News

Jia Tolentino on self-reflection, contentment and the unexpected 

April 21, 2022, 11:04 p.m.

Jia Tolentino, author of the critically acclaimed essay collection “Trick Mirror” and writer for The New Yorker, isn’t on TikTok. But she wants women to send her videos about how her book has impacted them.

In a conversation hosted by Stanford Women in Politics (SWIP) on Zoom Thursday night, Tolentino reflected on her writing, including the impact of beauty standards that she witnessed while reporting on Instagram’s influence on insecurity and investigating Britney Spears’s conservatorship with Ronan Farrow. 

Tolentino’s journey as a writer began as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where she pushed herself to write in different forms, attempting to “close the gap between concept and execution, or possibility and actuality.”

“I was just trying to see if I could write something that was bearable to read,” Tolentino said. She did time and time again, as she moved from the feminist publication Jezebel to The New Yorker. Everywhere, she strove to write about the unexpected. 

This quest took Tolentino from writing about Britney Spears’s conservatorship, juuling and Instagram faces back to writing about herself. Instead of transmitting all of her reflections to the world, she decided to keep some to herself for a change. “What does my voice sound like when it’s just me writing to myself? Turns out it doesn’t really sound any different at all, but it was good to just try and see,” Tolentino said.

More recently, Tolentino has turned to screenwriting, which she described as “a way you can write fiction for a living.” Screenwriting offers a more lucrative occupation than journalism, and Tolentino described it as “offer[ing] a kind of escape hatch from this journalism world of perpetual layoffs.”

Writing fiction is not without its challenges, however. Tolentino described the medium as “more like art, and journalism feels much more like work; I’m not confident in myself as an artist, but I know I can work.” 

Even as Tolentino switches mediums, writing from experience remains a priority. 

“I don’t really have access to my own thoughts unless I write about them,” she explained. “My deepest interests often stem from experience, from some grounding instinct that something was complicated and worth figuring out.”

In “spiritually corrosive” topics like self-commodification, Tolentino found her voice through reflection. 

“I’ve written the book to disentangle myself from [self-commodification], and then I actually just entangled myself.”

The book in question, “Trick Mirror,” has reached an almost “cult classic” status among young women, according to an audience member who also asked Tolentino about the popularization of TikToks on the essay collection. Revealing that she doesn’t have TikTok, Tolentino jokingly requested that they be emailed to her.

Reflecting on her career, Tolentino also acknowledged that, in hindsight, her earlier work was occasionally driven by short-term anger. 

“Sometimes I would just get super mad, and run my mouth on my stupid little high horse, because it felt good to be mad,” she said. “As time has passed, I realize that was a sort of instinct that had been given to me by the pace of the internet.” 

Now, Tolentino is seeking contentment in life above all else. 

“What I want is not improvement. What I want is just contentment, you know, and that is a rubric I try to apply to my entire life,” she said. “I don’t need newness, I don’t need efficiency… I just need contentment.” 

Contact Zoe at News 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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