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.

Journalism, Non-fiction, On Manny, On Writing

On Special Snowflakeness

I decided to pursue a master’s in nonfiction writing part-time knowing that the idea of getting a degree in “writing” is a pretty silly thing to do. Many writers and journalists I’ve admired subscribe to the belief that writing isn’t something that can be learned in school — study other things, experience other things. That was always the advice. I had mixed feelings about the bachelor’s in journalism degree I earned for this reason. But when I moved to DC two years ago with some savings and spare time, desperately seeking a creative outlet, I reasoned I could indulge in a program like this as long as I was earning my keep working full-time. I missed writing the occasional narrative news features that newspaper reporting had allowed, and thought I’d be writing more of the same in class, things I could pitch to alt-weeklies and the like.

This did not happen. I had no good ideas, because sitting in a cubicle for 8 hours a day and being brand new to a city is a surefire way to end up with no ideas. So my reporting efforts in that first class fell flat. Most of my classmates had other goals; most of them chose to write personal essays for class assignments. This disappointed me greatly. I’ve always loved the art of writing; spending hours tweaking sentences until they’re just so, plotting out story and paragraph structure, playing with words. But personal essays outside the context of college applications felt self-indulgent; to spend time writing them would make me just another navel-gazing self-important millennial. Much like this:

A corner of the internet has been thinking about this a bit lately. Last month, a writing professor named Susan Shapiro had an eyebrow-raising op-ed in the New York Times, which discussed the signature assignment for her students — a personal essay on “the most humiliating thing that’s happened to you.” What’s truly troubling here from a publishing industry and future-of-nonfiction perspective is found in the very first paragraph of Shapiro’s piece, where she describes encouraging a Bosnian immigrant to chronicle his Muslim family’s betrayal by their neighbors during the Balkan war. “It led to his first clip and a second career,” she boasts.

The marketability of the confessional essay is the very first thing Shapiro mentions. The redemptive value writing these essays can have for both their authors and their readers who recognize their own stories in these pieces — something my writing professor brought up whenever I questioned “using the word ‘I’” in my work — comes second. The path to writing success that Shapiro is selling is only symptomatic of the current marketplace, as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan writes in “Journalism Is Not Narcissism.”

The demoralizing truth is that there is a huge appetite for first-person essays of this sort. The pages of Salon, and Slate, and Thought Catalog, and XO Jane, and women’s magazines, and lowbrow-masquerading-as-highbrow publications like parts of the New York Times, and Gawker Media are absolutely overflowing with them.

Nolan admirably encourages aspiring journalists to look outside themselves for stories about “the billions of people in the world who have interesting stories” if they’re spending good money on journalism classes.

Shapiro teaches writing, not journalism. Like many of my classmates, her students presumably come to her classes wanting to be creative writers. These aren’t the same students who enter journalism programs because they saw “All the President’s Men.” Sure, there’s some overlap. Certainly most journalists and writers I know can’t be neatly placed into “muckracker” or “soulful writer” boxes, but if many of Shapiro’s students just want to write pretty sentences, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

But if students are entering actual accredited journalism degree programs, being assigned Shapiro’s “most humiliating thing” first person essays, and being told that’s what the biz is all about these days, that’s a problem. Nolan is right: students who pay for a journalism degree should not be set on that path, at least not exclusively. Think Progress’ Alyssa Rosenberg weighs in here, and she’s right, too:

“Young journalists should get the same lesson in confessional writing as they do in all else: why does it matter to anyone but you? The answer that they’ll want to consume your special snowflakeness is almost never true…”

A small dose of narcissism is, of course, part of the drive to see one’s byline in print. And blogger and editor Ann Friedman, elegantly makes the point that no journalism — even journalism about, yes, other people with “real stories” — is without perspective.

Writing is writing. Should practicing it, in any form, really be discouraged? I’m no longer sure I see what’s wrong with the practice or existence of first person narratives — if they’re well done and speak to something universal. Many of the first person pieces littering the internet do not. What the internet really needs is first-person pieces like  Kelley Benham’s sure-to-win-a-Pulitzer “Never Let Go.” The fact that it probably won’t get it is another post entirely.

When I return to the classroom next week, I will try to write in first-person without eye-rolling or irony. After all, no one is obligated to read about my special snowflakeness.


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?