Sarah Jaffe: If I Were You...
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When asked about the glass ceiling facing women writers, journalist and former Nation intern Sarah Jaffe brings up, of all things, X-Men. She likened the task of advancing women in journalism to a scene in X-Men: The Last Stand in which Kitty Pryde, a mutant who is able to pass through solid matter, runs through walls to get away from Juggernaut: One woman writer might slip through, but the wall remains intact. The upside is that Kitty Pryde has the power to take others through with her. As a writer and editor, Jaffe said she similarly tries to help less established female writers pass through the barrier to land jobs and assignments. 

Jaffe, a freelance labor journalist, has developed a voice writing for such outlets as AlterNet, the American ProspectBitchBustIn These Times, and the Nation. Although she remembers taking almost any assignment (including unpaid ones) as an aspiring writer in the mid-2000s, Jaffe said she has always tried to work in topics that interest her, including issues of class, race, and gender. During a seminar for interns at the Nation's New York office, she urged aspiring writers to similarly seek their own voice even if they're writing copy just to pay the bills. "I try to bring in issues of…broader inequalities into everything because I think with most stories you can do that," she said.

Jaffe grew up in Canton, Massachusetts and studied English at Loyola University New Orleans, graduating in 2002. Her parents are Republicans, she said, and to this day she often gets into lengthy political debates with her father. After college, while waiting tables and running her family's bicycle shop, Jaffe was writing part-time. Her time as a waitress informed "Grin and Abhor It: The Truth Behind 'Service with a Smile'," an article she recently wrote for In These Times about the emotional labor that is expected of women. Jaffe went on to earn a master's in journalism at Temple University in 2009 — where she soaked up the teachings of "sneaky radical lefty professors" and interned at Bust magazine — although she said that an advanced degree isn't a prerequisite to succeed in this profession.

In 2009, Jaffe was accepted as a Nation intern (after applying twice), where she said she got the magazine's editor and publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, to join Twitter, she said. Jaffe went on to work at GRITtv with Laura Flanders and AlterNet, before leaving to focus on writing a book (still in the proposal stage) about populism in the United States after the economic crisis.

During the seminar, Jaffe answered questions on several aspects of the freelance lifestyle. Some highlights:

  • Pitching: Make sure you're familiar with the content of the publication you're pitching. Offer a full-fledged idea for an article, while keeping your e-mail as concise as possible. Try to work through connections if you have them, and if at first you don't succeed with a publication, try and try again. "Err on the side of following up with people."
  • Writing for free: "It's hard to say never do it, but look at the reasons you're doing it," Jaffe said. Don't let yourself be exploited without something in return.
  • Time management: Know what time of day you write best and leave yourself extra time to get things done, Jaffe recommended. "I want to stress the importance of giving yourself days off. Do not work seven days a week. It will kill you." 
  • Media diet: Although Jaffe is an inveterate Twitterer and gets most of her news there, she tries to read one fiction and one nonfiction book at a time, the latter often related to something she's working on. "I would recommend you read fiction, even though it's tough to find time.… It can help you find your voice for what you want to do," both in long-form and quick-hitting journalism, she said. Jaffe is currently reading Lisa Ruchti's book on care work, Catheters, Slurs and Pickup Lines, and is eager to start Warren Ellis's new crime novel, Gun Machine. 
  • Making connections: "I hate schmoozing," but it's easy to meet people you genuinely admire, Jaffe said. Drop an e-mail to an author if you liked something he or she wrote — "people like to be told they're awesome." And don't forget to be helpful to journalists with less experience — or, "kiss down as well as up" — and respond to anyone who similarly seeks you out. In particular, Jaffe said established women writers should try to help other women succeed — until we can break down the wall of gender discrimination for good, like Juggernaut does in the wake of Kitty Pryde.
    • Alec Luhn
    • Alec Luhn is a journalist focusing on East European and Eurasian affairs, especially issues of good governance, human rights, and activism. He has written for publications including the Moscow Times, Russian Life, and the GlobalPost, as well as several US newspapers.

       

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