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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Emily Nussbaum Is a Good Writer

What can we learn from how a good writer works to help others write good?

June 16, 2019
 
 

How does one become a good writer?

Once one is a good writer, how does someone write good?

As a writer and someone interested in the teaching of writing, I think about this stuff a lot, particularly about how to create the conditions under which students can progress towards achieving the goals of being a good writer and writing good.

Emily Nussbaum is a good writer. I could cite her accomplishments - staff writer at the New Yorker, a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for criticism – but I mostly urge you to read her writing which has been collected in a handy volume titled I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution to see for yourselves if you aren’t previously familiar. 

One of the reasons I know Nussbaum is a good writer is because I enjoy her work whether or not I am familiar with the subject she’s writing on. If I know the show, she often reveals some aspect of it that I likely hadn’t considered, deepening my enjoyment. But even if I do not know the show, the quality of her “arguments” – and all criticism is at heart arguing – spur me to be more thoughtful about the television I’m consuming in general. 

Her work also inspires me to strive for the same effect in my own writing on the subjects I choose to tackle.

Emily Nussbaum’s recent appearance on the podcast, “The Art of Process with Aimee Mann and Ted Leo,” provides some insight into how she became good writer and then writing good that I think can be extended to how we work with students on their writing.

I recommend listening to the entire episode[1], but to extract a few interesting tidbits.

Nussbaum didn’t start writing in the form for which she would win a Pulitzer until her late 20’s. She’d previously done a masters in poetry and started a literature PhD, during which a professor questioned her scholarship, but praised her writing.

She has done a wide variety of writing while also spending significant time as an editor at both Nerve(remember them?) and New Yorkmagazine.

Her initial foray into writing about television was rooted in her deep fandom of Buffy the Vampire Slayerand a frustration that it was not talked about as seriously as so-called “prestige” programs. She posted that writing at the website Television Without Pity, which was a kind of interactive free-for-all for fans of television shows that Nussbaum once tweeted “opened my eyes to what TV criticism could be.”

Granted, my inferences are governed by my predispositions about how writing works, but here are some of my takeaways from the podcast conversation.

1. The divide between the thinking one does when writing in a popular medium (like Television Without Pity or the New Yorker) and what one does in academia is pretty much non-existent. Nussbaum’s trajectory went from the academic to the popular, but the opposite route is equally possible[2].

2. Writing about subjects of interest and passion – Buffy the Vampire Slayerin this case – are an aid to developing as a writer for all the obvious reasons.

3. Having an audience with whom you feel like you are in conversation is both motivating when it comes to wanting to write, and a spur to making sure that writing is as clear and cogent as possible. Nussbaum is 100% correct about the impact of forums such as Television Without Pity and the way they invited the audience into a community around shared interests[3].

4. Writers benefit from being generalists. There’s no doubt that Nussbaum’s academic work, editing experience, and the other forms of journalism she practiced prior to her present position make her better a better writer and critic today. 

5. We write best when there is a happy intersection between authorial voice, publication, and purpose. For years the New Yorker  had a famously buttoned-up image, but writers have been given considerably more leeway under David Remnick’s editorship, and that leeway (by my reading, anyway) has extended even further in recent years. Nussbaum gets to sound like herself while also needing to fit inside the pages of her magazine. This freedom combined with a governor makes room for the right kind of discipline to be applied to a piece of writing.[4]

The story of Emily Nussbaum is the story of someone who has lived a life dedicated to what I call the “writer’s practice.” She has been developing the skills, attitudes, knowledge and habits of mind of writers every stop along the way. I designed my book, The Writer’s Practicearound writing experiences because I want students to prepare for futures as writers, rather than producing words as part of “doing” school. If you think about it, writing a TV recap for Television Without Pity requires the same moves as we’d expect in academic writing: summarizing both the content and significance/meaning of a text, situating the text in relation to other texts, and offering a critical appraisal of the text grounded in specific evidence.[5]

As I reflect on the conditions under which Emily Nussbaum developed into a Pulitzer Prize winning critic, they seem very similar to the conditions under which I became something less than a Pulitzer Prize winning critic, but a working writer nonetheless.

They are also conditions which are frequently denied students when they write in school contexts. 

This was not always the case. I’ve previously written about my 5th grade writing portfolio, which shows an admirable dedication to allowing us to be writing generalists. The specialization of students around what are in reality merely simulations of academic writing does great damage to their overall writing practices.

Nussbaum’s description of her writing process offers valuable insight into the day-to-day processes and conditions which go into writing well. 

She says she’s bad at first drafts and uses three drafts to get to the copy that runs in the magazine. The second draft is, in her words, “publishable” but it is that final push ahead of the deadline that allows her to create something much better than publishable[6].

She has both freedom to write on the subjects she wishes and the backup of an editor who provides the exact kind of feedback she needs depending on the present stage of the piece of writing. 

She is able to take time in between drafts to allow the ideas to percolate, though she is also able to do the same work on a shorter (36-hour total) timeline. (The shorter timeline was “painful” to her.) The deadline is a motivator – something has to go in – without being arbitrary or crushing. 

Most interestingly to me, towards the end of the podcast, Nussbaum, Leo and Mann talk about the kind of “faith through experience” that one can develop over time and with enough self-reflection into one’s own process.

That “faith through experience” is the knowledge that even if one is blocked or the piece is not coming together as one wishes, having escaped this dilemma before, they can do it again. For Nussbaum it happens every “six or seven columns” and she has a series of “tricks” to fix the problem. 

I have my own set of tricks, every writer does. Finding those tricks is a significant part of developing the writer’s practice. While there are some tricks that are transferrable, ultimately they come from a deep self-knowledge of writing in general and oneself as a writer in specific.

Ultimately, that depth of self-knowledge is my goal for the student writers. 

As best I can, I want to create the conditions under which students may be put on a trajectory to become Emily Nussbaum one day, not the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, per se, but someone who has the combination of passion, confidence, humility, and ability to put their ideas into the world.

 

[1]I’ve gone back and starting working my way through the other episodes of the podcast as well. Mann and DeLeo are great songwriters who truly understand process and the way they’re able to talk to people across different mediums about how process works is fascinating.

[2]This is one of the reasons why I assign a review early in my first-year writing class. It contains all the moves of academic writing (argument, evidence, ethos/pathos/logos, audience awareness, etc…) without the baggage students often bring to writing in “school” contexts.

[3]Salon’s “Table Talk” was my hangout during the Internet 1.0 years. 

[4]This forum offers me something similar, though with less intense editorial oversight. For me, the freedom is important. For example, I know that my IHE editors won’t get on my case about “writing good” (instead of well) because they are okay with their bloggers writing in their authentic voices, even when they run to the colloquial. 

[5]If there’s ever a 2nd edition of The Writer’s Practice, I’m adding in a TV recap experience.

[6]The life of a blogger means inevitably having to settle for publishable rather than getting to that third draft. Whatever infelicities one finds in these posts, I can identify more. I simply don’t have the necessary time to work them all out before I must publish. Thankfully, we make distinctions between a blog post that goes up without outside editing, and magazine pieces worked on by a team. 

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