Journalism helps Melissa Dahl embrace awkwardness — and then write the book on it

Melissa Dahl ’07 (Journalism) didn’t necessarily go into journalism to break out of her childhood shyness, but when she’s working on stories such as what it’s like spending a week talking with strangers on the New York City subway – well, it certainly can’t hurt.

“I was a really sky kid,” Dahl said. “I recently read an essay about how having to go up and talk to people could make a difference. I read that and was like, I would love to be able to do that, because I was such a shy kid.”

Mission accomplished. Today, Dahl is the senior health and science editor at The Cut, a New York magazine section that focuses on human behavior and psychology. She’s also the author of the book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, which explores moments just like those that occur when a stranger approaches you on the subway. The book was published in February 2018, and Dahl returned to Sacramento State in the fall to speak about it.

Prior to working at New York, Dahl was a health writer and editor with MSNBC. She also worked at the Sacramento Bee and the Lodi News-Sentinel while attending Sacramento State, and was a member of the State Hornet student newspaper staff.

“At the Sacramento Bee, another writer gave me some advice: Find your niche. Find something you do better than anyone else,” Dahl said, adding that her focus at both The State Hornet and the Bee was feature writing. “I always was drawn toward stories about behavior, about why people do the things they do.”

When she became interested the concept of awkwardness, however, she was surprised to discover that very little research had actually been done on the topic.

“What I’ve always loved about this job is this idea that most questions I have about human behavior, I can just look in the literature and find stacks of papers on it,” Dahl said. “But these questions about, why do these things make me cringe, why does this make me feel awkward, what does that mean, what does that say about me, what does it say about other people and how other people are perceiving me – I could find satisfying answers to those.”

Dahl spent two years researching for the book, including meeting with neuroscientists in Germany. The “theory of awkwardness” referenced in the title, Dahl says, is that so-called awkward moments “illuminate the fact that there’s a difference between the way you think you’re presenting yourself to the world and the way other people are actually seeing you.”

MASS_ Melissa Dahl 10.9.18-7
Sacramento State alum and New York magazine editor Melissa Dahl speaks on campus about her book, Cringeworthy, in October 2018. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Although it’s not unusual to hear someone – particularly a teenager or young adult – self-effacingly refer to themselves as “awkward,” Dahl’s book focuses on awkwardness not as a characteristic but instead as a feeling.

Consider Michael Scott, the bumbling boss on The Office portrayed by Steve Carell. Despite his constant inappropriate comments or actions, Dahl says, Scott never feels weird or self-conscious about what he has said or done. The awkwardness is how those words and actions make the people around him feel.

“I think we use the word as a stand-in for self-consciousness or social anxiety,” Dahl said. “I feel awkward all the time, but I don’t think I’m a particularly awkward person. I hope not.”

After moving frequently as a child, Dahl’s family settled in Sacramento when she was in high school. When it came time to apply for college, she chose Sacramento State in part because she wanted to remain in the area and in part because of the strength of its journalism program.

Joining The State Hornet her freshman year, she says, “changed everything for me.” It allowed her to put into practice all of the concepts she was learning in the classroom. It provided a collaborative environment in which she could grow and gain new skills. And it’s where she met people she still considers some of her closest friends.

The State Hornet, combined with her work at the Bee and the News-Sentinel, also provided her with the practical experience needed to succeed as a professional journalist.

“When I graduated, I already felt like, ‘I know how to do this,’ ” Dahl said. “I was 22 and I had worked in two newsrooms at that point. Right out of the gate, I felt like, ‘Oh, I got this.’”

For Sacramento State students aspiring to be journalists, joining The State Hornet is “mandatory,” Dahl said, and a way to not only learn about what you want to do but to actually start doing it.

“This is the place to make mistakes and try different things and hopefully, by the time you’ve graduated, you’ll have some experience under your belt.”

Advertisements

As Maritza Davis moves on to Kings, Unseen Heroes looks to the future

You can’t tell the story of Sacramento’s growth without telling the story of Maritza ’07 (Communication Studies) and Roshaun Davis ’08 (Journalism).

The couple’s award-winning events agency, Unseen Heroes, is responsible for some of the region’s biggest public events, including GATHER: Oak Park and the Midtown Farmers Market.

But change has come as the agency moves into its second decade. After 10 years with the company she founded with her husband, Maritza recently took on a new role as the vice president of experience and social responsibility for the Sacramento Kings. Her responsibilities will include managing the Kings’ events team, which puts on more than 350 events annually, and the community impact team, which runs programs such as the Junior Kings and supports and participates in a wide variety of community activities and initiatives.

We spoke with Maritza and Roshaun about Maritza’s new job, Sacramento State’s role in the community, and the next big thing for Unseen Heroes.

Why did you feel now was the time to move on from Unseen Heroes and take the role with the Kings?

Maritza: I felt like it’s a pivotal time for our city. Sacramento is like a teenager. We’re trying to get into the running with our cool older sister Los Angeles and older brother San Francisco. Teenagers are a little bit awkward. We are learning how we fit into California. The time is now for us to grow into adulthood. The Kings are the only major league team that we have in the city. The NBA is progressive and evolves at the rate in which a sports team should. My expertise in community development and event production are two unique worlds. I want to share that with the Kings organization and support the vision of our ownership and leaders. Ultimately we are one big family as a city and it is our time to shine.

Roshaun: I think it’s amazing. Sometimes when you develop a concept and kind of push it into reality, you get bogged down by that concept or that role. For her to be able to grow into another position and still have Unseen Heroes run is just a testament to the well-oiled machine that we’ve become. This business has become bigger than both of us.

Looking back on the past 10 years of running Unseen Heroes with Maritza, what are you proudest of?

Roshaun: I think the thing that I’m proudest of is actually being able to see things come to fruition now with such ease that weren’t attainable 10 years ago. I sit at different events and I see different things happening in the city that we aren’t producing but I know that the work we put in over the last 10 years indirectly or directly has attributed to that thing happening. That’s a cool space to be in because it makes me proud of all the hard work and determination we pushed. We believed in the city in a way not a lot of people did 10 years ago, and to see the city actually living up to the belief that we put in, that energy that we put in, that love that we put in, that’s amazing.

Why is being involved in your community so important to you?

Maritza: We all need each other, whether you recognize it or not. The connection to other people, the connection to how we all live, is monumental. It’s great to have resources like parks, but what makes the park come to life and be relevant are the people. To me community means everything, it’s what makes the world go ’round.

How do you view Sac State’s role in and impact on the community?

Maritza: Sac State, especially in recent years, has done such an amazing job of getting involved. It is not a university that is just watching from the sidelines, instead they get involved with what’s happening in our city. For a university like Sac State to get involved with existing students and alumni is strong evidence of the dedication they have to the growth of their student body both past and present.

Roshaun: Sac State produces a lot of graduates who are doing some cool things right now. A lot of the people who we work with are actually graduates of Sac State. That’s just a testament to being open, to educating the community here, and then developing them in a way that allows them to contribute back to the community. It’s a vital role and I think Sac State plays that perfectly.

What’s in the pipeline for Unseen Heroes?

Roshuan: Right now we just landed a big contract with Electrify America. Over the next 10 months, there will be an initiative called Sac-To-Zero introducing electric car sharing and electric charge stations to the Sacramento market. We’re producing a series of launch parties and signature events for them. It really changes the face of this green movement in our city, and is being used as a test market to see how it can be run in different cities as well. For that to be on our plate, have that opportunity to really grow that program, and see it being implemented nationally is really cool for us to have our hands in.

Read our 2015 Made at Sac State story about Maritza and Roshaun at csus.edu/made/davis.

Star of Sac State’s rocket-themed holiday video ready for acting career to take off

In Sacramento State’s inspiring 2018 holiday video, she is reaching for the stars as an aspiring NASA scientist whose dreams are made possible by her attending Sacramento State. In real life, the talented actress who stars in the video is headed for a more immediate goal: graduating in 2019 and kicking off her professional acting career.

The acting bug bit Monique Crawford, a theater major and musical theater minor, at an early age, but it wasn’t until she enrolled at Sac State in 2015 that her dream started to become a reality. Crawford’s first theater history class led to her first role, followed by others that have become part of a burgeoning resume. She has performed in on-campus productions of “Stories to be Told” (ensemble), “Annie” (Mrs. Pugh) and “Peter and the Starcatcher” (Molly).

She also has performed off-campus with The Fourth Wall and community theater organizations – all while balancing her schoolwork and commuting up to 90-minutes each way to and from Fairfield, her hometown.

We spoke with Crawford about her love of acting, her experience at Sacramento State, participating in the holiday video, and her post-graduation plans.

Transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Was acting always something you were interested in?

HolidayCard_Students_20181012_0088_FB
(Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

It actually was. I always wanted to act as a child. But in the child mentality, I thought you had to move to either New York or L.A., and I’m like, “Well my parents are never going to do that,” so I just kind of forgot about it. And then once I hit 18, I was in college and I was like, “Oh, I’m free now. I can do whatever I want.” It took a couple years. I was psychology major, and then I changed it after I had my first theater history class with Dr. (Roberto) Pomo. In the class you get into groups and then you perform certain scenes of whatever play you’re assigned. Afterwards (Pomo) came up to me and said, “I want you to audition for the play in the spring,” so I said OK, and I got my first role in his play, “Stories to be Told.” That got the ball rolling. He played a major part in that. I’m very grateful.

Why did you decide to come to Sac State?

I actually didn’t want to come to college at all after high school, but I got to come tuition-free to any university in California because my dad is retired military. My parents were really pushing. “It’s going to be really good for you,” they said. My mom graduated from Sac State, so I said, “All right, the only college I’m going to apply to, the only one I want is Sac State.” So that’s what I did. I got it, and I wasn’t going to take anything else.

Was being in the holiday video your first time acting on camera or film versus on stage?

No, I’ve had a little bit of experience with industrial filming, filming videos for schools. I also have done a lot of background work. A lot (of that) was in (the second season of the television series) “13 Reasons Why.” So if you watch it, you’ll see a whole lot of me. (There have been) other things, independent films, being a background extra, that sort of thing. But as far as major roles, yes, this was the first one that will be more widespread.

Did you get a lot of screen time in “13 Reasons Why”?

I did. During the second half of the second season you can see me all over the place.

When you first saw the completed Sac State video, what was your reaction?

I watched it again. I watched it once, and I didn’t know what to think, and then I watched it again, and I thought, wow, (videographer Rob Neep) really put it all together and everything blended just like he said it was going to. His work was very, very well done.

Did you get to meet the young girl who stars alongside you?

No, I didn’t. I didn’t get to meet any of the kids, but they were so adorable.

How has what you’ve learned in the theater program helped you with the acting you do on campus and elsewhere?

(Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
Monique Crawford (center) sits with two of her co-stars as they film the 2018 Sacramento State holiday video. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

The class that helped with that the most would be Acting 3, taught by Professor Michelle Felten. We focused a lot on different methods of acting, and very minute details such as being in your environment, feeling your environment. For example, me feeling this chair (that I’m sitting in now). I feel the soft cushion underneath, and I can feel the sharp edges of the wood, this kind of warm chair; so allowing those kinds of things to ground you and to focus in on your scene partner. And so when it comes to film, a lot of it is really close up, and so that’s when you see a whole lot more of the minute details. It’s from doing all that hard work that a lot of people may not really see behind the scenes, but that’s what we did in that class.

What do you plan to do after graduation?

My original plan was to go to L.A., and I’ve seen a few performances at Cap(ital) Stage, and they were just brilliant. I loved it, I fell in love with it 100 percent. So I may be moving down to L.A. or I may be auditioning for Cap Stage to keep going with my career in Sacramento.

What advice do you have for a new student who wants to be a theater major and an actor?

To manage your time well. College is all about time management, but so much so in theater. You really have to know yourself. You get to know yourself so much more just being in the department through classes and workshops and everything. You learn how much physical activity you can take, how much mental activity you can take, how much emotional activity you can take. Manage your health as well as your time because your body and your voice are the only two instruments that you have to use. You have to keep them in tune, keep them healthy. Eat. Always eat healthy. Get as much rest as you can and really make time to keep yourself well as well as passing classes.

What do you do in your spare time?

(Laughing) We have no spare time! Besides acting, I have been dancing hula for the majority of my life. I’m a professional Polynesian dancer. I always love swimming, I love being outdoors, seeing movies and crocheting, playing chess. I’m one of the people who likes puzzles, like Sudoku. I like mentally stimulating things as well as adventures like dirt biking, jet skiing, parasailing, all kinds of stuff to get your adrenaline pumping