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The versatile public policy expert discusses the staying power of his 2002 bestseller Naked Economics, forthcoming projects, and advice for pursuing more than one profession.
It was "a pleasant surprise" for author and senior lecturer Charles Wheelan '88, a policy fellow at the Rockefeller Center who has since written eight additional books, including best-selling primers on statistics and money, a novel, memoir, and most recently, a guide to writing.
The Rationing, a political satire about a "lurking virus," was published less than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic, offering prescient and timely themes. In the critically acclaimed We Came, We Saw, We Left, Wheelan chronicles a trek across six continents he took with his wife and three teenagers as part of a "gap-year experiment"—a heartfelt travelogue that Publishers Weekly called a "rip-roaring adventure."
With his varied writerly, academic, and political pursuits—he ran for Congress in 2009 as a Democratic candidate in Illinois, among other public policy positions—Wheelan brings an unusually nuanced perspective to the classroom. He was selected as one of Dartmouth's 10 best professors by the graduating classes of 2015, 2016, and 2017.
In a Q&A, Wheelan discusses his approach to writing, forthcoming projects, and advice for pursuing more than one profession.
How do you attribute the staying power of Naked Economics?
I'm pleasantly surprised. My best explanation is that the book focuses on relatively timeless principles, which is what gives economics its power. Also, I think there is a craving for concrete examples (and funny stories) at a time when the discipline is becoming narrower and more mathematical. I'm not a particularly good economist, but I'm good at writing about economics.
Your other books include a memoir, a novel, and most recently, a guide to writing. How do you cultivate versatility as a writer? What genre appeals to you most?
There is no method to it. Each book has been the one that seemed logical at the time. It made sense to follow Naked Economics with Naked Statistics, just as it made sense to write a travelogue after we took our family trip around the world.
If there is a common theme, it's that I've always been writing something. I started a newspaper with friends when I was at Dartmouth. I wrote screenplays when I was in grad school. I even created an Onion-like satirical newsletter when I was an intern at the Bank of Boston. My favorite genre at the moment is fiction because I think it can be a powerful way to say important things—making up characters and stories in service to some larger truth.
What was the impetus for your most recent book, Write for Your Life: A Guide to Clear and Purposeful Writing (and Presentations)?
Like many of my other books, I saw a hole in the market. I couldn't find a book on writing that was perfect to give to my students, so I began keeping a list of writing suggestions that I passed out in class. Eventually that list became long enough and detailed enough that I realized it could be made into a book.
Your top three writing tips?
One, know what you hope to accomplish before you start to write. If you can't articulate what you hope your writing will achieve, it's nearly impossible to write effectively. Two, make an outline. Good writing is like architecture: You need a plan or you'll end up with a mess. And three, use stories and examples. They bring important points to life, and they're memorable. Good writers and speakers tend to be good storytellers.
What are you working on now? Any plans to run for office again?
I just finished a novel called Project D-Day. It's a political thriller. I'm waiting for feedback from my agent. There will be edits! That's a crucial part of the writing process.
I'm not going to run for office again because I can't win. I could win a general election, but I couldn't win a Republican or Democratic primary. That's another story—covered in my book The Centrist Manifesto!
You've crafted a multifaceted career that encompasses not only reporting and writing but also serving as a policy director, working as a speechwriter, and teaching. Any advice for young people looking to stretch themselves in more than one professional direction?
Stop focusing on things that you have to apply for and just plunge into something that you want to do. By the time students get to Dartmouth, they've been conditioned to believe that everything worth doing has an application—from getting into college to landing a sought-after job. But the thing that made the most difference in my life was traveling around the world after Dartmouth. No one gave me permission to do it. I didn't have to apply for a program. I got several menial summer jobs, earned $10,000, and bought a ticket to Australia. I traveled for nine months during which I wrote articles for the Valley News. I didn't formally apply for that either. There was no program. I sent them a letter offering to write regular articles during my travels (for $50 apiece, including black and white photos). They said yes, and at that point, I was a writer.
Looking back, what stands out from the liberal arts education you received at Dartmouth as particularly valuable?
So much! One thing is that I realized I was drawn to problems without simple or elegant solutions. I was someone who loved my seminar on the Arab-Israeli conflict but didn't have much interest in calculus. I remember taking a biology class that focused on genetics (to fulfill a distributive requirement) and being enthralled by all the ethical questions raised by genetic testing—and that was before we had decoded the human genome. These interests naturally led me toward politics and public policy, which is the common denominator for all that I've done since.