Once upon a time, when I was a graduate student, I wrote a chapter of my dissertation. Later, I turned it into a job talk. And then after that, I turned it into an article. It was an article I enjoyed working on, one that brought together some traditional texts and some nontraditional ideas. But it didn't fit any longer in my larger project, so I sent it off into the world as an article and let it go.
Many years later, it seems that this particular article has actually been read by a few people. Three years ago, an old teacher of mine emailed me to say he saw a citation to it in a book by a Famous Nonacademic Writer. Last spring, a colleague told me that he was at a conference panel about a related topic, and someone there recommended to one of the speakers that she read my article. These incidents made me feel kind of odd, since I don't really expect anyone to actually read the stuff I write. I work in a field that is both very specialized (sometimes) and potentially very broad, with a lot of people writing a lot of things -- no one can keep up with every journal.
And then today It happened. I was listening to a presenter on a conference panel, enjoying his talk, and I heard my name. It was a passing reference, "as Named Scholar and Mel LastName have argued," but it was enough to derail my brain. I tried really hard not to blush. I tried to not make eye contact with my conference buddy, who was looking at me to see what I would do. I tried really hard to focus on what he was saying, but with little success. I felt like someone had tickled the inside of my skull with a feather. And then it got worse. (Or better, from some angles, I guess.) He actually quoted me, in his paper. Of course, at this point, I was completely unable to process the words coming out of his mouth, and so I missed the last third of his talk, because it seemed suddenly to be spoken in some ancient Mesopotamian tongue.
It's exciting, but it's also a strange reminder of the persistence of one's old ideas -- if you asked me, I don't think I could give you a detailed account of that article, without re-reading it -- it was so long ago that I wrote it, and it's so distant from what I work on today. And yet one gets quoted in the present tense. I don't feel like I need to disavow the essay -- it's solid work, and I don't disagree with it. But it no longer feels like my big toe, the way that my current work sometimes does -- kind of ugly, likely to get bruised or stepped on, but capable enough to do the important work of holding me up. That article is more like the hot pink nehru jacket from 1985 that I still have saved for sentimental reasons, even though you couldn't pay me to actually wear it again.