Nurturing Craft in an Age of Content: An Interview with Kate Watson & Ashley Abramson
This is the eighth in our series of interviews with creatives who stay craft-focused in an era of easy-to-consume, shareable internet content. Our aim is to explore the tension of art versus entertainment, empowering readers to find, nurture, and stay true to the stories inside of them. Enjoy!
Were we short on content this week, or was an interview with Upwrite's editors in the plans all along? Guess you'll never know! This week, Kate and I took some time to ask each other questions about craft, content, the creative process, and of course, Kanye West and Shark Tank. There's nothing we love more than chipping away at our mission here at Upwrite, and we hope some of these answers about our process, background, and convictions illuminate why we do what we do. Thanks for hanging out with us!
Round 1: Ashley questions Kate
AA: Let's talk about clickbait. It seems like we as a culture prefer easy-to-consume, microwavable content over reading that may be more nourishing but slower to digest. Why do you think we as a culture are so drawn to the former, and how can we switch gears?
KW: We are only built to take in a certain amount of sensory and cerebral information each day. Fear of missing out drives a lot of it. This article by Andrew Sullivan really sheds some light on how it feels to "live on the internet." I might not consciously want to know more about B-list celebrities, but I don't want to be the only person that doesn't know. (Although, perhaps this is a poor example because I have an encyclopedic knowledge of British tabloid fodder spanning eight years. I guess on some level I do want to know, and I enjoy knowing things that others don't. #INFJ.)
Choosing "information lite" that appeals to our basic desire to know everything about all the things is deceptive because it feels like we are being curious and interactive with the confusing things around us, but that kind of reading doesn't handle words or truth with care. The purpose is to get you interested, not to satisfy you. Clickbait doesn't orient us better to our world or empower us to make good choices.
Coming back to the reasoning that I can only handle so much knowledge on a given day really helps me to protect the amount and kind of material that I "consume." Ultimately, I don't want to simply consume. I want to give back. And what I want to give back is something strong and informed and hopeful. It's my belief that we are in the middle of a whole generation of people becoming more self aware of how the media works for and against them, and that we are all forging new rules to protect our minds from being overridden with ugly stuff. That's so encouraging to me.
AA: One frustrating thing about writing in the current publishing climate is many publishers want their authors to have gigantic platforms as a way to guarantee sales. I personally find it difficult to focus on authenticity in my craft when the social media temptations #lurk. Since you and I both want to write books, riddle me this: how do we manage expectations with social media while keeping our writing sharp?
KW: Great question. I try to see social media as another form of craft practice; in other words, it's an opportunity to be intentional and creative with what I say, and equally intentional about what I don't share. Not every post is going to be ethereal or significant, and some of the things I've chosen to post on social media are probably the complete opposite of the image I want to project and the person I want to be. But the same is true of all expression. It won't always ring big and true on a macro level, but "just having fun with it" makes it worth doing.
Going back to the question of building a platform for the intention of publishing a book: you and I both know I could talk about this all day! I encourage writers to see "platform building" as an exercise and nothing more. Getting published without a social media platform that's established and quantifiable is difficult, but not impossible, and the rules of how media platforms influence book sales are being re-written constantly. We just can't prove there will be a strong, lasting correlation between book sales and social media presence in the future. It's fluid, and that means we get to play with it.
AA: On the same topic, you're a developmental editor, and you work with a lot of authors. Do you think there's a difference between a "writer" and an "author," and if so, what is it?
KW: The only difference between a practicing writer and a published author is that authors have to learn to face criticism (which is really hard for most of them). Writers are scared that they aren't any good; authors know there are people in the world that think their writing is garbage. The fear of being bad takes a more visceral form, and there's no way to really prepare for it.
AA: Much like Kevin O'Leary in venture capitalism, you are a shrewd reporter, catching onto trends and patterns in culture quickly and capturing them with poignant journalism. Share with us your process of noticing something, deciding to write about it, investigating it, and forming a meaningful piece.
KW: Even though I do more editing than reporting, I'm constantly writing and experimenting with how I might want to say things, playing with language and tone. I would never compare myself to Joan Didion, but I really relate to her when she says she writes to find out what she thinks about something. Some ideas can be resolved with a sentence or two, but other topics take hold and re-shape themselves the more I find out about them. I know I've hit on something I should write about when I can't stop thinking about it.
It takes me a while to write my way into a piece, just to identify the language and structure I want to use. A lot of my initial thoughts end up being springboards that I cut out of the finished piece. I'm not sentimental about cutting my own work to shreds. So all of my writing involves several drafts, but the drafts evolve rather quickly so that I can still kind of ride the energy of the moment. Capturing a "zeitgeist" piece means immersion. It's like taking a photo of a particular moment of fixation. You want it to be accurate and beautiful but also very connected to the particulars of where that moment lived in time.
AA: Speaking of Shark Tank, which sharks would you choose as a publisher, an editing client, and a homie?
KW: Barbara as publisher because publishers need to champion their authors as people and entrepreneurs in their own right. Robert as a client because he seems like he has that poetic glimmer in his eye and is maybe a teachable kinda dude that wants to keep learning. Mark Cuban for hanging out, because bottle service with the Mavs over some friendly libertarian debate sounds like the best night of my life.
AA: Can't end this interview without bringing him up. Which Kanye lyric would you etch on your body?
KW: I have the word "redeemed" tattooed on my forearm. Maybe I'd encircle it with one of those cursive motifs and the words, "I'm tryna right my wrongs, but it's funny those same wrongs helped me write this song." If someone can calculate how many street cred points that's worth, I would appreciate it.
Kate questions Ashley
KW: You're really intuitive with your approach to craft. What do the pieces that strike you as objectively, solidly wonderful have in common?
AA: I love this question. To me, the best writing is rich with lots of dimension, like many layers woven together to form a meaningful whole. Most pieces I resonate with have a strong relationship between meaning and beauty, where the content and language empower each other. Pieces in which manner magnifies meaning feel both purposeful and vibrant to me, making for a really invigorating experience.
I really think the way writers write is just as important as what they’re writing about. How we write--I’m talking tone, word choice, sentence structure, punctuation-- should ultimately illuminate the meaning in the content and add value to it. For instance, if you're writing about a long road trip, use long, complex, meandering sentences and avoid abrupt punctuation. Play a little bit, but keep things tight and intentional. Really, the writing I most often fall in love with makes me say "how did they think of that?"
KW: Are there subjects that you wish you could write about, if only you had the background knowledge or could make the time investment to become fluent enough in the material?
AA: I’m not a natural reporter--the topics I find myself writing about most are introspective, usually personal essay or ars poetica (writing about writing). Those are my sweet spots because they flow from me so naturally; they feel like extensions of who I am. I always want my writing to mirror my inner landscape, or I’d feel disingenuous! There are definitely other parts of me I want to take more time to invest in, though, like writing about entertainment (movies in particular) or writing about food or wine. I’ve dabbled in the entertainment writing thing, but it’s always pretty subjective, connecting themes back to how they personally affect me. That’s the intuitive feeler in me, I guess! I’d definitely need to know more about the culinary world before delving into that side of things. I’d love to review wine someday when I’m not 5 months pregnant.
KW: It seems like you'll always be writing poetry in one way or another. How does writing poetry inform your other work -- whether copy writing, article writing, or developmental editing? Are there poets that you would recommend specifically to writers trying to dedicate themselves to becoming better?
AA: Oh, man, you’re right. Poetry is my tender place. I think it goes back to some of my sentiments from the first question. I love reading and writing pieces where the form feels like a vehicle to drive the meaning. Poems are the perfect venue for this. In poetry, I don’t feel as constrained to traditional syntax. I have freedom to experiment until I find a form that empowers the story I’m trying to tell. I focused on poetry in my undergrad, so this experimental way of thinking, especially experimenting with the use of language, is always in the back of my mind as I work.
As for specific poets, there are some! The poets I most resonate with are the “how did you think of that?” writers. The writers who take brilliant risks. Charles Wright is my all-time favorite. His work is so velvety and nocturnal but in such a profoundly purposeful way, a way that lends so much depth to his content. I’d start with the poem “Clear Night.” I’m also super into Maggie Smith’s latest work--I think she communicates super significant truths in such a tender but accessible way (“Good Bones” is a perfect example). That’s how I want to write!
KW: "To be Miley then, you have to be Miley now." Do you agree or disagree with this contextualization of Miley Cyrus within a Jay-Z lyric?
AA: First of all, I think the song you're referring to--"Lost+" by Coldplay & Jay-Z-- is one of the coolest collabs of all time, and as you know, I employ various versions of that line in everyday conversation. I just really love hip hop.
To answer your question, I would actually flip the script on this one and say really, to be Miley now, you have to be Miley then. As humans, we grow and stretch and bloom and evolve. To blossom into the fullest and most genuine versions of ourselves, we often have to start messy and small. Like, I actually think Miley is likely a truer version of herself now than she was in her Hannah Montana days. Same probably goes for Jay-Z and Chris Martin and me. I think we’re always getting better!
KW: You have to watch one show for the rest of your life. It has to be a part of the Bachelor franchise. Which show do you choose and why?
AA: You're putting me in a tough position with all these choices. Can I pick one season? If so, Sean Lowe's. In my very educated opinion, the "franchise" peaked that year and is less and less believable (and enjoyable) (and hopeful) every season. I'm forever team Sean and Catherine. Have you seen that baby tho?!
KW: Give us a hopeful thought, written haiku style.
AA: November will come
and go, but hope sticks around--
Trump or Hillary.