Excerpts A Conversation with Meredith Talusan
“I didn’t have a lot of connections when I started writing, but I’d spent a lot of time making sure I had something to say and could say it well.”
Meredith Talusan is an award-winning journalist, author and Senior Editor for them . They have written features, essays, and opinion pieces for many publications, including Guardian, The Atlantic, VICE, Matter, Backchannel, The Nation, Mic, BuzzFeed News, and the American Prospect . Their journalism has consistently been a perfect example of intersectional praxis, as she deftly combines her own experiences with thorough, insightful context that demands any reader recognize the ways our identities shape our experiences. She received 2017 GLAAD Media and Deadline Awards, and have contributed to several books, including Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America. They live in New York City with their partner and dog.
Hannah Schneider: Where does a piece start for you? Do you have a specific writing ritual?
Meredith Talusan: I don’t know, I’m just always coming up with ideas. A lot of writers hate pitching, but I love pitching, just because I enjoy having an idea and encapsulating it. I get a similar sense of satisfaction writing a pitch as I do writing the whole essay, but I can write the pitch so much more quickly. Though usually I just have a bunch of ideas that I keep in various places—notebooks, to-do lists, emails—and I pitch a few then write whatever people accept. More recently folks have also come to me and said, hey we have this theme do you have anything you can write about? It’s rare that I don’t!
In terms of a writing ritual, I didn’t actually have one until very recently. I used to just wake up early in the morning and start writing, which works pretty well for think-pieces and reported pieces, but it always took me awhile to get to a place where I was writing to my satisfaction for more literary work. But then I did the Don’t Write Alone writing weekend at Catapult last June. There were many amazing talks there, but the hour I spent listening to Porochista Khakpour describe her writing ritual really changed my writing life. I told her that at the time, and I imagine she thought I was being hyperbolic, but it’s true. Since taking that class, I started free-writing before doing my book work; I’ve started keeping a memory and a dream log; I’ve separated out my drafting and editing modes. I’ve also gotten book essays accepted and been given fellowships and awards for my work, along with this fancy new job; I don’t think it’s a just a coincidence that all these opportunities happened after that weekend and Porochista’s talk.
What’s your favorite part of a career in journalism, media, and writing? the most challenging?
Favorite part is mostly that I just love writing. I’m answering your questions over email at midnight and I’m as happy as a duck, because I’m doing what I love. Don’t get me wrong, there are hard parts, but I am at heart a happy and satisfied writer. When you grow up in rural Philippines where learning English is a privilege, or having access to books is a privilege, you think of the time and ability to write as an absolute gift. I feel like there’s this American cultural standard that writing is torturous and I am going to admit that it has never been that for me, at least not internally even when I’ve experienced many years of the world not really getting my writing. For me writing has always been a safe, loving place, and I’m grateful for that. Career-wise, being in journalism allows me to make an impact on a daily basis and exposes me to wonderful people. I’d say at least 90% of editors I’ve worked with have been wonderful, some really really wonderful and just so so smart. The most challenging part? I’m sorry to say it, but colleagues who haven’t fully respected my point of view and what I bring to the table. I refuse to be a token when I know I am a gem.
What has been most thrilling about launching them.?
I’m not even sure how I can define most thrilling when it comes to them., because what isn’t thrilling? It’s Condé’s first queer title and guess what? I’m queer! We have an intersectional minority staff led by the most generous white man on earth, Phillip Picardi, who when he says, “I love you when you drag me” I actually believe him; who is the first to assign credit to others rather than himself; and who, when I wanted to headline a piece “Intersectionality Has Crashed the Gay White Party” was like, Say what you mean and what’s true , so we headlined it “White Gay Men Are Hindering Our Progress as a Queer Community.” Music to my intersectional ears, and who knew I would be the conservative one among the staff?
And it’s not just Phillip . . . every single person on our team is lovely and just so amazing to work with, though I feel particularly lucky to have an amazing associate editor and friend in Tyler Ford. Okay, so I guess I can answer that question again and say that the people I work with are the most thrilling, because they seem to be who I want to talk about the most.
As an editor, what pitches would you like to see more of?
Whatever type of piece an author wants to write, whether an essay or a thinkpiece or a reported story, I want pitches that get to the heart of what it is the author wants to say. I get so many of what I call “potential” pitches where the author says something like, “In this piece, I will tell you the most difficult part of being a lesbian living with eczema,” just as a purely hypothetical example, rather than “I thought that part of lesbian culture was about falling outside of heteronormative beauty norms, but having eczema showed me that I’m as beholden to those norms as straight women.” See the difference? One describes what the piece is going to do while the other actually does it in a compact way. If you’re currently a writer who can only do the first and not the second, I’d say work on getting to a place where you understand the heart of what you’re writing about before going out and pitching widely.
How does your work as an editor influence your writing and vice-versa?
I’ve only been an editor a couple of months, and even though I have less time to write compared to when I was freelance, I also feel like I look forward to writing more than times when I’ve worked as a staff writer or done writing-intensive feature pieces. I do a reasonable amount of writing for them., and I find getting into that space really fun especially after long bouts of editing. And funny enough, I’d gotten a fellowship to Jack Jones Retreat for women writers of color months before I accepted my job at them., so we ended up launching the site while I was there in New Mexico with a bunch of amazing writers, including folks like Jenna Wortham, Angela Flournoy, and Larissa Pham. This meant that I usually spent something like seven to noon working on my memoir, and then the rest of the day editing. It’s a great schedule that’s harder to maintain in New York because of social obligations, but I do try to sneak in a couple of hours of personal writing a day, either in the morning or evening.
For those that want to freelance write, what are the most important things to know? What about it worked for you?
If you’re starting out as a freelancer and don’t have a trust fund, the most important thing is to have a day job that leaves you time and mental energy to write. For me that was admin assistant and project management jobs, then creative writing and literature grad school, where I first dabbled in writing for the Internet.
I didn’t have a lot of connections when I started writing, but I’d spent a lot of time and effort making sure I had something to say and could say it well because I’d spent years and years practicing. And strangers noticed, mostly on Twitter, so that was pretty much how I got most of my early gigs, including my first long-form feature for VICE—which, let’s be real, I really had no business reporting given my credentials at the time, but I figured it out. So tl;dr: time, practice, and Twitter.
How do you juggle personal writing projects, work projects, and everything in between?
I don’t wear makeup. Just kidding, sort of (it’s not the makeup itself, but I hate the cognitive energy of thinking whether my lipstick’s smeared or my mascara’s running, so I only wear makeup to events). What I mean to say is that I’m obsessed with efficiency, and though I hate the word “hack,” hearing the amazing Esmé Weijun Wang use it recently made me think it’s recoverable, especially for disabled folks like us who aren’t using them to get ahead, but to catch up. Being albino, my vision does not correct to 20/20, so it takes me longer to do some things than other people (filling out forms and picking folks out of a crowd are examples). I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of how to make up those lost hours by being as efficient as possible. Specific tools that I use are Omnifocus for to-do lists . . . I’m fond of the Self Journal for scheduling and planning, because I still remember things better when I write them by hand. I also use an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil and Good Notes for my notebooks, which makes things easier to organize and also convert to text rather than typing. And I’m a big believer in maintaining inbox zero; it’s the work equivalent of never going to bed angry with your partner.
What does it mean to be an intersectional journalist?
It means that I’m someone in the position of telling other people’s stories, when people like me don’t usually have that power; we’re usually the subjects of stories, but not storytellers. Or, if we’re lucky enough to get to tell stories, it’s only our own we can tell and not stories of other people.
One of my key influences is Diane Arbus, known as a photographer of freaks. When I saw her photographs of female impersonators and circus performers as a freshman in college, including an albino sword swallower, I thought to myself, “Why are there no albino sword swallowers taking pictures that go in museums?” So I guess in a way, my career has been all about becoming that albino sword swallower in the writing world, that freak who gets to tell her own and others’ stories.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
There have been many writers who’ve influenced me hugely. Porochista, I already mentioned. Folks like George Saunders, who underlined the perseverance required to keep going even through rejection—especially as a woman of color, because the only way to guarantee failure is to give up. There’s Alexander Chee, who apart from being a brilliant writing teacher has nudged me in great directions over the years, from how to fit into the social media atmosphere to putting me in touch with people online who would resonate with my work.
Fittingly, the best writing advice I can remember comes from an editor, Megan Carpentier, formerly of the Guardian and now at NBC. This was in 2015, during the Caitlyn Jenner coming-out period, followed closely by Rachel Dolezal: a time when I wanted to speak my mind, but often felt overwhelmed or intimidated. [Megan said] “Don’t be afraid of your voice.” It’s a piece of advice that plays in my head all the time.
Meredith is teaching a long-form essay workshop with us this spring! Learn more and enroll here.