Meet Alex: An Interview with the Founder

Our launch date is quickly approaching, so this week I’m chatting with Penmob’s founder. Learn more about Alex and who he is as a writer by reading the interview below. Still have questions? Tweet us and we’ll get your curiosity satiated.

So, who is Alex?
I try to have my fingers in a lot of things at once. In the last year, I co-founded a local arts nonprofit, started freelancing as a software engineer, and built Penmob. I’m also reading a lot more and spend a lot of my time with books.

I’m currently based out of Des Moines, Iowa, after a brief stint in San Francisco.

This is Alex.

Iowa. Hm. What’s that like?
I bounce around between Des Moines (the capital) and Iowa City (the former capital). First thing that people from Des Moines will tell you is how cool Des Moines is. There’s a surprisingly great restaurant scene, a small-but-vibrant music and arts scene, and an insurance mecca. Residents are known to keep a list of all of the celebrities who have passed through and can cite each of the “Top 10” lists our city has been featured on. We had cardboard cutouts of Mark Wahlberg set up in our grocery stores after he visited once, if that gives you an idea.

Iowa City, not quite as cool-obsessed, is home to (arguably) the top party school and (definitely) one of the top literary schools in the nation. I have an excuse to visit every couple of weeks, which is a good change of pace.

When did you fall in love with writing?
It happened gradually. I’ll give a fuller accounting in a later blog post, but the short version is it was fueled by angst. After getting sucked into the tech world of Silicon Valley, Thomas Pynchon and Jorge Borges just so happened to be the first authors I grabbed onto as a means of escape. I’d never sat down to read anything Literary before then, but the bizarre mix of industry and cultural history of that place made finding conversations with authors like them all the more urgent.

What kind of writing do you do?
I wrote pretty much only essays throughout college. Lately, I’ve been trying to branch out into (short) fiction.

Dream publication(s):
The New Yorker – But whose dream publication isn’t The New Yorker?

Aeon – A nonprofit digital magazine with almost exclusively feature writing. I’d love to someday write an essay alongside the work they’ve already published.

McSweeney’s – Dave Eggers’ publishing company, which has a knack for featuring some of the best new voices.

Ribbonfarm – As it happens, I might actually be getting published here soon. More details to come 🙂

ClickHole – Again, whose dream publication isn’t ClickHole?

Which is worse: Writing or revising?
Writing, definitely. It’s easy and fun and joyous and whatever when I have a burst of inspiration. But once that burst of inspiration fades I’m often just left with a paragraph or two. Getting those paragraphs to fit within a larger context – usually an essay or short story – is where the hard work begins for me. I rather like revising, even though I get a bit obsessive, simply because I end up less neurotic when not staring down a blank page.

What’s your writer quirk?
I too easily adopt the style of whatever author I’m reading at the time. Except, of course, I’m not that author so I do a worse job. There was the obligatory David Foster Wallace phase, the Vonnegut phase, the Zadie Smith phase. Going back through my old writing makes me cringe – not because any of those authors aren’t great, but because of the more existential implication that maybe I haven’t found my own voice yet.

Current quirk: sentences that are either chock-full of comma splices or totally commaless, breathless.

Who are some writers that inspire you?
Leslie Jamison: She’s best known for her collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, which is seriously stunning. Much of that book explores and articulates a theme that I’ve also been working through – the nature of empathy as something inherently social, invasive, active rather than passive. I had the chance to meet her in person at a speaking event. The inspiring thing was discovering that she’s a real person in real life. It’s always jarring meeting your heroes in a different context.

Marlon James: Do yourself a favor and follow him on Facebook. He has a way of displaying different perspectives in a single piece of writing without demoting any one voice down to caricature. Once I get through my current reading list, I’ll be diving into his latest book, A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Where’d you get the idea for Penmob?
I’d been toying with an idea for some sort of platform for collaborative writing. As a then-out-of-work software engineer, that vague idea lead me down a few different false-starts. Then suddenly, something a lot clearer hit me: online writing workshops.

Far and away my best (and most motivating) writing experiences have come out of workshops. I’ve participated in writing workshops for college classes as well as smaller workshops held in my local community. There’s nothing quite like it; you get to read new and interesting work from peers, you have to think critically about your own biases while reading, and you get incredibly in-depth feedback on your work from actual readers.

I tried to find that experience online, but ran into one of three barriers everywhere I looked:

  • You need to have an established presence and social capital in an existing online community to be taken seriously,
  • You could use one of a few “matchmaking” platforms to search for a solo freelance editor – fine if you know what you’re looking for as a writer and don’t mind wading through word-of-mouth reviews, but not so great if you’re looking for that collaborative atmosphere – or,
  • You have to rely on hacked-together tools (or worse, email chains) to keep all of the feedback organized and everyone on the same page.

I thought I’d take a crack at doing the workshop experience right in an online setting. When everything goes according to plan, Penmob recreates the best parts of writing workshops – the in-depth feedback and perspectives of many different readers – without the geographic or time constraints of traditional workshops.

How’d you come up with the name?
Dirty secret: it was the best available domain name I could find. I spent a long time building the tech behind the website from scratch, and didn’t want to fret too much about naming it while I did so. “Penmob” incorporates the really important aspects of the online writing workshop format, is easy to type/remember, and turns out to be a pretty sticky way to explain everything to newcomers.

Best bit of writing advice you’ve ever heard:
The best, single piece of advice came from an introductory writing course. It might have a name like the “ladder technique” or something, but I don’t know for sure. It goes as follows:

Pick something small and tangible, like, say, an apple. Describe it as concretely as you can: the way the waxy surface distorts and reflects light, soft spots on the skin that give when you touch them, how it holds itself precariously upright on the table.

Then think about what an “apple” is, or what it directly represents – the fruit category. What does “fruit” represent? Food in general. Why do we care about food? Maybe we care about food because of “the economy” it supports, or because it is a key element of “nutrition.” Nutrition is a way of talking about “health.” Health, then, is a way of talking about “vitality” or “depression,” which are ways of talking about “life” and how we live.

We’ve just built a ladder of abstractions, from “apple” all the way up to “life.” Nobody wants to read a story about “life, man”; that’s far too abstract a topic to say anything valuable. If I want to write a story about life or the human condition, I should write a story about an apple, or a dented bicycle, or an overheard conversation. We explore those large, urgent, important topics through specificity, understanding parts of the whole. George Saunders, one of my writing heroes, probably says it better: make scale models of the universe.

Learn more about Penmob – Your future as a better writer awaits you.