Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Dodai Stewart

Dodai Stewart is a writer, editor, and self-described pop culture junkie. Stewart is the Editor In Chief of Fusion.net, and the former Deputy Editor of Jezebel.com. Her writing has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, Glamour, and the New York Times, amongst others. You can find a sample of her writing here, and you can follow her on Twitter @dodaistewart. Stewart lives in Manhattan with her misanthropic Chihuahua.

E.B. Bartels: How did you begin writing in general and nonfiction specifically?

Dodai Stewart: I was a big reader when I was a kid, and I really liked storybooks, so it followed that I would try to write storybooks. I wrote fiction first. But I started journaling when I was in junior high school—maybe eighth grade. At first it was a homework assignment, but then the habit took. I journaled all the time, and in college I became very diligent about it. I did multimedia journaling—I was also really into photography, so I was pasting in photos and ticket stubs. It was a combination journal-scrapbook. Writing consistently was very good for me because writing is a muscle you exercise. I became very fit at expressing my thoughts, and journaling was the way I got there. I went to college for screenwriting, and after that I started working at magazines, and that sort of journalism felt easy for me after so much journaling. I hadn’t gone to school for journalism, but I had cultivated in myself the habit of putting true words into sentences.

I worked at This Old House magazine, where I was an office manager, but I absorbed some journalism skills from working there. Then I was at Entertainment Weekly—the first place I actually had something published. Then I was at Modern Bride, doing some freelance projects, and then I worked at a teen magazine called J14 for a while. And while I was at J14 I applied for a “special project” at Gawker, which turned out to be Jezebel, and then I was there for seven years!

EB: I love what you said about journaling. I also keep really intense journals, and my friends joke that I’m kind of a hoarder because of all the stuff I tape in––photos, receipts, scraps of paper.

DS: In a way, journaling is the perfect preparation for blogging. It’s all about the mix of words and pictures. There are times when words are more important, and there are times when the pictures and paraphernalia are more important. But it’s attempting to try to tell a truer, more-rounded story by having all the elements. I feel like journaling really prepared me for blog-life.

EB: How do you approach writing in your journal differently compared to when you are writing for the Internet, or for a print publication?

DS: I have a shorthand with myself when journaling. There are things I don’t need to explain to myself, that I would have to explain in another story. The things I did for magazines or print publications were are lot less “voice-y” than the Internet writing I did. I approached magazine- and print-writing differently because you have a specific audience, you’re given an assignment, it’s not about you necessarily, and a lot of the assignments are very short. So you need to maximize while you’re economizing.

I had a blog before I started Jezebel, just a personal blog, and in the beginning I think I was a little more careful, as in a little more reserved and not as open… But after years of doing it, you’re more comfortable, you take more liberties, you’re freer with the way you’re writing. You’re writing not exactly the way you’d write to a friend, but very similarly. The way Jezebel was set up when I was working there, some of the people you were writing to impress weren’t necessarily the audience of readers, but your own coworkers. There were times we were writing things—or at least I was—when it meant the most to me if other Jezebel employees or other Gawker employees liked it. These are the people you’re spending your days with, you’re all reading each other’s stuff, and you’re impressed by them and you want to impress them. Everyone had good taste. You wanted to be proud of your work and inspire that kind of admiration.

EB: Your writing for Fusion seems to be much more journalistic, while your work for Jezebel was often much more personal. Was that an intentional shift or is it just the nature of the websites?

DS: I think it’s both. Fusion is more news-oriented. It’s not that we don’t run personal essays, but it’s just more serious and news-y. And as Editor In Chief, I have very little time to write. I’m limited in terms of my subjects, and I’m doing more management. I don’t have the luxury/mandate of writing four to eight things a day, like I did at Jezebel. I don’t have the time to wax on all these things. But when I am really motivated and invested in something, I put in the time—like the story I wrote when Prince died. I worked very late into the night on that.

EB: As an editor, what do you think makes a great piece of nonfiction?

DS: As I said before, I grew up really liking fiction, and I still do. And I think what I like in nonfiction is the same as what I like in fiction—a well-crafted story is a well-crafted story. Screenwriting has a lot of rules about grabbing people in the first ten pages (a.k.a. ten minutes) of a film, and always furthering the action, and having a real three-act structure with a beginning, middle, and resolution at the end. Nonfiction that works for me adheres to that structure, which maybe sounds boring, but it’s not. A feature story should grab you right away, present a conflict, and have some sort of resolution. I’m pretty omnivorous in what I like to read—I like personal essays, I like deeply reported things, I like some memoir-ish stuff. But overall, I’m really drawn to tight storytelling.

EB: So many contemporary writers like to blend nonfiction now. How do you see the divisions within nonfiction?

DS: I don’t really think about the categories that much. I think it’s interesting when there is a blend. These days there is so much to read—

EB: I know! It’s so overwhelming!

DS: Yeah, I know! But it’s exciting, because you can discover writers you never would have been able to find in the past. And for all the bad things about the Internet, it is a meritocracy: if something is good, it gets shared, and you will see it, even if it’s a writer you’ve never heard before or the subject matter is something you wouldn’t have looked into yourself.

EB: I love what you said about the Internet being a meritocracy. As someone whose work is primarily published online, what pros and cons do you see when it comes to writing for the Internet? I’m guessing the cons involve trolls, terrible people…

DS: Yup, terrible people, trolls, horrible emails from racists and men’s rights people.

EB: So fun.

DS: I would stumble on something through a Google Alert, where I would find a photo of myself from a Jezebel article and people discussing whether or not I’m fuckable… Yeah, those are the downsides, for sure, but the other downside is the Internet is very noisy. There is so much to read, and it’s hard to grab someone’s attention. So much time is spent on packaging things and creating headlines. It’s really important, but it kind of sucks. Sometimes writing for the Internet feels like a different job—it’s almost like marketing. It’s just a difficult thing to do. Sometimes a story is really great, but it’s hard to reduce into a Twitter headline.

Also, as amazing as phones are—you have all this stuff in your pocket at all times every day— it’s not the same as taking your time and paging through a magazine. Reading through a print magazine feels luxurious, it’s your me-time, you’ve got it on the beach or in the bathtub, it’s got a leisure-enjoyment-indulgent feel to it, which I think reading should be sometimes. Scrolling on your phone is not the same. I grew up on magazines and still love magazines, because of the actual format. Huge, beautiful photographs combined with in-depth reporting, it’s beautiful and tactile, and you can spend three minutes just staring at a photo. I’m happy that people are reading on their phones and that stories are reaching them wherever they are, but it doesn’t have the same lean-back-and-relax vibe, that I think reading should have sometimes.

EB: I totally agree. Sometimes reading on the Internet feels like a chore now—trying to keep up with everything my friends post on Facebook and the twenty New York Times articles my dad sends me every day—

DS: You feel like you’re always behind.

EB: Yes! I have Instapaper and I have thousands of things in there, and I have to accept that I’m just never going to get to read all of them. But what about the positives?

DS: The Internet is slightly more democratic and meritocratic. Anybody can have a Tumblr, a Medium account, a Twitter account, and you can stumble on it, and in the past it was harder to discover new writers in that way. The other huge part of [what I love about the Internet] is the interactivity. This is the same for many industries, not just writing—the music industry, the movie industry—it’s not a monolithic broadcasting system that only goes one way. It’s not even two ways now. It is multi-way. Someone can reblog something, respond to it, Facebook it, and all these conversations can branch out and sprout from one idea. In the past, if you were a comic book fan and you didn’t like the way that Spider-Man looked in the new movie, no one cared, keep it to yourself, just complain to your family about it. But now you can write about it on your blog, and it can get passed around, and the studio could even see and change something about the movie. It’s much more of a back-and-forth dialogue, and I think that it’s really good. It’s great. Now when someone publishes a piece, it’s just the beginning. It’s like hip-hop: you do something, and someone does a remix, and someone else does a remix, and so on and so on, and it takes on a life of its own.

EB: So, in general, what has been challenging for you about writing nonfiction?

DS: I love to write, but it can be very weirdly solitary… I don’t think I’m good at editing myself, because I spent a lot of time in a blog-y environment where stream-of-consciousness was encouraged, which is a little unusual. You’re not going to write a New York Times op-ed where they say, “Just let it all out!” The rest of the world has word counts and structures. It is hard to keep it clean in that way. But that’s why you keep people around you who are great at editing.

EB: And what has been rewarding about writing nonfiction?

DS: Writing is therapeutic and cathartic, but there is also the element of writing as a craft. When you accomplish something that’s well crafted, it’s such a good feeling. Words are really powerful. They can devastate, they can entertain, they can amuse, they can inspire, they can disembowel. I’m a person who enjoys language and enjoys seeing it employed artfully.

The ability to use language is what some scientists say separates us from animals, and when scientists want to show how smart animals are–like dogs or dolphins–they always say they can differentiate X-many words. So I think that spending your time immersed in language is very special. I don’t want to write, I have to write, I am compelled to write. It makes me feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose.

EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage nonfiction by a woman writer?

DS: DV by Dionna Vreeland is a very slim volume, but it’s unbelievably entertaining. It’s an autobiography written by a slightly unreliable narrator. Vreeland was a name-dropper, over the top, and the first line of her memoir is “I loathe nostalgia.” She’s voicey, brazen, politically incorrect, and hilarious, which makes the book a joy to read. Here’s a snippet:

What a generation it was! It was the martini era. In those days, people would get out of the car to see you home, and they’d weave around a bit and fall down on the sidewalk. You’d walk into your house, and they were out there on the sidewalk; and inevitably the chauffeur or the taxi driver would come after them. It was so appalling, the martini of the twenties. If I gave you some gin with a drop of vermouth that wouldn’t cover the head of a pin, that would be the martini. The people who drank them were carried home, usually unconscious. I’m only talking about the two or three years when I was kind of on the loose before I got married. I’ve never seen so much drinking in my life. That’s why it’s never been remotely attractive to me, but I do understand drunks.

Then, of course, Prohibition came along. Insane idea. Try to keep me from taking a swallow of this tea, and I’ll drink the whole pot. Roosevelt knew what to do: repeal. It’s hard to believe now that Prohibition ever existed—it seems like a fairy tale.

E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.

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