Moore: What is some good advice you received on writing?
Balmer: I love Eudora Welty’s rejoinder to those who supposed that she enjoyed writing: “I love to have written.” But I actually do enjoy writing. It’s how I think and work through ideas, and the satisfaction of finding just the right word or phrase is utterly exhilarating. (Mark Twain said that the difference between “the almost right word and the right word” is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.) At Princeton, Jeffrey Stout used to tell doctoral students to write at least a page a day, which is good advice, but I’ve never really needed those prods. I tend to write pretty much all the time, and when I’m focused on something—completing a manuscript, for instance—nothing can keep me away.
The other point about writing is not something that anyone told me; I guess I came to it intuitively. I believe that scholars have an obligation to communicate beyond the safety of their narrow, specialized academic circles—which, by the way, have constricted more and more in recent decades. Part of the reason that our society is in such trouble, I believe, is that responsible scholars have ceded the public square to charlatans and pseudo-intellectuals like David Barton and Eric Metaxas. When I began doctoral studies, I vowed that I would never allow my scholarship to become so recondite that I could not communicate at least something to a general audience. I began in graduate school to develop the discipline of writing op-ed pieces, initially with my hometown newspaper, the Des Moines Register; I’ve sustained that discipline throughout my career, although the venues have changed over the years depending on opinion page editors. (At present, most of my commentaries appear in the Los Angeles Times, the Santa Fe New Mexican, the Concord Monitor and the Valley News, a local newspaper in Vermont and New Hampshire.)
Read the entire interview here.