Journalism, Non-fiction, On Writing

Closing The Gap

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.  But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through. — Ira Glass

My first freelance piece was published on The Atlantic’s Health Channel this week.

It felt insanely gratifying to have a story idea/passion project that had been kicking around in my head for quite awhile see the light of day, in some form, even if not in perfect form, even if it could have used some more editing.

But initial euphoria gave way to self-loathing. I felt myself turning into the insecure/social-media/click-and-Facebook-share obsessed monster the internet tries its darndest to turn us all into.  Sure, I fight this kind of thinking by disposition all the time. But I do think there’s still something to be said for The Internet Tries To Bring Out The Crazy In Us All (sometimes).

The best thing I can do is just get back and do a lot of work. Here’s to closing the gap. Onwards.

On Manny, On Writing, Uncategorized

On Teaching

I realized that as a teacher, I don’t ever ask that question that plagued me as a writer: if what I’m doing matters. It’s not a question I even have to ask. Every morning those kids come in and they’re excited to see me and tell me things, even if it’s just that they have a duck on their t-shirt. The fact that I’m there matters to them, and the work we do is important to them—so important that I never have to wonder, never have to feel like a self-indulgent lump sucking up air.

Lauren Quinn, “The Antidote for Personal Narrative,” Vela Magazine.

…perfectly sums up why I ultimately want write *and* teach.

On Manny, On Writing

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anxiety

My graduate nonfiction writing workshop just critiqued a draft of a personal essay of mine on anxiety (as told through the lens of figure skating. Go figure). Despite my misgivings about the personal essay, I did vow to try it this semester, and I’m a sucker for The New York Times’ Opinionator blog on anxiety. So I sort of fashioned it in that style. They do publish some unknown writers. Hrm…

Let me tell you, writing the more meaningful, purposeful kind of navel-gazing essay is hard. Not in a psychological or emotional sense, because it’s actually really easy and self-indulgent to do that. Rather, it’s hard because writing an essay with an aim other than college admittance is tricky insofar as you must ask yourself: what IS my aim?

Fortunately, anxiety is pretty darn universal. I suspect that’s why Opinionator devotes an entire column to it each Monday, and it lands in my inbox along with seemingly worldlier and weightier topics like, you know, anything Thomas Friedman or David Brooks has to say. Although my classmates’ critiques of my piece were (impressively) rough (the piece really doesn’t work just yet), their written comments reflect appreciation for the concept of the piece: We want more “on anxiety” stories, not less, they seemed to say.

Of course, that chorus of approval could be self-selecting. After all, these are folk who are generally fans of the soul-baring personal essay (save for the tough-as-nails, just-the-facts-ma’am badassery of a select few). Writers are anxious. Dan Blank, over at the Writer Unboxed blog says so — it’s because the “act of creating invites self-judgment,” he says.

Our anxiety is always relative, and truth be told, sometimes other people’s anxiety can seem insignificant on the surface. When someone expresses that they don’t know whether to self-publish or not, or they are nervous about a book reading, you rarely feel the depth of their anxiety. To you, it is a logical decision, and one that likely won’t have crushing ramifications one way or another. But to the person with the question, they can get lost in the internal debate in their head, where all potential success as writer hangs in the balance.

I’m not one to speak of “the writer’s life” and I’m certainly not a fan of generalizing by profession or romanticizing or pathologizing writing or journalism in any way. So if you take out “writer” in this piece, and the fact that it was found on a writing blog, there’s so much to unpack. It speaks to the fallacy of comparative pain and the challenge of real empathy that touches probably even the most zen corners of humanity. This piece on anxiety isn’t really just for writers. Much like a talk about writing really becomes a talk about life, so too does a meditation “on anxiety.” Who among us hasn’t been on both ends of this equation: no one gets why I am freaking out? and I just don’t get why she’s freaking out?!

Few humble readers and lurkers, is it just me? Does this resonate? Why do we like reading about the neuroses of others so much? Or why does The New York Times like it so much, anyway?

Non-fiction, On Writing

Avoid Everyday Mediocrity: On Where We Write

I walked into Starbucks well before noon, to hopefully finish a weeks-long hand-wringing over an essay revision for class. With a belly full of the plaintain-and-beans breakfast from Tortilla Cafe, I impressed myself with my early-ish start after a late night. The revision is due tomorrow. I could head upstairs for the comfy plush couches and whatever light listening is on loop, or I could park my butt on the hard benches, rest my laptop on the wobbly little tables and listen to the whir of babies crying and espresso machines buzzing.  I was feeling particularly wise this morning, and knowing myself, I opted for the wobbly tables and crying babies. If I ventured upstairs, I’d enjoy those faux velvet plush chairs a little too much; the invitation to catnap would be difficult to resist.

Coincidentally, I came across this great find from Brainpickings while on a web browsing “break.” I love the site’s series that features writing advice from famous authors, and they somehow found this gem in the middle of a much meatier work by the early-20th century German literary critic Walter Benjamin. This part seemed to affirm my choice in Starbucks seating:

In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

I hope he’s right. But I’ll need to quit procrastinating and grab another latte to be able to tell for certain.


Chick-Lit, Fiction

A Satisfying Salad

Amazon describes Sad Desk Salad as The Devil Wears Prada for the twenty-teens. Author Jessica Grose has even jokingly called it The Devil Wears Sweatpants. The book’s title is a reference to the official lunch of choice for yuppie desk drones everywhere (from what I can tell, this meme came after the book, but I had to laugh in self-recognition). Grose’s tale is a not-quite roman à clef of her days as a dozen-posts-a-day blogger for Jezebel (or so she says), but it offers up intimate and often biting commentary on the late 2000s and early 2010s online media world.

Grose says the book is meant to be an updated portrait of what it’s like to have an entry-level-job-in-New-York-City-media: Bright Lights, Big City was just as much an inspiration as the 2003 The Devil Wears Prada, based on author Lauren Weisberger’s experiences working under Anna Wintour (and made into a fabulous movie of the same name, starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway).

Sad Desk Salad chronicles a week-in-the-life of Alex Lyons, a glued-to-the-couch, muumuu-clad copy monkey for a women’s gossip website. Alex is tasked with feeding the daily beast dozens of bite-sized witticisms on celebrities and assorted news of the weird in the name of the all-mighty page view. When she receives her most salacious tip yet — a sex tape of a Tiger Mom-like socialite’s daughter — her moral mettle is tested by the wilds of the web. Her job, personal relationships and the esteem of readers and colleagues are all suddenly on the line.

The good: Having personally experienced the feed-the-internet beast pressure in previous day jobs (and having friends who still do), it’s difficult to objectively gauge the effectiveness of its satire for the lay reader who isn’t as familiar with that world. Grose portrays a sense of humor about her experiences that can only come from a healthy distance. More often than not, she skewers the media gossip blog world and the characters in it with a salad spinner, not an axe. Alex’s neuroses often border on obnoxious; Grose clearly doesn’t coddle her leading lady. And Alex’s hard-charging editor, Moira, ruthless in her quest for page views and upper management accolades, is hardly a clear-cut villain. There’s enough satire to appeal to the reader who can appreciate fictionalized social commentary but wouldn’t otherwise pick up something that looks vaguely chick-litty. But a tiny bit of earnestness in this salad’s dressing tempers its cynicism and provides a satisfying ending, too.

The not-so-good: I got through this one without the chick-lit cringe I get when I read characters who sound like they could be on Dawson’s Creek, use phrases like “just the same” too many times, or suffer through all-too-familiar plot lines hoping they’ll take a turn for the clever. It helps that Alex already has a man — a live-in boyfriend named Peter who works in finance — so the quest for one isn’t at all a part of the narrative.  While it was refreshing to read a chick-lit novel that portrays the challenge of maintaining an already decent relationship rather than the struggle to land one, it felt a bit too much like a page from DWP.  It doesn’t help that the beaus in both books are patently unlikable. Aside from one insightful exchange about the moral relativism of their respective jobs, Peter’s concern for Alex seemed too paternal for me to take their partnership seriously. The story would have held up just fine without him.

Cheese-o-meter: A couple of sad salad bar parmesan sprinkles here and there, courtesy of the aforementioned boyfriend.

Writerly lessons: You kill more flies — and win more readers’ hearts — with honey when writing what you know. Disciplined satire makes for a more satisfying read than a full-throttled sendup. Kudos to Grose.


Chick-Lit, Fiction, Storytelling

Warning: This Book Tastes Delicious

Girls GuideSince The Manny Diaries’ one loyal, regular reader has been on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean for the past two weeks, there’s no one around to make fun of my chick lit habit and peep my Kindle’s contents over my shoulder. So I thought I’d come clean about the two books I gobbled up in said readers’ absence to any other lurkers out there, because I’m actually pretty excited about them. I read The Girls’ Guide To Love and Supper Clubs and Sad Desk Salad back to back over the course of two weeks. They involve food, the internet, and twenty-something urbanite girly stuff, which is to say: a few of my very favorite things. I’ll start with …Supper Clubs.

Dana Bate’s heroine, Hannah Sugarman, is a pro when it comes to whipping up a carrot cake from scratch. But playing the part of proper bougie girlfriend of her boyfriends’ parents’ dreams? Not so much. After her boyfriend dumps her, she moves into a basement apartment and cooks. A lot. The “Spunky Sidekick Friend” (you know, the one that’s in every romcom?) convinces her to open a super secret — and illegal — supper club in the upstairs apartment inhabited by her landlord, without his knowledge. The rest is a cat-and-mouse-game-cum-romance with all sorts madcap mishaps and tantalizing foodie porn along the way.

The good: Dana Bate can surely spin a good yarn (She’s an alumnus of my journalism school, so I’d hope so!) Even during the parts that felt too predictable or conventional, Bate’s Hannah Sugarman is such uniquely pleasant company that you want to keep reading even when you know exactly where the story is going. This is Bate’s debut novel and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next, and to hopefully meet her: she’s a former DC resident and we’ve communicated on Twitter (I refuse to say we’ve “tweeted.” Ew). But still, this makes her awesome in my book. She also seems to understand the worlds she depicts in Supper Club pretty darn well: foodies and young DC professionals. I have a feeling I’d either really enjoy dining out with Dana or gain 10 pounds eating her braised brisket and pretzel bread — if she cooks anything like Hannah Sugarman. Also: I’d be shocked if this hasn’t been optioned for a movie yet; I was casting it in my head the whole time.

The not-so-good: As in most romcom’s and chick lit, it’s pretty easy to sniff out who Hannah’s main man will be by the end of the novel pretty early on, despite Bate’s best efforts to well, bait us in other directions (sorry I’m not sorry for that pun). Other reviews have pointed out the improbability of the book’s ending, but I really think we all need to get over this craving for “plausibility” in storytelling. While some of Bate’s characters are delightfully quirky and well-imagined (Hannah herself, her wonky think tank boss, her landlord who peppers sentences with nautical puns), the stories and themes are well worn ones. The “follow your dream instead of your parents’ dream” trope in particular could have benefitted from a bit more nuance or edge; do the chick-lit publishing Gods allow that?

Cheese-o-meter: Jarlsberg from the Dupont Circle farmer’s market on crackers.

Writerly lessons: Sometimes it’s OK to write a predictable story with an ending that’s smothered in pink cream cheese frosting, if you’ve got delicious characters and a real feel for the worlds they inhabit. Oh, and if you give readers all the recipes featured in the book at the end. Yup, even the Kindle version doubles as a cook book (thanks, Dana!) I’m more inspired to make my own bacon-wrapped dates than ever before.

 Sad Desk Salad gets the cheese-o-meter treatment…coming soon!



Are Love Stories Less Than War Stories?

There’s a whole discussion that’s been brewing on the interwebs about why current romantic comedies suck, and NPR suggests that that view is half the problem. So well said:

What’s most profoundly wrong is the terrible, mean-spirited scripts that are getting made, that are making people feel justified in using “rom-com” as an eye-rolling insult, and we’ve got to stop that first. Stop saying “chick flick” like it’s “pile of rotten meat,” and stop saying “chick lit” and “chick book” and “chick movie” and anything else that suggests that love stories are less than war stories, or that stories that end with kissing are inherently inferior to stories that end with people getting shot. Or, if you believe they are and you want to continue believing that they are, stop pretending you’re open to romantic comedies getting better.

Good actors, writers and directors are not going to make it their goal to elevate this genre — the way some make it their goal to elevate action films and horror films — until we allow for the possibility, we don’t make “chick flick” a dirty word, and we ensure that just like there are critics at most major outlets who are open to and interested in people who can make surprisingly great horror and action films, there are critics who are open to and interested in people who can make surprisingly great romantic comedies.


Linda Holmes, NPR, “Are Romantic Comedies Dead?”