On the occasion of our two-year anniversary, the four founding editors of The Weeklings reflect on their five favorite pieces from the first 104 weeks:
Over two years I can’t tell you how many essays I’ve edited. And, I love them all in their own way. Really, like you love your kids. So, narrowing them down to five? I have to? What about the one by the Ohio University senior that likens Montaigne to Louis C.K.? For which we developed this image:
That picture just gives me joy, as does knowing a 21 year-old wrote the essay. Or there’s Matthew Specktor on trying to adapt Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus? And, Michael Gonzales writing something akin to the African-American Last Picture Show in Hagerstown, Maryland. You see my problem. Then others of my colleagues, my co-s (as in co-founders and co-editors) are going to claim essays as their bests that I too might. Which is all to say my list is imperfect…But then again aren’t all lists?
Two of mine are serialized: Sam Byer’s nearly 10k word extravaganza on technology and the novel “The End of the End of Everything.” (Spoiler: he comes out swinging for technology. It is not killing the novel as we know it). I love this not because it’s contrarian (though we do need cogent arguments from writers not always prophesizing the Death Of The Novel, which, let me tell you, becomes both dull and self-affirming), but because his take on writing and fiction is so thoughtful and so well argued. There is also one great thing about our current cultural landscape where everyone believes books and writing are dying. On the other side: everything is thrown wide open. It’s like the Wild West out there, at least where writing is concerned. That means many bad things for writers, like less money, but the upside of the internet is outlets like the Weeklings, where we have as much space as we need. Five, ten years ago no one would have given Sam or most of our other writers the room to write such pieces. Now, though, we’re no longer beholden to page counts and word counts and layouts, text boxes, and fitting in what we have to say around advertising (though we here at The Weeklings would like more advertising please because we would like to pay more). Essays online can take as much space as they need. And, Sam uses his well. If you haven’t already, dedicate some time to reading him.
Another writer who benefits from letting his words spill out over many days and weeks and pages is Quentin Rowan. He might have written our weirdest essay last year: David Marks. It spread out over a month last summer, Part I, Part II, Part III & Part IV. The story is about hauntings and ghosts and doppelgangers, specifically Quentin’s own, who appeared at many points over his life from junior high well into his 30s. And, this ghost story moves from The Velvet Underground and Grateful Dead, through the Beach Boys, drugs, poetry workshops and Joseph Conrad’s story “The Secret Sharer.”
Holly Simonsen is a poet. Her essay “To Egg You On” takes on eggs, equinoxes, Easter and gay marriage not to mention families and Mormonism (she’s from Salt Lake City). It also might well bear more in common with a prose poem. It’s beautiful, it goes from nature to nurture and back, asking bigger questions of our world.
Derek Bardowell writes of race and racism, by taking a walk, that device which has inspired many great essayists from Baudelaire up through Walter Benjamin and Rebecca Solnit and applies it to race in South London. He also brings in The Wire‘s Stringer Bell with whom Derek shares much at least where looks and walking are concerned. The essay is “Walking With Soulless Haste.”
Judy Juanita is a former Black Panther. The Panthers took up arms; they armed others. They believed in their right to bear arms. And, Judy carried a gun in her purse. In a world where black men were being sacrificed in Vietnam, and doing-anything-while-black could be called a crime (in many states in the Union like Florida it still is), the Panthers armed for defense and offense. Here she writes about her own gun and the power of guns, their poetic and psychic strength as well as their sheer horror. Her essay is as lyrical as it is nuanced and angry. To say I am proud of it isn’t nearly enough. It begins and ends with Trayvon Martin. It’s “The Gun as Ultimate Performance Poem.”
I’ve edited at least a hundred essays during the lifespan of The Weeklings. I didn’t love them all like they were my children. In fact, some of them should probably have remained as half-finished ideas on an abandoned hard drive. But those pieces comprise a tiny percentage of what we’ve run in total, a fact that is much harder to achieve than it might appear, and something I am very proud of. It’s pretty much the only reason I continue to toil at this rag for such a middling salary. The great essays? Well, they speak for themselves. The only way to select a mere five is to do so randomly, off the top of my head. And so:
Lawrence Benner, “What’s Trending in Idolatry?”
Hilarious, deadpan, aggressively weird, deceptively perceptive. The kind of essay that would never allow the words deceptively and perceptive anywhere near one another. Larry Benner is the modern day non-fiction William Burroughs, if Burroughs were also relatively heroin-averse, straight, non-bespectacled, uninclined to tour flophouses with boy prostitutes, and living in North Carolina instead of Tangier.
Nelly Reifler, “Blue Spark Part 1″
A multi-part elegy for Elliott Smith. A meditation on collegiate life, friendship, fame, self-laceration, and proximity. Beautifully realized on many levels, but I most appreciated how often a line would suggest where this piece could have gone dreadfully wrong, but instead shone with insight and grace.
Patrick Wensink, “Music for Maniacs”
Wiggles deep into the grime of the 90s, gets beneath George Bush’s skin and beyond the author’s self-loathing, guns through a tour of shitty jobs and ruined cars and bands like Coachwhips, who made an art of being gleefully unlistenable. An essay that’s essentially a dab of sorbet, a deprecating palate-cleanser that manages to encapsulate the awfulness of an era in a single random spoonful.
Brandon Claycomb, “The 50 Greatest Civil War Names”
Unlike many way-too-long lists, this one is genuinely informative, well-researched, and fascinating. I learned a lot while fact-checking facts I did not possess, and then almost immediately forgot. Brandon’s gently prodding humor and clear affection for these often mis-remembered scraps of American history is like sharing a bottle of cheap muscat with your favorite uncle in the back yard by the trash fire.
Duke Haney, “P/CP Sean Beaudoin vs. Duke Haney”
I know this is cheating (if not hopelessly egotistical) since I wrote half of it, but I love this piece. So, let’s restrict my endorsement strictly to Dr. Haney’s portion. Basically, it’s six thousand words of impassioned speculation on a variety of hopelessly esoteric subjects like Carol Doda, Eve Babitz, Diane Arbus, The Duchess, Exene Cervenka, and Gloria Grahame. Which means it’s exclusively about women we mutually admire for their contributions to the various arts. For really no good reason at all. It was a colossal chore to edit, and if you divided the hours it took by the number of people who eventually read the piece, it would be even more obviously the precocious but ignored little red-headed boy who deserves so much more of your love.
All the essays I especially loved during the first two years of The Weeklings struck me because I felt lucky just to be reading them. In other words, I knew they were written because the authors were passionate to write them. Several of these were contributed by the other three co-founders of the site, Greg Olear, Jennifer Kabat, and Sean Beaudoin, and I could easily have included some of them. Here I’m highlighting five other writers who kept me rapt at my screen.
I sought Jana Martin out to write for The Weeklings because I knew she was a bold writer. We discussed some ideas, and she said she most wanted to write a piece about her experience selling vintage items on the Etsy site. I was a little unsure of how interesting that could be, but wanted to see what she could do with it. What she turned in knocked me out. Her essay “I Can See Clearly Now: Life on Etsy” was not only complex and innovative in its form but ambitious in scope—a telling of her own experience as a writer trying to make a decent living as well as an incredibly smart analysis of how Etsy went from humble and handmade to business-as-usual.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s piece “Around the Bend” describes the experience of witnessing a nearby motorcycle accident. It’s an example of the way Melissa, who has published four nonfiction books, can crystallize a moment. Many writers try to do this—that sort of epiphanic moment authors tend to be so fond of—but here, Melissa conjures something so eerie and delicate, I felt as though I were there on that same afternoon in that same lonely place.
Henry Cherry, who is the mind behind The Weeklings’ word and light show Sunday Sermon, contributed a standout essay called “Soul Seduction: Eddie Bo,” about a legendary but sadly forgotten New Orleans keyboard player. Writing about music and musicians is hard—it can be a minefield of clichés—but Henry sidestepped all of that by making this piece at once personal and grand. When he writes about Eddie Bo it’s intimate and informed and deeply respectful of tradition. This is also an essay about place—a New Orleans that Mr. Cherry knows from the pavement up.
JM Blaine’s essay “I Want(ed) My MTV: Rooms on Fire” describes his early days of watching MTV—picture Wham! and Duran Duran, and, mostly, Stevie Nicks dancing around in rooms on fire. But this essay reads just as much like a short story, which shows how literary and versatile the essay form can be. This piece stretches out to explore early love and lust and the way we tend to see only what we want to see.
Whitney Collins’ writing is hilarious in the nicest way. It makes fun but isn’t snarky or patronizing. At times she’s got the perfect comic timing of David Sedaris. Her essay “The Unbearable Kindness of Trader Joe’s” is one of the best she’s written for us. And as with all of her pieces, this one is easy to identify with. Because I, too, could be kept awake at night thinking about all the varieties of hummus that Trader Joe’s sells. Especially the edamame hummus.
Five pieces? I’m supposed to distill two years of consistent quality to just five pieces? Whose bright idea was that? Oh, right, it was mine.
The Weeklings began with six writers—the four founding editors plus Alex Clark and Diana Spechler, both of whom contributed consistently brilliant essays and helped establish who we are and what we do. Can I really leave off Alex’s 50 Shades of Grey spoiler posts, or Diana’s piece about running for class president? What about another essential early contributor, the great Elissa Shappell, whose “It is a Truth Universally Acknowledged that a Woman in Possession of a Good Uterus Must be in Want of a Man to Regulate It” was the first of our pieces to crack that vital threshold of all internet work, 1k Facebook likes?
Can I make a list that excludes Whitney Collins, Larry Benner, Nelly Riefler, and Owen King? What about Joe Daly, Sam Sattin, Sean Murphy, Tom Gualtieri, Zoe Zolbrod, and Lauren Cerand? Is it fair to omit Katie Arnoldi’s meticulous and expansive five-part series on Mexico, marijuana, and immigration just because I helped write it? And how can I leave out JM Blaine’s interview with Weird Al. I mean…Weird Al was the most person in my life for three full years in grade school (a period which—and this will shock you—coincided with my not having a girlfriend)! And he’s on my website!
But these decisions have to be made. And it’s somewhat easier, because I knew what everyone else chose first. But now it’s time to get all Sophie’s Choice on the 730 pieces we’ve run. Here are my five:
Danbert Nobacon, “Power Trio: 3 Songs for Ding! Thatcher Dong!”
Let’s ignore the fact that a gentleman I watched on MTV is an essential contributor to these pages. What I love about Danbert is his unflinching way of telling truth to power, and his fearlessness in writing about topics others might be terrified to talk about. To me, that is a key part of our mission. I think this is his best piece, contained as it is in the generally benign “Power Trio/3 Songs” format, in which he recalls a stand taken by the labor movement in Great Britain that hasn’t been seen on this side of the pond since Big Bill Haywood died. He was in the thick of it back then, walking the walk. This is an inspiring piece. I literally jumped up and down when I finished reading it.
Elizabeth Eslami, “Lion Fever in Connecticut”
The best essay, in the pure Montaignean sense of the word, that we’ve run. At the heart of the essay is a writer struggling to make up her mind about a particular issue; the best essays lay out convincing arguments for both sides, and then arrive at a conclusion. Liz does this beautifully here, and on such a wonderfully offbeat topic (although one that is near and dear to many people, judging by the comments it routinely gets). Just an A-plus of an essay.
James Greer, “Black Hole in my Head: The Science of the Soul”
I remember speaking with Jen Kabat about a piece she was excited about. “It’s weird, and long, and brilliant,” she said, “and no one else will publish it.” We’ve run a lot of great pieces—like Nelly Riefler’s “Blue Spark” series—that are brilliant and long. Greer’s contributions were all that way. This one, which for all I know was written with the New Yorker in mind, is my favorite, although his entire catalogue is superb.
Janet Steen, “Humble Work and Mad Wanderings”
Janet’s pieces tend to be short, and there is a wonderful ease and fluidity to them. They make me want to know her more, to engage with her line of thinking. This meditation on art and money is my favorite, but it’s of a piece with her superb and distinctive body of work at the site.
Jennifer Kabat, “The Plagiarist is Present”
Plenty of sites talk about film and music and books, but I didn’t know of any that combined pop cultural essays with high art criticism—that made art accessible to readers accustomed to pieces on other media. Jen, our resident art writer (and winner of fancy grant for such writing from Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation, no less!), has done that wonderfully at Weeklings. I have learned a great deal about art from her in the last two years. This is her latest entry, a collection of thoughts on plagiarism and Marina and Jay-Z and Shia and what the very term art means. I love how she weaves all of these pieces into a coherent essay.
Sean Beaudoin, “Going Home”
All of Sean’s pieces are great, even the ones dashed off on a cocktail napkin when he riffs on some obscure jazz record. He’s funny and smart and well-versed in history, and he’s also capable of gravitas when the situation calls for it. After the school shooting in his hometown of Newtown, Conn., the situation called for it. I’m sure he’d rather I included one of his Romney takedowns instead, but there’s no way we can do a retrospective piece on the last two years and not include this piece.
(I know, I know. That’s six pieces. Well, too bad!)
Thanks, everyone, for your support during our first 730 days!