much as I’d like, but more than I have any right to complain about under these conditions.

The reasons I’m writing more are varied, but rather simple. I’ve had some movement on a few projects such that I now have concrete deadlines. I objectively have less teaching this semester (and a smaller paycheck to prove it). The teaching I have is concentrated in the afternoons four days a week, which often leaves me time to write in the morning even when prep bleeds into that time. I’ve been better about jealously guarding my time such that I consciously schedule more breaks and thus have more energy to write. I also find writing meditative such that turning off anything with updates (email, news, social media) for the time I’m writing gives a nice reprieve from the fever pitch of, well, everything.

In this vein, I am setting for myself some AcWriMo goals that both reaffirm and expand on my annual writing goals, if not following the formula of setting specific and measurable projects to produce.

  1. One hour per work-day dedicated to academic writing projects, with workday defined as Monday through Friday. I hope to use this time to write, particularly once the semester ends, but this time can also be used for reading or researching, as Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega suggested today on Twitter. My writing and research processes are already deeply intertwined, particularly at later stages where I’ll pause the writing to build up a note or clarify a paragraph.
  2. Four posts of substance (TM) for this site, one per week in November. In part this stems from a larger goal of writing here with more regularity, but also just to stretch my writing. I don’t exactly know yet what this goal will result in, but the first two topics I have in mind both develop a point or comment I made on Twitter and are related in some form or another to my various academic interests.

That’s it. Writing is a habit that begets more writing, so I’m keeping my goals modest in the hope that I can blow past the targets.

The Impossibility of Alexander

What I would write about if I were no longer pursuing an academic career has been on the forefront of my mind of late, and I have found myself gravitating back toward Alexander as a result. The following post is adapted from something I have recently started to work on in that vein.

Alexander the Great is deceptively easy to write about, which has led to oceans of ink spilled about the Macedonian king over the past several millennia. In fact, he makes almost any short-list of individuals about whom the most has been written over that span, up there with the likes of a certain Jewish man born in Bethlehem during the final years of the 1st Century BCE and an Arab merchant of some renown born some six centuries after him. Alexander’s afterlives are numerous and varied, appearing across Eurasia from Malaysia to Persia to Ethiopia to Medieval European manuscript, as well as on screen in India in 1941 and in Hollywood in 1956 and 2004, as well as in a Japanese Anime Series from 1999–2000.

Reign: The Conqueror

Alexander also appears in numerous novels, including recently Dancing with the Lion by the ancient historian Jeanne Reames that explores Alexander’s childhood and relationship with Hephaestion. (Jeanne does more justice talking about their relationship than I can, though I have not yet read her novel.) I also personally own more than thirty-non fiction books with Alexander in their title, which represents just a fraction of the total. And yet, the sheer volume of work that has been done about Alexander obscures the fact that Alexander is actually very difficult to write about well.

One issue is an issue of genre. Biography, by its very definition attempts to write the life of an individual. In antiquity, this meant using a famous life to offer moral exempla, both good and bad. Perhaps the most famous description of purpose comes from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, part of a pair of lives that also included Julius Caesar, where he declares:

For I am writing not histories, but lives, and distinguished deeds do not always reveal either virtue or vice, while a slight deed, word, or idle pastime reveal one’s character more than a battle where tens of thousands die or the greatest siege of cities. So, just as the portrait artist takes the likeness from the face and the appearance of the look, which is where the character appears, but pays little mind to the remaining parts, so too must I be allowed to enter into the signs of the soul that I may portray the life of each, leaving their great deeds to others.

οὔτε γὰρ ἱστορίας γράφομεν, ἀλλὰ βίους, οὔτε ταῖς ἐπιφανεστάταις πράξεσι πάντως ἔνεστι δήλωσις ἀρετῆς ἤ κακίας, ἀλλὰ πρᾶγμα βραχὺ πολλάκις καὶ ῥῆμα καὶ παιδιά τις ἔμφασιν ἤθους ἐποίησε μᾶλλον ἢ μάχαι μυριόνεκροι καὶ παρατάξεις αἱ μέγισται καὶ πολιορκίαι πόλεων, ὥσπερ οὖν οἱ ζῳγράφοι τὰς ὁμοιότητας ἀπὸ τοῦ προσώπου καὶ τῶν περὶ τὴν ὄψιν εἰδῶν, οἷς ἐμφαίνεται τὸ ἦθος, ἀναλαμβάνουσιν, ἐλάχιστα τῶν λοιπῶν μερῶν φροντίζοντες, οὕτως ἡμῖν δοτέον εἰς τὰ τῆς ψυχῆς σημεῖα μᾶλλον ἐνδύεσθαι καὶ διὰ τούτων εἰδοποιεῖν τὸν ἑκάστου βίον, ἐάσαντας ἑτέροις τὰ μεγέθη καὶ τοὺς ἀγῶνας.

Plut. Alex. 1.2–3

Broadly speaking, there are two types of modern biography, both of which evolved from the ancient genre much as that ancient genre evolved from earlier forms of praise poetry. The first type of biography is a character study that offers a deep dive into the every detail of an individual in order to discover what makes that person tick. These biographies tend to make academic historians skittish. Even when they are well-researched, and many are, these studies often plumb the depths of unanswerable questions and cannot escape moral overtones because their focus is on what Pierre Briant termed “psychologistic” questions. Equally insidious, though, is that the focus on one individual smacks of an antiquated type of history that centers historical development on the deeds of “great men.”

The second type of biography aims to subvert these issues somewhat by using the life of an individual person as a vehicle to explore a particular period or issue. Douglas Boin, for instance, just published a biography of Alaric the Goth that aims to understand the fall of Rome from the outsider’s perspective, while the New Historicism literary movement pushed by, among others, Stephen Greenblatt aims to understand the literary production of an individual through how they interacted with society. And yet, even Boin mentions in the linked video that he wants readers to come away with an understanding about how one person can change history and Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which came under fire for inaccuracies, aims to show how the singular discovery of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and its atomistic, scientific world view made the world “modern.”

Biographies about Alexander fall into both categories, but tend to follow a predictable template. First, the reader is introduced to the Macedonian kingdom that Alexander’s father Philip built. Then we meet the precocious young Alexander in the Macedonian court where he demonstrates his potential and chafes against the yoke of his father, often egged on by his intense mother, Olympias. When Philip meets his ends in the theater at Aegae in 336, Alexander ascends the Macedonian throne by popular acclaim of his soldiers and proceeds to crush any and all opposition inside and outside of his kingdom. By 334, Alexander is ready to meet his destiny, crossing the Hellespont and launching an invasion of Persia where he slaughters his way across Asia before being “defeated” at the Hyphasis when his soldiers simply refuse to advance any further. By 323, Alexander returned to Babylon for his second date with destiny.

In other words, a precocious young man takes the throne at 18, conquers everything from the Mediterranean to India, and dies at 33 or 34.

Along the way this template prescribes a certain set of questions: How did Alexander’s drinking affect his reign? What caused Alexander’s growing orientalism? Did Alexander think of himself as a god and, if so, when did that begin? What were Alexander’s plans when he died? Who killed Alexander? Did Alexander believe in the ‘Unity of Mankind’? Was Alexander Great?

Despite more than a century’s worth of scholarship and dozens of books that have shed light on any number of aspects about Alexander’s reign, we are barely closer to answering the fundamental questions about Alexander. In part, these issues stem from the tenuous nature of the sources for Alexander’s reign, but there is an even more insidious issue at work. The questions that frame studies of Alexander are designed as though they can be answered using evidence when, in fact, they are unanswerable except by imparting a healthy dose of opinion. For example, if you look closely at how I framed the questions above, one takes for granted a fundamental change in Alexander’s character as he progressed into Asia and frames that change in terms of a modern concept. 

All historians are constrained by their sources and many of the questions I posed above are  found already in the ancient evidence. Calling the sources for Alexander “weak” is generous. Five narrative accounts of Alexander’s reign exist in part or whole. The earliest of these, Book 17 of Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History dates to the first century BCE, while the latest, Justin’ epitome of Book 11 of Pompeius Trogus’ history is a synopsis of a first-century BCE work compiled in the third century CE. The three remaining accounts fall between these two dates: Quintus Curtius Rufus’ History (first century CE), Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (late-first or early-second century CE), and Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri (early-second century CE). In other words, every account of Alexander the Great that exists from antiquity was written between three hundred and six hundred years after he died. Then there are issues with each individual work. Diodorus Siculus and Justin/Trogus wrote “universal histories” that inserted Alexander into their histories of the world down to their current day, while Plutarch wrote biography, a genre that explicitly claimed a moral, rather than historical, purpose. Curtius’ history, which was the most well-known of these throughout the Middle Ages, has long gaps and is missing the first two books in their entirety.

Historians have long sought to answer the question of which source ought to be believed through a process of peeling back the layers in the existing histories to find their sources, which, while fragmentary, offer a more accurate picture of what happened.

This research revealed two overarching traditions for Alexander. The first tradition is the so-called Vulgate of Diodorus, Curtius, and Justin/Trogus that trace their origins to a 3rd-Century BCE work by Cleitarchus, while the second, “high,” tradition of Arrian declares that it follows the accounts of Aristobulus and Ptolemy, who actually accompanied Alexander and therefore before knew him. Based on his preferred sources and largely-intact text, it makes intuitive sense to trust Arrian’s history the most among the five existing accounts, and this is exactly what historians have often done. However, Arrian’s history is also not without problems, including that his sources wrote decades after Alexander had died and he seems blithely trusting that Ptolemy, who had become a king by the time he wrote his history, would have no cause to manipulate his account.

In fact, most sources that purported to be directly connected to Alexander, such as his will, were likely early Hellenistic forgeries created to further the ambitions of one successor or another. The only truly contemporary account of the campaign was that of Callisthenes, Alexander’s court historian and propagandist who wrote dispatches back to Greece extolling Alexander’s successes before Alexander ultimately had him had executed.

These source problems lead modern Alexander biographies to be colored by a rich anecdotal tradition that owes its earliest incarnation to Alexander’s own propaganda and has grown in the intervening millennia as generation after generation has latched onto the same tales. Alexander demonstrates his generosity by granting his mistress Pancaste to Apelles after the artist painted her nude and fell in love or by tolerantly laughing off the potential slight when the Persian queen mother Sisygambis mistakes Hephaestion (or Leonnatus) for Alexander. Meanwhile his temper is on display at a drunken party in Pella where Philip allegedly tries to run him through, and again at Maracanda when a drunk and enraged Alexander impales one of his longest-tenured retainers with a spear. Slicing through the Gordion Knot demonstrates pride, while the conflagration of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus on the same day as Alexander is born—the goddess had allegedly left her home unprotected to watch over the momentous birth—foretold greatness.

Charles Le Brun, The Family of Darius in Front of Alexander (1661)

Already from the time of Callisthenes ALEXANDER consisted of a larger-than-life facade enveloping a shadow, regardless of whether you were pro-Alexander or against him. This is not to say that Alexander was a non-person—on the contrary, I suspect that his charisma was magnetic. Rather, Alexander the historical figure is even more impossible to recover than most biographical subjects because almost everything we know about his character are projected by later sources onto an ambiguous blank slate.

Academic Style

About a year and a half ago I was sitting in a meeting with a college administrator as part of a campus visit for a tenure track job. One of the people who had given me the campus tour immediately before the meeting had tipped me that he was a basketball player, so we chatted about that before turning to the more serious matters like teaching philosophies and the trajectory of the university. He wanted to talk about my research, of course, so I gave the elevator-pitch for my research project. Overall the meeting went well, though I did not get the job. At this point I would be hard pressed to recall much of it beyond broad impressions and the odd fact, but there is one exchange that I remember vividly.

At one point I responded to a question about who I saw as the audience for my research by saying that I am, in essence, writing for my younger self. I mostly remember this answer because it took my interlocutor aback and led to an exchange where we unpacked what I meant, namely that while I like having my writing contribute to scholarly debate and being read by professional historians and classicists, that is not who I see I see myself writing for when I am sitting down to write.

That is, my Platonic-ideal of audience is myself as an undergrad, a young student reading (some) academic articles simply because I liked history. Intelligent, interested, but by no means a specialist despite what a handful of my friends seemed to think. The articles I have published, as well as those that I am currently working on, are specific enough that they might lose any reader not already interested in ancient Greek history, but my goal, at minimum, is that any one who has had the equivalent of a survey course should be able to pick them up and follow along.

To my mind, the inapproachability of scholarship is more often an issue of writing than of ideas because of a perception that scholarship needs to be written in a certain way in order to be coded “academic” or “intelligent.” There is enough peacocking and posturing in higher education that this concern is not entirely unfounded, but it also realizes harmful stereotypes and gives the false impression that most academic research is inherently obscurantist. I am not here to trash nuanced, specific, and technical writing, which is simultaneously necessary at times and not what I am interested in writing.

I have found myself thinking back to this conversation a lot recently as I work on the book based on my dissertation even while sitting at a crossroads that may lead me away from academic life. At issue is how I want to write my book. I had a brief conversation in the fall 2018 with an eminent scholar about my revision plans, that I planned to revise with considerations given toward having a complete (narrative) arc, for the study, he was taken aback and asked why I would want to write something he considered “popular” history for my first book. His reaction was, I think, partly based on a misunderstanding about the nature of the changes I was proposing, but they also stemmed from genuine concern that if a first book were deemed insufficiently academic, it could hurt an academic career.

This scholar’s concern may be moot if my career in academia is indeed drawing to a close, but since I have other reasons for wanting to put this book into the world his words continue to echo. Without explicitly saying so, he implied that writing approachable history is a privilege afforded only to two groups: scholars with an unimpeachable reputation or people outside the academy. This attitude is hardly unique and I have made light of it by noting that every (male) historian of ancient Greece who reaches a certain eminence writes his biography of Alexander the Great.

And yet, when I think about the book(s) I want to write, I come back to same basic position that I expressed that afternoon in Southern California: that the audience I imagine I am writing for is myself as a student. I was not a normal undergraduate student—clearly, I defied all common sense and did a PhD in this stuff—but that figure serves as a stand-in for an intelligent audience who has not yet become completely immersed. I was an enthusiastic but not terribly sophisticated reader who loved a clearly written book that taught him something new. I have come a long way since then, but even now I can be intimidated by certain types of academic monographs if more because they present as more subtly and impressively academic than the books I want to write.

It is one thing to say in a book proposal—or blog post—that you intend your work to be accessible to any educated audience and quite another to put that into practice. I am not even sure that my writing succeeds as well as I would like, even as I find myself writing quite a lot. (While helping a friend craft a sensitive email recently, I calculated that I’ve written more than 750,000 words over the past decade.) This also isn’t the first time I’ve fretted in this space about authorial voice or the sorts of things I want to write, but in as much as I have projects I want to work on even as I prepare for a likely transition to another line of work these questions have taken on renewed significance.

Certain types of writing erects barriers audiences that ought to be invited in. What bothers me about using “popular” as a subtle dig at approachable history and hence at the work of anyone who wants to write approachable history is how it serves as a form of gatekeeping. That is, the implication that popular means a book stripped of its argument, research, and importance when that absolutely need not be the case. The critique isn’t even necessarily born out in practice except in marketing.

What Would I Write

I am in no way a poet, but a year or two back I jotted down a few lines on my phone. I have toyed with publishing this a few times since, pulling back because the words came from a place of frustration.

What would I write
If I didn’t care what they thought
What would I say
If I weren’t trying to stay in a game

Would it be unhinged poetry
Fiery rhetoric or
Tender prose

Public consumption
Private catharsis or
Shouts and whimpers left unheard

Would I grow
Fizzle or
Explode

Or just fade away

I have been thinking about these lines again as the spring 2020 semester drew to a close.

When I started going on the job market during graduate school, I had resolved that I would give the academic job market at least three cycles post-graduation. Without going into too many details, I knew that the odds of landing an ancient history were not good for anyone, regardless of where they received their degree, but figured that three years was enough time to build a bit of a publishing track record, teaching portfolio, and to polish my documents. My hope was that I would be able to secure something full-time and, preferably, multi-year that I could use as a springboard to a permanent job.

In a way I was not wrong. I published a couple of articles in 2018 and have several more pieces of scholarship finished for edited collections or ready to submit to journals, and am working on selling my first book, all while scraping together teaching jobs in four departments at two universities on a semester-by-semester basis. In the 2018/2019 cycle, I had four job interviews and was chosen for a campus visit. In 2019/2020, I had another four interviews and a campus visit before COVID-19 effectively cancelled the academic job market. Further, the same forces that caused the academic job market to crash have dramatically diminished my chances of teaching in the fall semester. At the end of the three job market cycles I gave myself, not only am I staring at a career transition during a global economic crisis for the second time in my adult life (I graduated from college in 2008), but also the short-term employment that I had been using as a bridge is unavailable.

However, this is not a post about employment. My partner has a contract for next year and I have savings that I can rely on while I figure out what comes next. I will line up in the lists against the windmills once more next year, but I am one of many people expecting a particularly spare cycle even by recent standards.

This past spring semester was exhausting even before the transition to distance-learning redoubled my workload. I was teaching five classes on topics that ranged from all of world history to the Vietnam war, so, while I have had larger numbers of students in a number of semesters, this was the largest range of courses I have ever taught. Usually I emerge from the semester exhausted and ready to rest for a week or two before I can turn my attention to my writing projects.

What I discovered this semester was a geyser of words bubbling just below the surface such that the past several weeks have marked one of my most productive writing stretches in almost a year. I am entering into a period of academic uncertainty with more writing projects on my plate than ever, more ideas for future projects than ever, and more enthusiasm for writing than ever. So much, in fact, that I opened a new document on whim last week and started free writing something that is half-forward, half-proposal about a topic I’ve been thinking about for maybe a decade and a half.

All of which brings me back to the lines I jotted down and quoted above. With the exceptions of this site, a private journal, and an intermittent epistolary habit with friends and family, everything I have written over quite a few years has been geared toward securing an academic job. That means peer-reviewed journal articles, reviews of the latest scholarly books, and working to publish my dissertation.

All of these publications function on a system where the academic employer, rather than the publisher, provides the bulk of both research funds and financial compensation. Publishers do incur costs, but journals function on prestige system for both authors and reviewers and the low print runs of academic books mean that authors don’t make much profit, even though both books and journal articles require significant time and energy investment.

If this marks the end of my run in higher education, which isn’t a certainty but does seem increasingly likely, then publishing research in academic outlets is little more than an exercise in nostalgia. I like research, but research takes time, and I am having a hard time envisioning doing that work without hope of compensation when I could—and should— be looking to write for a wider audience.

I have long approached academic publishing as a second job much as many commercial authors work two or more jobs. Other people might approach them as two parts of a single whole, but the nature of my academic contracts after graduate school have never included a research component. My primary employment was teaching. My second job was research and writing. My hope was that I could someday combine the two into a single paycheck, which, in turn, meant prioritizing a certain type of writing. This latest turn in my relationship to academia means changing these priorities.

I am going to finish the academic work already well-underway as a matter of pride. I can see publishing pieces other than book reviews in academic journals again someday in the future, but that prospect is contingent on secure employment in whatever form that ends up taking. In the meantime, the words are coming and it is just a matter of directing them in a productive direction.