Tressie McMillan Cottom's Newsletter on Craft, Voice, Self & Society
essaying is Tressie McMillan Cottom’s newsletter about reading, writing and public life.
Readers can sign up to have a Tressie essay delivered directly to their inbox for free, just as soon as it is fresh out the oven. These Big Reads are one of her favorite things to write: deeply researched, narrative-driven cultural analysis that surprise readers and challenge easy description. The Big Reads are always free.
If you want to know how the sausage is made, you can become a subscriber. Subscribers get the Big Read in their inbox and they get to tell Tressie what they think about it in real-time discussion threads. This behind-the-scenes community is ideal for curious people, people who ruin movies for their friends, and anyone who has ever said they wish they could sign up for Dr. Cottom’s class.
At least once a week, subscribers will get some mix of open discussions, audio stories, playlists, interviews with some of Tressie’s favorite people, a close-up view of how she thinks about the world, and a lot of stuff she would never say on Twitter.
Founding subscribers can go above and beyond by supporting the future writers grant! The as-yet-unnamed program is a response to academia’s hostility to good writers and media’s hostility to good thinkers who aren’t straight white men. The program is working on partnerships to support Black thinkers who have done the work and just need the resources to write their faces off.
Why I Am Building This Community
I am building essaying because I love essays and I believe in public life. It took me a while to figure this out but I am now crystal clear on how those are one and the same. The best essays build a public through process and form.
Everything about my professional success as a writer, researcher, and professor argues the power of writing in public life. This community is how I want to meet my public (you) to talk about my creative impulses. I will share the inner workings of my essaying process — from ideation to the final draft. We will tease apart a good idea from a merely interesting one. Why I love timelines. How I sort through multiple forms of media to create an archive. Pattern spotting. Smoothing the narrative seams. We will also break apart some of the more generative parts of the latest essay. At least once a week, you will get a newsletter about the thinking behind an essay. My hope is that this will inspire you to build the publics you want to see in your own communities.
Then there is the joy. I love everything about finding the good idea, breaking it apart, and turning it into an invitation to readers that I want to build with. I want everyone to love it. Subscriber content takes a strong position on fun: We will have it. I will be experimenting with audio stories, interviewing interesting people, and sharing the best thing I read recently.
However you choose to join essaying, welcome to our public.
“I am building essaying because I love essays and I believe in public life. It took me a while to figure this out but I am now crystal clear on how those are one and the same. The best essays build a public through process and form.”
Life After The MacArthur
People keep asking me what I am going to do with myself now that I have won a MacArthur grant. The answer is: “My life’s work!”
Writing essays is how I wrote into a public life and it is how I am shaping this next stage of my career. Almost 15 years ago now, I aligned a purpose, a public, and my creativity in a 200-word essay that launched my public career. Beneath all the prose and the argument, an essay is a public. The best essays build a public through process and form, driven from creative impulse to address a social problem. essaying is the evolution of my experiences writing, thinking, and teaching for the world I hope to live in one day. I write in the Black essay tradition of troubling publics with hard truths written too beautifully to ignore. The best scholarship and the most invigorated publics have this in common: They channel massive amounts of creativity. Into relationships. Into methods. Into networks. Into discourse. That’s what we will be fomenting around here.
I am an award-winning sociologist, a critically-acclaimed writer, a public intellectual, and a working professor. My grading is probably late right now. I have published hundreds of essays, written two books and edited a few others. One of those books, THICK, was a National Book Award finalist and won many other awards. The other of them, Lower Ed, has been enshrined in Senate records and the Commonwealth of Virginia’s legislative archive. My fellow sociologists gave me a big award in 2020 for being a sociologist in public. I am a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. I do not make anyone call me genius or doctor unless they need it. I co-host a ridiculously good podcast with my friend Roxane Gay,“Hear to Slay”. It is so good. Before, well, you know, I traveled all over the world talking about higher education, digital cultures, economic inequality, intersectionality, culture and racism. Nowadays I Zoom for freedom.
We will talk about writing and thinking a lot. But essaying is also a platform for experimenting with lessons from my podcast experience and analog radio by merging them with narrative nonfiction as sociological practice. I come from a public media family! My dad was once known as Mike Cole, The King of Soul. I grew up tagging along with him as he recorded the everyday rituals of public life in our local community for the public access station. He is the reason that one of my earliest jobs was an AM radio talk show in a conservative North Carolina town. “The Tressie McMillan Show” was three solid hours of off-the-cuff chatter and uncleared music samples (sorry to Usher). Along with friends in music, media, tech firms, nonprofits, and Black studies, I am thinking hard about how to make the anti-NPR sound: audio that sounds like Black rhetorics. I am writing a book about the everyday life of white identity politics and a new essay collection with a theme too personal for me to talk about yet.
I Twitter pretty good. My fleets may be nominated for a Pulitzer prize for criticism. I am a very good ethnographer who can also spreadsheet you to death. I miss fieldwork and eavesdropping on strangers. I have a weakness for white lady camps, which you can ask me about in the Subscriber’s discussion threads. I am Southern to my core and live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, although I am pretty sure I am supposed to live in Spain. I have been on The Daily Show three times. One more visit and Trevor and I go together. At that time, you and I will renegotiate this whole public life thing.
He’ll have to quit his job.
About Team Tressie
You’ll hear from me once or twice a week and every time you do, you are also hearing from Team Tressie. Some of the players change but the A-team is always: Kera Bolonik on editing; Lauren Garcia on project management and design; Sarah Choi on strategy and marketing; and Zari Taylor on research.
If you want to learn more about me or how to contact me for anything not related to the newsletter, then you are looking for my website. If you are a student and want a free subscription, send us 50 words about yourself to essaying at tressiemc.com. If you have questions about Substack payments or technical issues please contact them here because I don’t know nothing about birthing no babies.