Writerland Chapter 31: Engineering a Writing Life

Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.

Writerland began a year and a half ago because I had discovered something unfamiliar and exciting when I returned to writing after so many years away from the work that had dominated my professional life for forty-five years. That search for finding joy in writing -- mine, and those of the writers generous to share their struggles to find that elusive pleasure in the work -- comes from the perspective of someone who has been at this a long time, and for whom the struggles to find my footing are resonant but increasingly distant in a fast-shifting industry and world. The ultimate hope is that it might help writers discover the joy in work so often marked by doubt, fear, and gloom. 

That joy lay in the work itself, in discovering new ways to think about finding, getting, and telling stories writers need to tell. And while the journey to finding that joy continues -- it’s not as if after thirty issues we’ve found the Hidden Garden of Narrative Happiness -- it’s also clear that the joy is often contingent on what comes before the work begins, and the common experiences of putting words on the page. 

Or, more to the point: you cannot be happy in your work as a writer if your writing life is making you unhappy. Beyond the practical elements of creating a writing life, however, we also believe that there needs to be a place to which writers -- regardless of how they make a living -- can turn that addresses the perils, pitfalls, and obstacles that precede the moment when you can finally sit at the keyboard and begin to write. So, we’re expanding the newsletter’s mission beyond craft, to address what one writer friend calls “engineering” a writing life. It begins with a few assumptions:

-Despite the desire to have what one writer I know longingly refers to as “oceans of time” to write, such oceans exist for precious few writers. The rest of us need to be doing something else to make a living. Writing is what we do when we don’t have to do what’s economically essential. Yet the fact that we do it makes it a calling/something we must do, a story we must express, to make sense of our experiences. 

-The world has changed in ways both good and bad. The Great Digital Disruption has given more writers more outlets to tell their stories. But making a decent buck at this has become more difficult because the publications that used to pay well might no longer exist, and if they do, are paying less. Writers have day jobs, some but not all of which involve writing. Writers also freelance, and for them there is a terrific resource in https://www.lance.media/ written by our wise and trenchant colleague Anna Codrea-Rado. 

-The changing landscape has revealed much that was ugly about the writing world: sexism, racism, a small, gate-keeper-dominated circle that offered too little opportunity to diverse voices. Those forces persist, but exist in less darkness everyday. Bringing them to the surface allows us to combat them. 

-But...digital disruption is now also allowing writers, and groups of writers, to think of new ways to tell their stories and new ways to bring them to readers. This is the driving force behind the Delacorte Review: New voices, new stories.

Writerland has had one voice and that has been mine. Time to add a new one, a voice that reflects an essential and different sensibility in a changing world and industry. That voice is Natasha Rodriguez’s, who has been the Review's managing editor since 2018. Natasha's voice will appear every month in this newsletter, alternating with mine, to explore diverse experiences in contemporary journalism, seek advice from those writers historically relegated to the margins, and navigate her own ambitions and identity as an editor and writer. I will continue focusing on the journey to finding joy in a lifetime of writing. Together, we hope to engage in a conversation with our readers that sweeps decades of change, in our industry and more fundamentally in American life. 

As Natasha and I find a rhythm (hopefully with your input and feedback) in the newsletter, the Review is working on and anticipating its Fall issue, with Natasha succeeded as managing editor by Selin Thomas, whose voice will be apparent in the direction of the Review in the months to come.

Now, to the writing life. 

NATASHA: I started working at the Delacorte Review when it was called the Big Roundtable, a place where writers could submit their unfinished or unclaimed stories and devote themselves, with the help of a few wise editors, to publishing them. It was 2018, and I was a 23-year-old longform journalism fellow at Columbia Journalism School. Part of my fellowship consisted of helping think through and eventually launch the Review, which pivoted toward capturing emerging voices and offering their stories space. Post-launch, I was lucky enough to stay on as associate editor then managing editor. 

This is a small publication where my opinion is always heard and valued. I’ve never felt inhibited from speaking up, even in disagreement, which is a rarity in journalism, especially for someone like me, who is young and not white. We have put out a lot of work I am proud of, like our Year of Fear series and this newsletter, and our team is talented, dedicated and eager. I owe a lot to the Review and the people who make it happen. I wouldn’t be at the New York Times, first doing data reporting on coronavirus, now editing, if I hadn’t worked here. 

It hasn’t always been easy. For years, I was the only person of color on the team and the only person who was trying to become a journalist in a time when layoffs, cutbacks and closings were and still are the norm. My coworkers couldn’t relate to some of my experiences, just like I couldn’t relate to some of theirs. We worked to bridge these differences in editorial discussions and benchmarks, and we found some common ground. But putting those commonalities into the core of this publication -- ingraining it in its identity -- is more challenging work.

This newsletter is our start, a place for these conversations and professional trials to be aired, and it’s been some of our most important and impactful work. Every time we send out an email, we get responses from subscribers thanking Michael for his words. Learning about the craft of journalism, the tools you rely on when the money or the story or the existential dread ebbs, is vital. And in these newsletters Michael interviews some of journalism’s finest, who offer insight into their skills and vulnerabilities alike. These entries will continue. But something was missing. 

You can devour all the information and advice about craft that is out there but it’s hard to apply it to any work if you are struggling to even get your foot in the door. 

To be very clear: my portion of the newsletter will not be focused on my writing life. My writing life is boring, abysmal and typical — days spent procrastinating, riddled by self doubt, self-loathing, wondering if I can even write a sentence that makes sense, questioning all my life choices. In fact, right now as I write, I am wondering why I agreed to do this in the first place. 

I want to write about the things I wish someone had told me when I was starting out, and ask questions about things I still don’t have answers to. I want to hear from people who are further along in their careers and more accomplished and knowledgeable about the ins and outs of journalism than I am, about how they have succeeded in this difficult industry in this day and age. I want to hear from you, too. I want to seek the advice of women, journalists who have dealt with harassment from sources, or discovered ways to leverage how often they’re underestimated. I want to know how journalists navigate accusations of bias solely on the basis of reporting on a community they come from or look like. I want to know more about freelancers who have made it work, without help from financially-stable partners and relatives. 

I really don’t want this to be some woe-is-me-journalism-is-hard rant. But in fact, this business can be punishing and I haven’t even been in it for that long. In these newsletters, I hope to shed some light on things that you might be in the dark about, just like I am. 

Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.