How did you become a writer?
My brother went into the hard sciences, so I went into philosophy. I think I didn’t want to have to compete with him. Writing is what you do as a professional philosopher. But writing well is not. I have only in the last year considered myself a writer because I got tenure and had the freedom not to be strictly a philosopher.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
My mother (I know it is trite) is a beautiful writer and an English teacher. Probably my most formidable critic too. I have learned the most from her. I taught Expository Writing at Harvard for a time so my students (both there and at UMass Lowell) actually taught me a great deal about how to make an argument in compelling ways. I hated reading growing up. I just couldn’t sit still. But when I hit grade school, I began to pick up my brother’s books from college—Victor Frankl, Dostoyevsky (I am still blown away by his shorter pieces), and Tolstoy. They seemed exotic and somehow kept my attention long enough to learn something, I think. You can learn a lot about writing from reading philosophy (not today’s for the most part): Thoreau, Emerson, and Jane Addams are some of my favorites. I have never read much contemporary fiction, but I should. I think I get some sense why David Foster Wallace is so enormously popular. I have learned something about writing personally from his Kenyon speech and the essays from Consider the Lobster. So his non-fiction, I guess.
When and where do you write?
At home, on the couch, in the hour or two that I can steal when my toddler daughter is napping. I tend not to write at night (things get muddled and I tend to get a little anxious). I used to write in the early morning. But I usually can’t rouse myself before the little one gets up at 6.00. When she grows up, I suspect I will return to writing in the three hours between 6 and 9 in the morning with a cup of coffee, piece of toast and a banana.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a collection of essays tentatively entitled “Think Again.” It is a book that came out of a conversation with a friend-philosopher about the irrelevance of today’s mainstream philosophy. We promised each other to submit an op-ed or popular essay a week for a year. We didn’t quite make that ambitious output, but we came close. A sort of experiment in public philosophy. The pieces/chapters address current issues in education, politics and culture. I guess I am really just working to find a publisher for that book. I am not really sure how to go about it since I am not keen to write another university-press book. Also, I am writing a book about drone warfare with Sarah Kreps which is due in August, but that is more standard philosophical fare.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes. One horrible bout of it. Only one. It lasted three years. I was fifteen, which might seem too young to have a real bout of writer’s block, but you would be surprised. My mother had just raked me over the coals for one of my English essays, and I just clammed up. I couldn’t work on another piece of writing for the rest of high school without her help and guidance. She sort of led through the block by making me her writing apprentice. Every time I had an assignment, she would make me write the draft first and then spend an evening with me working through the remaining problems. That companionship and tutelage made a big difference when it came to writer’s block.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Write every day. But you already know that. I guess the one piece of advice that some might miss out on is what I fondly call “creative procrastination.” When you get stuck in one piece, or arrive at a transition that you are having trouble with, find another (perhaps more bite-size) piece of writing that can give you a break from your creative problem-child. Come back to the problem after you have done something productive and let the momentum from the small project carry through the larger one. Just make sure that you come back to the larger one.
John Kaag is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He has held academic appointments at the Harvard Humanities Center, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Harvard Writing Center. He is the author of two books: Thinking Through the Imagination and Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism. In the last year he has turned his attention to more public writing, including essays in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Times Higher Education, the New Left Project, and Shambhala Sun. He lives in Boston with his partner, Carol, and daughter, Becca.