Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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Comments I have scrawled in the margins of the chapter I am currently editing

(Which, incidentally, is the chapter that earned me my book deal in the first place…)

"lame examples"
"vague - since when?"
"not convinced of the relevance of this section"
"blah blah blah"
"and here I finally return to material that actually belongs in this chapter"
"this is dreadful!"
"reaching a bit here"
"intellectually feeble"

And in a rare flash of positive self-reinforcement: “Great point, if I do say so myself!”

Related: She who tries, wins.

File under: Questions you should never ask your author friend/acquaintance/person you met at a party that one time

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“Hey, did you ever finish that book you were writing?”

What you mean when you ask this question: “Hey, that person I know was working on a book… I wonder how it went?”

How your friend/acquaintance/person you met at a party one time hears it:

“This person thinks I am a lazy sod who should be finished by now. Feck, maybe they are right and I AM a lazy sod who should be finished by now.”

“This person thinks I am SUCH a lazy sod that I never even bothered finishing the project I told them about, and am currently in the process of paying back my advance to my publisher.”

“This person thinks that my book has been published, but that I somehow forgot to flood their Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr timelines with ecstatic pictures of me posing with the cover.”

The same principle applies to friends working on PhDs, films, or other long, drawn out projects that take years rather than months.

Ideal question to ask instead: "Which part of X are you working on now?"

No assumption they should be finished already, and avoids the grunts and “yeah, fine”s that “How is X going?” tends to elicit.

image via.

2014 mantra: Quality, not commodity. (OR: On speaking because you have something to say, rather than because you need to be heard.)

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Com-mod-i-ty, noun.
A basic good used in commerce that is interchangeable with other commodities of the same type.

Some people launch into the New Year with a vow to give up sugar. Others pledge to exercise more, or to give up smoking. Me? In 2014, I’m giving up commodity journalism.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, especially over the past couple of years, as I’ve had to retreat into my own head in order to complete my most significant project. At the same time, the industry I work in has moved ever more towards privileging speed and volume, with the most significant and exciting voices being those which are heard most often.

It is a collision of competing desires that has brought me a lot of angst: the desire to do the work that most excites me (and the work where I feel I can make the best contribution), and the desire to remind people that I exist.

The result is that I’ve pursued both with various degrees of resolve. Putting in a very long slog to produce a book that meets my own exacting standards while feeling small and insignificant because said book is not on the shelves yet (and you are nobody if people aren’t reading what you write). Freelancing to feel relevant, but not doing it with sufficient frequency to actually be relevant when the criteria defining said relevance are speed and volume.

But no more. This year I am choosing sides. In 2014 I am saying no to commodity journalism and working only (or at least primarily – a girl has got to eat) on pieces I care about. Or perhaps  more accurately, in 2014 I am being more deliberate in the criteria I employ to value myself and what I produce, and equally, deliberate about the criteria I don’t use.

What do I mean when I speak about commodity journalism, you might ask? Commodity journalism is quick. Commodity journalism is cheap. It is opinion rather than research, interviews, analysis. Commodity journalism is celebrity.

Commodity journalism is writing that exists primarily because your editor has a page to fill or pageview targets to reach (and you would like to add another $X00 to your bank account thankyouverymuch) rather than because the story needs to be told.

Commodity journalism is not bad journalism by definition. It is usually entertaining, and at its best it is smart, pithy, full of “YES.” It plays an important role in public debate, giving voice to popular opinions and determining the language we use when we discuss the issues of the day around the dinner table. It declares quickly and concisely what is right and what is wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. It is highly shareable.

But commodity journalism also keeps our focus – both as creators and consumers – on the act of producing, rather than on what is being produced. It directs our energies towards to disposable rather than the potentially timeless. And as the definition at the top of this post suggests, it renders those of us who create for a living interchangeable, needing to constantly produce in order to maintain our position and financial viability, lest someone faster and more shareable come along and replace us.

I am not the fastest or the most shareable, and nor, I suppose, do I really want to be (or else I might have tried a bit harder to succeed on those terms). So I am bowing out of that particular competition, and setting my own terms.

So, what might eschewing commodification mean in practice?

It means giving my work the time it needs to breath and grow, rather than rushing to be first (or second, or third, as is so often the case with this kind of writing) to respond to the fad of the moment. It means being choosier about the assignments I take, and about those I pitch. It means pitching stories not just because I think I will be able to sell them, but because I think they matter. It means you might hear from me less often, at least in a professional context, but that when you do it will (hopefully) be because I have something interesting to say.

Choosing quality over commodity doesn’t mean working for no pay in a bid to maintain artistic integrity. To the contrary, it should in the medium to long term result in a higher income. Nor does it mean eschewing commercial publications: I feel I can do meaningful writing for The New Inquiry or for Cosmopolitan, for the Guardian or for Girlfriend. Nor does it in all cases mean eschewing rapid turnaround pieces – I think of a two-day turnaround piece I wrote for a teen magazine in November, for example, that I am very proud of. But it does mean that if you’re looking to pay $100 for a quick turnaround opinion piece, I am probably not your girl.

And it does mean asking this: Is the piece I’m writing adding (intellectual or emotional, not just economic) value, or am I only writing it because I feel like I need to take up space in order to be successful/ an object of other writers’ envy/ top of mind when editors are thinking about who they want to commission for the next piece?

Is giving up commodity journalism the right route for everyone? Not necessarily. Like I said, a girl has got to eat, and I’m sure that I will love some of the stories I write this year more than others. And if you excel in speed and shareability, it can be an effective way to build your profile and audience very quickly.

But I cannot emotionally sustain myself by staying in that race. And I will not do my best work by staying in that race.