Very Fine Day #58: Elamin Abdelmahmoud
"I think personal vanity is a part of the game. It's up to you to control how big a part of the game it is."
Thanks for subscribing to Very Fine Day! Weekly interviews with writers, creators, reporters, and internet explorers. Endlessly appreciative of each individual who signs up and hands over the keys to your inbox, if only for a second.
If you enjoy Very Fine Day, one of the most powerful things you can do is tell a friend, share on Twitter, or fwd this email. Means a lot!
Thanks for reading.
“I suddenly was handed this bouquet of blackness at the airport. They’re like, Hey, you're black, go figure it out. And no one tells you about that. No one tells you about that particular customs agent who hands you blackness at the border.”
If you were online in March at all, this essay about the state of the world was probably sent your way - A forwarded email, a message, a retweet onto your timeline.
The story was this: the world is incredibly cooked right now, we all know it, but we aughta stop holding out for things to go back the way they were. And it was right (if not depressing).
Elamin Abdelmahmoud - who wrote the essay - is our guest on Very Fine Day this week. Of course, Elamin is more than a single piece, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen something so perfectly grab the cultural consciousness of the masses either side of politics. Truthfully, this was some real, pre-2016 internet shit.
So we had a chat, we talked, a conversation. And it was great. I’ll be honest, I find when I speak to other writers it often turns into me trying to unpack how they do what they do, desperately hoping one of them (just one of them) will tell me the trick to it. The break out thing. But really, as we all know, it’s just work. Put in the hours sorta shit.
Elamin has also written a book - out in a few weeks. And if its anything like his other work, I’m sure it’s a must-read.
Anyway, how you doing? Keeping on? Good to hear from a few of you last week. Don’t be cautious about reaching through the inbox and all that (just reply to this email). Conversation keeps the world spinning, and I’m always interested in your thoughts on VFD editions, or VFD as a whole. That’s the good stuff. They don’t talk about it much, but few things hum as sweet as an email full of genuine curiosity or thoughts, spared of advertising or sign up codes or whatever else we’re allowing to stick around as some form of inbox chum.
Enough from me now.
I’ll see you down the road.
VFD: Depending on how much of a night owl you are…
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Is this like a regular hour of the night for you, then?
VFD: Yeah, unfortunately. I don't know, I don't dig on sleep very much. I'm not a sleeper. Are you?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I like the way that you put that, I don’t dig on sleep like sleep is like one of those optional things that your body's like, Oh I’ll opt out of this.
VFD: Yeah, I mean I wish it was - like, if it was, I would opt out a lot of the time.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: How old are you?
VFD: I'm 29.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: 29? Okay, I'm 34, so not much older than you. But I feel like there was a period of time in my life where it's like, Sleep? Mmmmaybe. Well, we'll see if the vibe is correct for sleep today.
And then I feel like I hit 32ish and my body was like: Oh, actually, turns out sleep is a thing that you just got to do. And if you don't do it, you're gonna have a shit day afterwards.
My wife is in the other room, she could probably hear this conversation. She's like, you don't… get that much sleep, which is true, but I just used to be even more cavalier about it.
VFD: Yeah, I've gotten better - But I used to be even worse. I'd stay up to 2am and get up at 6am. And just be like, That's normal and I can function. That counts, I'm rested. But no, I look forward to being 32.
I used to work with a guy who, on my 27th birthday, told me: Oh, 27, that's when my body started falling apart. And I was like, Haha, that's so funny. And then sure enough, around 27, everything just started to decay. And you really start thinking and being like: Oh, this is why Renaissance dudes died when they were 30. It's a sharp decrease down.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Well, it's a steady climb to the top and you’re like: I'm at my peak physical condition. And then your body's like, fuck that, it’s done. It’s great, the body is a mystery.
VFD: Yeah, and you don't appreciate your peak either, or at least I didn't.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Same here 100%. Which is why we're determined to make a new peak! 38 is the new peak, so we’ve got time.
VFD: Yeah, sure. Alright. Give myself a bit of time to gear up for that. Well, thanks for doing this, man. I appreciate it.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: My pleasure, they’ve all been so good, man.
VFD: Oh, thank you. Are you in New York? You in Brooklyn or something?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I am In Toronto, Canada.
VFD: Oh shit, I apologise profusely.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I’m not a damn yank, I’m wearing a Canada hat as we speak.
VFD: So you are Canadian?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I am Canadian, I'm based in Canada. I am a relic from the period of time that BuzzFeed expanded into Canada with an office.They hired a bunch of Canadians and it didn't work out the way that they imagined it. But then they just liked all of us, and so they kept all of us. Which was nice!
VFD: Yeah, that's a rare nice ending.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yeah, normally it goes in the opposite direction.
VFD: Well, I have been following you for a while, obviously, on Twitter and stuff.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Sorry about the bad tweets, I didn't mean any of them. They're not me.
VFD: Oh, because I was planning on going through them with you, and just being like, What did this one mean? What about this one?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: That’s fair, that’s legitimate. A trial for my bad tweets, I get it.
VFD: But genuinely - Your writing has just gotten better and better, and more and more engaging. And I think you know that - you should know that - because obviously, your persona - is that the right word? - but you have grown as well, and the people who read your shit, that has expanded, too.
And I wanted to talk to you about that kind of evolution and what that's like. I have young writers in my team, for example, and literally today I sent your byline to one of them, just to be like: Just read the headlines, look at just the frames and the way you have approached things. And I think, obviously what you do a lot is culturel writing. But if you can nail that frame the rest of it falls into place, right?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Some of them I knew before what the piece was going to be by developing the frame. And then others were a piece in search of a frame. But frame development has kind of been the through line of my career, I'd say, in the sense that before moving over to the culture desk at BuzzFeed, I was part of the curation team.
I sort of participated in how we position pieces for social media. And so part of that was working on the curation team in a capacity that had to use Facebook and Twitter. For a year and a half, I wrote Twitter threads for new pieces that we had coming out, and the way that you gotta think about that is like: what is the thing that someone's going to carry with them if they just glanced at this for two seconds.
Hopefully they spend more time with it — But you get really trained to look for that cluster and that big takeaway thing. And then, for three years, I wrote the daily Buzzfeed News newsletter, which was a morning newsletter. And that was another sort of exercise of getting up in the morning, seeing the stories that we published the day before, and then you try to turn them down and reposition them to be like: Okay, this is the idea that's going to make the story resonate, because this is what made it resonate with me.
So I think by the time, when I moved over to the culture desk and started doing writing, thinking about framing is never too far away from my brain. It's always like: Okay, what is the headline for this piece? What is the thing that's going to make people, maybe, click on it? And oftentimes the frames are developed, the headlines are developed, in conversations in my head.
My editors are so good at just shovelling out options so that you can be like, Okay, let's refine these and figure out what the frame is. But it's just as big a part of the process as the actual writing of the piece. It's not an afterthought, you know?
VFD: Do you write first or do you get the frame sorted, the angle you're going in at first, and then write?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: It’s a bit of a mixed bag, I would say.
Most frequently, I would have an idea where the frame is before I start writing a piece — that frame will change and that headline will change as I'm writing the piece.
But it's good to have a place that you started from, and I think it's kind of hard to start without one. I really envy the writers who are like, let me just sit in it, and I'll write a bunch of stuff, and then we'll sort of move it around. That's not me — I am pretty linear in my writing. I'm an outliner, I don't know how to start writing without an outline. I've resisted that for so long. I have always wanted to be one of those freewheeling writer types. But that's not me! I can't do it! I need an outline. And I need to.
Sometimes an outline will literally be writing out eight sentences that I know will be going into the story, or going to the piece, because I really liked the sentences and I think they distil what the whole thing is. And then from there on, it's a matter of: what's the journey from sentence one to sentence two? And then crafting the journey, and seeing those as waypoints in terms of getting there. That's my approach, personally, because if I know that I have those eight sentences that are really strong, or eight paragraphs or whatever they might be that are really strong, then I know a piece has them as foundations.
My trouble now, going back through my pieces, is I can look and be like, you wrote that fucking sentence weeks ago! I can tell from my own writing which parts are like, Oh, those are organically me trying to craft the thing. And which ones I'm like I am married to this sentence, nothing can fuck with this sentence.
VFD: But the audience can't tell that though, right? This is a personal vanity thing.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: 100% it is - but also, I think personal vanity is a part of the game. It's up to you to control how big a part of the game it is.
VFD: I think it's funny what you say about the different kinds of writers being structural or just dumping stuff down, and that you wish you'd go the other way — because I will write 4000 words when I know I need to write 2000 and then just cut it down, cut it down, cut it down, and I wish I could do it structurally. My way is such a waste of fucking time. The whole time you’re writing you’re just thinking: this fucking sucks, there's no way to get to the end point outside of sucking the whole way through until you get an inkling of what you want.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: That's the thing with doing this, right? The grass is always greener, you know? I hear that and go Wow, I wish I could do that.
Oftentimes I underwrite, and I have to go back and be like, Oh it just needs more colour or more expansion. Because if I can tell the story in eight perfect paragraphs then why am I writing the rest of it? And then the rest of it becomes about building a body, building a house for those ideas, and trying to communicate. And so when I hear that from you, it just sounds maybe joyful, even, whereas I'm sitting here like: We must be constrained.
VFD: Did you ever get that thing - with that background in social media and then newsletters as well - where you've taken the steps and put the pieces together to build larger and larger pieces of content. Did you ever struggle with writing, when it came down to it? Because you were like: Well, I could just do bullet points, y’know? Do I really need to write 2000 words? I could just write the full bullet points!
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Oh 100%, all the time. That is my big, big struggle — because writing for social media and writing for a newsletter audience, we sort of chunked it out so that each stretch in the newsletter has a certain number of words and target to reach. It was never strict but it was roughly the section that's the big story should be 140 words. That kind of thing.
And then now I'm like, Okay, I would like to build out an idea and build out an argument. Why would I go through a more extensive process and make this a 3000 word piece when it can be 540 words? But I also have to return to remembering that it's a different medium, and the medium of reading stuff online is a persuasive medium, right? People want to read something and be persuaded or be brought on board. And what does it feel like to be brought on board with this particular point?
But it's retraining myself a lot. I just finished writing this book. And the same thing with the book - it's a collection of essays - and some of the essays it was like: I know what I need to say, I can get in and get out of there in 1000 words. But a book is 60,000 words. And we’ve got to get there. So you have to train yourself out of social media communication, to be like: No, no, we're doing a different thing, we’re in a different media, we can expand, we can bring in examples. We can spend time together.
That's where I'm finding the joy: oh, I need to spend time with readers. How do I want to use time?
VFD: Yeah, like, what colour is the sky, really? Let's actually talk about it.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yes, let’s extend this question for a couple more words.
VFD: When did you start working on the book?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Gosh, 2018. It's been a minute. And my editors — God bless their hearts — have been very, very generous. He has been very patient. This book was originally supposed to come out… Fall 2020. And then we got to the end of 2019, it was like, Oh, we're nowhere near that. And then I, being a genius, took a book leave that started February 28, 2020.
VFD: Cool, good timing!
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yeah, thank you so much, really appreciate that. Wise choices on my part. And then I expanded the book theme a little bit, too. Some of the book was written then, but certainly not all of it, because the world was falling apart.
I am one of those writers who has a really hard time writing if I don't know where I'm starting. And by that I mean, like, literally: what's the first sentence of the piece? It's allowed to change, but before I start writing the first draft I need to have a grasp on what is literally the first scene, or what the first sentence is going to be, and sometimes that comes to you easily and sometimes I need to walk around for literal days before it comes. I'm like: That's not it. That's not it. That's not it. It's very dramatic. It's very, Why are you like this the whole time.
I'm trying to think about the piece, but I'm also trying to think, why am I like this? Why can't I just be a regular person who writes words and then changes them later?
VFD: But it's never like that, right? We all think it is. But you’re like: How come it’s easy for everyone else?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: When I hear you talking about needing to write 4000 words in order to get to 2000 — I would love to have that problem because I'm just walking around for a week trying to get 12 words that are the first sentence in a piece because I'm like, oh yes this is a correct starting point.
VFD: That seems more real. That seems more like real writer’s shit. I have to think about What are the 12 words? And I'm like, Just put all the words down! And then we'll figure it out later!
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: No man, I caution you against romanticising this because mostly it's a time filler. And sometimes I'm just like: Oh, I'm just going for a nice walk, maybe I should put on a podcast. And then an hour later, I forgot that I was supposed to be starting to think of these 12 words. I don't recommend living this way. And, in fact, if anyone has any tips on me not living this way, I severely welcome them, please help me, I'm trapped by my own brain.
VFD: What are the essays about? What's the through line? If there’s not one that's also fine.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: So, it's a memoir about moving. I moved from Sudan to Canada when I was 12, I didn't speak English, and I came to this place.
I was not “black” when I was in Sudan, and I suddenly was handed this bouquet of blackness at the airport. They’re like, Hey, you're black, go figure it out. And no one tells you about that. No one tells you about that particular customs agent who hands you blackness at the border. So it's about trying to come to grips with a whole bunch of identities that I think I spent maybe a decade, a little over a decade, putting in a box. My Muslim identity, my black identity, my immigrant identity… Because I moved to a town that is pretty small, pretty white. And I was like: Right, we're gonna pretend that we're not immigrants, we're not Muslims, and we're not black.
VFD: How did that go?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Not well! I mean, really well at the time. But there are, I think, long term consequences. The way that I sort of frame it is that those identities start asking something of you and start saying: Hey, what was with that period of time when you just pretended this wasn't a thing? And the book is about giving them space and writing into these identities, trying to figure out where I stand in relationship with them. That’s the book.
VFD: And it’s done?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: It's coming out in six weeks.
VFD: Good timing! Did you pitch that book? Or did you write something in particular that got picked up? What was the process of making that happen?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: A little bit of both. I wrote a tribute to Gord Downey — he was the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, he died in 2017, and I wrote this op-ed for BuzzFeed News. He's from my hometown. Tragically Hip is this iconic Canadian band. And shortly after that, my editor reached out and said, Hey, I read that piece, I really like it, have you thought about writing a book? And it just so happens that literally the day that he sent me that message, I was like, I think I want to write a book. And so there was something of a serendipity there. And as we sort of started talking, he was like: Well, you don't know what the book is, go figure out what the book is gonna be, and then I was like, I'll be back with a book proposal in two weeks.
And then it took eight months.
And then when I returned eight months later I started to figure out what the book might be. It has changed since the day that I pitched it to what it is now, but I'm really proud of it. I'm really proud of the way that it weaves these questions of identity with a lot of questions about pop culture. I explore my immigrant identity and my black identity through things like the classic hit TV show The OC, or wrestling. Because I was big, big into wrestling when I first moved to Canada —
VFD: Oh yeah, not anymore?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: No, it's been a minute since I left wrestling behind.
But those are all sort of vantage points into how I thought about informing it into my identity. Because I think that's something that we all do: we take bits of pop culture, and go Yeah, seems close to me. And then you kind of attach yourself to it until you figure out what you are. That's the book.
VFD: Yeah. Sounds good. I wanna read it.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yeah, please do.
VFD: How do you figure out what to write about? I know that's a broad question.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yeah, thanks, dude…
VFD: Hahaha, Yeah, how do you do what you do all the time? Can you tell me right now on the spot, please?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I think, honestly, with writing, I don't understand hired guns, I don’t understand people who, someone pointed at them and said You, go write the thing on the thing. And I understand that that's a huge part of this industry. I just haven't had experience with that, because I've sort of been fortunate enough with the book or with the culture writing to have it be stuff that I'm interested in.
And sometimes that means being interested in an idea that you didn't expect to be interested in. And suddenly it comes to you like, I want to go pursue this. A good example of this is this vibe shift piece that I wrote maybe like three weeks ago, four weeks ago.
VFD: Can I just say: one of the most depressing things I've read in a long time. So thank you for that. Everyone sharing it going, This is great! and I'm like This fucking… this is so sad, man. Like, why do I have to keep seeing the quotes from this all over my feed?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: It is! It is all of those things, absolutely! I think that's a good example of how an idea sort of comes to mind, which is, I was reading the piece that The Cut published in February about, Oh this person who predicts trends sees that there's a vibe shift coming. And I was like: I really like this frame of survivorship in the sense that it feels like there's a before and there's an after. Then the war in Ukraine happened, and as the invasion was happening, I just kept stacking before and after moments on top of each other.
It feels like it's bigger than aesthetics, bigger than fashion, bigger than politics. It’s just sort of an overarching thing. And so I furiously wrote 250 words to my editor, and I was like, You gotta let me write this, and I don't know what it is yet, but I think it’s something about how the world that we existed in — we keep talking about the world before, but it's just not coming back. There's no way it's going to come back.
And she's like: Okay, go explore that. And I'm very grateful to have editors who will listen to a pitch, sometimes it arrives fully baked and sometimes it's like… you can maybe see that there’s stuff here to go mining for a little bit more and then you go get it.
But I really have to be taken with an idea. I'm very fortunate, gonna knock on wood, but I have editors who give the space for that to happen. So I was working on an entirely separate piece when that came along, and I dropped that other piece and went and did that.
VFD: Yeah, worked out I think.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: It did, thank goodness for that. Honestly it was one of those pieces — I have this thing where I always underestimate how a piece might connect. For example, similarly, I did this piece in December, about Jason Isbell, who is a country musician, country Americana musician, who had eight women opening for him at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. It's a big deal because country music is not particularly generous or kind to women, but also a bigger deal because seven of the eight women were black. And it's a genre that has historically not treated black people very well. And I was like: There’s a story here, I don't know what the story is, but I want to find out, I want to go. And my editors were like, Alright, go to Nashville, man, go figure it out. Went to Nashville, came back, filed the story, was deeply anxious that only 4000 people were going to read it, and my editors would be like, Unfortunately, you gambled and you chose a story to hang your hat on. And it failed. And now you're fired. Which, of course, no one has ever told me that those were the stakes. I just kind of invented those things in my mind.
VFD: That's healthy. That's good.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yeah, it's really lovely, I really love having this approach.
But then the piece comes out.
First of all, I filed 9500 words, and my editor was like, No, you gotta get it down to 6000. And I was like, How about 7500? Which is roughly where we settled on because it’s somewhere in the middle. So yeah, I filed a fifth of a book when I filed this piece. And it ended up being one of the most widely read things I've written in the last year or so.
But I always assume that things happen like: I'm really passionate about a thing. I'm gonna invest a lot of time into it and no one's gonna read it. And then every time that turns out to be a hit it’s like: Hey! What a surprise for everyone involved. Isn't that great?
VFD: Yeah. It's a good way to live your life. How much time do you spend in the day actually writing? How much would you say you write a day?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Well, the beautiful thing about spending 85 years walking around before you get a first sentence is that after that the rest comes pretty fast. I would say I'm a slow thinker and a fast writer. So once I know what I'm writing, we go, we go, and we get there pretty quickly.
I like to pride myself on having – because of how long I take to think about a story – I like to pride myself on having relatively clean drafts. Once I hae filed, we're not moving a lot of stuff around. I've rarely written the kind of story that's like: oh, whole sections need to be cut out, moved around. Because I walk around until there's a structure in my head. And then after the structure is in my head. It's basically architecture - I'm not inventing the wheel here. There is a whole discipline of people that do this for a living. They think about a thing and then go build it. And I try to do that, and sometimes it's successful, sometimes it's not, but that's the job.
VFD: You've got to read a lot, right? Are you just on Twitter a lot? I feel like you need to be absorbing some kind of content, to be able to feed thinking, unless you have an amazing creativity, in which case, great for you.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: No, this is not just an innate sense of: Oh, I know what good writing is. Let me just recreate it. Stuff has to go in. When I'm walking around, and I'm thinking about a story, I'm not sitting cross-legged, perfectly Zen, until I've got it. It's chaotic. It's reading other people. And then throwing my ideas at the stuff that I'm reading and being like… that doesn't make sense. And asking: why is this the most salient thing that you chose to focus on in the story? Because it's not like I'm writing about stuff that no one's ever written about. And so a lot of this happens in a social context of: you read other people, and you see the holes in what they wrote, and you go, I think I've got room to make this story or make this case. And it will feel new and will feel interesting, by pitting my ideas against theirs.
VFD: Do you ever get that feeling that someone else is doing the exact same thing? And you have to hurry?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I have that constantly. Which is a super healthy way for us to live.
VFD: Well, we're actually all in competition with each other. That's how the world works all of the time.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: And also, the worst part is when you get a new idea, and then you have to spend a minute being like: did I make that idea? Or does it belong to someone else? Did I read that?
VFD: I tagged this in my brain when you mentioned it. But what was it like being a teenager in Canada? Not speaking English? Being like: What is going on??? How did you do that?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: It is not pretty. I would not say that grade eight and grade nine were the easiest years of my life, because I was a pretty gregarious kid in Sudan. I have an innate need to express myself to other people - sometimes very loudly. But I didn't have the language. And so part of what made me succeed is having a really good teacher who was very attentive to the fact that I needed more attention in the ways that he specifically had more verbal conversation with me.
And then radio. God, radio. I was just listening to the radio and being like Canadians say stuff weird. And then the third thing that can’t be underestimated is wrestling. Because wrestling is a form of a collective gathering that requires very little verbal communication. You can sort of look at the crowd and the crowd is excited or booing and angry. And the good guys are doing good guy shit and the bad guy let you know they’re going to fuck you up and ruin your life. But it was very easy to develop community around people who also liked the same stuff.
So you have a survival mechanism where I spent a lot of time around people who love wrestling and because we talk about that in very small sentences and climb aboard snow piles and do wrestling manoeuvres… that helped.
VFD: Who was your guy?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I’m forever an Undertaker person. For a brief period of time it was a guy whose name is Raven - which is a terrible wrestling name - but it’s one of the things that he did was spread his arms out and scream “RAVEN”.
VFD: That’s a great character.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I’m sure that there are people whose main memory of me from grade eight is me just walking through halls shouting “RAVEN!” because I didn’t have a lot of other words. That’s the kind of stuff you do.
And then I would say the other thing - because my parents are Muslim - they were worried about moving us to the west. And it’s like: OK, we’re in a new space, we’re going to try to keep most of our values. So I found it easier to connect to the Christian kids because we could be horrified together at swear words in songs.
Those years where really sharp values were communicated very dramatically, all of the time. That was the introduction.
VFD: Yeah. Made you who you are. So worth it in the end. And what’s happening now?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Things are kind of gearing up for the book launch, which is an interesting proposition because you have to find a public version of yourself.
VFD: You don't think you have that on Twitter? I'd say you've done a pretty good job.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I do. But like, I worry about that too. Because it's obviously an exaggerated version of myself. And there's something about walking into a room and having your Twitter self walking in there before you…
VFD: One of the big moments for me in my 20s was I just kept meeting people who would say: Oh, you're really nice! I’m like… uh yeah? What?
Oh, you’re just a different vibe online.
So, had to work on that..
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Exactly. But I also think the book tour and a book launch are fundamentally just different social settings. And I’ve just never done this before. So I’m doing extra sessions with the therapist, saying things like how do you get ready for this?
VFD: Sounds like wrestling, man.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Walking into the room shouting…
VFD: What's the wrestler version of yourself without the physicality, I guess?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: That's a good frame. I’m gonna take that, walk around with it for a minute.