You and I were in Columbia Journalism Review

You and I were in Columbia Journalism Review

Somewhat unbelievably, you and I have been featured in the Columbia Journalism Review. Can I tell you about it?

Earlier this year, I started leaving you voicemails. And then I invited members of pocket observatory to leave voicemails on my answering machine. 

A few months ago, Danny Funt reached out and asked if he could interview me about my writing and the voicemails. I snorted in disbelief when I got his message. (I also snort when I laugh. It’s my deviated septum!)

I still struggle to call myself a “writer” and I certainly feel like I’m playing dress up anytime I refer to myself as a “journalist.” So being interviewed by Columbia Journalism Review is just kind of….I mean. Wow. You know? And for they interview to be overwhelmingly about something you and I are doing here together? That just feels right.

I am sharing some excerpts below, but I really recommend the entire article. 

It’s about you, it’s about what we’re doing here, it’s about newsletters and it’s about …well…finding new ways to connect. And yes, there are great quotes in it from people like 

Anne Helen Petersen You know that anything with Anne in it is worth your time. BTW:  I still can’t stop thinking about this Anne Helen Petersen piece about the portal. (Read it and weep.)

Okay, and now on to the the part where a real journalist wrote about the real work we’re doing here. Excerpts and brief commentary below!

Read the whole piece

Growing up, Meg Conley made doodles depicting herself as a writer. It was a career that felt impossibly out of reach. She was raised Mormon in Orange County; at Sunday school, she said, “I was told that I would be a mother and a wife who should stay home with the kids.” She met her husband in church at age twelve and married at twenty-one. She dropped out of Utah State University to help her husband through school, then learned she was pregnant. They now have three children. “I taught myself to write at the kitchen table, which sounds cool, but it’s stupid,” she said. “I should have finished school.”

It was stupid! And I should have finished school. But I forgive my stupid self. A little. 

Conley started a Substack newsletter that became homeculture: “letters about capitalism, care, and the home.” Her pieces have covered the challenges of having ADHD as a mom, the history of embroidery, religious representations of vultures—a miscellany of unexpectedly compelling topics. Her writing brims with emotion, and she includes personal anecdotes, though her aim is to be more observant and analytical than confessional. Taking one of her daughters to a Taylor Swift concert, she noted in a recent dispatch, called to mind medieval Europe: “Once I understood the concert goers as pilgrims, the stadium as a shrine temporarily consecrated by Swift’s physical presence, and Swift as a kind of venerated Saint, I thought I understood my experience.”

Links to the pocket observatory pieces Funt mentioned

Attention is All We Need Nail biting through an Adderall shortage while AI models get all the digital dopamine they need.

I've Slept with My Baby Blankie for 36 Years I could be embarrassed about my baby blanket. Instead, I'll tell you everything it's taught me.

Vultures, Motherhood and the Dead (Year) Vultures taught me what to do with the dead.

A Pilgrimage to a Taylor Swift Shrine Why was I feeling God in this The Eras Tour?

Recently, when Conley and I made plans to meet up in her neighborhood, she told me how I could spot her: “Pink dress. Frizzy hair.” She is thirty-eight, sincere and a bit shy; she said that she has trouble maintaining eye contact. She often punctuates a deep thought with a self-conscious burst of laughter. Her newsletter has accumulated a modest subscriber base above fifteen thousand—not enough to crack Substack’s leaderboard of top performers, she said, but sufficient to cover some of her expenses. Her open rate is strong, often around 60 percent, nearly twice the average rate for newsletters sent by The Atlantic.

Hi. It’s you. You're the reader who gives me that open rate. 

One day in May, Conley was writing at a café when she got a notification: Heather Armstrong had died, at the age of forty-seven. (It was reported that the cause was suicide.) Conley wanted to publish something on how Armstrong had inspired her, but she was overcome by emotion, and unable to type. She went to her car, opened her voice memos app, and hit record. “I haven’t thought about Heather Armstrong for years,” she said into her phone. “But at one point she saved my life.” During a period when Conley was wrestling with severe postpartum depression, Armstrong’s posts about overcoming a similar darkness “kept me here.” After ten minutes of speech—visceral, at times halting—she released the recording to homeculture subscribers. A listener said that it sounded like a friend leaving a voicemail.

Since then, once a week, Conley has left “voicemails” for her audience, via Substack and Spotify, elaborating on her writing and other stray thoughts. “Just imagine I’m calling you from a Vtech Jelly Bean cordless phone, in translucent purple,” she explains in an introduction. “I’ll imagine you’re listening to my message on your Vtech Jelly Bean cordless phone in translucent red.” The recordings are short and informal; as Conley writes: “You’re too busy for another podcast. Me too. So this is just a voicemail, the kind we used to leave one another before texting and social media.” They embody the earnest, rambling quality of an earlier Web, where someone might blog into the ether on a subject of niche interest, hoping that someone out there will care.

Oh my gosh, this is it. We’re doing a kind of care work with this collaboration. How did I not see that before this article?

Meanwhile, the voicemails have proved stunningly effective. “I’m almost in tears listening to your recording, Meg,” a listener replied. Another wrote, “I look forward to continuing to read your voice.” As responses poured in, Conley invited paid subscribers to leave her voicemails, too. She promptly received more than two hundred messages, which she began listening to in batches, on Friday morning strolls; sometimes, she catches herself talking back. She has begun releasing a subscriber’s voicemail, along with a personal reply, every other week. It could probably be a standalone business, she said, “except that’s not currently what my work is.”

That work might have once been viewed as a stepping stone in journalism. Now—for her, for any writer—it may be a summit. I wondered how Conley felt about the arc of her career. “Do I want to keep writing a newsletter? Do I want to write a book? I don’t have a five-year plan or a business model,” she replied. “I just want to write. Writing sustains me! And I think my writing helps sustain some of my readers. I just need to reach the place where that writing economically sustains my family, too.” The first time she hit play on a subscriber-sent voicemail, the speaker was so on the mark that Conley welled with delight. “Hi, Meg,” the message began. “Sorry I missed you.”

Read the whole piece in Columbia Journalism Review. 

Yesterday’s voicemail was about Jurassic Park, The Eras Tour movie, linear time, spilled popcorn and death.