Create & Cultivate 100: Content Creator: Jenna Wortham

January 22, 2018
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THE WORTHY WORDSMITH. 

Most great careers start with a great story.

And New York Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham has hers. It’s not that she received a handwritten note from Beyoncé that read, “Thank you for the beautiful words you said about Formation. Thanks for understanding my heart.” (OK.) 

It’s not that she’s moderated convos with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Or that she’s managed to grow her her Podcast, Still Processing, while launching the Black Future Project, while holding down her job as a culture writer for the Times magazine. 

It’s that she rejected her first job offer from the New York Times. She didn’t think she was the right fit. You know, that whole imposter syndrome sinking feeling. Luckily, the Times gave her time to reconsider. And now, she is a critical voice, addressing what it means to be black and alive. 

More below. 

Where do your drive and passion come from?

The desire to see women like me reflected in the broader cultural conversation.

You’ve spoken on this before, but our audience needs to hear it. You rejected the first job offer from the NY Times. Not because of the money, but because you didn’t have faith in yourself yet. Can you talk us through how you psyched yourself up?

I had no context for the type of job they offered – I was the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year university. I was afraid to find out I was a failure, to let people down. My tech editor at the NYT wouldn’t let me give up so easily, and I’ll always be grateful that they saw potential and taught me to nurture it.

Even though you did accept that job, how long did it take for you to accept yourself in that position? I think for us, and for a lot of our readers, those are two different things.

It absolutely is. It was a process, and it took a long time before I felt like I could hold my own. But I never doubted that I would eventually get there. I just wanted everyone else to know it, if that makes sense.

What is the smartest thing you’ve done to develop your voice?

Stop being afraid of it.

A fear for a lot of writers and content creators in the digi-age is that when push comes to shove, we’re only regurgitating content. That we don’t actually have something important to say. How do you push through those moments?

I’m working on honing the art of resistance and refusal. I don’t always have to weigh in, and I’m usually better for it when I don’t and try to make a bigger point later on.

How do you know when you’re onto something gold?

My biggest practice is learning to trust my gut and my intuition. My body tells me – my hands tingle, my heart races. It’s up to me to pay attention to the signs.

When you run into a career obstacle, what drives you forward?

I think about the legacy of incredible black journalists before me and what they faced. If they can do that, I can do this.

I think about the legacy of incredible black journalists before me and what they faced. If they can do that, I can do this.

What is your biggest pet peeve?

People who disrespect each other’s time. It’s our most precious resource. We cannot take it for granted.

What’s something you’d like people to know about your job that they probably don’t?

It’s non-stop. As a journalist and cultural critic, its impossible to turn my brain off, so even when I’m relaxing and watching TV, I’m thinking — is this a story? Should we cover this? What’s a good angle here? It’s amazing but also exhausting!

What about your career makes you feel the most complete?

The network of people that I’ve met through it. I’m lucky to have a job that allows me to be curious about the world, and how different people move through it. Learning about so many ways of being has helped me shape how I want to be and what feels important to me. It’s the greatest gift.

If you had to trade jobs with anyone else in the world, who would it be and why?

Maybe a drone cam. I’m so tired of being stuck with this perspective on Earth.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? Or your favorite piece of #realtalk?

To savor the good moments. My friend and late colleague David Carr once called me out when I tried to brush off a compliment after landing a couple stories on the home page of the New York Times. I tried to diminish the pieces — I think they were about Instagram — and I felt a little embarrassed celebrating given that our colleagues work in war zones, reporting on public health crisis like Ebola or Flint. But he looked me square in the eye and said that all victories count. There’s no need to compare yours to someone else’s. It’s important to enjoy the moments where our work counts for something because they are rare and fleeting.

What song do you sing in the shower when you’ve had a bad day?

I’m not much of a singer in the shower! But after a bad day, I really like to draw a bath, throw in some rose petals, epsom salt, and maybe lavender oil, and just soak it all away. I’ll probably listen to Moses Sumney and just focus on my breathing until I feel better.

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