An Achievement with a Recognizable Shape
When I finished my dissertation, I achieved two successes: I earned a Ph.D., and I created a text that—in its shape and proportions—bore an unmistakable resemblance to the Goodyear Blimp.
Written fast to deliver on a promise that I had made to secure my first job, my dissertation was nearly 400 hundred pages long. After the dissertation was accepted, I wrote three more chapters, bringing this academic affront against brevity to 600 pages.
When it emerged from a rigorous treatment program as a published book, Desert Passages was one-third of the length of the dissertation. The Goodyear Blimp had downsized, receiving a liberation from rotundity.
Every writer has encountered this paradox: if you write very fast, the text that emerges will be proportionately bulky.
If you are not in a rush, you can distinguish between what you need to say and what you do not need to say. Even if some of your choices need to be reconsidered, you have time to reconsider, revise, and abbreviate.
Not long after my dissertation had acquired its resemblance to the Goodyear Blimp, I was recruited to write columns for USA Today. Brevity then drove wordiness into exile. Compared to the Blimp, my columns were light, agile, balsa-wood constructions that sat lightly on the earth, ready to lift off in a stiff breeze.
The word limit for a USA Today column was—strictly, inflexibly, non-negotiably—three-hundred-and-fifty words.
Try telling that to the author of a dissertation that was three times longer than it needed to be.
Brevity Is the Soul of What?
I once had a close friend who was certain that people lost the capacity to change very early in life. Despite earnest efforts to understand him, I could not give up my conviction that people can change in significant ways throughout their lifetimes.
As you instantly noticed, the irony here was quite deep: whatever I and my no-longer-so-close friend thought about the human capacity for change, he did not change his position, and I did not change mine. I guess that must mean that he won the argument.
Back in 1984, if that friend had hefted my Goodyear Blimp of a dissertation, and if I had then told him that I was going to start writing really short columns, my friend would have declared, very understandably and very convincingly, “That’s never going to work.”
There is no denying that I did not make an easy adjustment to this new regime.
At first, I wrote drafts that sailed way past the 350-word limit. When my efforts to make them shorter failed, I would then ask for help from my editor, Sid Hurlburt, a person who was as gracious as he was smart and capable. In one of my smarter moves in life, after Sid had gone to work, tightening and subtracting, consolidating and removing, I would not let myself compare his draft to my original. Denying myself the chance to grieve over the forced departure of really cute phrases and perfectly adorable metaphors, I was able to thank Sid and move on without even the slightest sense of injury.
Nine or ten columns into this new regime, a gear shifted in my mind. Brevity suddenly became my default operating system. My first drafts came in at fewer than 300 words, even though I felt I had said everything I needed to say. So I would then have to conjure up a remark or two that would bulk the column up to 350.
This shift toward succinctness turned out to be lasting, thanks to a stream of positive reinforcement. I felt the satisfaction that I believe is very familiar to carpenters, woodworkers, and other craftspeople. In fact, I seemed to have evolved into a creature more like a “wordworker” than like the high-strung, anxious dissertation-writer who seemed to have hoped that an excess of words would provide insulation, cushioning, or even concealment.
Even better, readers of USA Today did not consign me to the seclusion and isolation that had been the habitat of the dissertation-writer. Instead, they wrote me nice letters. An added benefit was that, next to each column, there was a little photograph. This made it possible for one flight attendant to look at me with surprise, exclaim “I love your column,” and insist on giving me a free drink. On another trip, the check-in agent made the same declaration and gave me an upgrade to first class.
Brevity delivered many rewards.
Equally important, some of what might have seemed like negative feedback came with a subtext of unintended affirmation. One CU departmental colleague, noting that I wrote for USA Today, remarked, “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” I was free to interpret comments like this as I wanted, so I took them to be sincere expressions of envy.
So there’s the upshot: my training run with Sid Hurlburt and USA Today did me a world of good, cultivating many of the skills that I have relied on in my adventures as a public intellectual.
Some readers of “Not my First Rodeo,” who have never seen anything like the compactness of my USA Today columns, may be surprised to learn that I was once such a high achiever in the practice of brevity. To glimpse the interplay between consistency and inconsistency in human behavior, those readers might want to look at the Denver Post on the third Sunday of every month, where I regularly re-stake my claim on brevity in my column in the “Perspectives” section. Though I am far more tractable and compliant than I was when Sid Hurlburt was assigned to convert me to brevity, the Post’s Megan Schrader has succeeded him as my very capable coach and trainer. For nearly ten years with the Post, I have stayed within the limit of 550 words, even if there have been a few episodes when Megan has taken me off the leash and let me run wild at 1100 words.
If Shakespeare was right, and “brevity is the soul of wit” (a principle that Shakespeare himself seems to have doubted from time to time), then the strict word-limit of column-writing has given me a much bigger arena in which wit can stretch its soul.
The Recent Response to Beseeching
Two weeks ago, in anticipation of the one-year anniversary of the launching of “Not my First Rodeo,” I beseeched readers to tell me if they wanted this blog to continue. If they felt it had served its time, then I beseeched them to tell me what they thought the Center of the American West should do with the energy and time that “Rodeo” had absorbed.
The majority of people who responded to my request said, “Keep it going.” I am grateful to everyone who wrote, though given my failures at time management, it will be a while before any of them hear that from me directly. When several people said that “Not my First Rodeo” had been a lifeline during the pandemic, I felt a more intense sensation of connection than I had felt over my many years of in-person public speaking, where my sensations of connection had been very intense indeed.
A few folks did converge on the conclusion that it was time to bring the “Rodeo” to a close. Surprisingly, only two or three people complained about the lengths of the posts.
Perhaps most surprisingly, none of the complaints about the length of “Not my First Rodeo” posts bore my signature.
But, really, whose reasons for making this complaint could carry more weight than my own?
Here is what I know with an immediacy and intensity that no one else shares: writing the extensive and expansive “Rodeo” posts takes a lot of time.
And yet the experience has—nearly always—delivered a strong dose of enjoyment. Reliably and regularly, finishing an essay always left me with me with the feeling summed up by the phrase, “feeling higher than a kite.”
Or higher than a dirigible or a light, agile, balsa-wood construction.
Nonetheless, here is what would be the basis of my complaint, lodged fervently against myself: while I have been working away on “Rodeo” posts, a bunch of valuable Center-generated findings have continued to languish in seldom-consulted files, while a significant number of opportunities to write forewords or prefaces or introductions, to celebrate the work of young historians, have been postponed way past their deadlines.
Whither the “Rodeo”?
And that brings us to my vision for “Rodeo’s” second year.
For reasons that were compelling and even inarguable during the pandemic, meeting the deadlines for “Not my First Rodeo” became my priority. But keeping up with the “Rodeo” posts stood in the way of my hopes and desires to help out in a number of good causes.
What to do?
I can redirect, repurpose, and reorient “Not my First Rodeo” in its second year so it will serve—and not obstruct—those good causes.
“Rodeo” posts will continue to appear every week. But they will vary—wildly—in length. Some of the posts in the future will be as short as my Denver Post columns, and some may even be as short as my old USA Today columns. In fact, since some of those columns still seem weirdly relevant in 2021, it is possible that I will be tempted to freshen up one or two of those relics and send them back for Round Two of public exposure. Maybe people will notice that their shelf-life expired long ago.
But don’t get complacent and assume that consistent brevity will be “Rodeo’s” new normal.
Some of the upcoming posts will revert to greater length because they will expand to accommodate my enlisting younger scholars as my co-authors. Having come into the Center’s circles through a variety of routes, particularly through the Mellon-Foundation-supported Applied History project, these young folks have chosen subjects of research that offer both intrinsic interest and potential benefit to society. “Not my First Rodeo” offers a fine venue for giving their ideas and findings a test run at engaging a wider public.
Other posts will break from brevity because I will use “Not my First Rodeo” to present the valuable insights and interpretations that emerged from earlier Center workshops and convenings. Reposing in digital files and even in old-fashioned file cabinets, the subject matter of these findings ranges from case studies in community responses to drought to the never-diminishing tensions between the Rural West and the Urban West, from the wide variety of interventions and intrusions that humans have made into the earth’s subsurface to the dilemmas faced by workers when local industries hit downturns or close entirely. All these topics are elbowing and pushing for their right to appear in the “Rodeo.” First in line is my introduction to a Center-initiated book called No Country for Old Stereotypes, a collection of illuminating and pace-setting articles from the Western Historical Quarterly and the Pacific Historical Review. In the Spring of 2020, my draft of this introduction was close to completion, but then “Not my First Rodeo” claimed my attention and a good share of my time. It is time for “Not my First Rodeo” and No Country for Old Stereotypes to quit competing with each other and, instead, to work in common cause.
From time to time, a post in “Not my First Rodeo’s” satellite blog, “Did Anyone Else Notice?” is still going to dash into the world to point out some odd feature of our lives that has come to preoccupy me. Since my ambitions and intentions for “Did Anyone Else Notice?” are usually inconsequential, posts for this blog are easy to write. Allotting just enough time to rethink and revise, the time between the appearance of the idea and the completion of the piece is joyfully brief.
Every now and then, “Rodeo” posts will defy brevity purely because I want to tell a tale that didn’t find a place in the first year of “Not my First Rodeo.” So you should brace yourself for the tale of my adventures as a (mostly responsible) sixteen-year-old, lucky enough to wander around Haight-Ashbury during San Francisco’s Summer of Love (this visit was brought to an abrupt halt by a misunderstanding arising from too many people in a shower, though it is important to clarify that they were showering sequentially, not simultaneously). I also feel that I owe the world a recounting of the improbable way that I escaped the corrals of specialization and ended up as the author of respected publications on subjects as disparate as the policies of space exploration, the transformation of Western landscape photography, the confounded state of nuclear waste storage, and the configurations and undertones of Western American poetry. And then there’s the yet-to-be-told story of how an excellent and forceful friend from my hometown (yes, Banning, California) relocated to Idaho, and thereby set in motion a chain of events that led directly to my professional success, to the revitalization of Western American history, and to the creation of the Center of the American West.
Is This Going to Work?
Maybe, or Maybe Not
When I reviewed the columns that I wrote for USA Today, I had a revelation. When I looked at the dates of my column-writing, I thought, “I don’t see how this could have been possible.” My first years of writing those columns coincided with the years when I was writing the book, Legacy of Conquest. Unlike my dissertation, Legacy was not exactly modeled on the Goodyear Blimp, but that book was certainly not characterized by brevity.
Until now, I had never fully realized that brevity and abundance have, more often than not, coexisted in my writing life. In the mid-1980s, I was working steadily away on a book that turned out fine. And yet, every few days, I stepped away from that exercise in persistence and wrote a short USA Today column that moved briskly into nationally visible print, leaving me free to return to writing the book.
Putting the Center’s slogan, “Turning hindsight into foresight,” to the test, I am going to try to orchestrate the workings of “Not my First Rodeo” to reenact the era when I wrote texts that covered the range from brevity to abundance. The goal of this reenactment will be to harvest the riches of stories, case studies, and parables that have been awaiting liberation from storage.
Will this work?
I wouldn’t bet on it. Then again, I wouldn’t bet against it.
I return now to reminiscing about that one-time close friend who was convinced that, early in their lives, people became unable to change their characters, temperaments, practices, customs, and habits. After many hours spent listening to him, and after even more hours spent writing “Rodeo” posts that fell into a pattern that I stuck with for a year, I still believe that people can change in significant ways throughout their lifetimes.
Let’s see if I am right.
Thank you for reading “Not my First Rodeo” during its first year, and for sticking with it—and me—into our future.
A Memorable Radio Ad, Tailored for this Occasion
When I lived in New Haven and listened to radio stations in New York City, I often heard an ad for a menswear store. With glorious New York inflection, an announcer earnestly informed listeners, presumably of a wide range of shapes and proportions, that Gramercy Park Tailors sold men’s suits in four sizes: “small, medium, large, and portly.”
At one time or another, my written work has fit into every one of those sizes, sometimes shifting among all four of them, one after the other, on the very same day.
Why quarrel with success?
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