August 08, 2006

Q&A with Washington Independent Writers

Q&A: Morris Berman
By Michael Causey, WIW Board Member

As a lauded social critic and cultural historian, Morris Berman is an acute observer of humanity and specifically America and Americans in the 21st century. He does not like much of what he sees. In his new book, Dark Ages America (W.W. Norton), he offers a heartfelt and depressingly convincing portrait of a nation in a Roman-style decline and a people adrift. It was not a surprise, in fact, to learn from Berman that the working title for the book was "Colossus Adrift."
The book is brave in that it does not promise any easy solutions. Indeed, Berman argues, perhaps the best we can hope for in a post 9-11 America, where civil liberties are being shredded and the gap between the rich and poor widens each day, is to slow our national decline and to fashion the softest possible landing.
WIW spoke with Berman in May in the midst of a book tour that included vibrant, well-attended stops in cities including D.C., San Francisco, and New York, as well as a surreal event in a Philadelphia bookstore where the three people in attendance had come thinking the book was written by a noted ophthalmologist.
Berman has been visiting professor in sociology at the Catholic University of America in D.C. since 2003. He also offers writing workshops in the area.

Dark Ages America is a fine book, but it was clearly hard to write and it is not fun stuff by any stretch. Why do you do it? What drives you?

Well, this is my sixth book. At one point two or three years ago, I made a rough calculation of all the hours I had spent writing the books I had published and the royalties I had earned. I then did some division and determined that since my first book in 1978, I had made roughly 2.5 cents an hour.
I often tell people that even if you are in the business to write a bestseller, which is a long shot and was never my intent anyway, writing is not a career you enter upon because it is lucrative.
Obviously, if I wanted to support myself a lot better, this was the wrong career to choose. I didn't write to produce a bestseller or turn a big profit. I wrote because these were important statements to me and represented problems I believe we need to try to solve.
Personally, I write to solve what I regard as crucial cultural questions, or dilemmas. When it is working, writing has a certain quality whereby the characters or ideas take over, and the energy starts to move you along, involuntarily, as it were. That is a sign that things are on track. It's larger than the writer, and pulls him or her along.
Writing becomes an adventure if you are open to exploration. In all six of my books, I rode the energy; I let it carry me rather than the reverse.
As far as I can make out, there are two categories of writers: Those who have something to say, and those who want to say something. I think the second category is largely worthless. But if the writing comes from your core, from a really deep place within you, it will carry you. You may not earn a cent, but again, that shouldn't be the point of it. The best book I ever wrote, Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality, sold something like 2,000 copies. I made virtually nothing from it in royalties—a few hundred dollars at most—and it took me ten years to write.

What kind of reaction have you received from readers and out on your book tour?

Well, I can tell you the most fun reaction, at least for me, was in a bookstore in Philadelphia. Apparently there was no listing in the local newspaper for the talk, but I was identified on the bookstore flyer as the Dean of Optometry at University of Southern California/Fullerton. Three people came, and one of them fell asleep (not that I really blame the guy). So I've taken to telling people that if they buy the book, I'll throw in a free eye exam. All of which goes to show that you can't take yourself too seriously.
But in San Francisco and New York there was a lot of advance publicity, and more than 100 people showed up at most of the talks. The reaction varies from city to city, but generally speaking, audiences have been pretty intense. Most of them wanted answers and they were appreciative of the fact that my book doesn't offer up easy solutions, such as meditating or logging onto an Internet grassroots website. There is no easy or even hard way out, really. We Americans have been raised on Emerson and Disney... we believe there is always an answer. But I think most of us are divorced from reality, and this is an important aspect of the fog in which we move. As Gore Vidal once wrote, "Americans never learn; it's part of our charm."
Dark Ages America is a record of our demise, and as such I don't expect it to sell much more than the 35,000 copies my previous book [ The Twilight of American Culture ] did.

Turning to nuts and bolts a bit, how do you work? How do you write?

I don't have writer's block too often, thank god. But I remember that on one occasion—with The Reenchantment of the World—I did get stuck and painted myself out of it. I was living in San Francisco. An artist friend gave me the keys to his loft. I got a canvas and some acrylics and 'solved' the problem on the canvas. In the case of Wandering God, the topic is so comprehensive, and the thesis so counterintuitive, that a few times I thought the whole thing had gone on the rocks. There were at least two occasions with it where I thought I'd lost the book entirely. So for days, I let it sit on my desk while I walked the streets, talking to myself—and finally I realized I could solve the problem by making the 'box' of the argument larger, i.e. enlarging the scope. In both cases I was able to save it, but I have to admit that it was a close shave, and actually kind of scary.
My biggest challenge is probably finding time to write in between making a living—I teach workshops in writing and editing. I can't do these and write at the same time; it is just too exhausting. But on days when I'm not teaching, I like to sit down at my desk around 8 in the morning and write until about 1 p.m. Then I feel like I am done for the day. After that I might go to the gym, see friends, go to a movie, or read fiction. I write about five pages a day that way. That would mean about 1,800 pages a year, which is obviously too long for a book. But obviously, much of the work is pure research. Generally, a chapter takes me about six months to research and write; sort of like going back to graduate school in each case.

How do you teach writing?

I've taught writing in two contexts. The first is in continuing education programs over several weeks. Say, every Thursday night 30 people for 2.5 hours for eight to twelve weeks. I really enjoy it because I can watch the material get better over time. We do a lot of exercises that are quite intimate and involve risks—and that's how you become a good writer.
The other way is a workshop for one or two days. Students have a variety of reasons for taking these, but I'm guessing that most of them are job related. In these, all I can really hope to do is give the students the confidence to launch into writing, to get the whole process started. I make it clear to them that I can't turn them into accomplished writers in a day or two, but maybe I can open the door just a crack.
I've been doing both for a long time and am quite happy with it. I know the mechanics and psychology of writing and love the fact that the majority of people who attend seem really interested and just soak it up.
With any writing, though, it comes down to this: If it is not happening for you, if the hair on the back of your neck isn't standing up when you sit down at your desk, then it probably isn't working. If you are bored, your readers will be, too. You know the old saw: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. If the emotions and the intellect come together, you are probably on the right track.

Morris Berman's books are listed on For in-depth discussions of Dark Ages America, please go to