Jennifer Loviglio: Finding a Voice

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.” Jennifer Loviglio had been writing freelance cover stories, features and arts pieces for City Newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., for a few years when the alternative weekly added a second male columnist to its pages. Her "hackles raised," Loviglio stormed over to the editor’s desk to demand that the paper include more female voices — and walked out with an unexpected assignment: her own column.

In its third year now, Loviglio’s column, The XX Files, covers everything from national politics to American pop culture to some of the most intimate aspects of home life — and usually all three at once. Loviglio’s voice is biting, funny and mercilessly sharp when dissecting politics and the politicians who make policy.

A native Bostonian, Loviglio moved eight years ago to Rochester, where she lives with her husband and twokids. She works full-time as a freelance writer. In addition to The XX Files, she pens a food column for the glossy Rochester Magazine, writes for local art organizations and nonprofits, and even authors plays for the local science and history museum. She also does a monthly essay for Rochester’s National Public Radio affiliate. It is not, she says, supposed to have political content — "But, um, I work it in there."

How did you make the move from writing features to being a columnist?

My newspaper had just added a second column by a guy who was going to bars — there were now basically two columns that were being written by guys about the bar scene. So I went to the editor, and I said, "You’ve got to have some female voices. You’ve got to have women writing about, you know, stuff, life, sex — not just these guys going and leering at women and writing about it." I said, "Don’t even hire me. Hire somebody else. Hire any woman to write for this paper." He was very gracious and said, "Why don’t you write what you want to read?" Two weeks later I handed him a column, and I was a wreck. I was sure he’d reject it.

Was it hard to switch from writing articles to being a columnist? Did you need to learn new skills?

The great thing about writing articles for an alt-weekly is that you can have a voice, so even when I was writing about downtown development or about exploring hidden places like an abandoned subway tunnel, I got to use my own voice. So already I was at an advantage. But in a column, it’s pure voice — it’s all you. And that took me a while. When I look at my early columns — I don’t vomit, but I cringe. Finding my voice was the hardest part.

What do you look for in a good column?

I’m a political junkie. For me, a column has to have great political analysis. It has to have the ability to take policy and analyze it and to show the relevance of what’s happening.

There are so many different types of columns, and people who don’t know my work say, "Oh, you write a ‘mommy column.’" I think there is a tendency to write off female columnists. So it’s super important to me that my column has a well-researched political foundation. I do so much research it’s insane. If you read my column, it seems I’m just skipping from one topic to the next, but I make sure all my casual reference are backed up by a pile of statistics. So I guess I look for columnists who are very knowledgeable about what they write.

Do you see your column as pushing for change, as making a difference?

That’s a good question. It’s the most important thing to me — this world is so messed up. The column is what I can do, and it’s very hard for me to write it, but I don’t know if it is enough, or if it makes any difference.

That’s the great mystery of being a writer. You make your barbaric yawp, but does anybody read it, does anybody listen? I don’t know.

How did you develop the voice you use in your columns? Is it the same as your own voice?

My friends have always said I’m hilarious to talk to, and everyone says, "Oh, you should write like this," but I’m telling you it’s taken years to learn to write like I talk. It sounds so obvious — you know, just take a tape recorder and start talking and write it down. But I couldn’t. Any time I tried, it would be horrible, the sentences too long, and the rhythm totally off.

One trick I used that really helped was to pretend I was writing an e-mail to a friend. This helped me achieve that easy, humorous tone because people won’t read a wordy, overcrafted email. So, I was able to emulate the bounce and pop of my conversational voice. My writing now is very similar to the way I talk. Anybody who can just sit down and write the way they talk, I admire them.

How do you decide what to write about?

Everything I do — everything I read or see or do, I say to myself, "Can I use that?" Every single thing I come across I see if I can use it to make a point or if I can raise my hackles about it.

Then, with all these things going around in my mind, I go back and sit down and go through all those ideas one at a time and some of them fall off the edge. It’s a process of whittling down.

So you have all these ideas. Do you go through them and find a theme and start writing around it? Or do you just start typing and see what happens, or what?

I just walk around for days with my brow furrowed, trying to see how everything fits together. And I think it does — a lot of my stuff eventually just does come together.

What about a piece like "Tainted Love" that had a particular event at its center? Your husband stuck himself with a needle that contained the blood of a kid patient, and his mother was defensive about letting her child be tested for AIDS.

That one started out with twice as many things in it. I had all this crap in my head — stuff that now seems now to be crass and crappy. When I sit down to write, I have all this garbage. But there’s a point when I’m writing a column where I see it — and what I finally saw was happening in this story was that the same thing that was pulling us together was pushing us apart: the blood that runs through all of us divides us and joins us. That woman — her son’s blood was in my husband’s body. They were mingled, and in that moment we were all standing in the exact same point, and that meant so many different things to each of us.

You write about your family a lot. What are the boundaries there? Do you have rules?

Heh-heh. Yeah. I was writing an article about how I was taking lessons at an adult ed center on how to strip for your man, and the woman teaching the class was using the language of political empowerment to get these women to, you know, really shake their asses, which was absurd. And part of this class was that you went home and did a striptease for your husband. So I came home and was doing this dance, and my husband was like, "Don’t hurt yourself, honey." I was so bad! I loved it, and it was hilarious, and I wanted to put it in my article, and he said, "The first rule is, ‘Keep the reader out of the bedroom.’"

Which you broke in "Tainted Love."

Well, yeah. Yeah. I wore him down.

The other rule my kids made up, which is that I have to ask permission if I’m going to quote them.

Do you ever feel uninspired?

Oh, sure, all the time. But if I’m not working on a column in my head, I’m miserable. If I’m not cramming some topical science thing, in with a sex thing, in with something political, and I’m not carrying around that whole basket of titillating material in my head, then I’m miserable. So in a way, I’m always writing a column. If I’m not, I’m insufferable: I read a lot of newspapers and mope around and watch The Daily Show and hope that something inspires me.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about your work?

The only thing: It took me a really long time to find my voice, and I did everything — everything — even things I thought were stupid. I took classes, started a writing club, wrote every day, even when killing myself seemed like a more pleasant alternative. I did all the stuff all the books tell you to do. I wrote crap; I wrote for a mommy newsletter when I had a newborn and my brains were parked in my boobs; I just wrote all the time for everything, no matter how much I hated it, because I knew somehow I would find a voice that way. That’s my only hopeful note in the midst of the rage and the cyanide and the loaded handgun in my desk drawer: Just keep writing. I don’t know — maybe everybody doesn’t feel that hopeless, but it took me a long time to believe I could do it.

Isaiah Thompson is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a freelance writer and educator.

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