15 Years of Writing
It would not be true, strictly speaking, to say that today is my 15th anniversary writing for a public audience. After all, I did write for my high school paper, the excellent and dearly departed Blue Prints. And, after that, I wrote odds and ends in an activist capacity, fact sheets and leaflets against the war. I wrote some poetry and fun random stuff for my brother’s (also dearly departed) website. But it’s also true that, 15 years ago today, I published my first-ever blog post, and in doing so started the journey to being a professional writer. That post, about liberal guilt and guns, was a piece of public-facing short-form argumentative nonfiction. It’s a type of writing that has defined my career, one that I’d like to leave behind but probably can’t, and the kind which has made my current life possible. I write this in a house that I bought with money made from writing and only from writing, and this is a blessing and a reason to mark the anniversary. It’s my privilege.
It’s been a complicated journey. There have been some victories, some defeats, and many self-inflicted wounds. If I had to summarize everything I would start with the obvious point that most people who read and write the kind of writing I make don’t know I exist. That isn’t self-deprecation; it’s statistics. I do recognize, however, that I’m in an upper echelon in this industry in both recognition and pay. This success has been, like so much else in my life, somewhat despite myself. I existed in a state of ebbing and flowing enmity between myself and much of the rest of the people in my profession for a long time. This seemed like a matter of integrity, when I started, and certainly it remains the case that many people in this line of work operate as though the purpose of writing is to ingratiate themselves with other writers. That’s contrary both to my personal values and to what I take the purpose of writing to be. But I also recognize, at this point, that there is no clear line between a principled stand against conformity and just being an asshole, and that none of my peers had any particular reason to see my general attitude as anything other than shitty behavior. I guess it all worked out for me, as it allowed me to cultivate a few friendships in the industry rather than many acquaintances, which flatters my conception of the right life, and I’m sure it was good for my “brand,” which certainly doesn’t. Anyway - I thought I was fighting a righteous war. I know I would always have been me, under any circumstance, but I do often look back and wonder why I bothered.
Eventually, writing would become a profession and an identity. I’ve been very privileged. I know that I’m very good at this, and I also know that good is useless without luck. What follows is the story, which you may find boring or not.
I started out blogging at Blogspot. I was more-or-less unemployed, having spent the previous two years utterly failing to get a job, and was unknowingly hurtling towards the financial crisis and Great Recession years. I had finally seen an unfathomably long cycle of breaking up and making up with my longtime girlfriend come to an end. I had nothing resembling a plan. And I had been spending far too much time reading and commenting on blogs. I was at the public library one day, feeling profoundly sorry for myself. Bloggers I admired (who will remain nameless) had said to me, with friendly exasperation, “Why don’t you just start your own blog?” So I did. I named the blog “L’Hote,” which was a reference to the incredible short story by Albert Camus but was also a joke about my origins as a blogger - l’hote, in French, can mean both “the guest” and “the host,” reflecting on my evolution from blog commenter to blog writer. When Gawker named me one of their 50 Least Important Writers of 2012, they made sure to make fun of the pretentious name. (I’ve long suspected that this was the work of Max Read, but who knows.) For the record, I have always considered the words “blog” and “blogging” hideously ugly, and I have tried to refer to this current project as a newsletter as often as possible. But, you know - I’ve been a blogger.
Pretty much directly because I had spent a couple years annoying everyone as a commenter (90%) and because my work was good (10%) some big people linked to me in the first month I was blogging, and it was off to the races. These were the days of hourly blogging, which seem unfathomable to me now; it was not unusual for bloggers in those days to post a half-dozen times in one day, with a couple of those being longer, substantive posts. I was doing that despite the fact that I made $0 from it. I guess I could have set up ads, but at that point I constantly dismissed the idea that writing meant anything to me, in that classic way you do when you fear failure. Eventually people did start asking me to write for other places for money - my first paid gig was when the short-lived Culture11 paid me, I think, $55 for 3000 words on environmentalism - but it would be years before any big establishment places asked me to pitch. I was also well on my way to establishing a reputation for personal instability. The late 2000s was a period of almost no regular treatment for my bipolar disorder at all, owing to my lack of health insurance and my general lack of structure or purpose. For the record, people constantly suggest that my writing skills are a benefit of my mental illness, but that is a type of romanticized nonsense I have no time for.
In 2009, I mostly blogged at a group blog called the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. (The name was my idea, thank you very much.) I was flattered to be asked and felt like I was in a rut. I had a good time there and I liked the other guys, but ultimately I think the point of a blog is to have total control over the project, so I left amicably after that year and returned to Blogger. That fall I had started grad school, which would lead in the next couple of years to endless jokes about how I was a “perpetual grad student,” despite the fact that I got an MA and PhD in less time than the average American humanities student gets just a PhD. (An insult that’s based on literally the opposite of reality is very internet.) That speaks to a development that would become a decade-long negative obsession of mine, the rise of Twitter as the dominant force in writing culture in the early 2010s. The blogosphere had a lot of problems, but it was far less malign than Twitter, for reasons I’ve written about a thousand times and that you’re probably bored of. My work was getting read by many more people than before, in part because of Twitter, but a nasty feeling had descended on everything. Unsurprisingly, blogging was a lot less fun, but I was in too deep to stop.
I tried, though, more or less. By mid-2013 I was halfway through my PhD program. L’Hote felt like it had run its course, and I was eager to try new things. I also had professors saying to me, look, in the academic job market you can’t have this controversial political writing hanging around your neck. I was getting the wrong kind of attention. So ten years ago today, on the fifth anniversary of the blog, I shut it down.
I transitioned over to my personal website. The idea was to keep writing, but to do so for a much smaller audience and only on academic and educational topics. I was, after all, in love with grad school; it was an immensely fulfilling time intellectually. At that point I had completed all of my required coursework and was doing pretty much exclusively classes in research methods, statistics, and applied linguistics. I had really begun to dive into education research and found it full of interest and passion. Unfortunately, this was also a low point mentally. I had last been in a psychiatric facility in Rhode Island in 2010 and had done my usual inconsistent approach to treatment since. My girlfriend from that time period and I broke up in summer of 2012, I believe, after a couple years together. Going from living with someone and the necessary work of holding it together for their sake, taking and teaching classes, to eventually being on fellowship and doing only independent research, seeing no one for days and drinking a case of beer every day…. Well, times weren’t good, and I would eventually end up back in a brief inpatient stay. In any event, the dedication to writing uncontroversial things lasted about three months. Soon I was back doing general interest blogging, and some of what I published was genuinely pretty disturbed.
I did, by some miracle, get a job at Brooklyn College starting in the fall of 2016. Along the way there had been several triumphs in freelancing, writing for The New York Times, my piece about Hartford for n+1, my personal best work ever in the form of a piece about Louis Farrakhan for Harper’s. New York was briefly energizing and always alienating. I was still blogging, to little personal sense of fulfillment and with no real direction. In February of 2017, Bluehost informed my ex-girlfriend (whose web hosting I was still using) that my site had been injected with malware. Per company policy, they had taken the site down. I asked if I could go in and fix the problem, but this would require bringing the site back online, which would violate company policy. It felt pretty Kafkaesque, to me, and I spent a day in despair over the demise of a lot of the posts. (They did send me a single giant .txt file which contained a badly-mangled version of the blog posts, each one repeated three or four times in the file and filled with weird characters and broken formatting; I rescued a couple of posts, and each time it took me north of four hours.) A day or two later, though, the forced demise of the old blog felt very freeing to me. I was glad to be free of what I had written in recent years. It was a chance to start fresh, which was appealing given how little natural inspiration I was feeling at the time. I was, at this point, building up to a truly ruinous mania, I was in a tedious job that I was terrible at, and I spent all of my time outside of work drunk. I needed a new start.
I took over hosting from my ex, who had been kind to help me in the first place. After a couple weeks of planning I came up with a Patreon-supported blog all about education. Those pieces are all preserved here in the earliest posts in the archives. The actual work was fine - the first post ever was an absolute banger - but the education focus was limiting. Limiting, first, in that I often chafed against my inability to publish about politics, but also in terms of audience. A lot of people just find education research boring, as I am frequently reminded when I write about it here. (There are a lot of people who love that stuff, though.) That sixish months of education blogging was the first time in my life that I had received cash for blogging itself, but it wasn’t as much as I had hoped. The Patreon topped out at around $750 a month; I was obviously very grateful for the money, and it helped a lot in those broke NYC days, but the amount of work wasn’t justified financially. Writing up all of those studies required reading the studies, after all, including two or three I would ultimately decide against before finding the right one. I was also constantly reading about stats and research methods stuff, including a lot I already knew by heart, because I was so worried about someone calling me on an error. I’m sure I would have kept going for at least a full year, due to pride if nothing else, but I was unhappy and felt I had made a series of bad choices. Then life intervened.
Things changed in August of 2017 when my slowly-building bipolar crisis led to a very public scandal. I’ve already written about it many times, to little constructive use. I was and remain terribly sorry about the false accusations I made against Malcolm Harris, just as I am terribly sorry about the other (thankfully private) awful behavior I inflicted on people who didn’t deserve it during that crisis. My psychiatric condition was an extenuating circumstance, but I did and said those things, and I am responsible for them. I do hope that people will bear my condition in mind, but they have no responsibility to do so. I’ve written a lot about the difficult question of culpability for those with mental illness. As for me, for my own emotional health, I have had to see that though these things may not always be my fault, they are always my responsibility. It’s complicated. What’s not complicated is that I did something very bad, and I have paid an appropriate price. Like I said, though, I’ve talked about all of this too much already. Suffice it to say that, when all of that happened, I lost a lot of friends and connections in the business, which was predictable, understandable, and justifiable. Since then I have always assumed that any individual member of this profession would prefer not to associate with me, and this is usually correct, although of course my preexisting reputation as an asshole is also at play there too. Both of those things I accepted a long time ago.
I guess the only thing that still gets to me is the frequency with which I still lose people, suddenly and for no clear cause. It has become a common occurrence for me, now, to have a friendly line of communication open with another writer or editor, and for them to suddenly cut it off without notice or explanation. I don’t ever really know why friendship would have survived the scandal, gone on without apparent issue, and then suddenly ended, but again I don’t blame anyone for it. I was plainly guilty of what I was accused of, after all, and I am a serially unstable person. Those are the wages. Heavy is the cost.
My career as a writer took a hiatus back then, to put it optimistically. This was obviously necessary. Aside from a couple lonely posts updating my condition for my few hundred remaining RSS followers, I didn’t write for a public audience in the second half of 2017 or all of 2018 and 2019 at all. I returned in 2020, putting a few random blog posts out there in anticipation of the publication of my first book, The Cult of Smart. St. Martin’s arranged for me to publish a piece in The Washington Post as a matter of book promo, and I was back in the world of freelancing. At this point I had been fired by CUNY and unemployed for some six months. I had signed the contract to publish the book because writing books was my lifelong dream and I was burning to write anything, of course. But I suspect I would have had the discipline not to pitch the book, in 2017, if not for the fact that I was already broke prior to losing my job. My professional shunning had cut my income by more than a third, and I was struggling to survive in Brooklyn on a CUNY salary. Writing was the only thing I really knew how to do, and the advance ended up saving me. I also figured it would take a couple years for the book to come out, and maybe by then it would be time. Well, whether it was time or not, by then I was out of a job, I couldn’t find a new one after dozens and dozens of attempts, and I was running out of cash from the book advance. When Substack got in touch in February of 2021, I knew it was time to come back, ready or not. I really didn’t have a choice.
There was, as expected, a lot of grumbling when I came back on the scene. The grumbling didn’t (doesn’t) particularly bother me. It was frustrating that people said things that simply weren’t true, like “he never apologized,” “he doesn’t think he did anything wrong,” or “he was only gone like six months!” (That last one was hard to figure.) But that was to be expected, given the bad behavior I was plainly guilty of, and obviously, none of this was an injustice. I really didn’t know if anyone would subscribe, but they did, and pretty quickly. By two months in it was clear that this could indeed be my profession. As you can see, it’s been a matter of one big jump in the beginning and then a lot of maintenance and slow growth and sometimes stagnancy. Of course, it’s easy to mistake this for a lack of turnover, but presumably a lot of that stagnancy is people letting their subscriptions lapse while others get on board. (Presumably, because I have literally never looked at subscription cancellations or received emails to tell me when they happen, so I genuinely don’t know. I’m too delicate!) It’s been abundantly clear to me that, in the subscription biz, you have to keep your foot on the gas or you’ll head in the wrong direction. Also, it’s very strange to be paid in weekday deposits that are influenced by so many factors; it makes planning a little difficult. I once had six straight weekdays where my deposits were more than $4,000, while as of right now this coming July 3rd deposit is set to be literally $4.05. Well, anyway: I make a lot of money, and I’m very grateful for it.
I’m not really hung up on platforms. I posted on Blogger and that was fine. I posted on Wordpress and that was incredibly versatile and occasionally hugely annoying. I tried Medium and Kinja cause I just like trying new systems. I do have to say that, at this point, Substack is pretty close to exactly what I want for this kind of project, especially after a few recent back-of-the-house changes they’ve made. But ultimately it’s about the words. I know: I publish too much. But you see, I am compelled.
So, what does it all add up to? When I tallied up the number of posts from my long-defunct Blogspot blog, years ago, I got 1,086 posts in six years. That seems excessive even for me, but remember again that in those days you might do a one-sentence post that linked to someone else’s post. I have no way to quantify my lost pre-malware posts on fredrikdeboer.com from 2013 to early 2017, but it would have to be at least 400. Including the posts from 2017 that I transferred over, this newsletter currently has 868 posts of various kinds. I’m guessing I’ve published something like 2,500 individual posts in my blogging career. Some of them have been really good. You’ll have to make up your own mind about the value of the project, though. I’m proud of it, and vaguely embarrassed about it, and ultimately am satisfied with how I’ve spent my time. Every therapist I’ve ever had has set a goal of writing less. You have no idea, the discipline it’s taken, not to publish so much more.
As far as freelancing goes, I don’t really have many complaints. In print, I’ve been published in places like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, New York, Harper’s, and others. On the web, I’ve also been published in places like The Guardian, Politico, n+1, Playboy, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon, The Huffington Post, The Week, The Daily Beast, The Observer, Jacobin, Current Affairs, Vox, among many others. Some writers consider it kind of gauche to have credits in so many places, but I’m a jobber, a real freelancer, and I’ve been happy to cash checks with a lot of different watermarks. As for right now, where I am as a freelancer, I don’t know. It’s always hard to say where you stand. After everything that happened I never thought I’d get a chance to freelance anywhere, ever again. But since the scandal I’ve been in the Post and the Times and New York and the Daily Beast and a bunch of others. Ultimately it all comes down to the individual editor. The NYT politics guy doesn’t bother to reject my pitches anymore, but honestly I’m just grateful that for awhile he did. It’s a funny thing; I still get editors who are very apologetic when I pitch and they aren’t interested. I’ve been doing this a decade and a half! I promise, for all of my issues, I am a pro at this. I can handle rejection. You don’t have to worry that I’ll have a crisis of confidence. I’ve done as much as I ever really wanted to do in this field and I’m pretty content.
(Would I like to get that last missing merit badge and get in the New Yorker? Sure. It’ll never happen.)
The trouble isn’t really where I can get published and where I can’t. The trouble is that nothing surfaces. For anybody. I keep wondering if I should write about my blues over the state of this kind of writing. I have already suggested some of this recently. You have traditionally had your heavy-hitting publications like the NYT and New Yorker and Atlantic and WaPo and so on. Then you have various tiers of publication below them in terms of both readership and financial opportunity, which are not at all the same thing. You can debate who was on top of who, in that hierarchy, but honestly, who gives a shit. The point is that there were aspirational levels of success in writing short-form argumentative nonfiction, and the desired rewards were eyeballs, money, and peer esteem. These incentives did not line up very well with actual quality of writing, but that’s true of almost any industry. Anyway: what’s essential to understand is that people knew that not everywhere could have the reach of the NYT, that not everywhere could reliably produce a giant audience. But there was the potential for pieces, even pieces in entirely obscure publications, to surface. Pieces that didn’t emerge from highfalutin publications or from popular writers could find their way out of the cacophony of the internet and become the topic of widespread conversation. Someone quietly working on a niche Wordpress.org blog could make the right argument at the right time and see their name crisscross the internet. And I just don’t see that happening anywhere right now.
Yes, I know, this is hypocritical after a decade-plus of complaining about Media Twitter, but - Media Twitter could surface a piece. Oftentimes they surfaced a piece to mock it inappropriately or praise it unjustifiably or get mad about it baselessly. But Media Twitter could take a piece from a semi-professional literary review site that had a regular audience numbering in the hundreds and, for a day or two, make it something everybody wanted to talk about. Now, Media Twitter seems incapable of performing that function, largely owing to structural changes to the service’s algorithm and the weird blue check inversion. (Which, I admit, I find very amusing, despite what a worthless person Elon Musk is.) What all of this means is that I simply don’t know where to discover cool, provocative pieces of writing from truly random places and people. Of course there’s always been truly great pieces and writers that don’t get the audience they deserve. But you’d like there to be some chance that a lonely, talented voice gets elevated and becomes the center of attention for the day. I don’t think that exists right now. Instead, we’ve got The New York Times, which is far from the only big publication out there but is the only one that has a very particular kind of eyeball gravity. I wrote in that earlier piece that places like n+1 have always been farm leagues for the NYT, at least for a lot of the writers. Those writers of course knew that not everyone could end up at the same paper. But they also knew that there was a chance to break out in other ways. I don’t know what the mechanism is, now. I really don’t.
I’m sure the assumption is that I’m talking about myself. I’m not, really. I have too much baggage to trust that something I wrote could be shared in that way, and I’ve been doing this too long, and unlike a lot of writers, I don’t need to be surfaced that way to survive. I got the stamps in my passport already. That’s why I want someone else to write the story I’m trying to assign, here, about surfacing good work - because it needs to be told, and no one would listen if I was the one saying it.
That said, am I frustrated that I can’t reach a larger audience? Yeah. Yeah, I am. I’m very, very grateful for the audience I have, and it’s always been the case that I’m primarily motivated by the desire to simply produce good work. But it’s also clear that my position here is a very fortunate, very privileged, very lovely gilded cage. Because nothing I write breaks out past my dedicated audience, unless I write a very specific kind of critique of identity politics, which appeals to the same group of dissident leftists, centrists, and conservatives, and which everyone is very bored with now. I think this is partly a matter of me, and the little jail I have been busily constructing for myself for fifteen years with my attitude, my behavior, and my obsessions; partly a function of newsletters and their nature; partly a function of Twitter throttling links to Substack; partly a world of professional writing where there are fewer healthy venues but more aspirants all the time. For whatever reason, though, I am extremely fortunate, read by a large audience by any rational measure, very well paid, and trapped. I know pieces like this or this are as good as anything that’s being published right now. But I know this business well enough to know that doesn’t matter.
Which is why it’s no real secret that I’d like to get to a place where I could just write books. That’s likely a very distant dream, though. I am aware that it’s probably very unwise, in a subscription-based industry, to tell your readers that you’re looking to do something else, but I try to be frank here. Can I get to a place where I just write books? Probably not? My first book, The Cult of Smart, is something I’m very proud of. I do wish I had stuck to my guns and made them keep more of the science in there, given the complaints I got about it, but St. Martin’s treated me very well in general. Someone once asked me why I would write a book that was so easy to misrepresent, right after everything that had happened, and I told him that I saw that as the whole point - I had nothing to lose, which resulted in a book that flies freely on its own ideas. It didn’t sell a lick, though. It was released under difficult circumstances; my reputation was in tatters and I had no platform to promote the book, the publisher at St. Martin’s who bought it left the company within a few months of its sale, and the pandemic prevented me from doing even a single in-person promotional event. (Never doing a single reading or book talk really, really hurt.) Now, my second book is coming out, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement. I’m really proud of it, and Simon & Schuster really seems to be throwing all of its muscle behind it. I think it can definitely sell. (Especially if you preorder now!) If it doesn’t, then I’m a two-time loser, and while I’ll probably still get to write books, they won’t be for the same kind of money, the liberatory kind. I get it - this is a first-world problem. Please, on this birthday, permit me to dream.
And, of course, like all nonfiction writers I’m also a frustrated fiction writer. But the political constraints on who gets to publish fiction are much tighter, and of course there’s the little matter that I might not be any good.
Well: I do think I’m pretty good at the type of writing I usually do. And that’s where I want to leave you, on this anniversary. I am a longstanding advocate for the positive value of pretension. I’ve also said many times that it’s profoundly unhealthy that professional writer culture is so often inimical to frank discussion of craft. There’s a real allergy to professional writers speaking openly and unapologetically about their work, about their pride in it and their dedication to doing it well. My great privilege isn’t just that I get to be a professional writer who does nothing else than write and maintain a comfortable life. It’s that I know the one thing that I care the most about and get to do it every day, and that I have done enough work in the salt mines to know good from bad and to be unafraid to call my own good. For me the action is the juice. I read and I write, and that’s it. I have no other interests. I love my partner and my family and my cat, I enjoy music and the outdoors, and then I have reading and writing, which are the only hobbies, vocation, and talent I’ve ever really had. It’s been my great blessing to get to do this, and for all of you I’m immensely grateful. Maybe tomorrow or in a month or a year or two, I won’t get to read and write for a living anymore, and I will survive. Today I do. My knives are sharp, and my instrument under my control. That’s all that matters. Thanks for fifteen years.