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Mail Time!

Osita Nwanevu
6 min read
Mail Time!

Hey all,

It was another particularly busy week at the end of a particularly busy month for me, but things are evening out enough now that I can get back to doing these less fitfully. After today’s Mail Time post, expect a couple more make-ups in the next couple of days followed by another post this weekend on our regular schedule.

Recent Work

Last week, The New Republic published my take on the popularism debate, which has mercifully quieted down a bit. The arguments within should sound familiar to subscribers. An excerpt:

The trouble for the popularists is that liberals—who made up nearly half of the Democratic primary electorate last year, a larger share than ever before—have shifted dramatically to the left on cultural issues in recent years. Democratic candidates and organizations depend on liberal time, liberal money, and liberal votes; it makes no more sense to suggest that the priorities of cultural progressives could simply be kicked to the curb than it does to suggest that the Republican Party could easily free itself from the grip of pro-life and gun rights groups. And even if it were true that it’s structurally more important for Democrats to rein in their outré voices than it is for Republicans, that need wouldn’t make the task any easier to accomplish. Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment” and the political impact of the crime and welfare reform bills have been immortalized in political memory; fewer remember that racial politics within the Democratic coalition remained polarizing enough under Clinton, despite his best efforts, that the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and major civil rights leaders courted by Democratic candidates were willing to play footsie with Louis Farrakhan.
But while message discipline is never really total, and advocacy groups can’t easily be muzzled, it should be acknowledged, again, that the Democrats under Biden are already doing as much of what the popularists are asking of them as could reasonably be expected. In fact, they were doing popularism before it had a name⁠—the message that Democrats supposedly “don’t want to hear” is pretty much the only advice Democratic leaders have been willing to listen to for the last 30 years.
And their total commitment to the safe and the inoffensive endangers the rest of Shor’s project. The chances of major structural reforms being enacted while the Democrats hold Congress are dim not because college-educated progressives in advocacy groups and on Twitter hold too much influence over the party, but because they hold so little on this front that they’ve been ignored by the party’s pivotal actors. And as skilled as they might be at winning white moderates and conservatives, it’s those pivotal actors—Manchin, Sinema, and the other Democrats working, publicly and privately, to hobble even the popularist portions of Biden’s agenda—who are doing the most to pull the party toward oblivion.

Mail Time

Two questions from one James this month:

1. This is probably not the type of question the newsletter is for, but do you have a "go-bag"? I ask because my fiance and I evacuated our apartment in Capitol HIll on J6 and it was a godsend having one ready. What with all the flooding we've been experiencing on the East Coast lately I've been pushing all my friends to keep a 72 hour bag in case they need to evacuate their home. There are a bunch of guides by prepper grifters online but FEMA has a good one here -
2. And now a more conventional question - What is your writing process?

To the first question: No, I don’t have a go-bag, although from the looks of FEMA’s list, I think I could pull most of one together from items in the house if need be. I don’t think we’re at the point where we should be concerned about general unrest yet⁠— that’s a couple decades off, at least ⁠— and I think I live in a decent location extreme weather and flooding-wise for now. I do tend to think about coming into personal peril a lot, although I cope with that just by avoiding risky situations as best I can. Otherwise, though it’s a limited sample, I think COVID’s given me probably undue confidence that I know when and how to panic about major crises as they arrive⁠— I was out buying canned and non-perishable food for lockdown in February last year. But in the long run, that probably won’t be good enough ⁠— we’re entering a far more unstable world and we’re all going to have to be preppers on some level.

To your second question, on my writing process: I don’t know that I have one. I’ve struggled mightily to routinize many parts of my life and I've put the most effort into developing a writing rhythm. It hasn’t worked. I don’t wake up at a particular time; I don’t try to write a certain number of words every day; there are no drinks, or special places, or breathing exercises that I depend on. I write when I feel like I can, which isn’t as often as I’d like. I do try to think about writing athletically ⁠— I need more discipline, I need to build up stamina, I need to be more efficient ⁠— but I don’t know that I can train myself in a systematic way.

What I have in lieu of what I’d feel comfortable calling a real “process” or “routine” are a set of habits I’ve developed over time. At this point, most of my pieces start with an outline. The research I’ve done and the notes I’ve made for myself get pasted in. Once I get writing, I start from the second or third paragraph of the piece ⁠— the intro is usually the very last thing I work on. I have a tendency to get stuck trying to come up with the right opening; I find it easier once the rest of the piece is squared away and I know exactly how the argument is going to play out.

I have trouble writing sentences from start to finish in general, actually. And my pieces used to take much longer to write when I tried to get things down straightforwardly ⁠— line by line, in order, onto a blank page. So while I was at Slate, I took up an approach one of my editors would later call the “Mad Libs” method. I’ll free write words, phrases, sentence fragments, and concepts that sound right to me into paragraphs with blank spaces placed in between them. Once I’ve drawn out the skeleton of a piece this way, I’ll start back at the top, tweaking and reordering the language and gradually trying to fill those spaces in. I’ll repeat this until the piece is done.

Here, for instance, is what one of the paragraphs above looks like to me at the moment:

To your second question: I don’t know. I’ve struggled mightily to routinize __________my life and ________writing ____________I’ve never really been able to. I don’t wake up at a particular time, I don’t try to write a certain number of words every day, there are no drinks, or special places, or breathing exercises that ____________. __________write when I feel like I can, which isn’t as often as I’d like ________athlete __________

And here’s the initial structure of one of the excerpted sections in my popularism piece:

_______within the Democratic Party’s own tent__________ liberals __________Democratic primaries and volunteer their time and money to Democratic candidates and organizations ____________________moved dramatically left ___________Republicans _________pro-life groups or ________gun rights ___________strategically necessary ___________outer wings ______Sister Souljah __________crime bill and welfare reform_____________racial politics within the Democratic Party remained polarizing  enough under Clinton that the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus ___________________Louis Farrakhan _________

I’ve really come to like crafting sentences this way. I can map out what I want to happen in each one more precisely than if I just kept trying to start from the beginning, and I can isolate specific words, phrases, or fragments that I think are going to be particularly nice-sounding or important to the argument and just build around them.

I write exclusively in Google Docs ⁠— I like the automatic saves to the cloud and I don’t really need any complicated features for my regular writing. I’ve picked up Scrivener for the book and some other writing projects I want to take on afterwards, but I haven’t used it seriously yet. Edits and my responses to them are done in Word ⁠⁠— tracking changes is the one major thing Google Docs isn’t very good at, in my experience.  

There’s not much more to it than that, honestly. Ask me again in a few years, and I might have figured a few more things out.

That’s all for now. More posts to come shortly. And send in your questions for next month’s Mail Time to

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Good night.