Pivot to

For someone who makes their living from being a writer, it’s surprising how little I think about the written word as a concept. (For someone who reads as much as I do, it’s weird, as well; but that might be in part because my head makes a split between what I read and what other people read otherwise I get oddly self-conscious; I can’t explain it.) Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about the written word, and the past, and about how they interrelate recently.

Specifically, I’ve been asking myself if people read more now. I was thinking about the fact that I can remember life before not just email and the internet — because I’m old — but I can also remember life before texting, because I’m very old. (Was it really called SMS messaging back in the day, or is that something that we just all agreed to collectively hallucinate after awhile because it sounds old-fashioned and awkward?)

I don’t mean this in the crotchety-old-man sense, but there was a period of time when the primary mode of communication amongst friends was verbal, not written, and then… writing just started to take over: texts, emails, DMs, and so on. We all started writing more, and we all started reading more. There have been all kinds of discussions about whether or not the actual writing itself has downgraded language — remember the weird but seemingly legitimate panic surrounding “text speak”? — but I’m not sure I’ve ever read any serious study about to what extent people just started actually reading more often as a result, even if it was just emails and texts, rather than newspapers, letters, or “literature,” as much of a moving target as that last thing truly is.

Of course, history will make the final decisions surrounding what counts and what doesn’t, as it always does; it’s an unreliable beast at best, but part of me is oddly excited at the prospect of, centuries from now, texts between friends and emails with abbreviations and in-jokes and references that no-one else could ever understand will be held up as “proof” of a literacy that has been lost to the ages, and a society that treasured the written word even as we, living in this moment, never ever consider the possibility.

I Remember You

While looking through old, quasi-recovered files from the distant past the other week, I came across something that was a real time capsule: a document that was, from what I could make out, a collection of everything I’d written on that particular computer in the year 1999; notes to myself, emails to friends, an entire report for something I was working on, and so on. (Thinking back, I’m not sure it was everything everything; I’m pretty sure I was editing the newsletter for an arts group for a time and wrote stuff for that which doesn’t appear anywhere in the document. I might be wrong, though.)

It’s very strange, revisiting that document and seeing where my head was at, at the time, and also just the way I thought, back then. I don’t mean that in the sense of, “what was I thinking” but literally, the method and sequence of my thoughts. I had an shorthand in much of what I was writing, and a language and cadence that I can vaguely remember but which also very much reads like the work of someone else. There are moments I don’t see myself in, and others where I wish I was still that person; there are sentences I couldn’t even imagine writing now, and others that I can see every keystroke being typed in my head with a worrying clarity.

I can’t remember why I saved all of these things in one document at the time; I’m not sure if I meant it as a message in a bottle, an important document of a particular time in my life — ironically, nothing was really happening at that time for me, although everything felt so filled with possibility — or simply that I was being particularly anal for reasons that didn’t exist beyond maybe this will be useful someday for some reason. Reading it all over 25 years later, when I’m literally twice as old as I was when I was writing it, feels like a message from the past that helps put everything in perspective, and reconnect with at least one of the whos I used to be, at the same time. It’s sobering and welcome at the same time.

Hello, whoever I used to be. Hope I don’t disappoint you too badly.

The Other End of the Telescope

When I was interviewing for the Popverse editor gig, a couple people politely inquired whether or not I’d miss writing, because I wouldn’t be doing it so much; I glibly answered no, and that I’d probably still be writing as much as ever, but in different directions and for different purposes, but the reality is that’s not turned out to be the case; it really has been more administrative and strategic than I’d initially assumed, and I’ve found the make-up of my work day shifting as a result… and I’ve been thinking more about writing.

In one way or another, I’ve been an entertainment journalist for two decades. I’ve worked at a worrying amount of outlets, covering a worrying amount of topics — oh, who can remember my time as a “tech writer,” because that was what paid the bills? — and in a worrying amount of styles. I’ve prided myself on my ability to adapt to the needs of others’ guides: if I needed to write longer or shorter, to focus on one particular audience or another, to speak in whatever voice was required of me. The problem with that is, of course, that your own voice becomes lost a little as a result… to the point where, if you’re not paying enough attention, you start to lose track of it entirely.

(I do wonder how much of that bleeds over here, where I am always trying to write relatively un-self-consciously; have there been noticeable shifts as I jump from gig to gig, from role to role, and I’ve just not seen them, because I’m at the center of it all…? If I think about that too much, I get embarrassed and second-guess myself, so best not.)

All of this is in my head as I try to construct a working theory of what I want as an editor, in terms of the voice, the approach, the everything for writers working for the site moving forward. I find myself lapsing into vagueness unintentionally: speaking in feelings and metaphors instead of practical, concrete steps and tips. Approaching these topics from the other side, I realize how much it’s like creating an entire language, a code that you want others to understand and be fluent in, even as you rip it up and re-arrange it for yourself in real time around them.

It’s far easier to adapt to someone else’s editorial edicts than make your own, for me — I feel my therapist would look at that and go, hmm, interesting. Say more — and, as I find my way forward and find my footing in the process, there’s something valuable and new and exciting in the process. Something exhausting, too, but that’s literally the job.

Teething Troubles

I was just telling Jeff last night — which means that he’ll know exactly when this was written, if he has uncanny recall for conversations that he didn’t realize were that important at the time (they’re still not) — that, when I was first interviewing for the Editor gig at Popverse, there was a lot of discussion over the fact that I’d have less time to write as a result; I would, as the job title suggests, be too busy editing with all that entails. I brushed away such comments, reminding people that I understood what the job title meant, and that I’m sure I’d still have to write a lot as an editor (if nothing else, Tiffany had in the role before me). What I didn’t say, but thought at the time, was that I’d still have this place to write for, and so therefore I’d be fine.

And then the first two weeks of the job came, and I was overwhelmed by them. It’s not that they were bad, in any way, but that there was so much stuff that I hadn’t really expected to take up my brain that was suddenly… just in there, and demanding attention. I was surprised by what I was spending time on, and how much time it was all taking, and I was surprised that there was just so much of it. Again, this isn’t a complaint, per se; I knew (roughly) what the job was when I accepted it, and the new bits were challenges that I am looking forward to mastering more than annoyances or things that make me want to hide under a table and never come out. It’s all just a learning curve, and it only makes sense that those first two weeks had a steeper curve and more learning, all things considered.

Nonetheless: two weeks passed, and I didn’t write anything here. (You didn’t notice, because I write stuff in advance; I’m good like that.) It wasn’t the only change in my schedule, or even in the way my schedule shapes up and shakes out — I found that my head would fill up on reading things, unexpectedly, or that I’d find some peace in scrolling through music on Spotify and listening to snippets before passing judgement, because it made different parts of my brain ping than the ones that were feeling a little bit overworked at the time. (On the plus side, I did find some wonderful music as a result.)

Again, all of these are minor adjustments and it’s early days, yet; more than anything, I’m fascinated by the butterfly wing effect of the new job: the things it impacts that I never saw coming, and learn through experience and suddenly realizing, oh, I’m not up for this after all anymore. I wonder what that’s all about? “We live and learn,” as Alanis Morrissette and so many others before her put it.

How To Disappear Completely

A common subject in my therapy sessions is, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me, my utter discomfort with being the subject of positive attention. This is, perhaps ironically, a situation that co-exists with my utter discomfort with the idea of being the subject of negative attention, so you can imagine how well I deal with being perceived in almost anyway beyond passing recognition — and even that makes me a little nervous, just in case.

I mention this because, when it was announced that I’d been named as the new editor of Popverse, there followed two or three days of people congratulating me, or saying that it was a great move on Popverse’s part, or similar sentiments, and it was the most uncomfortable thing in the world to me. It was something that I found myself entirely unable to acknowledge, never mind respond to, because anytime any of the social media mentions (or emails!) came into my vision, I folded in on myself in a vain attempt to disappear entirely from view, if not from the very concept of actually existing just to be on the safe side.

I knew, objectively, that this kind of attention was a good thing and that I should appreciate it and file it away for future humblebragging purposes, but I froze at even the first step of doing so; instead, I was just horrified by the very potential of people having any kind of opinion on me or my work and wishing that I could burrow into an alternate reality where that wasn’t the case.

All of this is to say: if you were one of those people and are now one of the people reading these words, I am sorry for not replying, and I do appreciate what you said, honestly; if my brain wasn’t wired quite the way it was, then I’d have been able to say that to you directly. As it is, I’m just going to blush and then step away quietly in the hope that we can all pretend that never happened in the first place. That shouldn’t be too hard, should it…?

Mumble Gripe Moan

Secrets behind the blog: There was, originally, an entirely different post here that you’ll never see. I wrote something that was, reading it back weeks later — yes, sometimes I manage to write these weeks in advance (and sometimes I really don’t; the former is what I prefer, being the particular brand of deadline-obsessed weirdo I am) — nothing more than a rant about a work thing that, while I still entirely agree with it, is of zero interest to most people and probably pretty unprofessional to boot.

Re-reading it, I started to think about the idea of “quality control” when it comes to this place — wondering about the extent I think about other people reading what I write here, and how much (if at all) that colors what I write here. It’s a strange thing, really; I write for “an audience,” because that’s what I think I’ve always done, everywhere and everything I write, stretching all the way back decades by this point — but that audience is a different thing in my head in different places that I write. (When it comes to work, I am keenly aware of the audience and when I’m writing to them or not; it’s debilitating sometimes.)

Here, though, the “audience” I’m writing for has always been a strangely amorphous thing. I think of this place as more self-indulgent and, to an extent, “just me,” but then I get rid of a post because it feels too meaningless and too self-indulgent, so there’s some other bar(rier) at play here, although I’m not sure I could articulate that if pressed. Perhaps it’s simply my way of confessing that there are parts of my life that I think are too boring to share with the world…?

(Oh, friends, just be glad I don’t share my love of doing the dishes as self-care here. No-one wants to know about that.)

Sometimes, I think that I should give more thought to what I’m doing here. Other times, I just remember how necessary this space — and venting here, with these streams of consciousness — has been, and how it feels when I don’t give myself that opportunity. All of which is to say: if you’re reading this, thank you. I don’t understand why you’re doing it (and I’m not asking! Please don’t tell me, I’ll get in my head about it), but I appreciate that you’re here so much that I’ll delete a ramble about work to save you from my worst impulses.

Under (Over) Achieving

The end of the year — and start of a new one, for that matter — is an excuse to look back and take stock, as the conventional wisdom goes. That was surely the thinking behind the work email that went out just before Christmas with statistics for how well the site had performed, what was the most successful story in terms of hits, and so on. As someone who is both a wonk and fascinatingly insecure about whether or not I’m earning my keep, the email was at once fascinating and terrifying, but one thing in particular caught my eye: the fact that I was the writer who’d posted the most stories that year, with close to 750 at time of writing. (By the time the year ended, I was almost certainly above that number.)

What caught my attention was, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, that the number felt low. 750 stories? But there are something like 260 workdays in the year! That means that I was only doing, what, 3 stories a day? That didn’t feel right…! What was I doing with the rest of my time?!? (Note: my math might be off in the number of workdays and the number of stories per day even if the workdays estimate was correct; I’m a writer, not a mathematician, dammit.)

The funny thing is, I know there’s a lot of work that wouldn’t have been tracked in that estimate: the stories as yet unpublished, the edits I do to other people’s stories, the rewrites and updates to other stories — that latter being a significant part of my week, but the stories go uncredited to me even if they’ve been rebuilt, Ship of Theseus style, so that none of the credited author’s work remains and it’s all mine by this point. None of that will show up in the official estimate, because my name isn’t officially attached. I know, objectively and intellectually, that the 750 figure if probably underestimating the actual number by 200 if not more. And yet, I still found myself feeling unexpectedly lazy.

(Wait, if I add on the… 120 pieces or so I created for here, does that make me feel less lazy? I can’t tell.)

I’d say that I want to do more in 2024, but that feels as if I’m signing up to return to being a workaholic, and there are better things for me to do than that, in almost every respect. And yet. Only 750? I know I can do better.

TBC

I’ve been thinking about the phrase “To Be Continued” lately, inspired by reading an essay (from Kevin Huizenga, from one of his Riverside Companion minis) that ends with it, as opposed to coming to any kind of conclusion; what really made me think about it wasn’t its use, per se, but the fact that… well, I’m not sure if it was used in the traditional sense. The next issue of Riverside Companion doesn’t pick up the essay, but is instead about something else entirely. I’m not sure if that original essay is actually completed anywhere. And I kind of love that.

Like everyone who grew up reading comics — or reading and/or watching serialized fiction of any kind, really — “To Be Continued” is a promise; it’s a deal that both parties agree to and understand; “we’re stopping this now, but we’ll pick it up again next time.” It’s something used so much as to have become iconic; I think about the end of Superman Beyond in the mid-2000s, where it’s the three words used on the tombstone to signify that the end isn’t the end. It’s something we all know and (most importantly for the purpose of where my head’s at right now) trust, implicitly.

So, what if it’s used insincerely, or incorrectly? What if we read “To Be Continued” and it’s just not true? (I guess, again, comic fans know that feeling: that favorite series that disappears mid-run and we never know why…) Or, alternately: what if we start using it and reading it as something longer-term, a promise to pick up the idea and come back to it far in the future at some unspecified time? That’s the thought I’ve been circling around: why can’t we use “To Be Continued” as a promise to others and ourselves when we can’t resolve thoughts or ideas or stories but don’t want to abandon them, even if — especially if — we can’t imagine when we’ll get around to it?

“To Be Continued” repurposed less as a tease of a serialized idea or story, and more as a signal that we’re not finished, but events have gotten in the way and we’ll come back to something eventually? I’m deep in the land of semiotics and semantics that matter to no-one, I deeply suspect, and yet: there’s something about this that’s very, very appealing to me here, if I can work it out.

To Be Continued, indeed.

This Year’s Migration

I’m back to thinking about Career Goals, for some reason. (There is a reason, but it’s not a particularly exciting one; I had a meeting at work that got me thinking about such matters, a thought process both compounded and extended by reading a particularly well-written story at an outlet I’d once wanted to write for, reminding me of that aspiration for the first time in some years.) These days, for the most part, I find myself buried in the day-to-day of it all, giving little thought for the most part about the bigger things. There’ll be time for that later, I think to myself, although that’s not really the case.

And yet, here I am. I’m a remarkably lucky person, when I think of my career to date, and how I’ve managed to survive as a writer for the past nearly two decades at this point. I think it’s… 17 years now that I’ve just been a writer, as opposed to moonlighting from another job? Something like that; maybe 16. I’ve written for all kinds of places, some far better than I deserve, and I currently have an actual staff position doing what I love to do. That’s rare, and very much appreciated on a daily basis.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t still some goals remaining, because there are: outlets I’d still like my name to appear as a byline, or stories that I’d very much want to write once I can make sense of the best way to do that. Of course I have those; if I didn’t, I’m not sure I’d keep going with the excitement and hunger that I somehow still have. Better yet, my current position gives me new goals when and where I least expect them, and challenges me to come up with things that I’d never thought of on my own. As tiring as it can be, it’s also a trip, in the best way.

I was thinking to myself yesterday, about how lucky I am to be able to write for a living, and then my thoughts turned to that phrase itself: that I write for a living in the sense of, “it’s what pays my bills and pays my rent, so that I can stay alive,” but also in that other sense, at the same time: that I write to make sense of the world, to find a space and way to live and navigate everything that comes my way.

My career goal is one that I’ve already achieved, ultimately: to make a career out of the thing I not only know how to do, but can’t not do. I write.

Squelchy

After watching the impossibly fun Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One the other day — a movie as fast moving and enjoyable as that title is clunky and awkward — I found myself remembering the fact that, when Tom Cruise’s first Mission: Impossible movie came out back in 1996, it was accompanied by a high-profile version of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme music by the unfamous half of U2, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton.

More importantly, that version of the theme (every bit as uninspired and mid-90s as you would expect) was released as a single where the B-sides were remixes by dance producers, one of whom was Dave Clarke. Clarke’s contribution to the whole enterprise was to, bluntly, turn up the bass and make everything sound squelchy. (It was better than the U2 version, if nothing else.) There was a review in one of the music weeklies as the time that likened it to a bunch of spiders running over a synthesizer that had been left turned on by accident, a description that was enough to make me buy the single out of curiosity.

I mention all of this because it got me thinking about how much the music weeklies of that era impacted me: how easily swayed I was by their reviews, sure, but how much of their attitude and (in retrospect, painfully fake) confidence and swagger made me a believer and shaped my future career without my knowing.

It’s the 1990s Britpop era of the NME and Melody Maker (and monthly magazines like Select and Q) that demonstrated what could be done to write about pop culture as it was happening all around you in real time, and how that could be addressed as a fan but also a cynic, and that those two things weren’t really in opposition. That taught me how to temper your love for and belief in something with humor, too — thinking about writers like David Quantick or Steven Wells or Caitlin Moran, and how funny they were, as well as being insightful, angry, or whatever else was in their heads as the deadline approached.

I hadn’t realized it until I remembered the spiders on the keyboard line, close to three decades later, but the music writing I was reading in my late teens and early 20s accidentally showed me how to do the job I do today, and remember that it’s both ridiculous and oddly important. Another hidden part of my DNA.