Tom Scocca was the “Off the Record” columnist and media editor for The New York Observer before decamping for Beijing. Before that, he was an editor and writer for Washington City Paper and Baltimore’s City Paper. A Baltimore native, he lives in New York with his wife and two sons (one born in Beijing, one in Manhattan). He is the features editor of Gawker and the daily weather reviewer for The Awl. Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future (Riverhead, 2011) is his first book.
Why I write
I write because I can’t do anything else. Broadly, biographically, I have no idea how I would have gone about becoming someone who trades bonds or raises hogs or tailors suits; this is the line of work I seem to be most qualified for. Narrowly, at any given moment, I write because I have used up all my busywork and excuses for the day. Between those motivations, in the middle ground, I write because I’m interested in or angered by or curious about or amused by something, and writing is the only way to get it out of my head.
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
I’ve been employed as an editor, which means that I can put in a virtuous and productive day’s labor without necessarily having to knuckle down and write. So I created a side job writing capsule reviews of the previous day’s weather, for the Awl. This forces me to report, write, and publish at least a few sentences five days a week, without fail.
Describe your writing space…
I have bad habits about work space, going back to my deskless childhood of doing homework on the couch with a copy of the National Geographic book The Mysterious Maya as a writing surface (I am fairly sure I never opened it up to read a word about the mysterious Maya).
So while I worked out most of my book at my desk—in Beijing, with windows to my left overlooking traffic on our little alley, and then in Silver Spring, with windows on my right overlooking freight trains and buses and the Metro — some really fruitfully intense bouts of writing and revising happened elsewhere: on the floor of the carpeted upstairs landing in a completely empty foreclosure house that my in-laws had just bought near San Diego, on the guest bed of my wife’s aunt and uncle in an instant-urbanized complex in the fields outside Tianjin; at a communal table in a Le Pain Quotidien near Lincoln Center.
Now I mostly write either on the king-sized bed in our current apartment, looking west through Trumpville at the Hudson River, or at my seat at an open-plan table in the big, stylishly dim newsroom at Gawker Media, under a brick ceiling whose undulating vaultwork meets the beams around it at an unnervingly non-level angle. I gaze up over my screen at that angle a lot. The weather reviews I mostly draft in longhand in a pocket notebook while standing up on the B or D train on my way to work.
Worst source of distraction?
The Internet is an incomparable resource and it’s deeply wired into how I write once I’ve gotten started, but before I’ve gotten started, ugh. Throwing open a few dozen browser tabs feels like intellectual activity, but if I’m trying to work out an idea, I’ll get there 50 times faster if I’m washing and chopping vegetables than if I’m bouncing around online.
Best source of inspiration?
The second cup of tea or coffee, or a sudden and non-negotiable deadline.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
Writer’s block for me is usually technical rather than existential: if I’m stuck, it means there’s a structural or conceptual problem with what I’m writing, and I haven’t solved it yet. Self-doubt is one of those things a lot of writers seem to be proud of fretting about. I have doubts sometimes (or fairly objective negative self-observations, rather than doubts) about whether I have the available willpower to force myself into the tight mental tunnel where the problems get solved and the job gets done. But gnawing feelings of unworthiness? Not usually. I believe and expect that if I write, I’ll write the way I want to.
Contemporary writer in any medium you always read?
I’m not much of a completist, but I believe I’ve read every single word and emoticon ever published by Andrew Ti on the blog “Yo, Is This Racist?”
There are too many books that I love for too many different indispensable reasons. (Lizard Music? Moby-Dick? Oranges?) But when I’m especially disgusted by the sound of my own words, I open my copy of The Ego Is Always at the Wheel, by Delmore Schwartz, and read an essay or three to clear my head.
When I was writing the book, though, the single most inspirational thing to me wasn’t another book at all; it was going to see Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse in the movie theater –this pure, forceful documentary point of view, expressed almost entirely without narration or other programmatic effects: Look at this. Now look at this. Now this. Half of me wanted to stay in my seat for every frame of it, and the other half wanted to run out of the theater and start writing immediately. (I guess it must have really been more like 60-40, since I did stay.)
Again, there are too many candidates. Setting aside the immortals and the novelists and other grand persons (I mean: Shakespeare! Big round of applause for Shakespeare!), I would say that among the living people getting their hands dirty with facts, if Ellen Barry is writing about something, nobody else has a chance of doing it better.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
There’s a copy of Ulysses sitting right here waiting for me to get back to it, but it’s really just an outrider for the army of great and important works I’ve neglected. So let’s just say my college primatology textbook. Though the professor did turn out years and years later to be an academic fraud.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
The very first thing? Like in a school paper or literary magazine? I guess I’d think, “Wow, Mom, you saved that?”
How did you get started writing?
I don’t remember exactly how I got started writing. In second grade, I already had enough self-confidence to churn out some sprawlingly long space opera — laser guns, aliens, the works — on our wide-format blue-lined assignment paper. I misspelled “unconscious” in it; that stuck with me.
Does writing change anything?
It can! I wrote an angry column for Slate about how recipe writers lie about how quickly you can caramelize onions — it just can’t be done in five or 10 minutes, and they always pretend it can — and it not only gave comfort to unhappy cooks but led to some small but real reforms.
What are you working on now?
I am supposed to be collaborating with Choire Sicha, whose Very Recent History just came out, to write a long article or short e-book on the practice and malpractice of writing true nonfiction. We haven’t knuckled down to it yet, though.
Posted: Friday, September 6, 2013