Writing

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ESSAYS

My family’s store was housed in a grand 1910 sandstone building, formerly a bank. The basement was cool and dark. It smelled like damp cement and Styrofoam, but to me it was the shadowy secret headquarters of capital. My grandparents had repurposed the old bank vault as their office, its original meter-thick door permanently propped open like a steel monument to the place’s past as a retailer of money. When I delivered my packing slips to the manager’s filing cabinet, I could see an intricate interior system of old locks and gears in the door’s cross-section. Prior to working at the store, I had been enchanted by the mechanics of the cash register, by its percussive flashes of bells, sliding parts, and coins. But in the basement I realized the sales floor operations were a façade: the real work of business was happening downstairs. The basement was both the physical and fiscal seat of power in the store. This was where the money lived, in the heavy lifting that made those wine glasses shine for the yuppie newlyweds shopping upstairs, and even deeper, behind a steel door as thick as I was tall. I wondered then if everything I knew and experienced might have a similar duplicity—another thing, a working and sweating mechanism beneath the surface.

The Best Work in Literature, Virginia Quarterly Review online

 

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My first revelation was in a car, a rusted but strong 1985 Toyota Camry I bought from a friend’s older brother for 500 bucks. One hot summer morning in 2002 in Portland, Oregon, I packed it to the windows with everything I owned and pointed it south.

I popped a CD into the Diskman I’d rigged up to play through the car’s cassette player. It was a recent country album, a gift I’d been hesitant to listen to because I was 26 and still thought that rock ‘n’ roll was the only music for me. But I liked the title: Time (The Revelator). A revelator is one that reveals. Messy truths and all.

Albums of Our Lives, The Rumpus

 

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Necklaces form around the throats of young women so easily, without effort or awareness, the shadow impressions left by experience: here lies the bootprint of capital, here the chain of economy, here the encircled habits I’ll forget to take off in the shower every time.

Some Hustles in Alphabetical Order, 1992-2002, The Billfold

 

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In New York, and in Harlem especially, there was a sense of public life I had not previously encountered. On these sticky summer days and nights we all had transparent lives, whether we were standing outside or in hot apartments with the windows opened wide to the passing city. We all listened to the same songs, heard the neighbors’ drama, knew the same sound and vibration of the train rattling overhead every few minutes. This was and is still one of my favorite things about New York City – everybody there (and especially the not-rich) lives in public. That’s why they always give you a paper bag when you buy something at the corner store, even just a soda or something as small as gum, or cigarettes. Because in a city packed tight vertically and horizontally, privacy is a luxury. A paper bag with every purchase is the New York economy’s way of saying, Hey, here’s added luxury value to your day: no one can see what you’ve got in there. Come again soon.

Just weeks later I’d be walking down 125th street to the strains of “No Diggity,” the BLACKstreet song that samples Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” and features Dr. Dre and Queen Pen.

Best of Bill Withers, The Record Daily

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A few weeks ago, I drove for an hour and a half down the coast of California from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, where I was born and raised. Santa Cruz is a small city of about 60,000 people that maintains a unique identity due in part to its physical location. It’s not really a suburb of anything. A bay separates it from its nearest southern neighbor, Monterey; to the east, mountains offer a physical barrier against San Jose and the series of strip-mall towns and office-parks that bleed Silicon Valley into the Bay Area. To the north lies Devil’s Slide, a winding oceanside highway pass that makes access from San Francisco more of an adventurous undertaking than a practical one.

I’ve been driving that familiar stretch of coast since I was a teenager, but on this trip, I found it changed. Devil’s Slide was suddenly inaccessible—my car was detoured into a tunnel through the mountain that had been hotly debated and in process for so long I never expected it to actually be finished. I felt uncomfortable.

Under the Boardwalk, Longform.org

INTERVIEWS

The Scratch Interview with Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen: Nobody is talking about what happens when the Internet kills journalism.

Manjula Martin: In my experience a lot of people are talking about that. On the Internet.

JF: Good.

MM: But nobody seems to have the answer.

JF: Well, I’ve got an answer [laughter].

MM: I’m listening.

JF: Um, pay the fucking journalists!

MM: How?

 

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Annotation Tuesday! Susan Orlean and The American Man, Age 10, Nieman Storyboard

Manjula Martin: Here are some of Esquire’s cover subjects from 1992, the same year you wrote this story for the magazine: Howard Stern, Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee, George H.W. Bush and Winona Ryder. How does Colin Duffy fit into that lineup?

Susan Orlean: He doesn’t fit at all! He’s a kid and they are all adults; he’s unknown and “ordinary,” and they’re all very public figures.

MM: Your editor at Esquire originally wanted you to write a profile of Macaulay Culkin, star of Home Alone. You said you’d only do the story if you could find a fitter subject than Culkin to illustrate the headline “The American Man, Age Ten.” Your editor agreed. Was it really that easy? How do you sell a cover story to a major magazine about a random un-famous kid?

SO: It really was that easy. I sometimes think it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I was so naïve that I didn’t realize how crazy it was to take my first-ever assignment from Esquire and suggest such a radical redirection. I was so naïve that I didn’t realize it would have been much easier to profile Macaulay Culkin than an unknown suburban kid, just because readers come to a story about a celebrity already comfortable — they understand what a celebrity profile is all about. The writer doesn’t have to explain why the story is worthy of their attention. But a story about an ordinary 10-year-old forces the writer to justify why this seemingly unimportant subject deserves time and column inches.

 

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The Scratch Interview with Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed: I would have written those books whether I was paid for them or not. They’re all labors of love. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not totally ambitious. I’m really ambitious.

Manjula Martin: I’m always curious about the relationship between ambition and fame. On one hand, the desire to be a famous writer can be useful—you have to have drive, ambition. You need to be balls-out doing what you’re going to do to have any hope of success. But on the other hand, so many writers conflate ambition with wanting to be famous. Particularly in the era of internet fame, whatever that is. Did you aspire to being a famous writer?

Cheryl Strayed: I want be recognized for beautiful work, for good work, for real work. I really want to be recognized for that. Which is different than saying I want to be famous. If you want to be famous, don’t be a writer.

 

 

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The Extra Woman, the first in an occasional series of profiles of fabulous old ladies for The Awl

“They told her she was too fat,” Daniller said. “Well, guess what? Her first big film, and she got the Oscar for it! Imagine. Years of being told you are not suitable for the screen—you’re too fat, too short, you walk like a duck—and you get the Oscar.”

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John Vanderslice: Flaws and All, The Magazine

JV smilingMusicians and recording geeks love to argue about which is the better process for recording and mixing music: digital, in which sound is converted into ones and zeros and stored in computers, or analog, in which sound waves are converted into electric signals and stored on magnetic tape (or engraved as physical markings on vinyl).

Gearheads will happily recite track quantities in multiples of four and intone various other letter/number combinations like they’re mantras. John Vanderslice can do this with the best of them, but when asked why he prefers the analog process, he keeps it simple: analog just sounds better.

“You know when you’re attracted to someone?” he asks. “It’s because they’re interesting, they’re confident, they’re filled with weird flaws. It’s not that they’re perfect.”

 

 

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I co-wrote an organic gardening advice column with my dad for Modern Farmer.
We’re basically just like Click and Clack, but for gardening…

manj & orin_photo by stephanie martinMANJULA: Soil is like that guy you dated in college: you can’t change him. You can’t alter your soil’s texture, but you can amend the soil’s components over time to make it more conducive to plant growth. It’s like therapy, but for dirt.

ORIN: I sometimes feel like being a gardening teacher is sort of like being a therapist.

MANJULA: Except you got to skip grad school. So is your advice to Sandy really if her soil sucks, she should move?

ORIN: Well, lucky for Sandy, the panacea for any soil is always the same: Add organic matter (compost and green manure) and distribute it into the soil through cultivation (a.k.a. digging). That’s how organic growers do it and that’s how Big Ag did it until fertilizers were industrialized last century.

Dear Modern Farmer: Is My Soil Hot or Not?, Modern Farmer

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