Checking In

Carina del Valle Schorske and the Precarity of the Careful Critic

This is the second year the recent National Magazine Award winner for her work in The New York Times Magazine has made her living as a writer. “I find that thrilling as a fact about my life,” she says, “but it’s also quite frightening.”

When Carina del Valle Schorske, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, accepted a National Magazine Award last week in the essays and criticism category for her story about the return of social dancing in New York’s nightlife venues after the first wave of the pandemic, she used her acceptance speech as an occasion to call for joy, levity, and “a little dancing.” “Let’s keep showing up for each other,” she said from the stage of Brooklyn Steel in East Williamsburg, after thanking her Times Magazine editor, Sasha Weiss, and the photographer who worked on the piece, Maridelis Morales Rosado. “I’m really grateful to all the readers and dancers of this world.”

Movement was the subject of del Valle Schorske’s award-winning story, but it’s also a useful metaphor for her writing style. A poet and translator who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Columbia University, del Valle Schorske’s journalism often moves between different modes — including criticism, traditional in-the-field reporting, and cultural history — and includes meta-analytic moments of reflection on the journalistic process itself. “I have some impatience with journalism’s fetish for the present,” del Valle Schorske told The Fine Print. “I’m a slower writer; I write longer things. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to divide criticism from history, politics, and autobiography.”

del Valle Schorske is conscious that she is treading in the footsteps of genre-bending journalist-critics like Greg Tate and Vivian Gornick, both of whom she cites as inspirations. (An essay by Gornick published in Harper’s was a finalist in the essays and criticism category.) “They wrote incredibly voice-driven and intimate criticism that demanded something from readers, but also gave a lot,” she said.

del Valle Schorske sees those critics’ work as a product, in part, of the relative comfort afforded by the staff jobs they held at publications like the Village Voice, which also enabled them to work at a slower pace. “These were times when writers were allowed to be journalists more, in the sense of having a monthly salary and being on staff at these places—and being allowed to be writerly in their approach and not having demands in terms of churning content out,” she said.

Unlike other National Magazine Award winners, including Jennifer Senior of The Atlantic and Rachel Aviv of The New Yorker, del Valle Schorske doesn’t have a staff position. (Matthieu Atkins and Azmat Khan, the two other honorees for their work for the Times Magazine, are also contributing writers.) This is only the second year in which she’s earned her living from writing (the first being 2018, when she sold her forthcoming nonfiction book) instead of grants, fellowships, or a graduate student stipend. “It’s new to me to have my living hinge on the writing I publish,” she said. “I’m paid per assignment, and my living is tied to writing more closely than it ever has been before. I find that thrilling as a fact about my life—it’s a glamorous accomplishment—but it’s also quite frightening.”

A contract with the Times Magazine confers more stability than other forms of freelancing but also involves time pressures that grant-supported writing doesn’t. “The New York Times Magazine’s time is not at my discretion as much,” del Valle Schorske said. While not the breakneck pace of social media and the web, the speed of magazine writing and publishing means that deadlines are paramount and arrive more quickly than in book publishing or graduate work. And since the contract with the Times Magazine is non-exclusive, del Valle Schorske still views herself as a freelance writer familiar with precarious working conditions.

On Twitter, she’s been transparent about freelance wages, tax burdens, and the costs of juggling overlapping projects without institutional support. “It’s hard for me to persuade both myself and others that I need to slow down,” she said, adding that she’s been struggling with an autoimmune condition that requires her to rest more than usual. Her Columbia University health insurance plan recently lapsed months earlier than the provider had told her it would and left her — like many freelancers — temporarily uncovered. (Her Times Magazine contract does not include health insurance.) “Right as it feels like my career is gaining momentum, it’s really difficult to tell myself and others that this isn’t sustainable for my health,” she said. “And that’s because of my own ambition and what expectations others have for the arc of success. I’m trying to be courageous in paring down some of it and trusting in the long-term work.”

The story that led to del Valle Schorske’s contributing writer contract with the Times Magazine, a profile of the Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny published in 2020, drew on her literary criticism training for close-readings of the reggaeton star’s song lyrics. “I want there to be moments in a piece that the reader will remember,” she said. “I hope that I’ve left them with images or memorable turns of phrase that they can carry with them, rather than having to just return to the story to reread it.”

Arriving at that point requires some planning and playful brainstorming. For both her Times Magazinepieces and other work, del Valle Schorske sets up two Word documents (“I don’t really know how to use a Google Doc, and I aspire to learn Scrivener,” she joked), one labeled “quotes” and the other “notes.” In the quotes document, she excerpts readings that she thinks might be useful for the story’s argument or overall tenor, even if they don’t make it into the final version of the piece. Her quotes document for the social dancing piece was over 9,000 words and included excerpts from critic Clair Willis’s 2020 essay about dancefor The New York Review of Books and snippets from the work of the poet Alice Notley. “Assembling those quotes is incredibly important” for developing a scaffolding for her own ideas, del Valle Schorske said.

Also important are the preliminary scene sketches, drawn from her reporting notes and interview transcripts, that del Valle Schorske compiles in the notes document. “They’re often terse, and sometimes completely indecipherable,” she said. She struggled to recall where one fragment in her notes document for dancing feature — “dirt bikes at the end of the night” — had come from. “Why did I care about the dirt bikes?” she said. “I’ve learned to not judge in advance whether a note is useful or not. You never know when you might be going back through that later, and it ends up being a helpful trigger for memory.”

Eventually, del Valle Schorske labels and numbers the scenes based on where she thinks they might fall in the piece. Then she moves onto the initial drafting stage, which involves some analog work — printing out her notes and arranging and rearranging them to form the skeleton of the piece. “I think, how am I going to glue these things together?” del Valle Schorske said. “Having repositories for the quotes and notes helps me get my head around a lot of material.”

Once the story’s bones are in place, later stages of drafting can prove more complicated. “How does it come together in terms of the structure? I have no idea,” del Valle Schorske said. “It’s always incredibly painful—I rely on my editors and go through multiple versions.” (Putting her phone in a lockbox until 1 p.m. every day helps with distractions, she says.) del Valle Schorske aims for a finished piece that unfolds like a piece of music, and she overlays her cultural analysis and nuts-and-bolt reporting with lyrical descriptions. “I pay attention to musicality in my writing, and also patterns of repetition and refrain,” she said.

At the National Magazine Awards last week, del Valle Schorske was candid about the winding process and intense work behind her writing. She hadn’t necessarily expected to win the award: “I didn’t know if it was bad luck to write a speech or to not write a speech,” she confessed. True to her style, though, she had prepared some material to riff on when she reached the stage. “I just took some notes,” she said, “sort of a compromise between form and improvisation.” Then, smiling, the sequins on her dress dancing and twinkling beneath the stage lights, she exited with her elephant trophy.