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Jia Tolentino gives advice as part of Writers at Work series


On Feb. 5, writer Jia Tolentino visited campus for a talk as part of the Writers at Work lecture series at Loyola. She was introduced to the audience by Professor Crotty in the writing department. She is originally from Texas; she graduated from the University of Virginia and went on to get her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. She is currently a staff writer at the New Yorker, has recently published an essay collection called “Trick Mirror,” and was formerly an editor for two publications, Jezebel and the Hairpin.

Tolentino spoke about her journey towards becoming a writer beginning in her childhood. She said that, though she grew up reading and writing lots of short stories, she never pictured herself as a writer because she had never known someone that was.

During her time in undergrad at UVA, she took many classes in English and fiction writing, which drew her towards the possibility of a career in journalism. However, Tolentino said that because the recession in 2008 and 2009 happened, she graduated worried that she would not get a stable job in writing, instead worked odd jobs until joining the Peace Corps not long after graduating. With the Peace Corps, she went to Kyrgyzstan for two years, where in her free time she began working on a manuscript of a book. The book, she said she had cleverly titled “Girls,” was meant to be a novel about four girls who had just graduated from college. In the middle of writing this manuscript, however, her backpack was stolen with her laptop inside. Tolentino said that this felt like a sign that she should not continue writing and she was miserable until her friend gave her his laptop and told her that she had to start again.

When she returned from Kyrgyzstan, Tolentino wrote as much as she could, though she said it usually was an ad copy. In 2012, she went to Michigan for graduate school. While there, she took an editing job at Hairpin, a website where she said people mostly wrote and submitted whatever they wanted to. The editor above her took her to New York to edit Jezebel, a feminist blog, after she graduated from Michigan.

Jezebel was much stricter than Hairpin in terms of editing and keeping a schedule of when they needed to publish. They published many controversial articles and, as Tolentino said, would sometimes get in major trouble for the things they would publish. She said that her experience there taught her a lot about internet criticism and outrage, what to listen to and what to ignore. Some advice that she gave the audience regarding this was that extreme positive feedback on your work can be just as damaging to you as a writer as extreme negative feedback can.

The company that owned Jezebel eventually got into legal trouble and went bankrupt, which was what brought Tolentino to the New Yorker. She said that this move put her in a very different environment from what she was used to. She was worried she would not be successful there because she didn’t know how to write longer investigative pieces like the New Yorker was known for. After a year at the New Yorker, she began working on her book because she had missed writing for herself. The book, a collection of essays entitled “Trick Mirror,” was released last summer.

After explaining this journey she took to becoming a writer, Tolentino gave the audience advice on how to be successful writers. She said that in writing “the more you learn, the more you feel like you don’t know anything at all,” and that writers have to learn to love that feeling. She also called writing a “fool’s game” because you have to always do what you can with what you’re given and “find a way to entertain yourself no matter what’s in front of you.”

One question that she often gets is something like, “What advice would you give to someone who wants a job at the New Yorker?” To this, she says that being open and flexible is more appealing and helpful as a journalist than having credentials, and that “the best thing you can do is feel comfortable in any situation you are put in.”

Adding to this, Tolentino emphasized the importance of having chemistry with whatever you are writing, and to think about what you want as a reader. She said that reading is incredibly important to have success in writing, that writers should read 10 times more than they write.

Another major skill that writers should have as well, according to Tolentino, is the ability to be able to go through your own work word by word to make sure every word is deliberate and moves the piece forward. In editing your work, she said, you have to be able to be “really tough on yourself, yet generous at the same time” and that “your writing will never be good unless you’re ruthless.”

At the end of the event, Tolentino held a brief question and answer session and then a book signing for those who had copies of her book.

Feature Image: Courtesy of Elle.

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Jia Tolentino gives advice as part of Writers at Work series