Since I left TED and returned to Grad school, I have been navigating the world of research writing and regularly asking “who is the audience here?” I care very deeply about making research accessible to a wide audience, not just other academics. I remember grimacing my way through some TEDtalks, cringing when statements were made with too much certainty or an exaggerated finding. But I also find myself grimacing through lectures that run for hours without clear definition. Writing for a book or an article is a very different practice than writing for video or radio. Since media has taken may different forms, media literacy — and expectations — need to be clearer. So, how do we approach all the cool tools that exist in our Media ecosystem?
For precision and peer review, academic journals are unparalleled. It is easy to follow conversations between them and see where someone was coming from because there is a clear code of conduct with citations. Debates are also public, so when something is uncertain, there will likely be notes nearby. The community is good about critiquing work and bringing to light inconsistencies. That said, academic journals are inaccessible to most people (paywalls) and so full of dense, clunky writing that requires training to unpack successfully that it cannot reach some of the communities who need it the most. There are some debates where nothing seems certain and selecting a direction forward seems difficult and dangerous. But these are the best places to go for truly in-depth research and understanding its limits. These articles require a lot of time and attention to unpack.
Nonfiction, wider audience books try to turn this clunkier writing into a format for a wider audience who is still excited to read 350 pages on a specific topic. Editors will shape stories with the researchers to help the book “flow” a little better, and some of the precision is lost in the sculpting of the story line. Books are not always fact checked, though books written in an academic press/setting may be subjected to similar peer pressures for rigorous methods that academics writing for journals may experience. Non-fiction books are written by academics but also by journalists and other writers who may have different or more limited training. The best way to gauge what kind of writing it is is to read about the author and consider some of their previous work. These books require commitment and attention to reading. It is also to important who the author is and what claims they make about their research methods in the book: what is disclosed? What is omitted?
Daily Newspaper articles — This media is produced more quickly than books and peer reviewed journal articles and has a different goal for its readers. These are shorter articles — geared towards informing busy people who are unlikely to interact with the nuts and bolts of the research behind the story. They want to know how it will affect them and they want the writing to be clear and quickly digestible. How you design sentences and storylines matter. This means skimming off another layer of precision. This is not necessarily a bad thing — quick exposure to many topics allows for individuals to be better informed about all the diverse activity taking place in research. But the limits of the research may be more difficult to understand immediately. “It kind of works sometimes” doesn’t really sell stories. It means you should continue digging, asking what the sources are, and following stories over time before determining what is “true.”
Radio and Video — Writing for Radio and Video presents different challenges. Listeners cannot easily go back and make a section go really slowly so they can comprehend it. Especially if it’s live. Sometimes you can pause it and replay it, but the ideal is to explain something with enough clarity and the right pacing that keeps the audience interested before they get bored. If radio/video speakers spoke the Methods Section of a peer reviewed paper aloud, the majority of their audience would tune out. Both are faster paced and require some elements of drama to make their elements engaging in ways that academic papers may not need to. Does it shave off some precision? Yes. But what is the goal with these elements? For a TED Talk, it is to present a window into a new world of research that may have previously been intimidating before. It is not meant to be cited necessarily, but hopefully it can guide you towards research that you can cite and engage with more deeply. Radio and Video are excellent for the “so what?” elements of your written work. Why should non-academic people go through the trouble of tracking down your article? How does it serve the community outside of universities?
Perhaps one mistake I see most often with research presented through Radio/Video is the certainty demanded from these kinds of performances. We all know politicians are lying when they say “we will do X AND Y AND Z AND A AND B AND C!” but it’s required from this public performance. I think that pressure translates into these mediums sometimes as well. In my ideal world, researchers would have a cool, intriguing question AND a clear “so what?” that was accessible to a wider audience. Then they could take you on a journey of discovery — what have you been trying along the way to answer your question? Not promising a result and immediate application. The TEDTalks and podcasts I’ve heard about the discovery journey are among my very favorites — and they serve to inspire new generations of young researchers.
I think it’s easy to say “X MEDIA HAS RUINED EVERYTHING” but harder to say, what is this medium doing well? How can I use it to make my research more accessible and engaging? How can we work together to improve the ways that research is presented in media? THESE are interesting and challenging conversations. It’s worth thinking about how your research would look in each of these formats — and how/why it changes.
Foreword: I had been drafting this letter to New York as a series of memories I have from my 4 years here. There 5 chapters are meant to offer a glimpse of what this city has meant to me. Unedited.
1. Arrival. There are two apartments that I stayed in during my bright transition time between college and my first job. Those days, anything felt possible. The future felt so bright and limitless, each new experience sweeter than the last. One of those apartments was my cousin’s home in London and the second was my friend and mentor Sunny’s apartment in Union Square.
I arrived in the dark on a cold night in March, but I could see the bright red-orange walls from the light the open door cast from the hallway. It was unlike any other apartment I had ever seen in New York. I fell in love with it immediately. I picked the corner on the L shaped orange leather couch to read and a little white poodle emerged from a bedroom to greet me. She barked at me until I pet her and she settled herself into my calf.
New York’s skyline glittered outside the windows along two walls of the apartment. As I stood up, the little dog wandered back into the darkness. I climbed out onto their terrace, amazed that even over 14th street I couldn’t hear the traffic below. The city’s twinkling night made my heart burst. I cried as my heart overflowed with its brightness. I felt invincible.
I still believed in love at this point in my life. I loved myself with the glow of an old, steady friendship as I applied red lipstick in the apartment’s mosaic bathroom and prepared myself to disappear into the night, meeting friends at the Bowery hotel for a drink. There is magic in that kind of love, I never felt alone.
The apartment has changed a bit in the four years I’ve lived in New York. The orange leather couch came to live in my first apartment in Chelsea for two years before I moved to Brooklyn. It didn’t come with me to this new island, but found a new home through a family on Craigslist. Today some of the walls are white and others are Poppy red. Roxy, the poodle, is a little older now but still demanding pets. And there is still an unbridled joy I feel every time I stand on the terrace over 14th street staring out into glittering Manhattan. Every time I return for a visit, I remember the girl with the red lipstick in the mirror and those glittering nights where anything felt possible.
New York, you were among my first loves.
There was one night you made me feel like magic. It was a night I held on to and used to negotiate with myself for months after we fell apart and burst into flames.
The Friday night before you came to my apartment with flowers and a bottle of wine. I made Tinga, my favorite winter Mexican food dish, and you helped me by shredding the rotisserie chicken into smaller pieces. It was my least favorite task and I told you so. After dinner we sat on my couch, me at one end and you at the other, running your hands back through your hair repeatedly and leaning on your knees while I told you my immigration story. When my roommate and her boyfriend came home around midnight, they both looked started and rushed into her room as fast as possible. I was confused. We weren’t even touching, I was just telling you a story. You left around 2:30am, lingering in my doorway. I asked what you were doing the next day and invited you to a friend’s going away party and you said yes. Still you waited but I didn’t get up. Instead I saluted you from the couch and said goodnight, something we’d laugh about the next day. You shook your head and left.
So… what happened? My roommate asked the next morning. You could have cut the sexual tension with a knife last night. Oh? What? I replied. I never pick up on these things. She laughed at me, and I went to meet you. We sat next to each other at this party where I knew everyone and you just wanted to talk to me. You left for an hour to see your brother, then I met you outside Death & Co. in the East Village.
I made plans for us for dinner, you told me. No one had ever planned an adventure like this for me before. I always did the planning. Death & Co. wouldn’t let us in with your brother who tagged along. He offered to leave and I invited him to stay, we could go to a bar I loved on Avenue C instead. We sat in Evelyn talking about Sleep No More and you pulled out your phone and bought two tickets to take me with you to the 11:30pm show. I had a Moscow Mule and flirted with you, one eyebrow raised, curious.
We went to Momofuku and talked nervously, though I had been with you the night before. You paid for everything, even when I protested. We decided to walk to Chelsea, to the show, and I took your hand. You switched sides to walk on the side of the sidewalk near the cars. My mom told me this is how I should treat a woman. You said. I laughed.
We had to wait in the smoky bar before until we were called to go into the show. I bought you a sidecar and you sat down so close to me that my curves molded into your side. Your arm came around my back and pulled me by the waist, closer to you. I think you felt braver in the darkness, which would be true about us for our time together.
We went into the set and wandered around separately, then you started following me more closely. I wandered into one of the studies on the set. You followed me. We were alone. I backed into a desk. You stood in front of me staring behind your mask. I pulled mine off. So did you. We stared at each other for a heartbeat. Then you bent me back and kissed me. You hands slide their way from my rib cage down my back, holding my lower back and my waist and adjusting me so my lines complimented yours as you leaned over me. And then, quite suddenly, an actor appeared with the group following him and we were interrupted. I blushed in the darkness, pulled on my mask, and walked stiffly out of the room, your laughter following me.
As you caught up to me you said, let it be known, I didn’t want to stop, your whisper tickling my ear and sending a shiver down my spine. We stood in other rooms “watching” the show, but really just leaning our lines into each other, molding to one another in the darkness. Let’s go, you said. We just knew you were coming home with me, so our feet lead us there without either of us saying anything.
The rest of the evening is a blur. It was very quickly strange and confusing. Where we’d been so clearly on the same page for hours, we started to fall apart. I ignored it. So did you. We woke up in the morning tangled together, my head on your chest and your arm around me, your other hand over mine over you heart. You kissed my forehead. We were quiet and wrapped around each other for hours, my curtains thin enough to allow the sunlight to wash over us.
You said you needed to leave to go think. You would be gone for 6 weeks now, to Australia. But curled up on my couch we couldn’t bear to let go. Each time one of us stood, the other rushed to hold them. You kissed me and my heart melted through my stomach and onto the floor. I need to think. You said, kissing me softly on the forehead. But I’ll come back soon. It wont be that long. You promised, maybe to reassure both of us. And then you left and I sat back down on the couch, alone, missing you in a way that was already a burning white light.
New York, I was addicted to you and sometimes couldn’t stop, even when I knew I should.
The morning after the Florida nightclub shooting I walked 45 minutes from my apartment in Clinton Hill to Gowanus for a CreativeMornings event. It was already a hot summer day at 8am, the concrete under my feet heat the leather of my sandals with each step. The news had knocked the wind out of me when I woke up and read the headline on my phone. I started imagining the horrible headlines Breitbart would draft, spinning this already terror inducing election cycle even further out of control. This tragedy felt like a bad omen and I was desperate to shake it off. Every time I felt my panic rise, I walked a little faster.
I arrived in the beautiful light space for the event and took a deep breath in the doorway to steady myself. The audience was a very specific subset of New York; people flowed between the tables and around each other light brightly colored water. Small groups gathered all around the site holding white paper cups of steaming coffee and gesticulating animatedly. The general buzz of this gathering held much more light than the twisting fear in my stomach. My former intern Brian appeared out of the crowd. ‘Hey Diana!’ he said, in his ever eager and abrupt way. ‘I saved you a seat!’
We sat down in the second row just as the founder and CreativeMorningsNYC host Tina Roth Eisenberg stood to introduce the musical opener, Amy Vachal. As Amy quietly started strumming her guitar, I felt my shoulders settle down my back. Each breath became a little deeper and longer. The dread’s long fingers started releasing my heart, one spindly finger at a time. Amy’s voice reset the tone for the rest of my day. I settled into her music, touching the depth of my sadness. My face was frozen in the way I’d perfected from many years of pulling on my titanium shell to do the work I needed to do every day, but tears streamed out of the corners of my eyes and into my lap.
In this moment, in this chapel of light in Gowanus, I was allowed to break for a moment, leave behind the emotional weight of my fear and swim back up towards the light. This too seemed like an omen and I felt a little safer.
New York, you showed me what it meant to sit with many different emotions at the same time. You showed me how intense sorrow and hope and joy could sit at a table together without yelling over each other.
I withered into my seat in the TED Theatre on election night. The polls reporting from Virginia were astonishingly close. Pennsylvania was ok for now, but the Midwest was going red. The prediction meter on the New York Times site that had called for a comfortable Hillary win earlier that day swung off into the deep red and called the election for Trump. My office, earlier full of excitement, turned into a ghost town as people went home to manage their shock. I thought of my two coworkers at the Javits center, now leaking the depth of their despair through their twitter accounts.
I started the day early: I went to vote around 8am, picked up my I voted sticker, and took a selfie on the sidewalk, posting to my Facebook about my excitement that I was able to vote for the first female presidential candidate to make it this far. This morning was the first time in the election cycle that I was excited about Hillary. That should have been my warning sign. Poll after poll closed, calling the election for Trump.
In that nearly empty theatre on Election Night 2016, filled with shock and horror, I heard that Arpaio had been voted out of office in Arizona. I stood up and felt the light in my heart flicker back to life. They did it! All of the amazing organizers fighting for more than 20 years in Arizona had removed Arpaio from power peacefully in Arizona! If there is hope in Arizona, we will be ok, I told myself. As I went home in a subway car filled with the silence of a funeral, I held my head high and gave myself permission to recover quietly this evening and regroup for tomorrow.
Keep your hope, I wrote on my Facebook before I went home that night. We’ll all need it tomorrow and for the next four years. Protect your heart and your mind. It will keep you stronger.
On November 9th, 2016, I woke up ready to organize.
New York, you healed the fighter in my heart.
5. This is where I leave you.
This spring I was a twisted, broken bird in the ashes. I sprinted through a tough full time job, my Ph.D. applications, and hid in my ceramics studio to avoid looking too closely at all the chapters of my life that were dying around me, like plants cared for by the wrong gardener for too long. May 2016 to May 2017 was a year of denial, of avoidance, of “keep going, just get the work done, then you can heal your heart.” I woke up May 1, 2017, broken and more exhausted than I thought my heart could ever begin to handle.
From the ashes, I looked back up at the sky and smiled. I acknowledged that this was the breaking point I needed to hit so I could shed the excess things I carried. I was broken, but I could heal. It was a gift. I left behind a lifetime of “should” and a conformity that choked me to death. I was left with a road I was going to define on my own. I smiled when it hurt most, because it meant I was growing. I was free.
In just a few weeks of the shedding and embracing the brokenness, I found a happiness in my heart that I hadn’t seen for years. I woke up uncertain of what the day would hold, ready to read my energy and where my excitement took me to work through projects with love instead of obligation. I fell in love. With myself. With a new city. With a new person. I told all of my loves, be gentle with me, I am broken and finding my light again. Please be nurturing and gentle. Right now my heart is weak though my dreams, like bright white light, are strong. And my loves arrived with a patience unlike anything I’ve seen before.
I woke up one morning in this new city that held my heart and decided to get the tattoo I carried on my phone for years. I sat in a café eating breakfast – a traditional German spread – and selected a local tattoo artist from the Berlin listings in Inked Magazine. I rode a crowded bus listening to Thomas Rhett’s “T-Shirt” on repeat and then a train to Mitte, showing up in the studio just as the man who would paint Picasso’s le Moineau (1907) into my left wrist was trying to leave for the day. He grumbled when I asked if he would do it, there and then, but when he learned I was from Mexico City, he said yes with new kindness, in Portuguese. In this new city that held my heart, I lay on my back on a table speaking Spanish while the artist spoke Portuguese with an accent from his native Sao Paulo, and in 10 minutes, I left with a love letter to myself etched in my skin. My sparrow is all of the complexity, beauty and sorrow of life in its simplest, most elegant form. Everything I love about this image is true in the reasons I love math and a beautiful equation. I am defined by my terms and no one else’s. I can no longer hide from this truth.
I returned to, and now prepare to leave New York, knowing this city pushed me to my limits, left me broken in my ashes, and ready to chase my dreams. I loved, felt my heart shatter more than a few times, and learned what it feels like to heal completely. Thank you, city that was among my first loves. You were not the one for me, but you gave me so many things I never imagined I’d receive.
I’ll confess: I have a box under my bed that has all of the love letters I’ve received from boyfriends since I was a teenager. The oldest one is from my first real boyfriend made me a set of stacked silver rings at art camp (I’ve lost two of the 4, but the other 2 remain safely tucked in the letter that he wrote for me when he gave them to me on the last night of camp). There are handmade cards and printed cards with notes in barely legible handwriting, drawings of birds on construction paper and nicknames scrawled under them. But mixed in with these notes from ex-boyfriends, are the love letters I have received in my friendships and I consider those just as important, if not more important.
I am a firm believer in the Birthday card. I have a ritual around this for my closest friends. I spend a lot of time exploring paper stores, searching for a card as weird and funny and quirky as my friendships are. I wait until I have time to think about what I want to write to them, sit at my desk or in a coffee shop, and prepare to pour my heart and all the memories of the last year into my loopy handwriting on the page. I usually cry when I write them, it’s the only way I know how to write with my full heart. Then I seal the card, tuck it into the gift (often a book) that I am going to give them, and get really shy when they read it in front of me.
I open the box and pull out the letters from my friendships when I feel really lost or down or find myself struggling in a friendship. These letters are a timeline. They are my anchors to specific times in our friendships and how much I loved them and they loved me in those times in our lives. When a friendship evolves, or we move apart and speak less frequently, their letters help me remember that love, like faith, exists because we feel it and not always because there is concrete proof.
My letters have evolved over time. I send birthday cards, holidays cards, and now random texted when I am feeling especially lovely thoughts towards a friend. I sent one this morning to a friend whose personal growth in the last year has inspired me:
I was talking to a friend who is having issues with their marriage, and they told me to remember that marriage is an agreement to love and celebrate the evolution of another person along their entire journey in life.
I was thinking about that as it applies to friendships too this morning, and I am filled with love and pride in watching you grow in all the ways you’ve decided to explore. I love how much more often we talk now and what we explore together or what I learn from you all the time. I love you very much, my friend. In the long term friendship love journey, very psyched to be part of your life.
I sent it knowing everything I said here and now was exactly how I felt about our friendship and her journey. It now exists, frozen and time in love, for us to return to at another time where we may have trouble communicating or remembering how we got to the place in our friendship were we find ourselves later. It’s nice to have something to hold on to and remember that this time existed, that this love and friendship was firmly alive in each of us. A memory I will look back on for a rainy day, perhaps when I feel alone, and it’s good memory will return a little more light to my smiles.