Life Imitates Art, Imitating Life


Anyone paying close attention to this blog (if any such person exists) will notice that I haven’t posted anything for quite a while. There’s a reason for that: I seem to have turned into one of my semi-fictional characters.

Allow me to explain. For the past several years I’ve been researching and writing a novel based on the experience of a real woman who lived in Baltimore in the early 19th century. Sometime in late 1806, she  became involved with a group of people, most if not all of them young men, who were engaged in putting out a magazine. All of them were volunteers, as was the norm in those days at publications of the kind, and the young men were apparently so busy launching their careers that they didn’t have much time to spend on the magazine.

The woman, on the other hand—a 26-year-old named Eliza Anderson—had plenty of time, since elite women like her didn’t generally hold jobs in the early 19th century. She had a flair for writing, and she seems to have taken on more and more of the workload associated with the magazine. That’s apparently how she ended up as its editor, and then editor of its successor magazine in 1807, even though the idea of a woman editor was almost unheard of at the time.

Eliza threw herself into writing and editing the magazine, which was called The Observer. Although she complained from time to time about the workload and the difficulty of finding decent contributors, she was clearly enjoying herself. And she was on a mission: she thought the taste of her fellow Baltimoreans was sadly lacking, and she wanted to raise the cultural tone of the city. The Observer, she felt, would be the tool for accomplishing that. People began to react to what she wrote, which she seems to have found a gratifying experience.

And now we come to me. Some months ago, I became involved with a group of people, most of them young (younger than me, anyway), who had decided to put out the 21st-century counterpart to Eliza’s magazine: a blog. As is the case with many blogs, all of us were volunteers. The younger people all had full-time jobs and/or young children, and they didn’t have much time to spend on the blog.

I, on the other hand, was basically trying to write a novel that it wasn’t clear anyone would be interested in publishing, and my children were grown. I started writing posts for the blog, in a way returning to my long-ago abortive career in journalism, and I discovered that it was actually much more compelling than writing a novel I wasn’t sure anyone really cared about.

Part of this was because I, like Eliza, am on something of a mission. In my case, the mission has to do with public education. For the past several years I’ve become increasingly interested in the very lively landscape of public education in Washington, DC, where I live.

It was clear that there was a huge amount going on and not enough coverage. (The Washington Post does a pretty good job of writing about education these days, but there’s no way it can cover everything that’s happening.) And to me, improving the state of public education in this city (and this country)  is every bit as crucial as improving the state of public taste seemed to be to Eliza. In fact, when I came across this new blog, which was about to go live, I had been on the verge of trying to start my own blog on DC education.

So, like Eliza, I threw myself into writing for the blog, which is called Greater Greater Education. It’s an offshoot of a blog called Greater Greater Washington, which focuses on urban issues like smart growth and public transportation. I ended up writing more for Greater Greater Education than others did, partly because I had more time. And lo and behold, I’m now the editor.

Like Eliza, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the workload and the need to rustle up contributors. But, again like her, I’m also gratified by the fact that people seem to be paying attention. Putting out a publication, especially a publication that’s completely staffed by volunteers, can be frustrating, but it’s also exhilarating. I feel Eliza’s pain, but also her joy.

I’m hoping that my experience with Greater Greater Education doesn’t completely parallel Eliza’s experience with The Observer. Eventually, Eliza became preoccupied by vendettas with other editors and writers, and after a year she abandoned the magazine in disgust. Part of the problem appears to have been that people just couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept of a female editor, at least not one as feisty as Eliza. And part of the problem was that Eliza just couldn’t seem to walk away from a fight.

There are plenty of fights available in the education world these days, but I’m not interested in joining them. What I’ve been looking for is a sanctuary where people aren’t just preaching to the choir or calling their opponents names, but rather trying to figure out what actually might work without worrying too much about who proposed the idea or what label is attached to it. So far at least, it looks like Greater Greater Education has the potential to be that place, at least in DC.

So what about the novel that’s now stuck in my computer, which, of course, happens to be about Eliza? Based on what I’ve heard from the few people who have read the manuscript, it basically just needs one more round of revisions and then it will be ready to go. The only problem is that I’ve been so caught up in writing and editing the blog, I haven’t had time to look at it in months.

But here again, maybe I should look to Eliza. Somehow, during the year that she was writing and editing The Observer, she managed to translate not one but two works from French into English: a pamphlet on military strategy written by the man who would soon become her husband, and a racy novel about an extramarital affair. (That last one didn’t help her reputation in Baltimore much.) If Eliza could find the time to translate two books, surely I can find the time to finish one that’s pretty much already written.

Or can I? We’ll see.

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