Very Fine Day #61: P.E. Moskowitz
"I don't want to just be like: antidepressants bad or chemical imbalance wrong. I just want to start nudging people to think about these things more critically."
Thanks for reading Very Fine Day. First timer? Read more about what VFD is here.
Very Fine Day is 100% reader supported. You simply love to see it.
Join / support / share us today.
“I’d rather try to be the writer I want to be and end up working at a bookstore, or end up getting a corporate job somewhere, than not try and just end up climbing a ladder of some kind that I didn't even want to be at the top of”.
This one’s a good one, folks. P.E. Moskowitz first fell into my radar when I read The BuzzFeedification of Mental Health and had a whole come-to-God thing about my role in all of that. Look - you can’t solve all the world’s problems. I try not to spin too much. But what an essay. We talk about it a bit in this conversation, but we also talk about so many other things: writing a book pitched as the “Eat Pray Love” of drugs, writing about self, what it takes to realise you have the talent (and interesting thoughts) worthy of writing like that. Growing up in NYC, creating a writing community… there are many good lines. I thought about it quite a bit, afterwards.
What’s happening elsewhere? Not much. We’re getting colder. I’m trying to write more, slowly. Waking up early. Putting in the work. In my eyes, there is no greater exercise of self-loathing than trying to write a book. I have been assured by friends who get to the end point and hold the book in their hands, finished and bound and signed, that publishing isn’t the tincture you’d hope. Look forward to that. I think the words are good, sometimes. Though your brain spins, thinking that the idea you have.- however original - isn’t yours until it’s cold and done and out there in the world. Until then, anyone can steal it. And you wouldn’t even call that stealing.
Look at me go. Enough of that. 45,000 words is good - though I’d imagine you cut at least half of that. Aiming for an end point by September. We’ll see.
Hope you’re well. Thanks for reading. Remember: sharing VFD (to a friend, in an email, on Twitter) would be like Christmas for me.
See you down the road.
P.E. Moskowitz: Hello,
VFD: How you doing?
P.E. Moskowitz: I’m alright, how are you?
VFD: I'm good. I'm just catching up on whatever the United States has done overnight, whatever broken thing. It’s a great way to start your day.
P.E. Moskowitz: It’s so fucked up. I'm just writing an essay right now about learning to not care about things or, like, watching baseball instead of caring about politics. I feel so overwhelmed about how fucking stupid everything is.
VFD: Yeah, I know, it seems nonstop, right? Any good tips?
P.E. Moskowitz: Probably watch baseball… or your sport of choice.
I feel like it must be obvious for everyone else in the world that caring about things that don't matter isn’t a fun activity. That’s like… a revelation to me. Oh, shit, I don't have to constantly subject myself to a deluge of horrible news. I can just tune out.
VFD: I don't need to know what's happening all the time. Yeah, it's like when I talk to my friends from high school that didn't go into the media at all, and who are working normal jobs. And you are just reminded that the world is so simple for a lot of people.
Well, thanks for doing this again. I appreciate it. Thanks for giving the time as well.
What have you been working on, just that essay? Or anything else?
P.E. Moskowitz: My main thing right now is just writing a book called “Rabbit Hole” for Atria Books, which is part of Simon and Schuster — and Bloomsbury in the UK and Australia, New Zealand and etc — Which, sorry, this is a total aside, but apparently when you sign book contracts the territories are still split up by who was colonised by which empire.
P.E. Moskowitz: Like at the back of the US contract, it's like, we have rights in the US Virgin Islands, blah, blah, blah, with Puerto Rico. And then at the back of the UK contract, it's like: every African country that's been fucked over by the UK. It's crazy that it's still done that way. Anyway, my main thing is writing that book, which is on drugs and capitalism. It's like, half memoir half reported —
VFD: Like pharmaceutical drugs or…
P.E. Moskowitz: All of the above. I've been joking that it's like Eat Pray Love but of drugs.
VFD: That's a good set up.
P.E. Moskowitz: Basically, can drugs bring about any kind of mental liberation essentially, or are they just an inevitable part of our existence under capitalism? So I do that, and then I run this newsletter, mental hellth, which is what I'm writing an essay for right now, which is just an extension of the book.
I hesitate to call it alternative views on mental health because it's not like woo woo and will taking this tincture help you feel less depressed? It's not like that. But it’s an alternative in the sense that it's like: maybe chemical imbalance is not the end all be all of why we're all depressed, maybe there's something else going on.
VFD: Yeah. One of the things that I think is the most interesting about your writing - or your newsletter in particular - is how you’re dealing and talking about what is sometimes traumatic medical things, but in a way — and I'm not sure how you do this, or anyone that you commission either — that is quite calming. To read about these very intense topics that we're taught to have a direct understanding of that’s like: well, medication equals fix or broken/unbroken.
But you have a very direct way of writing about that. I'm always like, Oh, yeah. It makes my brain work, which I think is good. Every time I’m like I didn't think about it that way.
P.E. Moskowitz: Yeah, yeah, I think I used to be much more preachy. And now, I honestly think being in psychoanalysis for the last few years has deeply changed my writing. In psychoanalysis, the point is that the therapist never tells you what the issue is. You have to come to it on your own. My therapist will direct me down these paths, and then six months later, I'll be like, Oh, my God, it's this thing!
Then I'll realise he was getting at that six months ago. So I feel like that's how I'm trying to write right now. I don't want to just be like: antidepressants bad or chemical imbalance wrong. I just want to start nudging people to think about these things more critically and hopefully they can come up with the answers on their own. I think my writing has changed a lot because of that.
VFD: Yeah. I think the biggest example of that, for me personally, was when I read your The BuzzFeedification of mental health piece — I worked at BuzzFeed, full disclosure — And I was just like, fuck…Like, I'd have no other way to explain how I felt.
And there was a thing within the company between a lot of people where the only way you could read (BuzzFeed founder) Jonah's college paper on capitalism and schizophrenic thought and identity online was on genius.com, the lyric website, which I always thought was really funny. And everyone would say they’d read it but no one really read it.
But that piece that you wrote was the actual first time it was like, Oh, I understand it now.
P.E. Moskowitz: Yeah and I like that piece. That response was big.
VFD: Yeah, it's kind of scary what it became, but it's interesting to read it and think: oh, did I… Am I this? How much of this was me? A very come to God moment.
How are you finding the writing a book versus what you write every day?
P.E. Moskowitz: Um, it's harder.
VFD: It’s longer… there’s more to it…
P.E. Moskowitz: Yeah, I think it's hard to give yourself deadlines and to break up the work into chunks. I find that to be kind of difficult. But I also think, in some ways, it's more liberating.
My head is like: Oh, why aren’t you on your computer right now? Why aren't you actively doing work? When a lot of book writing is reading and thinking. And I'm trying to learn how to give myself days where all I do is read and I don’t have to do something that ends up being work to show at the end of the day for it.
That's honestly been the hardest part: Learning to allow myself the freedom to just read and explore and and think. And not to think that everything has to become a blog post or a pitch or whatever, because I feel like for the last 10 years of my life I've been so focused on that and turning every single thing in my life into a story or something.
VFD: How did you get started in that – for 10 years. What was your entry point into this?
P.E. Moskowitz: I was a photo student. Very artsy photo student in college. And then I randomly got an internship at a very tiny NPR station. And there was a very father figure, kind of like gruff, smoking, news director there who took me under his wing and showed me the ropes and was like: Hey kid, go interview this important Senator on your first day.
I'd go to hand in my copy for the radio and he would just press backspace and watch me watch him, and I don't know what it says about my own psychology that that was the most helpful mentor that I’ve ever had. But that really got me into journalism.
So I went to J school at City University of New York for a year and a half, and then I started working at Al Jazeera America. That was short lived. And before that closed down I could kind of see the writing on the wall. But I also just think I realised that I…hate people. Like, not everyone, but I hate being forced to work with people that I don't want to work with, you know? Even if I like them as people, I'd rather be doing my own thing.
And that was the deal I made with myself: I’d rather try to be the writer I want to be and end up working at a bookstore, or end up getting a corporate job somewhere, than not try and just end up climbing a ladder of some kind that I didn't even want to be at the top of.
So yeah - I just left. And I had some money saved from that job and had worked out a deal with them to write a few pieces a month. So I had rent money, basically. And then I just slowly started building my career from there.
VFD: Right, yeah. Well, when was the shift where you went from, I guess, reporting to writing about self or writing about more personal things, deeper things, realising that that was something you were comfortable with?
I think that's a big thing with a lot of people, right? And also realising that you have the ability to do it.
Not to be all like, you're amazing and great — but I think a lot of people do it now, and there's a default to the personal essay as a meme. And really, of those people who do that, it's probably 10% who should actually be doing it. And you read some stuff and you're like: oh, man, people shouldn’t know this about you…
P.E. Moskowitz: I mean, thank God we’re past the mic.com 2014 era of Why 30 Rock Taught Me I Was Queer. Like, that kind of essay…
Although I did literally read an essay about like How Carmela Soprano taught me I was trans, but I think that was a good essay. I don't know. I mean, to answer your question, literally, I think, starting to transition opened me up to being more comfortable with myself and less outward focused and more inward focused. So transitioning meant that I felt more comfortable exploring my own emotions, and putting myself on the page, and not feeling so blocked off emotionally.
And the flip side of that is that the media economy wants trans people and women and anyone of a marginalised identity to write more personal things. Like, the “Harvard” reporting is usually reserved for the serious people — which is white men, essentially.
And so I noticed that as soon as I started transitioning the things that I would be asked to write were much more personal, which I feel very mixed about, because I have a valuable perspective, and yes, I think I'm good at that kind of writing. I can toot my own horn, but also no one was asking me to go investigate Chevron or something. People were like: explain what being trans is in the world all of a sudden. So I think there's both. I think I enjoy it, and — at this point –– I'd much rather do that than write about Chevron or whatever. But I also think there is a nefarious journalism economic component where women and trans people and people of colour are just told that only coming from their personal lens is what's important.
VFD: Yeah, it's like that identity thing, right? It’s so… internet content. It’s so attached to creating identities or exposing your identity.
P.E. Moskowitz: Right, yeah. I try not to make any story that's just like, here's what it's like to be trans or something. With that Carmela Soprano story, the most people who emailed me or DMed me after that, who enjoyed it, were cis women, right? And that’s because the point of that story was about the construction of gender and not just about stare at me because I'm a trans person or something, right?
So I think that's a big dividing line between stuff I want to do and don't want to do. I never want to do something that just feels like you're focusing on me because of my identity. But using my identity as a lens to talk about something that is relatable to everyone, or to a large group of people, feels different to me.
VFD: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I wanted to ask you about study hall, about how that happened as well. For those outside of the US media world, would you describe it as… a community for people who work in media? Or not just people who work in media, but people who want to write? One that offers resources, and also has interesting essays and articles in it? Am I doing a good job? I feel like I'm grabbing around…
P.E. Moskowitz: Yeah, it's kind of a bunch of stuff all at once. Me and Kyle Chayka started it seven years ago, something like that. And it was basically just that we felt bored and kind of isolated being freelancers. It felt very competitive. Back then, you felt like you never wanted to share an editor’s contact with someone or tell them what rate you got for a story. It felt like a no-go zone.
VFD: Yeah, that’s weird. I think that's still a major thing here in Australia, at least. I actually don't know why that is, other than weird protectionism over what is a hard industry to get by in.
P.E. Moskowitz: Yeah, everyone is fighting for scraps because there's a limited amount of money to go around. But I do think study hall helped change that, at least in the US. Like, I think it's very common now to share other contacts or to share the rate you got, to share ideas and everything. So I do think it was successful in that. And what we tried to do is have a platform where people can, like, not rely on something like Twitter to get all their information and get all their socialisation and everything. So instead of using Twitter, it's a more private community.
Before the pandemic — we are going to start doing this again — But before the pandemic, we had a lot of in person meetups and stuff. It's a way to make freelancers - and for anyone who's interested in the media, but especially for freelancers - feel less isolated and alone in the process. But also, full disclosure, I still am involved but really in an advisory capacity to study hall. We have employees who work there full time, and I don't work there anymore because I have to do other projects. Iit was time to kind of pass the baton.
VFD: Totally, I get that. I just look at it and I'm impressed and amazed at the size of it, too. Was it just a year and then a thought of: we're gonna do this, here's the thing. And then people just flock to it? Because there's thousands, right?
P.E. Moskowitz: Yeah, it’s five or six thousand now. And it wasn't that instant, in terms of getting to that high of a number, but we just started it as a little weekly newsletter. We had a literal office where people could look for work and stuff, but because everyone's always moving around and journalists are broke and also unreliable… that didn't work out.
So I had just started making a little newsletter and that grew much faster than I expected. And then during the pandemic, at the start of the pandemic, I think everyone just felt so isolated and alone that finding any kind of community at all was really appealing. So I think we doubled during the pandemic or something like that.
It feels obvious, but what people want more than content is the feeling of community, right? And I think to a certain extent, like the original Gawker, for example, that's what it gave people — it wasn't just fun content, it was stuff you needed to know if you worked in the media. It gave you things to gossip about that you would DM each other about if you saw each other at a bar. You'd be like: OMG did you see that blind item on Gawker?! I think the best media properties, that's what they do. There’s a sense of having a cohesive audience that can talk to each other, essentially.
VFD: Yeah, like you're part of the club, which is nice. Did you grow up in New York? You're in New York, right?
P.E. Moskowitz: I grew up in downtown Manhattan
VFD: Downtown Manhattan. What was that like?
P.E. Moskowitz: Yeah it was a lot. It was very different, then. My parents bought their loft for like $5 in 1979 or whatever.
VFD: Very uplifting, always good to think about.
P.E. Moskowitz: It was a former women's prison and then a warehouse and then a slab of concrete, essentially. And every other building on the block was a garbage truck parking garage. And it smelled like garbage every day when I was growing up. And across the highway, because it’s in the village, back when I was growing up, and it was just guys sucking each other's dicks on the piers and stuff. Which, yeah, that's one of my earliest memories: walking out of the house to be like, Mom, what are those guys doing? But now it's literally billionaires, and it's horrible, and I hate it. And it makes me so depressed to go there. And makes me want to do illegal things to people. It's just so sad to see what the neighbourhood's become.
But it's fun. New York was fun to grow up in. I got a lot of independence. I was walking to school alone when I was nine or something.
VFD: Have you ever not been in New York?
P.E. Moskowitz: For college, like I was in Massachusetts,
VFD: That's different.
P.E. Moskowitz: Yeah, very rural Massachusetts, Hampshire College is just a tiny, tiny, liberal arts college without any grades or majors. And I lived in New Orleans for a few years, I lived in Philadelphia for a few years, but 90% of my life has been in New York. And I love New Orleans a lot. I moved back here about a year and a half ago. And I love New Orleans, but I don't know. I always had in my head that I can live anywhere but I'll die in New York. And then the pandemic happened, and I was like… well, maybe that'll happen.
VFD: Maybe I don't want this.
P.E. Moskowitz: Yeah, I think I just all of a sudden had an urge to be back. Everywhere I kind of feel like a fish out of water, in New York I feel like a fish in water. It’s a good place.
VFD: Yeah. Finally, and we kind of touched on this throughout, but how do you decide that something's worth talking about, and writing about, and is something that will hit the right amount of not too much identity… or the right amount of identity? Or that will hit the right amount of Have you considered thinking about your mental health or health in general? Like, is there something that clicks for you, that you can point towards?
P.E. Moskowitz: I think it's more just like… in the same… I don't know. This is gonna be a really convoluted answer.
VFD: That's alright. It's a convoluted question. I know.
P.E. Moskowitz: I’ve been going through old diary entries, because I have to.
VFD: Oh god
P.E. Moskowitz: It’s because I'm writing a memoir, it's horrifying. Like, there was one entry that was like, does my dog hate me? November 3rd, 2015. But I realised that you have the same revelation over and over again until it sticks. I'm trying to think of an example.
Even with gender stuff, it's like: am I trans? Like, I don't know, let's explore… and then it just becomes more and more concrete. And I feel like it's the same thing with getting an idea for a story or book or whatever it might be. Everything is just ambiently floating around. You're like: do I want to write about the Sopranos, do I want to write about the Mets or baseball? It doesn't really matter what it is.
And then it becomes more and more concrete over the months. This little short essay, I'm writing right now for my newsletter, I wanted to write something about why I like the Mets for months, right? And then I just mull it over. And then, you know, three weeks ago, I was like, Oh, I like the Mets because it gives me a break from the constant deluge of bad shit in the world, right? And then today, I was finally like: oh, it's not just that, it's that we have to learn how to use our emotions productively, and to give ourselves the opportunity to have outlets to feel bad about things that don't actually affect people. So instead of really caring about everything that's going on online, or in the world, or whatever, to be able to place my emotions into a vessel that doesn't really matter, like sports. That felt revelatory to me.
And then as soon as I got that revelation, I was like, Okay, now I feel ready to write about this. So I feel like that's how it works for me. I'm constantly telling the same things over and over again. And then one day, it'll just click, and I'll be like: now I see how it's a story.
VFD: Which is interesting, because that makes sense, right? And then you compare that to the way digital media and media in general now expects people to produce things and it's so counterintuitive to that. Do you have the time to read and think and read and think and read and think? Not at all.
P.E. Moskowitz: No, it's horrible. I mean, it is contrary to any kind of deep thinking, and I feel very blessed in my career where I can have that space. But yeah, it's fucking horrible. I mean, people should all have the freedom to just think about good things and then put it on the page instead of having to come up with the most controversial take or most me take. It's horrible. It's economics in the media and fucking Marvel.
VFD: You mean to tell me that that's doing something negative? We would talk for a lot longer if we had to go into that, I think.
But yeah, I'll wrap it there. Thank you so much for talking. I appreciate it.