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.


Experimenting, On Manny, On Writing

Have Lots Going On: In Defense of Distraction

The New York Times’ Opinionator blog once again proves why it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite things on the internet. First time novelist and writing professor Benjamin Nugent writes in their “Draft” section (one that’s devoted entirely to writing) that the Luddite lifestyle he adapted when starting his MFA program in the rural midwest turned out to harm, not help, his writing. The whole piece, appropriately titled “Upside of Distraction” is sweet, sweet salve for a procrastinator’s guilt.

Writing a book consists largely of avoiding distractions. If you can forget your real circumstances and submerge yourself in your subject for hours every day, characters become more human, sentences become clearer and prettier. But utter devotion to the principle that distraction is Satan and writing is paramount can be just as poisonous as an excess of diversion. I tried to make writing my only god, and it sickened my work, for a while. The condition endemic to my generation, attention deficit disorder, gave way to its insidious Victorian foil: monomania.

He’s got a reassuring message for us writers with real world day jobs, too:

When good writing was my only goal, I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn’t able to read my own writing well. I couldn’t tell whether something I had just written was good or bad, because I needed it to be good in order to feel sane. I lost the ability to cheerfully interrogate how much I liked what I had written, to see what was actually on the page rather than what I wanted to see or what I feared to see.

Recently, I’ve noticed that my work in my nonfiction writing class and efforts as a newbie blogger have made me better at my real job. Maybe not substantively better, since it involves a very, very different kind of writing than what I do here or in class. But it’s made me better in terms of perspective, mindset and sanity. It’s like a friend once said to me when I was single and dating: “Have lots going on.” In other words, don’t hang your hopes and self-esteem on one pursuit (a creative or romantic one). Having lots going on outside my day job, real work I can see going somewhere and that I enjoy, helps ease the frustrations that come with any desk job. And when I feel as though I’m failing as a writer, or (most often) am beating myself up for not getting as much outside stuff done as I’d like — this blog post or that story pitch or that interview that would have made an assignment for class so much stronger — having a day job that’s often interesting and stimulating can be a cold, necessary reminder of what matters: it’s what’s affording me the luxury to do these things in this city in the first place. When you have lots going on, no one thing can be the measure of your worth.

Sidenote: Benjamin Nugent’s debut novel looks really good. Based on reviews, it’s family and character driven…probably the kind of thing they’d call “chick lit” if he weren’t a dude.

Chick-Lit, On Women, On Writing

Beyond Beauty Mags: Chick Lit Is Bad For Your Self-Esteem

So, psychology has moved on from targeting Cosmopolitan as the place where a young woman’s self-esteem goes to die and found a new culprit: chick-lit novels.
Not only is chick-lit divisive in  the literary community — it’s also hazardous to your health, according to a new Virginia Tech study. The researchers had 159 girls in their early 20s answer questions about how they perceived their own weight and attractiveness after reading doctored-up passages from a chick-lit novel (we don’t know which novels. Well, OK, we might if I wanted to purchase a PDF of the actual study. Which I don’t. Sorry!)
Some of the study’s participants read a narrative with a skinny protagonist (this article calls it “underweight” but let’s call a spade a spade, m’kay?). Some read a narrative featuring an “average-weight or overweight” central female character, and others read a passage where the female protagonist had some body image issues. Surprise, surprise, the study participants in the latter group “were significantly more concerned about their weight than participants in the control condition.”

“In other words, readers had a stronger, more personal reaction to the character’s internal dialogue than to the novelist’s description of her body,” as Pacific Standard’s Tom Jacobs put it.

Well, duh. Of course a character’s inner monologue leaves a bigger imprint on the reader’s psyche than the author’s physical description. Why else does a writer even mention her character’s appearance unless she wants to let readers know that this, in some way, informs who that character is? In many cases in women’s fiction (or chick lit, whichever you prefer), a female protagonist’s appearance does inform who they are, or how they think about themselves — for better or for worse (and I’d argue that says more about where we’re at as a society than it does about women’s literature). It’s not difficult to imagine feeling more empathy for a character who tells us how she feels about her body in her own words. An inner monologue, even in a novel written largely in the third person, ups the intimacy quotient between character and reader.

I do wonder what would have happened to the study’s participants if they’d read anything by Jennifer Weiner. Weiner, patron saint of women’s fiction, tends to write confident but relatable female protagonists. In “Good in Bed,” Weiner’s debut novel, our heroine Cannie Shapiro neither starts nor ends the novel as a skinny girl. In a Q&A with Weiner printed in the back of my paperback copy of the book, Weiner says this is no accident:

“Like Cannie, I’ve suffered with the culture that never shows women who look like me unless they’re desperately trying to look some other way, or when they’re there for comic relief…It’s true that being big can give you all kinds of unhappiness, but it doesn’t mean that you’re destined for a life of misery and/or comic relief.”

Cannie struggles with body image issues, to be sure. The book opens, hilariously, with Cannie reading a first-person account about loving a plus-sized woman…written by her ex-boyfriend. But the novel isn’t defined by Cannie’s quest to become thin, nor is the narrative consumed by her body image neuroses. I’d be shocked if anyone would report finishing the book and feeling worse about her body.

I also wonder about selection bias in this study: who are these 159 women? Is it possible they could be the sorts of young women who read Cosmo, watch “The Bachelor” unironically and pin wedding gowns to Pinterest before they are even engaged?  I’m being flip here, but what I mean to say is, were the women in the study more apt to buy into the beauty myth to begin with? And are these really the only women reading chick lit?

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.