"Knowing how to pirate things is a really good tool."
A conversation about revision, research, and relief with Glitter Up the Dark author Sasha Geffen.
I’m really excited to share this conversation I had with Sasha Geffen, an incisive critic and journalist based in Denver whose work I really respect and who I admire even more after having spoken with them for this letter. Last year Sasha published their first book, Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, a history queerness embedded throughout, well, the whole damn history of popular music. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America author Kiese Laymon said, of the book, “[It] changed the way I hear music and the convenient way I understand gender and performance… One will not hear or reproduce traditional understandings of gender ever again after experiencing this boldly brilliant book.”
Get into this convo. It’s especially for folks who’ve worked primarily with fast turnarounds working (or struggling) to build muscles for longer projects or are currently trying to slay the revision dragon.
You’ve been doing some teaching lately. Tell me how you got into that.
I had attended a couple workshops at Lighthouse. That was one of the things about moving to Denver that was really exciting for me. It took me a while to actually show up, I was just thrilled that there was this established, non-profit writers’ workshop that wasn’t prohibitively expensive. What I liked most about college was writing workshops, so I was really thrilled to be able to drop in to things like that when I wanted to as opposed to getting an MFA and committing to a whole big thing. I started going to a few workshops and Queer Creatives, Lighthouse’s queer writer and artist group. Around the time the book was coming out, I did a talk at Queer Creatives about the process of pitching and publishing and all those mysterious elements of the work that people don’t really talk about that much. The organizer of Queer Creatives recommended me to the Director of Programming and I met with her, she had me pitch a few one-day workshops. I’ve taught two so far. It’s been really delightful but it's been so strange getting into it now when everything’s on Zoom and everyone I meet, I meet as a square on my computer screen. It’s great because it’s way more accessible and people from all over the world can drop in and it’s a good way to start teaching because it’s not something I’ve ever done before and the fact that I can do it in my house maybe takes some of the terror out of it, so when we do go back to meeting in person, I’ll have a little bit of a foundation for having done it. It’s strange, either way, but I’ve really enjoyed getting to talk about why writing works and what about it works with people. It’s been very rewarding and stimulating to get to have these conversations with lots of different people from all different careers and all different walks of life. It’s great to have people who are just starting out, who are in their early 20s and just trying to map out what they want to do for the first time and then there are people who are journalists who have been working for decades who are in their 60s. There’s so much ground to cover and so much productive friction in courses like this that I don’t think you get as much when you’re an undergraduate. Maybe in graduate school you get people from different walks but these more accessible, community-based programs really open up the opportunity to learn from a lot of different types of people. It’s been really appealing for me because I still feel like I’m unlearning the maladaptive coping mechanisms I learned in school, that high-stress, hyper-competitive, low-sleep environment. It doesn’t seem like a good thing for people to do for the first 22 years of their lives.
It filters into how we expect the world to be and how we expect things to proceed and it’s so toxic for everyone.
It makes sense in certain career paths but when it comes to writing or making anything or doing anything beyond earning money at a job, that logic falls apart because you can’t stack yourself up against every other person who’s making the kind of stuff as you, you’ll eat yourself alive, and it feels sad and it’s no fun. I’m almost ten years out from graduating and still learning to unravel those patterns and engaging with myself and my creative habits in more of a holistic and healthy way.
How are you doing that?
A lot of therapy. I figured out that I had to start really small, I had to let go of some of my attachments to feelings of grandiosity or hyper-competitiveness. I’m still attached to some of that, at times, but personally, just the way my brain works, being forced to read things in high school and college made me a much worse reader after school. I really struggled to read for myself without it feeling like homework or without it feeling like some external show of power over my time. I had to teach myself how to read again after years of only doing it for work or school, I had to make it so trivial that I felt like a fool for not doing it. This is something my therapist helped me with, he said all you have to do is read a paragraph a day. Usually if I feel like I can’t do something, I can if someone dares me to. There are habits that are good things in my life that happened because someone who figured out my patterns dared me to do something that I thought was impossible. My therapist basically dared me to start reading a paragraph every morning, just to see if I could, just to keep that promise to myself and it’s turned into a habit where I read first thing in the morning and last thing at night when I’m a little softer, cognitively, before or after all the self-judging, fully conscious reflexes have had a chance to set in, while I’m drinking my coffee first thing while I’m half-asleep at night. That’s the only way I can do it and it really didn’t kick in until last year, which is weird because the most basic advice for writing is to be a really good reader and I somehow managed to write for a really long time anyway. I read but it was also so scattershot and always so fraught with judgment and now it’s finally just something ordinary.
I think when you’re writing things that are ephemeral, it’s a lot easier to get caught up in obsessive production, either because you’re assigned to do it or trained to do it. The difference between writing for the internet where you’re on deadline for someone else versus writing something that you get to take a lot of ownership over, that takes a lot more time, and requires a lot of revision has been a little bit of a shock for me. How was it for you?
Really painful! For the reasons you’ve mentioned! When you come up writing on the internet, when it’s your primary mode of working, it is really easy to just let go of something. When I was writing for blogs I didn’t really get edited, I didn’t really work on second drafts of anything. I jotted some things down the day of the deadline and sent them off and they went online and I never had to think about it again. Obviously when things get blowback you have to sit with it and learn from what you’ve written, which can be rough but can also be really useful. I had to learn a different kind of stamina. I think it’s worth mentioning I didn’t suddenly develop really good habits because there was a book to write. I had to do a lot of procrastinating for the book, too. I wrote it really fast and the next time I do this, I’m going to give myself more time, but moving from writing something in hours to writing something in months is a really big shift. I had to train myself to see the benefit in it. It was another layer of the writing process that I wasn’t super well-acquainted with but revealed itself to me, to go back and ripple through a chapter that was already written and figure out what else could piece itself in there, what else could emerge from the foundation, to see a first draft as a starting point as opposed to more or less the final cut. That was really intoxicating once I figured that out. There’s more to be learned. I figure things out on the page. I don’t know what a chapter is or what the point of what I’m doing is until it’s down on the page. To go back to where ground is already broken and build from there, you get to go a little bit deeper and you get to make connections that don’t necessarily appear in the first pass. It ended up being really exciting because I figured out things that I don’t think I could have figured out with my normal habits. But it’s hard and there were days when I didn’t want to look at it. Something about university presses is that you get peer-reviewed and I had three peer reviewers who were really, really thorough and generous with their time and for whose efforts the book is much better than it would have been. That draft — getting the peer reviews and integrating that feedback — that was one of the most excruciating parts of the whole process. I’m really glad it happened and I learned a lot from it but getting to celebrate the completion of the first draft and then being like, Whoa, this is not anywhere near close to done, is tough. It’s a little bit bruising but in a good way.
Outside of the peer reviews, what was surprising about the editing process? What have you taken from that experience?
I had to adjust my scope in certain ways because my instinct going into the first draft was to get really, really close to the object I was writing about: certain songs, certain sequences in certain songs. There were moments in writing the book — and some of them made it into the final draft — where I spent a couple pages on fifteen seconds of a song. It’s a strategy I learned while reviewing albums because I think there’s a lot you can find in the details that is more interesting than biographical information or the usual beats of an album review — and I do rely on the usual beats often — but I realized when I’m reviewing albums what excited me most was really zooming in as closely as I could and figuring out what I was getting out of a certain sound, a certain synth patch, the way that a voice sounded in a period of seven seconds, those little juicy moments that really make a song open up, the things that you really latch onto that you wait for when you’re listening to a song and then throw a party about in your brain once it comes. I was really used to that kind of writing, that close textured combing through, so I did a lot of that in the first draft and when my editors got it, they were like, That’s cool but things have to be connected to their environment. It can’t all be this, you do have to zoom out and look at what was going on in the city when the song was recorded and since this is a book about queer voicing, how does queer history fit into this? Where’s Stonewall? Where’s AIDS? That helped me balance the scale a lot better, the scale as in zooming in but also zooming out, trying to balance detail with landscape studies, essentially. It was hard because it wasn’t the way I was used to thinking about things as much but taking both the longview and the close-view at the same time can be really useful when thinking about music because it’s all important. What’s going on within a second period of time is as important as what’s going on inside a whole city’s music scene over the course of a year. It’s all connected.
Has any of that impacted the way that you’ve approached freelance work at all?
I think I carried it over into some of the writing that I’ve done since the book. I guess it was this year that I wrote about an Iggy Pop boxset and having that kind of historical longview is helpful for that because it was a retrospective collection but I think at first I remember my editor Pitchfork saying that one of the first reviews I wrote after the book came out was too book report-y, like I was trying to pack in too much of a broad sweep and kind of like I did while writing the book.
How did you get started with your research?
It helped that I was able to take a chronological approach just because it takes a lot of the decision-making out of it but there is always a question about what to put in, how to connect that thing. I did a lot of reading, I read a bunch of books that had a similar sweep and I took that as scaffolding. I wanted to look and see what was missing from those histories. When we tell the story of what pop music is over the past 70 years, what gets left out? What are my personal attachments? How can I plug those into a broader story? A lot of it was instinctive. I was writing about music that historically meant a lot to me and then kind of expanding a little bit and seeing where that music came from and what it was connected to even if not everything — I learned a lot researching this, it was not just music I’d grown up listening to but emotional investments were a good starting point. I started zooming out from there and seeing what was nearby in those landscapes. Also, just reading a lot. To write one book, you have to read dozens of them. Seeing how other people had approached the task of looking at pop music through a specific lens and thinking about what I wanted to excavate that wasn’t necessarily in super clear-view already and how I could dig past what had already been told.
When you were writing a sample chapter...how did you do that?
My sample chapter was the glam rock chapter and it’s a very rough version of what it became. It was the easiest jumping off point for me because my attachment to Bowie goes pretty deep. He was an artist I loved in high school, he was someone I’d written about a lot close to when he died — I did a career retrospective piece a couple of weeks before he died, a couple of weeks before Blackstar came out. I had a decent base of knowledge there and it was also an obvious jumping off point; when you think about gender disobedience in pop music, that’s where you go. Glam rock is one of the clearest eras and one that’s pretty well-defined. I did some research around that and just tried to tell the story of what that subculture was doing and how it was doing it. I think my first go at it was pretty rudimentary, I don’t think I uncovered a lot for myself or made any real big discoveries. It was a place I knew I could start. I know I have a good enough base of knowledge I can kind of prove that I can write here in the span of 3000 words and hopefully that’s enough to convince people to let me do a whole book in this vein. I think the glam chapter in its final form ended up being pretty different from what I submitted and I knew that would be the case. Allowing myself to submit something a little unpolished was important, too. This is just to show that I have this muscle. Taking a little bit of the perfectionism out of it and just trying to get something down was just how I had to start.
That’s really good to hear.
If you think about it as something that has to be your best work or has to show the keenest edge of your craft, it’s a little harder to get it down. It can always be better, right? You can always refine it and make it better, you might as well then just write the whole book. The purpose of the sample chapter is to show that you can research and put together an argument. It’s like an audition, it’s not the final performance.
What do you see as the future of music journalism?
There’s great work being done in the newsletter space. That’s probably going to keep snowballing, both in music journalism and in general. It’s a wave like the blog explosion that we had about ten years ago when everyone was writing a blog and that was how a lot of the tone and taste-making of that generation of music was set, a lot of people were working on passion projects and sharing what they love with each other. I made a lot of good friends through that, that moment of writing for free on the internet and tweeting about music and trying to connect. Newsletters are slightly more intimate than that, just in the sense that they’re opt-in and some of them are paid which makes it a little bit more committed than just going to someone’s blog.
I see some people talking about how short-form video is the future and I definitely think there’s good work to be done on TikTok, in terms of discovery and sharing and choreography in miniature, there’s so much crossover. You can have a music video that’s also a music review in the span of 30-seconds but it’s kind of geared more toward spectacle and the beats of comedy more than writing. It’s not writing. I can see those two things in parallel and maybe feeding each other a little bit but I don’t necessarily see one replacing the other.
As has been the case since I started, the structures in media are not especially stable and they’re not especially good for new ideas and for supporting people to make a living generating new ideas. The future depends on people being really inventive, not just with what they write but how they distribute it and how they make connections to each other, how they find ways to communicate that’s not necessarily reliant on the technological superstructure, at least not in a way that’s uncritical of the structures that dominate the ways that we’re all able to talk to each other. People are going to have to be really creative and antagonistic to the systems that want to condense everything at the top — all the money across the same twelve people — which is hard because we’re all exhausted and we’re all distracted and nobody has any money because it’s all with the same twelve people. I see glimmers of it sometimes and just seizing those opportunities when they arise can maybe lead to more organization that’s able to build something that’s a little bit more equitable with how it distributes power. No matter what you’re doing right now, everything’s precarious. Whatever kind of work you’re doing, it’s never been more piecemeal and terrifying than it is right now. The fact that there are a lot of media unions forming is inspiring. I think the future is building solidarity among other precarious workers. We’re fragmented from each other but consolidating our skills and building power where we’re at, to the extent that we can against really depressing odds, is probably the way that any kind of future takes shape right now. Without that, there’s no future in music journalism because there’s no future in anything.
At the end of every Read You, Wrote You interview, I ask the writer what tools they use in their writing practice. This is what’s in Sasha Geffen’s toolkit for…
I have a really cool pair of headphones that I like a lot. I go between Senheiser and Audiotechnica a lot and I had Grados before that I really, really liked. But it doesn’t matter the brand, it’s just about finding something that you can wear for a long time that sounds good to you.
I also think that amassing an MP3 collection and not relying on streaming is part of my toolkit. The notion that you can find anything on Spotify is a deliberate lie on Spotify’s part or a deliberate illusion. There’s so much music that is culturally and historically significant that is not on streaming and so being able to seek that out however you can is important. Find MP3s wherever you may be able to now that the options for buying them are getting fewer and more far between. I have been really excited to see some historic discographies on Bandcamp and I think that’s a great move, having more and more of an archive there. Knowing how to pirate things is also a really good tool. Knowing your way around Soulseek is essential if you want a more complete music archive because a lot of stuff is just straight up lost from the normal channels. Whether you buy an old CD and try to harvest the MP3s through there or do it through slightly more direct avenues, I think it’s an important thing to have. And to know how to go down rabbit holes is important. If you like a song by an artist that was working a few decades ago, it’s good to dig into who they were working with and who their collaborators were working with and fleshing out these histories beyond just a certain artist or a certain album.
I need to be able to do something with my hands when I’m listening to music so I also need video games where I can turn the sound down. I can't just put a record and listen to music unless I’m really high, in which case, then it’s its own activity. If I’m sober, then I usually need something for my eyes and hands to do. When I was researching the book, I was playing a lot of Terraria and listening to a lot of Prince at the same time so that I could boil off some of the excess energy. It kind of makes my mind work a little better. It can’t be a super story-rich game but something meditative and repetitive and boring is good: Terraria, City Skylines. I don’t play Minecraft but I feel like that would be good, too. Something to tinker with.
A lot of patience with myself and the ability to slightly dis-identify with what I’ve already written, to pretend like I’m editing someone else instead of myself and get the ego out a little bit. With patience, that means putting it away for three weeks and not thinking about it and then coming back to it as if it is new. Maybe therapy is also in that toolkit, in terms of not judging myself, and taking out that egoized feeling that everything I write is a direct representation of myself and my value — thinking of it as something that happens to be written and that I’m responsible for but that’s not necessarily a direct outpouring of me. It can be really hard to be in a depressive funk and know you have to edit something you wrote and conveniently everything you’ve ever written is garbage.