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Debut book NO ONE YOU KNOW out now from Outpost19 | Founding Editor, True.Ink | Twitter: @jdschwartzman |
Credit: Jason Schwartzman; past midnight in Oklahoma City

The cultural meaning of strangers tends to be fear-oriented: they are shadowy and dangerous. That’s often with good reason, but it’s also reductive. “Strangers” is really just a shorthand for “everyone else.” That’s a pretty wide-ranging category, to preposterously understate it! In my encounters letting everyday situations escalate at the dentist, in the grocery store, on trains, strangers were also scratched up lottery tickets to spontaneity and poetry.

The pandemic has understandably strained our relationship to those we don’t know, but hopefully as the vaccines kick in, the social distance we’ve had to cultivate can begin to shrink sometime soon…

Photo: Bongkarn Thanyakij / EyeEm / Getty Images

When you write, you need readers who are on the front lines with you: The ones who read your writing before it’s even submitted. They may offer key developmental notes, suggest better word choices, cover your pages in red ink, or act as cheerleaders, helping you build confidence as you work on an essay, short story, or a book. It’s immensely valuable to have someone to talk with about your piece, so you can understand how it’s coming off —what’s resonating and what’s “bumping,” or not feeling natural.

Having a reliable network you can turn is sometimes the difference between…

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We were stuffing insulation, but now we’re breaking for lunch. My boss assigns everyone a task: my task is to cut up the tomato. It is one of the few colorful things in a dust-filled house, with transparent sheets hung up in almost every room. As everyone disperses, I am left alone with it. I dislike tomatoes, never ate them growing up, certainly never cut them. When I was younger I was a really picky eater, surviving for years on stacks of white bread. “The fly,” my grandmother called me. I avoided fruits and vegetables, anything healthy, like they were…

Someone suggested that it would be interesting if I hosted a reading and invited the 60+ strangers I’d written about in my book, No One You Know, which collects charged and poetic interactions with mostly random people. I do think that would be fascinating, moving, awkward, and surreal, though also impossible since I couldn’t track down most of them if I tried — many of the interactions were spontaneous street encounters and many others happened in marginal contexts. And yet.

I’d wager that many of my strangers wouldn’t even remember the interactions I describe since the moments of intersection were…

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It began with a breakup. I moved somewhere where I barely knew anyone. My roommate was out every night doing standup comedy, and spent most of his time at his girlfriend’s apartment anyway. Constant first dates made it feel like I was always introducing myself. I missed people who knew something, anything, about me. I missed seeing close friends in person instead of a phone call merely approximating an interaction. I missed intimacy to the point that I began being dramatically more responsive up to random strangers. I wrote in a journal at the time that loneliness is a disease.

Photo by Jason Schwartzman

Thank you so much for sending us XXXXXX. This time, however, we’re saying no, but we wish you the best of luck with your piece.

While we are grateful to have had the opportunity to read your work, we’re sorry to say it isn’t a good fit for us at this time.

Thank you for sending us XXXXXX. We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us.

Rejection sucks. It seems to always slither into my inbox at inopportune times, souring my mood. While it’s an inevitable reality for most writers, I’ve found it valuable…

It can shine a light on many different aspects of yourself.

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I was looking for an email I’d started but hadn’t finished, when my eye caught on an array of compelling fragments along the various rows of unsent e-missives.

“I was hurled into the maw of hell at the age of 15.”

“I’m imagining you getting out your bow and arrow…”

“Since we came with our hay and our wine and our horse…”

I’d never spent much or any time, really, looking in my “drafts” folder so I was taken aback to notice it had a few hundred half-finished messages…

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One way to level up as a storyteller or writer is by teaching yourself to be a narrative plumber. It starts by being more active while you read. Dog-ear or highlight when something you read strikes you, then try to understand why. Is it just the language or did the pacing speed up? Maybe a punchy quote worked as a surprise kicker after a long description? Did the author play with your expectations in a skillful way? Underlying all these types of inquiries is one operative question: “What is the writer doing here?”

Storytelling is a craft, and many elements…

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At first, I described it as a “rut.” Something I could shake off soon enough. But disturbingly, months of not making time to write turned into years. One problem was that I did copywriting and magazine editing for my day job, so I often felt uninspired to do more writing in my slivers of free time, even the creative and personal kind which I cared about most. Another issue was that I felt held hostage by the emotional toll of submitting my book over a period of years. It was hard to start something new — even something small—when my…

Photo by Marta Esteban Fernando on Unsplash

Once upon a time, we were deeply ingrained in each other’s lives. We met up for dinners or movies or just to ride the rhythm of our good time, toasting to our own riff on “nature’s masterpiece,” as Emerson described friendship. We walked and wrote and called and felt like we were getting closer and closer. We went on road trips, chose conversation over sleep, got each other out of jams. We told each other “I love you,” and we meant it. We absorbed each other’s sadnesses and made them more bearable. We were there at pivotal moments. We coded…

Jason Schwartzman

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