This past January, on the first day of my internship at the New York Times, I went home before lunch. I can’t recall ever hearing the words, “Natalie, why don’t you take off early today?” and grimacing, but there I was, staring out a huge glass window on the 20th floor of the Times building in Times Square, watching what would become ten inches of snow settle on the ground below, and wishing it would stop so I could stay inside this building for, well, forever.
I’ve never wanted snow less. When I told my editor I was happy to work from home, she smiled, shook her head, and said, “Just get home safely. We’ll see you next week for your real first day.”
On that real first day—the overhyped “Snowpocalypse” behind us—my editor sent me downstairs after lunch to get my I.D. card. The security guards shuffled my paperwork, took my photo, and issued me my card. The three of them stood up behind the tall desk. “Welcome aboard,” they said, each shaking my hand and smiling. “Welcome aboard the Times.”
That evening, I skipped to the subway.
In early May, on the last day of my internship, the team I worked with sent me off with doughnuts. (Not just any doughnuts. Dough doughnuts. The best of the best.) They asked me what my favorite part of the internship was, and I told them that while I enjoyed the research and fact-checking, nothing beat standing in the newsroom with the entire New York Times staff when the 2014 Pulitzer Prizes were announced in April. I wrote that day:
It was an incredible privilege to stand in the venerable New York Times newsroom this afternoon and hear from the paper’s journalists and photographers who just won Pulitzer Prizes. There was laughter, tears, and so much applause in this temple of journalism today. In case I ever forget why I write, and why I aspire to produce powerful journalism, today will serve as a forever reminder.
I walked through the doors of the New York Times building many times over the past few months, and I smiled on every occasion, whispering a small thank you. It was an incredible privilege to work in the mecca of journalism, even for just a short period of time. I certainly hope to be back one day.
I have two semesters left of graduate school, which strikes me as both exciting and terrifying. I love being a master’s student and studying journalism. I love being a student, period. It was not an easy first year, but it was more rewarding than I knew it could be. I have self-selected into a community that challenges me and is helping me grow. This was hugely important in my search for the best-fit graduate program, because if I am not challenged, I sink—or worse, settle. I go out of my way to surround myself with people who bring out the best in me, whether they know it or not. In my personal and professional life, this is paramount. It didn’t always used to be, but it is now, and I’m fortunate to have found that at NYU.
Studying journalism, as my professor Brooke Kroeger has written, means understanding the importance of “enterprise, persistence, originality, and precise expression.” It involves learning how to gather thorough background; what heavy documentation means; why it’s vital to use a variety of sources; and how respect for facts and the truth matters above most else. It means being trained on the strategic use of time, the economical use of words, the thoughtful interview technique. And, perhaps most importantly, it involves taking to heart the phrase: “More thinking, less typing.”
Journalism is an outlet for writing that allows me to expand my curiosities. Researching and writing an article or an essay is the best kind of puzzle; I love the challenge of piecing together facts, expressive language, and perhaps an emotional truth or two to create a mosaic of meaning—or at least a piece of writing that asks for engagement and sparks a conversation. In “Man in Profile,” Thomas Kunkel’s biography of the writer Joseph Mitchell, Kunkel writes: “Literary journalism is the convergence of superior reportage and writing that manages to be both penetrating and transcendent. Put another way, it is everyday life transported to the realm of art.” To do that work, to transport and transform, a journalist must call upon what Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his moving tribute to the late New York Times reporter David Carr, calls “the violent and incessant curiosity represented in the craft of narrative argument.”
That word, curiosity. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? Being a journalist means I’m required to know what’s happening in the world, which means I spend a lot of time these days consuming the news. Sometimes it feels overwhelming; sometimes my need to know what’s going on in the Horn of Africa or the Redwood Forest or the bodega on my Brooklyn block is insatiable. I hunger for good writing that explains complicated things, that asks me to engage and reflect. I am greedy for other people’s lives, for their stories and perspectives. And while I don’t think one can ever be too hungry for the world, I do believe we must think carefully about our digestive tract, because how and what we consume determines so much.
And so I sometimes make my literary self dine the old-fashioned way: with actual primary sources and thick, hardcover books. When a gray-haired librarian at the Brooklyn Historical Society plops a 20-pound municipal records book on the desk in front of you—dust whirling, pages curling—you’d better get to work. Graduate school has taught me to appreciate archival research; poring over old atlases in the New York Public Library or cranking the slide projector at 30 Chambers Street (NYC’s Department of Records) can be thrilling. The hunt for accurate information—which is to say, the truth—is a pursuit like no other.
Graduate school has also taught me that journalism is about much more than just writing. I’ve been dabbling in audio journalism and learning how to produce pieces for radio and podcasts. After a week-long introductory radio workshop last August, I produced this short clip (it’s rough, but you gotta start somewhere, right?), and have been working on a few others since the spring. (I love audio journalism. I think I’ll devote a whole other post to podcasts, which I can’t get enough of—especially nonfiction podcasts, like Serial, which are doing great things for longform journalism.)
Over the past several months, I’ve been privileged to have a few of my articles/essays published. Last October, Slate published a short piece I wrote in response to Apple’s and Facebook’s decision to pay for its female employees to freeze their eggs. In December, I wrote an article for New York Magazine’s Bedford + Bowery, in which I investigated the origins and mystery behind a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And this spring, the New Republic published a piece I wrote about the mixed messages women face when it comes to our fertility.
(Let me take a moment here to say a huge THANK YOU to those of you reading this post, and my other pieces. Family, friends, peers, professors: thanks so much for reading and sharing my writing. Thanks for being part of this beginning.)
About a week after the New Republic piece went up online, the editor I had been working with wrote to me saying they wanted to publish my piece in the May issue of the magazine’s print edition—and double my rate. I proceeded to dance alone in my apartment to ‘90s music for half an hour. And then I wrote the editor back, using all my willpower to reply with calm and collected words instead of with !!!!!!!!!!.
Those I saved for May 1st, when I walked into the Barnes & Noble at Union Square in Manhattan, strode to the magazine section, opened up the New Republic, and beamed at my first real byline. It was a beautiful spread. An artist had drawn original artwork to complement my words, and the pull quote was spot on. I took three copies of the magazine from the shelf and headed to the checkout counter, where I promptly put one back, because at $7 a piece I decided my parents could buy their own copy.
And then for the second time this year, I skipped to the subway.
The most significant thing I’ve taken away from my first year of graduate school is that I have a lot of work to do. A lot. I have loved writing since I wrote my first short story at age eight—a two-pager called “Into the Woods”—but I have only recently started to take writing seriously. Turning a hobby into paid work, a passion into a mission, is both practically and emotionally challenging. Yes, I hope to make a career out of writing. Yes, I hope to write things that illuminate and maybe inspire. But to do that, to do even a fraction of that, I have to do the work—the kind of work that requires what my mother calls “elbow grease,” the kind of work that complicates and frustrates, the kind of work that brings me to my knees and has me handing over my heart in the form of the page. Some days, I feel brave enough to attempt that. Other days, I feel like crawling under the covers and watching Netflix until the sun sets. But that’s not an option, because I’m committed now. I’m committed not just because I’m in graduate school studying writing, or because I’ve been published, or because I have an annoying proclivity for proper grammar—I’m committed because I can’t not write. And it’s the things that we cannot stop ourselves from doing, the things we would do for no money or praise or acknowledgement whatsoever, that we must pursue with every bit of tenacity and courage we can summon.