Journalism, On Writing, Publishing

The Line Where Story Starts

I can’t remember now what particular flavor of mind wandering lead my browser to The Angry Therapist a few years ago, but once it did, I was captivated. Maybe it’s because I’m usually captivated by anyone articulate and brazen with a Tumblr account, maybe it’s because the therapists I’ve met look nothing like John Kim and would never describe themselves as angry. Maybe it’s because he baits me by including clips of my favorite Rolling Stones songs and lines from “500 Days of Summer.” There was something raw and nostalgic to me about the way that John (“the Angry Therapist”) blogged about the tough stuff of life — like reading a blogroll from my high school LiveJournal or Xanga days. Only John is a grownup in Los Angeles, hoping to make a living by building an online brand in order to build a client base of patients.

Mostly, I just couldn’t decide whether The Angry Therapist’s innovative mix of cognitive behavioral theory and oversharey-internet culture was going to be a zeitgeist-shifting revival of talk therapy or whether it would lead to its downfall. Is John a sorta-emo simpleton with good business sense or is he about to start the honest to goodness therapy revolution? The connection he had to his online community (his “patients”) felt visceral to me. I swear, if he becomes the Asian Oprah of the Internet, you heard it here first.  And I’ve been to therapy. And, lord knows, I’ve been to the internets. So these were questions I wanted answers to. Like any good journalist, I did what I had to do and wrote a story pitch:

 I’d like to write a feature story about a Los Angeles therapist who has built a thriving online brand in order to build a client base. The story would explore what its popularity says about the potential for changing theway we think about talk therapy: Is an online brand that’s about to take off — John Kim, its creator, recently won a $250,000 grant to expand his business —  and the self-promotion that comes along with it, really an effective therapeutic tool? Or can a brand like The Angry Therapist give talk therapy an image tune up, particularly among its mostly millennial audience?

The pitch had gone through several iterations and had a longer version ready to go at request.  It had been edited and given the stamp of approval by my advisor at the writing program (the invaluable Cathy Alter). I sent the pitch in to this new, hip startup online magazine edited by a bunch of hip, creative people around my age. Mostly, I just wasn’t sure where else it would fit. I don’t live in Los Angeles, where John is based. Psychology Today? Slate? Nothing seemed quite right. Tomorrow rejected the pitch (it happens). Then, last month, New York Times Magazine ran this story by Lori Gottlieb, who I’ll call a prolific chic-lit non-fiction writer, the one who wrote that controversial book about why ladies should “settle” to land a man and make babies. But, multitalented woman she is, she’s also a psychotherapist. In “What Brand Is Your Therapist” Gottlieb talks about the pressure for psychotherapists to have “personal brands,” and discusses the very same ideas at the heart of my story pitch (and lots of other interesting ideas I hadn’t thought of, too):

According to the A.P.A., therapists had to start paying attention to what the marketplace demanded or we risked our livelihoods. It wasn’t long before I learned that an entirely new specialized industry had cropped up: branding consultants for therapists.

Yeah, that’s what I’m sayin’! But what makes John unique, as I mentioned in my longer pitch, is that he started his online blog and brand first and let the patients follow. Having spoken with him (via Google Hangouts), I’d also like to believe John is just “of the internet era.”  He didn’t start doing this solely because it was “what the marketplace demanded,” but because it was what felt natural to him. But as John’s brand grows — he’s won grants to expand and hired a team of therapists and marketers — I wonder whether he’ll run into some of the same quandaries that left Gottlieb feeling like she was compromising the integrity of her practice in the name of branding.

I’m not convinced that there’s not another story to be had here. If anything, reading Gottlieb’s piece in the Times Sunday magazine confirmed that indeed, I may have been onto something. Hey, maybe I have good ideas!? But with that story (and several others just on the concept of online therapy) out there, it’d be a challenge to pitch and shape.  When pitching and finding feature stories, where’s the line between “been done before” and “cool new twist”? Where’s the line between “Oh, isn’t that interesting?” (which no good editor really wants) and “Oh, this is a story“?

Ideas? Anyone else struggle with this in their pitches?

On Women

On Being “Likeable”

“She Who Dies With the Most ‘Likes’ Wins”  by Jessica Valenti, The Nation.

Yes, the more successful you are—or the stronger, the more opinionated—the less you will be generally liked. All of a sudden people will think you’re too “braggy,” too loud, too something. But the trade off is undoubtedly worth it. Power and authenticity are worth it.

And in a world where women are told to be anxious about everything—that we can’t “have it all” but will forever be searching for it—saying that ambition and success are actually pretty great can be a radical message.

Besides, being liked is overrated. Wanting to be liked means tempering your thoughts as to not offend. Wanting to be liked means not arguing vociferously with a female peer—something that could improve and add to your ideas—for fear that they’ll be insulted or that they won’t want to be friends. Wanting to be liked means agonizing over every negative comment in an online thread, even if they’re coming from people you don’t care about and don’t think much of.

Wanting to be liked means being a supporting character in your own life, using the cues of the actors around you to determine your next line rather than your own script. It means that your self-worth will always be tied to what someone else thinks about you, forever out of your control.

Me, my characters, and every woman I know could stand to remind themselves of this every single day. Love it.


On “failed” experiments and finishing what you start

Was it Woody Allen who said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your future plans”? Are you there, God? Because you can laugh at me now. This “experiment” did not go as planned.

I didn’t blog as intended, nor did I “win” National Novel Writing Month by writing 50,000 words of a novel by Nov. 30. I did make it halfway: I’ve now got 25,000 words of art-imitates-life-I’m-not-ashamed-it’s-chic-lit-goobledy gook.

I gave up on blogging my NanoWriMo attempt — and first attempt at fiction since the fifth grade — about a month into the process. That was around the time I realized that a new blog, an “experiment” that entailed writing an average of 1,667 words a day and, oh yeah, a new day job, would be a bit much for me. I was also slated to travel almost every weekend in November. I gave up on the idea that I’d hit the 50,000 word goalpost around halfway through the month; given the above, 30,000 words by Nov. 30th — or 1,000 a day — would do. Even then, Thanksgiving weekend and the beauty of the Cascades during a five-day jaunt to Oregon early in the month — not to mention some occasionally misplaced priorities and lack of writing willpower (thanks, “Homeland”) — left me sitting not-so-pretty at halfway to the 50,000 winner mark. Those 25,000 words comprised about the first third of the simple narrative I outlined on reporter’s notebook paper sometime around Oct. 31.

I felt slightly embarrassed about all this after reading so many comments from “winners” in the forums on the NanoWriMo website come Dec. 1. But of all my failed experiments this year (and there have been several) attempting to write a novel has easily been my favorite.

I didn’t think I’d end up saying that. As a longtime student and sometimes-practitioner of writing, I sort of agree with the argument that National Novel Writing Month is not too, well, literary. Plus, a reporter with a half-finished “novel” in a drawer is about as predictable as a yoga mat in Dupont Circle. It’s a yuppie goal almost as ubiquitous as running a marathon or mastering DSLR photography. And as with anything that’s popular, there’s a ton of internet vitriol on NanoWriMo, all variations on the same theme: It’s not a very writerly, serious undertaking, and it makes Serious.Book.People very upsetOne such missive goes as far as to call it a “Hallmark Holiday for people who hate their jobs and think that because they love to read and can construct a sentence that they can be novelists, too.” Ouch!

I hope no one ever reads my 25,000-word start to a women’s fiction novel sitting on my hard drive. This was never really about writing; it was about follow-through, which is a struggle for me. Could I have written more words, even better words, if I’d said no to a few more social outings or Damian Lewis’ smoldering gingery goodness? Sure. But after two years of filling Iphone notes, reporter’s notebooks and word documents with half-baked ideas for non-fiction stories (and just this one fiction idea), I’d grown tired of thinking instead of doing.

Here’s the lesson: I seem to operate on about a two or three-year timetable when it comes to personal goals that no one is paying me to accomplish. An initial desire is usually followed by hubris, which is followed by reality, which is followed by baby steps at execution a few years later. In November 2011, for example, I ran a marathon (ultimate Ubiquitous Yuppie Goal).  The first time I signed up to run a marathon, however, it was the summer of 2008 (Desire).  I was on my high school JV cross-country team but hadn’t run so much as a 5K race in the four years prior to signing up (Hubris). At that time, I was a newly-minted college grad with a summer internship at a big daily newspaper in a new and very humid city, freaking out about finding a full-time job and joining the real world in general. Were these ideal conditions under which to train for my first marathon? Reader, they were not (Reality). Eventually I got on with my merry little real world life and squeezed in a few half-marathons and 10Ks between new jobs, new responsibilities and friends (Baby steps at execution). And then one day I’d had it, and decided 2011 would be The Year. It wasn’t pretty, but it happened.

So it goes with this Failed Experiment of 2012.  2013 is The Year. The year to finish the novel or to finally write and publish some nonfiction outside of my day job. November might be over, but you can still help keep me accountable to this in 2013.