It is very easy for life to get in the way of writing. I’ve been letting it happen for months, and I promise it has not been difficult.

It might be better to phrase this as – it’s easy for life to get in the way of the writing you want to do. I’ve produced plenty of words over the past few months, thousands upon thousands a week. Most of these are for work, and they serve a great purpose ($$$). But, I have higher hopes for my writing that continue to go unfulfilled.

Ideally, I’ll regain some of that old discipline I had during my most productive period – 2,000 words of novel a night, every night. I’ve decided there is no way to recreate those circumstances, I simply have too many good things going on. It used to be easy to fill up the empty hours of the day with recreational writing – and the problem now is there aren’t many of those hours.

The big, ugly, unfinished project still hangs over my head. The 200-some odd pages are stacked in a pile, underneath another pile, on my desk. Seeing them daily has me thinking about the last novel I read before I seriously started the whole enterprise. It was And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, and it was aggressively mediocre. The novel, which is really a pretty thin roman a clef about a terrible episode in the life of one of their friends, is interesting in that it exposes you to two writers before they had really honed their skills. It is really the only redeeming aspect of the book (aside from the title). While Kerouac’s chapters are somewhat developed, if overly focused on the mundane, the Burroughs chapters are especially lousy. Ultimately, that made me think “hey, this isn’t so hard, I can do this.”

Looking back, I wish I had a better motivation. And, I wish I had read a better book. I see plenty of failings in my own, ones that I do not know how to fix. And while writing it has proven to be much more challenging than I expected, finding the will to write it is nearly impossible at this stage. But the cat hasn’t knocked it off my desk and eaten it yet, so there are positives for sure.

 

Every other week it seems like I find a half-finished short story, often cut off in mid-thought, with several bold notes beneath it (THIS SHOULD HAPPEN NEXT). The notes are rarely helpful, lack context, and most of the time I can’t even figure out what they mean. Best recent example: “THE BAR IS THE FUTURE THEY CAN’T GET TO,” found in an old Word file plainly labeled Dinner Conversation between Friends. Maybe I stole it from a Kevin McDonald/Dave Foley “Premise Beach” rerun.

By my loose count, I have six stories “in progress” and another two making their way around the rejection circuit, on top of the Big Novel Rewrite Project that is advancing at whatever pace is more hyperbolic than a snail’s. The lesson I’m taking from all of this is to close the book on one idea before opening myself up to the next five. And to add some damned context to the notes I leave for myself.

 

I’ve been writing a lot about the media’s wrongheaded Gen Y narrative (see here and here), but I decided to ignore the Boston Globe column that has drawn a wave of criticism for its portrayal of young people.

The reason for that is simple – that sort of writing parodies itself. Nothing I can say is more damaging to that argument than that argument. If you do want to read an appropriately scathing takedown, Derek Thompson is your friend.

The Opportunity Nation Coalition released a devastating study this week, showing that 15-percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are not in school or the workforce. The silence from media and policymakers is beyond deafening – it’s disheartening. These people are being ignored and there is little room to phrase it any other way.

The Associated Press ran the study, and it cropped up in other places, but the view of this issue is remarkably limited and in my opinion shortsighted. I have done my share of complaining about Gen Y coverage before, but in this case there are so many interesting questions that go unasked and unanswered. While the media hasn’t jumped into stereotyping (mom’s basement clichés are mercifully staying off the page), they also haven’t leaped at the chance to consider a lot of the economic ramifications of long-term youth unemployment.

Right now, the average 16-to-24-year-old isn’t necessarily looking to buy a new car, and certainly is not in the housing market. But historically, cars and housing are what drive the economy. Both of those purchases are debt-financed with loans and mortgages. Will an unemployed 23-year-old with no work history, and likely a fair amount of student loan debt, be in a financial position to purchase a new car should they find employment? Will they be able to scrape together the down-payment for a new home, never mind be able to qualify for a mortgage? The last half is especially troubling – we all know what happens when we try to stimulate the housing market with cheap and easy mortgages.

There are plenty of other avenues to follow. I would be interested in finding out what happens to federal college programs that depend on students paying back into them to fund future grants. Or hear a breakdown of how long-term unemployment across a fairly large generation will affect Social Security. The fact that six million people aren’t paying payroll taxes is probably baked into projections, but the loss of future earnings that comes from long-term unemployment might not be.

It’s hard to get a response from the average American on how they feel about our beleaguered youth when there’s nothing out there beyond vague notions of how 20-somethings spend their time. I was often critical of man-on-the-street reporting when I had to do it, and I understand the value of hard data over anecdotes, but I would love to see more personal stories, like the 99ers coverage we used to see. I would like to know more about what is holding them back from their perspective. Maybe the entire narrative is correct. Sense of entitlement very well could be a major reason why young people are taking it on the chin in this economy. More than likely, it’s a mix of issues that aren’t unique to any generation. The one voice I can do without is the know-it-all populist, personified in comments sections riddled with ridiculous generalizations and nonsense politics that demand to be held up for ridicule. There’s no sense in repeating them here, feel free to troll through them at your leisure.

Just wanted to write a quick thank you note to the editors of The Blue Hour Magazine for nominating my story, The Chicken Valdostana, for the Best of the Net awards. Judges have been announced and I’m looking forward to reading the finished product – even if I don’t expect to be included.

Very happy that The Blue Hour nominated me and that they included me in their anthology. About 200 people on Goodreads have it on their to-read list, can’t beat that exposure. And, if it isn’t on your list, why not?

People seem wildly disinterested in words these days, so it’s nice to see media remind us of their power. Several great reporters have written stories recently that have made me think about the value of words and the people who know how to use them. The ideas put forth in those stories made this less talented writer decide to weave together a rambling narrative for his small audience.

In a NY Mag Q+A published earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia memorably told Jennifer Senior that “Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change.” Now, he didn’t say that in defense of prose or the English major’s field of study, he said it in a response to a question on his Originalist interpretation of the Constitution. If you are thinking “hey, are you about to undermine your own thesis in the second paragraph?” you’re right, but it’s a great quote even if I took it out of context. Scalia himself is no stranger to specificity when it comes to words. His use of “argle-bargle” in his DOMA dissent is unforgettable.

Scalia’s opinion in words and meaning is especially prescient now that we’re all under constant attack from content marketers who are testing the malleability of every phrase. High-concept words are used in the context of high-concept discussion without any real consideration to their meaning. The “2070 Paradigm Shift” TED Talk illuminates this (hilariously I might add). This comedian excels at being meaningless in a meaningful way. He fools them all, the same way a savvy marketer might, all while saying absolutely nothing.

Certain words enter language usefully, but can be overused to the point of absurdity as Mark Peters highlights in his Slate piece on shaming. Like privilege and troll, the internet commenter effect is taking its toll on the idea of shaming. All of those words initially had specific meanings and were used in certain contexts which gave them power. Privilege went from being an academic sociological term to an insult hurled stupidly on blogs and in comments sections. Troll and shaming have been hammered and stretched to fit a variety of purposes, to the point where the words have lost their impact. Peters writes:

“We really should restrain ourselves from mindlessly slapping this label on every single thing in the world that makes us feel bad. I’d hate to lose such a potent word to the Buzzword Abyss, especially since real shaming—the kind mostly done by misogynist jerks or terrible parents—is a true disgrace.”

I think Peters is right, and the bloggers and commenters that spill reactionary vitriol all over the Internet do a lot to diminish a word or phrase’s impact. And I think that the word abusers that send otherwise bon mots into the Buzzword Abyss do damage to people who know how to express themselves. I run into buzzword soup a lot at my job – the spammers forcing gibberish onto all channels make work a chore.

There’s another class of people writing these days that seem to think people that do know how to use their words should learn a whole bunch of other things too as to not be made obsolete (Readers Note: If you only watch one Twilight Zone episode in your life, you could do worse than “The Obsolete Man”). The Atlantic has revisited a popular story and come up with what I think are the right conclusions. I have seen the “journalists should learn how to code” people crop up on Twitter in the past week, and I have mixed feelings on the idea. If the goal is to make yourself competitive in a really tight job market, then by all means, CSS and HTML are your friends. But too often, it seems that people are told that the future is bleak if Javascript, Python and Ruby on Rails aren’t in your bag of tricks.

There have been a number of takedowns of the “coding is the answer” genre, too many to run through, but suffice to say the solution to everyone’s individual problem is not programming. From a job security perspective, there’s no doubt that knowing how to code will help, but I am not convinced that every reporter would benefit. I myself don’t know personally any reporters who can code, and of reporters I read on a daily basis, I don’t see coding impacting what they do at all. Slate has a mighty nice redesign, but I don’t think Dave Weigel or Matt Yglesias had a hand in it.

My larger problem with this trend is that no one seems to recognize the enormous value that is the journalist’s core skill – being able to understand and rationalize information, then turn that into easily digestible content for people who can’t do the first part. Every startup has a blog, whitepapers, marketing content, a social media presence, and a PR team. People who value English ahead of C++ are still in demand, just ask any tech PR/marketing recruiter.

The comparison that I draw comes from a Sam Adams advertising campaign. Their marketing team loves to let everyone know that “everyone at Sam Adams learns how to brew beer.” In television commercials, they show a whole cast of characters from secretaries to executives brewing up some Boston Lager. But, it would be thoroughly ridiculous if Sam Adams brewing operation depended on the CFO and a few sales guys picking up shifts in the brewery. There’s a reason we specialize. It’s because it makes sense for individuals to have highly-honed skills in areas of need. Being able to do it all doesn’t necessarily make functional sense – “we want a rockstar” job openings be damned.

I do get the sense that some of this “learn to code” hysteria is being manufactured by pricey journalism schools under fire for not producing “hirable grads.” But giving journalism students a computer science education isn’t the only way to do that. I never thought about the job I have now when I was in J-school, but it’s fairly easy to see how one prepared me for the other. No coding necessary.

I suppose it isn’t a shock that stories about generations rely on generalizations. But if we’re going to be bombarded with Gen Y stories, it’s fair to ask more of the writers who are forcing them on us.

Where are the interviews with real people? Where are their stories? Where is the Millennial version of Gawker‘s brilliant Unemployment Stories series? Where are views that go beyond sweeping generalizations made from the apartment of a New York-based freelance journalist? Where is the commentary that sees three-dimensional people and not Brooklyn mediaites?

We’ve all been told that Millennials live in their parent’s basements. Then, we get statistical evidence (!) that in fact 21.6 million Millennials are still living at home. And yet, with some simple research into what the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts as “home” from The Atlantic, we find out that “college students in dormitories are counted as living in the parental home.” Does that factor into the larger narrative? Of course not. Gen Y kids are spoiled, worthless shitbums who should be worshipping at Boomer’s feet, and you can’t tell these writers – most of whom probably skew older – otherwise.

When they venture out of dad’s basement, the writers next consider (with some undue glee) the sorry state of youth unemployment and underemployment. Nobody doubts that both figures are continually high for people in the 18-29 age range (12% unemployment is the general consensus), but there are enormous groups of Millennials doing quite well. Where are their stories? Why is everyone focused on holding up for ridicule a 22-year-old whose situation has largely been formed by events beyond his control? There’s no real explanation for the visceral hate in these stories beyond the word “entitlement” and some back-in-my-day caterwauling.

The “entitlement” anger seems to be focused on Millennial complaints that graduating college is no longer a guaranteed segue into a successful, fulfilling career. You’ll have to excuse me, but a young person yelling in frustration that they can’t afford housing, food and student loan payments post-college because they want to work but aren’t able to doesn’t seem like an entitlement problem. It seems like an economic one. There are between 3 and 5 applicants for every 1 job. The people left behind are angry about it, but let’s not confuse that with a sense of entitlement. Nobody wants to be given anything – they want to work.

While they continue to kick unemployed young folks while they’re down, they willingly gloss over young people who are doing just fine. Some go as far as baselessly telling us that Gen Y are unhappy. Because they want to be “special.” There are plenty of fair points to be made in the linked story and others like it, but there’s also a fair amount of generational bias and meaningless assertions (how do you say that Boomers or Gen Xers are financially secure with a straight face after the last five years? EVERYONE has suffered). And when readers finally reach the end of these Millennial-bashing columns, they are exposed to some of the most banal advice imaginable.

“Stay Ambitious,” “Stop thinking you’re special,” and “Ignore everyone else” collectively mean nothing in a world where, as Charlie Pierce loves to say, “People Got No Jobs. People Got No Money.” Writers continue to criticize perceived Gen Y faults without examining the fractionalization of work, the structural changes to our economy, and most importantly, the complete uncertainty as to what the future will hold. Some of those criticisms might be apt in describing specific Millennials the writer knows (paging Tom Friedman), but they fall flat when considered next to economic trends.

I don’t know that I have strong feelings about Millennials myself. Sharing a link to a broadly defined age group doesn’t make me feel like we’re all in this together. Part of me wants to yell like this guy did. Part of me recognizes that I’ve been INCREDIBLY fortunate thus far in life. All of me has a problem with what is essentially trolling in the press. Millennial stories yield enormous comment threads full of people arguing about most of what I just mentioned (plus your general unemployment rhetoric with a dash of “stupid liberal arts” for good measure).

Rather than troll readers with vague notions, maybe talk to a real person – perhaps even several real people – including a few in the age cohort you’re writing about. Yes, individual anecdotes are not any more than just that. They offer no exact explanation of the attitudes and issues of an enormous group of people. But neither do broad generalizations.

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