The beach, the corpse and the cliché that hijacked my brain

I have seen a dead body twice in India. Sorry, let me back up.

I’m not a cussing man. That is, I try not to make a habit of it. I don’t have anything against expletives, only that when I do use them I want it to be on purpose. Some words are too exquisitely nasty to keep in the same plastic cooler as the craps, hells and shoots. You hear about the writer’s tool kit, but slang is more like spices. My spice rack looks like this:

Exclamations hit the brain differently than ordinary words. Psychologists suggest they come from an ancient linguistic battle station that fires up in time of conflict, and we link them to touchy subjects like sex and religion to give them power. Hence, the swear: A verbal artillery shell loaded with a culture’s semantic hangups.

These can be tricky to wield in your writing, though not in a dangerous way – some keep their venom, like certain racial slurs, but most just lose their flavor with repeated use. Psychologist Stephen Pinker points out that while no-no words are as human as language itself, the particulars always shift around. A writer who uses a lot of our four-letter friends gives his style an overall edge, but keep them in reserve and a well-placed F-bomb can light up a paragraph like a thunderbolt. 

This is where the corpse comes in.

I found it on a trip to Gokarna, India. It had washed up on the beach after three days at sea, and its skin was so white I thought it was a rescue dummy until it was actually at my feet. The moment held a cocktail of rare emotions. The initial animal revulsion. The sudden panic of the modern mind coming face-to-face with the state of nature. The question of the soul and this vacant husk that would never think, never know again.

What I said was

This wasn’t selecting a spice. It was groping around the pantry for something to use as a weapon. I hadn’t even known the phrase was back there. Yet there it was, on hand to greet mortality itself. Jiminy Crickets.

Before the Disney Pinocchio the expression was a tame stand-in for Jesus Christ, and it shows up more often than you might think. I know  because I can no longer hear the phrase without thinking of a dead person on the sand. I can’t actually use it (unless I land an assignment for Insectphobics Quarterly or something), but it remains  a little existential landmine buried in Snow White and Happy DaysGilligan shouts it, and for a small moment I wonder if whatever amusing flotsam he’s found this time isn’t the remains of a fellow castaway who took the coward’s way off the island.

I suppose the moral here is to keep your spices in order but be sure to stock your causal patois with a few good-old-fashioned fuckwords. Those are the ones that’ll show up for a fight, and you want to know who’s gonna be there when it all hits the fan.

Or rather, the beach.

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Gigi Douban part II: Three myths and why you shouldn’t be afraid to be awesome

Read the (less personal) part I with freelance writer Gigi Douban.

I have a lameness complex. I think it came around because most of the amateur writing I encountered in school was a conga line of impalatable metafiction, self-indulgent personal narratives and 800-page manuscripts that were “kind of like Twilight, only darker.” So I kept my dreams of literary derring-do secret, assuming people will only take a writer seriously if he is

a) already famous

b) doing something that would only be interesting in Dilbert.

Even in Asia, I still can’t shake the feeling that being a cool and exciting writer isn’t something regular schmucks do. I hinted at that in my conversation with Gigi. She said it was crap.

In fact we went through three of my hang-ups, and each one was more crap than the last.

Myth 1: You should have a killer portfolio before you put it online

I always get to know a girl before I let her see me shirtless because, while I’ve got a lot going for me, you might not catch it if you’re distracted by the unbaked Dominos pizza I call a torso. That’s sort of why I resisted having a professional page. My credentials are somewhat deeper than they are wide, and I thought it better to win editors with a strong pitch and a few impressive clips before they see everything splayed out online and realize the rest of the iceberg isn’t much bigger than the PDF’s at the tip.

Why it’s BS: “You can’t wait and say, ‘Oh, when I’ve got X-number or from X-number of different publications, then it’s legit, then I can go ahead with my website,’” Gigi said. “No, people want to see that you’re out there, and what you’re doing.”

As my former editor Carla Jean Whitley pointed out, your public offering may be stronger than you think. I asked Gigi if I should tote a blog whose niche is, basically, defacing its own writer. She said pimp it. In fact, pimp anything you got. “They just want to get a sense of who you are as a writer,” she explained.

And anyway, having no online presence is more of a red flag than a weak one. Fortunately: “You could have somebody who’s been doing it for fifteen, twenty years and writes like shit. They really are looking at quality. The more you can give them to go on the better, especially if it’s somebody you’ve never worked with before.”

Myth 2: Major publications ignore new writers 

Last time I spoke with Rick Bragg I told him about a story idea for India. “You know who you should send that to?” he said. “Smithsonian magazine.” I agreed; Smithsonian would like it, especially if I was a bestselling pulitzer winner. But whenever I thought about cold-pitching Smithsonian myself, I saw my email getting drowned in an editorial inbox with a few hundred what-I-did-this-summer essays by stoned bohemians.

Why it’s BS: “If that’s the case, then nobody would ever break into a new publication or media outlet ever,” Gigi said. “You’d be constantly working with the people you’ve always worked with forever, and that’s it.”

I guess that has a certain logic, though there’s a difference between finding an established journalist for an assignment and taking a chance on some college schmuck. You need to at least be, like, on the radar, right? Gigi admitted maybe USA Today isn’t going to get its best interns fact checking your idea, but odds are good someone will at least see it. “That doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get a response. That doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get your first fifteen pitches to them accepted; you might get big, fat rejections. But they’re not out of reach or out of range at all.”

Myth 3: The market for international stories is lousy

The problem with travel writing is that, like writing novels, literally 100% of millennials want to do it. As for non-travel international features, I figured precious few publications were buying them (compared to the reservoir of local papers and city magazines), and my pitches would be competing with writers from Iceland to Papua New Guinea. Writers professional enough to have little sunshades on their camera lenses.

Why it’s BS: Gigi claimed that media companies are relying less on their foreign bureaus and more on  freelancers and stringers. In fact, she said her first big break as a freelancer was with PRI’s “The World” with a story from Egypt. Again, it takes patience and persistence to build a rapport with editors and eventually find assignments, but these are just obstacles of starting out, whether in Tallahassee or sub-Saharan Africa.


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Freelancer Gigi Douban: Starting out is rough, but you’ll be better for it (part I)

Gigi Douban

(image lifted from

In 2006 Gigi Douban quit her newspaper job to raise her two kids as a full-time freelancer, which at the time involved waiting for emails in coffee shops and digging into her savings. Eight years later her clip file sports Bloomberg, The New York Times, NPR and a fistful of other heavy-hitters across several platforms. She was kind enough to speak with me on the phone about starting out as a pen-for-hire.

To sum up: “It was rough. It was really, really rough. It was really rough.”

The deck is almost perfectly stacked against the new freelancer, Gigi said. Where company folk take workplace routine for granted, a freelancer has to carve one out from scratch and then muster the discipline to stick to it. Lulls are as frequent as they are long, rejection is constant (if you get a response at all) and the pressure is higher when you do find work because editors have no reason cut you any slack – or hire you again if you screw up. “You can’t be like, ‘Oh, I’m working on this story for the Birmingham News and for Bloomberg, so, NPR, could you, you know, back off a little bit and give me another month?’”

But there is hope for the rookie with one, simple trick: Tough it the hell out. If nothing else, the writing life rewards persistence. Gigi talks about the first days like boot camp, weeding out the ones who don’t have the stuff to make it. “It takes time. And I think only the most patient and persistent people are the ones who are going to find success,” she said. “When there are those lulls, editors are not calling you back, emails going unreturned, you cannot be discouraged by that.”

It teaches newbies to keep track of several things at once, stay calm during the dry spells and get rejected day after day without losing morale, because – here’s the twist – those problems don’t ever really go away, even for someone who uses Bloomberg and NPR in her hypotheticals. In the end, it isn’t the biz that changes, it’s the writer.

Fortunately, Gigi did leave me with some survival tips for the early stage:

Set out with a bunch of cash. If you’re broke, start putting a little away in savings, because unless you’ve already made it big, you almost certainly won’t be able to support yourself with your writing for a while.

Nail organization early. The tangle of ideas, pitches, editors and sources will only get worse once you start picking up assignments.  Gigi recommends a good organization software, like Evernote. 

Make use of the idle periods. Just because you aren’t getting paid doesn’t mean you can’t be productive, so make a bowl of ramen noodles and then use the opportunity to, say, learn video editing or update your site.

Put your clips online.  Even a basic WordPress or Blogspot site makes things easier for editors. And even if your clip file is thin, Gigi said a weak online presence looks better than none at all. (More on this in part II.)

Consider joining a professional organization. These include groups like the Society of Professional Journalists or the Association of Independents in Radio, and are good places to seek advice from people in the biz.

Keep track of your cash. Your earnings will be a mosaic of contracts and checks, and it can be tricky to track who owes you what and when, so get good accounting and tax softwares. 

Don’t forget to have friends. “…to talk you off the ledge. Sometimes you forget how much you socialize in an office, not just professionally.”

Check out Gigi Douban’s writing on her web site. You can also follow her Twitter.




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Sherlock goes to Asia (season 3 spoiler)

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Resume tips from a good editor, maniacal stylist

Sorry, Carla Jean. But you can click it for better pictures.

Sorry, Carla Jean, it’s what I had. You can click this pic for better ones.

Carla Jean Whitley, managing editor of Birmingham magazine and my former boss when I was an intern there, takes a certain, brutal pleasure in resumes. In fact, I suspect she took on an adjunct professorship at the University of Alabama just because she wanted to dismember the labors of trembling j-school students as well as prospective employees. Fortunately, I was in the middle of updating my own resume when we had beers the other day, and took the opportunity to get some pointers. (Here’s a BuzzFeed list.)

1. One page is probably all you need

“If you’re fresh out of school, there’s no reason for you to have a two-plus page resume,” said CJ. “I published my first freelance story 10 years ago, and I’ve still got one page.” She said while some people don’t mind two-page resumes, nobody ever minds one page.

2. If you’re going to list Chick-Fil-A, have a good reason

“It may be that you were managing people, or that you worked your way through school, and that’s fine,” CJ said. “But If you were just working ten hours a week to make a few bucks to go to the movies, I don’t really care.”

Although being on the other side, I can sympathize. Sometimes it seems those summers at TCBY are all you got. Fortunately…

3. Paid experience isn’t the only experience

If you value your experience directing student theater or volunteering in Uganda over being a host at Chili’s, don’t quarantine it to the ‘activities’ section. “I tell my students a lot, ‘Yes, you need to get experience, but it’s not as hard as you think.”

4. Make it totally spotless

“You’re applying for a writing job, which means you have to have a certain amount of editing skill, so edit your resume.” This seems like a no-brainer, which is probably part of the reason why they aren’t totally uncommon. They are totally damming though, so be careful.

5. Use the style of the publication you’re applying for

Resumes have a lot of shorthand, proper nouns and fiddly punctuation, all of which will be governed to the last hyphen by those nitpicky-as-they-are-despotic style guides. “If the publication uses AP style, make your resume in AP style. If they use Chicago, use Chicago.”

I didn’t ask CJ about the times when you can’t find out, but I err to AP, just so editors know (or at least believe) style is as important to me as it is to them.

6. Use PDF attachments

Or at the very least, mark the .doc as a final draft before you send it along, because nothing says ‘two-bit’ like a resume full of squiggly red and green underlines. “And the worst is when they are actually misspelled words!” CJ added.

7. Don’t be afraid to crack a joke

The resume I submitted for the magazine internship had “can ride a unicycle and juggle at the same time” in the skills section. CJ mentioned it three years later: “That worked for me. I want to know that you’re a real person. I’m not interested in hiring robots.”

Finally, she  agreed to take a look at my own resume when I updated it, which, with just an internship and like two freelance clients to add, would take like twenty minutes, right?

I sent CJ the new version. Her edits weren’t as devastating as they might have been, which I’m going to take confidence in. I’ve paraphrased them:

One nasty little puzzle was how to pass myself off as a career freelancer with clients you can count on one hand, or if I even should. (Or for that matter, if I should list that one-off to Cowboys & Indians magazine alongside my smaller-time regulars.) Carla Jean said that in her case it was something she had to feel out one update at a time until she’d reached the point where her client list was so long that the problem was which ones to include at all (“Which, PS, is really nice.”)

Well, I’m not there yet, but I could be worse off, as starting points go. You can see the finished thing on my new resume/clips page.

And check out Carla Jean’s site. She’s also working on a book  and edits this rad city magazine. 



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So now that I’m once again a two-bit pen-for-hire, let me see where I’m at:

Well, that’s one. Barely. It was the internship’s fault, I guess. While I was in Birmingham I neither updated resume nor obtained and PDF’s of my new clips, supposedly because I was so busy being an young newspaperman, really because I had a company laptop, an employee ID and felt like an indie rocker who genuinely believes the dream will never end. (Except instead of sniffing coke I watched season 2 of The Newsroom on my laptop.)

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Dear Alabama Media Group,

I kept the backpack.

I’m sorry. The night receptionist suggested I hold onto it, and it became our little conspiracy. I hope this doesn’t burn any bridges, and don’t think this means I didn’t enjoy our six months together. I know sort of lucked into it, that by the time you gave the editors approval for a paid intern most of the j-school hotshots had already committed to the bottoms of other ladders. All this is to say that for a philosophy major with barely a year at the student paper, it was a totally sick gig.

I had actually worked in the News building once before, as an intern for Birmingham magazine, but you don’t remember that because it was before merged with The Birmingham News and several other papers to for you, Alabama Media Group. Some things hadn’t changed (like my first day at the magazine, I had forgotten to wear a belt), but this time around the IT people gave me a backpack and a computer. Interns weren’t supplied company phones, but I didn’t care because for the first time I was in a real newsroom getting real money write and I would have spent the summer covering roadkill, for that feeling.

But instead I became something like the newsroom’s army knife: a handy little tool that could cover a shooting, a BBQ restaurant and a local country singer in the same afternoon. There was that time the content team stayed up on election night eating pizza, and that time when you sent me 30 miles to Woodstock looking for meteor that had burned up on entry. I learned some of those things journalism students know, like to not implicate the suspect in a story and how to cover a town hall meeting. And since I wasn’t headed back to school you decided to extend the internship until a real job opened up.

Please don’t take my resignation personally. Maybe a space would have opened, maybe not, but I know how hard it is to get your foot in that door, and for a philosophy major to blow off that chance may have been the most deliberate act of career suicide of an Alabama writer. But I quit because I had finally saved up enough to travel for a while, and it has always been my dream to blast around the world and somehow fit writing into it. Maybe I can’t pull it off, but I need to try.

So I hope you don’t take the backpack thing personally. I’m flying to Mumbai this month so if you really want it back I can have my brother leave it on his front porch. In the meantime, you have my file and you know how to get ahold of me if…well, you know.

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Intro in 253 words

One of the most valuable things I’ve learned about writing came from author and journalist Rick Bragg in an airplane to Denver. We were on a recruiting trip for the University of Alabama, but I didn’t know about his Pulitzer or his bestsellers, only that he had made a career putting words together. For a sophomore philosophy major catching the first glimpses of Starbucks and perpetual grad school, it was like unwrapping a cheeseburger that looks just like the picture.

But Bragg didn’t give me much sagely career advice from his eight inches of economy seat. Instead he talked about The New York Times, covering riots and rebels and getting shot at in warm climates; about earning $9000 for an essay on mayonnaise, teaching frat boys to use the comma and the best goddamn meatloaf in Tuscaloosa county. Until then I figured a writing career meant degrees, contacts and internships for some specific biz or other. But Bragg did it without so much as an English minor, just by telling good stories.

I’ve learned a bit more from Bragg and others since then. Landed internships, sold some stories, even picked up a thing or two about the biz. Now I’m six months out of college and still trying to be a writer. Stick around and you’ll hear about freelance pitches, botched interviews, AP style, Victorian poets, smutty paperbacks and lots and lots of rookie mistakes. Maybe I won’t make it, who knows, but I’ll be darned if it won’t be a good story.


Jared Downing




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