Lyz Lenz on religion, marriage and writing on the internet

Browser Editor Caroline Crampton is joined by Lyz Lenz, a journalist and author based in Iowa. Lyz has written two books so far: 2019’s God Land and 2020’s Belabored, and she's currently working on an essay collection about divorce and domestic inequality.

CC: Could you introduce yourself a bit to our listeners who may not have read your work so far?

LL: So, I'm an essayist and a journalist; for about a year and a half I wrote for my local paper; I've written profiles of media people for the Columbia Journalism Review; a lot of people discovered my work when I wrote a profile of Tucker Carlson, you know, that hot mess of a Fox News host, who everybody loves to hate.

And so that's just, a little bit of my work, but I'm also a single mother of two, living in the middle of America, kind of grappling with the political realities that this time has forced on us all, and just kind of writing my way through it.

CC: Tell me a bit about your background, because I learned from your book God Land that you were homeschooled in quite a conservative household, is that right?

LL: Yeah. I’m such a hot mess. I grew up one of eight kids, and my parents homeschooled us in the early nineties, back when homeschooling was still really fringy, and they did it for religious reasons -- they’ve changed a lot, they've grown a lot, but they were then very conservative evangelicals who believed in keeping their children separate from the world. And we lived in Texas, which was like a whole other situation.

So that's how I grew up, one of a giant pack of children that would run wild in creeks, and shot BB guns off the roof. And my kids think that my childhood sounds so glamorous and exciting, and I'm like, no, trust me, having somebody make you a sandwich every day is far more fun.

But my family grew, grew and changed, they kind of left that life, but since I was one of the oldest ones that was deeply imprinted on me. And then I went to college, tried to leave that world behind, and then got married and moved to Iowa.

And you know, in my family, waiting until you graduated from college to get married was a bold feminist statement. And then I got into the world and I'm like, oh, nobody else is married? Nobody else got married at 22? Cool, cool. And then I was in the middle of Iowa trying to create this writing career and, you know, Iowa is actually famous for having one of the best graduate programs for writing in the world, but they didn't let me in. So if you don’t get in there you’re pretty much out on your own, because there's not a lot of media companies and stuff. So I started freelancing, and had children, and started a quasi successful mom blog before I nuked the whole endeavor because my children were like we don't want to pose for pictures, and I was like, oh, yeah, consent is important. So then I just deleted the whole thing off the internet and started all over.

But, you know, that gave me an audience basis. I had done some writing, my writing had been syndicated places. So all of a sudden I went from being a dumb mom in the middle of America, writing things in and people weren't paying attention to my pitches. All of a sudden it became like, oh now I have an audience, and there are people who really responded to my writing, which was incredible to see. You know, some people will reach out and they've been like, “I've been reading you since your blog,” and I'm like, why?, you have so many better things that you could do with your time, but I still love it and appreciate it.

I mean… briefly, the 2016 election happened. I don't think anybody needs to be reminded of that. But when it happened, what it revealed, and as I write in God Land, is some deep divisions, political and personal divisions in my own marriage. And after trying to work through those for years, I finally just decided to get a divorce. And from that experience, I am now going to be writing a third book called This American Ex-Wife, which will be about the problems with the way we've designed this institution of marriage, and I think how it fails most women, and most people actually: I don't think men are served by inequality either. But yeah, that's kind of how I've come up, very briefly.

Not yet a Browser subscriber? Try the world's favourite curation newsletter for one month free:

CC: So I wanted to ask you about your blogging days actually, because it seems like that was the perfect form for you while you were at that stage. And yet I feel like the media then, and even today, really looks down on mommy bloggers or mom influencers -- how did you find that yourself?

LL: Yeah, I was so lucky -- two years ago, I got to write about this in a deeply personal way for a website called Topics, so if people are interested, there's an article out there called mommy bloggers are dead long live mommy bloggers or something like that, that I wrote about this intersection of women and motherhood and writing, and then profit also because people just really get uncomfortable when women make money through revenue streams that they don't feel like are properly policed.

I had always been blogging since college -- I had a moderately successful blog that actually got a lot of harassment from a writer who now writes for some really far right site, but he's still out there. But at the time, we were all just idiots on the internet and I was like 19 and I was just writing book reviews and, like, my political thoughts on the internet, and I pissed this guy off, somehow. And he sent all his entire audience after me, and I was a 19 year old in college, and my professors were getting hate mail, and I didn't know how to handle that. And I just shut it all down.

But I started it up again, when I just felt very frustrated by sending out pitch after pitch, after pitch and, you know, sometimes places will be like, we'll publish it…. for $30. And I was like, you know, screw you and your $30, I'll just post it on my site and then have it be the way I wanted it, because if you recall, that was also in this kind of early aughts, heyday of internet essaying where, you know, the XO Jane, “it happened to me” kind of thing. And I didn't want that, I didn't want that to happen to me. I didn't want to have my writing taken out of context -- I do love being edited, I do love working with editors, but you're right, in blogging, I was able to find a voice. I was able to really hone what I wanted to say and the way I wanted to say it, in a way that I think all writers have to find.

A very smart friend who is a writer once said to me -- I was struggling through thinking to myself, how did I write a thing? -- and she's like, “don't worry so much about being original. Just worry about saying the thing you need to say and the way you want to say it, because that's what draws people into writing.”

So blogging became this way of finding a community, a community of women who were like me, moms in middle America, we could talk and share experiences and also develop that kind of writing voice, in a very kind of internet-y way that I think happens outside the mainstream. I remember when my blog started getting popular and I was doing little video interviews for, oh, I did one with Anderson Cooper for his website -- not the real thing -- and then these Huffpost live segments, and people would be like “mommy blogger Lyz Lenz,” and I'd be like, oh, okay. Like it just, it is what I am and was, but it also just felt so demeaning. That’s just what you do, but I mean, it’s such a powerful form of writing and connecting.

There's so many women out there who are powerful entrepreneurs who have built up these incredible platforms that, if they were men, we'd be like, “oh my God, they’re re-inventing writing for the internet.” But instead it's the pioneer woman, so we’re all like “she's not really a pioneer woman anyway.” I find it's just this incredible tension between a society that basically makes it impossible for women to work, to have children, to care for those children, and also have lives. So some women are able to make the choice to stay home, but then also find that incredibly frustrating. Then they reach out through these creative means, whether it's through Instagram or blogs or TikTok, and they find a way to profit off of that, and then we're like, “Ew, gross. They're not authentic.”

I always find that it's just an interesting intersection of, what do we think women owe us? You know, what do we think mothers owe us, as a society? And so I've got powerful respect for women who've created these very powerful platforms. I also think some of those platforms are a huge problem -- I think some of them are very inauthentic, but I think it's possible to have all those conversations at the same time, but I'm intensely grateful for that time I had being frustrated and letting it all out on the internet and finding that community because honestly, I don't think I would be the writer I am without that community of women who I still love and enjoy. And I hope to go to a mom blogging conference this fall, just for funsies.

CC: And what you said about the way your mom blog came to an end, the fact that your kids didn't really want to take part in it anymore -- that's something else about monetizing motherhood, or having to monetize motherhood, that people are now grappling with.

LL: Yeah. I don't want to overblow the success of my blog: it was really tier three, not super great. But there was a point where brands were reaching out, and as someone whose ambition was to be… the person I am now, that was the dream then. And so I just felt really weird, like, do I do this? I don't want to compromise myself ethically. And then there were a couple of things I tried to do, but I remember specifically one was when the shoe company said, oh, we'll send your kids shoes, but you have to photograph it and write a thing. So I was sitting there trying to take a picture of my kid's feet and they were like what are you doing? And then I was like, what am I doing? Great question everybody. And they were very little then.

And I was also really struggling with the idea of having their faces on the internet then too. Like I said, I'd already received like a little bit of harassment early on, but I had seen other people experience that, and I was really trying to understand that line between… I just feel like this is the tension of all of parenthood is like, your children are a part of you, they are part of your narrative, but they also are their own thing, they also are a thing completely independent of you. And there's always a point in which I find this ethical gray area of, like, when is that breaking? And how do I walk that line very carefully? And the moment my kids said “no,” I nuked it.

Also, my marriage was also falling apart then, and also I didn't know how to not-write about it. I knew I couldn't write about it while I was going through it, but I also just didn't know how to not say “everything's falling apart and I can't take a picture of my kid's feet.” So  instead of saying that, I just was like, we're going to nuke this and try again.

You know, my oldest child is a little older now -- I think she was about four when I nuked the mom blog, so it’s been six years. And in the pandemic she wanted to start a podcast, and we did a couple episodes, and I think we hoped to do a couple more, but I'm a little behind on the editing because it's a one woman show - oh, I'm sorry, a two woman show. But she and I had these conversations where I told her: I don't want you to use your name in this podcast, I really want to protect you. And I also didn't want to syndicate it, I wanted to keep it on my newsletter, but for subscribers only. And we talked about this in one of the episodes where she was like, “no, I've worked hard on this, I want to share it and I want to be proud of it. And I want my teachers to hear it.”

And I don't know if I made the right call, but I eventually was like, okay, fine. It's on Spotify now; I believe in letting children have agency and choices -- I'm not trying to judge anybody else's way of parenting, but I do think it is a very interesting line. On the one hand, yes, I write about parenting and motherhood in my life, because I think it's a space that needs to be interrogated more. But I also understand that men don't have this same kind of burden or expectation, or that when they do it’s Knausgaard and then we call them literary heroes.

I don't know, it's a tough space, but I try to walk it as honestly as possible, while trying to protect my kids as much as possible. I mean listen, they're probably going to grow up and hate what I've done, but I also respect that, they have the space to do that. So I don't know, but I do think it is an interesting line, and it's not just an issue of the internet age. I just read Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking and I'm like, oh yeah, she wrote some things about her daughter here. Ok, ok.

I know I'm babbling here but I also think it's interesting question of who we allow to say things and who we don't. There’s a lot of hate about internet mommy bloggers talking about their children, but memoirists have done it for years.

CC: This is something else I wanted to ask you about, because you straddle that line as well in your books. In God Land, it is a journalistic piece. There's a lot of work and investigation and interviewing and so on involved in it, but also it's about you and your relationship with faith and church and family and all that sort of stuff. Was that always the format at the outset, or did the memoir element grow into it as you were doing it?

LL: For God Land, it was not supposed to be a memoir -- I had sold the book early in 2016, before the election actually happened, because I  had written a piece for a magazine called Pacific Standard (which was wonderful, but has now been closed), about what was happening to faith in middle America, and a university press reached out and they said we think this would make a great book. We went back and forth, and I agreed to do the book before the election actually happened.

We were in therapy then, but I wasn't raised to get divorced, I believed that we were going to save it, and it was going to be fine. And then as the year went on… early in that year I was researching the book, and I was driving place,  and then the election happened and then I was driving more places, and my life was falling apart. There’s a chapter in the book where I'm embedded with a bunch of Baptist ministers learning how to be rural, they’re getting classes on how to be rural, which is so banana pants, but I was there and what was happening politically in our nation and what was happening to me personally just kept having this jarring resonance.

And I was texting some of my friends and they were like, “you have to put this in the book. Like you have to put this in the book.” And I think for me, my writing is at its best when I'm being completely transparent about why I'm drawn to this topic; I think all writing has personal stakes, all writing has personal stakes, if that personal stake is just “I want to draw a paycheck” or if it's a writer thinking about an experience somebody in their family had, or they themselves had, all writing has personal stakes.

Because my writing became what it is on the internet, I've never had an audience handed to me, I've always had to fight for my audience, I've always had to build my own audience. And I'm not being dismissive of other writers, but I didn’t come up through the New York Times, I wasn't just handed a large audience and told, here, write these things. I had to fight for what I wrote, I had to fight for my assignments, and I have to fight for my audience. And so I'm always thinking: how am I going to keep people interested? Why are they coming to read this?

[background noise] Oh, that's my cat, Waffles. I call him the butcher of Cedar Rapids because he keeps killing mice and small birds. [laughs]

Anyway, I really try to be transparent about why I'm there. And I also think it's interesting: I mean, man, I don't want to read another dry academic work on the history of religion, I want to know why it's important, I want to know why a church closing in rural Iowa means something for the rest of the nation, I want to know how politics affects the flesh and blood of everyday lives. And for me, the best way of doing that is by putting my life on paper. So no, it wasn't initially supposed to be part-memoir, but then things happened that I put it in there. Weirdly enough the chapters didn't change, but there was this emotional line that I think brought everything together.

CC: That's fascinating. So perhaps it was there, in the structure, invisibly already in the way you thought about it, but then you were just making it overt.

LL: Yes, yes. Yes. And that's an interesting question, because I often think problems of writing are also problems of person.

With this third book, This American Ex-Wife, there was a version of this book that I tried to sell before I was divorced, which is interesting, you’re like “how do you do that?, it’s a divorce book!” But what I was trying to write was a book that explored the modalities of womanhood that were given and the ways they fail us. I remember there was this piece for it that will be in the book, but in a very different form. I kept workshopping it and I would take it to all these overpriced writing workshops where they bilked me out of my money just so I could sit with a quasi-famous writer who could tell me I was crap. It wasn't wrong. But I remember being like, “this is one of the best things I've ever written but it has a fundamental problem.” I just had it in this folder -- like I said, that book never sold, people were like “we don't know what's going on here.”

And then when life fell apart -- well, you could also say I nuked my life. After that I went back to that writing and I looked at it and I knew what the problem was. I wasn't being honest with myself. I was trying to force a story that wasn't the real story.  I think I knew there were problems I was ignoring, but I thought I could keep ignoring them. And I couldn't.

Or to put it another way, I had a writing instructor when I got my MFA, Wayne Brown, who was a wonderful Trinidadian writer who everybody should read, he was a columnist and a poet -- he would sit at this bar in Boston and give us our writing critiques, and he would just down rum and Cokes but he'd drink like six and you’d never see a change in his face, and one time he was sitting there drinking and he was like “you write fiction because you're too scared to write the truth.” [laughs] What a jerk. He was right! But I think about that a lot. Sometimes problems of writing are problems of honesty, and problems of structure are problems of life. Maybe that's just the problem of nonfiction, but also, I think you're writing truth.

CC: It sounds like several times you have been trying to write about something that is still happening, whether it was what happened with God Land, where you sold it in one reality and then the reality change, and you were trying to document these changes, or in your own life when you're writing about divorce while you're still getting divorced and all those sorts of things. Do you do that consciously or is that just the way it happens?

LL: As a kid I was always writing in a journal, you know?, writing through things. Even though I no longer actively journal, I'm still always writing, and if there's times in my life when I'm not, I am still. I have Word documents open where I just babble -- especially when I was writing God Land and Belabored, because I wasn't writing as actively for the internet then while I was working on these books. I remember I just had a Word document open and I would go in and write the date, write a whole bunch of things, and then when I was done, I was done. That document was incredible to have as a record of my life at that time, especially when I was writing Belabored. There's this advice, you know, “don't write about it while it's happening.” But life is always happening, so when are you going to start writing about it, when you're dead? Life is never not-happening. Things are never not-finished. Everything's always changing. I find that advice a little bit of an artifice.

I have an essay in Roxane Gay's Not That Bad collection where I talk about sexual assault and my family, and  grappling with that reality. I remember trying to write about it in those early days, trying and failing and trying and failing. And people saying “now's not the time, now's not the time to write about it,” but what they were wrong about is, now is not the time to publish about it.

It's always the right time to write about anything. Write about whatever you want, all the time, but sometimes it's not the right time to publish a thing. And I think there's a huge difference between the two. And then if you have good editors who you trust, they'll help you shape it more because that's the other thing about like non-fiction and memoir writing and essays, it's very crafted.  There's a lot of times people will come to my work and then they think, “I know everything about you now because you've been so personal.” Except it's actually really crafted. I'm not lying to you, but there's no way I could possibly tell you everything.

But I am the kind of person who's always writing, just constantly, always writing and probably will be until the day I die. Unfortunately, for everyone involved.

CC: I feel like you have made a real art out of combining personal stories, whether that's yours or whoever you're reporting on, with bigger political themes. I think that that works, that that's definitely informative, because it feels like often then there's this kind of sterile division between “this is the political news section” and “this is the lifestyle section,” whereas for instance in God Land you make these really strong connections between the way people feel on a personal level and the way a church is behaving on the national level, right?

LL: So there are a lot of writers who do that well who I admire, so I'm definitely not the only one doing that in that space, but I do think that that's when personal writing is at its best, when it can make these bigger connections, when it can reveal something else than just a fun story about the writer -- those are fun too, but, that's not what I'm good at, we all have to find our space and own it, and my space is not going to be for everyone.

I value all types of writing and I think they're all necessary, but I do think that you're right, there is this very false division, especially in journalism, where we try to pretend that there's “just politics,” and then there's our lives. I mean, that's a white people thing, only white people get to do that. Not only, but largely, and that's called privilege. I also think that that’s just a lie. You cannot pretend that these issues don't affect -- well, you can pretend, and actually pretending that these issues don't affect us is low-key half of the world's problems. I do like to see things in that bigger picture, because I also think, why? Why else would you read this?

As I said earlier, I'm always thinking of the audience because I've always had to think about my audience. I've always had to fight for them and I've always had to try to keep their attention. And so I'm always thinking, why would you read this? Why do you want to read about Rosemary Kennedy? Why should we care about her? Well, here's why, let me tell you about my brother who's disabled. Let me tell you about all the people out there who are affected by the legacy of how we've treated disabled people in America -- that's an example that was actually an essay I wrote for Marie Claire, and I was trying so hard not to be personal in it, and then at the end I was like, “but why else care? This is why we should care.” So I do like collapsing that distinction. I think it's where my writing is at its best.

But there's other forms of writing. There's other forms of storytelling and there's other ways of getting those points across. I think that the more people who are doing that the better, and I love to read other writers who do it, and do it better, and then try to challenge and grow and change in my own writing too.

CC: How does that work then, keeping your own balance with the internet? You’re an expert in what your audience wants and how much of yourself to give them in order to make that point, but there is a line over which you can go into, where you feel like the internet owns you. How do you interact with that?

LL: Not very well, Caroline. [laughs]. It's been a learning process and I think I've failed at it sometimes. I think it's something I really struggle with a lot; I'm both intensely grateful that people read my work and interact with it, and are willing to buy my books, it's this overwhelming feeling of like, wow. I still can't believe I get to write a third book -- I know it's so cheesy but  it's a real thing,  I remember crying in an office room, being like “if I could just write one book, just one, I'll be so happy,” and now I've got three, and they keep getting better? I personally think I just keep getting better with every one?

So on the one hand, I have this immense gratitude, and I just wanna reply to every DM and reply to every email and reply to every tweet. But then on the other hand, I also have two children, and I also have a life, and I also need to sleep, and I also need to keep some things to myself, and I also need to have friends and need to be a human being. And honestly, I don't think I always handle that line very well, sometimes I go overboard on the sharing, and then sometimes I pull back too hard. Something my therapist tells me when I go in and say “I think people want too much from me,” or when I think I’ve done too much and I'm embarrassed, she'll tell me, “you level up. You just learn and you level up.”

It's still weird to me that I'm a thing to people, “oh, you’re Lyz.” It’s weird to think that I occupy people's minds in a way, but I also can't think about it because then that makes me insanely narcissistic and annoying as hell, and nobody wants that. I don't know, it's a learning curve, I think, and one that I'll continue to learn and grow on. I set some rules for myself now: I don't reply to negative emails, I try really hard not to reply to negative tweets (sometimes I fail at that, working on it, working on it), because those things aren't worth my time. I have to think, okay, what is worth my time?

I don't know. I don't think I do it well -- honestly, I don't think anybody does it well. We've had a year where we've seen some pretty huge celebrities melt the hell down on the internet, and I think that's just because these collapsing barriers of personal and public, and they're really hard to navigate.

But to end my babbling, I think when I do it best is when I'm remembering to be grateful, when I'm remembering that the majority of people are on my side. Which, maybe they're not, but I think it's better when you don't go in with the attitude of like, you know, “screw everybody, I hate you all.” I think it's better to go in remembering you have allies, and to be gentle with other people in the way that you would want people to be gentle with you, to think the best of everybody. That may be a little bit of magical thinking, but I think it keeps me being a good person. Above all I want to be a good person, so.

CC: Something I think about all the time that happened in my own career was a conversation I had with a colleague who was maybe five years older than me, I worked at a magazine and he was slightly senior to me, and it was my job to try and persuade him and other people like him to speak more on the internet. He made it very clear that he felt like he'd got in early enough that the internet was not his problem, that it was for me and everyone who was going to come after me, but that he'd sort of ducked under this invisible rope, basically, that meant that he didn't have to worry about it. This was 10 years ago, and I still think about this all the time, that there is still a generation of writers for whom the internet is something that happens to other people.

LL: Yeah, and that's also a luxury, right? So many writers have to fight for their audience and have to justify the existence of their words. It’s also democratized things in a way -- I think writers like me, who would have otherwise been outside that bubble of publishing or media, now are able to say: no, read me. My voice matters too. It’s great, and it's also really horrible. There also is a level at which you can just disengage; me and my friends joke a lot about being rich and then getting off of Twitter. Like, JK Rowling should probably just get off of Twitter, she’s rich enough, just leave. At some point you're doing yourself a disservice by being on it, maybe? There's other writers we could name too, but we won't.

But there's this weird tension of the internet being this great democratizing source for voices and opinions and ideas, but it's also this kind of narcissistic trap hole where you can become a martyr in a narrative that doesn't exist. It's a fine line. But the answer is always logging off.

I had a very difficult fall, as did many people, but I got fired from my job because of, in my opinion, a little bit of a political backlash to my writing. It was miserable. It was horrible. And I was a Main Character for a while, in a certain part. At some point I said to myself, go volunteer, get off the goddamn internet and go volunteer. And I did, and I was, fine, now when I have some free time I’ll volunteer for Meals on Wheels, which is one of my favorite organizations because they feed people, which is good. It forced me twice a week, and then once a week, to just log off the internet and go talk to some humans and go be part of something bigger than yourself. Whenever I'm feeling too sucked in by it, the answer is always to go log off and go help someone else or go do something that’s for someone else, like make a friend cookies or take your kids out for ice cream. One of my favorite things to do is to log off and then say, “let's get ice cream!” But yeah, some people are able to not be on the internet -- good for them.

CC: I wanted to ask you in a more positive way: what do you wish that writing on the internet had more of?

LL: Oh, weirdness. I think that’s one of the greatest things about internet writing and blogging, and you're starting to see this a little bit with newsletters, which are kind of just like blogging anyway.  I love it when people just get weird, try new things, just be bananas a little bit.

I actually wrote about this for the Columbia Journalism Review once, about “What is internet writing? Here’s what it is, here's what's not.” God bless them, they let me write that, I don't think anybody read it, but I loved writing it because I think about it all the time.

This question, “what makes writing internet writing and what makes writing, just writing?”  I think it's always at that intersection of weird and silly, but also bigger. One thing I think of is Jia Tolentino’s interview with the guy who has, how shall we say this? who makes love with dolphins. The way that that happened, this never could have existed anywhere except for the internet, but it's also weirdly profound in a way. I think of the whole genre of Amazon reviews and they are funny and weird and very revelatory of humanity. I just think the internet writing, and probably most writing, is at its best when it's hitting all those forms of humanity, and trying new things and just getting a little silly.

CC: I think that's absolutely right. I was thinking of all of the pitch meetings I've ever been to, and how hard it is to convey an unusual or weird idea in that setting, and how what is absolutely best about somebody’s YouTube channel or their own blog or own newsletter is that they don’t have to go to those meetings before they do things.

LL: Yes! I was so lucky -- this was the basis of the book Belabored, I wrote for Jia at The Toast, and when she went to Jezebel she said “what do you want to write for me?,” and I remember this email I sent her that had these very formal pitches, like what you’d say in a pitch meeting. And then at the end I added “but also I read this really weird Wikipedia article about babies turning into stone,” I go “I don't know what that has to do with anything, but it'd be really fun to write about.” And she said, “that’s the idea I want. I don't care where it goes, just write it.” And I was so lucky I was able to do some of those pieces for her, where I was just like, “here's this weird thing I want to write about it, I don't know where it's going to go.” I got to write about my weird, horrible Disney cruise that was also kind of fun, for her, but there's also kind of darkness. I could just say to her, “Hey, I'm going to do this thing. Can I write about it?” And she would say, “yes.”

That's a luxury, but it's also not like we can’t create our own spaces where we do those things and write about it. But there is a real tension sometimes, when I write for op-ed pages every once in a while, they will say, okay, but what's the take away?” And I'll say, sometimes the takeaway is “it's complicated,” and they're like, “that's not good enough.” And I'm like, “YES IT IS.” But that’s not their style of writing. But yes, the internet is so great when you can just be like, “I'm going to be a little bit weird and I'm going to have fun, but I'm also going to say something.”

One of my favorite pieces of internet writing is from Caity Weaver, she went to a TGI Fridays and it had unlimited appetizers, and then she just wrote about it. It’s this beautiful meditation on fried mozzarella and also loneliness and humanity and food. And it's great, but can you imagine that in a pitch meeting, saying, “I'm just going to go sit at TGI Fridays and see how many mozzarella sticks I can eat” and them being like, “No.”

CC: I still think that, when I was an editor, the best piece hands-down I ever commissioned was when a writer said to me, “I've just discovered that there's a man who lives near me who runs a museum of lawnmowers. Just on his own, he just puts all the lawnmowers out and people can come and he'll tell you about the history of lawnmowers. I really want to go to it and ask him about it.”  And I said “yes, please, do that.”

And as you say, it came out as this very moving piece about this man who just really loves lawnmowers, and why he thinks it's important that people should care more about them. But if I tried to say it in a meeting, “this is what I’m planning,” I don't think it would have come across.

LL: No. And that's so wonderful and so authentic and with so much writing that’s when it’s at its best, and that's when people care about it too. Writing is meaning-making, but, I do think that there's often a tension where business-people want to control where the story is going. They want to say, “go here, write this, and what's the point?” And sometimes I want to say “I don't know what the point is until I get there.”  I wish we had more luxury to say that and then admit that and just to say, “I'm here, I want to learn,” not “I'm here and I have an agenda.” Which happens all the time, and even with good writers: it happens because of editors, and because of the way we structure publications. But, you know, writing is at its best when it's just intensely curious and lets the story happen rather than tries to impose a narrative on the story itself.

It’s unfortunate that that kind of writing is a luxury, and that being able to write like that is something you have to earn, only famous writers can do that. And you’re like COME ON! But I can also understand needing to work with the writer and understanding what they're doing, what they're asking.

It's a tough tension, but gosh, internet writing so fun. I hope it gets fun again. It's felt very un-fun lately. But I do love people's newsletters, I think people are doing like fun weirdo things. Ashley Feinberg's newsletter is just... silly, but also deeply profound. I'm just in awe of her writing. I love it. I study it, I study it like a Zapruder film. I'm just like, how does she do this? How is she funny and smart and...? And that's what I love.

CC: I know exactly what you mean. I feel like so much of the discourse around newsletters at the moment is this very serious chin-strokey stuff about the future of media and all of that kind of thing.  Whereas, yes, the newsletters I've enjoyed going on 10 years have always been the unusual, surprising, weird ones. And those ones are the future of media, in a way that the bigger stuff is not.

LL: Yeah! And I think about this a lot, like with my own, because--

CC: We should say, by the way, Lyz’s newsletter is called Men Yell At Me.

LL: Yes, which started because I had a Tiny Letter, and I called that ‘F words,’ because I was writing about faith, family and feminism and food. Then in 2018, I converted it to a Substack, so I was on Substack before it was cool, by the way, I just want everybody to know. It doesn’t matter. But now that it's something that I'm doing as my quote unquote job, while I work on my book, I have to keep reminding myself: if I'm not having fun, then nobody else is having fun and they don't want to read it. And I do a Friday newsletter called the Dingus of the Week where I just like dunk on something stupid that happened in the week. Whether it be a boat getting stuck in a canal, or whether it be governors lifting mask mandates, or whatever, we just have a good time.

Actually I was talking to a woman at my volunteer thing where she was just like, “that is so fun. And that's my favorite newsletter.” And I was like, “you don't think it's too silly? You don't think I'm like too mean?” And she's like, “no, silly and mean is kind of why I read your writing anyway.”

And it has to be fun or else people don't want to read it. It's this whole idea of writing that I have, and let's make it serious too, about chiaroscuro, like that idea of balancing in art, like light and dark. You have to have that, because you can't just be dark all the time, because nobody will want it. And you can't just be light all this time, well you can, but that's bananas, that'll burn away and history won't remember it.

You have to have that balance, and that's where humor is. Humor always sits at the intersection of light and dark. The best writing sits at that intersection of light and dark. The more weird you let yourself get, the more new things you try on the page -- one you are having fun, two you're challenging and growing, but you're fun to read, you're not boring as crap to read. And that's the really good thing I think about the internet, it just lets us be our unfiltered weird selves for all the good and the bad that comes with it.

CC: Well, I think I should probably let you go. It's been a tremendous pleasure to talk to you. I should tell everyone listening that Lyz's books, God Land and Belabored are available in all good bookstores and we will put links to as many as possible of the articles and things that we've mentioned in the description as well, so that you can follow along with what we've talked about.

Lyz thank you so much for giving us your time, and we'll be seeing your work no doubt in future editions of The Browser.

LL: Thank you so much, Caroline, what a joy to talk to you. You're so wonderful.

Join 150,000+ curious readers who grow with us every day

No spam. No nonsense. Unsubscribe anytime.

Great! Check your inbox and click the link to confirm your subscription
Please enter a valid email address!
You've successfully subscribed to The Browser
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in
Could not sign in! Login link expired. Click here to retry
Cookies must be enabled in your browser to sign in