On Writing Loud and Badly / by Michael Epstein

My magazine writing class had a visitor tonight: Jeff Ruby, a freelance writer and Chicago Magazine's lead restaurant critic. The man, who's been writing restaurant reviews and humor columns for 17 years, told us he learned to write by keeping a journal. He wrote in it every day for seven years and, while he wasn't trying, he played, poked and prodded his style and structure and developed the talents one needs to write well during that time.

He quoted David Carr, who relayed the best journalism advice he ever got to the world in a 2013 Reddit AMA. "Keep typing until it turns into writing."

Turning a novice writer into his or her best self involves is a well-documented process. They say writing is a muscle. You have to write a lot to develop a voice on paper. You have to learn how to write even when you don't want to if you want make something in a timely manner. Advice rarely endures long enough to get anointed as cliché without also ringing at least a little bit true.

Once upon a time that part of the journey, the time writers spend finding their way across the "gap" that Ira Glass is so famous for illuminating, could be kept a secret. It used to happen on typed pieces of paper they could throw in a trash can or shred or light on fire. Writers wrote and wrote and wrote until they couldn't help but leave their editorial fingerprints on the page. And then, when they finally published something, they knew that they were putting their best foot forward, or at least something approximating their talent and it was only once they established their greatness that their uncanonized work comes to light. Ruby didn't finish his journaling phase and spring forth a great writer —he attended college and J-School, and knew nothing about food when he first got a job writing for the dining section of Chicago Mag.— but he probably handled the worst of his growing pains in a private space.

But now we have the internet, so now the journal phase has become the blog phase and is no longer a secret item to be discarded or discovered, but a live and updating record of a writer's progress (or not). I'm not nostalgic for the time before blogs because I don't really know it. It was my blog, not my degree, that helped me land my first internship, which led to freelance work, which led me... to graduate school. Ok, career trajectory aside, my life as a writer began on a blog that was most assuredly littered with typos and hackneyed writing, so why do I care so much about making mistakes now?

I have some ideas about why I've grown weary of returning to blogging. I've started and stopped writing blogs many times over the past four or five years for a few reasons, almost all of which have been idiotic:

  • Generally speaking, a steady writing job provides enough work to sate my need to write other things.
  • I put myself on an ambitious schedule, lose pace, and decide to stop.
  • I'm too concerned with pitching and selling stories to bother with writing stuff that I can't submit.
  • I've been concerned about my image: Will people still see me as a professional writer if I spend time writing a personal blog?

You know what's funny? One of my biggest reasons for going back to school was finding a way to work on my writing in a "safe space." Some of my classwork has been published online, but ultimately I've always thought of my classwork as something separate.

As a J-School student immersed in an academic bubble, I've spent a lot of time thinking about media and found displeasure in some of the bad habits that even the best media outlets exhibit. Those thoughts would probably find their way online if I were blogging regularly, especially considering I haven't had much time for my traditional interests, video games and television. "Putting the media on trial" may seem like a fine idea now, but what happens when the bubble pops and I try diving back into the media pool and apply for positions at the very outlets I criticized?

A whole host of issues come to mind:

  • Will criticizing media practices and, potentially, calling out specific outlets prevent me from getting hired?
  • The mistakes I make on this blog have more weight than they used to, since my blog will be more recent than my professional clips.
  • Will writing earnestly about academic topics sound whiny and sophomoric?
  • "What if I can't keep up and just stop? Remember what happened with your Newsletter? Isn't starting and stopping worse than just focusing on school?"
  • And of course we can't forget the big one: "What if I haven't gotten any better?"

This is the part where you say; "You can write offline, too, you know. Nobody's stopping you." To which I wholeheartedly disagree. Aside from the fact that I simply do not have time to write something that has absolutely no value, academic or otherwise, I find it almost completely impossible to write unless I know it's going to be published somewhere.

Yes, I know that writing through doubt and indifference is one of the skills a personal journal should foster, but the compulsion to publish adds an extra wrinkle. The pressure to build and maintain a —please don't hate me— personal brand, especially as my program enters the home stretch, is palpable. In the time of the blog, editorial weight-lifting is not only a good idea, it's basically required.

On the other hand, my other avenues for writing have shrunk lately. I only have to write one story for class all quarter and I can feel the writing muscles start to wither. Besides, nobody cares about what I write here, do they? The traffic on this site is almost non-existent: I'm basically writing to myself.

So here's my first online journal entry: While compiling this week's ICYMI today I read a story about a garage in Queens where someone tagged a post from Sylvia Plath's journal:

Damn. I guess I have no excuse.