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.

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.


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.