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May. 10 2010 - 8:54 am | 11,005 views | 3 recommendations | 8 comments

A veteran journalist offers advice to a young journalist

Nearly a year ago, I received an email from a young, aspiring journalist looking for advice on becoming a writer. His email was thoughtful, polite, carefully crafted. What was my big break? he wanted to know. Did I go to journalism school? he wondered. Was I able to support myself as a full-time writer? he inquired.

I responded to his note on my (former) blog (the current one is here) with a post that could only be described as not entirely supportive. I thought I would share it again here, in case any other young journalists are thinking about undertaking a writing career in these dark publishing days.

Hello Ms. Breslin-

My name is David, and I’ve been reading your blog “Reverse Cowgirl.” I’m a young (24) aspiring writer, and by aspiring I mean, hoping to someday be reimbursed my for contributions. I don’t mean to bore you, but I’m intrigued by your style and topics, and would like to know more about how you forged your writing career. If you have time I would love to know more about:

1. Did you attend journalism school? Is it a good way to “break-in?”
2. Are you able to support yourself solely on your blogging and writing? If so, how long did it take for this to become possible?
3. What was your “break”?
4. What suggestions might you give for someone like myself who has a years experience writing for a handful of small magazines?

I understand you’re very busy, and however you prefer to answer my questions (via email, phone, later on) please just let me know. Thank you again for your time, and the best of luck to you.

Thanks,

David Johnson-Igra

Dear David:

Most of the time, when I receive emails like yours, I delete them, leaving them ignored and unanswered. Now 12 years into a little-rewarding writing career, I have grown bitter, jaded, and tend to see bright-eyed, bushy-tailed upstarts such as yourself as little more than potential competition. Why would I help you? I was about to delete your email, which I found to be particularly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and therefore especially worthy of deletion–when I stopped myself. What was it? Your odd name? Your supplicating ways? Your seeming understanding that I am “very busy,” when, in fact, I am not? Anyway, I decided to respond. Consider yourself … lucky? Or, maybe, unfortunate.

1. No, David, I did not attend “journalism school.” Is there really even such a thing? I guess that’s what they call j-school. For some reason, I only associate it with Columbia. Go figure. I took one “journalism” class in college. I remember something about pyramids. And a book. But I remember all too clearly the day the professor said how much journalists made. That was the day I changed my mind about becoming a journalist.

I have no idea if that’s a good way to “break-in.” Considering that the state of journalism today is like that of a bank that has been robbed, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to “break-in” to it anyway. Mostly, I think schools are for dipshits and traditional ways of going about things are for losers. You can see where that got me. Blogging. And writing to you. And ruing my life choices. Go if your parents pay. If they don’t, forget it, or you’ll end up with $50K in debt you can never hope to repay.

Conclusion: Fuck “journalism school.”

2. Am I able to support myself solely on blogging and writing? Well, David, nosy, aren’t you? I guess that would make you at least a half-decent journalist. Either way, I am too chronically obtuse to answer your question other than to say I have a day job that involves writing and editing without which I would be shaking a tin cup on the corner and shouting at you about the coming end of civilization in 2012. (All journos are deeply invested in the Mayan calendar, FYI.)

If you think I make money off blogging, you are misguided. Once, I made some money off this blog by running some American Apparel ads featuring porn star Sasha Grey wearing some thigh-high socks and a thick genital shrug of pubic hair. Welcome to journalism 2009. It’s an ugly world.

Sometimes, I like to torture myself by thinking back to 2000, or whenever it was, before the dot-com bubble burst and we all died. It was an amazing, heady time. I used $20 as toilet paper and ate Chicken Kiev flown in from the Russian Tea Room for breakfast. Truly, I wrote for a website called Beer.com that paid me, like, a $1,000 for, I can’t remember, a monthly 500-word column or something. That was a good time. Until it wasn’t. And then it wasn’t.

Conclusion: Don’t quit your day job. Ever.

3. What was my “break”? Ah, surely you jest. Do I seem like someone who has had one? I’m like the grimy-faced canary in the mine that the head coal digger keeps on a tiny dental floss leash so he can beat it with a miniature sapling whenever he likes.

Seriously, kid, my first big break was when I was co-running some asinine site about postfeminism and cajoled a booker at “Politically Incorrect” into letting me on the show. They pitted me against Erica Jong. It was kind of awesome.

More recently, the word “break” brings up less happy connotations. Like the idea of a broken person whose industry is slipping through her hands like a gelatinous jelly fish. Make it stop, David.

Conclusion: There are no breaks.

4. What suggestions might I have for someone such as yourself “who has a years experience writing for a handful of small magazines?” Well, to be honest, my first mental response was: Learn how to use apostrophes. But that’s not very nice, is it?

In the past, I’ve written my response to aspiring writers: Don’t. It’s just that simple. Pick something else. Don’t do it. Go become a rug cleaner like your mother suggested. Writing is a hideous, torturous art fit for expert masochists and idealist losers. Learn a trade. Marry a cougar. Go away and leave me the few jobs that remain. You little shit.

But, Young David, if you insist, my advice is this. Become a writer. I actually bothered to Google your name, and it seems like you can write, a little bit, at least, which is really the only reason I bothered to respond.

So, if you insist on becoming a writer, against my wishes, do this. Do something different. Most writers can’t write. Most journalists are shit. Go where no one else will go. Write what no one else will write. Tell the stories nobody wants to hear. Write for love. Do gigs for free. Stop churning out the same boring fucking copy that your peers are dutifully filing like a bunch of self-congratulating monkeys and find out what “beyond the pale” really means. Read this. And this. And this. Go into the ghetto. Interview a homeless person. Find out what it’s like to get jizzed on for a living. Fuck the pyramid, fuck j-school, fuck writing for a living. Fuck your computer, fuck your rent, fuck whatever your parents said. Go and live. Go be in the world. Go push yourself until you cry and then go back for more and then write about it. Because that’s what real writers do. They don’t just write about it. They live it. And then, if you’re lucky, you can find out what it’s like to lose everything, how to get the guy to show you the AK-47 that you know he has hidden in his closet, or joke with a soldier about giving a stripper the implant in his head that’s stretching his burned skin because he drove over an IED in Iraq after he’s done with it. Why? Because then you can die knowing that whatever you did, or whatever you wrote, hey, at least you weren’t a fucking coward like all those lame-asses that went to j-school, wrote shit copy for lame newspapers, and thought they were really pushing it because they did an email interview with Sasha Grey.

Conclusion: Get out of here, kid.

You’re welcome.

Love,

Susannah


Comments

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  1. collapse expand

    Well Ms. Breslin thank you for re-posting this article. It feels strange to see this almost a year later, though I’m glad I’m still the young journalist–because I know that after all the stress from this big, bad, and dark journalist world I have definitely aged, though in truth, this might just be my excuse for my premature signs of balding.

    I appreciate the link back (though http://www.sfcritic.com is my actual domain, and if you could please make the changes).

    Hope you’re well.
    David

  2. collapse expand

    This was a great lunchtime laugh. Susannah, you’ve made it in my book :P Now just figure out how to cash in.

  3. collapse expand

    This is amazing. Susannah Susannah Susannah. Sometimes you’re everything.

  4. collapse expand

    This is sound advice for the most part. I’m 26 and left journalism this year (voluntarily — not sent out the door with a cardboard box), but since then as I’ve taken on new challenges in business I have wondered about journalism education and its value.

    A post I wrote questioning the merits of J-Schools annoyed dozens of JRN professors and practitioners after it got picked up on Romenesko. Principally, I think journalism schools worship the Church of Journalism, which has little, if any, practical value. You can see the dozens of comments left by these folks here: http://thelynchblog.com/2010/03/25/what-the-reader-elite-means-for-journalism-schools/

  5. collapse expand

    Not clear why anyone, ever, paid for J-school. It teaches groupthink which is why so much official “journalism” is lame.

  6. collapse expand

    And don’t look to snipe any of my CD reviewing gigs either, kid. You’d end up like Sasha Frere-Jones, major label cum all over your mouth and face, in the gutter like the rest of the bastards at New Times and everywhere else.

    No, I’m kidding, they’re great and talented guys, seriously. Geniuses who use the word “eponymous” with straight faces.

  7. collapse expand

    Dearest Susannah,

    Without any intentions of aspersion, I would simply like to ask one or two questions: what is the difference between a school indoctrinating creative writers into conformist journalists and you asking Young David to write about what you write about while lying to him saying that it is what no one else writes about?

    Moreover, do you slander the conformist journalists because they do better than you or because they “obviously” lost their soul to the devil?

  8. collapse expand

    Huh. Well then, I’ll consider myself lucky to be going to the University of Oregon, whose J School more or less tells us to do everything the end of this post told us to.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance journalist, blogger, photographer, and creator of TheWarProject.com. I've written for Newsweek, Details, Harper's Bazaar, The Daily Beast, Radar Online, Variety, Salon, Slate, Wired News, The New York Post, The LA Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Vancouver Sun, The San Francisco Examiner Magazine, Playboy.com, and many other publications. I've appeared on CNN, Fox News, "Politically Incorrect," and NPR. Currently, I'm working on a novel. My email is susannahbreslin at earthlink dot net.

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