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Some Personal News: A Writer's Notebook is "Going Pro"
For the past year I have written this newsletter whenever it suited me. I didn’t want it to become an obligation, another task to complete that wasn’t at the heart of what I wanted to be doing. I needed a place for my writing that would help me explore, question, practice, and evolve. As a result, it has felt, well, like a notebook; a respite from the widening gyre of social media, news feeds, and their attendant outrages.
This past June, a representative from Substack got in touch. They wanted to know if I would consider joining their Pro program, agreeing to post at least 100 times during a one-year paid contract (an “advance” as they call it, though it differs from a traditional book advance in several ways). I’m already a freelance writer and full time author, so I didn’t have a media job they were trying to buy me away from. They just wanted me to post more on Substack, on any topic and at any length, and were willing to pay me to do so. There was no exclusivity clause, and I could still publish elsewhere with no restrictions. This was all very flattering, but the timing wasn’t right.
Even though Substack was offering me total freedom, I still felt like what I had to offer wasn’t enough. I saw people launching newsletters that were like magazines, with guest contributors and a regular publishing schedule of polished features. I knew I couldn’t do that level of work twice a week on my own, but I also did not want to become a semiweekly reporter on the Twitter hot takes beat. I did not want to post when I didn’t have anything to say. I did want to work with skilled editors to develop personal essays, reported features, or historical pieces that might not find a home elsewhere. I wanted to write exploratory essays or parts of essays that might get shined up and turned into something else down the road. I wanted to share things that inspired me as I encountered them, rather than waiting to put them all into a sanitized weekly round-up. I wanted to keep sharing silly watercolors from my sketchbooks, because this motivated me to keep making them, and making them made me happy. But was this enough to warrant a Substack Pro contract? Wasn’t it all a bit informal? A little messy and hodgepodge and—Ah yes. I finally realized. Exactly like a notebook.
After some back and forth, Substack and I found a way for me to do all of what I want with this newsletter, and none of what I don’t. Subscribers will receive a minimum of 100 posts per year, in the form of essays, art finds, works in progress, sketchbook pages, writing craft talks, cultural criticism, a monthly books column, features, research discoveries, and historical pieces like The Book of the Courtesans, my series about the real-life rebel women of the 19th century Paris vice squad secret archives. I won’t follow a strict publishing schedule, but you can expect to hear from me about once or twice a week, sometimes more. When called for, I’ll be working with editors of my choice with credits from places like Longreads and The Paris Review, paid by Substack at a competitive rate. I’m in talks with their audio department to add a listening option to posts, and maybe a podcast, which they’ve offered to produce. I’m open to seeing what develops.
I’ve always liked what Joan Didion said she hoped to get from her own notebooks:
“…some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write — on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there…”
My promise is that I will show up for you. That I will be human and honest and genuine. My hope is that we can accumulate some stories and some images together, and that in doing so, build a fellowship of sorts, an alliance of creatives or kindred spirits, and see where the paid passage of that accumulated interest may take us.
Many thanks to the readers who have been with me along the way, and to those of you who are new here: welcome.
The pitch for becoming a paid subscriber
This is an ad-free space, and all support comes from you. Your subscriptions literally keep the lights on, put tea in my cup and jam on my baguette. All writing costs money to produce in the form of time, food, electricity, a laptop, a roof over my head, my student loans that I’ll be paying off until I die, my health insurance so I don’t wither away, my life-changing jeans, and my haircuts so I don’t look like Hairy Mary Magdalene. It’s how I afford books and newspapers and literary magazines and museum passes and sketchbooks and pencils and brushes and of course, notebooks.
However I know what it’s like not to be able to afford even a few dollars a month. For that reason I also offer student discounts and free subscriptions—just email and say what you need, I’m happy to oblige, no questions asked.
If on the other hand you’d like to sponsor a student or other lower-income reader, you can do so by donating a subscription here.
Thank you again, and I hope to see you soon.