What is this thing?

A Saturday Letter features a weekly essay by me and/or an interview with a writer loosely structured around the question “How do you finish a book?”

“Seb’s newsletter is usually good.” — Rusty Foster, of Today in Tabs

It’s a question I’ve wrestled with off and on for some years as I would approach — and then quickly scurry away from — a book project (about which more below). I find talking to writers about the challenges they face when they face the blank screen both instructive and heartening. This project is both an excuse to continue those talks and an attempt to maybe help — or at least intrigue and entertain — others.

Who am I?

I am a writer and teacher. Specifically, I’m a Teaching Professor in the English Department at Northeastern University in Boston. At present I also direct the Writing Minor.

“Oh, look at this idiot, what’s this idiot gonna do next? He’s such an idiot.” — Tom Scharpling.1

I have written reviews and essays for many outlets, among these are The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic, as well as The Georgia Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and VQR Online. My essays have twice been listed as notables in Best American Essays (that’s in the back of the book) and in Best American Sportswriting.

So what’s this book project that causes you so much agita, anyway?

In 1997, I left my 400-person rural Missouri farming community (graduating high school class of 39) to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where I flourished until I didn’t. As a junior, I got six Fs (for various reasons we need not go into here), and was invited to leave.

I didn’t.

I spent two years pretending I was still a student, then faked my commencement and — almost by accident — got away with it. I spent three years more at small-town newspaper jobs. At some point, I decided to finish my degree at the Harvard Extension School, went on to graduate school, and became a professor.

That’s the story. Along the way, the book is about the meritocracy — the way we like to think it works, the way it actually works, and the distance between them. The book is about what it means to get an education rather than a credential. And the book is about lying, the pressures that can cause someone to tell a big lie, and the soul-cauterizing effects a sustained lie can have on our lives, our relationships and ourselves.

1

Quote taken, slightly out of context, from this interview.