Anne Helen Petersen on Throwing Ourselves Against the Wall (of Instagram)
In Conversation with Courtney Balestier on the WMFA Podcast
Writing can be lonely work; WMFA counters that with conversation. It’s a show about creativity and craft, where writer and host Courtney Balestier talks shop with some of today’s best writers and examines the issues we face when we do creative work. The mission of WMFA is to explore why we writers do what we do, so that we can do it with more intention, and how we do what we do, so that we can do it better.
This week, Courtney talks with Anne Helen Petersen, author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. They discuss Anne’s process of synthesizing her research and analysis into prose, contextualizing a topic horizontally and vertically, and what a freelance career looks like now.
From the episode:
Anne Helen Petersen: When you’re not worried about making rent for the month, your mind can go to a lot of other places. I know writers who do feel a little bit of shame about that. I know someone who works as a clerk in the county auditor’s office, like a very straightforward 9 to 5 job. But the stability of that and the boundaries of that job allow her to make so much other space in her life to do the things that creatively nourish her and to work on her book. And because she’s not within that über-competitive, on Twitter all the time, must be producing, you’re only as good as your last post—I think her book is going to be really marvelous. Because it’s operating outside of that economy.
Courtney Balestier: Right. Speaking from my own experience, when I first went freelance, I spent the first few years wanting to—I feel so mid-twenties as I’m about to say it out loud—wanting to make all my money from journalism. And I did. And I did okay. But I didn’t care about, and outright hated, a lot of what I was writing because you just have to churn out so much stuff. And so, I reached this point where I was like, well, I’m not creatively satisfied and I’m not financially satisfied, so what am I doing?
That’s something I was struck by reading the book and thinking about my relationship with social media and other millennials on social media is you do feel a sense of—because we as a country are putting so much pressure on the individual. You’ve got this great line: “It’s the millennial way. If the system is rigged against you, just try harder.” It’s like, it’s your problem. It’s your problem. It’s your problem. And so you see people broadcasting these filtered experiences of their own lives and you think, well, they figured it out. Why haven’t I figured it out?
Anne Helen Petersen: And we’re telling ourselves a story with each Instagram post of “I figured it out!” Right? Like if you say it enough times, if you post enough pictures of seemingly figured it out, maybe you’ll convince yourself that you figured it out. But no, it’s throwing yourself against a wall. Each time you get a little bit more bruised. We cannot do it on our own.
To listen to the rest of the episode, as well as the whole archive of WMFA, subscribe and listen on iTunes or wherever else you find your favorite podcasts.
A former senior culture writer for BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen now writes her newsletter, Culture Study, as a full-time venture on Substack. Petersen received her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, where she focused on the history of celebrity gossip. Her previous books, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud and Scandals of Classic Hollywood, were featured in NPR, Elle, and the Atlantic. She lives in Missoula, Montana.