The 7 Secrets of the Prolific

By Polly Cleveland

If you’re like me, you always wanted to be a writer—but obligations came first: family, friends, bosses, students, bills, good causes. Recently, I grumbled about my lack of productivity to my editor Chris Sturr at Dollars & Sense magazine. He sent me The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block by Hillary Rettig.

Wow! Hillary, where were you when I needed you 50 years ago! My mom taught us to finish our dinners, clear and wash the dishes, and only then eat dessert if there was time and we were still hungry. Writing was like dessert, sweet but rare. And hard to justify unless obligatory—I did indeed belatedly finish my Ph.D. dissertation on wealth inequality by going to my ex’s office at 4am every day for a year to use the $40,000 Raytheon word-processor! That was back in 1980.

Since then, I’ve spent my life obligated. First my ex-husband’s health and beauty aid business—largest product, Ezo denture cushions to stick in your false teeth, followed by Zip Wax to peel the hair from your legs. Then my present husband’s two tiny apartment buildings just off Central Park West, where we both lived and offered “luxury furnished rentals.” (Some of our tenants were famous actors or actresses in town for a Broadway gig.) Both of the two businesses took me into fascinating and challenging new worlds, but seemed to leave little time for much else besides family. After my husband and I mercifully sold the buildings in 2009, I should have been liberated to write almost full time, no excuses!

I had in fact set up my own website, www.mcleveland.org, in 1996. And in 2005, I added my occasional WordPress blog, Econamici, mostly on economic issues. (I spent five weeks in Bologna, Italy, that year, studying economic cooperatives hence the name.) I’m deeply grateful that the editors at Dollars & Sense not only republished many of my blog posts, but made them better. But still…

Hillary Rettig has my number, and maybe yours too. It’s not just the obligations, but the distractions—I really don’t need to read about the latest Trump outrage. And the perfectionism—I teach a course at Columbia every fall; I love my students, but I don’t need to turn one course into a full time job. I don’t need to fix my husband’s computer problems three times a day either. (Have you tried rebooting yet?) And speaking of perfectionism creating writer’s block, 37 years ago I wrote a 450-page dissertation, and I’m still talking about turning it into a book on inequality! Hillary’s site provides a time schedule, which I downloaded and followed for three weeks—sort of. Yes, I really can make good time to write. (Until the router fried, sending me to Best Buy for a replacement, and a day tinkering with wires—another distraction?) I’ve started spending Thursdays working on my laptop in the Columbia Law Library, which has the comfiest chairs. I get more done there than at home, despite losing an hour traveling. Maybe I should spend two days!

Thanks, Hillary for the toughest  advice of all: come out of the closet as a serious writer! Advertise! That means not only writing regularly, but publishing—even if only on my own website! So I have just uploaded to “Working Papers” on my website over a dozen of my orphan children—good articles still looking for homes. Check out one of my best, Obama Does Havana: Observations on Cuban-U.S. History and Prospects During Obama’s Visit in March 2016.

Finally, being a serious writer means regularly reaching out to you, dear readers, for comments, advice, and even rejections. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

By Polly Cleveland

When I was a teenage bookworm, and later a student at Harvard and Berkeley, I looked down on what my dad called “The Great Unwashed”. By this unfortunate Victorian term, he meant the ignorant, the prejudiced, the parochial and especially the hyper-patriotic politicians who made his life difficult as a Foreign Service officer. So it would still be easy for me today to look down on members of the American right, especially the Tea Party supporters of Donald Trump.

Arlie Hochschild, a retired sociology professor at U.C. Berkeley, has spent five years interviewing and becoming friends with Tea Party supporters in Louisiana. As she puts it, she has been trying to climb over the “empathy wall,” to “turn off the alarm bells”, in order to understand how her friends view the world. Her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land, should be essential reading for Democratic politicians from Hillary on down, as well as for elite snobs like me. She has also written a revealing article for the September issue of Mother Jones.

Hochschild addresses what she calls the Great Paradox: why would the residents of “cancer alley” one of the most polluted places in the United States—nonetheless oppose environmental regulations? Her friends are well aware of the pollution and many have suffered personally in health and destruction of their beloved neighborhoods. Yet other concerns seem to take priority. First, there’s a loathing of government, federal government especially. Government takes their taxes and does nothing for them. The government of Louisiana is captive to the oil companies. Since the oil companies at least provide good (though few) jobs, they blame government instead. Another concern is honor and respect. All their lives, Hochschild’s friends have worked hard, gone to church, and helped their neighbors. They deeply resent the coastal elites who say they “cling to guns or religion”, or call them rednecks, racists, bigots, sexists, xenophobes and now “deplorables.”

Hochschild describes what she finds to be the “deep story” of the right:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

What makes this deep story ring true? Hochschild asks. Her friends are older, white middle class—more than half of Tea Party supporters earn at least $50,000. But their position is precarious. All around them they see people falling into poverty, despair, and worst of all, dependence on government handouts. So while the liberal media sneers, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and now Donald Trump hear and validate the deep story. That’s why a woman friend of Hochschild’s can say of Trump, “He’s a jerk, but I like some of what he says.”

At a recent book-signing in New York, Hochschild told us she invites Hillary to come meet her friends in Louisiana. When we learn to listen, even if we don’t agree, we will find areas in common. Notably, her friends support reducing pollution and getting money out of politics.

Taking a broader perspective, I can’t help noticing how the deep story of waiting in line resembles the zero-sum mentality of very unequal, low-mobility societies. The British Equality Trust has developed an index relating inequality to social and health problems. Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are way up there on the scale of both. The emphasis on honor and respect also fits the pattern. If there’s little mobility, one’s position in the hierarchy becomes very important. Think of gang-infested poor neighborhoods, where one can get killed for “disrespecting,” or where a kid who does well in school is teased and harassed. Think also of India, where the caste system remains intractable in many regions, and Pakistan where it’s acceptable to kill a daughter who destroys the family honor by marrying without permission.

My brother is a Republican, though not a Tea Partier. He can deluge me with facts supporting his positions. It’s excruciatingly difficult to “turn off the alarm bells” and listen for feelings and points of agreement. Arlie Hochschild has motivated me to try harder. She reminds all of us that, regardless of disagreements, we still owe Tea Party supporters our full respect, readiness to listen, and willingness to work together where we can.