Notes From a Hired Pen

Top 10 of 2017

It’s that time of year again: the end of it. I’ve had a rough go of it in 2017 (dog died, house sold, depression enfolding) and didn’t write as much as I usually do (but also because also my amazing road trip!) However, I did manage to write a few good things. Here at my top 10 of the year.

10. “How to get late payments for your freelance work – no crowbar required” for Poynter

I was interviewed by Poynter earlier this year and thought “well jeez maybe I should write for them,” which I (obviously) do now. My goal with these pieces is to inform and empower the #freelancemafia. The more we band together and talk about best practices, solutions to common problems and how to make our businesses thrive, the less we’ll be taken advantage of. I also got to talk about my bat here – always a win.

9. “How to Make – and Keep – a New Year’s ResolutionNew York Times

I put this one on the list for two reasons: First, I didn’t know how I was going to write about a topic that’s been written a zillion times before and make it interesting and different and new (especially since I don’t make New Year’s resolutions). Second, because in reporting it I learned a lot because what I found out was interesting and different and new. Writing the story that everyone writes is sometimes the hardest topic to tackle, and I think this one worked well. It started as a pitch about fitness only, and I’m glad my editors widened the topic to resolutions in general.

8. “Wet Hot American Summer – in Running Shoes” New York Times

I don’t usually pitch stories that require significant travel, but I did this one because I was curious about running camps and didn’t know of a better way to write about them than to go to one (also I went camping along the Blue Ridge Parkway after – glorious). My editors agreed and sent me last year for the piece that published this summer. I met a lot of great people at that camp who still keep in touch today – one couple even came to two of my book events. I don’t get out of the office a lot to report on stories, but I’m glad I did this one (even if the story ran a year later). I didn’t come up with the title, but I love it.

7. “The Running Bubble Has Popped (You Couldn’t Hear it in New York),” New York Times.

I’ve been wanting to write this story since the numbers started to slide. I don’t often write for the sports section, but I’m glad they bought it because that’s where it belonged. I didn’t expect that it would run in the Marathon Monday special section of the paper, or that I’d be in New York because I’d just run the marathon and could pick up a hard copy by hobbling down to the nearest Starbucks, but life works out that way sometimes.

6. “I’m no longer Catholic, but I still carry a statue of the Virgin Mary,” The Lily

This is the second big Catholic story I’ve written in my career. The first was about Catholic schools. This is more of an exploration of where the church is – and isn’t – in my life, and how it’s more of a cultural identity than something I believe in. The Lily really let me write some things no one else would – and I thank them for that.

5. “Here’s the deal to listening to sad stuff when you’re depressed,” Buzzfeed

I’m a young person! Just kidding – even if Buzzfeed has a reputation for quick hit pieces, they do some really amazing stuff, so when they tweeted out they were looking for stories for their Mental Health week, I replied. It’s the most I’ve ever written, frankly, about how awful I’ve felt this year. Being honest about it encouraged a friend to be honest about his struggles too – and if nothing else, it’s helped him (and I hope a lot of other people).

4. “Stop telling me to ‘stay safe,’” The Lily.

I knew when I pitched this that a lot of people would hate it and hooooo boy. I was hiking in Grand Teton National Park when a Boston sports media personality tweeted it and the rush of hate tweets was as fierce as the waterfall I looked at on the hike. That’s not a bad thing – sometimes you write things knowing it’s going to irk people. The best part about it was that I could tell they hadn’t read to the end because they didn’t start screaming about the gun stuff there. Haha! Gotcha!

3. “Paying Run With - and for – Oiselle” for Racked

This is another one I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I’d pitched it around but never with quite the right angle to quite the right publication. Some of my best pieces  about the running industry have been in non-running publications. They seem more open to assigning stories that might piss off one of their advertisers (this one’s another example). So I’m really glad I linked up with Racked this year because I think that it was the right home for it. It’s also the first time a brand ever subtweeted me. New experiences every year!

2. “Memories of a Jersey Shore Town, Before a Boom,” New York Times

If you’re new around here, you should know that I spent a significant chunk of my early writing life reporting on the Jersey Shore. I first wrote about declining year round populations on my Jersey Shore blog, so this reported essay felt like the natural update of that post, in both the status of those year round populations and, in a way, my career since I went from writing about it in a blog to The New York Times. Two other reasons it’s second here: First, I think I got the imagery right (and the owner of the deli emailed me to say she agreed) and through it managed to show how important this corner of the country is to me. And second, I also consider it my swan song to that portion of my writing career, and what a better way to go out than like that? It came out when I was in Flagstaff, Arizona, about to drive to Las Vegas for a flight to Hawaii. Weird timing, but weirdly appropriate too, that complete mis-match of what I’d been doing for summers almost every year of my life, and what I did this summer that was radically different and new.

1. “Things I Wish I Had Known When My Dog Died,” New York Times

Duh, right? This is the most popular thing I have never written for the New York Times and probably ever in my entire writing career. It hung around in their top 10 articles page for a few days, and was one of the most popular of their stories on social media this year. On a personal level, I broke just about every rule of essay writing to do this. I tend to wait until months, even years, after something traumatic to write about it, but I wrote this when I was still deep in grief. I also wrote it on a Sunday afternoon in a writing session that stretched past midnight – I rarely work on weekends let alone into the wee small hours of the morning. I sweat through two shirts and ran through two boxes of tissues in doing it – because yes writing can be physical.

It’s also an example, for you writers out there, that you can tackle a universal experience that has been written about a zillion times before and have it stand out. How? By making it personal. This was very much my story of the end of my dog’s life but, based on responses I’m still getting, hit home with a lot of people. I started out by making a list of what happened after, and that’s pretty much how it stayed (though I cut out 2/3 of the original draft). Doing a list almost felt like cheating, but it was the only way I could break down this massively sad experience and put it into readable form. I think it made it easier for readers to grasp too.

I don’t know if it helped my grieving process. I was anxious in the days leading up to publication because I knew there’d be some sort of social media reaction though I never could have anticipated how great. Also, my inbox was a river of tears after the piece came out, and again when the paper shared it on their social media feeds this week. It did at times set me right back into the weeds of my own sorrow. But I know  it has helped a lot of people and told them it’s OK to be this sad. That’s why it was worth it. I think Emily would be proud.

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One Response to “Top 10 of 2017”

  1. Peter Friedman says:

    Jen,

    What I like so much about your piece is that it sets off ideas for me, making me think of topics that I might write about. So your piece is both entertaining and helpful.

    I particularly liked, “Stop telling me to ‘stay safe,’” advice I wished someone would give to the pilot of the plane I’m flying in, rather than to me, the passenger.

    So, thanks for providing enjoyment, along with possible utility–a nice combination.

    All the best,
    Peter

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