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.

I Don’t Care About Spots On My Apples

Things go wrong; that’s just a reality. I’m not talking about the result of machinations to fuck people over, or screw up others’ plans and hard work, but instead the times when… well, things just go wrong. When it’s no-one’s fault, per se, but just what happens sometimes and you deal with whatever’s happened and move on. It’s a simple, if frustrating, fact of life.

This site disappeared for a bit, a few weeks ago. Not a long time — an hour or so, maybe? But it vanished, entirely; something went wrong somewhere on the internet, and any attempt to reach it was met with messages explaining why that was impossible, that the server wasn’t available, that you couldn’t get here. R.E.M.’s “Can’t Get There From Here” played somewhere to underscore the possibility, just in case the blunt, dry message onscreen wasn’t enough.

The why of it all wasn’t the issue, really; my web host was having trouble for whatever reason. Maybe it was being attacked by raccoons, perhaps they had a power outage, or someone tripped over a cable and unplugged something. It wasn’t anything I had any control over, so a lot of me has this feeling of, what actually happened wasn’t really that important.

What felt more important, though, was the sense of immediate loss I felt every time I refreshed the page and couldn’t get to the site. At first, I thought it was just the back end that had failed, as I was trying (and failing) to write something, but then I realized everything was… gone. It was an odd, disorienting, feeling — I’ve often said that I’m not entirely sure why I post here, but at least I now know that, if everything here was to suddenly disappear, I’d feel a deep and impressively sharp loss, as if I’d literally lost a part of myself.

That’s melodramatic, I know — especially as the site returned soon enough, as if nothing had happened — but the experience made me realize how important this small, relatively private, place to wonder and ponder and write just to write had become to me, and how much I get some undefinable, yet very real, joy and value from it. Somewhere, the ghost of Joni Mitchell is exasperatedly going, “What did I say about not knowing what you got ‘til it’s gone?” but, well, there’s a reason people liked that song so much, and it wasn’t just her laugh at the end.

Website, thank you for your service. Don’t go away again, please.

To Pack A Pen With Vinegar And Insight

One of the untold casualties of the coronavirus: the webseries that Wired was planning on making out of the weekly While You Were Offline column I write for the site. I’m not sure if it’s totally dead or just sleeping due to circumstances, but I do know that the week everyone at Condé Nast started working from home was, ironically, going to be the week the series launched. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying.

I had this strange relationship with the webseries — on the one hand, I wasn’t really involved in developing or making it beyond talking to the producers early on in the process, so I was pretty much on the outside. But I also was on the inside; each episode was to be built around the column I had written for that week, meaning that I was responsible to some degree for each week’s video. I was in two places at once.

The development process took months; the first I heard about it was in the second half of last year, and what seemed tentative and slightly stuttering in terms of progress soon became much more constant. There was a pilot made — I never saw it, which I’m at once relieved about because I know I would have broken everything down and been highly critical of my role as minimal as it was, but at the same time, I do kind of wonder what it was like — and then, I believe, a series of weekly dry run episodes as a proof of concept that the production and turnaround time was possible on a weekly, ongoing basis.

For my part, I just kept doing what I do with the column with the one change being that I filed it a day earlier each week in order to let the video team do their thing. It was something that I struggled with at first, because it shortened the time I had to get the column done and made it less timely when it ran, but I soon settled into the new rhythm of things.

And now, to the best of my knowledge, it’s all off. It was an odd experience, the feeling of expectation and excitement and uncertainty, of weird responsibility, almost, but not a bad experience. We’ll see what happens when the post-virus world starts to assert itself.

Hey Hey Mercy

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I tend to have a buffer of posts for this site; I’m not sure exactly how it started but by mid-April last year, I’d built up a three week advance on what was going to be posted and when, and it’s something I’ve more or less maintained ever since, with a couple of bumps where I simply didn’t have time to write.

It’s an imperfect system, for sure, and purposefully so — the buffer is literally just that, and I tend to play with scheduling and rearranging the timing of posts a bunch. Often, I’ll write things that go live that day or the next, and bump what had been loosely scheduled for that spot to some time in the future as a placeholder; it’s not uncommon for those posts to end up getting bumped repeatedly and eventually show up months after I originally wrote them, to the point where I’ve even forgotten what they’re about. But that’s kind of the point of the whole system.

As a system, it’s only come close to breaking down once before, and that was the result of overwork and having no time to do anything new for a week or so; I remember the anxiety I felt watching the number of scheduled posts count down to five, at which point I just decided to spend an entire morning just writing, to fix that.

This time, though, I got to just a couple of pre-scheduled posts before I started being able to replenish the supply, and the reason was simply that I had nothing to say. The combination of being sick, then catching up on work, while the internet exhausted me and real life just kept happening completely burned me out, and every time I sat down to write something for here, I realized that I had nothing.

It was, I guess, unsettling, but more than that, it was something I recognized as a sign that I needed to stop for a while and let my brain soak, relax and refill with the dumb ephemera that would let me come back when I was ready. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to recognize the need to just… stop, sometimes. It’s a small victory for self care, but a victory nonetheless.

And, ironically, because of the buffer of posts, I got to take the necessary break and come back recharged without posts here even pausing. I knew there was a reason I did it.

Never Got Lost On This Road Before

And then, I got sick of the internet.

Being online is an important part of my job, and I mean that in a bigger way than simply Oh, I telecommute and work for publishers based in California even though I’m based in Portland. Literally, a significant part of my job requires me to be online a lot, because the internet — and specifically social media — is where I get a bunch of stories. I have a weekly column for Wired that is explicitly based on things that people are talking about on social media! It’s a place I spend a lot of time.

And, until recently, I’ve been okay with that. More than okay; I enjoyed the back and forth, the constant conversation and discussion and rhythm of the way social media worked, and the strange tense humor that fueled it. I could recognize patterns, and also loved the places where those patterns broke down and something new and unexpected happened, instead. It wasn’t just that I liked the internet, it was that I felt I spoke it’s language and understood it; it felt like my place, for better or worse.

And then it didn’t.

I couldn’t tell you when things changed, only when I realized. It was about three weeks ago and, in the internet’s defense, I was hardly at my best then either; I was recovering from being sick, and feeling pressured to catch up with everything as a result, and feeling quietly surly and stressed as a result. But if that was my mood, it was nothing compared to the internet.

It was the week when Super Tuesday was happening, which was also the week when the US was starting to realize how serious this whole coronavirus thing really was, and I was paying far too much attention to both because, in addition to being interested, it was also literally my job; I knew I’d be writing about both for Wired that week. And I hated it.

All I could see was people being angry at each other and picking fights, making overblown, self-involved statements and then flexing, as if preparing themselves for arguments they were sure were coming; it was the stereotype of the worst of the internet made real, and it was literally everywhere that week — even those who were traditionally calm and open and thoughtful seemed to be crouching, scanning the horizon for potential threats.

It was exhausting, and upsetting. It was disappointing, too, a constant stream of, not you too, you’re better than this…! that wore me down every single day. I knew the answer was to walk away and let this particular fever of nerves and anxiety and anger burn itself out, but I also knew that I couldn’t; I had to keep an eye on things for work. So, I did that, and felt myself slowly but surely get sick of the internet.

I’ll get over it; I don’t feel quite so tired and saddened by everything even now, if I’m honest. But, truth be told, at the time, it felt a little like heartbreak. This was, after all, my place — and then, it wasn’t.

Trying To Find A Radio

Every now and then, I remember that I co-wrote a successful column for my university newspaper for two years, and think to myself, “how did that happen?”

The answer, realistically, came from the fact that they had open submissions and were desperate for new material, but more than two decades later, it still seems unlike me to have submitted anything in the first place, and I genuinely can’t remember how I managed to convince Andy, my best friend at the time, to do it, either. Maybe we should just chalk it up to the confidence of youth.

I was underselling it before; it wasn’t just a column — we had that, sure (“Gubbins,” it was called, which was either Andy’s suggestion or the editor’s), but we also had a comic strip wholeheartedly ripped off of the Kyle Baker and Evan Dorkin collaboration from the early 90s where they reviewed shows together, a series of fake horoscopes, and a regular How-To guide to dancing like your favorite Britpop icons. We were astonishingly productive on a biweekly basis for two 20-year-old art students.

And, perhaps most surprising of all, it was a success, to the point of people recognizing us when we were out, which was an entirely surreal experience, and the byproduct of putting our likenesses in the comic strip in the first place. (Suffice to say, it was a small enough city we were all in for this to happen.) It was an odd brush with almost-fame that flattered our egos enough to be enjoyable, but was small enough to keep from being unpleasant.

We did all of this for two years, our second and third years in art school. By the end of the second year, we were pretty burned out and devoid of material, as well as all too aware that we should probably buckle down and be serious about course work in our final year, so stopping seemed like a good idea. I’m pretty sure our shtick was getting old by that point for other people, too.

I wonder, sometimes, how this all set me up for what I do for a living now; it was the first time I wrote about pop culture publicly, and in what I considered my own voice at the time. It was the first time I dealt with deadlines and audience response and… well, everything that my job is now, it feels like. Perhaps it was my secret origin.