HOW WRITING GIGS HAPPEN

Austin

Austin Kleon and I, promoting literature.

On Wednesday, I was inspired by author/speaker/creativity dude Austin Kleon, our guest this week on Statesman Shots. In the mode of his new book, Show Your Work, and also because I’m trying to get back into the swing of blogging more regularly, I thought I’d share a quick post about a particular writing gig I scored recently.

As any freelance writer can tell you, writing for high-profile sites are like the pot of gold at the end of the blogging rainbow. We put our work out there for months, often years, shouting into the yawning void for anyone who will listen. We hope that one day, our words will fall on the right pair of ears, and we’ll be invited to contribute to The Hairpin, or This American Life, or Modern Love. Everyone I know wants to write for Modern Love.

The problem is, it’s often unclear how one makes the leap from blogging to uptown classy, website property writing. In my case, it almost always come down to relationships.

My latest gig is with The Atlantic, reporting for the health section of their website. My first piece was on Williams Syndrome, a condition that compels people to trust too much, and I’m reporting a piece now on the effects of capital punishment on prison wardens. I do most of my reporting with a baby on my lap, who nurses happily while Mommy discusses hardened criminals.

Now between you and me, the pay is just OK. But! The writing is still worth it, because I’m trying to expand my “beat” from Austin-y stuff to broader cultural issues: health stuff, sociological stuff, and sometimes TV stuff. Also, if you told my 25 year-old self – who would have been crazy thrilled  to get a byline just about anywhere, including your refrigerator door – that I’d get to write for The Atlantic someday, I would have died, revived myself, and died again. What I’m saying is, I’m not complaining.

So how did it happen? Here’s how:

A few months ago, I was part of a storytelling night for Austin Bat Cave. It’s called Story Department, and takes place once a month at Home Slice Pizza. I was very pregnant/hormonal/bloated at the time, but thought, what the hell?  This was probably the last time I’d get to do something like this for a while, with a baby coming and all. So I went, and told the story of attending a naked yoga class. (More on that in a moment.)

There in the audience was a fellow writer for The Atlantic, a guy named Jon Fortenbury. He wrote me after the event to say he liked my story, and we set up a coffee date / networking meeting of sorts to talk about freelancing. So we traded editor names over cappuccinos, then nervously pumped each other up over email for the next few days:

“Hey, have you pitched Salon?”

“Yeah. Haven’t heard anything. You? The Atlantic?”

“Same. Here’s what my pitch said. It’s stupid, right? It’s stupid.”

Writers are very insecure.

Anyway, fortunately – we both got accepted! So the moral of the story is: go on those coffee dates. With other writers, I mean. Mine each other for contacts, then exploit those contacts. It’s an economy of connections.

But the second, and what I consider to be more important, moral of the story?

Go to a naked yoga class.

By which I mean, your metaphorical naked yoga class. Keep your ears open for that irrational, scary experience that you would normally never do but would make an amazing story, then go do it. Exploit it for material. In absence of great connections / an impressive degree from a journalism school / an internship at The New York Times, I find that weird, unique, off-the-wall material can also open doors.

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Wholly unrelated, but can we conclude with a baby picture? Can I exploit my child for your love and Facebook likes? OK, let’s do that:

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In the words of my wise friend Jason Silverberg, “this is what I’m like now.”

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MY TRAVEL GUIDE TO AUSTIN

Since mainlining episodes of The Millionaire Matchmaker over last month’s maternity leave, I often forget that I still have a brain. But I do! [Taps finger to temple]

Before binging on trashy TV, I produced a couple of pieces of work that I’m pretty proud of. Here’s the first one:

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I wrote a travel guide to Austin! It was released by a cute little publishing company called The HUNT Guides and required me to sample roughly 50 restaurants in two weeks, including places like Qui and Swift’s Attic. Life is just so hard sometimes.

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I was familiar with a lot of these businesses already, but did uncover some surprises along the way. Case in point: north Austin’s Tomodachi Sushi, which is not only beautiful, but peddles delicious specialty rolls with names such as Say My Name!!! and Who’s Ur Daddy?!? (basically, each roll gets three punctuation marks). The chef explained the sushi names to me this way: “we wanted to make them memorable.” Sir, you were successful.

We – and here I mean my buddy Amy and I – also got to sample Noble Sandwich Co., i.e., the Uchi of sandwiches. Everything, right down to the thin-sliced pickles, is made in-house and is so fresh and tasty you just can’t even believe you’re eating a sandwich. The humble sandwich! That most utilitarian of meals! It is made special here. Transformed into something beyond its quotidian status. So good, it inspires me to use words like “quotidian.”

Alas, there were several new restaurants in the works that weren’t quite open by the time I finished “research:” chavez, LaV, Odd Duck. What a shame, The HUNT Guides will just have to hire me again to write the next edition!

You can order the book here, and I believe it’s also being carried at local bookstores. I’ll update this post once I find out.

UPDATED 7/3/14: BookPeople‘s got it!

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I also wrote my first article for TheAtlantic.com, where I am now a health correspondent! It was a story on Williams Syndrome, a condition that compels people to trust – even when they shouldn’t – and is something I’ve wanted to write about for years, ever since I heard about a little girl with Williams Syndrome on NPR. My piece explores what it’s like to hold down a job when you have Williams Syndrome (tough), and the steps individuals with the condition have to take to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of at work (many).

I’m now working on my second piece, which is about prison executioners, and in a scene suggestive of my new life I started research for it the other day with a baby on my lap. “Hello, may I please speak to Mr. Jail Warden?” [Baby cries in background] “Oh, he’s not there? Can you – oh hang on, just have to position my nipple…get the whole areola in her mouth…THERE!  Yes, I’ll leave a number. Hey, you still there? Hello?”

I officially return back to work today, which means I’ll be picking back up with my copywriting clients and continuing to report that piece. Ross and I are extremely lucky in that we both work from home, so we take shifts looking after Nico while the other one does their job. It’s been ok during our practice runs, but poor Ross, who lacks breasts, is faced with a screaming newborn from time to time. She likes to head bang his shirt, and is clearly thinking: “HEY!!!!! I’m TWEAKING!!!! Milk please!!!”

We’ve improved the situation with a breast pump however, which took me a few weeks to face down, but now enables me to hand milk to Ross and have him feed her. She likes to look up at him while nursing, and (encouragingly?) grab his chest hair, as if to say, “I knew you could do it.”

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I GOT YOU BABE

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So I’ve been sitting and sitting on this blog post, trying to unspool something insightful about having a baby. But in the two and a half weeks since she’s been here, you know what I’ve come to realize? All the cliches about babies? Totally true.

Maybe you’ve heard things like this before from sniffling new parents, or have come across them on an Anne Geddes card:

Babies are miracles.

Babies are adorable.

The moment you have a baby, your whole life changes.

Looking at your baby, you finally understand true love.

In other words, babies inspire sap. Babies = Sap City! And I am Sap City’s new mayor.

Historically, I’ve never really been a baby person. Two years, three, when kids are starting to talk – that is my jam. My absolute favorite age. Babies, I always thought, were…fine, I suppose, if a little blob-like. You eat, you expel, you sleep? Ok. That’s cool, baby. I guess.

Until (and you knew this was coming) Nico arrived.

Now, I have to physically restrain myself from staring at her and openly weeping fat, salty tears all over her pink baby body.

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We’ve had a lot of delightful family and friend visits lately, and when they come over, I usually tell them something like the above. Then, I quickly qualify it with: “But that’s just the oxytocin talking.”

Why do I do that? Why the reflex to undercut my admittedly sappy and enormous affection for Nico with some cool-girl quip?

I’m not sure, but I’m trying to stop. As I told a friend the other day about having a baby, “it erases all of your cynicism and makes you feel like walking love.” That is how I actually feel. More to the point: I never thought I would joyfully cheer for chubby baby legs, or more surprisingly, diapers. Because every one is this unbelievable affirmation that things are working over here, and that holy shit — I’m keeping you alive! My body is making FOOD and you’re EATING IT and we’re DOING THIS THING! Game on, baby!

Here are some other realities / feelings I didn’t expect about having a baby:

* “I will never exploit my baby over the Internet.” Hahaha! Tooooooo late. This is something I said to myself a few times during pregnancy, born of some high-minded resolve that Nico would choose the time to share her own picture over the Internet. Sorry, Nico! I want to show the whole world my beautiful baby! Privacy be damned; the NSA will also be receiving your birth announcement.

* “I will never co-sleep.” As soon as you have a baby – hell, as soon as you’re pregnant – you start trying to figure out what kind of parent you’re going to be. You do this by assessing the available baby-rearing tribes out there: the attachment crowd? Bringing Up Bebe? Religious? There are lots of labels out there, but in the end everybody kind of mixes things up based on what kind of baby they get. Still, I knew enough about attachment parenting to determine that I’d never be into co-sleeping, the practice by which you and baby share a bed. Because, dude! What if you rolled over on them?! Or worse: had an eventual 15 year-old who insisted on crawling into bed with you? Terrifying.

What a surprise it was, then, that co-sleeping turned out to be 50 times easier than anything else we’ve tried. Maybe because Nico is still transitioning out of the good ol’ days in the womb? Whatever the reason, she sleeps the most soundly all cuddled up in our bed. I still feel guilty admitting this, because I’m still worried about rolling over on her; as a result we keep a bassinet next to the bed and usually start her off there at night. And even there, I thought I’d be such a hard-ass in terms of self-soothing (“oh, let her fuss! That’s what babies DO!”), but as it turns out, I’m just like every other freakin’ softie who jumps the very second their baby whimpers. And when she does, up into bed she goes.

* You’ll check if they’re still breathing roughly 100 times an hour. I always, always think Nico has stopped breathing. Even when she’s grasping my hand like a miniature vice grip, and her eyes are physically open as if to say, “hey, look! Still breathing!”

* You’ll constantly worry about dropping them. Here’s another paranoid thing: I envision her falling out of my arms constantly. My brain has no shortage of twisted/ridiculous scenarios for how this could happen, either, including but not limited to me stepping Three Stooges-like onto a rake and it stunning me into full-on baby drop (note: we don’t own a rake).

* You really will want to kiss their eyeballs. A fellow mom told me this once on Facebook when I mentioned I was pregnant. And actually, I think I successfully have (owing to the fact that I kiss Nico compulsively all over her face while she is crying, a new practice she probably finds extremely annoying).

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More to come.

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PHOTOS: WHO’S SEX POSITIVE? PREGNANT WOMEN ARE SEX POSITIVE.

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Moi.

So I’ve gone back and forth on posting these pictures. On the pro side, it’s:

“YAY! Pretty photos! To share on the Internet and prompt people to say nice things about me!!!”

And on the con side, it’s:

“Umm, ok. My pregnant body on the Internet! That’s a little weird! Vulnerable! Potentially embarrassing!”  

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that the concept of self-branding eludes me entirely and I’m just not very good at it. As an aerialist/yoga person, I am a-ok with pictures of all bodies, including mine, because human physiology is fascinating (to me) and its capabilities beautiful (to me).

But as a writer, I have a knee-jerk hesitation to showing any skin, because, because…well, I’m not entirely sure. Life of the mind vs. life of the body, I guess.

However, as previously discussed, a topic that captures both my interest in bodies and my interest in thinkerly, writer things is that of sex positivity for women. And specifically, pregnant women.

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Hence, this maternity photo shoot. I did it a few weeks ago with a very talented local photographer, Whitney Martin, and my dear friend Fannie, a stylist-slash-video game programmer. (Slash-badass.)

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(Slash-model.)

We shot it at Bull Creek, a craggy park in Austin overhung with ancient oak trees and wrapped in mossy caves. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.

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Over these past 37 (whoa) weeks, I’ve found that it’s very, very easy to feel infantalized as a pregnant women. The maternity wear complex creates clothes that make you feel like a giant baby yourself, with frilly, pastel outfits and message T’s that say things like, “I’m baking a GIRL!” with appliqued cupcakes or “Mama’s little RASCAL!” with an arrow pointing down to your belly. Why?

Maybe it’s because pregnancy is a clear, visible sign of sex being had, and cutesy outfits like that take the edge off, making a woman’s sex-having body less threatening.

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Anyway, that definitely wasn’t the route I wanted to go for a maternity shoot, but conversely, I knew I didn’t want a pregnancy boudoir shoot either. I’ve seen beautiful, sensual examples of that, but I’m just too immature to pull it off. I’d be snickering the whole time and acting a fool for the poor photographer.

So what did this picky photo subject want? Well, something that felt like me.

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I wanted something that captured the all-encompassing womanliness I’ve felt during this pregnancy, something that felt nature-y/natural, and something that felt interesting. And, maybe, something like Stevie Nicks.

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So Whitney, Fannie and I collaborated on putting together a session that didn’t divorce sexuality from the whole maternity experience, which is a very formal way of saying we shared a Pinterest board.

And how do I feel about the result?

I am THRILLED. I love them! These photos will probably humiliate my daughter to no end one day, but until that time, I’m happy to have a visual memory of this little sliver of my life, thanks to Fannie and Whitney.

Pregnancy is a time where I haven’t always felt 100% awesome about my body, but you know what? I think that’s good for me. I like to think I’m a feminist, but my perception of what is beautiful is just as influenced by media / American culture / the “male gaze” as anyone else’s. On top of that, pregnancy always seemed like this freaky, science fictional thing to me (probably because most science fiction is written by men), akin to Alien or Gremlins.

But now, corny as it sounds, I’ve been converted. I’m shocked at what the female body can do, and I like the idea that baby and I are working together as a team to make her strong. Nutrition / good sleep / prenatal care / blah blah are all parts of that, but sex was (obviously) a pretty essential part of it, too. “Sex positive” and “belly proud” don’t have to be mutually exclusive concepts. You can celebrate the cute little baby growing inside your belly, and simultaneously celebrate the sex that brought him or her here. I don’t think anyone openly disputes this; I’m just ready for a culture that finds a portrayal balance between hyper-sexualized moms (i.e. MILF’s) and one that pretends moms are these harried, sexless creatures who are only focused on motherhood and THAT’S IT!

There’s a middle ground, I like to think.

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Thanks again to Whitney and Fannie – I love you both.

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PODCAST GEEKDOM, PREGNANCY HAIR, BEYONCE FEMINISM.

Oh, blog! Blog, blog, blog – how I have missed thee.

As I write this, it’s a rainy Sunday, and exactly one day before my 32nd birthday. But lo, it’s the first year I haven’t felt compelled to make a big deal about it, or subtly entreat my friends and family for gifts* (*please refer to the end of this post for a mailing address to send birthday checks).

“Perhaps,” I think, “this is the beginning of parental selflessness. When for once, I think about other people more than I think about me, people like my baby, and all the things I need to do for her instead of me.”

That’s a nice thought. But in truth, I’m just too lazy to plan a birthday party.

I haven’t been too lazy, however, to enjoy the hell out of the podcast I was telling you guys about, “Statesman Shots.” The experience has given me a tremendous amount of respect for all of my favorite existing podcasts – Slate Culture Gabfest, NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, the Dinner Party Download – and the amount of work that goes into each one. The topic planning, the guest scheduling, etc. – Shots is this tiny, mewling baby of a podcast that stands on the shoulders of giants, giants with way more involved shows than ours, and yet we still bust our bootays getting it all ready each week. We want to talk about stuff that is fun, but also thoughtful; we want GUESTS who are fun, but also thoughtful, and that regular challenge has yielded one of the most singularly fulfilling creative assignments I’ve ever had.

Besides the opportunity to talk with smart people each week like Omar, my co-host, the other lovely thing about the show is that it gives me an excuse to mouth off about whatever cultural topic I feel like. It’s exactly what I wanted grad school (in a very practical field – English Literature – shut up) to be! Here are a few stories I’ve written for the Statesman that were hatched out of Shots conversations:

Locating the heart of Wes Anderson films

How LBJ’s ghost haunts House of Cards

There’s so much insightful pop cultural criticism on the Internet these days, but I’m grateful to have this one little corner of it. In fact, writing here has made me think about the recent shuttering of Television Without Pity, the early aughts-founded site where Omar, and a ton of other glittering culture writers (like Linda Holmes, host of Pop Culture Happy Hour and NPR’s Monkey See blog) got their start; a site that pioneered the TV recap form.

Now, I’m not sure how many people read the Statesman Shots blog yet (Mom? Dad?), but hear ye, hear ye, Internet writers: claim those nascent website homes! When you see a promising new site, one that doesn’t yet claim a huge following but does glint with quality and smarts – pitch it. Pitch it now, before it becomes huge. Writers for TWOP didn’t just go on to contribute to NPR, some became novelists and program show runners. That means fancy TV show writers, y’all! 

Anyway. Aside from podcasting, I’m just doing all my writing work before le bebe gets here in six and a half weeks (whoa), winding down my yoga classes, and enjoying the last halcyon days of pregnancy hair. Here it is in action:

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Ok, well, you can’t really see said hair here, because it’s all tucked up under a hat. (Note: there’s also a handwritten message on the rock in the background that I believe says “BE HAPPY,” but could also have said “BE HARPY,” which is solid advice for new mothers.)

I did a maternity photo shoot last weekend A) because I want to document this time in my life, and B) because I am very vain. Someday, I’ll haul out these photos for my teenage daughter and be like, “look!!! You were just a sweet little baby in my belly back then!!!!!” -To which she will probably roll her eyes and stomp off angstily to text her friends via her contact lenses, or whatever teens of the future do.

The other guiding force though in my maternity shoot was – ahem – Beyonce.

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In the world of feminism, Beyonce is a polarizing figure. Me? Totally in her pocket.

Here’s a reader comment from the Bitch magazine article linked to above:

“She conforms to the beauty ideals and does nothing to fight them. she may not be an anti-feminist, but she doesn’t seem like a feminist to me. Maybe she’s a sex-positive “feminist”.”

That comment immediately got jumped on by others in the Bitch community and rightly so, because who says you can’t be sex positive and a feminist?

Here’s what Beyonce says about her own sexuality, shortly after releasing her latest album, and shortly after becoming a mother:

“I’m still finding my sensuality, getting back into my body, being proud of growing up. It was important that I expressed that in this music because I know there are so many women that feel the same thing after they give birth…I don’t at all have any shame about being sexual and I’m not embarrassed about it and I don’t feel like I have to protect that side of me because I do believe that sexuality is a power that we all have.”

This is a dated quote to point out by now, since it accompanied her album release back in December. But it’s a sentiment I’ve been thinking about so much lately being pregnant, and on the verge of becoming a mom.

When Beyonce uttered those words, I was immediately like THANK GOD. Then I wondered, wait. Why do I feel such relief hearing that? It’s not like tabloids don’t play up the sexy celeb mom thing all the freakin’ time.

But isn’t there also a very real, deep-rooted value in our culture that sorta asks moms to tuck away their sexuality? That associates sexuality with greed? That says you can’t simultaneously be greedy and also nurturing…right?

Usually I think no – we’re past that. But then, there was a slew of posts a few months back from Christian blogs on yoga pants that totally fascinated me. Here’s one. In sum: yoga pants provoke lust and cause men to sin, so don’t wear them, ladies.

Now, if sexuality –> lust –> sin is in your rubric of religious beliefs, then that’s that and we don’t have to argue about it. Also, not all Christians think this way. But! I am weirdly fond of thinking through the issues surrounding sexuality and motherhood, and Internet discussions like these reveal something even more profound: we’re still sorting out sexuality and womanhood.

I don’t have a concrete answer to any of this, by the way. Except to say that there’s a difference between being an object of sexuality, and an agent of your own sexuality, and this is the novel thing I think Beyonce is doing here. By voicing desire, and by democratizing it (“sexuality is a power that we all have”). She’s certainly not the first pop star to have done so, but to assert both that side of herself as well as her joy in being a mom, on the same album!, is incredibly cool in all sorts of ways.

(And if it wasn’t clear before, this is all a brief way of saying that my maternity shoot was made up entirely of Beyonce dance move gif’s. Werk!)

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