Six or seven years ago, I threw in the towel on academic publishing. The precipitating event was a ridiculous argument I had with an editor over an article I had been invited to write that I ended up withdrawing from consideration. This debacle happened to coincide with equally ridiculous developments in my home department. It wasn’t a particularly well thought out decision. I was tired of all the emptiness and I needed to head in a different direction if I was going to keep on writing at all.
What I didn’t realize at the time I made this decision was that I was also tired of me—the author-function me, the me who thought X, argued X, wrote about X, could be counted on to say X. If I found the academic arguments I got predictably pulled into boring, I had to admit it was because I already knew what I was going to say and what the critique of what I was going to say was. I didn’t want to give up writing, but I also didn’t want to keep on writing the same thing, making the same argument, pounding my head against the same wall. Moving to writing exclusively for the screen solved this problem for me, but not in the ways I had expected.
I wanted to move beyond what I can now call the paper-based world, its institutions, its commonplaces, and to see what writing full-time in the screen-centric world entailed. When I would speak about this decision publicly, invariably someone would say, “Fine for you—with the luxury of tenure. But what about for everyone else?” And, like that, the conversation would move back into its familiar ruts. For me, this wasn’t a question of getting published or going on a busman’s holiday; it was a question of survival. I had always written about issues that were vitally important to me—trendiness or tenure be damned. And then I found myself feeling that none of it mattered very much. If you’re just publishing so as not to perish, my feeling was you’d been conned into sacrificing what is most important about having a job with writing at its center: the opportunity to think new thoughts.
I knew nothing about how to begin writing online: how to get a web address; how to get a hosting service (or what that service did); how to code in html (or whether that was even necessary); or pretty much anything else about the technical side of writing in and for the screen-centric world. I figured, though, that these things had to be learnable. After all, by the time I was entering the game, there were already a gazillion websites in existence, a fact that suggested to me that the learning curve couldn’t be that steep.
I stumbled along, starting a Google blog with the address critical_optimist. Back then, though, a Google blog couldn’t accommodate more than text and images and all the blogs looked pretty much the same on the screen, so I graduated to getting my own address and committed myself to learning how to think outside the template. As I was coming to understand it, as I sat at the keyboard, I didn’t just have the alphabet to compose with anymore; I had everything that was available on the web: music, videos, interviews, lectures, libraries around the world, image banks, maps. It was more like sitting at a giant pipe organ than at a typewriter; and more like producing an illuminated manuscript than typing out my thoughts as they made their way into language.
It turned out, though, that for me the most momentous part of changing venues really had nothing to do with the shift from paper to screen; it had to do with assuming a new writing personae, an option that had been available all along in the paper-centered world. In my previous writing life, I was Richard E. Miller; in my new writing life, I was text2cloud. Putting some distance between myself and my history, text2cloud became a way for me to think new thoughts, to try on new sentences, to call on a different vocabulary, to explore a world of concerns that fell outside the frame of my other writing life. And text2cloud gave rise to Professor Pawn, the central figure in a graphic narrative I composed about the absurdities of working in a world where the university had become an afterthought of the athletic program. The pseudonyms proliferated: Hieronymous Paunch, a big data humanist and founder of Sadness Studies; and most recently, the anonymous voice for the Tales of the White Knight, a Facebook page diary about the three presidential debates that ended up being a mashup of Don Quixote, King Arthur, King Lear, Monty Python, and the Marx Brothers.
Somewhere along the line, the liberating effect of writing pseudonymously also led to writing a book, with Ann Jurecic, on how to make creativity a habit. In that book, there’s a collaborative pseudonym that made it possible for us both to re-think our futures as teachers of writing: “we” became a way of allowing the sentences’ authors to write not as a unified, coherent entity, but as dialogic energy, animated by the desire to get beyond the template, the formula, the step-by-step approach to making sense of the world.
Currently, I’m rerouting the screen-centered writing I did as text2cloud on the end of privacy to a text-only manuscript that I hope to get into print. And I see myself returning to the classroom after my sabbatical is over with an open invitation to students to write under a pseudonym, one that allows them to escape, for a moment, writing and thinking as they always have, writing as if—as if they could be passionate about ideas without embarrassment; as if they could follow their thoughts wherever they might lead, instead of guiding them ever safely back home; as if their very lives depended on it.