On Just Doing It — That Is, the Writing

girl with bookI often get lovely readers here (thank you for reading, readers!) who ask me wonderful questions. I love this! I love giving advice! I love telling people what to do and solving other people’s problems! They always seem so much easier than my own!

One thing people ask a lot is a variation on: I have so much trouble getting started with my writing. Or I have so much trouble finishing the pieces I write. Or I have so much trouble getting my writing out into the world. … Do you have any tips for dealing with this?

I usually write some vague words of encouragement — give yourself deadlines! believe in yourself! — but the fact is that there is only one answer to all of these problems, and it does not sound very inspirational or empathetic. The answer is: Just F-ing do it. How do you start? Sit down, open a file on your computer, and type. How do you finish? Sit down again, re-open the file, and keep writing until it’s done. How do you put it out? Put it out. Start a blog. Give it to your friends. Read at public readings. Find a place that will publish you. What do you do next? Do it again.

Good news, though! I have forced myself to find a few more words of wisdom on this subject, mainly from others. I realized this morning that perhaps the worst person to ask for advice about how to motivate yourself to be a writer is a professional writer. How to motivate yourself, for me, comes down to this: I have set up my life such that if I don’t write, I don’t pay my bills, and I don’t eat. I like to eat, and I like to have my phone free of creditor calls. Therefore, I write. Do I start some side writing projects and leave them unfinished? Sure, but I don’t have time to fret over them or see them as failures or see them as evidence that I’m not a writer. The last time I was free of professional writing obligations, I was about 17 years old. If you count the school paper as a professional writing obligation, we can knock that back to about 11. Before that, I wrote plays to be performed in my garage by my friends. Even then, I was giving myself deadlines and obligations.

That said, I’ve been and continue to be plenty stuck in other areas of my life. Sometimes I get sick of practicing guitar. Even though I love running and working out, sometimes I get really lax about it. So I get it. Seth Godin, who writes the only blog I read every single day, tells us in today’s post that we can change our habits. This definitely includes disciplining your writing. He writes: “Change is hard, sometimes nearly impossible. But if even one person as far behind as we are has dug in and done enough work to finish that marathon, to change that habit or to learn that skill, it means that it’s not impossible. Merely (astonishingly) difficult.” Read the whole thing here.

Carol Tice, a super-successful freelance writer, has some other important advice: Stop reading about writing, and start writing. It’s fine if you read a little. It’s fine if you read, say, my blog, like you are right now. But I’ve seen many, many students get stuck in the pit of reading about writing — there are so many books, so many blogs! — without ever stringing one of their own sentences together. You know how to write. You’re not going to get better until you practice.

On Facebook last night, I posted a (slightly more expletive-filled, and shorter) version of this post, where a lot of my friends are writers and artists; they offered some good advice as well. “When you’re a writer, done is good,” AK Whitney said. “Probably ask the question, ‘Do you believe in the quality of your work…or not?'” Beau Mansfield added. (It’s okay if you aren’t feeling great about the work, by the way; maybe it’s just for practice then. That’s totally valid. Oh, the things I’ve written in my life that, thank goodness, remained for my private reading only. But the point is, maybe you’re stopping because your writing isn’t up to snuff yet. Just keep going until it is.) Jennifer Pozner said, “I have hated writing every single day since I started in high school, and I’m relatively certain that I’ll never finish during at least 65% of all my articles. Then I just keep on working, and do it again. Because it’s what I’m best at. And because that’s what you have to do to do — the work.”

So there you go. I don’t think any of this advice gets you out of the part you’re avoiding — the actual writing. Just know we’re all right here with you, trying to avoid our own writing, and then, finally, doing it anyway.

What Taylor Swift Can Teach Us About Writing

I’ve been a casual fan of Taylor Swift’s for a while now — first thinking she was a good role model for girls even if I didn’t care to listen to her music, then sort-of liking that one song about how “she’s cheer captain and I’m in the bleachers,” then really digging her dubstep/pop song “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Now I’m officially in — and looking for friends who will go with me to her next concert — with her new album, 1989. Because I’ve had it on repeat all this week, I’ve also started digging into her older stuff for variety and have found lots of little gem lyrics even in the songs that didn’t otherwise thrill me. (“You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter”? You better come up with equally clever sentences on a regular basis before you dare not take this girl seriously.)

I could listen to this new album in its entirety all day, except for one song: “Welcome to New York.” It makes me squirm so much that I wish there were a separate version of the album available without it. (I know I can theoretically try to delete it from my iTunes, but the Cloud never forgets.) It’s killing me that on an album that includes the delicious “Out of the Woods,” “Style,” and “Blank Space,” she is running around performing this piece of fluff to promote the album. I am not the only one — this song has been universally eviscerated, not surprisingly, by those of us known as “the New York media elite,” who are not impressed by this very wealthy newcomer’s account of what New York life is like. (We’re “elite,” but most of our apartments and bank accounts are not.) A friend of mine called it “tone deaf,” and she didn’t mean it was literally not in tune — she meant the lyrics were lame, when Swift’s lyrics are usually impeccable. The Village Voice called the song “bullshit”: “‘Welcome to New York’ celebrates as generic, flat, and lifeless a New York as has ever existed in pop culture.” I cannot explain its shortcomings better than the Voice did, so I’ll quote this excellent rant here:

If you’re young and hungry, moving to New York takes a leap of faith and an acceptance that life will be difficult and finding your way won’t come easily. Swift’s New York is passive; it’s a city that’s “been waiting for you,” which is a completely unrecognizable aspect of a place that’s the Grave Digger of naive kids who come here to make it. New York waits for no one — that’s supposed to be why when you get here, you hustle or you die. Well, maybe not die, but you do wind up moving to St. Louis.

I can only think that NYCGo, which named her Global Welcome Ambassador for New York City, is either trolling us on purpose or trying to give Swift some kind of serious New York-style hazing.

I’m here to defend not the song, but Swift’s intelligence and talent, even in relation to this very song. I’m also here to make this misstep a teachable moment for us writers. (Full lyrics here, for reference.) Swift’s major talent is stringing together words, but it’s also wielding extraordinary insight. (In other words, she is a writer.) Part of the whole Taylor Swift thing is that even when she was still a teenager, and she was writing naive songs about waiting for her prince to come that stressed feminist commentators out all the time, she brought the kind of self-awareness that usually only comes with age. (And for many, never comes at all.) She has a specific obsession in her work, like so many of us do: Hers is with the moment you know a relationship will end. It’s not even necessarily with the actual end. It’s the moment you know it won’t work, and many times for her, it’s a moment when you keep trying anyway. She’s fascinated with this aspect of human experience, and she renders it beautifully, over and over. “I Knew You Were Trouble.” says it all in the title: “Once upon a time, a few mistakes ago/You were in my sights, you got me alone … I guess you didn’t care, and I guess I liked that/And when I fell hard, you took a step back.” From “Out of the Woods”: “The night we couldn’t quite forget when we decided/To move the furniture so we could dance/Baby, like we stood a chance … And I remember thinking/Are we out of the woods yet?”

This compared with a New York that’s just sitting around waiting for you with bright lights and it’s “aglow” and the most interesting thing about it is that “everybody here was someone else before”? This encapsulates about the first 10-15 seconds I spent in this city. As someone who’s been battling this place for 13 years, this song makes me feel about a thousand years old, and it makes her sound like the least observant, least insightful person to ever come here. And if you’ve ever been in Times Square, you know we’re constantly crawling with people who aren’t so observant or insightful. (See? This is what New York does to you.) Here’s where my defense (of sorts) and my writing insight comes in: There is something endearingly naive about this, coming from a girl who seemed so world-weary of love by age 20. It’s cute to me that she could write such a bad song at such an otherwise fertile creative time in her life. I’m proud that my city could confuse her so much that she had feelings she couldn’t actually put into clever, interesting, insightful words.

It reminds me of the most important time in my own life, which also happened to be the earlier years of my time in New York. I was trying to leave a longterm relationship, an engagement, and I didn’t know how. I realized how dire the situation was when he, essentially, bought us a condo on the Upper West Side because I said I wanted to live in the city, not New Jersey; then it turned out it was the relationship, not the housing, that was a problem. I finally escaped to a tiny studio in the East Village with a shower in the kitchen, a foldout bed acquired on the street, and a mouse roommate. I cried a lot. I tried to write about all of this while it was happening, and that resulted in a few good, raw passages, but mostly it resulted in an entire “novel” I’m now glad never got published. But months and years later, I wrote about some of these events again; this time, some of the best writing of my life happened.

Most of the time, when we’re writing about our own lives, we need the perspective that, for most of us, only time brings. If we happen to write something and publish it before we have that kind of insight, those are the pieces we look back on and cringe for our naiveté. I think Taylor’s going to feel that way someday about “Welcome to New York.” Lucky for her, she has a few other hits to be proud of for decades to come. She says she might even write a book someday herself. I’m all for that.


How Kim Kardashian West’s Social Media Tips Apply to Writers

1407504844000-KIM-KARDASHIANWe’ve finally figured out the specific skill Kim Kardashian West is so good at that we can invite her to business conferences as a speaker: rocking the social media. There’s no getting around the fact that she’s brilliant at marketing herself and has leveraged Twitter and Instagram to her advantage. Hell, she makes the selfie an artform (and a publishing deal). She offered some tips at this week’s Code/Mobile conference in California. Here are some of my translations for writers:

  • Social media can make your career. It’s dangerous, especially for us freelancers, to spend too much time on social media, but it’s easy to justify the time — I believe it’s a critical part of my career. First of all, it allows me to stay in touch with readers and former students in a pretty intimate, day-to-day way without having to write them all individual emails (which would be weird). They’re happy to then pitch in and spread the word when I have big, mercenary announcements, like a new book or class. If I also share thoughts with them and respond to their posts regularly, it doesn’t feel so grossly self-promotional to share my new articles and blog posts. And this is all not to mention the fact that I’ve made many genuine connections with fellow writers and editors who can actually pay me for my work, just by exchanging thoughts on Scandal or dinner or whatever with them via Facebook and Twitter.
  • Use Twitter and Facebook as sources. Kim crowd-sources restaurant choices; we can crowd-source opinions on the day’s issues or find great people to interview for our latest article. I don’t want to think about how hard this was before the Internet, calling around trying to find women who have gone through IVF or people who discovered they were gay after 40 or whatever unique little subset of people one might want to locate for a feature story. Now just type it into Facebook or Twitter, and you may end up with more people than you have time to talk to.
  • Facebook is the best social network. Kim prefers Instagram, for selfie-evident reasons. It does almost nothing for me, being a word person. I do love Twitter for real-time discussions of TV shows and such. But Facebook gives me this intimate feeling, allowing for fun, daily sharing with people I love but don’t necessarily need to hang out with or call regularly. It also allows for some soothing bitching with other freelancers I’d otherwise never talk to.
  • I have no idea why she’s talking about BlackBerrys.
  • Try to develop good instincts for what constitutes oversharing or excessive self-promotion within your arena. For Kim, that’s simple: Post no more than three photos from one location. For us, it’s more complicated. I must admit: Sometimes I see the way friends post about the celebrity they just met or the article they just wrote, and it rubs me the wrong way. I include much of the same content in my own feed — I do write articles, and many do involve celebrities — so I always worry that I seem equally annoying to others. I’ve tried to keep my shares reasonably humble (in that “I can’t believe they let me do this” or “this is a huge honor for me, so I wanted to share this with you” way). I hope I succeed most of the time. I’m sorry, everyone, if I don’t.
  • I really hope Kim changes her mind about wearable tech, because I would enjoy a selfie of her wearing Google Glass.

How Karaoke, Dance and Other Fun Stuff Can Help Your Writing

This is me at a book event. Probably the glass of wine helps, too.

This is me at a book event. Probably the glass of wine helps, too.

I just started teaching another round of Creative Writing 101 and Creative Nonfiction for Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Every time I start a new class, I give my little lecture about the benefits of reading your work in class. I tell them it always helps to hear your own work aloud, which is a great way to edit yourself even if you read it in a room alone. I also tell them it’s important to put your work out there, one way or another, so you don’t get too worked up about it or attached to it. If you want to be a “real” writer, that usually means publishing, and the best way to get over your fears that your work isn’t good enough is to share it with others. A few magical things may happen: 1. Those listening may laugh, or cry, or relate, or compliment you, or applaud, and that will make you feel amazing. Or 2. There won’t be much reaction at all, but you will live, and that will make all the difference. You put it out there, you live, you move on.

I came across a nice post this morning on LifeHacker about How to Overcome the Fear of Sharing Your Writing in Public. It’s great, and you should read it. It involves important mental tricks like imagining your audience as just one person and getting over perfection. To supplement that, I’d like to add some more concrete — and, some might say, fun — things that have helped me get over my fear of sharing my work (and, more importantly in my case, my trepidation about public speaking):

1. Go to karaoke. Karaoke is my solution to a number of life’s ills. I happen to love singing, and I always have. But even if you don’t feel like you’re particularly adept, this works. In fact, all the better. The beauty of karaoke is that it is a place where we sanction anyone and everyone standing up at a microphone and belting out a song. We applaud and cheer even — sometimes especially — if the person isn’t all that good. Singing in public, living through it, and actually getting applause for it is a powerful experience. It’s nice if you happen to be good at it, and you may get better at it with practice, but that’s not really the point. If you can sing in public, you can probably read your work in writing class or publish your blog post.

2. Mastered the karaoke? Start a band! This is precisely what happened to me: While at karaoke one night, my friend suggested we start a band. She sort-of played the drums, I had once taken a few guitar lessons. I went back to guitar lessons, and now we are a two-woman band. We are not great. We are possibly approaching decent after three years of this. But singing and playing an instrument with another person of equally amateur quality is much more challenging than karaoke. You have invited a crowd out to hear you, and everything can go wrong no matter how many times you’ve nailed a song in rehearsal. Be okay with this anyway, and your fear of other public performances decreases exponentially. Even if you just play a few open mics, you will advance your performance ability by leagues.

3. Take a dance class. You will be totally self-conscious at first. Then you will soon come to the realization that everyone else is so worried about themselves that there’s no time for them to judge you. If there’s anything that helps you get over sharing your work in public, it may be this: No one cares about you nearly as much as you think they do. Inspiring? Maybe not. But it helps!

In Praise of Friends Who’ll Read Your Manuscripts

girl with bookWhen students ask me what my “one piece of advice” is for aspiring writers, it’s usually: Read. But my second piece of advice — something people rarely ask for — is almost as important. That piece of advice: Cultivate a group of friends willing to read your stuff before it’s published.

I recently taught a workshop about writing book proposals, and a professional copyeditor was among my students. This was his advice, too: Don’t turn anything in ever without having at least one other person read it first. Other people can see holes in your work that you can’t. They can point out places where your knowledge and research is overwhelming your ability to see that others won’t understand something. They can tell you, whether you like it or not, when you’re not making a lot of sense to anyone who does not have your brain. (One of the other students asked, “What if I’m not ready to show my friends?” I will tell you the same thing I told him: If you’re not ready to show your friends, you’re definitely not ready to send it to a potential agent or publisher. I understand the sentiment — it sometimes feels easier to send something off to a faceless stranger, as if you’re sending something into an abyss. But it will be an abyss if you don’t edit your manuscript carefully and work out all its kinks before it ends up in front of someone who matters. You’ll never get anywhere that way.)

I’m going through this process with my Seinfeld manuscript now, having three friends of varying knowledge about the show read my manuscript draft. It’s my favorite part of writing a book, actually. First of all, this means I’m in the home stretch. Second, finally someone else is reading all of this stuff I’ve been researching for the past year and a half, and it’s fun to be able to talk about it to others at last. Third, it’s like a writing video game. Every day I open the shared Google Doc and see what little “bugs” in the manuscript I can eliminate. It’s so satisfying, like shooting Space Invaders.

It’s good to start cultivating this group of people as early as possible in your career. You can, of course, hire outside help — this is a service I offer! — but you can also have a little team you go to again and again. Given that “again and again” part, and presuming you will not be paying all of these people, here are a few specific recommendations for finding them:

1. Make friends in writing classes you take. Stay in touch so you can read each other’s work as your careers progress. What’s good about these people is they often automatically comply with my second tip …

2. Pick people at a relatively similar phase in their career to your own. Mentors and teachers can be great — and often are the types you might want to pay for their extra level of expertise. But if you have friends with whom you can regularly exchange work, you’ll be able to pay your readers back in future reading chores for them. Most of my go-to people are like this. It’s a huge favor to ask, specifically when it’s a book-length work, and you want to be able to reciprocate as much as possible. (Interesting alternative: The woman who has served as my research assistant on the Seinfeld book offered to do so in exchange for me reading her book proposal. Bartering can work!)

3. Screen potential mates for editing skills. Okay, maybe this is going too far. But my best editor is my domestic partner, Jesse. He’s a computer programmer by profession, but it turns out he’s a grammar and style stickler. He’s more honest in his comments to me than anyone else is. (Others: “You might want to consider …” Jesse: “NO. Never write this phrase again.” Others: “Maybe a little unclear?” Jesse: “Huh? I have no idea what you’re saying.”) He’s often editing while I’m sitting in the same room, and I’m often addressing his notes while he’s in the same room. A quick chat resolves a lot. And luckily I don’t have to worry about the reciprocation; I figure he financially benefits from my book being great, so he’s more invested than most. (Also, he loves me, so there’s that.)

4. Tell your “editors” what you want from them. Is this a final, final draft, about which you must know every tiny flaw? Or are you concerned about specific structural issues they can look for? Or is this early in the process, when you need encouragement more than anything else?

Online Writing Classes: Creative Nonfiction, Pop Culture, and Book Proposals

girl with bookI’m taking a great Skillshare online class with one of my idols, Susan Orlean, about writing creative nonfiction.

If you get into the Skillshare mood from that, please feel free to also check out my How to Write (Smart) About Pop Culture (which is free!) and my Learn to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal That Sells (which is only $20).

‘How’s the Book Going?’

cropped-1408767_87215604.jpegPeople love to ask this question of writers who are writing a book. I don’t blame them. What else are they supposed to ask? It does seem like the natural equivalent to “How’s work?” They’re trying to start a conversation is all. They’re trying to show interest in the writer’s life and livelihood. And for certain people (close friends and family, plus other writers) who will actually sit through a genuine answer to this question, it’s fine to ask.

But the cocktail-party version always feels fraught for me. It’s like people who ask “How are you?” in passing. They don’t want to know the real answer; they just want to express their vague interest in your well-being and then hear, “Fine. How are you?” Sometimes I also feel this pressure to make the answer super-glamorous, to live up to some kind of Hemingway fantasy people have about professional authors. “It’s great! I shot a boar and then went running with the bulls last week, and somehow when I came home, another three chapters had magically appeared on my computer in the perfect, terse prose of a master!” Given the subject matter of my work, I also feel a pressure from others to make it glamorous by Hollywood standards: “Oh, I barely have to write the thing. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David have volunteered to personally ghost-write entire chapters for me, then come over and shower me in some of the excess hundred-dollar bills they have lying around.”

The accurate answer, however, is: “I transcribed another interview today. Then I printed it out and highlighted the best quotes and stories. Then I had a glass of iced tea. Then I started copying and pasting the quotes and anecdotes from the transcribed file into the working draft of my book in what I believe are the best locations for those quotes and anecdotes. Then I started working them into the narrative, but I didn’t finish because our take-out burrito order arrived. Then I ate and watched an old episode of The Sopranos.”

If you’re really wondering how the book’s going right now, I have about five huge transcripts to get through, plus a few more on the way; the good news is I already have a 90,000-word, very messy draft. I also have several fresh highlighters in different, exciting colors.

How it actually feels every day is best described by this recent New York Times essay by Rachel Schteir about the constant failure that writing requires. Even productive days feel like a series of failures. In it, she quotes Junot Diaz:“In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.” Even writing a book on contract for a publisher feels like a kind of failure for me right now: Every day, I fail to finish the book. Then, one day, somehow, miraculously, I will not fail. I will finish. Then I’ll start failing at something else.

The Key to Journalistic Success: Experience, Experience, Experience

Pioneering journalist Helen Thomas.

Pioneering journalist Helen Thomas.

Journalism is one of those fields, like medicine, where the only thing that makes you better is experience. Luckily, we’re less likely to physically harm people with our mistakes — though we can certainly cause harm, alas — so a lot of our learning comes the hard way. That’s why it’s nice to practice in smaller-stakes settings like small-circulation websites or local newspapers.

This small piece about a forum for student journalists in India (published in The Hindu) has all the insight aspiring reporters (and their teachers) need: Students should do all they can to get experience and meet people working in the field. It’s fine, and even desirable, to do this while still a student if possible. Need to make extra cash? Do it as a freelancer or stringer if possible. I made most of my money in college this way, working for local newspapers’ performing arts sections (interviewing Radiohead before they were famous=not the worst way to make money) and anyone else who would let me. My school newspaper drove me bonkers — too many competitive overachievers at Northwestern — and besides, real local papers paid better and looked cooler on my resume.

I also love this Hindu piece’s note that J-school professors should have contacts in the “real” journalism world so they can hook their students up with mentors who can lead to jobs. I was too stupid to get take full advantage of my professors when I was in school, but a few of them referred students to me after I graduated and had a good job in New York. I’m still friends with many of those students, some of whom I kinda mentored, many of whom I helped, and many of whom are now editors who give me work.

Writing With Friends

girl with bookThis piece on the New York Times‘ writing blog, Draft, by Bonnie Tsui, addresses something that has come up for me a lot lately: the social side of writing. In it, Tsui talks about how she used to resist hanging out with, and especially writing near, other writers; but now, she has embraced the idea of sharing an office with other freelancers.

I’m not about to get in on a communal office space — I like neither the cost nor the impingement on the freedom to go to my refrigerator whenever I want to. But lately I’ve been reminded of the benefits of talking with other writers: online, on the phone, or in person. A giant Facebook group has recently started for women writers (it’s private and closed, due to overwhelming demand) and it seems to be doing great things. Women are sharing ideas, and even landing assignments in major outlets this way. At about the same time this group started, I coincidentally launched my own minor effort to network in person with others who write about pop culture like I do. It’s a strange and specific beat, full of frustrations that no one else totally gets (like trying to hunt down celebrities for interviews or having to watch so much TV that your eyes want to bleed). We met for the first time last night, and it was a great start.

We even talked about how hard it is, particularly as a freelance writer, to share your resources with others. Often it feels like we have to beg and scrape for every $200 assignment. (You don’t want to know what we’ll do for those $2,000 ones.) The last thing we want to do is risk someone else honing in on our territory. But I’m a believer in professional karma, so I’m trying to share my knowledge, even the hard-won kind. And it seems like I know lots of generous souls who want to do the same.

My ‘Seinfeld’ 25th Anniversary Trilogy

670px-2,675,0,410-CharactersI’m in the middle of (furiously) researching and writing a book about Seinfeld — which, alas, won’t come out until next year, and thus will not benefit from the surfeit of publicity associated with this week’s 25th anniversary of its pilot. (You know how we media humans love an anniversary that ends in 0 or 5!) I did, however, manage to parlay my current obsessive level of knowledge about the show into a few pieces of my own. In case you missed them, here they are:

About Nothing? 10 issue-tackling Seinfeld episodes (A.V. Club)

Elaine Benes Is a Feminist Heroine (Dame)

Everything You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Seinfeld Episodes (Esquire)