There is nothing so delightful as a nice writing room. For me, that means a space that’s spare and plain with a desk and an electric outlet nearby. Perhaps the most important attribute is a nice window, looking out on someplace where there’s at least occasional human motion. My sixth floor flat has just such a space, but it’s been functionally obsolete for the last six months. The windowed porch off of my bedroom has taunted me for months. It’s just too cold to work out there in the winter, and the extra space it leaves between my bedroom wall and the external window means that I haven’t really had a view while working. This week, I finally grew confident enough in the weather’s stability to move my desk outside.
I should preface what I’m about to say by clarifying that I feel like I’ve been an incredibly productive writer during this trip. I’ve completed two books that were in progress when I left the states, completed a major revision of another, and I’ve written more than 100,000 words of fresh texts, accounting for substantial parts of at least seven new book-length projects. I think that has to count as a successful writing year under just about any definition.
But since I’ve moved the desk, my productivity has exploded. I now find myself in the middle of another big revision project, and last week I finished up a new manuscript in time to make a deadline for a press that I admire and think suits the work beautifully. I’ve written endings this week for two short stories that had flummoxed me for months. These still need revision work, but it’s a big milestone, seeing the work in a form that feels complete, if not finished (two very different things to a working writer). I’ve gotten excited again about projects that had been dormant for weeks or months. I’ve begun to outline brand new projects that will hopefully get some of my time during a summer that promises to be one of the busiest and most intense of my life.
All this is to say that a tiny change can sometimes make an enormous difference. My desk moved perhaps two meters from the place where it rested for the winter, but suddenly there’s a calm breeze and the motion of students walking to and from classes at the university across the street. This tiny adjustment had infused life into the things I’m rushing to complete before the clock hits zero on my trip.
And there’s a bigger picture, too. I don’t think the bust of energy comes solely from the new view. In part, I think it’s just change, generally, that has ignited me. Change in weather. The impending change of location. Change of sightline. And of course, the change that comes when a long-term project can finally be crossed off the work leger.
A few paragraphs back, I mentioned working writers, and I would be remiss not to mention what I feel is a grave development in the writing world, one that took place this week at one of America’s best-known media conglomerates. One of the things I’m most frequently asked to talk about in Russia is journalism. Most Russians I’ve discussed this discipline with have developed the notion that their country’s press could and should be better, freer, and more robust, but no one seems quite sure of how to go about this. While I always decline to try and solve that question publicly, it’s something Russian writers and thinkers are wrestling with, and I’m always happy to share my own experiences and things I’ve encountered.
Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve encountered is the sight of a skilled, well-trained writer carrying her or his belongings out of a newsroom in a cardboard box because the company couldn’t financially sustain the good work they were doing. The same thing happened this week at sports broadcasting network ESPN, a broadcaster of live sporting events, sports-related news, and athletically focused commentary and special interest programming. Companies sometimes have to down-size or “right-size;” I certainly understand that from my time as a business reporter. But the specific cuts were very telling, and they follow a disturbing pattern. Just like politically and news-focused outlets have done in recent years, this purge sent more than one hundred skilled journalists, trained and practiced in the hard business of seeking out and then sharing the truth in a clear, careful, and concise fashion. It’s notable that largely absent from the cuts were the celebrity commentators and analysts—highly-paid former athletes who spend their days offering opinion and not much more. So one more time, one more media outlet has given the boot to truth-seekers and retained people who make things up in the name of entertainment. As has happened to their counterparts in the worlds of news and politics, executives at the company andnits parent corporation will certainly scratch their heads in disbelief as, during the coming years, public trust begins to erode in the network’s trustworthiness. The pattern is as tired and predictable as it is destructive; each time this cycle plays out, the remaining actual journalist bear more and more of the blame and angst that rightfully belongs to the interloping commentators, who should’ve never had their names on a masthead to begin with.
So, what does all this mean to an American abroad? From kindergartens to universities to media organizations and the arts, the rest of the world looks to America for leadership, guidance, examples, and possibilities. Russian, Asian, and European universities are reshaping their way their collegiate degree programs are run in order to grow more compatible with our system and encourage international exchange of ideas. Eastern newspaper operations are borrowing techniques and methods from their American counterparts.
The rest of the world watches how America operates in these fields, because the country has a long tradition of innovation. The problem is, just as everyone else looks to the U.S. for ideas, we’re walking away from the methods that made those institutions great in the first place. We’re treating our universities like businesses, expecting state colleges to turn a profit or sustain themselves—a major shift from the historical perspective that an educated public was worth the collective expense that went into making higher education affordable for anyone who showed the ambition and ability to pursue higher learning. Another step in abandoning the same principle: we’re treating universities as job training sites rather than centers for the transfer of knowledge. This over-specialization comes at a time when the job market is shifting so rapidly that generalized learning and academic agility are more valuable than ever before. And so our response is to seek out the opposite solution, because someone got it into America’s head that everything can and should be run like a business, and this simply isn’t true.
Across the globe, our counterparts are adopting our best ideas while we abandon them. I hope they hold tighter and faster to these good methods than we have, and I hope it brings success to the nations bold enough to hang onto principles larger than individual profit. If the new American ethos is, indeed, to manage all aspects of society as profit-rending business enterprises--and if the unfortunate offshoot of that ethos is a mentality of perpetual competition between nations--then perhaps it would be wise to stop abandoning our richest ideas and institutions, the ones coveted by nearly every other society.
The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.