A Whole Other Country

Kerry, Winston and I are moving to Texas!

This Summer/Fall, I’ll start work on an MFA in creative writing at the University of Houston, specializing in fiction. I couldn’t be more excited. For my money, Houston’s prose faculty is as good as it gets: Antonya Nelson, Robert Boswell, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Alexander ParsonsMat JohnsonNick Flynn. ZZ Packer will be visiting this Fall. (James Franco is definitely not coming, though.) And Houston’s a huge, diverse city with cool neighborhoods, good food of all sorts, and an amazing array of cultural offerings. Yet the rent is in not too damn high. Iowa City’s been great, but we’re ready to get back to the many amenities of bigness. Also, Kerry has a really bad time with cold, and it’s hard to find a place less cold than Houston. And there is a giant dog park named after a presidential pooch! Houston is exactly what we need right now. It’s perfect.

Some of you will ask: Why? Because I want to write novels. Some of you will ask: Why not just write a novel then? (My colleague Jon Fasman does it!) Well, why don’t people who want to be economists or philosophers just go and write economics papers or philosophy books? Seriously… because I’m not satisfied with a life devoted primarily to politics and punditry, and it’s not so easy to pivot, just like that, to a life of literature and art. I could definitely use some instruction and, more importantly, a good chunk of time to write literary things immersed in a community of literary writers. The MFA did the trick for Kerry, and I think it’ll do the trick for me, too. That said, I’m not giving up on politics and punditry altogether. Grad students don’t exactly live like royalty, so I plan to keep up the pro-blogging and write the occasional op-ed or review. I’ll do less of it, though, and less of it will be about politics. In a year or two, I may disappear altogether, into fiction.

I think the most important thing I took away from all that time with my nose in happiness research and behavioral econ is that we overestimate the value of what we already have and so underestimate the upside of taking a chance, leaving something behind, and making a big change. Most of us end up where we are through a sort of drift. Sometimes that works out splendidly. And drift hasn’t not worked out for me. I really like what I do. But, alas, I don’t really love it. I never wanted to be a pundit or a “public intellectual.” I always wanted to be an artist of some sort and I still want that. I want to make awesome shit people love. It’s my new motto: make awesome shit people love. So here we go!

57 thoughts on “A Whole Other Country”

  1. Thanks, Eric! Don’t worry, I don’t plan to stop blogging for The Economist or Big Think any time soon.

  2. Congratulations on plunging ahead into a new life! It’s always exciting to hear of people who have done it and gained immensely.

    I’m always fascinated by people who can do more than one kind of writing well, like novel writing and screen writing, which Richard Russo does. (Too bad he’s not still teaching.) I’ll be interested to see both your fiction (unless you use a pen name, in which case I’ll be disappointed) and your blog posts about what you’re learning about writing it.

    Good luck, Will!

  3. Will, I”ve enjoyed reading your work for many years. After growing up in Iowa City, I made the move to Houston 40 years ago and it remains one of the best decisions that I’ve made in my life. I’m quite involved at UH and have many friends there, so feel free to call on me if you need any introductions. And, of course, please call on me if I can be of any assistance as you make your move. In the meantime, I pass along my awesome Houston places Google map for your and Kerry’s enjoyment!: http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=200109063025048957057.0004816102a8c30f930fa&msa=0&ll=29.747686,-95.145378&spn=0.421185,0.7481

  4. Good luck! I’ve been reading you for a long, long time (though rarely comment) and you’ve made me enjoy topics I wouldn’t have thought I’d find interesting because of your good writing. I think you’ll make a great transition into fiction.

  5. I imagine you don’t like me much, but I’m going to ask a favor of you anyway. Being that this is the Internet, some people will talk shit about you getting an MFA. If that happens, please tell them “Freddie deBoer says fuck you.” Exactly like that: “Freddie deBoer says fuck you. Will you do that for me?

    Texas is pretty rad, too.

      1. Or about MFAs. People LOVE blasting the MFA crowd. Sometimes it’s people who already have MFAs. But yeah. People will talk shit.

  6. Saw your announcement because a Facebook friend commented on it. I am trying to learn to write a novel on my own, and daydreaming about an MFA in my future. Just wanted to say I loved what you said about drifting (the story of my life), and underestimating the upside of taking a big chance, and your new motto will go into my journal as the quote of today. I also want to make awesome shit people love. Good luck in Houston.

  7. Will,

    Houston is a magnificent city…fabulous food…tremendous entrepreneurial culture… best race-relations in the entire country. It is rare that my black wife (from Houston) and I go anywhere and aren’t noticed by most (for being a mixed race couple in a backwards-standard gender mix). We’ve never been someplace better for race issues. On the down-side, the weather is atrocious for the (7) summer months, and it’s, if anything, less interesting, and certainly less green scenery than I’ve found in my drives across Iowa.

    Best of luck.

  8. Best of luck Will. May your fiction be as brilliant as your political commentary. I look forward to reading it.

  9. Okay, well you just go ahead and go to University and write long form prose, and I’ll stick to reading tweets. We’ll just see who manages to write a book first.

  10. Houston welcomes you. Let me just add a quick thing: people may casually recommend Goode Co. barbecue. Don’t trust these people, on matters culinary and perhaps moral, and consider de-friending them virtually and IRL tout de suite. Only kind of joking.

  11. Such things are easy to do when you don’t have children… and sorry dogs don’t count as children. Good luck!

  12. I am very happy to hear you are coming to Texas! My sole advice is to keep that beautiful dog hydrated. It is insanely hot at times, and especially hard on the pups.

  13. Will, would you mind linking or recommending by name some of your favorites of the happiness research/behavioral economics that influenced your decision?

  14. Heyo Will,
    I’ve lived in Houston for a while, and I grew up south of here. Part of the fun of moving is discovering what the new place has to offer. Here’s a couple of rec’s 🙂 Houston is very good for Mediterranean food. I can think of 4 places that are really good offhand, but Fadi’s is my favorite – it’s way out west on Westheimer. My other restaurant rec is Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen. I go to the one near Fadi’s, but they have a few locations now. Also, when the weather’s good, I love the tea garden in Herman Park. It’s a great place to walk and think. Hope you enjoy it here 🙂

  15. For you this may become like learning a new language.

    If in fiction, the new language will extend imagination, perhaps to places you have never been (and may decide not to visit again). If in a cle, to reorder some understanding.

    But, you are right to learn something of the language before you try to speak with it, regardless of your objectives.

  16. Will;
    Welcome to Houston. I’ve lived here (off and on) for around 17 years now. It is a diverse and livable city–some of the friendliest and most interesting people I’ve met. Don’t know if you’ve settled on where to live yet, but allow me to put in a plug for the Museum District (http://houstonmuseumdistrict.org/). We have a diverse set of major and minor museums here, plus Hermann Park, access to the rail line, the med center and Rice University–the UH campus is only a few miles away. Best of luck to you in your new endeavor.

  17. I am the poster boy for drift, and now I am pushing 60 and wondering how I got here. It’s not so bad, but I do think it could have been better had I had a bit more courage earlier in life. Good luck and I hope to be reading some of your new awesome shit soon.

  18. One serious question and one not so serious question.

    1. I wonder about how you are financing this and how that impacted your decision. As an academic, I’ve become mindful of the higher ed. bubble debate — whether what you get is worth what you pay for. If $ isn’t an issue (though family wealth or scholarships) that certainly factors into the equation.

    2. Will you be writing comic books?

  19. Good for you. Always thought you were too good a stylist to be stuck in the political commentary ghetto, though I had no idea that fiction was the deeper ambition. I figured you more as destined for long-form political journalism and really good, intellectually rich but accessibly written books about history and politics. Anyway, brave choice. I got my MFA and have never regretted it (though the debt hurts – hopefully you have a good deal at the University of Houston). Life doesn’t get much better than spending a few years writing, hanging out with other writers. It’s probably not something you should do for more than two or three years, but those two or three years are pretty awesome.

  20. “Why not just write a novel then? (My colleague John Fasman does it!) Well, why don’t people who want to be economists or philosophers just go and write economics papers or philosophy books?”
    I’m going to be pedantic and say far more people “just do it” when it comes to writing novels than economics. People can tell whether a novel is good just by reading it, an economist typically has to jump through some hoops to demonstrate impressiveness before people give credence to their work. But you did give an explanation for why you in particular are going to school.

  21. Congratulations Will! While I didn’t do an MFA, I did get my degree in Creative Writing when I was at Stanford, and it really makes a difference to be in a supportive community with similar interests. Best of luck.

  22. Best of luck, the creative arts as a profession seems to be an interesting mix of despair and elation.

    Generally speaking though, Texas can have a lot of upsides, hope you guys are happy there.

  23. As someone who made a similar decision to shift my focus toward making awesome shit people love, let me say congratulations. It worked out for me, and hopefully it will for you. One unexpected benefit of the shift was that, suddenly, politics didn’t seem to matter so damn much. I mean, I always knew that I shouldn’t take politics too seriously, but it’s hard not to when your political opinions are closely connected to your livelihood. Now that my income mostly comes from MASPL, I find it a lot of easier to take a deep breath and let it pass when political issues come up.

    As a former resident of Houston (went to middle and high school there, parents still live there), I’m not sure I would have recommended it. It’s pleasant and livable enough, but compared to other places I’ve lived — D.C., NYC, and LA — it doesn’t quite measure up in the excitement department. But compared to Iowa, I’m guessing you’ll like it just fine.

  24. As someone who’s lived in Houston until law school, welcome! I will miss your blogging, but now I can look forward to some great art.

  25. Well hell, how about that.

    I’ve followed your writings at various places for years now… and now you’re coming to the university i’m at. Best of luck to you!

    If I see you i’ll say hi.

  26. Can’t wait to read your fiction. I’ll read it for the same reason I’d watch a Wes Anderson sitcom, or read a Lewis Black comic book, or check out a David Simon-produced techno-thriller. The mind, the sensibility, the voice. It’ll be exciting to see what you produce when you engage with a new medium. All the best.

  27. ” In a year or two, I may disappear altogether, into fiction.”

    Wait, I thought you were already a libertarian?

    1. The amusing thing is watching liberals (or conservatives) tell themselves that there’s nothing _they’re_ self-deluded about.

  28. Will, have thoroughly enjoyed reading you online these last few years. Will miss your regular commentary, but eagerly await your fiction. Best to you in your new adventure.

  29. Congratulations. It’s inspiring to see you make the leap. You are right that great things usually happen when one takes a chance. So few have the guts to do it, making it all the more appealing and rewarding for those who do. I’ve been impressed and at times intimidated by your writing, so I’m sad to hear that there will be less of it for a time. I am curious to see one day how it translates into fiction. Best of luck.

  30. Don’t worry Will, you’ve been writing fiction for years. This is more like changing addresses in the same country.

  31. You’ve always had one of the best prose styles in the blogosphere. (I say this as a poet.) You should write a book.

  32. I hope your fiction is better than your politics and punditry, and frankly I don’t see how it could NOT be. Congratulations!

  33. Houston sucks balls, numbers(tranny/goth club) is pretty cool and close to montrose. But houston still sucks balls, grew up there and did i mention it sucks balls? Affordable though so that’s a plus i guess.

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