Shut Up and Do The Work: Bené Viera
I can’t quite pinpoint the moment I fell in love with words. Maybe it was in 4th grade when my best friend and I spent all of our free time writing stories about young girls trying to figure it out. Perhaps it was in 7th grade when those same words that had allowed for my mind to soar were now wrapping me in their loving arms letting me know that this too shall pass. They filled journals and kept me sane. You know, it could very well have been that moment in the 10th grade where I recognized words had power—enough power to alter thoughts and shift a culture. Each time I sit down to write I remind myself why I started. Writing ain’t about cherry wood desks and leather notebooks and lit candles. Not about sitting in your study and penning a best seller. It’s hard work. It’s late night edits and hours worth of transcription. Just because it’s magic doesn’t mean it's not real.
I had the pleasure of sharing an hour long Skype conversation with seasoned journalist and magical black woman Bené Viera who reminded me that while words are beautiful and special writing will challenge you and force you to work harder than you ever have and that to romanticize the writing process is to strip it of its glory. The power comes from truth. Telling stories about people who often get told they are less than. You can’t do that if you’re stuck on what incense you wanna burn while you write and which Hotep Lauryn Hill record you want to be playing in the background. For that, I am eternally grateful. When I tell you Bené don’t play with these girls all you gotta do is check the bylines. Essence, ELLE, VH1, GQ, just to name a few have all been blessed with the presence of the wordsmith herself. Bené holds all the keys. I feel so blessed to say that I’ve had the opportunity to have a conversation with such a powerful black woman who walks in her power. Who shows up and shows out each time she writes. Bené shares with me why the work must come first, her experience as a black woman working in media, and advice for new writers who are thinking about going to school for journalism. At this point, she’s the only person I trust to write my eulogy. Sorry mom.
Who are you, what do you do and why do you do it?
I am a writer, of course. I think that’s not just something I do but it definitely defines who I am. I’m a fighter. I’m an advocate for social justice. I’m a friend. I’m a survivor. I’m resilient as f***. I’m someone who loves love. And I’m a woman. I’m a black woman. That really defines who I am. How I see the world. How I move about in the world.
What do I do? I’m a writer. I’m a trained journalist. I’ve been doing this almost 7 years now. The reason that I went to grad school for journalism was because I wanted to tell stories about marginalized people. The media gets so much wrong and I think it's purposeful a lot of times. I wanted to be a change agent. I wanted to be the person that would tell stories about minorities. About the queer community. About women in smart and nuanced ways and amplify our stories that are often times not told at all. I write to stay sane. If I didn’t write I’d go crazy. You have to get all of these thoughts and feelings out of your head in some way.
Do you find it more challenging to write about yourself vs writing about someone else?
No—I’ve always been pretty open. I think my best pieces are definitely me talking about myself and my journey so it’s not difficult at all. It’s really about having the discipline and doing it more. I think one of the reasons that I’ve scaled back on it is that the more people follow you and you become a little bit more accessible—and I don’t think I’m big in any way—there’s more eyeballs on you and that has kind of closed me off a little bit more from writing something that I would write 2 years ago about a relationship or about a struggle or hardship. Now it makes me not want to because you never know if someone is going to use that against you. I’m definitely particular about things that I’ve put out on the Internet.
Are you a brand? How does that impact your writing?
I don’t consider myself as a brand. I have a love/hate relationship with this whole movement of individuals as brands. Not because I don’t see the value in it and not because I don’t think you shouldn't think about branding but because too many people get caught up on branding and being a brand and have no work. The work comes first. I don’t see myself as a brand. I think one day I obviously will but right now I just see myself as someone who tries to do good work and let the work speak for itself. I don’t want to be a brand and I don’t have receipts. I just think it’s corny and I think the Internet has contributed to a lot of people blowing up and becoming personalities and becoming these brands and don’t have any work. It’s hard because at heart I’m just a writer. I’m just a creator. In this day in age, you do have to think about your brand and what that is and what you want to stand for and what you will and won't do because it may not align with your “brand."
Post-grad what was your first job?
I moved here in August 2010 and I didn’t get my first media job until April 2012 and that was at VH1. My title was writer and host. I was doing some hosting stuff on camera, which I hated. I did music coverage, entertainment and covered a lot of shows. Of course, the black girl became the go-to girl for all the rap shows. I did a lot of the cast interviews and I went to a lot of the reunion shows.
How was that experience? Did you enjoy that?
I learned a lot. I think it solidified that I am really not built for corporate jobs long term. I will do it to get the titles I need to get and the money I need to get but I’ve always wanted to be self sufficient and self employed. I think VH1 was a good experience because it was a cool work culture although it was corporate. You also have to deal with stuff like one of my co-workers asking me what ratchet was. I was like, “ I don’t know, what did urban dictionary say?”
Don’t’ come asking the only black girl what ratchet means. Of course I know what ratchet means but that kind of othering and isolation is very real even at the coolest work culture. Media is still a very white industry. It’s not very many of us in these workspaces if there is more than one. I have no interest in going somewhere and being the token one. The opportunities for us are nowhere near an even playing field with our white counterparts and it shouldn’t be that way. I don’t think I want to be in it for the long haul. At least not as a journalist.
If you weren’t doing journalism what would you be doing?
Scripted tv. Dramas. I’ve really been thinking about that space lately. In a crazy, crazy world I would be an actress.
Shut up! Okay, if you could be in any existing TV show, which one would it be?
I think I would be in Being Mary Jane. It has a black girl relatability to it. Mara is great. I think she’s a show runner that doesn’t get her just do but should. She’s been doing this for a long time. Girlfriends was kind of revolutionary for TV looking back on it.
What was the next move after VH1 and were you freelancing while you were there?
Yes! I always freelance. I started out writing for The Fresh Express. A lot of us starting writing for that site. I wrote some trash stuff for them but I wrote constantly and built a name for myself. I also wrote for Clutch back then too. A lot of it was just opinion pieces. It wasn’t a lot of reporting but I knew that I wanted more. Essence.com had reached out and I had done an op-ed for them. That led to me being featured on the Michael Baisden Show and then from there the type of work just progressed. I went from that writing, to interviewing people and doing q + a’s for .com. It really grew from writing and doing the work. Editors became familiar with my byline and began to assign me work and I always turned it around quickly. Now I pitch a lot more than I did back then and I still hate it but sometimes I’m just assigned stuff so it's really a balance. I’ll always freelance even with a full-time job because these companies ain’t loyal and you need multiple streams of income to live in New York.
As someone who writes a lot about blackness/identity what's the biggest challenge about writing about the subject matter?
I don’t think that it's challenging but I think that if you allow it to be limiting it can be. It comes to a point where editors will reach out to me about doing some story because there’s some racist peg or blackness peg and I have no interest in it. I was asked to write a story about the National Anthem because of the Colin Kaepernick controversy. I could give two f**** about the National Anthem. I wasn’t standing for the National Anthem 10 years ago. This is not a big deal to me. This is not radical. The problem is a lot of these mainstream publications don’t have any black people on staff so they have to reach out to a black freelancer and hope they’ll write about it. What if I want to write a piece about what it was like as a black girl to watch Gilmore Girls. Maybe I want to write about Jessica Alba’s Honest being sold for 1.7 billion dollars. I don’t only want to write about black things unless I feel really, really passionate about it.
What are some of your fave pieces that you’ve written/ fave topics
I really loved the Lezley McSpadden piece, Mike Brown’s mom. I think I really captured her grief and I think that I wrote the hell out of the intro for the q + a. I really like the profile that I did on Power showrunner Courtney Kemp. I liked the piece I did for my blog on Korryn Gaines. I think the Shondaland cover story was a damn good attempt at a first cover.
How do you keep writing even when you don’t want to?
Writing is a skill and it’s a job too. I don’t believe in writer's block. I don’t think a doctor could show up to work and say, “I can’t perform this surgery today because I’m not feeling it.” It’s bull****. Sit down and figure it out. Go write something else and come back to it. I don’t believe in all of this muse crap and I don’t believe in writer's block. It’s just a bunch of lofty language and an excuse for you to not have to sit out and do your job.
What does your process look like?
I don’t listen to music- I can’t listen to music. I don’t have a process but one thing I will say is that I cannot write in parts. If my intro is not right or at least to a point where I feel like it’s prepared for a re-write, I cannot go on. Some people can write in parts but I cannot. I write a lot at night because I’m a night owl. That’s why I don’t let people shame me for not waking up at 5 in the morning. It’s really a job. You have to sit down and write until you have something that is presentable. I’m big on re-writes. The first draft usually needs to be re-written. I don’t care how dope a writer you are. I’m big on stepping away for a piece for at least a few hours and coming back for edits and re-writes. I also think writers need to read their pieces out loud. You catch a lot of errors that way. It’s not a process like I have to light this candle and listen to classical music- it’s not that.
How important is finding your voice and what does it mean?
I think it's one of the number one things you should be concerned with as a writer. The Internet is oversaturated with content as well as writers. You cannot tell me that these many people wanted to be writers in 2000. I think that social media has given this appeal to writing for whatever reason and that makes for an overcrowded market. Having a voice that stands out where people can tell immediately who wrote a piece is important. You need to not be saying the same thing that everyone else is saying. If you are, you need to say it a different way so it doesn’t sound like everyone else.
More than building brands and trying to have a large platform, young writers really need to think about their voice and hone it. I think that’s one thing that’s been clear with me since day 1. You’re going to know exactly where I stand by the end of the piece if it even takes you that long. You’re going to know my tone. I think you find your voice by knowing who you are. That’s one thing I find I do not struggle with. I have many flaws but I know who I am. I know what I’m passionate about. I have very strong beliefs. When you have that, you’re going to tend to have a voice. I also think you sometimes find a voice by mimicking your faves. That’s something I did really early on but you can’t be out here plagiarizing or steal people’s whole voice and steal their ideas and just re-word it in a different way that’s not cool. Writing is a process. You’re not going to be the same writer you are today that you will be tomorrow. It’s important to have something to say. Trash content makes my skin itch.
What would you say to a kid thinking about going to college for journalism?
Don’t do it! Reconsider, read some literature on the subject. After I tell them to look up those lyrics I would then tell them to keep your head down and do the work. Remember why you wanted to become a journalist. Keep that at the forefront of your mind at all times. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Stay in your own lane. Looking around especially on the web it's easy to get caught up on who’s where and who’s writing what and who’s further along. That is a distraction and it’s self-debilitating. Learn to do as many things as possible. If you want to do more than just write learn how to edit some video or do some on-camera hosting just to see if you’re into it. Everything won’t stick but you might find a passion or joy you didn’t even know was there. It’s such a competitive field especially for black and brown folks that you need to have a diverse skillset. Also, read. If you’re not reading more than you write, you’re doing it wrong. Read everything.
5 fave things
· Movement of women using social media to get coins
· Diversity in TV programming
· Nas Album Done
· The Glo-Up