sarahpessin@sarahpessin.com

Baia on writing

Alex Baia

Alex Baia is a humor writer living in Austin, TX. He contributes comedic shenanigans to The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Points In Case. He is also an editor of Slackjaw, a wonderful humor publication on Medium. In a recent past life, Alex was a graduate student in philosophy at UT-Austin. He runs a free monthly humor newsletter that is delivered by a majestic falcon.

  • What kinds of writing do you write?
    • Humor and short fiction.
  •  
  • What’s one of your favorite things you’ve written, and why?
    • I’m proud of this humor piece: Winners Wake Up Early It came from my genuine passion for sleep and dislike of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” hustle culture. However, despite the apparent relatability of the topic, it has some pretty silly and weird jokes that I like.  Alternately, I might point any grad students to this piece.
  • What’s something you wrestle with in your writing process?
    • The sort of humor writing I do is very premise-driven. Often a premise that seems fun at first doesn’t pan out, or it’s hard to figure out how to write the piece in a way that escalates and feels fresh. It just… doesn’t work. Other humor premises are effortless to write into a full draft. So, one bear I wrestle is being distracted by ideas that don’t work. But I think this is probably a thorn in the side of every creative: not every idea works. Persistence pays off when the idea is truly good, but foolish persistence on a bad idea is a waste of time. Part of learning to master a craft is, I think, developing an intuitive feel for when an idea should be pursued or abandoned.
  • How would you describe your writing process?
    • I brainstorm a lot of comedic ideas: jokes, headlines, etc. For short humor writing, I start with a headline (the title of the piece) that conveys some funny premise. Once I have a premise, it’s just a matter of getting a bunch of jokes out there that heighten the premise. From there, I try to put it all in a coherent order so it feels like a cohesive piece. Then I (usually) get feedback from a writing buddy or feedback group. Finally, before I submit the piece to an editor or hit publish, I tighten everything up as much as I can and make sure I like every last word of it. Short humor writing needs to be svelte and punchy, so it’s important to tighten that sucker up.
  • “Hardware” tell-all; for example: Microsoft Word or Google Docs or paper forever? Legal pads or note cards or backs of envelopes? Pencils or pens? No. 2s or mechanical? Bics or Montblancs? Etc.!
    1. I’m a simple guy: I just write in Mac’s Pages app. I’ve occasionally used a distraction-free writing app called OmmWriter. I’m a big believer in writing in full-screen mode with all other windows and visual clutter minimized. Most word processors have a full-screen mode. Also, when I get ideas for jokes, pieces, stories, or whatever, I write those immediately in either a small paper journal or in my phone in the basic Notes app. You have to write ideas down right away! Otherwise, you will forget them. Promise.
  • A standout feature of your actual desk or virtual desktop that you rather like?
    • I keep two bouncy balls on my desk. When I get distracted or stuck, I try to avoid the urge to open BS like Twitter or Doom News or email or whatever. Instead, I take a breath and bounce that ball 5 times against my wall. Bounce and catch, repeat. Then back to work. There’s something satisfying about it.
  • 3 adjectives that describe that ‘writerly feeling’ when you’re in the zone?
    • Connected, powerful, crafty
  • 3 adjectives that describe that ‘not so writerly feeling’ when you’re hitting a wall?
    • Stuck, bamboozled, stuck 
    • I hit a wall when trying to come up with a 3rd word so I just repeated the 1st one :- (
  • What is your Writing Animal Guide (whatever that means to you!) and why?
    • I have a little happy elephant figurine (that I bought in Thailand) and a little happy rhino figurine (that a friend gave me) on my desk. So, those guys! They give me ideas. If I didn’t have them, I’d probably fail.
  • What’s your top piece of writing advice for grad students embarking on their dissertations?
    • – Dissertations are not THAT big a deal if you chunk them into small pieces. Don’t underestimate just committing to 90 minutes of writing per weekday, no matter what. Write 1-2 pages a day and get it done. Simple. 
    • – Meta-advice: Giving good general writing advice is hard. People can’t always articulate why something works. Find 5 geniuses in your area who wrote great dissertations and ask them, “How did you write your dissertation? What were your habits?” IOW, instead of asking “what’s your advice?”, just ask “how did you do this?”
[My collagic nod to Alex’s Evel-as-philosophy-badass and elephant guides– shown here bearing Everything Bagels (Alex’s preferred childhood snack). And obviously all hail the bouncy ball (which was not overtly described as glitter-filled, but for the love of god I certainly hope is)]