The Distance of 365 Days

A year ago today, a Polaroid photograph was taken of me wearing a pink lyrca and spandex bandage mini-dress. I only got to see it once but I remember being pleasantly surprised that even though I smiled big, my face hadn’t scrunched up and away from the kind of sex appeal I sought in this particular case. The photo was to go in my file as I auditioned for a job at a strip club in midtown Manhattan that I desperately did not want to take but would have been devastated if it wasn’t offered to me. I always did best when I smiled big because it made the men there think I was really having a good time. I passed muster and began work that very night. I took this photo earlier in the day when I was practicing at home: alana Massey stripper dress

I was owed thousands of dollars in freelance money, mostly from copywriting jobs and a handful of low-paid media ones when I ran out of Abilify, an anti-psychotic drug that I use to treat bipolar disorder. Uninsured and sinking into a depressive state, I started down the $880 price and knew that even if all the jobs I applied to called and made offers, I wouldn’t see money for another two weeks at least. And those jobs weren’t calling anyway. Abilify wouldn’t be generic for another six months and I could see myself slipping into the same suicidal despair that put me in Bellevue the year prior before that happened. But I can walk into a strip club and start making money that same day and so that’s what I did.

After my audition, I was in the dressing room getting more glammed up for my shift than was required to audition and a bubbly day shift blond in an American flag bandana approached me. She said, “Didn’t you just audition? It’s my first day too. You’re gonna do great cause there are like, no American girls and guys really like us. So you’ll do awesome!" She skipped out the door and on her way, apparently unaware of the dozen or so Russian women sitting around getting ready whose value she dismissed and made me look like a similarly over-confident slimeball.

One woman with long black hair, a thick Russian accent, and an ass that could solve the Euro Crisis kept staring in the mirror as she put on her make-up and said, “Somebody thinks she’s better than everyone else, hmmmm,” in an ominous sing-song way that I remain certain was a curse on both me and Bandana Jones because it was the worst club experience of my life. The night I quit, zero men tipped me after their lap dances that night, I had been thrown on the ground by a Norwegian man expecting a hand job on the dance floor, my tongue had swelled up and I had a fever of 103 from a nutritional deficiency I had developed from bad hours and bad eating trying to find a straight job and work at the club at the same time. I went home and just never bothered to show up again.

It was a year ago today that I started at a club in an industry I didn’t want to work in anymore. Today, I am in Paris writing my first book, a collection I sold to a Big Five publisher imprint for a generous sum with the help of an incredible agent and an insanely supportive and nurturing editor. I was hired at a major media company and left it when I realized it wasn’t for me. I started reporting science and technology stories when I thought I’d write personal essays forever. I fell in love and out again. I bought a fancy mattress and might buy a house in the Catskills in the next year. I’ve written stories that resonate with people enough that they send me very kind emails telling me that I should keep writing but that say to me, “You deserve to live,” which it is sometimes hard to say to myself.

The point of all this is not that I escaped the snares of the lurid adult industry and lived happily ever and to not become a stripper because someone might put a hex on you. The problem was not that I was a stripper but that I was unhappy being one at that particular juncture in my life. And as a writer now, I still get stories rejected and I get profoundly mean emails from readers and I still have to take Abilify so I don’t surrender to the alluring whispers from the Brooklyn Bridge that I could always just jump if the weight of myself got too much to carry around. I just want people to know that a year is not the blink of an eye we are so often told it is because it feels like a lifetime ago that I was on that stage in that pink dress.

I want people to know that they should remove the “just” from, “I’ll just stick it out another year” when they stay in jobs and cities and relationships they have the means but not the will to leave. There is nothing small or insignificant about a single year when you’re using every minute of it to claw your way out of whatever dull ache or crushing boredom or entrenched despair is plaguing you.If I had never gone into that club, I would not have made the money I needed to get my Abilify that gave me the stability and energy to follow up more assertively after job interviews and land the job that generated the kind of attention and opportunities I needed to get where I am today. That is Paris, by the way, if I hadn’t mentioned before what a cozy little bitch I am being right now.

When I got home tonight, I took this photo of myself in a black bodycon dress from American Apparel. I am not smiling big in it not because I am unhappy but because I think I look most like myself when my smile is at half-mast, not having to convince anyone what a good time I’m really having.

alana massey in paris

10 Sentences I Wrote That Remind Me I Can Write Sentences

Surprise! I have made my blog which used to be sort of about One Direction and my selfies into a ~writing blog~ of sorts. And since my writing process is mostly me just clicking away in a fevered rush until I suddenly stop and start sobbing onto very expensive electronics about my utter incompetence, some of this blog is going to be about the self-care I do in writing to pick myself back up. What I have struggled with over the last few days is creating sentences that I care about or that mean something to me or are clever or use words well or whatever it is that sentences are supposed to do. It is easy in those moments to think I've exhausted all my best ones and should call it a day. But I have felt that many times before when I wrote a sentence I was especially proud of. And so this post involved me rereading a bunch of previous work and selecting ten sentences that I am especially proud of. I can look at them and either laugh or have a little heart ache or just be grateful to be entrusted with language for a living.

So here they are, sentences I wrote and am very happy to have done so:

"To commit suicide in the beginning or the middle of a story was to radically refuse to participate in the narrative as anything but a ghost. There was something familiar about wanting to haunt a story rather than tell it."

"Summer is in full swing and you know what that means: it's time to do ho shit."

"The reliable ghouls at the Post run a cover photo of the moment right before the cruelly small blade enters Foley’s neck. It turns out that the beginning of an era looks a lot like an unfair fight between metal and bone."

"Chill is what Cool would look like with a lobotomy and no hobbies...Chill presides over the funeral of reasonable expectations. Chill takes and never gives. Chill is pathologically unfeeling but not even interesting enough to kill anyone. Chill is a garbage virtue that will destroy the species. Fuck Chill."

"Sorrow does not have a circumference. It has a weight that slumps the posture and disfigures one’s good sense but it is a weight like heavy particles in the air more than weight like a watermelon on the shoulders."

"I thought of many ways that the delicate magic of children’s lives might be disturbed by the practicalities and cruelties of everyday living. And this was all just the neurosis of encountering eight little shoes."

"The first rule of ending casual relationships is that you have to end casual relationships. There are too many people that just choose to stop responding to text messages to end things. Those people are weasels that eat trash and wet popcorn and deserve to be set adrift on ice floes and left to the mercies of the deep ocean."

"Yoga, in the minds of many straight men, is a placeholder for light but effective exercise done primarily by women. It is a sanitary practice, a form of exercise uncontaminated by sweat or gender-neutral footwear. Something that pretty girls do three times a week in flattering pants."

"We laugh and shake our progressive heads when a little girl wants to be a princess, gently clarifying, 'No little one, I mean how do you hope to toil so that you and your family might not starve?'

"At the center of this dying universe was a living god. And that god was full of impossible, unconditional, and undeserved love. But just as New York’s light pollution obscured the beauty of the skies, its pace and indifference had dulled my senses to godly love. And so I invented stories about the particular clarity of Connecticut skies."

Write Pitches, Get Money (And Bylines and Books and Advice)

So the reason I started a ~personal blog~ in the first place was so that I would have writing on the internet to show to editors whom I wanted to let me write on their part of the internet. I've had the extraordinary opportunity to neglect the blog because the dream of writing for a living became a reality so I've prioritized professional writing over imparting my own profound WISDOM and building my BRAND unedited here. Until now, friends. Until now. I sold a book on proposal two weeks ago and have been told by a lot of smart people that maintaining a blog during the writing process is a good idea so I'm going to be more committed to updating here. There isn't a whole lot to report on just yet but selling the book and overcoming the delusion that I'm still struggling as a writer makes me want to be helpful to people who are starting out and it is easier to write about it here than in endless private conversations with emerging writers.

So I am starting with pitching, the part of writing that so many people really dread but that I'm really fortunate to not mind at all. Instead of explaining my process or whatnot, I am just including pitches that worked to some extent, their context, and how it turned out. They cover story pitches, cover letters, and even a bit of help-seeking fan mail. The truth is, more people are reading emails from strangers than people like to imagine and getting it right is not rocket science as much as it is research, courtesy, and relevance.

So let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start....

Pitch 1: First pitch EVER, March 13, 2013, for a personal essay

Sent To: Assistant Editor at xoJane, a personal acquaintance

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Results: Accepted same day, I submitted a day earlier than the deadline and it went up here. I wrote 25 stories for xoJane in just over a year and I still consider it some of my best writing.

Why It Prob Worked: Until I started being invited to write for publications, this was the only pitch I ever sent to an editorial staff member whom I actually knew and I am certain that this helped open the door to writing there. It was also super casual and to the point, much like other writing on xoJane.

Other Things: When I published this, THREE different people told me I was making a huge mistake because it make my Google results embarrassing. Haters: they are going to hate.

Pitch 2: First pitch for a non-personal essay, October 31, 2013, for a religion/politics opinion piece

Sent To: General submissions email at Religion Dispatches

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 8.23.39 PMResults:  Accepted that day, pubbed here. After writing a second piece for RD, I was invited to blog 2-3 times per week for Religion Dispatches, which I did.

Why It Prob Worked: There was a hook to a bigger media article, it was concise, I included a bit about my background in religion because I didn't yet have writing in the same area, and I actually delivered it the next day as promised.

Other Things: The reason I was invited to write for them was not my religion writing, but my personal writing. My editor Evan happened upon an xoJane story of mine and wrote, "I happened to follow a tweet to your XO Jane post on non-compliments... which was GREAT. ...So it got me thinking. You have this great voice that you temper in some of your other writing, which of course makes sense, but we'd be interested in having you blog for RD in whatever way suits you best. In other words, Lisa and I both loved your post and don't see any reason why a blog on religion has to be more sober or pertinent than a blog on any other topic."

The point of including this is not to BRAG about how I'm super funny but to show that you are not nearly as stuck in your niche as you think you are. Branch out like as far as you feel capable!

 Pitch 3: Cover letter applying to be web editor for the soon-to-be-launched redesign of The Baffler, February 10, 2014

Sent to: Noah McCormack at The Baffler, after a friend of a friend passed me a job listing, no previous interaction

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Results: I am still dying of embarrassment at how cheesy this cover letter is and I didn't get the job because I frankly wasn't qualified for it. BUT, Noah really liked the cover letter and invited me to pitch them, which I did and resulted in my publishing a lot of my most fun criticism there and opening new editorial doors.

Why It (Kinda)  Prob Worked: Because I made it clear that I knew the spirit of the publication and wasn't scared.

Other Things: Showing that you care is way more important than looking cool.

Pitch 4: Asking pitch advice when I didn't know where to pitch, April 10, 2014, on a think piece about the sexual economy of thinness

Sent to: Author Roxane Gay, cold email after reading this story that she wrote, no previous interaction

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 9.14.44 PMResults: Gay wrote back with comments and suggestions on where the piece might find a home, which ended up being here on The Beheld blog on The New Inquiry. It was my first Twitter "hit" and convinced me of the importance of maintaining a presence there.

Why It Prob Worked: The first reason is that Roxane Gay was an editor at the time and was known to care about the success of new writers, which she still does. I was complimentary but not over-the-top and I also made sure that I sent this particular story to someone with a very related and relevant piece. I gave plenty of outs if she didn't want to write back so it didn't seem super-entitled either.

Other Things: I sent this email two weeks before An Untamed State came out and five months before Bad Feminist did so Gay was well-known in literary circles but not yet the mega-star author she soon became so I was fortunate to get her feedback. I mention this because it means she was probably more able to spend time responding to a cold email than she is now but more than that, I think it is important to admire and engage writers who are not famous because (SURPRISE!), most talented writers don't ever become famous and the ones who do often struggle as writers for a long-ass time before they blow up, as was the case for Gay. Intentionally trying to hitch your wagon to The Next Big Thing is tacky and most people are shit at predicting who TNBT is anyway so don't seek advice based on someone's Twitter stats, seek advice from people whose work you genuinely admire.

Pitch 5: First reported story, June 26, 2014, on the harms of criminalization of sex workers

Sent to: Editor at Truth Out, I had previously cold emailed her a completed op-ed that was time-sensitive and ended up running it on the blog for SWOP-NYC before she had time to respond but she invited future pitches.

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Results: It was accepted the same day and I did the reporting super fast so that I could turn it in the next day. It ran here.

Why It Prob Worked: I established a unique angle, I already had sources lined up, and it was an area they had seen me write opinion pieces on already so they were willing to take a chance on me doing some reporting.

Other Things: My first pitch to Truth Out was a completed op-ed about a Nick Kristof piece to the general submissions email and I withdrew it and posted it on the SWOP-NYC blog before they had a chance to even see the pitch. I was polite and explained myself and the time sensitivity of it so they didn't "blacklist" me as so many writers fear happens if they even mildly annoy an editor. The truth is, most editors are far too busy editing to have a blacklist. Be kind, offer value, and apologize instead of disappearing if you do something wrong.

Pitch 6: First pitch to a magazine, Pacific Standard, November 3, 2014, cold email after the editor posted his email on Twitter, had previously interviewed there for web editor job with a director Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 9.52.48 PMResults: So there were three pitches in this email and he fortunately ended up taking the one that I was able to get in the screen grab here and it became the essay/critique of freelance writer abuse here. The story resonated with a lot of other writers and resulted in them asking for work which eventually resulted in me being a weekly columnist there.

Why It Prob Worked: Ryan posted his email address on Twitter when he was actively looking for pitches, which more editors are looking for than you might think. I also had a creative framing for an issue that was already being discussed a lot which made it work. Pacific Standard is also a magazine that I knew to accept newer writers more often than other mags and the fact that they had even considered my job application when they had candidates with a lot fancier credentials than me showed that they were paying attention to people who weren't always getting it.

Other Things: Part of me is posting this last so that emerging freelance writers will read the actual story and realize that this line of work is a TON OF WORK and that these emails are just a handful of the uncountable emails I've sent trying to get work. The other reason I'm posting it is because my next story with them was this one which was the story that made my literary agent contact me which resulted in me selling my first book and being in a position to give advice about writing and actually having some qualifications for doing so.

There is a pernicious myth that the only way to get published is to have a ton of connections. But the way you can make a ton of connections is by introducing yourself to the right people in a way that shows you're smart and kind and capable of delivering something worthwhile. So go back to Twitter where you likely found this link anyway, start looking for writers editors there who post their email addresses publicly, find out what they want delivered, and tell them how you're the one to do it.

Thanks for Believing in Me, People

So I am about to go off-brand and be a little bit sentimental and full of gratitude for a second instead of my usual bitter/faux narcissistic/incredulous self on this blog. Forgive me, it is late and cold and I'm listening to Paula Abdul who always gets me a little emotional. Also, this cat and baby have me feeling a certain way. Thanks, friends.

I was incredibly fortunate in that ever since I was a child, my teachers and parents have wanted me to be a writer. While other kids were pressed to more practical endeavors, the people in my life told me I was creative and thoughtful and had a strong command of the language that should be put to the page. I was an avid contributor to my own journals for years, both on and offline, but always felt that writing was something that you could fail at too spectacularly to ever consider it professionally.

And so I toiled away at non-profit jobs doing PR which I wasn't especially good at. I worked at non-profits because I felt I had to be contributing to society in a very tangible way for it to matter. I was in and out of a few parts of the adult entertainment industry and never savvy or nice enough to earn the big bucks. I went to graduate school thinking I could be an academic or a chaplain. I sucked at all of these things.

Then in March of 2013, I developed a strong desire for people to think I was funny on the internet andwanted to give it another shot. And in order to be funny on the internet, you have to start being funny on the internet. So I started a blog where I talked about wanting these cool leggings and attempted to justify naming my cat Keith. Two weeks later, I pitched a story to Emily McCombs and Olivia Hall at xoJane about how I'd never had an orgasm but didn't care and was soon a regular contributor to the site. It is a popular pastime among media people and erudite readers to talk shit about xoJane because they run a lot of amateur content and some questionable viewpoints but if they hadn't taken a chance on a random girl with a blog, I would never have had the confidence to write for a public audience.

The editor-in-chief of Religion DispatchesEvan Derkacz, happened to read my work on xoJane and asked if I could write regular religion content in the same distinct voice that I wrote about boys and body issues. I said I could try and the resulting blogs would serve as a lead-in to more gigs. The same editor started sending me job alerts that lead to me writing for The Baffler because they liked my job application but I wasn't quite a fit for the role. They've been kind and supportive editors and internet friends.

When Autumn Whitefield-Madrano of The Beheld took a chance on a serious piece about body issues from a writer with a small and unserious portfolio, I sent the piece to author Roxane Gay because something she wrote inspired it. I had never met her but she read my story. When she responded kindly about it and then tweeted it and said kind words about the piece, it become widely read and landed on TV and was discussed around the web.

I nervously asked author Melissa Gira Grant to go out for dinner to ask about what it's like to write about sex work. She was encouraging about my prospects and gave me the courage to write my first reported piece on sex work and law enforcement for Truth Out. She would later recommend my work on the topic and suggest me to editors when she was unable to write for outlets. Her supportive words about this story on trafficking and emotional labor are a huge reason the piece did well.

Throughout the last year,  I crossed paths online with writers Katie Klabusich and Rachel Vorona Cote whose endless patience and encouragement and willingness to read shitty drafts and pitches has made it possible to get through really rough times. They're both really good at GChat and being human. I have a bunch of Twitter friends and strangers that have emailed really touching remarks on stories that make me want to keep doing what I'm doing that I credit with keeping me going.

I am leaving out ac6c1a6a4647e2837867d26a6d4d5ba5faea6ed09186c50681985864dc9566f6c small and benevolent army of writers and editors that have been nothing short of saintly with me as I've pushed deadlines or had strange ideas or put two spaces after a period because old habits die hard. Their gentleness is a more viscerally felt part of my experience writing than any of the ignored emails or harsh rejections I've received. There are assholes a-plenty in this competitive world where people have neither incentive nor inclination to be kind, but they choose to be not only helpful but encouraging and genuinely friendly.  It has instilled in me the habit of always responding to aspiring writers thoughtfully when they occasionally reach out to me, paying it forward and all that shit, and because this duck quoting Emerson is so on point.

Last month, I started as a staff writer at BuzzFeed where I'm doing what I love: trying to be funny on the internet.I'm surrounded by a similar kindness that I know many workplaces are painfully missing and by really smart and talented people that want to see me succeed. Last week, I published a story about death and mortality and the internet that is the most personal thing I've ever written and a literary agent reached out about me potentially writing a book. About what, I have both no fucking idea and a thousand fucking ideas but the point is, there might be yet another chapter (heh heh) in this word business.

I'm literally exactly where I want to be and it is because of you all. So thanks to all you nice babies and wise ducks that made it possible.