Monthly Archives: December 2020

Looking back on 2020, looking ahead to 2021

If you can’t tell, that picture is fake. My teeth aren’t that white, or that straight. My skin is not that flawless. Oh, and as if anyone is celebrating New Year’s Eve in a massive crowd this year. Yeah, that isn’t happening. At least IT BETTER NOT BE HAPPENING. (Looking at you. Yes you. You know who you are.)

Of all the things Covid has robbed us of, New Year’s Eve might be the one thing I am grateful it took. Even when I drank, this holiday was overrated. Black tie events with cold hors d’oeuvres and swill champagne at £300/$300 a ticket. Pubs and bars and clubs jack up the prices of drinks and slap you with an admissions fee at the door. If you opt instead for a house party, you are shoulder-to-shoulder with drunken strangers who insist next year will be their year, but whose sob stories about this year make you very much doubt that. And don’t get me started on the big celebrations: Westminster, Times Square, Navy Pier.

No. Thank. You.

Part of my bitterness towards 31 December/1 January is down to the fact I have never had a successful New Year’s Eve. The closest I came was probably 2009 into 2010 (I never know which year to refer a given New Year’s celebration by), when I stole a bottle of champagne from a bar in Bowling Green, KY, only to find out a few days later that the champagne was not only free but intended for my group anyway. A regular criminal mastermind, ain’t I?

Since then, I have been turned away from gay bars in Chicago, danced alone to a Shania Twain song while sobbing quietly into a warm But Lite, and thrown a New Year’s Eve party which exactly three people turned up at—my neighbours—and they only stayed out of pity. Oh, and I have never had a New Year’s kiss. At some point enough was finally enough, and I stopped celebrating altogether.

Still, when you are as sentimental and nostalgic as I am, it is hard to resist the urge to look back on the year that was. On social media, folks have been listing things they’re proud to have accomplished in 2020, or things they’re looking forward to in 2021. All very sweet. I am a pessimistic person by nature, so I look back at 2020 and see only the things I did not accomplish: the book that still isn’t written, the articles that were rejected, the weight I haven’t lost. Some things I wanted to do, like explore the Appalachian Museum near my house or visit my loved ones back in Chicago, were cancelled due to Covid. Still others, like a trip to see my loved ones in London, would have been cancelled due to finances even if there wasn’t a pandemic raging.

It wasn’t all bad, though. This was my first year since leaving the mortgage industry and dedicating myself to writing full time. Did I accomplish everything I hoped I would? No. I still don’t have a byline at the Atlantic, but I did write meaningful pieces for The Independent and Arc—a new outlet for me in 2020. I didn’t finish a first draft of the Great American Novel, but I did write quite a bit which showed me that I can in fact do this. I’m still not dating Harry Styles, but as far as I can tell no one else is either, meaning I’m still in with a chance.

In the spirit of the season, allow me to list 5 things I am proud of accomplishing this year:

  1. Lost 60 pounds
  2. Remained sober the entire year
  3. Read my work publicly for the first time
  4. Started dating again, albeit only virtually and with limited success
  5. Overall, coped amazingly well in self-isolation, only going out when absolutely required of me  

It was also a successful first year professionally, if only because it taught me a lot of hard but necessary lessons. I feel more confident than ever that I can write a book. I am driven to finally start doing YouTube videos, which is something I have long wanted to try my hand at. I feel motivated to pitch more, even to magazines and on subjects that are a little out of my comfort zone. I think 2021 can be a successful year.

One thing that I want to do more of in 2021 is write for Medium and this blog. There are articles or blogs I want to publish but that don’t necessarily have a home elsewhere (for a myriad of reasons). In the past, I have let them die, but there really is no need for that. I have two platforms which allow me to publish the content I want. I plan to utilise them more.

But that only works if you all help me out. I’m going to be retooling my Patreon in the coming weeks so that the tiers are lower. They’re ridiculously high right now, because I modelled it after a much more prominent writer when I set it up, having no real benchmark of my own. If you regularly read my blog, I would ask that you contribute. Another way you can help is to follow me on Medium, to clap 50 times for my stories, and to share the links. Help get my name out there. I am also going to be looking into putting some writing behind a paywall, whether on Substack or Patreon (or both), where I can really analyse issues in more detail.

I am terrible at self-promotion. It does not come naturally to me. I was raised to believe that if you have talent or are worthy of mention, someone will notice. But one thing I have learned in 2020 is that you must be your own biggest advocate. Self-promotion is key to a successful writing career, as so much of our success is determined off social media metrics and algorithms and audience engagement.

As such, I have been looking at which stories performed the best for me in 2020 and which ones performed the worst. The results were not surprising. You all seem to like my political content and my cultural critiques of things like postmodernism, identity politics, and the like. Expect more of that in 2021.

In the meantime, here are a few of my favourite pieces from the past year. Most underperformed my hopes for them, though “What does ‘queer’ even mean?” is my most-read piece on Medium and did relatively well. The piece on the George Floyd protests for The Independent also did well, but I’m so damn proud of it that I wanted to include it here

Anyway, here they are, ten pieces I’m proud of but that you lot mostly didn’t read:

x. Skylar

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

Thoughts and advice for aspiring writers on pitching, waiting, and rejection

One of the questions I get asked the most by people who want to write for a living is “how do I pitch?” Folks simply don’t know how to communicate to a newspaper or website that they would like to write for them. When I first stared writing, this was one of my biggest obstacles. I didn’t know how to pitch, or even if I could—I was just a kid with a history degree and a dream. Imposter syndrome, they call it.

The best advice I ever received was from the writer Kellee Terrell, who told me to “just pitch.” The worst they can say, she correctly pointed out, is no. If being told “no” is scary for you, then you are in the wrong field. Writing is not a career for the easily dejected.

Earlier, I tweeted that I received three rejection e-mails this morning, but that isn’t entirely accurate.  I received two rejection e-mails and one no-response, which I take to mean a rejection. One thing that is true about writing is you hear “no” more than “yes.”

The important thing to remember is that a “no” is not a reflection on you as a person, or even you as a writer. One “no” I received was a fairly blunt “we’ll pass,” but I have written for that website previously so they clearly like my writing. People are busy, editors especially so, and they don’t always have time to explain why they’re rejecting your pitch. You just got to take it on the chin.

Another editor (who I’ve worked with for years) e-mailed me to say they already have someone writing about the topic I wanted to write about. It might be a freelancer who beat me to the punch, or who has some expertise I don’t. Or perhaps there is someone in-house who can write the piece, which means they don’t have to pay a freelancer’s fee. Newspapers and websites have a bottom line to consider, and you might not be in their budget.

If you get a response, even a rejection, you should be grateful. Not all editors will even bother to do that much. No responses are frustrating, because I am never sure exactly how long I should wait to pitch the piece elsewhere or put it on my blog. (This is assuming I have written copy, or that I don’t just abandon the idea.) The nightmare scenario is to pitch a piece elsewhere, get a yes, only to later receive a yes from the place you originally pitched. This has only happened to me once, and it was on a weekend when no one was working but the news item was hot so I mentioned I might publish it elsewhere, so both the editor and I forgave me.

How long should you wait for a response before pitching elsewhere? Sometimes outlets will have clearly stated policies on their website letting you know that after a specified period of time, you can assume no response is a “no” and should feel free to pitch elsewhere. Sometimes, writers will say in the pitch how long they’ll wait for a response.

I am not typically one of those writers who give editors a deadline to get back to me. It feels pushy, and I don’t want to be off-putting. I am not saying that is the best attitude to have, but if a piece isn’t particularly “hot,” – meaning that it won’t “go stale” (read: lose relevance) relatively quickly – then you should let editors take their time getting back to you. If it is “hot,” like the one I pitched but haven’t heard back on, it might be better to give an idea of by when you’d like a response. Most editors would intuitively understand the reasoning.

The piece I pitched but haven’t heard back on is “hot,” but it isn’t so “hot” that I felt “I need an answer within 24 hours.” So, I’ll wait another day. If I don’t hear anything by tomorrow, you’ll read it on Medium. Ordinarily I might try to find it another (paying) home, but it’s the week of Christmas and people are busy enough without me bothering every editor in London and New York. Remember, editors are people too, and they have lives outside of their jobs.  

Part of why I might not have heard back is because I pitched to a general mailbox. You know, the pitches@writeforus.website kind of communal inbox many websites and companies will have. That can sometimes feel like shouting into a vacuum. In my experience, it is always better when you have a direct contact, an editor who you can reach out to directly. That isn’t always the case, and some outlets prefer or require pitches be sent to the communal inbox. Best practice is to follow the instructions on their website, at least until you’ve built a relationship with the publication.

You can’t build a relationship on unsent e-mails, though. Don’t be afraid to pitch because you have never written before, or because you’re not a subject matter expert—although that helps, and it’s worth considering whether you have the expertise or experience to write about said topic. But the worst they can say is “no,” and “no” isn’t so bad.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

Skylar Baker-Jordan interviewed by Democratically and the LaFollette Press

Last weekend, I was a guest on Karin Robinson‘s Democratically podcast. I have done Karin’s show several times this year, and it is always a delight to speak with her. This was, however, my favourite appearance. We had a thoughtful conversation about Joe Biden’s cabinet nominees, the changing political landscape of the South, and how we bring the country together after four years of Donald Trump. I hope you’ll have a listen.

Also last week, I was interviewed by Eva Herinkova of the LaFollette Press, my local newspaper. She focused on my work with The Independent, especially my previous work commenting on UK politics (which I plan to do more of in the New Year, even if only on this blog and Medium). Herinkova is a young reporter fresh out of the University of Tennessee, and I enjoyed her questions and the chat we had. She has a bright future, I have no doubt.

On writing, and going forward into 2021

This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of personal blogs, reflecting on, well, whatever the hell I want to reflect on. A lot will no doubt be on politics, though I plan to migrate most of that writing to Medium where it can pick up more traffic and make a little money. (And I do mean a little; most pieces bring in pennies, and no piece has netted me more than $25.)

Over the past several years, with rare exception I have avoided writing much about my personal life. As I have gotten further into my 30s, my desire to mine my own trauma for clickbait has diminished. This is partly because I have come to realise first person narratives are only so interesting, at least to me. My interest has moved decidedly more towards analysis. I suppose this is where it was originally; my degree is in history – that is, the history of other people, of civilisation – and not psychology or creative writing.

So don’t expect a lot of “why my college boyfriend ruined me for other men” blogs here. Although, perhaps not coincidentally, that might be a piece you see in the New Year. Undecided.

In truth, I don’t know what content might end up on this blog going forward. This will be a place where I dump what doesn’t fit anywhere else. If I can’t sell an article and don’t expect it to do numbers on Medium, it’ll end up here. I suppose that makes this a dumping ground for my spare thoughts. Not sure using a website in my name as a rubbish heap is a wonderful idea, but sod it. Here we are.

One thing I do anticipate writing more about here is writing. As some of you may know, I have been working on a novel for the past year. Well, novels. I started off with an idea about a single gay father, which then got sat aside for an idea about a gay Romeo and Juliet, which then got sat aside for an idea about several thirtysomethings returning to their college for homecoming, which then got set aside for, got set aside for, got set aside for.

In truth, I am very good at planning and plotting, at worldbuilding and character creation. I enjoy it. Where I seem to lose myself in anxiety and self-loathing is the actual writing bit. Sitting down to craft the narrative is a frightful undertaking, one that fills me with dread. I have the most painful imposter syndrome whenever I try to craft a fictional sentence.

Why is this? I have a few ideas. One is that I come from a working class Appalachian background where my family – God love ’em, they meant well – instilled in me that things like pursuing dreams and writing books and taking risks were for rich people. When you come from generational poverty like I have, success is defined differently. It isn’t a book deal or a blue tick on Twitter, it’s putting food on the table and having a roof over your head.

I don’t mean to make out as though I grew up Oliver Twist. My family was decidedly lower middle-class or working-class (choose your own descriptor) by the time I was born. But my grandparents, who raised me, were born and raised in abject poverty. My grandmother remembers the first time she got electricity, in the 1950s. Those of you who’ve seen Downton Abbey will know that was about 50 years later than most. But then, the mountains are often left behind the times. Not always by choice, but also sometimes by choice.

That is a different essay for a different day. The point is, I think my upbringing – one in which I was taught to aim low and avoid disappointment, but which a more generous interpretation would be to always find job security and never take risks you can’t afford – has, if not stifled my creativity (I have plent of ideas), stifled my self-belief. I am working through this. I’ll update you on how once I’ve figured it out.

But I also think there is something else to be said here. Writing a novel requires a very different skillset to writing the 800- to 1000-word opinion pieces which have become my calling card. From the start of my career, I have pitched an idea to an editor, gotten a yes within two hours (if it was a yes – more often it’s a no), and had to turn it around in another two to four hours. And, at risk of sounding cocky, I am very good at this. I work well under pressure and am able to form coherent arguments strung together in decent prose very quickly. I credit my history degree for this – those final exams consisting solely of essay questions really prepare you for a life of writing hot takes for the internet.

This is, needless to say, a very different skillset to planning, plotting, and writing a 100,000 word novel. To begin with, they’re not even the same type of writing. Nonfiction – or at least what I write – is relatively straightforward. Sure, I aspire to be as punchy as Marina Hyde or Suzanne Moore, but so long as I get my point across I feel I’ve succeeded.

Not so with a novel. You have to be clever. Not smart or intelligent, though obviously those things help, but clever. Witty. Lyrical. You need to know how to write vibrant, vivid descriptions, how to make each character sound and move uniquely, how to paint with words. I don’t need to explain what Donald Trump looks like, how he moves, how he sounds. We are all painfully aware. But you have no idea how The Lady Grierhannon, Regent of Lastlight speaks or walks. I have to tell you. And that’s harder than you might think.

The Lady Grierhannon, by the way, is an actual character from a novel I have started and stopped at least three times this year. Actually, if I have my way, it’s a series of novels: a fantasy story I describe as “Game of Thrones meets Pride and Prejudice.” I am excited about it, I love working on it, and I think I can eventually finish book one. But then, no one wants to publish a fantasy series from a first time author. I might have a small but proven record of being a successful opinion writer, but no one – least of all I – know if my fiction will sell.

So, I’m wondering if I should even continue working on that book, at least for now, or at least in earnest. I think I’ll always work on it; I enjoy it, and it’s my passion project. But, maybe I should try to write one of the other novels I have floating around in my head first. You know, a one-off to prove I can, in fact, do this. Prove to agents and publishers, of course, but also to myself.

I also need to spend more time pitching and writing for money, because I need more money. 2020 was good to me. I never hurt for cash. Part of that is my circumstances – I am living with my grandparents, and they have been kind enough to let me stay here with minimal expenditure. That can’t last forever, though, and now that I have health insurance (I tweeted about this), I need to make more money each month than I was. So, expect more pitching, more hot takes, maybe some reported pieces. Who knows? I’ll write anything for a buck or a quid. I accept both currencies. (I accept others, too, but I don’t know a fun colloquial word for them.)

Anway, that seems like a fine place to leave off now. Who knows what will become of this blog, or my novel(s), or me, or you, or anyone in the new year. Coronavirus has shown us how pointless it is to plan and predict the future. I’ll take it one day at a time, doing my best, hoping for the best, and we’ll see what happens.

Oh. I guess if you have any blogs you’d like to see, let me know. Don’t imagine you do, but I’m open to suggestions.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

A brief tribute to Dame Barbara Windsor

I was ten years old when Erma Bombeck died. A humourist and newspaper columnist, her gumption and wit resonated with a generation of American women who were redefining just what that identity was. I distinctly remember my great aunt Pat reading it in the newspaper and telling my grandmother “Erma Bombeck died” with a sadness I had until then seen reserved for bad news about close family members. I didn’t understand it.

I do today.

Dame Barbara Windsor was an actress, not a writer, but like Bombeck spoke to a generation of women—this time on the other side of the Atlantic—who were demanding equality and redefining on their own terms what being a British woman meant. From her work on the London and New York stage to the Carry On films, Babs played women who were plucky, tough and yes, sexy, but also wise and deep and full of humanity. Some roles were lighter fare, but there were a great many meatier parts, too, and she imbued all of them with a richness and fulness that was utterly captivating.

I know Dame Barbara best for her work on EastEnders. As a young boy growing up in Dayton, Ohio, I used to watch her on a staticky box tv in the small bedroom I shared with my brother. As the indomitable Peggy Mitchell, I was hooked by her big hair, bigger personality, and the sheer delight she had in camping it up. I saw in her a woman not so unlike my own grandmother—big blonde hair, big brass neck, and a big, beating heart. Unlike my grandmother, who even now as far as I am aware has never made an enemy, Peggy was not afraid to slap someone silly, especially her frienemy-before-frienemy-was-a-term, Pat Butcher.

To be sure, Barbara Windsor was a star before she ever stepped behind the bar of the Queen Victoria Public House. It is arguably EastEnders, though, that made her an icon. A fiercely protective matriarch of an unruly clan of gangsters and thugs, Peggy Mitchell is one of the greatest—if not the greatest—character in soap history. Whether getting drunk with Pat in an ice cream van or slapping her silly after she slept with her husband, her hilarious antics and hopeless attempts at corralling her unruly brood captivated the nation for years.

Part of her appeal, and what made her such a compelling figure on Albert Square, is that she was never inauthentic. Born in Shoreditch and raised in Stoke Newington, Barbara never ran away from her roots. She was unashamedly working-class. Brash and bubbly and occasionally bawdy (she once told Larry Lamb “we’re all the same size lying down” and asked Boris Johnson for a kiss), she was friends with the Kray twins and married a man decades her junior. Sod what anyone thought, from where I stand she always seemed to live life on her own terms, right up until the end.

I say “from where I stand” because I never met Barbara, never interviewed her or even bumped into her—though I wish so much that I had. I, like millions of others, knew her only from the stage and screen. As such, I’m not sure I have much more to add to the beautiful tributes being written about her, from Suzanne Moore and Duncan Lindsay and countless others who are sharing memories of this proper East End legend.

Still, I felt compelled to offer my own small tribute, if only because Peggy Mitchell, and therefore Barbara Windsor, was such an important part of my life for such a very long time. I don’t mind telling you I sobbed like a child when, in 2016, EastEnders killed off Peggy. Part of this was because we were losing an iconic character, but part of it was because Dame Barbara had asked that the character be killed off, knowing she would not be able to return. Her Alzheimer’s was advancing, and in the years between then and now it took its ghastly toll by all accounts. Yet this tough old bird kept going as long as she could, campaigning for Alzheimer’s charities and lobbying the government for more funding for research and care.

I don’t have a clever ending, in part because it doesn’t seem like there is any ending fit for Barbara Windsor. This surely wasn’t it. Instead, I’ll simply leave you with one of my favourite scenes of Babs in EastEnders, and part by saying simply there will never be another Barbara Windsor. Now get outta my pub.