Happy May, friends, and welcome back to another Productivity, WIthout Privilege. I’m your ever-stalwart host and companion through these ridiculous times, Alan Henry, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask you to pre-order Seen, Heard, & Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized, which comes out 6/7/22 if you haven’t already. We’re getting so close to the book launch now! I’m excited, and I hope you are, too.
I’m writing this week from an empty conference room at a hotel, just after giving my keynote talk and stepping off stage at the American Society for Journalists and Authors annual conference, to whom I’m exceptionally grateful for asking me to speak. One thing that came up during the talk that I think deserves a little more space is the concept of owning your own voice, and fostering the relationships necessary to tell your own story.
So let’s dive into that topic a little. Hopefully as someone who’s been a commissioning editor for years, and as someone who’s also been on the side of the table where I’m looking for platforms to tell my stories, I might be able to help.
The first thing I want to disabuse people of the notion of is this idea that their voice isn’t “worthy” of prestige platforms or publications.
First, think for a moment about all the mediocre voices, the intellectually dishonest voices, and the otherwise privileged voices that are in an overabundance on most platforms. Then ask yourself whether or not you could structure an argument better than they can (you can,) whether or not your story is more worth telling (it is,) and whether you can find the voices and information required to back up your perspective (you can.) Congratulations: compared to the fact that you have a story to tell at all, that’s all it really takes.
I’m minimizing some details here for sure, otherwise no one could sell you a journalism degree, but I am saying that a lot of people stop themselves before they even start by assuming that their voice isn’t “worthy,” or “refined” enough. It’s something I heard a lot at The New York Times, that we had to make sure that someone had a voice that was right for the outlet—but it was described as a way to weed out certain voices, rather than encourage and teach people to reach a certain level in their writing that their voice could hold up to criticism.
But frankly, it’s the job of an editor to, yes, make sure the voices they work with fit for the outlet but also it’s an editor’s job to help a writer with a story to tell get their voice to the level they need to be published, even if that takes work. And because that does take work, a lot of editors and writers alike choose not to do it, because it’s easier to just…not. They focus on their networks, people they may know already or have worked with previously, or who come recommended by peers. And it’s easy at that point to not put the work in to helping a writer with a passion or a unique story—but who often comes in fresh and new—can grow.
So that’s a bit of a long way of saying “the fact that others may not like your voice doesn’t mean your voice is bad or needs improvement.” It could very well be that your voice just doesn’t fit with an outlet, or even a specific editor, but not for the reasons you may think. It’s truly often that it’s them, not you who can’t make the story work. And if you’re part of a marginalized group, add on the fact that you have social baggage associated with your work that will immediately color their perceptions of you, how you work, and what you may be like to work with.
I hope it’s getting clearer that, bottom line, when an editor, a publisher, or anyone in a position of judgement looks at your work, that you understand there’s a variety of factors that play into what they take away from it—and only one of those factors is your actual skill. So many others are based on perception, or are out of your actual control. Forgive yourself first, ask if there’s anything you can fix to make it work, or if they have any feedback for next time, accept when they often don’t (or don’t have time to offer it,) and move on to the next one.
So that’s a lot of external factors you have no control over, but don’t breathe too easily yet. I really should offer at least some advice for the things you can control, shouldn’t I?
First, I want to underscore something I said a moment ago: Forgive yourself, and where you are in your journey right now, whether that’s in terms of your writing or any other field or dream you may be chasing. You had to build on something to get here, and you’ll build on this to get somewhere else, but always try to enjoy what you’re doing right now. I really do think that many of us do our best work from a place of self-forgiveness first, where we allow ourselves to truly be ourselves and share our stories in our own imperfect, complicated way.
Next, and again because I’m thinking about all the wonderful people I met at ASJA this weekend, and all of the other folks in other personal and professional communities I’m in, I want to remind you to find the friends that are waiting to meet you. Sure, you can think of it as professional networking (or as I like to call it, “making friends,”) but those same communities will rally to support you the same way you embrace them. If you do it warmly and authentically, you’ll wind up not just with people willing to beta read your next great novel and give you honest feedback, but you’ll end up with people you’ll actually want to do the same for.
They’re both “softer” productivity tips, but I think they’re both important to your mindset, and to the way you’ll approach your work when you do it. If you’re so busy trying to be someone you’re not, or adopt a voice that isn’t yours, you run the risk of making your story a mishmash of someone else’s (and, depending on the social baggage involved, could be appropriative.) And the worst case scenario there is that your story gets lost as a footnote in the history of how a completely different story was told. Similarly, when you find community or people willing to work with you and support you on a personal level, they’ll be the first ones to sound the alarm if you’re headed in that direction.
Now you can breathe easy.
How to Remove Your Personal Info From Google's Search Results, by Reece Rogers: Welcome new subscribers! If you haven’t noticed, sometimes I’ll cheat a bit by recommending a story that I worked on or edited! I’m doing it again: Reece is a service writer at WIRED and when the news broke that Google was going to allow people to remove things like their phone numbers, email addresses, addresses, and other data if they wanted, he put this very helpful piece together super quickly. And since we were talking about issues around social media and harassment last time, it’s even better to have in your toolkit.
Applied for Student Aid Online? Facebook Saw You, by Surya Mattu and Colin Lecher: The actual technology used here is used all the time to collect certain kinds of data about website visitors, email openers, and other analytics, but something about Meta—nee Facebook—with access to that level of information about a group of people who are about to shift the type of data they produce in a significant way is kind of scary. After all, even they don’t always know where your data goes. This piece at The Markup walks through how this happened and who’s willing to admit what the data is for (spoiler: not many people.) Data security is important: we’ll definitely come back to it later.
He Was 5'7". After Surgery, He’ll Be 5'10", By Elamin Abdelmahmoud: If you’ve read this story, you know why I had to include it. It’s part of the “discourse” after all. If you haven’t read it, I ask you to read this beautiful bit of culture reporting about the men who are getting actual leg extension surgeries in order to gain, at most, 3-5 inches of height. And I’m not knocking them for it at all—in fact the main subject of the story does it for very good reasons, in his own way. Anyway, I don’t want to spoil anything, but do let me know what you think of the story, and whether it was as thought-provoking for you as it was for me.
If you take time to sit own and read a package of stories in the near future, I heartily recommend the MIT Technology Review’s series on AI colonialism. And I don’t use the word “colonialism” lightly here—the thrust of the entire package is that through the use of AI in many cases, and especially when it comes to AI being used by power and authority to maintain extant power structures, along with all of the inequalities that exist in those same structures, it’s the wealthy and powerful that reap the benefits of AI while too often already marginalized or underserved communities continue to struggle.
The full introduction by itself was enough to have me eager to read the rest of the series, and I promise, even if you’re not a particularly tech-savvy or tech-forward reader, this is more a story of economics and social justice that involve the use of technology, rather than too much dissection of the technology itself. You’ll be fine, I promise!
Now then, I’ll see you in two.