Take A Look At The Five and Ten

The last few weeks of the year is always crunch time for me, work wise, and I always forget that until I’m in the middle of it, quietly losing my mind through overwork and stress. Every December begins with me making a promise to myself to really embrace the holiday of it all, and by the middle of the month each year, I’m panicking about how I’m going to be able to hit all my deadlines and also find time for Christmas. This has happened on a regular basis for the last few years, and each and every time, I’m somehow surprised by it.

I never learn. I should fix that.

Things this year have been different, in that the pandemic meant that all of the holiday shopping took place online and earlier than usual, which at least shifted stress from I don’t have time to shop, I have three different deadlines to hit before the day’s over to I don’t have time to open these boxes and I can’t even remember what I bought, I have three different deadlines to hit before the end of the day. A change is as good as a rest, according to people who regularly get rests; to everyone else, it’s just regularly exhausting.

What hasn’t been different has been the rush for material, and the juggling of keeping up with the day-to-day workload of news and explainers and op-ed pieces with the traditional year-end content: retrospectives, Best Of lists, and speculation about what lies ahead in any appreciable area. I’d hoped, foolishly, that the lack of a Star Wars movie this year might have eased things, but DC relaunching its superhero comic line and the new Wonder Woman movie on HBO Max put paid to those forlorn hopes.

I’d managed to convince myself that, maybe, maybe I was being melodramatic and things weren’t so busy and stressful this year. And then I told my therapist my recent workload, and she went, “oh boy, that’s a lot. I’m tired just listening to you.” That might be a sign that, all things being equal, I’m a little overwhelmed right now. Tis the season, after all.

Turn And Face The Strange

Ive been writing for different places in the last few months, after losing my Wired gig and seeing my THR workload get smaller — something that, thankfully, gets reversed at the start of next year, I’ve recently been told. It’s been a move born of necessity, but not necessarily one that I regret; it’s good to reach out a bit, try new things. Even before the pandemic, I was thinking that I should probably be trying to be published elsewhere. It’s just that the way in which it happened wasn’t exactly an ideal situation. But, really, what was, this year…?

Some of the “different place” writing has been old haunts returned to to see if it worked out, others have been new venues I’d been eyeing for awhile. Not all of it, wonderfully, has even been published under my name — intrigue! — but it’s all been part of this experience of breaking out of the comfortable work rut I’d found myself in for the past few years, and looking at the way I do the work that I do.

(Just because I call it a rut doesn’t mean I’m bemoaning it, I should clarify; it was a situation I was very fortunate to be in, and one I miss being in now, and not just for monetary reasons. Having two ongoing gigs of the scale I did was a rare and wonderful thing, and I’m lucky I had the opportunity for as long as I did. Nonetheless, I was doing the same thing for a few years, and at some point, I became a little too comfortable with that.)

It’s been an experience, to say the least — relearning how to pitch stories, and even more importantly, how to deal with pitches being rejected; learning to deal with the demands and expectations of new editors; discovering the quirks of how I write and the affectations of others I’ve taken on, unconsciously — and it’s something that has improved what I’d call my craft, if such a term didn’t make me feel self-conscious.

That said, as I head into a new year and one that, I hope, is going to be less tumultuous for the world and my profession in particular, I find myself hoping to find recurring, regular berths again. I love writing, I love my job. It’s just that, if it’s possible, I’d like to be able to love and appreciate it with a little less worry for awhile.

Alternative Careers I Have Considered Throughout My Life

Being a freelance writer isn’t for the faint of heart, nor for anyone who truly cares about money. As this year, especially, has shown, you’re at the whim of countless elements outside your control, from editors whose tastes are unintelligible and unknowable to budgets that change with little notice but control if you’ll meet rent that month or not. In the (gasp) decade-plus that I’ve made it as a freelance writer, I’ve often thought about giving it up and finding something else — something better-paying, something more stable, something with a set schedule that might actually involve some level of physical activity to keep my muscles from slowly atrophying on a near-imperceptible basis — to do, instead. Really, who could blame me? Here are three of alternate options that I’ve struggled with.

Librarian or Bookseller

Pros: I like people. I like books. What if I could put both of those things together, and help people find the books they really wanted, and make them happy? Cons: You have to go to school to become a librarian, I’m pretty sure. And even if you didn’t, I know that I’d judge people’s poor taste relatively harshly enough that I’d risk getting fired for failing to disguise my horror at some of their choices.

Some Kind of Comic Book Industry Professional

Despite how vague this sounds, it’s rooted in some kind of reality. I know a surprising number of people who’ve jumped from writing about the comic book industry, like I do, to actually being part of that industry, whether as an editor or some executive level position. There are even people inside the industry who’ve made noises that I should make the switch myself, and there are certainly days when it feels like an option I should consider — and then, almost inevitably, there are days when I’m writing about the industry and remember that it’s a cruel and unforgiving one without any true loyalty or retirement package that transforms even its most beloved figures into exhausted husks by the time it’s finished with them.

Plus, no-one’s actually, like, offered me an actual job or anything.

Postman

This has been, for years, my unofficial retirement dream — to give up being a freelance writer and instead deliver mail part-time. I’d get exercise, I’d be part of a community, and perhaps even get cookies from grateful households during the holidays. Unfortunately, 2020’s apparent destruction of the United States Postal Service has maybe put paid to this fantasy.

Guess I’ll just have to keep writing for now. If you’ll excuse me, I’m pretty sure I need to get to work on some pitches…

Don’t Speak, I Know What You’re Thinking

One of the things I initially intended when I set myself the rule that I’d post three times a week on this site, back at the start of 2019 — in the midst of a divorce and trying to find a new structure for myself, as well as a new sense of agency, and having literally no idea that a pandemic was a little over a year away, because who did? — was that I’d share things written elsewhere that I wanted to keep track of, whether they were stories written for print that didn’t appear elsewhere on the internet or simply things that hadn’t appeared publicly for whatever reason.

It’s fair to say that I haven’t actually done that over the past, what, 20 months or so, by this point. Part of it was, simply, that I didn’t get around to it — there was always something else to do, or else I was simply forgetting and ending up writing new posts instead of repurposing old ones. But part of it was that, when I did write things that I would have wanted to share, it wasn’t necessarily a good idea to share them.

A case in point: I did what could, I guess, be considered unpaid consulting for a publisher earlier this year. It didn’t start off that way; it was, instead, a simple question asked by someone at that publisher about something that I can’t share because it’d break confidences. My answer, however, was a short essay, going far bigger than they’d intended, and creating a Unified Theory Of That Publisher’s Public Image that, sure, answered the question but did a bunch of other things, too.

(So many other things, in fact, that I worried that I’d gone too far and wrote a follow-up message that was basically, “I’m sorry if I went overboard.” I hadn’t, I was reassured.)

I couldn’t share something like that, because it was all said in professional confidence, for want of a better way to put it. And so much of the stuff I’d want to post here that was originally written elsewhere falls under that category. The moral of this story may be either, I should shut up elsewhere more often, or perhaps I should publish and be damned, anyway. I’m not sure which, or if it’s either one at all.

Beyond Thunderdome

So, I did DC FanDome.

In a year of COVID, everyone has been taking the idea of a convention and turning it into a series of Zoom meetings and YouTube videos, so I guess no-one should have been that surprised when WarnerMedia announced FanDome in the first place; it felt like the ultimate culmination of that idea crashing into Warners’ corporate desire to make DC into a lifestyle brand — something that’s been a quiet ambition since the company named dropped any modifiers and became, simply, “DC.”

(I could be wrong, but I think the official name went from DC Comics to DC Entertainment in 2009, and then quietly became just DC just under a decade later; there was certainly no big fanfare about the dropping of “Entertainment,” I just remember DC execs quietly telling me to stop calling it DC Entertainment in THR stories.)

DC FanDome felt overwhelming and overkill on first blush, I’ll be honest: a 24 hour livestream based entirely on DC properties? Is that what anyone really wants? But then I remembered that I spent four days last year at a real life convention based around Star Wars, and that’s just one series of movies. FanDome, in that context, suddenly felt like a model of restraint — only 24 hours? And for free? I could even watch from the comfort of my home, and not have to go to Chicago!

With rumors of new footage for the big DC movies of the next year or so, it was obvious that I’d have to cover the show for work, and that’s exactly what happened; I was one of a team of three at THR watching the eight hour block of programming this past Saturday — in many respects, the original plans for FanDome were scaled back before it happened, with a second event announced for the following month less than a week before it took place to host more than half the originally announced content; I’d love to know what happened behind the scenes — and, reader, it was exhausting.

Perhaps it’s because it really was a nonstop eight hour block of programming with little downtime to allow us the chance to write up stories. Maybe it’s because “panels” lasted anywhere between 10 to 30 minutes instead of physical show’s more common 45-60 minute runtime, making everything so frenetic. Or, simply, I could have just been exhausted by working on a Saturday after a long and stressful work week as-was.

All I know is, I was aware that, objectively, DC FanDome was entertaining, slickly produced, fast-paced and, honestly, kind of fun. But, personally, covering it felt like an endurance race that I was not prepared for. I’m, by this point, familiar with attending comic cons where friends say things like, “Oh, that sounds fun!” and I respond with, “No, it was work.” This one, though, despite only being eight hours, and despite seeing me at home the entire time, felt like work.

I did DC FanDome, and I’m really glad that it went well for everyone involved and all the fans that dug it; I think it’ll be a model for future events of this nature, even after COVID, whenever that may be. But I’m also very, very glad that it’s over and I can relax for a bit.

Gonna Fuss and Fight

Before the big THR story was published last week, I was pretty nervous.

There were multiple reasons for that, I told myself; the subject was big — perhaps too big for the word count we’d been given, but print is print and you only have the space allotted you. (When I was starting out as a writer, I’d look at magazine pieces that stretched through multiple pages with awe and fear, thinking I could never write anything that long; I now know quite how short a two page magazine story actually is.)

More than that, the subject was important. The story we were writing was about something that had changed people’s lives, had ruined lives. (It had certainly ruined careers, or utterly derailed others’.) Each of the three of us who’d written the story had talked to a number of people impacted by what had happened, and we felt a responsibility to get everything right for them, if nothing else.

There was also the fact that, by the time it ran, we’d been working on this for some time — more than a month, in some form or other. We’d started seriously talking about it towards the end of June, and even that came after watching events unfold for a couple weeks by that point. The story had been something that we’d been living with for awhile, first as an abstract concept, then as information gathering, then finally more than a week actually putting together and pulling apart, going through the editorial process. The idea of putting it out, of it actually not being something in the works anymore, felt oddly daunting.

And finally, I was nervous about reception to the piece. Would it go over well? Would people be receptive? Reporting it had only uncovered more stories to tell, and I’d already pitched follow-ups. If we were judged to have done this one well, it would be easier to convince editors to go for what’s next.

I’d convinced myself that I was the only one nervous, but as the piece actually went out, I discovered that wasn’t the case; someone else who worked on it shared their own relief as reaction started to appear, and it was positive. It was an oddly restorative moment, for reasons I’m unsure about, but something that made me feel less ridiculous and less alone.

Wave Goodbye

Losing my Wired gig is, as much as my bank balance refuses to agree with me on this topic, something that might ultimately turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

I’m now two months out from the actual event — three from getting the news — and it’s no longer like a phantom limb, this desire to stay completely on top of what I laughably, bitterly call the “online discourse” every single day of the week, scouring social media to find the conversations worth sharing. That alone feels like a healthier, less frenetic place to be, mentally, and for that one thing, I feel like I can report that blessing in disguise theory as something approaching fact.

I’ve not found one thing to replace Wired in either my schedule or especially my income, but I’ve been dipping my toe back into the Comics Internet as a freelancer and that’s been a surprisingly enjoyable experience — there’s a lightness of touch and comfort in writing for specifically nerdy outlets again, and letting that freak flag fly a little more freely, I’ll admit. (Having Ava DuVernay share my return to Newsarama on social media, actually quoting from it, wasn’t that bad either, I’ll be honest; it certainly pleased editors there.)

There’s no joy in the scrambling to continually pitch stories — and have so many rejected! — nor the uncertainty of knowing where or how much my workload is going to be on any given week, but I can’t deny that the break from my old routine nonetheless feels bracing in a positive way, somehow, as if new possibilities are around the corner in ways I can’t quite imagine yet.

One has already quasi-presented itself, although in an abstract, unlikely fashion; I won’t jinx it by describing it, but suffice to say that it’s exciting enough to make me hope it happens, and to remind me that I had become more blinkered to my potential than I’d known while juggling Wired and THR for as long as I did.

2020 is a hard year, and losing a job is not fun. But, at least, there’s a feeling that it was the start of something else, as opposed to a shitty, cruel ending and nothing more.

Your Humbled Correspondent

A month into it, now, the lack of Wired in my life feels like a curious, contradictory thing. I certainly miss the paycheck — oh boy, do I miss the paycheck — and I miss the kind of work I was doing there when I was let go, the stuff that looked into the politics of everything and tried to take a deep breath and look at things at once in the moment and from a long view. But, other than that…?

Other than that, there have been all too many times this month where I’ve said to myself, I’m glad I’m not doing Wired anymore — or, worse and weirder, where others have said that to me, afraid of just what it could have meant to my brain on my behalf. During the start of the Black Lives Matter protests, every day I looked at the news with something approaching horror and I remember thinking daily, I’m so glad that I don’t have to try and summarize this, pull tweets and try to make it make sense and try to come up with some kind of quasi-entertaining framework in which to address this whole situation. Every single day. I remember the end of that first week, the sheer sense of relief I had on the Thursday morning not to sit down and have to write that column.

It strikes me, remembering this, that was around the same time I started humorlessly referring to the US as a hellscape; I wonder if that sense of grim resignation would have been different had I been trying to unpick the paths these stories had traveled to get to where they’d gone…?

There was a point, when the Wired column was going to be turned into a web series, where I got a note from editorial asking politely if I could ease up on the politics and add in some lighter, fun, entertainment stuff. I understood what I was being asked for, especially as it hadn’t been intended as a political column when it started — before Trump was even President, if you can think back that far. It had simply evolved into what it had become, as I’d evolved.

As much as I feel relieved that I don’t have to stare into the online abyss on a weekly basis now, I do wonder where that column would have gone if we’d been able to continue to evolve, however. If nothing else, even as everything becomes a hellscape, I do wish I could have finished out Trump’s presidency.

I/O and Other Stories

I tend to write these posts first thing in the morning, when the rest of the house is still asleep; there’s something about that space, that stillness, that allows my brain to unravel in the way that it’s easier to share here — I feel less self-conscious about using the time so selfishly, perhaps, knowing that everyone else isn’t even awake yet. (One of the joys of being an early riser, I guess. Go figure.)

More specifically, I tend to write these posts first thing in the morning on the weekend, and schedule them out far in advance. That’s not always the case — I’ve written about my three week buffer of posts in the past, but recent events have meant that I’ve been writing posts day of publishing, in part out of a need to shout into the void, in part because what had originally been scheduled felt especially meaningless and facile in comparison — but, more often than not, it’s a Saturday or Sunday morning where I’ll write what will eventually appear here.

A lot of this is because of the way my brain works. Writing during the main part of the day feels like it needs to have more purpose, like it needs to be for someone or something else: that it’s work, or it’s Wait, What? and not just me writing for my own needs. I can’t explain why that feels true, but it does; let’s just go with it.

But there’s also a thing where, for the most part, I save this writing for the weekend because the weekday mornings are for reading, whether it’s the news or social media (which is, I increasingly feel, still the news, just in a different format), or research for some particular purpose. It’s not reading for pleasure — that’s an evening activity, or, again something I do on weekend mornings — but reading with the intent of learning and searching out new information that I’m going to need in the short term.

None of this scheduling or organized methodology was planned, or even formalized until I started thinking about it recently, but somehow, I’ve ended up with a system where there’s a very clear demarcation between my input and my output, and what kind of both goes when. My subconscious is far more organized than the rest of me.

And In The End

The thing I’ll miss most about Wired is, of course, the thing I’ll miss least about Wired. Because why should I expect anything else?

I started there through nepotism, kind of: Laura Hudson, formerly editor of Comic Alliance, had taken over as culture editor for the website, and we were friends. I suspect the fact that I’d already been writing for places like io9 and Time worked in my favor, too; I had experience working for “mainstream” outlets instead of just the comic press, and I think it was comforting on some level to feel like I wouldn’t be completely inept if given the opportunity to write for something on the scale of Wired. (Just partially inept; I’m still me, after all.)

I must have done something right, because I outlasted Laura, who left editorial after a couple of years, and also the man who replaced her, Peter Rubin. All told, I ended up staying seven years at the site, which feels pretty incredible to me, to be honest. (Not least of which because there was once a point where it felt as if two years was the outer limit of my tenure anywhere.)

I’m leaving because of that most common reason these days: COVID-related cutbacks. Wired’s parent company Condé Nast has been pulling back all across the shop, despite increased readership because there’s no advertising dollars right now, so I knew it was coming even before getting the phone call a month ago, and we left it with a mutual hope that I might be able to do occasional freelance stuff for them in the future — I hope that happens l because I want to continue to be connected to the outlet in some way. It’s been good to me in all manner of ways; I have happy memories there.

As to the thing I’ll miss most and least… Well, the meat of my last few years at the site was While You Were Offline, a weekly column that picked five social media conversations each week and curated them, explained them and tried to put them into some kind of context. It was, in many ways, like a version of Fanboy Rampage!!!, the thing that started my career off in the first place, and it became this strange, welcome primal scream into the void during the Trump era.

It was also a fucker to do every week, eating up hours of my life and changing the way I interacted with the internet and media in general, and to be blunt, now that it’s gone, I’m not quite sure what it’s going to be like without it. I’ll no longer have to go down a research hole for hours every Wednesday and Thursday…! But at the same time, I’ll no longer go down research holes every Wednesday and Thursday…! It feels like a death, in the oddest way, which feels fitting, somehow. That’s how it feels to leave Wired as a regular contributor, as a whole.