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Why Can’t I Be You: Emily Nussbaum

The New Yorker’s TV critic tells us how to get her job—or not.

Do you have any advice for people about pitching pieces to editors? Have you done a lot of cold [unsolicited] pitching?

I did do cold pitching. I was also an editor for several years, so I got other people’s pitches. But I find that the problem with pitching is that, if you’re trying to make a living [as a freelance writer], it doesn’t pay off economically, because you’re spending a lot of time researching each pitch.

That’s really true.

I don’t have a solution for this, but I do think it is good to write online and then link somebody up with a lot of your writing. I also think it’s very important to write great emails, because only in email can you tell what somebody’s actual writing looks like. People have literally gotten hired because their emails were funny.

And there are two things to keep in mind if you’re pitching someone: One of them is that if you’re pitching pop-culture ideas, don’t pitch like a profile of George Clooney—that’s not something they really give a beginning writer. Ideally, you have to try to give them something that is simultaneously totally in the wheelhouse of the publication, but that they’ve never done before, so it has this great original angle. And, you know, write it in a sparkly, smart way. The second thing is, try not to send the publication the idea that they have been sent a million times before. For instance, when I was working at Nerve, I cannot tell you how many first-person essays I received about the first time somebody shaved their pubic hair.

[Laughs] We have literally gotten zero of those.

But that’s easy to say as an editor, where you just get to stand there and roll your eyes and be like, “Stop pitching me this thing I keep getting pitched.”

Right, because how would they know that?

If you’re an outside person trying to break into a publication, I think it’s very complicated. The one big advantage I think people have is that now you can publish your own stuff! People can complain all they want about the quality of stuff online, but the quality of stuff online is fantastic. It is amazing! There are funny, original pieces by people of all ages, and now they can be heard. This seems to me to be a radical improvement. Of course, you won’t be paid for [that writing], and that’s a serious problem. But there is huge opportunity to be noticed on the internet, in a way that wasn’t true when I was a teenager and in my 20s.

I see you talking about TV on Twitter a lot. What do you use those conversations for?

I find [Twitter] incredibly valuable as a TV writer. I can talk to people internationally from numerous different audiences, people who are deep fans of shows, people who are very critical of things, people who have specific political stances, people from all sorts of different cultures—it’s just a rich, diverse environment where the unifying thing is that the people I’m talking to are interested in television.

One thing I use it for a lot—and I have to be cautious about this, because I don’t want to flood people’s feeds—is brainstorming. I don’t want to necessarily give away stuff I’m writing about, but sometimes when I’m talking to people about TV, I’ll come up with a line or an idea, or a joke or phrase, that I will then use in a piece for The New Yorker. And sometimes pieces come from responding to people [on Twitter].

One example I wrote that was sort of silly, but I do think was on target, was this piece about the idea of the “hummingbird” character among women—female characters who are these high-strung, sort of alienating idealists who were appearing all over TV last year. I linked together Amy Jellicoe from Enlightened, Sue Heck from The Middle, and Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation. [That character] seemed to me related to the antihero and shows that make audiences uncomfortable, which I think is a really important thing in TV. So I started thinking about this on Twitter, and then I wrote a little blog post about it. It came directly from that conversation.

When you read your old stuff, like your stuff in Lingua Franca, now, do you cringe or are you like, “Oh, that was great!”

There is stuff that I wrote early on that I do cringe at. Some of the stuff I wrote for Lingua Franca was kind of overwritten—dense and pretentious and, you know, show-offy. But I think that’s always true [for beginners].

It always upsets me so much that when people are in college their work is published online. I actually think there should be a national law passed that below the age of 21, people’s stuff is locked away and nobody is allowed to comment on it. Because I hate it when somebody publishes an embarrassing column for their college newspaper and it ends up getting mocked on Gawker or something like that. Like, my heart clutches up, because I feel like people’s early writing should not be humiliated.

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9 Comments

  • amanda April 10th, 2014 1:03 AM

    I was looking forward to this one ever since the thumbnail showed up on a weekend (I think). Only read the first two pages so far but this is already my favorite WCIBY (Jessica Hische’s is a close second). Her candor is so wonderful, being told how things actually work instead of hearing “work hard and things will just fall into place” is refreshing.

  • honorarygilmoregal April 10th, 2014 4:10 AM

    Great interview! Emily Nussbaum seems so wise and cool.

  • Brodie April 10th, 2014 5:21 AM

    Emily is one of my FAVE pop culture writers and I am ALL ABOUT THIS CONVO!!!
    “I actually have this theory that I’ve never written up: that teenage girls and middle-aged men are the source of the best modern television. They’re both emotionally labile figures going through a period of identity formation. They’re angry and horny and they bridle at the dullness of social conformity. They’re unnerved by the way their bodies are changing. They feel like the world is ending.”

    yeeeeeesssssss!!!!!!

  • Viaperson April 10th, 2014 9:50 AM

    wow — i appreciate emily’s honesty so much. it’s SO reassuring to hear a successful person confess that they got very lucky, that many of the doors leading to their position are now closed, etc. feels like we’re spoonfed ideas about how HARD WORK ALONE will get you ANYTHING (this obviously has economic parallels haha) so hearing a different and truer perspective is refreshing. as an american studies student and aspiring cultural analyst (maybe??) i do worry about the financial consequences of pursuing my interests…but knowing that the process getting work in this field is way more complicated and unpredictable than going to j school or doing a few fancy internships is somehow comforting. like, if i fail, my self-worth as a writer won’t be torn to shreds :)

    also, emily, i, like anaheed, am a HUGE fan of your writing and follow it everywhere! so excited you did this interview!!!

  • thebrownette April 10th, 2014 10:07 AM

    THE APPROVAL MATRIX IS MY FAVORITE THING EVER!

  • thebrownette April 10th, 2014 10:24 AM

    On a more serious note, this article is scary, saddening (collapse of paid criticism pipeline, etc), and inspiring.

  • autumnsweater April 10th, 2014 8:17 PM

    I LOVE THIS

  • Aoife April 10th, 2014 10:37 PM

    This was amazing. And scary. I’m doing a masters im journalism at the moment and it is terrifying to think of the difficulty thats coming at the end…

  • April 12th, 2014 12:39 PM

    I love Emily’s writing in the New Yorker. I get excited every week I see that she has a column and I find her perspectives (even when I might not agree with them) totally refreshing and interesting. She always brings up things I had not yet considered. And how wonderful to have such a great, feminist writer writing about TV.

    She is a National Treasure!