Anne T. Donahue

Interviewed by Raven Nyman

A quick scroll through Anne T. Donahue’s Twitter feed might leave aspiring writers feeling overwhelmed. After all, she’s written for MTV, Cosmopolitan, the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, Refinery29, Sportsnet, Nylon, and Paper Magazine, just to name a few. Her publication credits are remarkable, and the diversity of her subject matter? Impressive. Originally from Cambridge, Ontario, Anne is a writer who admits to knowing way too much about The Great British Bake Off and holding a unique affection for Leonardo DiCaprio—see the hilarious Leo memes that accompany each of her newsletters. Her first book, Nobody Cares, will be published by ECW in September 2018. You can find her on Twitter @AnneTDonahue.

Her work seems to be everywhere, and Anne succeeds in maintaining an active social media presence while also completing a degree, freelancing regularly, and writing a weekly newsletter for her followers. Despite her full schedule, I was able to get in touch with Anne to find out just how she does it all.

Was writing always the career path you had in mind?

Not at all. I went to Conestoga College for journalism, but dropped out when I was nineteen. Then I worked in a hardware store, at American Eagle, and at a bank. At the same time I was re-doing high school courses and aiming for a kinesiology degree which I planned to use as a pre-med. Then I failed math, so that dream died. Finally, I applied to Wilfrid Laurier for Communications/History and dropped out after a year once I started freelance writing. But even then, even when I was doing almost exclusively music journalism, I thought I’d end up writing TV or doing comedy or doing some semblance of what Tina Fey was doing at the time. I didn’t think I’d be writing the way I was now. I thought I’d eventually make my way into TV full time or movies or something. I remember thinking there’s no way I wanted to be a “freelance writer.” Now, I don’t think I could handle working full-time in an office.

Speaking of television, you also worked as a creative consultant on the sitcom, Spun Out. Can you talk a bit about that experience?

Writing for Spun Out really helped me to understand how little I want to work in television. I’m a bad collaborator, I’m not good with group work in general, and so sitting around a table throwing ideas back and forth is probably the worst place to find me. The people behind Spun Out were very generous by giving me a chance. But honestly, it comes down to me liking the type of writing I do now, wanting to do more of that. I respect and love my editors who I work with now because I understand the relationship of writer and editor. In group situations, I have an Alexander Hamilton complex: I assume I’m the smartest person in the room, which is the fastest way to ruin everybody’s day. Plus, I want credit for everything. A TV show doesn’t stop to say, “Anne T. Donahue wrote this joke.”

I imagine you started by pitching ideas to various publications, but can you speak more about the process as you established your writing career?

Having patience is the biggest hurdle and the biggest struggle and something I still grapple with. You have to be patient. You have to wait for emails. You have to wait for publications. You have to wait for paycheques while at the same time, you’re writing and writing. It feels terrible and awful; you see all these other exciting things happen to people you know and you feel so full of self-doubt. And worse, because you’re a writer, you’re working alone and so much of your struggle is all in your head. I think that’s the biggest thing. 

But it pays off, most of the time. You learn why you didn’t hear back from an email pitch (like, maybe your pitch was bad—which I say as a person who has sent many bad pitches). You learn to be okay with it, to not take things personally because no one publication or byline will make or break your career. I spent years sending pitches and turning things around last minute and hustling and working hard. That’s what the first years of full-time writing look like: you’re always working or always trying to work. There’s no magical email or connection anyone can give you. It’s just the most boring story of all time: work really, really hard until your career looks like something you’re proud of.

In a recent post from your newsletter you mentioned that you’re currently finishing a degree, whilst maintaining your writing career. What’s that been like?

I love it. I’m taking one class per semester to get a BA in History. I love learning in general, and doing work that has absolutely nothing to do with what I actually do. I’m like Lisa Simpson in that I use grades as a validation tool. Which is unhealthy I know, but I also don’t care.

You’ve worked a lot in music journalism, a space that has been historically dominated by men. Can you speak about finding your footing there?

I started writing about music in 2009 when the internet changed the way music was covered. Now, we have long pieces and long features where writers can take time to write essays, but then, a lot of editors I knew weren’t particularly interested in that. We were encouraged to get soundbites and exclusives; interviews were almost disposable. At 24 and 25, I was very worried about not infringing on space, about being liked and not making waves, but also concerned with getting as many bylines as possible, which turned me into both a very competitive and insecure person. It wasn’t just about the men in the industry, it was also about the way everyone was trying to find space in an industry that didn’t seem to understand its own alignments.

So I jumped ship for a while, which was good because I had to figure some things out for myself. When I started writing about music again, everything had settled. I’d grown up and the people around me had grown up and the industry itself had changed. There’s still a ton of sexism and a laundry list of creepy guys who think their fame and stage names will cover all manners of sins (they won’t—we all know who they are, and we talk about them all the time), but it felt a little less competitive. The editors I work with most now aren’t interested in recreating the 2000s and early 2010s, though in that era’s defense, the state of the industry was so in flux that the idea of liking Justin Bieber seemed revelatory. Now it feels like there’s less currency in genre snobbery, thank heavens.

In a 2013 interview for The Women Take Over, you said something wonderful when speaking about how women can support each other: “There’s no one ‘right’ way to be a feminist. You can like cupcakes and be a feminist, you can bind your breasts and be a feminist, you can wear polka dot skirts and shave your head and be a feminist. Right now we’ve got bigger things to worry about other than whether so-and-so is a feminist because she wears heels.” I wholeheartedly agree with you. What’s great about what you’ve said here is that you don’t just talk the talk, you walk it too. You’ve written about music, fashion, film, and TV. From pieces on the Kardashians to articles on current political affairs, you’re constantly covering a lot of ground in your work. In that respect, you’re actively defying the sexist logic that so often seeks to compartmentalize women by sticking a label on them that reads, “mother,” “wife,” or “sex symbol,” with no allowance for multiplicity. What are your thoughts on the constraints often imposed on women, and how working women like yourself are resisting those constraints?

Well first, thank you! To put it plainly, constraints are such unnecessary bullshit. They’re such a waste of time and of energy and we see them all the time, every day, and then our anger about them deters us from other issues, and it’s a cycle that makes me very tired. I think categorizing women based on their life choices is the worst. And we never do it to men, so it’s an exhausting annoyance. It’s like people talking in a movie theatre directly behind you: you just want to turn around and tell them to shut up, so you do, but they keep talking and it’s like “Ugh, whatever, let’s just move seats.” And that’s what seems to be happening—we’re leaving the idiots behind.

That’s really the only way to resist being categorized: actively refusing to be categorized at all. There’s been a colossal push-back in terms of trying to fit into roles that were made by men to make women feel small or squashed or like they were failures. There’s almost a straight-up “fuck you” to the idea of having to be one or the other. I don’t think any of us need to read about whether so-and-so’s a feminist or why they’re a bad feminist or anything ever again for a very long time, if ever. It’s at the point where if anyone tries to argue on behalf of gender-specific constraints (like Trump’s dress code in the White House), they seem archaic and embarrassing. Basically, it’s up to them to prove why they should be listened to. Which, in Trump’s case, he shouldn’t be. Ever.

You’re not just a writer, but a comedian too. How does humour inform your work?

It’s funny because I don’t do stand-up, I don’t do improv, and I don’t do sketch, so I feel weird being called a “comedian” even though I do shows or storytelling with the purpose of making people laugh. But I’m certainly not a comedian in the way my friends who are comedians are comedians. I love watching what they do, but I don’t want to do it.

I grew up around funny, sarcastic people who were also kind of sad. So making jokes became a way to bond and a way to push down actual feelings. Humour has been the way I’ve avoided fights and helped avert crises, dealt with tragedy, with death, and with a lot of other things. Some of my work can be very personal, so I like to make sure it’s also funny, because overly sincere conversations make me anxious.

Recently in the media we’ve seen mixed responses to the work of female comedians; Amy Schumer, for example, who brings politics and feminism into her work, has met with substantial resistance to some of the themes she’s discussed. This merging of humour and politics is something that male comedians have always been doing. What are your thoughts on bringing politics and comedy together in general, and specifically as a female comedian?

I should say that I can’t and shouldn’t speak to Amy Schumer’s experiences or where her comedy comes from because I don’t know her, and our jobs are very different. But I will say that I think anybody with a platform has the responsibility to be using it for more than what they’d been using it for previously. This isn’t to say every post or joke or tweet has to be political, but I think that if your work relies on the participation or engagement of other people, then you need to bolster those people through your medium. The state of the world has been a disaster for a very long time—Trump was merely the catalyst for a rebellion stacked on hate—so it shouldn’t suddenly be hip to be socially conscious. But, pre-Trump, it was easy to become complacent and selfish, particularly if you are white, and haven’t had to stare racism or xenophobia in the face. A lot of great writers, comedians, musicians, and artists have been activists through their work for a very long time, so we’ve seen what can happen when someone marries the worlds of art and politics: powerful words and empowerment through them. Now we’re just seeing more of that.

Gender is a tale as old as time, which is a real bummer. I remember tweets I sent during the election were picked up and re-tweeted by the alt-right, so I got a fun few days of rape and death threats. But that’s the most unoriginal Twitter story in the world: most of my friends get threatened in some way daily, just for expressing their politics or highlighting an issue with policies or practices. You just have to decide to keep being yourself and putting out work that reflects who you are and what you believe in. And honestly, sometimes who you are is a piece about Harry Styles’ new loafers. You can’t operate on just one setting.

In another post, you spoke about the feelings of self-doubt that all writers encounter. At one point, you wrote, “In my head, I am always one lazy afternoon away from going back to writing pieces for $2 and praying someone will notice them. And because I like working, I don’t know when to pull the plug, even mentally.” You also noted that at times it can feel like writing isn’t work, and yet, it certainly is. It’s how we pay the bills, but it’s also something we do because we’re passionate about it. Many writers have “day jobs” that serve to supplement their creative endeavors but in your case, writing is your career. Thus, you’ve got to maintain a remarkable workload. Glancing at your publication credits, the list doesn’t seem to end. The amount of writing you do is almost overwhelming, and I imagine it can be a struggle to balance work and off-time. Can you speak a bit more about this?

I’ve learned that writing—while it’s fun and I love it—isn’t the be-all and end-all of life. I remember going to the doctor a few years ago and them telling me I had high blood pressure while I had my laptop on my lap trying to finish a piece before a deadline. I remember meeting a friend at the movies and being like, “Hey meet me in the bathroom I’m having an anxiety attack.” All of this was because I would work until I was exhausted and I wouldn’t take a break. My anxiety went through the roof, I was married to my planner, and when I was out having fun I just kept worrying about what I could be doing instead. Last summer, I took a bit of a break. I stopped pitching as much and did the work I’m contractually obligated to do, but let myself eat lunch or make night plans or do anything outside the realm of professional productivity if I had done all the work I needed to do that day. Which made me like writing more and made me write better.

Some days I feel like a montage of #Having #It #All. But other days I feel like there’s no way I’ll be able to sleep during the next four weeks if I want to stay on top of things. I actually think letting go of the idea of how we “should” work and how we “should” be has allowed for more space to take breaks. You don’t need to feel bad for taking a night off to stay in and read, and if you’re really in your grove and have been working for 10 hours but you’re still having fun, then keep working. This is also why I’m not a doctor.

You’re currently working on your first book, titled Nobody Cares, with ECW, an indie Canadian publishing press. Can you tell me a bit about that project? How did the idea come to fruition and what has the publishing process been like so far?

It’s based on my newsletter, but will be largely original essays about growing up and failure (of which I have been an expert) and the general messiness of being a person. That was an idea that was super collaborative, courtesy of ECW’s editors: they reached out to my agent because they liked my newsletter, I came in for a meeting just before Christmas, and I pitched the idea of a book of essays. We signed the contract in January, and I’ve been writing since. So it’s been quite easy. Because of how organic it was, but also because my editors are a dream, and I genuinely like them and want to hear what they have to say. Last time we hung out we ate spaghetti and I read their tarot cards.

As a professional wordsmith, have you got a favourite word?

A few years ago, my friend Laura Snapes coined one of the best words on the planet: “Unfuckwithable.” I think it’s the greatest descriptor and the best compliment you can give a person. Its opposite is the phrase I use the most to describe people without backbones who complain all the time: “Baby bitches.” One of my best pals, Amanda Brooke Perrin, actually commissioned a friend of ours to make a print that reads, “Don’t be a baby bitch.” I have it on the nightstand next to my bed.

Who (or what) inspires you most?

I love any writer who is honest and unabashedly themselves. I love when I read someone’s work and I can hear them talking to me. I think that’s the most comforting thing. I just finished Inside the Dream Palace which had a whole chapter about Patti Smith, whose book Just Kids made me want to be the best writer I knew how. Patti Smith’s approach to writing and to art has resonated with me in a big way. In Just Kids she mentions the importance of being one’s self and focusing on work that makes you happy. That’s something that’s kept me on track when I’ve felt insecure or a bit lost: whenever I think I should try and mimic someone else’s style, I remember Patti Smith and how she has only ever been authentic to herself. It makes me brave enough to be myself too.

Raven Nyman is a student and freelance writer based in British Columbia. She writes for 24 Hours Vancouver and will graduate from UBC’s Creative Writing program in May 2017 with a second major in English Honours. You can find her articles on Twitter @RavsWritingDesk.

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