Jia Tolentino talks writing, social media and the age of the internet at Scripps

Two Asian women sit on stage with microphones; the one on the left is speaking.
Writers Jia Tolentino and R. O. Kwon visited Scripps College on Feb. 24 to discuss Tolentino’s new essay collection “Trick Mirror”. (Alyssa Leong • The Student Life)

Jia Tolentino took the stage of Scripps College’s Balch Auditorium on Feb. 24 to join bestselling author R.O. Kwon, Scripps’ 2020 Mary Routt Chair of Writing. The pair engaged in a conversation about writing, dealing with criticism, life in the age of the internet, social media and Tolentino’s recent acclaimed essay collection “Trick Mirror.”

Tolentino is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker, and previously worked at The Hairpin as a contributing editor and Jezebel as deputy editor. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Pitchfork, Time and more.

The Q&A kicked off with Kwon inquiring about Tolentino’s path to become a writer, noting that many students aspiring to become writers were in attendance. 

Tolentino described having a love of reading and writing from a young age, but didn’t think she’d be able to write professionally.

“Being a writer was not a path that seemed available,” she said. “It seemed out of the realm of possibility.” 

She graduated from the University of Virginia in 2009 with an English degree and joined the Peace Corps, writing a lengthy manuscript in her spare time while working in Kyrgyzstan — until her laptop was stolen.

“When you’re 21 [and just starting out] … [it was] devastating,” she said, invoking self-deprecating humor. “I was like, ‘God doesn’t want me to write! The universe has forbidden me from ever trying this again!’”

However, Tolentino kept writing, taking odd writing jobs before being accepted into an MFA program at the University of Michigan. It was in Michigan where she began editing at The Hairpin, after which she followed editor Emma Carmichael to Jezebel. But when Jezebel’s parent company Gawker went bankrupt, she seemingly hit a dead end — until she got an offer from The New Yorker.

Tolentino said the offer was unexpected. Having built her career in a time of financial unease, she didn’t have any lofty goals until The New Yorker picked her up.

“Graduating into the recession was really useful for me, because my expectations were set below the ground,” she said. “How can any of us make any goals [during a recession]? The last ten years, my entire semblance of adulthood has been bound by institutional collapse.”

Kwon moved the conversation quickly from financial peril to another type of doom — internet trolls. Tolentino, when asked how to deal with abuse online, admitted that the dynamics of the internet and social media are deeply unnatural.

“I care really deeply about what my friends think about me and what my colleagues and peers who I respect think about me, but a stranger? If they’re up in my shit, it’s actually none of my business,” she said. “Does a writer need to be on social media? … No, you have to write well.” 

Tolentino then joked that the first step to writing included blocking social media apps.

“A good writing day is one in which, I mean, I just actually write,” she joked. “I’ll go into the bathroom and realize: I haven’t looked at myself all day. … There’s nothing better than the feeling of complete and utter absorption.”

Another path to good writing, according to Tolentino? Reading. Lots of it. 

“Read so much,” she said. “Read so so so so so much. Read a lot. Read ten times as much as you’re writing.”

Ultimately, though, Tolentino assured student writers in the audience that becoming “great” isn’t what college is meant for, theorizing instead that it’s a space to test your strengths and develop them.

“You can’t expect the writing that you do in college will be great. … I compare it to cooking or playing a sport … you do it for long enough and all of the basics become unconscious,” Tolentino said. 

After the event, the auditorium buzzed with excitement, with attendees talking, buying “Trick Mirror” in the lobby and waiting in line to get their book signed. 

5C students spoke about Tolentino’s strong presence and personality. 

“I liked her wit and her humor,” Claire Galla SC ’22 said. “Whether it was talking about … her struggles as a writer, or when she was praising the [review] that tore her book apart, she [owned up to them], like, ‘Yeah, I am all those things, this is accurate.’ Her humility was really cool.”

Emily Bisaga CM ’22 said Tolentino’s bold and self-reliant persona was something missing from her life as a New York resident. 

“I enjoyed her character and way of being,” she said. “I’m from New York, so I miss that characterization of people, the strength and confidence and rawness that she has.”

Others enjoyed how Tolentino spoke about modern themes.

“What I love about Jia is she has this almost predicative intuitive sense of … cultural touchstones,” Juliette Jeffers PZ ’22 said. “She writes about things [like] Twitter and [the internet]. … She has this incredible … intuition.”

Olivia Landgraff PZ ’22 agreed, calling Tolentino’s work relevant and relatable to the average 5C student.

“I love her media reviews — she did a piece about ‘Cats’ and a piece about ‘Cheer’ and I loved both of those so much,” Landgraff said. “Just listening to her speak and how her brain works — I feel like that’s how we talk.”

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