Writing Within the Lanes.

*Portrait above by the talented M.K. Sadler.

“Honestly, this work is really boring,” she said. “Can I do something else?”

It was late in the afternoon, and I was sitting across from a young lady who was interning for the educational non-profit at which I worked. I shifted in my seat, studying her, unsure whether the pregnant pause on my end would be interpreted as censurious or thoughtful–and not sure how I intended it to be interpreted, either. I was thinking back to an internship I had held at an academic press my second year of graduate school. I had nursed a kind of inward bruising every time I’d passed an afternoon weighing books on the small scale in the mail room in order to print shipping labels, or alphabetizing the spines of titles in the sample room. This was the same year I had taught writing to Georgetown University undergrads and been flown to Rome to read a paper I had written at an esoteric symposium on James Joyce. That is to say: I had been bored and underutilized, too, but I would never have even conceived of the possibility of walking into my boss’s office and asking for more interesting work.

Is this a generational thing? I wondered. Or is this a me thing?

And: Have I done myself — and this young lady — a disservice by being too lenient and collegial? Have I set her up for a rude and potentially deleterious awakening at her next place of employment?

And, finally, the most perplexing: Am I envious of this young woman’s gumption? Should I have asked for more myself?

She was walking a fine line between boldness and impudence, and I couldn’t tell what to make of it. I felt an uncomfortable mix of irritated, empathetic, and impressed.

For my part, I had been grateful for the graduate school internship: at the time, I had the intention of pursuing a career in either academia or publishing, and I felt the resume entry would predisposition future employers toward me. I also knew that the connections I would make could prove helpful in those pursuits, especially as the press enjoyed a kind of highbrow cache, with many notable politicians and scholars publishing their treatises under its imprint. But I was at the same time aware that if my father knew the type of work I was doing there, he would look at me with bewildered concern, and not out of superciliousness: he had willingly held grueling, physically-demanding jobs in his adolescence in a chemical factory, a tree nursery, and, later, cleaning out the cages at a veterinarian’s office. I had held many internships before this one, and he had never said a word about them and I had never felt a sense of frisson when it came to my qualifications, either. But this was different. “You could be doing the editing itself there,” he would have said, which would have been both true and untrue. I grasped that the path to such a title would require years of working my way up through the ranks, and that the men and women who held the positions above me had earned their keep by investing years of their own lives doing things like shipping books and fetching coffee. I saw, too, that they had years of practical experience picking up the jargon, understanding the subject matter, navigating the inevitable politics of the office, and that they had more polish, savvy, and confidence than I did because of it. But I also knew — and therefore empathized with the young lady asking for more interesting work — that I could write and copy-edit just as well as some of my superiors, who would occasionally pass their work along to me for a quick check.

I was lucky to have the position. In between tedious mornings printing and shipping manuscripts and collating packets for meetings, I learned the conventions for marking up copy, which proved useful when I later parlayed the experience into consulting gigs with a department at Georgetown University and with a few professors working on their own manuscripts. I also learned how to conform with informal house style — how to “write within the lanes,” as it were: my manager tossed me a few softball opportunities to write book jacket copy and blurbs for press releases, and I learned quickly how to mold my writing to her (and the press’s) preferences by reading what they’d published on the other book jackets I read while organizing titles in the sample room. My manager was pleasantly surprised. “This is actually perfect,” I remember her saying, eyebrows arched, waving the paper in the air. “No edits. Thanks.” This practice parroting a writing style not my own helped in graduate school and every other professional role I’ve held beyond, all of which have asked me to “write within the lanes”–to speak fluently in the patois and style of the academic world, then the philanthropic world, then the tech/product world (and its unpleasant underworld of fundraising, which has its own acronym-littered vernacular). More narrowly, I managed to curry the favor of one of the head editors by way of a quick exchange during my interview for the position:

Him: “Which style guide do you work with?”

Me: “I am proficient in both Chicago and MLA but, of course, am beholden to Strunk and White.”*

He’d looked up with surprise from across his broad wooden desk and smiled. “Good girl.”

The exchange was shorthand for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but it had the shape of intellectual snobbery. Thinking back, I cringe at my staged haughtiness. At the same time, I believe it earned me the job and endeared me to the editor, who would later write me a letter of recommendation. Can I blame myself?

There is something in this cluster of distant memories that jangles in my pocket every now and then, and I find myself straining to listen. Somewhere between “good girl” and “can I do something different?”, I see some of the strange calculus of job-seeking and job-filling as a young woman, a protracted equation involving line-towing, permission-seeking, and cautious rule-breaking. Sometimes I think I have spent most of my life — professional and otherwise — “writing within the lanes,” and so I wonder on occasion about that Strunk and White comment. Was I playing the game or somehow slipping a twenty under the table? And what about later, when an intern asked me for more interesting work: was I undermining my own agenda in hoping to help other young people advance their careers by taking umbrage at her audacity? Should I have applauded it or condemned it?

What do you think? Does this nest of memories resonate with you?

*There are several style guides that identify accepted standards in written documents — for example, how to cite other works; how to format book and article titles; capitalizations; etc. These guides are used by publishing houses as a sort of technical guide. Strunk & White is more about conventions of good writing: omitting unnecessary words, using parallel construction, etc. It is by and large accurate but also pretentious and stuffy.

Post Scripts.

+I know it feels like Halloween is a thousand years away, but how cute are these jammies?

+Cooks Illustrated just wrote an entire review on why these kitchen sponges are the absolute best. Ordered!

+Musings on grappling with imposter syndrome.

+A little on my love of grammar here.

+Fall is coming: now is probably the last time you’ll be able to find designer boots on sale for awhile. These Gannis are crazy chic (and 60% off!) and I think I have to have these Isabel Marants (70% off!). And there are several pairs of cowboy boots from hot label Paris Texas at 70% off here!

+Ulla Johnson vibes for under $200. Crazy chic for fall with brown suede booties!

+Intrigued by the cut/color of these off-white jeans for fall…

+On-trend white top for under $60. More under $100 finds here!

+Stylish patio umbrella for under $100. Love the blue color!

+A nightgown I’d wear in public. LOVE.

+This is also in similar nightgown-to-wear-outside territory. So chic!

+You can never have enough baskets/bins in a nursery

+These sweet peter pan collar knit dresses are monogrammable!

+Grandmillennial must-haves: this gingham headband (look for less with this), this floral phone case, this pretty face mask.

+Great Amazon finds.

+This dress is amazing.

+Are you into the bike shorts trend?

10 Comments

  1. I have been in similar situations many times over the past 15 years and have often wondered the same thing. Is it personality-driven? Generational? Or, is it a matter of the person’s perspective (or lack thereof)? Two things that have helped me include sharing the story of the three bricklayers and Christopher Wren as a way to demonstrate the higher purpose of even the most mundane tasks that we all have to do, and learning more about the norms and differences in each generation. A friend of mine, Dr. Megan Gerhardt, is sharing fascinating research and practical application on the topic of generations in the business world/workplace. She’s coined the term “Gentelligence”, and has quite a bit of content available that has helped me understand and appreciate other generations.

    1. Hi Kaleena – Gentelligence — that term is brilliant. It kind of reminds me in a way of the benefit/value of taking personality tests at work. Whether or not the tests or types accurately capture the complexity of a given person is debatable in my opinion, but it gives us a common language and reference point for understanding and accepting differences in personality, comportment, risk tolerance, confrontation, etc, etc…I would imagine the same would be true if we were asked to take “gentelligence” assessments or complete “gentelligence awareness programs” as a way of navigating differences in generations in the workplace. Would at least help us come at differences from a place of empathy.

      xx

  2. Haha, Molly and Anna took the words right out of my mouth! I was eager to ask/comment about both of those things.

    I have a lot of thoughts about this topic, and I’m in a similar boat about not knowing quite where I land in regards to how I would have responded to your intern. I do think her response could be partially due to a generational shift — thinking in particular of many DEI conversations that have happened at my and my friends’ workplaces recently, which have largely been led by junior staff. That said, I think some of us naturally have a predilection towards obedience and following the ascribed path — I count myself in this category for sure.

    I also think that it’s not a bad thing to “write within the lanes” in certain contexts — the ability to do this well is certainly an asset in any brand management role!

    Your post has me wanting to dig out my copy of The Elements of Style, illustrated by Maira Kalman 🙂

    xx

    1. Hi! I love Maira Kalman’s illustrations — I had no idea that version of the manual even existed. I was completely nodding along to your comment about obedience and “following the ascribed path.” That is an accurate description of me in my 20s in particular — a total and complete rule-follower. It’s so challenging to unwind that personal trait of mine from the sense that people “earn their keep” and “work their way up” and, conversely, from the notion that it is in most cases good to ask for more and to speak up when you feel you aren’t being challenged or you could be doing more. Add to that workplace decorum, the age gap between myself and the intern, the fact that this conversation took place like nine years ago, etc, etc. Very complicated and I think it’s OK to not know where you land. I say this not knowing where I land — ha!

      xx

    2. 🙂 I even went to a book signing for that edition — #nerdalert — at the old Conran Store on 59th Street under the Queensboro bridge! I wish I could show you a picture of the lovely hat that Ms. Kalman drew in my copy. She’s an idol of mine!

      xx

    1. Hi! I ended up trying to tell her that her work was meaningful — though monotonous, what she was working on at the time was helping us build free, online courseware to drive the cost of education down. In other words, I completely circumvented the conversation of whether or not the query was appropriate. I don’t know if that was a courtesy or disservice to her, and I also don’t know how I feel about the entire thing! I wonder still what I would say if it were to come up today…

      xx

  3. I cannot focus on anything but a grown man asking you a question for a job interview and replying “good girl.”

    1. Ahh – I know. This was well over ten years ago and, to be honest, at the time it did not feel nearly as creepy as it does now, thinking back. This entire nest of memories is so curious and complicated. I can’t figure out how I feel about so much of it!

      xx

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