The Myth of the Writing Expert
Also, have you felt weird lately?
Welcome, readers new and old. I have a question for you.
When you feel “off’ for more than a couple days at a time, what do you do about it?
When you realize you don’t quite feel like yourself, and you’re not showing any obvious symptoms of a medical emergency, what do you do? Do you go to the doctor for a checkup? Do you talk to your best friend? Do you write in a journal? Do you listen to a specific album? Do you take a day off from work if you can swing it and rest up? (You can tell I’m an American because of the way I worded that one!)
Do you just let it pass? Let things unfold as they will? Feel confident that more will be revealed? If you feel like sharing in the comments, I’d love to hear your perspective.
We all go through seasons of strangeness. Sometimes change happening at a deep level of the psyche can lead to odd restlessness, lack of focus, fatigue, tears, and more.
I’m just curious about how you reset, reframe, and remind yourself of who, what, when, where and how you are.
For my part, well, I got the first good night of sleep in a week last night. And holy fuck, do I feel different. I even made myself get bundled up and sit outside with a mug of hot chicken bone broth for twenty minutes to get some morning sunshine. That blast of cold air (just above freezing) helped, too. (More on these, uh, “techniques” in the Recommendations section below.)
On to the rest of the newsletter. All subscribers will get four of these issues this month (here’s Jan. ‘23 Issue 1) but only paid subscribers will receive two additional essays (here’s a free preview of the first one of the year - I wrote a letter by hand.)
If you like what you read here, I hope you’ll become a paid subscriber, share the newsletter with a friend, post about it in some favorable manner, and/or simply feel a little lighter and happier today.
Table of Contents, Angel
On Writing: There Are No Writing Experts
Thank you to everyone who supports this project. It feels like the zine I always wanted to create with a Xerox machine or dot matrix printer or whatever in my youth.
These are things I’ve read, wish to read, and/or think we should all read/use/absorb. Links aren’t sponsored (please sponsor me in cash money or rewards points, thank you). Anyway, if there’s something you think I should check out, email email@example.com.
Matrushka - I’ve been a customer of this small Los Angeles-based boutique for over a decade and have worked with them in the past doing digital marketing and modeling. I don’t work with them currently, but I fucking love these pants. They were custom-made for me from scrap fabric. You can put your measurements in on their order form and they’ll do their best to specifically fit anything to you. It’s all made in Los Angeles. Also, I will never put all those boxes away.
Huberman Lab - Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. is one of those celebrity science people whose infotainment is actually really practical and helpful. Beloved by biohacking bros who want to discuss crypto while giving themselves buttered coffee-induced diarrhea, but also by my groovy, sex-positive, queer-inclusive Capricorn therapist who wears cool T-shirts, this dude “is a neuroscientist and tenured professor in the department of neurobiology and by courtesy, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford School of Medicine.”
Let us learn more: “His lab’s most recent work focuses on the influence of vision and respiration on human performance and brain states such as fear and courage. He also works on neural regeneration and directs a clinical trial to promote visual restoration in diseases that cause blindness.”
He’s really into all of us getting morning sunlight, drinking lots of water, going easy on caffeine but still enjoying it slowly, making friends, and other important science things. He is originally from Palo Alto so I assume science dork knowledge is written on his actual human bones.
The Enduring Allure of Baba Yaga, an Ancient Swamp Witch Who Loves to Eat People by Marissa Clifford for Broadly/Vice: This article from 2017 has a wonderful headline. Here’s a quote from Taisia Kitaiskaia: "That image of an old woman living in the woods, doing whatever she wants all day long, continues to be my dream for myself."
The Many Faces of Women Who Identify As Witches by Naomi Fry for the New Yorker - Okay, yeah, I’m delving into a research folder I’ve been building since 2017 for a writing project that I thought was a TV pilot but that I’ve realized is a novel. What of it? (This is behind a paywall unless it’s your first New Yorker article of the month).
Culture and Collection by Andrea Gifford - The rare indie vintage shop that curates an abundance of size-inclusive options. If this is your size, please buy this Adrianna Papell Colorful Silk Dress, okay? Thank you.
The American Mental Asylum: A Remnant of History by Mark L. Ruffalo, MSW for Psychology Today - I am fascinated by history in general, by the history of mental healthcare in particular, and especially by Thomas Kirkbride’s vision of the ideal mental asylum. This is just the briefest overview of the history of U.S. mental healthcare, but it’s a good starting point:
“At one point in the 1950s, more than half a million Americans were confined to state psychiatric institutions, many of them for life. Today [in 2018] the total number of state psychiatric beds in the U.S. sits around 37,000, with most beds on short-term, acute inpatient units in general medical hospitals.”
The article does not effectively delve into how mental health “treatment” served as a mass weapon against American women in general and Black and indigenous women in particular, but this is covered far better by researchers and writers from within these communities. For historical and contemporary perspectives, I would point to the organizations linked by The Women’s Center on their Black Mental Health Resources pages, and to the National Alliance on Mental Health’s Indigenous resources page.
Tony’s Typewriters - Tony is a Dutch person who sells typewriters. I want all of them.
Rayo & Honey - I get asked all the time about the cloth banners I have hanging in my abode, so now you know who makes them! Roachele is so fucking busy every autumn and winter, and her big restock begins in February so GET READY.
Van der Most Modern - My friends Michelle Buteau and Gijs van der Most have this gorgeous shop. Gijs is an incredible photographer and curator. Michelle is a wonderful actress and comedian. I would buy everything in this shop if I had the money. Would it all fit in a 520 square foot apartment? No. I have not thought that far ahead. But my point stands: it is great.
Exploring Giant Sequoia Groves via National Parks Service - A friend said to me recently that he and his spouse decided to buy a home in Mexico near family because he no longer wanted to “postpone joy.” They had dreamed about it for decades; they had the money to do it; and they decided to go for it. It was not a casual thing, by any means! It took perhaps all those decades of work, saving, building their own small family, nurturing their networks of extended family and friends, and realizing their own priorities.
Well, fuck, I’m not going to buy a new house anytime soon, but I have dreamed of visiting these trees since I was a child. I have airline points and some time off from work. There are cheap motels (ooh, I love a motel points account too) and campgrounds nearby. I’m going to go see these bigass trees this year.
Masks by Mimmi of MiesmesaBerni - I own two of these masks (goat and owl) and I would like to own many more. If you want to read an illustrated short story inspired by one of these masks - a collaboration between me (words and photographs) and comix artist Robert Hack (paintings), check out…
“The Only Goat Girl” - It’s fun.
On Writing: There Are No Writing Experts
I’m a writer of books, scripts, essays, articles, marketing copy, and scribbled journals. I hold an M.A. in the Teaching of English from Teachers College at Columbia University. I’ve taught lots of classes and workshops. None of this means I am an expert in writing. It just means I’ve done a lot of it, thought about it often, and spoken about it with many others.
In that spirit I offer these ideas as suggestions. If you have specific queries you’d like me to address here, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve used the above disclaimer (or versions of it) a few times now in this newsletter, and I’d like to expand on it here.
No writer should ever declare herself a writing expert. One can be a brilliant writing teacher or incomparably talented writing professor; an experienced writer; a veteran writer; a fucking amazing writer; a shitty writer who has written a lot of garbage but who happens to be a wonderfully gifted teacher of writing…
But an expert? BWAHAAHHAHA. Good luck, fucko!
It is telling that when one Googles “writing expert,” it brings up a list of scammy services you can pay to write your essays for you. It also brings up legit handwriting experts who analyze documents - that’s very cool. Of course, it’s not what I’m talking about, but still - what an amazing and specific skill!
Let’s look at a definition of expert (the noun) from our friends at Merriam-Webster: “one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject.” I simply do not think it is possible to master the art of writing.
One may be an expert in the grammar of standard American English, whatever that means. One may be an expert in AP Style. This does not make one a writing expert.
I don’t care how many books somebody has sold, or how many people have taken their workshops. He’s not a writing expert.
To call oneself a “writing expert” is to traffic in the absurd lie that there is one correct way to be a writer, and that this alleged expert knows the secret to it (and can sell it to you for the low low price of TKTKTK.)
One may certainly master the mechanical elements. One may be extraordinarily well-read. One may have the extraordinary talent displayed by a few innately gifted teachers. (I have seen this in practice among former colleagues, as well as a few of my own brilliant teachers).
I don’t recall any of my own greatest teachers, or my most talented colleagues, calling themselves “writing experts.” The term “master teacher” is different.
What I can say about all the best writing teachers, coaches, and editors is that they never stop learning. They go to their old favorite writers, and they read work that’s new to them, too.
Some of my favorite writing mentors (I'm not referring to the folks named below, BTW) are a bit puffed up about their considerable rate of success regarding positive reviews from students. Hey, whatever works - they’re doing good work in the world and helping writers, so I’m happy they exist!
Some are very humble, even too hard on themselves. I wish they would be a little prouder of their accomplishments and their influence, but again, whatever works for them!
Most of these folks seem to feel confident about their abilities as teachers but remain ever-open to improvement.
With that in mind, I highly recommend nonfiction books on creativity and/or writing by Francesca Lia Block, Stephen King,, , Pete Chatmon and Julia Cameron. Here's a list of books by Black writers on writing. The first SARATONIN issue of the year has a link to purchase Black Women Writers at Work, the brand new reissue of the 1984 classic by the late Prof. Claudia Tate.
If you’ve got suggestions for other excellent books by great teachers/coaches/mentors related to writing, please drop them in the comments.
Thanks everybody! Have a beautiful day.