[Note: Meta about the blog. Pretty whiny.]
Things can’t keep getting better forever. Going by post quality and audience size, 2018 was a lot better than 2017, which in turn was a lot better than 2016. Since I started I’ve seen my writing improve and readership grow by close to an order of magnitude every year.
That hasn’t been the case with 2019. Traffic is up, yes, but only a bit. Addition, not multiplication. Of course, addition is still pretty good, all things considered. What’s worse is that I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve written — and not written. This is only my 12th post of the year. The previous 11 (down from 17 in ’18) totaled 42,000 words. That’s half a novel but only about two thirds of what I wrote last year.
That’s quantity. I also feel that quality is less than great. Too much time and effort has been spent spinning wheels. I’ve started to repeat myself and explain myself instead of pressing on, and focused to much on generalities instead of writing about more specific things (and the posts on specific topics do tend to come out the best and be the most appreciated). It’s symptomatic that only four of the top ten posts of 2019 (by hits) were actually written in 2019; four are from 2018 and one each from ’17 and ’16.
Things started out well. The year can be split into two parts, and it’s the second that’s been the problem. Part 1 was fine. I was on a podcast for the first time in January, talking about my ideas on The Intellectual Explorers Club (here’s a post-mortem post on the experience). I had a good but self-conscious time, and it felt like good progress when writing was a bit slow.
The two-parter The Tilted Political Compass was a big success. Thanks to the first part getting a nod from Slate Star Codex and a number or shares elsewhere March became very close to becoming my best month ever in terms of traffic.
I made an appearance on the Rationally Speaking podcast in March too. It was a lot of fun and it caught some interesting people’s eyes (ears?). One of them was Jesse Singal, a journalist that asked me if I’d mind if he wrote an article about erisology for The Atlantic. I certainly didn’t mind, and I was kind of high on things going well.
It’s a after that that things sort of went off course.
Erisology, the New Science of How to Argue — Constructively was published in The Atlantic on Sunday April 7th, and what followed was a hell of a week. After visiting a friend in the US I had a 12 hour flight home and arrived jetlagged off my face. During my trip the article had been published and some readers (academics who didn’t exactly see the whole thing with erisology the way I did) had reacted with mockery. I’m not super sensitive to such things, but if people are going to hate on me I want them to hate on what I actually think, and I didn’t think they did. I wasn’t exactly in a good mood over it; that I was barely conscious at the time didn’t help.
Over the following six weeks I wrote a very long response called A Defense of Erisology. Feeling the need to do that derailed my writing plans for months. Unlike previous years I didn’t even manage to produce a post for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which speaks to the severity of the situation. Derailed, I wrote my next article in response to some non-great criticism, getting further into the less rewarding habit of repeating and explaining myself.
I read and planned to respond to two other criticisms but it would’ve taken all of my time and energy to do and I couldn’t go on like that. It was more annoying than fun. I drafted a bit but ran out of steam as time passed. By July I was back to writing what I really wanted again.
Kind of. I did say it was “a hell of a week” that time in April. It wasn’t just because of the Atlantic fallout and that I was so screwed up by jetlag that I even had to decline an opportunity to be an “expert” in an actual proper radio segment about the climate change controversy. No, there was more. When I asked to work from home the day after my flight so my sense to time would get a chance to adjust, my boss, for the first time ever, told me no. She insisted I had to come into the office, no reason given. It turned out the parent company didn’t want to pay for our losses any more and as a result, management had to get rid of a full sixth of the workforce.
I got a few months notice, so there was no immediate panic. But still: those few days had a distinct “what the hell is happening” vibe.
Looking for a new job became the priority and I had less time and energy available for writing. It was mostly a matter of energy, to be honest. I did have time but job hunting is so mentally taxing. In the end my best option was to go back to the job I’d had two years prior. I wasn’t my first choice but they had such a high opinion of me from before so I could get a better deal there than anywhere else. Not a step forward but I didn’t mind so much. I had, for the most part, liked it better than the job I’d just lost.
However, as soon as I started, in mid august, my mental health went into the toilet. It’s still there. I’m tired, irritated and despondent most of the time and I keep hoping it’ll get better. It’s a big part of why my output over the second half of the year has been paltry.
I have fewer opportunities to write. The lost job was boring but not stressful and I could on a typical day take a lunch hour to write. Now, as a consultant, there are things like project management and deadlines to think about and I had to go back to dealing with concepts like “billable hours”. Writing lunches came to an abrupt end. Too expensive, time wise. I have to write on my commute, on small breaks, on the very occasional free afternoon, or not much at all — which is super great when you have problems with procrastination and motivation.
So, after a good start to 2019, various factors have conspired to make it hard to keep up quantity and quality of output. I’m considering different ways of tackling the issue but I have no magic fix.
I want to write more, I do, but strangely it doesn’t get easier even after several years. I’m a better writer now but I also expect more from myself. Constant low-level anxiety isn’t doing me any favors either. I get tangled up in complications, can’t limit scope and can’t help but criticize myself all the time. Everything goes through multiple rounds of editing, and words-per-hour is low, which is of course super great as well when you don’t have a lot of time.
I hope the end of 2019 means the end of “the year when things didn’t go so well”. Perhaps 2020 can be better. I have as many plans, post drafts, and hazy notions of an eventual book as I’ve always had, but if any of them are going to get done I need to find some way of getting the writing process working again.
I wanted this wrap-up to be more positive. The end of a year should be a cause for celebration, but at the moment I can’t hide the fact that I’m dissatisfied with my blogging performance.
So, to a new year and a new deal, I hope. At least I’m confident I’ll have a good time on New Years Eve. Friends are coming over.
• • •
I didn’t exactly help things that my updated page describing erisology that I finally mananged to finish in late november after having thought about it for seven months resulted in a few similar reactions by some (partially the same) people on twitter who [redacted because I don’t want to be petty and I don’t think I can describe them or their conduct in a non-petty way].
They wanted me to bring in the decoupling angle, which I resisted because I don’t think climate change is fundamentally a decoupling issue. But I still would’ve gone on the show if I’d been fully awake.
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5 thoughts on “The End of 2019”
Hi, John. Last year I found your blog and spent a few days reading many of your posts. I didn’t comment here but I did share some of your ideas in meatspace. Everything Studies earned a Favorites tag in my Feedly. 🙂
Your work is appreciated. Cheers.
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Very sorry to hear you’ve had a tough year.
I really enjoy your writing – in particular your various posts on how we use language, and the interactions between words and thoughts. I check your blog frequently and I’m always pleased when I see you’ve written something new.
Wishing you all the best and hoping that 2020 is a better year for you, on and off the blog!
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I discovered your blog in 2019, I think from SSC, and I firmly believe the intellectual work you’re doing is hugely important.
It’s easy to be hard on yourself – life conspires to deny opportunities to write – but know that there are people out here grateful for your efforts and insights.
Best of luck in 2020.
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I love what you have done on here John, whatever else comes this year I will be grateful for too.
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