May 9, 2019
Jazmine Hughes, the 27 year-old magazine editor and writer, is almost insufferable. She’s too much: too funny, too smart, too kind, too good. On the page, her writing is precise and insightful. In person, she’s intimidating, at first putting you at ease with her gentle, genuine curiosity and then abruptly tilting you off balance with her quick wit. Her Wikipedia page is unnerving — she accomplished this and that and what when she was how young? Jazmine is a yardstick against which you measure yourself at great personal risk.
With great nonchalance and impeccable timing, Jazmine regularly drops incisive essays into the feeding frenzy that is the internet, where they are devoured whole by passionate fans (read: me). Her pieces are rare, exotic specimens in this age of the online-confessional: meditations on the intimate and personal that don’t feel exploitative or exhibitionist. The essays’ effect on our relationship was devastating. So cowed was I by her writerly powers of self-reflection and humor that I could barely get it together to actually get to know her. The first few times we met, I couldn’t relax. I bluffed hard, poorly performing the best, most clever version of myself, trying to make Jazmine laugh or grin or groan by any means necessary. My every utterance felt forced. Eventually, I got over the damage she caused my ego (the trick is to stop comparing your brain to hers). I learned that Jazmine has vulnerabilities and weaknesses that she hasn’t metabolized into exacting prose. As our friendship grew, it became apparent to me that, even in her hands, not all of life’s drama becomes fodder for funny anecdotes or riveting memoir — some of it is just bullshit that weighs you down.
In the year and a half we have been emailing back and forth, Jazmine has experienced enough growth and upheaval that we’ve entirely scrapped several different versions of this interview. Not all of lived experience coalesces neatly into narrative, definitely not for a woman in her twenties, definitely not in 2019. And yet, though the contours of our conversation have changed over time, certain central themes have remained the same. Again and again, we asked: How does one grapple with power, desire, and purpose? Right now, Jazmine stands at a fork in the proverbial road, facing a career choice, deciding which lane to be spectacularly successful in. As she puts it, “‘Do I want to be a writer or do I want to be an editor?’ is my professional question.” It has been such a pleasure to listen in as she imagines different futures for herself. However her story unfolds, I’m excited to read along.
Jazmine Hughes is a writer and editor at The New York Times Magazine. I photographed her at her plant-filled apartment this April.
When you write, who do you write for? Do you have an (ideal) audience in my mind? Has your writing changed as you refine your sense of who the reader is at each individual publication?
I write to make myself laugh, mostly. Which isn’t always useful, but it’s a good start: when I’m staring at a blank page and unsure which way is forward, I just write what I want to read. I’m a pretty average reader as far as these things go: eager, always looking for jokes, short attention span, so I sometimes write for the worst version of myself. But then there are assignments in which an ideal reader more readily materializes in my mind – for Spuds MacKenzie, for example, I wrote that for my best friend Haley, a writer and editor and my former boss. I don’t know why! But it clarified and refined my thoughts, and holding her darling lil face in my head as I wrote made it more fun. I'm writing something long right now and I've had a particular person in mind the entire time. It helps to think about people you love most reading your sentences aloud. How could they sound bad that way?
You can tell when someone’s writing for Twitter, which is just stupid.
I don’t write tailored to a publication: I write to get the information across in the best way. There’s a way to inform one type of reader by talking down to another type of reader, which is a hard balance to strike. Everyone has blind spots; people reference Joan Didion in their writing all the time without explaining allusions, and I have to Google whatever the fuck they’re talking about. You’re reading an article, not a textbook; there’s external work involved to get yourself to the same place of understanding as the writer. So I write with the understanding that if someone doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, they can go and find out.
On learning to edit herself and the process of editing other people
The way I learned to self-edit is, when I was writing shorter things, working at New York Magazine and freelancing and stuff, I would write a version of the story, then I would not look at it for two days, and then I would try to rewrite the story from memory, and just see what I remembered. Then I would compare the two and anything that I remembered was probably more important than the things I didn’t, so I’d cut that stuff out.
Everybody has a thing that keeps them from doing their best work, whether it is being anxious about writing your lede or worrying about tying your conclusion together, but once you get over that hump and once you’ve reported out your story, you know what you’re talking about. You become an expert on that thing, even if for only 4,000 words. So it’s just a matter of making it flow logically for someone who knows less than you do. It’s like: “How can I make the reader know just as much as I do?”
There have been times when someone is sending me a draft and the draft just isn’t cutting it, so I’ll call them -- which scares every millennial -- and I’ll say, “Just talk to me like I’m your friend and tell me what you want to say in this piece and I’m going to type it all out” and then I’ll write what I think they mean, based on that conversation, and I’ll say “Make this sound like you” and also make sure I didn’t step on your experience. Sometimes someone starts to make a circle and they come really close to closing it, so you just close the circle and say, “Tell me if I closed this right.”
How has editing affected your own writing?
I’m still anxious about writing (is paragraph 4 the worst thing ever committed to text, evidence in the file proving that I should be fired, lines that, if they were ever leaked, would result in my banishment from society?????), just more certain about what I should be anxious about (no, paragraph 5 is).
Editing has made me a better reader, more adept at intuiting structure and style and intention in writing. I’m less precious about embellishment – I used to pump stories with jokes, which is both a strength and a nervous tic, so I’m slowly unlearning that. Editing has clarified that I’m only writing what’s important.
It is the year 2019 and Twitter is a major player in all kinds of cultural conversations (the best, the worst). You excel in that quippy and cutting arena. How does that medium relate to your longer-form work? Is it most useful as a tool for socializing and broadcasting or does it also have value for you in developing ideas and forming a critical attitude?
I tweet because I get bored a lot and I like attention. I wish I had better things to do.
If Twitter is useful for anything, it’s a) black people live tweeting events (awards shows, season finales, the production of life) and b) working out ideas on a low-stakes stage. It’s yelling into a void and hoping that something will stick – the other day, I had this thought that I wanted to work out about therapy and self-reflection and giving a good interview. I edit interviews for a living, and I’ve noticed that a number of the very best ones feature the subject invoking their therapist now and again. But I wanted to test this theory, to plot out what I was thinking for my own benefit, and find a community of self-selecting like-minded people to discuss it with me, instead of doing what I usually do, which is testing my theories out on unsuspecting people just trying to refill their drink at a party.
Twitter’s also changed so much over the ten (ugh) years (wow) I’ve (who?) been on it (barf). What’s remained, obviously, is the ability to form social connections. I met some of my best friends in a Twitter canoe about the hottest actors on Empire.
I wish we talked more about power in the industry. In every industry we are all operating at different inherent levels of power and we all have professionally-attributed amounts of power — and then we are all in pursuit of some other kind of [personal] power, too.
Growing up, what did power look like to you? Who and what helped shape your understanding of power (institutional, interpersonal, etc.)? How has it changed? How do you think about power in your industry? What kind of power do you want to have?
[Growing up] my idea of power was completely knotted up in the idea that I was straight. Once my identity came into sharper focus, my relationship to power did, too. My natural ambition for the nearly the first three decades of my life was formed largely – albeit somewhat unconsciously – by the idea (and maybe the fear?) that I was a cis, straight woman who would marry a cis, straight man; my idea of personal power, then, was in direct response to the assumed subjugation I would endure on the basis of my gender. So I was consumed with the idea of accruing power. There was no version of my idealized future that didn’t involve me as the head of something, or in charge, or managing, or anything that would help me obtain social/professional power. But once I began dating women, and realized the possibility of a life partnership with someone who wasn’t a man, all those knots melted away; I still wanted power, but it was less administrative, less tied up in running something and more consumed with doing what I genuinely gravitated toward. I didn’t want to be Tina Brown on the cover of The Vanity Fair Diaries, where’s she’s peering out of a car window in sunglasses and pearl earrings, reeking class and authority and power and privilege and taste. I just wanted a red suit.
The power in the media industry rests in white hands. Changes in diverse hiring and assigning have been useful but largely incremental, and situated mostly in who gets to write, which is both the most visible aspect of the industry, but the one that requires the most support. I want to see more diversity in who is making the assignments, who is doing the hiring, who is deciding what is a fact and what’s a “proper” word. It needs to go below the surface.
Does your desire for diversity at the tier of power in publishing that is managerial and editorial affect how you envision your own trajectory? Does that put pressure on you to become a boss or an editor, rather than a writer?
I think I best function as the squeakiest wheel.
On her Spuds MacKenzie piece and self-reflection
Where did the Spuds MacKenzie piece come from? Did you pitch it to yourself? Had thoughts about college been bubbling up lately, or have you always known you’d write about your experience at Connecticut in some capacity, someday?
Is it weird to admit that I've only just learned about self-examination? I think I'm adept at accepting the present circumstances of a situation, which has its pros and cons, but it's like my brain cracked open and, suddenly, interrogation and capacity to create change and self-direction became available to me. (Better late than never.) I completed college mostly because I was already there, and I just sort of accepted my baseline social dissatisfaction and never considered that I could find something different, because I didn't think I deserved to. And I had a fine time in college — I did everything I set out to do — but I wasn't happy, I was just doing it. And now, after seven years of critical distance and an intentional construction of a life that makes me happy (fewer white people, intellectual stimulation, mutual support), I've finally realized how uncomfortable and dissatisfied I was for a long, developmental part of not only my life, but my the critical formation of my being (as writer, as adult, as partner). The more you get used to a thorn in your side — for me, a mild unease — the easier it becomes to think that's just how life is. And it isn't! I am allowed to feel nice. And so I like your language of “pitching it to myself,” because in some way, I knew that I wanted to sort through all these feelings, and because I have problems, I wanted to do it sort of publicly.
Is it weirder to admit, then, that I channeled this kind of profound breakthrough into a talking dog? Maybe. But Spuds is so funny, and pretty easily encompassed my feelings about white revelry: that it’s just so dumb. Whenever I play beer pong or quarters or whatever, there’s this trenchant, delicious exhalation of how fucking unspeakably dumb it all is, to try to throw a ping pong ball into a cup, and it gives me a twisted, unique joy.
I don’t find it weird that you have only recently learned about self-examination because I too have only lately awakened to the potential for change begat by self-reflection. What is harder to reconcile when it comes to you is the disconnect between your powers of observation (I am thinking of your sharp, writerly analytical mind, carving up and breaking down external subjects) and this personal stasis. You tell it like it is so beautifully and hilariously in your essays and profiles and you also tell it like it is in casual conversation. Have you just been freely giving your insights to the world and refusing to integrate them for your own purposes into your lizard-brain?
Yes!!!!! The second part to self-examination – which has proven to be much tougher – is integration, implementing these incredible breakthroughs into practice, which takes time and confidence and patience. It has been helpful to consider all of this at a distance – what might be useful for this Jazmine character, who is nothing more to me than a close friend or a beloved literary character – but implementation has been proven to be slightly harder. Which is probably why I’m better on paper than I am in person (I’m still very good in person, though).
Do you have a sense of why your impulse is to sort through your feelings publicly? You seem to truly love therapy, which is its own form of performative catharsis. Does the process of confessing to the world allow for dialogue that would otherwise be limited to close friends? Do you regularly engage with readers of your work?
In considering primary relational identifiers, instead of ID-ing as a “friend” or “daughter,” I feel most comfortable labeling myself as a “sister” – a big sister, more precisely. I have four younger sisters (hi sisters), who I text more than I talk to these days, but the role of loving didacticism colors so many of my relationships and how I approach the world. It’s a compulsion, really, to feel as if you are grist for someone else to have a more informed experience, and it’s taken some untangling to stop sacrificing myself when… no one asked me to!
But I’m also deluded enough (see above) to think that no one is really listening or taking me seriously, which is its own problem, but it can be quite freeing. There have been times where strangers or new friends have referenced work I’ve done affecting them, especially stories I wrote for The Hairpin and Cosmopolitan around self-confidence and imposter syndrome. It’s nice to hear. It’s really nice to hear! But I’m always surprised, because a) my body of work is quite small and b) I don’t think about anyone reading it until I see them doing so, like sitting on the same subway car as me with the magazine at which I work in their hands, and even still, I’m pretty sure they’re just doing the crossword.
I do some speaking engagements – panels and interviewing people and such – and I feel much more comfortable, in a way, doing that, because I know exactly who I’m dealing with: the fifty people or 300 people or 1,000 people in front of me. I want the devil I know.
On the writing that inspires and comforts her
Are there certain pieces that you go back to again and again for inspiration or comfort or courage?
Four years ago, my colleague Mark Leibovich – who’s this insane political reporter, he gets it better than anyone – wrote this short, sort of lighthearted profile of Larry King, and I think it’s the most wonderful thing in the entire fucking world. I re-read it all the time. It’s very simple: King, who is largely obsessed with death, had already died, in a not-small way – his show was cancelled. I read it at a time where I was, too, obsessed with my own death, and I lapped up King’s musings about the importance of ritual and his random non-sequiturs. It delights me to no end, because for the first time, it took someone who I didn’t care at all about, and it made me care.
I re-read “Heartburn,” by Nora Ephron, whenever I am sad. There is a very good recipe for mashed potatoes.
I’ve been reading a lot of interviews lately, unpeeling them really slowly, reading bits and pieces at a time. I’ve been especially interested in black female visual artists, and there’s this interview with Lorna Simpson in The Paris Review that I’ve been unpeeling. Ralph Ellison has a good one, too, where he’s interviewed by two people and I imagine them speaking to him simultaneously, like little robots. Morgan Parker, who is a poet that I know and adore, had a gorgeous interview with the Washington Square Review. I’m finally starting to build my own process, so all I want to do right now is figure out how everybody else does it.