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how to write like a brooklynite, part 1: amy sohn

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OK class. The text for today’s session is this amazing piece of journalistic commentary, “The 40-Year-Old Reversion” by Amy Sohn. Let’s do a play by play – might want to open the article in another window and follow along as I point out the highlights.

1. It’s a good idea to start something like this by blithely referring to a knowing/unknowing joke about some unfortunate caste or category of people to set  the tone for the piece. This permits the readers to understand where they are, socio-demographically speaking, and where they most certainly aren’t.

Once a month I get together with half a dozen moms from Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. We call ourselves Hookers, Sluts and Drug Addicts.

Also note that the delivery of such a joke is a matter of touch. Sohn gets it just right here: Hookers, Sluts, and Drug Addicts are abstract and “funny” enough to keep things edgy yet chill. Adding “Teenage Pornstars with AIDS” or “Project Girls who Give Head for Crack” to the list would potentially bum readers out.

2. Following from that, head directly into a mildly dirty anecdote – something to give the piece a general air of… how to describe it… women staring at each other’s tits.

Sally and I hit it off right away. She had short hair and heavy lids. It turned out we had met ten years ago at the pool room in the back of the Brooklyn Inn, bantering and competing for boys.

Sally went to the bathroom and I waited in front of the door for her to finish. When she came out, I said, “Lemme see your tits.”

“Why?”

“I heard you got a reduction.”

She lifted her shirt and bra and flashed me. “They look good,” I said. “What did the old ones look like?”

They were too big for my little body. They were an F. After I weaned, I would roll over onto one of them in my sleep and it would wake me up and then I would realize it was part of my own body. Now I’m a D. I love them.” Then she started stroking them. A cook stuck his head out of the kitchen.

Notice, here, the way that Sohn doubles down in the final paragraph of the anecdote, moving from women looking at each others tits to a woman and a cook watching another woman massaging her own tits. Note too, at this point, that Sohn  widely sidesteps the temptation to move into fullbore sucking, lapping, or licking.

3. Once you’ve cleared ironical slurring and salacious suggestion, you can permit yourself a little vanity-mirror moment, just to register for the readers that you are in fact still desirable enough that any of the rest won’t be gross in the “ugly-old-people-having-sex” sort of way.

Later we decided to go to a bar in Boerum Hill. The restaurant owner, Dave, said he would drive us. He turned out to be a divorced dad. We all crammed into his SUV. There were car seats in the back seat and he threw one of them behind us. The other wouldn’t move so a small mom sat in it, scrunched.

As we were crossing the Gowanus Canal, Dave said, “I just want you to know that I would have sex with any one of you ladies tonight. Even the pregnant one.”

“Thank you,” we said.

3.1 But it would probably be best to tie the “guy-who-says-you’re-still-hot” digression off with a knowing, self-reflexive wink – but a wink that nonetheless you are definitely still potentially somewhat up for it and not the kind of bitch who gets tetchy about stuff like harassing comments made by restaurant owners:

The difference between twenty-five and thirty-eight is that, at thirty-eight, when a strange man says he wants to have sex with you, you feel grateful.

4. Now it’s time to disentangle yourself from digressive anecdotery about Sluts and Tits and Cougarism in order to roll out the actual pitch of the piece. And by pitch I mean just that: this is where you copy and paste the email that you sent to the editor of the web-only publication that you’re writing in now. In the course of doing so, probably best to hat-tip the massively-overexposed and over-analysed bit of pop culture flotsam gave you the idea for the piece in the first place. Nobody, after all, gets tired of pieces along the lines of Lena Dunham – c’est moi. C’est nous tous! 

When “Girls” hit this spring, I was shocked by how true the show rang to my life—not my old life as a post-collegiate single girl but my new one, as a married, monogamous, home-owning mother. My generation of moms isn’t getting shocking HPV news (we’re so old we’ve cleared it), or having anal sex with near-strangers, or smoking crack in Bushwick. But we’re masturbating excessively, cheating on good people, doing coke in newly price-inflated townhouses, and sexting compulsively—though rarely with our partners. Our children now school-aged, our marriages entering their second decade, we are avoiding the big questions—Should I quit my job? Have another child? Divorce?—by behaving like a bunch of crazy twentysomething hipsters.

4a. Above all else, it is absolutely vital to end the pitch-repeating “thesis” paragraph with a reduction of any (if any – let’s hope not) complexity you’ve generated so far into a single word brandname for what you’re describing. If you don’t do this, how will Newsweek what to put on their cover the week that you’re the star – they sure as hell won’t go with the title of the novel that you’re flogging by doing all of this in the first place.

Call us the Regressives.

Without a capitalized Name like this, how the hell would anyone know what you’re talking about? What sort of twitter hashtag would they use when arguing about whether you’re a shitter mother than the Tiger Mom or not? Most important of all, they might just start to get the sense that you’re extrapolating wildly (and hyperbolically) from a sample set that includes People who Live on My Block of Union Street, the One between Court and Clark.

5. OK – you’re just about ready to drop the name of your novel into the piece at this point. Careful – this part takes a deft touch.

My new novel, Motherland, is about five New York City parents who act out mid-life through adultery, marijuana or Grindr. The characters are inspired by my neighbors, who seek liberation not through consciousness-raising and EST the way their mothers did, but through Fifty Shades of Greyand body shots. They arrive home from girls’ nights at three a.m. on a weeknight and then complain about hangovers at school dropoff.

In another lesson, we’ll spend more time on the principles of novelistic construction that are on display in this dazzling set piece. For now: note the elegant to-and-fro of contradiction and confirmation of preconceptions are work here: moms are moms but also not because they fuck and drink, these people are made up but actually real, things have changed but really haven’t but really have, and this will have porny fucking in it, just like 50 Shades. All this in the course of a couple of sentences.

5a. This is slightly annoying, given the patently obvious universality of Sohn’s novel and this piece (and, presumably, yours as well), but it’s a good idea to underscore that universality for the haterzz by patiently explaining that the phenomenon in question is definitely not simply an insanely local case / unanchored particularity / simply evidence of the hothouse-reeking-of-egotistical-bullshit that is Brownstone Brooklyn but is in fact a global phenomenon.

(And this regression is not confined to upscale neighborhoods in New York City—I hear similar stories from friends in Los Feliz, Montclair and Rye.)

You can be forgiven if you don’t know where these desperately provincial backwaters are that Sohn mentions – why would you? I mean, the fact that they are only slightly more suburban versions of Brownstone Brooklyn, one in LA the other two just outside NYC, and are filled by exactly the same sort of people, only with bigger houses and maybe the shot at sending their kids to public school instead of having gram and gramps pay for St Anne’s, doesn’t contradict the fact that this stuff is probably happening in Omaha and rural Bangladesh. Or isn’t, as the whole piece is staked on the fact that Brownstone Brooklyn is so insane hip that…

You know what, forget it. Let’s move on.

5b. …we’ll move on save for one more thing. It will probably happen that some redneck will call you up on this Montclair or Rye thing. If so, answer with an eye-roll and the response “Oh, so I guess we don’t do irony, do we, where you’re from?”

6. Right. That’s it for the mandatory stuff. Now it’s time for the body of the piece, which needn’t be much more than a series of anecdotes about the phenomenon in question. Whether they actually add up to making a case for the existence of this phenomenon isn’t the point. Rather, the point is to deploy what you have – basically a series of mildly titillating / gross / silly things that have happened or you have “heard about” while sidestepping the fact that they may not in fact be real. One way around the later problem is to write in the present tense (“They arrive home from girls’ nights at three a.m. on a weeknight and then complain about hangovers at school dropoff”) or, even better, avoid using verbs beyond strange “it is” constructions at all:

The childbearing is over, the breastfeeding in the past, the sling donated to Housing Works. It’s the moment when a mom dresses as a Harajuku girl for Halloween, or there’s a full bar at a four-year-old’s birthday party, or two ladies step out of book group to smoke on the stoop. It’s blowjob gestures at cocktail parties followed by a-little-too hysterical laughter. It’s the mother who says, “Mommy needs an Advil because she stayed up too late last night.” It’s fortieth birthday parties at karaoke bars.

See that: through the “it’s, it’s, it’s” formulation, you’re not actually asserting that any of these things actually have taken place. Rather this is the sort of thing that would happen if this Regression thing was happening, and since you’ve said it’s happening, then they have happened too. Perfect – you’ve learned the secret of tautological spin.

7. It might be a good time, lest the reader starts to lose interest or attention, to reaffirm that this is just like the stuff that happens on her/his favorite cable tv shows.

The same Facebook moms who use kid photos as their profile pics post galleries of their binge drinking. Is the behavior really amoral? No. Does it cross a line? Rarely. But there is a wild, life-craving, narcissistic, oblivious madness to it that reminds me of Don Draper and pals in the mid-sixties. These women are the men their mothers divorced.

8. Now that you’ve done the amorphous “things that might be the case but who really knows” non-story story thing, the remainder of the piece can consist of a stream of consciousness list of mundane things that vaguely reinforce the Big Idea of the piece. Have no fear if these mundane things are really mundane and utterly disjointed, one to the next. What follows is an exhaustive list of what actually happens in the remainder of Sohn’s piece – exhaustive so that you can you can be reassured that having nothing really to talk about shouldn’t at all put you off writing a piece of this sort:

  1. Once, a woman in Fort Greene had non-intercourse sex once with a coworker.
  2. Once, a married woman with kids used coitus interruptus as her birth control method.
  3. Once, a man bought XL condoms from the Park Slope Co-Op
  4. Once, two men took Xanax while drinking.
  5. Once, a dad gave the author some marijuana.
  6. Once, the author took the subway to Park Slope once because there were no cabs on Smith Street.
  7. Once, people went back from drinks to someone’s place to do a line of coke.
  8. Once, someone said to the author that her Asian boyfriend had a large penis.
  9. Once, people at a party attended by the author smoked pot on the front stoop.

9. As you can see, the takeaway point is this: the initial “tits out and self-fondled” story is the alpha and the omega of this piece, and clears room for everything else. That along with a catchy tagword like “Regressives” will allow you to transform, as if (or, probably, in fact) effortlessly, some silly shit that happens at boring kids’ birthday parties in at the Center of the Literary Universe (i.e. Brooklyn) into a piece that not only captures the World Zeitgeist, but further even becomes a talking point during the dead-air times on CNN.

Did you catch a guy peeing against your garbage cans? Then exhibitionism in the new hip thing amongst the BoBos of Park Slope. Did you bump your head during sex with your husband? Watch out, EL James: it’s married BDSM that’s the new rage in Red Hook. Did a friend of a friend let one rip during a cocktail party? Then – as you can easily imagine – farting is the new flirting in Boerum Hill.

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July 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm

i love the smell of quidditch in the morning: laurie penny in trafalgar square

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This is ridiculous:

Harry Potter is also a business, and like any business, it is protected by large men in uniform. In Trafalgar Square, private security guards in lurid orange high-vis jackets step through the crowd, clashing with the glowering green decorations Warner has laid on for the event. The security guards stand firm at the gates to make sure no undesirables get in, shooing around clusters of quiet young people in pyjamas and sleeping bags, as if professional heavies have been dispatched to ensure everyone gets to bed on time.

Tell me Penny’s not actually tonally and thematically blurring together the student demonstrations and, um, a fucking Harry Potter premier? Children’s Revolution indeed. “In a chimeric clash of cultural signifiers, one young man with dreadlocks has accessorised a grubby green Che Guevara hoodie with a Gryffindor scarf.” Um, right. Watch, it gets worse:

Harry Potter, however, was always about far more than trade-marked tat. As a light rain begins to fall, young people who were strangers a few days ago huddle together under umbrellas and makeshift canopies, sharing midnight snacks and curling with torches around chunky copies of The Deathly Hallows, like the last, best sleepover of adolescence. “It’s just so friendly here,” say two Belgian teenagers in matching raincoats. “When we arrived in London, we didn’t know where we were supposed to go, but then we spotted some people in Gryffindor scarves, and we followed them, and now we’re friends. People are brought together by Harry Potter.” There is an atmosphere of innocence here that is utterly bewitching. “It’s like the best parts of fandom come to life,” says my friend, and we find ourselves staying far longer than we planned. Nobody wants to go to bed. Nobody wants the magic to end.

It’s a veritable Tahir Square of adolescent friendliness! Tonight “we are beautiful. Nothing can stop us”… from writing yet another “generational” article that sprays a damned kid movie premier with tear gas, just as she’s already coated the demonstrations with a thick coat of made-for-tv romantic drama. The adjectives and adverbs begin to flow like the blood of overly-kettled schoolchildren through the streets:

The next morning, Trafalgar Square is completely shut down, with screaming fans lining every sun-drenched road. The noise is incredible. Schoolgirls cluster as politely as possible to catch a glimpse of their favourite characters, chanting the names ecstatically when the stars appear on the enormous screens.

As if things aren’t exciting enough, before too long it starts to get all Riefenstahl on Laurie:

Many of the fans have drawn wobbly spectacles and lightning scars onto their faces as they shout in chorus, and I am reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ observation that the lightning-bolt on the forehead was also the symbol of Oswald Mosley’s fascists. Fanaticism, however twee, is always disturbing.

Eventually, she ties the knot and brings the one and the other together. Good thing she’s definitely not making the most viable student movement in generations look absolutely ridiculous:

Over the past six months, several groups of students and schoolchildren who attempted to camp out in Trafalgar Square for less Potter-specific reasons were all evicted by police. On the 26 March, I was here when 200 young protesters, mostly school pupils who had gathered for a picnic after the TUC demonstration, were kettled for hours in the freezing cold. Nathan Akehurst, 18, was also there. “A riot cop pointed his baton at me, and I don’t know why, but I grabbed whatever was in my hand – a water bottle, I think it was – and I shouted: ‘Expelliarmus!’. The policeman just laughed.”

I’ll bet he did. Christ, I’ve spoken about how refreshing it was that the occupations weren’t stacked with beanbag chairs and incense sticks, but I think I’d actually take a Bertolucci inspired Parisian-redux to this. It’s called, you know, journalistic condescension, even if it’s posing as yet another bizarre Laurie’s-liberal-lifestyle piece:

Harry Potter is not just a corporate racket, or a cheesy public-school fantasy in clunky prose. It’s also about decency, and fairness, and courage. That’s why young anti-cuts protesters carried placards declaring themselves members of ‘Dumbledore’s Army’. This particular fairy tale is coming to an end just as young people are learning that sometimes good does not automatically triumph. Sometimes the stupidest, meanest adults wind up in charge, and they can’t be defeated simply by going on a quest to destroy Horcruxes, or finding an unbeatable wand.

Ah, so the kids really are as stupid as they’ve been made out to be, as you can see by the turn to free indirect, sub-normal babytalk in the last line.

Goddamn internet. No getting away from UK hackery, even if it’s now for the moment on its backfoot. Whatever there is to say about the NYT, and there’s a lot to be said to be sure, at least serious papers in America wouldn’t touch this crap with a pole the length of the north Atlantic.

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July 13, 2011 at 2:23 pm

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ads sells out, answers work emails, becomes funded researcher, bureaucratized philosopher of happiness?

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Strange. Answering work-email, including one from our departmental “research facilitator.” And for the life of me, I can’t see why I shouldn’t “express interest” in becoming part of “a research initiative on subjective wellbeing and practical implications for design and delivery of public policy and services.”

Is the trick in the “subjective” determination of “wellbeing”? There has to be a trick. Is that where I would encounter problems? I suppose I don’t really have a problem with that, as I can see and discuss the “subjective” even if I automatically and instantly translate it into meta-effect of the “objective.”

So very roundabout, there’s nothing that my work’s aimed at (again, so so roundabout) more centrally than the “design and delivery of public policy and services” toward the enhancement of “happiness,” whether subjective or objective.

I wonder if I would stop all the other madness if I were, in the long run, appointed as house man-of-letters for a lovely organization like the NHS? I bet I’d have an easier time settling down with myself, working at my desk.

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July 19, 2009 at 12:49 am

“though he were dead, yet shall he live”

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Ah yardwork, not gardening, for I am ineluctably American. I do not finesse and I do not plant little flowers. I chop and rip, I should have a machete, not clippers.

My daughter sat in her cat chair and rhapsodized a song about a heroine who built the “tower, the Tower of London” and then is imprisoned in said Tower, only to be rescued by a boy named Elmer. Fucking Disneyplots! Still, the song was lovely….

As for me, I was happily and mindlessly raking up the thick coat of leaves until I struck and killed a hidden toad with my rake. This was upsetting, for he was huge and sentinent looking. And he looked, in his inverted dead state, like a full-sized human heart, just laying there damp on the scruff.

I turned my attentions to other parts of our pocket garden. I thought about writing a poem about it, the rake bit, the toad bit, the heart bit. Random death from the air at the end of a HomeBase bought metal rake, all in the midst of warm and wet and animally leaf-sleep.

When I turned back to see once again, the toad was gone! Lazarus toad! I started to tell my daughter about Lazarus when she asked, but couldn’t make it through for it is a silly, silly story.

The fucker ruined the poem too. But I’m glad he’s still alive, if poked and bleeding and less certain about his world than he was a few minutes ago…

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February 17, 2009 at 10:48 am

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clipart kingdom of god

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I used to live in Brooklyn Heights, which among other things was the location of the world HQ of the Jehovah’s Witnessnes. I think most of their space there has been converted to condos and the like. Interestingly, there seemed to have been some decision on their part that they wouldn’t do the door to door think in their own nabe, for fear of saturating and thus alienating the locals. (The closest I got was the time that the creepy JW who lived two floors above my place ran into me smoking outside on 9/11. He said to me, “Son, you look troubled….” and held our some pamphlets for me to take. I responded, erm, inappropriately…)

Anyway, their housemag The Watchtower was dropped through my slot today. Gotta tell you, the clip art illustrations are worthwhile. So worthwhile that I’ve spent some time on the website tonight, and will be visiting each of you, at your houses sometime very soon. For now, if you could just take a look at this photoessay I’ve made up and consider the alternatives before you….

THE KINGDOM OF GOD EXPLAINED VIA JEHOVAH WITNESS CLIPART

AFTER THE REARRIVAL OF OUR SAVIOR, first of all, old men will be freed from the burden of passing large amounts of urine on any single trip to the toilet. Wee little pees will be their gift from the rearrived Jesus.

Further, entertainment will be more entertaining than it had been lately. Some will be riveted by it; others rendered ecstatic; still more will be driven to clutch and grab at their mother’s bra.

Christmas ornaments will feature shockingly realistic photographic clipart…

…while picnics with grandparents will generally take place in sunny graveyards!

Parents will be relieved from the burden of guilt that they’d rather look at porn than talk with their children!

Students coming home on break from university will be accompanied by their personal set of deer!

Mime will gain a priviledged place as the predominant form of popular art it was always meant to be…

…while Jehovah busily assigns willing, pretty girls to very, very awkward young men for them to use as they will, up to and including intense bouts of handholding!

Charcoal-sketched softcore will take up the religious thematics long anticipated by some…

…while many will be shocked to learn that rental charges will be waived for the video versions of this godly skinstuff!

What is left of non-porn art will be defined by mindbending tricks with perspective, undoing and redoubling the achievements of the Renaissance. Here, flat land in the foreground intersects in a way only conceivable by the post-Armageddon mind with the flatness of the water at about a 30 degree angle. If you had been Saved (do JWs do “saving” hmmm?), this would make good optical sense! Trust me!

After the second coming, you will be able to video chat with your friends on your personal computer! I shit you not, brothers and sisters!

Lounge singers will be permitted to fulfill their ambition to become disabled children!

Suddenly, looking at XXX Magazine will be like reading the New Yorker, perfectly acceptable for the living room on chilly Sunday afternoons in winter, wife and godly children huddled all around, especially since all the images will be blurred beyond visibility…

…while public murals drawn from the Afghan translation of The Joy of Sex will be omnipresent!

But best of all, the real payoff of this whole Jehovah rearrived, will the the distribution of the peacocks, one to each family. Here, we see the bird whispering instructions regarding what to do with the parental remains once she and the horses… and Jehovah are done with them!

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January 18, 2009 at 10:09 pm

here, this will make you feel better

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From a big New York Magazine piece on the end of book publishing:

It’s inherently risky, though. You have to wonder about the prospects for one new book that Elberse had her students case-study—Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. Grand Central, inspired by the best seller Marley & Me, is betting on the new mini-genre of cat-related nonfiction. Grand Central initially offered $300,000, then went up to $1.25 million. Gobs more will be spent on marketing. You’ll likely be hearing about Dewey when it comes out this month, and if half a million of you still feel that you can’t get enough heartwarming pet stories, it just might earn back its advance.

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September 19, 2008 at 3:37 pm

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