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election anxiety countdown

83 Days: Expertise

There is no certification board that gives a writer permission to write about electoral politics, anxiety, or life during a pandemic. Unlike with doctors, lawyers, or hair stylists, there is no system to keep people who are bad or dangerous writers from practicing.

For a long time, I didn’t write much because I didn’t think I was an expert. I hadn’t read all the books. I hadn’t gone to the right schools. But there are plenty of writers who write as though they are an expert on something that they only heard about yesterday. Some seem to have never read a book or gone to school, and yet they write and are read.

When I heard yesterday that Joe Biden had picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, I felt like I should write about it. That’s what everyone in my Facebook feed was doing. Surely, that’s what today’s post in my election countdown should be about. But I’m not an expert on Kamala Harris. I have nothing interesting to say about Kamala Harris. Summarizing and endorsing or contradicting what others who are also not experts on Kamala Harris are saying on Facebook is not interesting to me.

And that is the one thing I am confident I am an expert in: what is interesting to me. Every writer can stake claim to that expertise.

In 2008, I was in the back row of seats on a plane from Denver to Minneapolis. Seated all around me were journalists — many of them writers, I presume — who were flying from the Democratic convention to the Republican convention. As soon as the wheels hit the tarmac at MSP, blackberries powered up and laptops opened to the Drudge Report. The cabin filled with chatter: Alaska Governor? McCain’s made his pick. Picked a woman. Sarah Palin. She’s the Governor of Alaska.

By the time I picked up my rental car, drove across town to my parents’ house, had a cup of coffee with them and opened my computer, everyone online seemed to be an expert on Sarah Palin and what the choice said about John McCain’s campaign. Reporters who covered Alaska government — the actual experts — were few, and suddenly in high demand.

Better to be the Alaska statehouse correspondent. The expert in something obscure, something you’re (hopefully) genuinely interested in, invested in, passionate about. Let others be the writers scrambling to come up with something to say that sounds like expertise.