I’m pausing regular updates and taking a new job
I’ve decided to pause regular updates for Brutal South. After 4 years of regular self-publication, I’m going to make this more of an irregular thing with occasional updates and essays when I get around to it.
Because I can’t make any promises about my output, I’m turning off paid subscriptions for now. For those of you who have signed up for paid subscriptions, look for email updates from Substack and/or the payment processor Stripe in the next week or so.
Today’s newsletter is about newslettering. It’s also about a rad new job I’m about to start. Goodbye for now (it’s not really goodbye). Thank you for reading (no really, thank you).
The new job
Four years ago today, I was unemployed and trying to imagine my family’s future without panicking.
Journalism, the only industry I’d ever cared about, had chewed me up and spit me out after just 8 years. All I knew was I needed to find work fast, and I couldn’t go back. I applied to be a craftsman apprentice, a museum communications worker, a hospital clerical worker, and a library special collections researcher, unclear on whether I was qualified for any of those jobs.
As I fired off resumés and wondered who I was about to become, I decided to keep writing on my own, if only to stave off the dread. “Newsletters” (blogs, basically) were the hot new thing for unemployed journalists in 2019, so I set one up and began writing my first post, a meticulous and oddly emotional history of the Strom Thurmond Federal Complex. I published it on June 26, 2019, with the headline “In praise of South Carolina’s brutalist beast.”
I called the newsletter Brutal South, taking the name from a sludge metal concept album I’d never gotten around to writing or recording. The only rule I set for myself was that I’d publish something new every week, usually on Wednesdays. To my surprise and gratitude, thousands of people signed up to read what I had to say — friends and family at first, then strangers from around the world.
In the meantime I found full-time work as a technical writer. By day I wrote instruction manuals for education software; by night I wrote sharp-tongued essays on public schools, public records, class struggle, mental health struggles, art, censorship, parenting, Christian existentialism, and the depravity of Southern politics. I launched an occasional podcast and interviewed old friends, musicians, and activists I admired. Brutal South became my lifeline to the world, my bizarre side hustle, and, yes, my “brand” (ugh).
Four years to the day since I published my first newsletter issue, I find myself between jobs again. I’ve handed off my technical writing duties. Starting July 10, I’m taking on a new role as communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
I’ve been writing and re-writing this announcement for a couple of weeks now, unsure how to sum up the feelings of pride and wonder that keep rising in my chest. I’ve admired the work of the ACLU-SC my whole adult life. I interviewed its past directors for some of my earliest articles on predictive policing, anti-panhandling ordinances, and the laws that helped create South Carolina’s school-to-prison pipeline.
In my last 4 years doing more direct activism, I’ve had the honor to work alongside ACLU-SC staff on the Freedom to Read SC coalition, on the South Carolina Housing Justice Network, on a working group fighting the expansion of police surveillance in North Charleston, and on brake light clinics and know-your-rights efforts with my local DSA chapter. I joined them on panel discussions, picked their brains on countless Zoom calls, and came away inspired each time by their deep expertise and clarity of purpose. As I told my new boss, Executive Director Jace Woodrum, in my cover letter applying for this job, I got the impression that these were my kind of people. I consider it an honor that I’ll get to fight alongside them for the future of my home state.
I’ll have a better handle on the job next month, but I hope to revamp the ACLU-SC blog, launch a podcast, and generally do what it takes to win in the court of public opinion while my colleagues win in the actual courts and legislature. If you want to receive updates and join the effort, you can sign up for email updates at aclusc.org.
What about Brutal South?
As I mentioned up top, I’m pausing regular updates here. I’ll still post occasionally when I feel like rambling about brutalist architecture or Mountain Goats lyrics or the South Carolina tax code.
I always told myself I’d quit this if it stopped bringing me joy, and I can honestly say it never stopped bringing me joy. I’ve found a generous audience for my work, even on topics that I assumed were too niche. Some of my writing about education was more widely read here, on my rinky-dink personal blog, than it ever was at South Carolina’s largest newspaper.
My decision came down to allocation of time and energy. For the past four years, in order to keep writing, I’ve had to squeeze Brutal South into the cracks between my day job and my responsibilities to my 3 kids. I sometimes chipped away at it on lunch breaks or in the morning hour after school dropoff. For the most part I wrote late at night, after my children were in bed.
Tuesday nights were crunch time for my self-imposed Wednesday deadlines, and my wife has become used to me staying up writing until 2, 3, or 4 a.m. She handles kid responsibilities on Wednesday mornings and generally deals with my grouchy disposition for the rest of the day.
I kept writing because it helped me stay engaged in fights I care about: academic freedom, racial justice, LGBTQ liberation, building working-class power. I anticipate that my new job will allow me to carry on many of those fights during daylight hours. I also anticipate that it will require more of my time and energy than my previous job, and I don’t know that I’ll have enough gas in the tank to keep writing late into the night.
I enjoy writing most of all when it reminds us we’re not alone. When I write about anxiety and depression in the news business and old friends come out of the woodwork to say they felt the same way, I know my words are not in vain. When I get to share the frustration of teachers, the weary determination of friends fighting against the death penalty and the carceral state, or the words of a trans teenager who was censored by the governor of South Carolina, I feel a thrill of solidarity in a world that seeks to snuff it out.
I’m going to keep doing that type of work, but I won’t be doing it alone. I’ll have colleagues and comrades, and maybe even an editor again. I’ll be on a team with some of the most brilliant legal minds in my state. We’re going to win some battles. We’re going to stay right here and fight like hell.