The Best Advice from Anne Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird’

bird_by_bird31I just re-read this classic of writing advice. I’ve felt a bit adrift in the direction of my writing of late, which is a common symptom between books. (I just finished Seinfeldia but it won’t be out until next year; I haven’t settled on my next book yet.) Approaching a five-hour plane ride back from Portland, I had just finished the book I brought with me (Jami Attenberg’s excellent Saint Mazie) and needed something. I downloaded Bird by Bird on a hunch that I needed it; I haven’t read it in years. I read the entire book in 24 hours and highlighted basically every other line. It read completely differently for me now. Ten years ago, I found inspiration in its practical advice to keep plugging away at my writing; this time, I laughed out loud many, many times at her more cynical depictions of living publishing life and of teaching writing classes. I also found great comfort in all of her tortured feelings about publishing. She’s hugely successful, and even she was feeling this way on her third and fourth books and beyond.

There are too many lines that I loved to list here—it would mean just retyping the whole book—but I’ll give you a few:

It is one of the greatest feelings known to humans, the feeling of being the host, of hosting people, of being the person to whom they come for food and drink and company. This is what the writer has to offer.

On writing books as a “present” to others …

[I] think of the writers who have given a book to me, and then to write a book back to them.

My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they’ve outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well. I do not know anyone fitting this description at all.

Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t—and, in fact, you’re not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.

And my favorite, a scene from her writing class, in which she tries to present the idea of using your own negative feelings in your writing.

I read them a poem by Phillip Lopate that someone once sent me, that goes:
We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
frustration
discontent and
torture
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
association
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.
They stare at me like the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. … Finally someone will raise his or her hand. “Can you send your manuscript directly to a publisher, or do you really need an agent?” After a moment or so, I say, You really need an agent.

Translating ‘Seinfeld,’ Studying ‘Seinfeld’

670px-2,675,0,410-CharactersIn honor of Seinfeld coming to Hulu today, I wrote two of my favorite stories I’ve ever written:

For The Verge, how hard it is to translate German into some other languages and cultures: Translating Seinfeld

For BBC Culture, how Seinfeld helped usher in the era of serious pop culture studies in academia: Was Seinfeld Really ‘About Nothing’?

What Is the Deal with ‘The Show About Nothing’?

imagesEvery time I tell someone I’m writing a book about Seinfeld, they say something along the lines of: “Oh, you should call it The Book About Nothing.” This week, I’ve written a few pieces about Seinfeld in anticipation of its Hulu launch on Thursday, and almost every editor I’ve worked with has asked me to add something about it being “the show about nothing” and/or has said they plan to use a variation of the phrase in the headline.

I know popular TV shows have often had sticky catchphrases, but to paraphrase one of Jerry Seinfeld’s other catchphrases, “What is the deal with ‘the show about nothing’?”

It’s not useful, like 30 Rock‘s “I want to go to there” or “Blurg.” It’s not a catch-all exclamatory phrase like Good Times‘ “Dy-no-mite!” It’s not even as funny as a lot of other Seinfeld-isms like “spongeworthy” or “master of my domain.” But people love it.

I like to try to figure these things out, but maybe I’m too close to the topic this time. So I’m asking you, readers: Any ideas? What’s so interesting about “the show about nothing”?

The Most Gorgeous Lines in ‘Middlemarch’

middlemarchI just finished the epic project of reading Middlemarch. Somehow, after 785 paperback pages, I actually miss it. Obviously Middlemarch doesn’t need me to sing its praises, but it was even more beautiful than I expected. Perfectly plotted, minutely observed, rarely boring (except when everyone in town drones on about hospital plans for a whole chapter) … reading it will make your writing better. I had to stop myself from reading every few lines aloud to my partner.

Here, a few of my favorites to mark the occasion:

“It is always fatal to have music or poetry interrupted.”

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

“And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.”

“Confound you handsome young fellows! You think of having it all your own way in the world. You don’t understand women. They don’t admire you half so much as you admire yourselves.”

“If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new. We are told that the oldest inhabitants in Peru do not cease to be agitated by the earthquakes, but they probably see beyond each shock, and reflect that there are plenty more to come.”

“The troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots.”

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”

“A prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions.”

Contest: Reach Your Writing Goals, Win a Prize!

Here’s an offer I honestly believe you should not refuse: Reach your writing goal in the next week, and you may also win a prize for your trouble. YOU CANNOT LOSE.

Here’s how it will work:

1. Tell me in the comments here, via email, via Facebook, or via Twitter what your writing goal is for this week.

2. Reach that goal, and prove it by emailing me your work.

3. Get entered into my raffle, just by doing all of this.

4. Win a one-hour coaching session with me, via email or phone, if your name is drawn.

It’s that simple. Possibly win quality time with me. Definitely win the satisfaction of finishing your work. How can you go wrong?

Deadline is Friday, June 12. I’ll pick and announce a winner Monday, June 15. Go!

Sunday: Free Article-Writing Class at Word Bookstore!

Just wanted to let you all know that I’ll be teaching a free, hour-long class about article writing for Gotham Writers’ Workshop at the excellent Word Bookstore in Brooklyn. I basically run it as an ask-me-anything lightning-round Q&A about article writing. So come and ask me anything! 2 p.m., Sunday May 31, Word Brooklyn.

Need Help With Your Writing Career?

Just a reminder of — or for new folks here, an introduction to — my writing coaching packages. The total breakdown:

Coaching Packages

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Some nice words from folks who have worked with me before:

I can’t say enough about Jennifer. Her experience speaks for itself, but her generosity of spirit sets her apart. She is genuinely interested in other writers’ stories and ideas and invested in their success. She’s not just an acclaimed author and magazine writer. She’s a teacher. Last fall, I began tooling around with a concept for a nonfiction book and struggled to start writing a proposal: My inner critic thought, “I can’t do this!” I procrastinated. Realizing I was getting in the way of myself, I called Jen. She helped me break up my proposal into manageable parts, spreading out assignments over several weeks. She offered constructive criticism and a compassionate ear. Her class has been an invaluable education. Now I believe I can write a book, and I’m dedicating it to Jennifer. — Erin Carlson

Jennifer is an extraordinary writing coach.  She taught me the basics of narrative nonfiction in 60 minutes, more or less.  Her advice was concise and 100% practical and useable.  I bought two 6 hour coaching packages with Jennifer to complete a book proposal.  A couple weeks later, I had a meeting with the single biggest agent in the field, and a meeting with another agent at a leading agency a couple weeks later.  I couldn’t have done it without her.  To be frank, her services are astonishingly high value for the very reasonable rate charged.  — Jonathan Petts

Jennifer really helped me define concrete goals as a writer, and work on addressing them. She also provided detailed feedback that was insightful and on point. I struggle with writer’s block, so I appreciated her mentorship. — Emma Pfeiffer

 

We can do any of these from afar if you’re not in New York — Skype or phone works great.

Special: $399 for six hour-long sessions in the following subject areas. Click on the PayPal button below for easy purchase, or  email me for details and payment options. (I accept PayPal, Venmo, credit cards, and checks as well.)

    • Becoming a Writer … Who Writes: You know you want to be some sort of writer, but have no idea where to begin. I’ll walk you through the early stages in easy, clear steps until you’ve got a concrete plan and routine for moving forward. I’ll help you figure out what you want to write, or at least start with—an obviously critical step. We’ll work together to draft a writing routine that works for your life and even a reading list to keep that important part of being a writer on track. We’ll talk about how to incorporate basics like character, scene, and structure into whatever you hope to write. And we’ll talk about living the “writer lifestyle” on your own.
    • Finding Your Writing Voice: In these six weeks, I’ll help you get in touch with the essence of your personality that should come through in your writing. (Yeah, it’s a little shrink-y and Oprah-y, in the best possible way.) We’ll talk about voice from every angle: the lit-geeky (Kerouac, Salinger, The New Yorker) and the pop-star-ish (Beyoncé and Britney might come up). There will be weekly exercises designed to help you find your writing voice (no dancing required, though if you’re feeling it, by all means …). We’ll explore ways to get comfortable with being vulnerable and how motivation strengthens your writing. We’ll also talk about karaoke or opera, if the mood strikes.
    • Launching Your Blog: A complete how-to, from drafting your plans and finding your target audience to setting up and writing. I’ll walk you through the basics of choosing a platform and design, then work with you to fine-tune the writing before you go live. You’ll have a chance to workshop blog posts and ideas, get critiques, and make a blogging schedule. By the final session, we’ll launch your blog with five posts up and another five ready to go.
    • Launching Your Writing Career: You want to be a writer — a published one — but you don’t know where to begin. With this package, you’ll find your writing niche and learn how to get published. I’ll guide you through coming up with specific, attainable writing career goals and drafting plans to accomplish them. By the final section, you will have made progress on — and perhaps even accomplished — three specific writing and publishing goals. And you’ll have action plans for completing all of them.
    • Writing a Nonfiction Book: In this package, I’ll help you figure out your nonfiction book from start to finish: from what your book is about and why anyone would want to read it to researching it to getting an agent.  During the six weeks, we’ll work on your sample chapters, your proposal, your title, and what to do next.
    • Writing Your Nonfiction Book Proposal in Six Steps: I will walk you through the entire process of writing a nonfiction book proposal in six sessions. We’ll assess your idea, then work on a section of the proposal at each meeting, honing your material and allowing you to get feedback on every part of the proposal. This is for students who have an idea, know they want to write a proposal, and are ready to get it done.

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More affordable options are available as well: Training materials, without the one-on-one consultations, for just $99. (Not available for Launching Your Writing Career, which is a customized program.) Email me for details.

The Economics of Book Deals

moneyWhen I wrote about my own experience going freelance in my Ultimate Guide to Starting a Freelance Writing Business, I mentioned the specific development that allowed me to quit my day job: a six-figure book advance. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the mechanics of book advances/the state of the publishing industry in that post, which was long and involved enough. That said, a freelancer friend wisely pointed out that I might want to explain that further, in case anyone’s reading that and thinking, “Oh, okay! I’ll just get a six-figure book advance then.” There are a number of reasons that I could think this was a reasonable expectation for me at that time (and these reasons, not coincidentally, double as a list of ways I was lucky):

1. We are talking about the lowest end of “six figures.” (I feel like I’m supposed to be coy about this, but you get my drift.)

2. I had made this much for my first book, Why? Because We Still Like You. This was pure luck. I got this book as an “assignment”; Grand Central Publishing was looking for someone to write a book about the original Mickey Mouse Club. I had written a lot about current Disney Channel stars while working at Entertainment Weekly. An agent I was working with then heard they needed someone and put me forward for it. I got the gig. Their budget was pre-set at something like $80K and my agent talked them up a bit.

3. The book that allowed me to quit my job was Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. It was sold on auction, which means that publishers were competing for it, which drives the price up. Many, though not all, of the other offers were very low. I would not have been able to quit my job on those offers. I actually didn’t know what I was going to do if that was as high as we went, because I really did not want to write this book while holding a full-time job. Working at EW was incredibly demanding at this point because we’d laid lots of people off and were trying to feed the web beast. And I wanted to do a great job on the book. So this was a total gamble. We ended up with a few big publishers wanting it in hardcover in the end, though, which is crucial for an advance this large. Luckily, I really liked the two highest bidders, and the absolute highest was Jon Karp, the publisher at Simon & Schuster, who turns out to be a huge Mary Tyler Moore Show fan. This was a no-brainer. (In further lucky news, he ended up editing my book himself, which was an invaluable experience for me.)

4. In conclusion, this was a Cinderella story and not a sure thing.

I think there are a few specific lessons that you, as a person who is not me, and who is possibly considering a similar career path, can take from my experience:

1. Non-fiction tends to sell better than fiction. There’s more of it, and more demand for it, no matter what your pre-conceived picture of an “author” is. It’s also less dependent on you as a name and more dependent on subject matter. Which brings us to …

2. My solo books have all been about TV shows. This makes them more dependent on the show as a brand name and less dependent on me.

3. That said, I have a pretty strong “platform” for writing about this stuff, thanks to having spent ten years at a national magazine covering television. Not only do they trust that I can pull it off, but they also know I have connections who can help spread the word about the book in the right places.

4. In contrast to all of the above, for instance, the book I co-authored with Heather Wood Rudúlph, Sexy Feminism, sold for much, much less. It was meant for a young, female audience, so it made sense to go paperback-only. Furthermore, it had no built-in hook like a very popular television show. I loved doing this book, but it was not the reason I could quit my job. I’m told this is a much more normal experience; I’ve often heard $10K-$20K for a book is the best most people can expect, especially for a first book.

I hope this helps anyone pondering books as a “money-making” option. Also keep in mind that for non-fiction, advances are doled out in halves, thirds, or fourths, usually over a couple of years between signing the deal and publishing the book. So even what sounds like a lot at first isn’t that much. Keep all of this in mind as you ponder quitting your day job.

If anyone has questions (that I can answer) about any of this, let me know!

Lessons from Personal Essay Class

58251_7227I’ve taught a few class sessions on personal essay writing lately, which means I’ve read some personal essay assignments of late. It’s much easier to see the chinks in others’ writing than it is to see it in our own, so I feel as if I’m constantly learning by teaching. (Don’t worry, I still tend to be more of an “expert” than my students, simply by dint of experience.) Here are a few of the principles I’ve learned (or been reminded of):

Be clear about what you’re trying to say. Your first draft of a personal essay can often be a rambling, beautiful mess. You’re typing deep thoughts, stringing together a bunch of incidents and insights that you didn’t even realize were related until you started writing. Personal essays allow for some of the most self-discovery through writing. However, once that first draft is done, you need to figure out what its actual point is, then revise to make it come through.

Have a dramatic, easy-to-understand opening. You need to get my attention with a story. Make it a good one, and make it very clear. One thing that often happens in personal essays is that you assume readers understand your life and your leaps from one thought to another. You often have to slow down and explain the significance of certain people, places, and stories.

Have an audience in mind. Even if you’re writing the essay without knowing where it will ultimately be published, have a publication in mind while writing it. You have to write to a specific audience — true in any kind of writing, but particularly true in essays.