On McSweeney’s, First Drafts and Putting Yourself Out There

A few weeks ago, I entered McSweeney’s Internet Tendency’s Column Contest. I love McSweeney’s in all its forms, but have never pitched there (maybe because of the insecure jackass who occasionally moves into my head). It was a fun exercise to try and come up with a column idea, as opposed to a one-off feature, because you think about things differently when your job would be to write 12-24 smart, witty posts on the same basic topic.

If you’ve ever read Internet Tendency, you know that pretty much anything goes, and I played around with ideas like “The Spiral of Silence” and “How to Go From White Trash to Eurotrash in a Single Generation.”

(Because it’s worth mentioning for the good of humanity, I digress for a moment here to talk about the Spiral of Silence.)

If you’ve never heard of the Spiral of Silence, Wikipedia explains it like this: “The spiral of silence is a political science and mass communication theory propounded by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Spiral of silence theory describes the process by which one opinion becomes dominant as those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because society threatens individuals with fear of isolation. The assessment of one’s social environment may not always correlate with reality.”

In August, the Pew Research Center released a report showing how the spiral works in social media, and I thought it would be funny to write about the things I catch myself clamming up about. Really important hot-button issues, like whether or not Sofia Vergara’s Emmy skit was funny or sexist.

The column I settled on, however, was called “The Neighborhood.” Because I would be writing about life in my central Austin community, I thought long and hard about how to approach it without offending my friends and neighbors, but being honest and funny at the same time. In the end, I probably thought too long and hard about approach, because I was left to write the overview, first column draft, and three additional column pitches all on the day submissions were due. I wrote most of that day, and pushed “send” around 6:30pm, with my husband and daughter puttering around the kitchen trying to keep quiet while I finished.

Contest judges John Warner and Christopher Monks are masters of the mass cull, because they managed to plow through 820 submissions and announce winners within one week. That’s pretty darn amazing…as well as exceedingly kind to hopeful writers with McSweeney’s dreams. When I read in Warner’s Twitter feed that there were 820 submissions, however, I knew my half-baked column was doomed. There would only be a handful of winners, and my guess is the chosen ones had been tweaked and retweaked countless times. Mine, I discovered too late, had a typo and needed at least two more revisions to be considered “final.” Still, I think there are glimmers of good writing and compelling ideas in my submission, so hopefully I’ll find some way to use it…aside from running it below. 

“Can You Please Define McMansion?”

The neighborhood is a complex place, and neighbors are demanding relations.

Growing up, I feared that the muumuu-clad woman smoking in the carport down the street was a witch. As a college student in Austin, I lived next door to a sexy waiter/musician who eventually stole my bike, then I shared a duplex wall with a dreamy philosopher who taught me to love John Prine. In my early-twenties-cohabitating-in-an-Amsterdam-anti-squatter-flat days, swarthy Sjoerd would knock on the door each morning in his grubby underwear, wondering in his guttural accent if he could borrow the newspaper. In my newlywed Cambridge era, our fourth floor walk-up was providentially situated directly above Julia, a frail, scholarly and ethereal former nun who had been obsessively writing her beautiful and astonishing five-volume poem for more than 30 years. More recently, as a mother in East Dallas, the meth addict down the block inspired me to wave enthusiastically from the porch as well as deadbolt the door.

I felt connected to them all.

Last year, I began the awkward process of connecting with a whole new set of people when my family moved back to Austin. While there’s still plenty keepin’ #ATX weird, it is definitely a different town than the one I left in 2003, and the 100+ per day influx of people, “Californiacation” of home prices, escalating property taxes and citified traffic problems are making it a bumpy evolution for those who revere Austin’s slacker culture.

I first learned how those issues are playing out in my own urban pocket when I got my first edition of the neighborhood list serve and spied messages lamenting of “downtown encroachment” and “McMansions.” We’d moved here, in part, because downtown was encroaching. And our house was definitely not a 900-square foot cottage. (Rule of thumb: If you’re not sure if your home is a McMansion, it probably is.)

As it turned out, a pariah’s life wasn’t so bad. I walked my daughter to school, and my dogs around the block. I bought, cooked and ate groceries, worked solo in coffee shops, jogged to the lake and drank margaritas. Along the way, though, I met some of my neighbors…the baby-faced tech CEOs, hipsters, hippies, retirees, yoga instructors, tow truck drivers, professors and musicians that coexist in this crazy neighborhood. I posted things to the list serve, took in dogs, bought birthday presents and looked after other people’s children. I, like, made connections, man.

Still, there are plenty of real problems here like drought, affordable housing and those damn property taxes. There’s also a lot to disagree about, like impervious cover rules, urban coyotes and the genetically modified ingredients apparently used in Pirate Booty. But there are cool things, too, like 75-year-old piano teachers, bona fide rock stars, and the Mayberryesque en masse walk to school. It’s awesome stuff, and somebody needs to write about it. -30-

While it’s no fun to lose, I’m glad I tried. If you don’t try, my husband is fond of saying, the answer will always be “no.” You learn something from trying, and you certainly learn something from losing. And, hopefully that makes you a better writer. With about 10 months to think about and perfect another submission, maybe I’ll try again next year. In the meantime, I’ll be reading my McSweeney’s.