Interview With Dr. Eric Thomas Weber @erictweber

Describe your writing space. What do you like? What would you change?

Comfortable chair & good computer, first. Next, one innovation made a huge difference. Years ago I read an interview of an author who was photographed in front of his writing desk. I noticed something odd – he had a wide-screen monitor turned 90 degrees. Eureka! I thought. It’s such a pain to be writing or editing on a screen that only can show you a thin horizontal strip from the longer page. I tried out his lay out, improved by having two monitors, one vertical and one horizontal, and I was hooked. I could write on the vertical monitor where I could see the whole page and more, and I could see it in a size that’s bigger than a sheet of paper. My eyes have been so much more comfortable. I used to get headaches after a lot of writing – no more.

Having two monitors allows you to reference a PDF file or Web site on the standard orientation monitor – the horizontal one – and to do so without minimizing or moving your writing window. It’s not uncommon to have two monitors today, of course. But having two kinds of orientation is so useful, since different documents read better in different ways. Newspaper Web sites can be a dream to read on the vertical monitor, though when I’m writing and just want to quote a passage, I’ll keep the newspaper site on the horizontal monitor, prioritizing the vertical one for my word processor.

As an academic writer, the value of seeing a passage as well as its relevant footnote is just bliss. But even for general writing, when you’re looking at flow, seeing more of the page or all of it makes it so much easier to think through.
Here’s a picture, including some mess:

ETWdesk

As for what I would change, I suppose in usual circumstances (when I’m not on sabbatical), I’d mainly just wish I had more time here for writing. It’s pretty fantastic.

Who are some of the authors you particularly admire or who’ve had some influence on your own writing?

The greatest influence on my writing is a former professor of mine, who remains a friend and mentor, Professor John Lachs of Vanderbilt University. He writes with a poetic elegance that I wish I could achieve. His humor has been called irrepressible, which is right, and he is able to convey complex ideas simply, while always attending to the practical relevance of the ideas he discusses for real life. I aspire to write more like him at every occasion. For one example of a beautiful book, check out In Love with Life, a jewel of contemporary philosophy that is among the best guides for how to be happy that I’ve encountered.

Beyond Professor Lachs, John Dewey’s philosophy has had a profound impact on me, though not all of his publications are written in a style that I would emulate. Instead, Dewey inspires me with his engagements as a public intellectual. He was the consummate public philosopher, writing for all manner of magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and more. For one example well-known among Dewey scholars, check out his little gem for the popular magazine Common Sense, titled “Democracy Is Radical” (which in this scan is the republished version from his Collected Works). He delivered radio addresses and met with groups of many kinds, sharing what were some of the insights that his scholarly work implied for application to real life and policy. I aspire to be both a scholar and public writer in the way that Dewey modeled. I don’t know of any other philosopher of the twentieth century so influential that he or she made it onto a stamp. I should add that one of my books in progress is actually an edited collection of his public writings. It’s been a lot of fun to go through his works for this project.

Several scholars and public intellectuals have also been role models for me. One is Louis Menand, author of Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Metaphysical Club. Another is Michael Sandel, who has authored several impressive, accessible, and engaging works of philosophy, including Justice and What Money Can’t Buy.

In the last few months, I heard about Stephen King’s book, On Writing. Mississippi author Robin O’Bryant recommended it on her Web site. I ate it up. Believe it or not, I’ve only known King through the movies that were made of his books, at least until now. His book on writing is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read about the subject. While I’ve only really written nonfiction, he inspired me to start writing a story. A few weeks into working on it for a few hours a day and I’m nearly up to 20k words, with a strong sense of a lot more to come. It’s been a joy and I have Robin and Stephen to thank for that. It’s helpful to put down my long nonfiction projects for a break each day and to let loose telling a story. Robin was right: check out King’s book.

What is the best advice you could give an aspiring author?

Get comfortable receiving criticism. Come to want it, even, though not for doing silly stuff. Want criticism for your best efforts. If you put your work out there, it will be criticized. So, you either want to be criticized, or you don’t want to submit your work for other people’s eyes. John Lachs gave me this advice over a dozen years ago: if you can learn to take criticism well, and even to appreciate it and want it, you can go very far.

Fiction writers may have a different take on this idea – mainly that one needs a thick skin. For nonfiction writers, if you don’t see yourself as engaging in a conversation with others, you come across as arrogant and tone deaf, or worse, purely ideological. If you’re genuinely engaged in a conversation with others, respecting them means being ready to listen and learn from critics. That doesn’t mean giving up your convictions, though having one’s convictions tested is the best way to reaffirm your commitment to them.

Seeing criticism as a source of insight not only makes it easier to take criticism. It makes you want to get your ideas out there. If you’re looking for valuable feedback in what others have to say, it makes it easier – I didn’t say easy – to look past ugly or empty comments. When you search for substance in others’ criticisms, they’ll appreciate it, you’ll learn, and you’ll be ready to send your work out again soon.

List your favorite quotation or words you live by.

“The greatest punishment for those unwilling to rule is to be led by those who are worse.” From Plato’s Republic, Book I, 347c.

Thinking outside the box, if you could do/be/accomplish anything in the world, what would it be?

If I could fit it in one lifetime, I would (not in any particularly order): 1) own a set of coffee shops with performance venues which work with my music company/label, Tempest Records, and which feature book readings and signings for touring authors, as well as community and academic engagements. I would 2) continue the life of the author/teacher/scholar, working in a lovely university environment. I would also 3) spend some time working in advocacy for topics I’m passionate about, such as education, justice, accessibility, and the humanities. Connecting a few of these, I think that I would 4) eventually work in some kind of organizational role in my university and community, preferably one that continues to enable outreach efforts and advocacy. And finally, one day, if I think I could help guide public endeavors better than other people in office or running for it, I would 5) go for it and run for that office.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

For a philosopher, it might sound cliché to say it, but the answer really is Plato. You can pick up his dialogues and often feel as though you’re in the room, listening to a conversation people are having now. He wrote 2,400 years ago, yet his works are often still so fresh and lively. His work has rightly been called the cause of a first true enlightenment for humanity – not the one we capitalize. He shared with us conversations that Socrates had with real people, originating philosophy in the context of conversations held in the public sphere. His work ranged from the technical and abstract to the immensely practical and artful. Plus, he wrote in story. There’s a reason we still read and teach Plato. Actually there are many reasons.

What book are you reading now?

I just finished Stephen King’s On Writing and am now reading a work of philosophy called A Philosophy of Culture. It’s perfect for what I’m working on in my academic writing. I’m about to dive into The Poisonwood Bible too, which has been on my to-read list for longer than I’d care to admit.

What is your favorite book by another author?

When I was in my early twenties, I was blown away by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I read it at a crucial time in my life when I needed to make big decisions about my future. I also truly loved Hamlet, but Zen was more influential for me.

What books have most influenced your life?

Easy: Epictetus’ Handbook (aka the Enchiridion, great cheap paperback or free online version). Epictetus is one of the most famous stoic philosophers. When I went through the hardest time of my life, which had to do with terrible health problems for my daughter, Epictetus’s Handbook was powerful. It kept me strong and happy. Stoicism can sound like a harsh philosophy, but because of my mentor Professor Lachs’s insights, I see that it’s a vital philosophy for happiness, especially if you can balance it with an optimistic and pragmatic outlook (see Lachs’s excellent Stoic Pragmatism).

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

Carol Dweck’s work on the power of Mindset for success has been captivating.

What author support groups/activities do you participate in?

I had a great time with a writing group called Agraphia. I organized it with my colleagues, following the recommendations I found in a cute, short book called How to Write a Lot. I’m starting up again with a colleague next week, actually. It’s about getting yourself to plan your writing schedule and projects for a week or two at a time. Then, you meet and talk about your plans. The next time you meet, you say what you accomplished since your last meeting, and then commit to goals to hit by the next meeting. It’s a simple idea, but it’s also so easy not to plan. It’s so easy to push things off. The psychological power of having to set plans and tell others about them, and then to experience the uncomfortable pangs of telling people what you didn’t get done… that’s a highly motivating set of forces. I’d recommend the practice for anyone who wants to be productive.

Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.

That’s easy: my university. A lot of people like to joke: “What are you going to do with ‘Philosophy,’ teach?” Hah! The joke’s on the comedian. The life of the professor can be a dream job for writers (especially if you’re super lucky to have one of those coveted tenure-track / tenured positions). Your institution lets you have some time for writing, more or less depending on a lot of things, and also supports your travel to present your work and get feedback. It gives you an amazing library of resources, as well as a wealth of colleagues and scholars to talk to about your work and theirs. I’m truly blessed to have an incredible opportunity and support system for my writing.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Take an hour from time to time and write a letter to the editor of your newspaper. You may not think that it’ll get published, and sometimes it may not. But, you can really have an impact on people, getting them to think about things from your perspective for at least a few minutes, if not a lot more. It’s empowering, creative, and fun. Also, believe in the power of ideas to make life better. Ideas can do a lot of harm too, of course, but that’s precisely why it’s so important that we get things right. That’s why writing and reading are crucial moral imperatives of good citizenship, on top of being delightfully fun and rewarding.

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