The idea for OFF BEAT might seem simple, but it’s been a dream of mine for some time: What if a writer could write about — and publish! — anything that moved them? The assumption is that this is what we writers always do, but the reality is often something different. Writers are often pigeonholed by editors and magazines, and sometimes even by themselves, to write about one specific topic — infrequently given the chance to deviate from that beat. When writers are characterized by a marginal identifier of some sort, the pigeonhole becomes a kind of glue trap.
This issue is quite personal for me, because for years I have been called on to write about just a few topics: Iran, Middle Eastern identity, Muslim America, refugee life, etc. Never mind that before I wrote about those things, I covered hip-hop, did celebrity interviews, had a bar column, and wrote investigative features — all of which had not a thing to do with Iran. Just a few weeks ago, another investigative feature I’d worked on for many, many years for a prominent magazine — about a treasure hunt in the Southwest — got killed for not being “timely” enough. I can’t help but think that if it had an Iran peg — especially as the United States is once more licking its chops for war with Iran — it would have survived.
I realized there were, of course, more writers like me—in fact, many of them were my friends—and we had all at some point or another talked about how we were grateful to have people seek us out for our work, but we were also exhausted from being asked to write almost exclusively about that one thing. OFF BEAT was born last winter out of my viral tweet about this trend to pigeonhole creatives, when I realized many of my fellow published writers had a desire to write beyond a specific beat. So I went about asking some writers I admired. One thing that surprised me was how many of them reacted similarly: I actually don’t know what I would write about if not the one thing everyone wants me to write about.
More than a few wrote me horrified: It had been so long since they had pitched — and pitched their deepest desires instead of what they perceived would make editors bite — that they had no idea what they would want to write about. At one point, I was thinking of submitting an essay on my own and ran into this same problem, which can be a real existential one for an essayist: Who am I outside of what they see me as? I felt more dedicated than ever to seek this material, and for the past few months, we’ve been steadily working.
Here are some of my favorite nonfiction writers writing outside their beats: Suleika Jaouad on a nomadic childhood and stray cats, Holly Anderson on cake and the Deep South, Esmé Weijun Wang on magic and deceptive men, Beeta Baghoolizadeh on the racial boundaries of interior design, Keah Brown on female friendship, Janice Lee on rediscovering trees, and Meredith Talusan on yoga and disability.
It was also a joy to reconnect with Maya Erdelyi, an artist I first met when we were East Village–scavenging teenagers. I conceived of OFF BEAT as a tribute to zine culture and instantly thought of Maya’s aesthetic, which has always been a bit like my dream zine: eclectic, high and low, street and gallery, but also the work of someone who, even with commissions, manages to be herself. I hope as we all move forward, we can give ourselves and those around us permission to be ourselves and encourage publications and institutions to see that too: that we truly not only contain multitudes, but that our bylines also represent those multitudes and more multitudes on top of that.