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)

 

Essay-Grading Machines? No thanks.

girl with bookThere is now quite a bit of academic chatter about the idea of computers grading essays — specifically, a much-debated study claiming that machines can handle this task as well as humans can.

As a sometime writing teacher, I cringe at the thought of a pile of assignments to critique as much as anyone. (No, really, I love my work! It’s just … so … daunting, sitting there on my desk.) But good lord, I’m not about to hand the job off to a computer. And not just because I value being paid and value the (possibly deluded) belief that I have a valuable skill set to offer the world.

I have to think that if a machine can grade an essay as well as a human, that human is doing it wrong. This guest blog on the Washington Post site, by author and teacher Maja Wilson, lays out the case as well as anyone can — and her case involves the Department of Homeland Security and sarcasm.

 

Dreams Deferred and Denied … by Technology and Changing Times

girl with bookI happened upon an interesting blog post by Ryan A. Chase about how he always dreamed of writing for ESPN, but now has changed his mind — mainly because, as he writes, it has become “the sports-related TMZ,” gunning for cheap clicks instead of news. I can’t offer an informed opinion on this, but it made me think of how our dreams tend to change over the years, for one reason or another; and nothing shows the changing times than the shifts in journalism-related dreams. Here are the dreams that I remember having, starting at age 12 or so, when I got over the idea that I might become a pop star and instead started thinking seriously about writing and journalism:

Freelance writer. When I learned this word in a book about writing at the library, I wanted to be it immediately. It sounds so magical: “free” and “lance.” I love that I’m now living my original dream, but other dreams after that included …

Chicago Tribune reporter. Once I made the pilgrimage to the grand building in downtown Chicago, I could imagine myself doing nothing else. I specifically hoped to become the next Mike Royko, which is a sort-of hilarious dream for a 15-year-old suburban cheerleader. One can imagine this as a set-up for a Veronica Mars-like teen show. I held onto variations of this dream for a while, all the way through my five years after college as a local newspaper reporter. But after about a hundred too many City Council meetings, I was done. Now, I’m awfully glad to be out of newspapers.

Rolling Stone writer. I got the less rock-and-roll version of this by working for Entertainment Weekly for ten years. I think I’m glad to not be tied to the fate of any particular magazine anymore. I survived several cutbacks during my time at EW, but one can’t outrun fate forever. I hardly saw it as the “torture,” as a recent Awl takedown characterized life at EW, but I certainly felt the shifts that continued to take the magazine farther away from my dream job.

I guess I never suffered quite the same disillusionment that Chase did, though I can see now — both as a longtime journalism professional and a discerning adult — that the places I so desperately wanted to work aren’t as great as I thought they were. I probably idealized them even at the time, and every kind of media, except the newest kind, has lost advertising pages, and thus resources. Fewer pages means fewer meaty stories. Desperation for readers means sensationalism and sex instead of substance — less thinking, more link bait.

In the end, I landed where I began, as a freelance writer who can take advantage of the good new publications and still-strong old publications, while writing from home in pajamas. It’s not always easy, but I still feel lucky.

What dream jobs have you let go of?

‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drives: My Schedule

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30I spent last week trying out some tweaks to my daily freelancer schedule, courtesy of the book Daily Rituals.

Here’s what I’ve settled on (for, of course, an ideal day that is unlikely to ever happen, but it’s good to have goals):

8 a.m. Wake up.

8-8:30 a.m. Meditate.

8:30-9:30 a.m. Work out.

9:30-10 a.m. Breakfast, shower, dress.

10-11 a.m. Communication. (Phone, email, blogging, Facebook, Twitter.)

11 a.m.-1 p.m. Work. (Pitches, assignments, book stuff.) Outside, if possible. In bed, if desired.

1-2 p.m. Lunch.

2-3 p.m. Optional nap.

3-6 p.m. Work. With music, if desired.

Bed by midnight.

‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drive: Joan Miro and Gertrude Stein

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30Artist Joan Miro is the first I’ve encountered in Daily Rituals who favors the healthy side of fighting one’s demons instead of the self-medicating side. (He was highly regimented and always worked in exercise to stave off the depression he’d suffered in his early years — smart guy.) Not coincidentally, he’s the first one with a schedule and work routine I’d like to emulate. Here’s my modified version of Miro’s day, which has worked quite well for me:

Got up at 8 (instead of his 6).

Had breakfast, then worked from about 9 until noon.

At noon, went for a run/worked out.

Ate lunch, then napped. (I napped for about an hour, though he supposedly “napped” for five minutes. I call that “lying down.” He, adorably, called it his “Mediterranean yoga.”)

I had an interview (with the Soup Nazi, natch) at 2, so I was back in the office to do that.

From here (3 p.m.) on, I’m planning to deal with communications and then work until dinner time. Lovely, perfect work day.

Next up is Gertrude Stein, who liked to write outside (for at least a half-hour a day) after bathing and dressing in the morning. Of course, she specifically liked to look at rocks and cows, which are in short supply here in Manhattan. But I always mean to take more advantage of the outdoor spaces nearby.

‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drives: Patricia Highsmith

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30In my continuing quest to try some tweaks to my work process as I work on my Seinfeld book, I lived yesterday at least vaguely in the spirit of Strangers on a Train author Patricia Highsmith (according to the entry about her in Daily Rituals). She seemed kinda unhinged, so I didn’t venture too far into all of her habits. (She said that she had ideas “as frequently as rats have orgasms,” which is an analogy that I will never forget. She also bred snails in her home because she could relate to them more than people, so there’s that.) She aimed for up to 2,000 words of writing a day, which I didn’t hit, but that’s because I’m still in the outlining/rearranging phase that precedes any of my book writing. (I get the info I want written in chunks in a draft, then keep moving them around until they make sense, then rewrite the whole thing; it’s like a very long and involved outline.) But I did spend about three hours yesterday with my notecards and messy, crazy outline thing. And I borrowed one of Highsmith’s specific techniques, which was to, according to biographer Andrew Wilson, “ease herself into the right frame of mind for work” by sitting on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut, and an accompanying saucer of sugar. Of course my version involved the bed and the coffee, sans cigarettes and doughnuts. She also apparently enjoyed “a stiff drink before she started to write,” but that seemed like the worst possible idea at 2 p.m., especially if I was going to get into bed. It seemed to me all that would do is bring on an afternoon nap. (“In her later years,” Daily Rituals says, “as she became a hardened drinker with a high tolerance, she kept a bottle of vodka by her bedside, reaching for it as soon as she woke and marking the bottle to set her limit for the day.” Whoa.) It’s so comforting to learn that even if given an “excuse” to indulge, some indulgences just don’t tempt me. Being in bed worked well, though — it made the process feel a little more fun and relaxed. I also blasted ’90s music, which, it should be noted, was my own addition to the Highsmith regimen.

‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drives: W.H. Auden

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30I’m reading this fun book called Daily Rituals, which details the routines of dozens of artists, writers, scientists, and other famous creative types. Since I became a freelance writer three years ago, I’ve been obsessed with how people with the freedom to make their own schedules arrange their days. I made a schedule of my own after realizing how easy it was to drift into days full of baking and cleaning and errand-running instead of working. I still keep to that basic schedule, but I’ve been considering some tweaks. Thus I picked up this book and decided to test drive some of the less-destructive ideas. (There is an awful lot of drinking and some drugging that could certainly become counterproductive, and I salute those who managed to be brilliant and famous despite that.) I’ll write about some of the experiences here.

First up in the book is W.H. Auden, who does have some of those destructive habits, though he pales in comparison to some others. “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” the poet wrote in 1958. I think he’s right, obviously. He was strictly punctual, something I aspire to in my own life — yesterday, while on the Auden Plan, I skipped an elaborate shower and simply freshened up instead to get myself to meet friends for a concert in Prospect Park on time. (Good thing, since the line to get in ended up being incredibly long, and we got a decent spot by arriving when we did.) I didn’t get up at 6 a.m. like Auden, but I did get up by 7:45, and it was nice to have some time to ease into the day before my 9 a.m. phone interview. I did get to my desk for work a little before 9, and that was nice, too — I got some stuff done before hitting the grocery store around 11. I did work in a few Auden-like cocktails post-6:30 p.m., just as he did; though I had just two glasses of wine, not several martinis plus wine. Auden relied on amphetamines for energy and sedatives for sleeping, and I was hoping to avoid both.

‘Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted’ Excerpt: Comedy and the Single Girl

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of my book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, which tells the story of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its relationship to the Women’s Movement.

paperback coverTreva Silverman had always wanted to be the beautiful, funny, smart heroine of a 1930s screwball comedy. In that world, the woman bantered with the man; the woman was independent, sexy, desirable, witty. Idiosyncratic actresses like Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, and Margaret Sullavan were the leading ladies there. Unfortunately, when Treva was a twelve-year-old in Cedarhurst, Long Island—the time when this desire took hold of her—the movie world had moved on from fast-talking comediennes to man-pleasing models of femininity like Doris Day, who seemed to have endless hangups about being good and pure, and Marilyn Monroe, who was the quintessential dumb blonde. The idea of an equal partnership between equally bright men and women trading quips had all but disappeared. And TV was even worse: Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show featured “dialogue” in which the woman’s only role was to say, “Yes, dear.” The most popular TV comedy heroine was Lucy, who wanted to be in show business but had to hide it from Ricky, who didn’t approve. The central joke of the show hinged on the fact that male approval ruled.

Magazines bombarded Treva with advice to young women—talk about his interests, don’t be competitive, learn how to make his favorite meals. To get the guy, she learned, she had to be all about him. At her grammar school, PS #3, her girlfriends chastised her for winning a spelling bee over Jerry Yaeger, the very boy she had a crush on. She’d never have a chance with him now, they lamented.

So Treva would settle for sitting next to her older sister, Corinne, in the moth-eaten seats of her neighborhood’s only revival movie house, watching and listening to her idols, Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard. Jean Arthur, in her day, made a name for herself as a funny leading lady in the Frank Capra films Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and You Can’t Take It with You. Lombard was once described by Graham Greene as “platinum blonde, with a heart-shaped face, delicate, impish features, and a figure made to be swathed in silver lamé, [who] wriggled expressively through such classics of hysteria as Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey.” When Treva watched Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard, she wanted to soak up every last bit of them, the way her movie-house popcorn soaked up melted butter.

Treva had one other escape route from suburban ennui: Every week, she took the train from her family’s home in Cedarhurst for more than an hour to get to New York City. It was where she belonged, she was sure. For now, though, she’d settle for going there weekly for her piano lessons at Columbia University. Two officials at the Juilliard School had declared her a “genius” at age five. She had perfect pitch and could play almost any piece by ear after hearing it once; she could transpose into any key. A unique talent, to be sure. But besides her music, something else was becoming a passion.

After her piano lesson every week, she’d race down to the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan to read her way through the vast stacks of the humor section, in alphabetical order: Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, S. J. Perelman, James Thurber. There, at the Forty-Second Street library, she had found her people: the humor writers for the New Yorker. Along with some journalists, critics, and actors, they had met daily throughout the ’20s for lunches at the Algonquin Hotel, forming a loose camaraderie called the Algonquin Round Table. They were known for their sharp witticisms and one-liners, which were quoted all over the newspaper columns. More importantly, the Algonquin Round Table consisted of men and—yes!—women. Not only Dorothy Parker, one of the wittiest of them all, but also Edna Ferber, Tallulah Bankhead, and Beatrice Kaufman.

Treva read on and on, as afternoon turned into dusk, the shadows cast by the library’s stone lions growing longer until they dissolved. She wished she could travel back to the days of the Algonquin Round Table, overhearing them from a neighboring table, or, even better, somehow getting a seat at that table.

 

When Silverman graduated from Bennington College nearly a decade later, even though the joke of the day was to try to graduate with an “M.R.S. degree,” she had nestled nicely into a Manhattan creative life on her own. She had broken into comedy writing and rejoiced when, one by one, a sketch or song of hers was accepted for an off-Broadway show or for Upstairs at the Downstairs, a topical revue nightclub that featured future stars like Lily Tomlin and Madeline Kahn. The rest of her evenings were spent using her musical talent: She played and sang show tunes—Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Gershwin—anywhere around town that had a piano and offered the chance to make a few bucks.

She played at bars, bowling alleys, Japanese restaurants. She got to meet people she never would have met otherwise, who lived the kinds of lives she’d only read about. There was the guy who pulled up his jacket sleeve to reveal five men’s watches and whispered to her, “You got a boyfriend who needs a Patek-Philippe timepiece?” There was the guy in the strip joint who wore a black eye patch—he had lost his left eye in a knife fight —who asked her, “Are you a sport, or are you a good girl?” She had only a hazy idea of what a sport was, but she knew she didn’t want to be one, and replied that she was a good girl. He gave her a twenty anyway. This piano-playing stint wasn’t exactly the way to find a husband, but at least it left her days free to write her songs and sketches, and she was making enough money to survive.

Her colorful life was radically out of step with those of her girlfriends from high school and college. Not only did they have respectable jobs in publishing and in advertising where nobody asked them to buy stolen watches, but most of them were gradually being whisked away to the magical never-never land called married life. You had to get there by age twenty-five or else—or else . . . well, nobody knew exactly what the else was, but it wasn’t anything a good girl wanted. Treva did want a long-term relationship, but in the meantime she wanted everyone who asked her why she wasn’t married to shut up.

Her parents thoroughly believed in her talent but were nervous for her. They saw her life as all promise and hope, with no guarantee of a stable future. “Treva,” her mother suggested one day, “why don’t you take a shorthand course? Just as a fallback, honey.”

Treva rolled her eyes. “Mom, I don’t want to learn shorthand so that I can take down some man’s ideas. I want someone taking down my ideas.”

Once she was playing at a restaurant on Fifth Avenue, a place high-priced and elegant enough that, finally, she could invite her parents to see her perform. Seated at a flower-laden table listening to her play and sing, her parents watched while a man came up to the piano, spoke a few words to her, and put a ten-dollar bill in her glass piggy bank. Her father rushed to his daughter. “What did that man want?” he demanded.

“‘My Funny Valentine,’ Dad,” she sighed.

The good news was that the women’s lib movement was starting to percolate. The Pill had been introduced in 1960, freeing women from pregnancy fears. And Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl, had recently scandalized the nation, making women like Silverman feel a little less alone in their singlehood while emboldening them to wear shorter skirts and sleep with any man they pleased. Not every woman had to be Jackie Kennedy, for Chrissake. Brown rallied the single-girl troops to pursue their sexual desires, even giving them advice on the art of pleasuring men. “Theoretically a ‘nice’ single woman has no sex life,” she wrote. “What nonsense!”

Brown saw the single woman as a “glamour girl,” contrary to many other contemporary writers, who seemed to pity and fear any unmarried women who displayed both sex drive and career drive. Unmarried women were characterized as spinsters, unmarried men characterized as bachelors-around-town. Brown would soon revamp the magazine Cosmopolitan as a haven for sexually liberated women. Her proposal for the makeover said that her Cosmopolitan would tell an aspiring actress “not to stay back home in Lima, Ohio, like most articles on the subject do, [but would offer] practical advice. Where to live. How much money to save up first.” Treva was beyond the Cosmo girl already—she had loads of practical advice she could give such a creature—but it was comforting to know there were girls who dreamed of the exact kind of life she already had.

 

One night in 1964, Silverman was playing at a piano bar in Manhattan’s theater district—it was another one of those dark, smoky places, but this one had a well-tuned baby grand. She took her requisite set break, listening to the glasses clink and the patrons murmur in the absence of her playing. Still energized from her performance, she struck up a conversation with an intense, bearded, hippie-ish guy and his girlfriend sitting near her at the bar. Soon they were chatting about their mutual love of F. Scott Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger. Beards were only just on the brink of acceptable mainstream grooming at the time, a signal of a certain kind of rebelliousness that endeared this guy to Silverman. Guys with beards tended to smoke weed, be creative, listen to cool music. They were Silverman’s people. Even more so when they could talk Fitzgerald and Salinger. It figured that he was there with a woman, though. Those guys were always taken.

The guy, Jim Brooks, worked at CBS as an assistant in the newsroom. Treva and Jim talked about their mutual ambition to write for television. Brooks was intrigued with the sketch comedy work she was doing; his admiration for her was instant. He knew Upstairs at the Downstairs and its reputation for sharp, topical work. She was attracted to the way his mind worked, his quick, easy, funny conversation, his split-second responses. Something clicked between them: that feeling that says, We’re going to matter in each other’s lives.

She stayed in touch with Jim as she got more and more of her comedy sketches and songs performed in New York cabarets. Then came the day she received word that not one, not two, but five sketches of hers were going to be featured at Upstairs at the Downstairs. Five! She had been elevated to being the only sketch writer in the show. She was glowing with success when she ran into the mother of her best friend from high school. What luck, Treva thought—someone with whom to share her excitement. “Mrs. Bernstein, I just found out!” she said. “I have five sketches in the new Upstairs at the Downstairs!”

Treva waited for that spark of respect to alight in the older woman’s eyes. Instead, she got: “How nice that you’re keeping busy. . . . Are you seeing anyone?” Treva wondered if she would ever go a day again without hearing that question, dripping with passive-aggressive judgment.

But comedian Carol Burnett walked into Upstairs at the Downstairs a few months later with a different attitude toward talented, funny women like herself. Not long after Treva had talked to Jim about wanting to break into TV, Burnett came down to Midtown from her Upper East Side apartment to check out new talent at the revue; it was similar to the one in which Burnett had gotten her own start, the Blue Angel, nearly a decade earlier. Burnett liked Silverman’s sketches so much that she invited her to write for a variety show she was about to star in, CBS’s The Entertainers, along with Bob Newhart and Dom DeLuise. Writing comedy on a network TV show! Treva had arrived.

Silverman’s work there led to a job in Hollywood writing for the television show The Monkees. She moved west in 1966 to craft scripts for the made-for-TV band that was aiming to replace the Beatles in teen girls’ hearts, even as posters for the edgier Who and the Kinks, David Bowie and Jefferson Airplane, vied for the poster space on those same teenagers’ walls. When Silverman got to her new gig, she found she was once again, as she had been on The Entertainers, the only woman writer on staff. The only other women she encountered were secretaries who typed up what the funny guys wrote and mimeographed copies for the producers and cast.

At that point, Treva was one of only two or three women writers in TV comedy who worked without a male partner; she was such an anomaly that Mademoiselle magazine did an article on her. She was part of a sociological phenomenon, a generation of new feminists being profiled in newsmagazines, who prioritized their careers over marriage and were often the only women wherever they went, their miniskirts, high boots, and tent dresses distinguishing them from the cinch-waisted, full-skirted secretaries who came before them. Later, interviewers would always ask Silverman, “How did you survive in such an atmosphere? How did you make it in a profession that had only been men?” The truth, however, was that she just did because she had to if she wanted to do the job she wanted. If the cherubic, soft-spoken Treva Silverman had to sit in rooms full of bearded men to be a comedy writer, then that was what she would do.

 

Then the original bearded guy in Silverman’s life, Jim Brooks, reappeared in the summer of 1969. Treva had written for several sitcoms during the two years since The Monkees went off the air, including a few episodes of Brooks’ groundbreaking high school history class comedy, Room 222. They’d stayed in touch since meeting in New York, and he had even introduced her to his fellow producer on Room 222, the short-haired, clean-cut Allan Burns. Now Brooks was calling her with a rather existential question: “What are you doing right now?”

“Washing my hair.”

“No,” he said, “I mean with your life. Our pilot is going to series—the one I’m doing with Allan Burns—and we want you to come on board. It’s with Mary Tyler Moore.” With the woman from The Dick Van Dyke Show, the one who was pretty and funny? Like Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard? There was nothing Silverman wanted more. That was quite a relief to Brooks and Burns, who needed writers that they felt could understand their kind of show. The fact that Silverman was a woman was a bonus—they could use some estrogen-fueled help with their female lead character. No one knew whether the show would last beyond CBS’s initial thirteen-episode commitment to it, but Brooks offered her all he could: “We want you to write for this series,” he told her, “and we want you to write as many episodes as you want.”

As Brooks, Burns, and Silverman carefully wrote and rewrote the early scripts for The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970, they didn’t dream their show would have any long-lasting effect on the world. They just sat at their typewriters and pounded away, trying to write the best they could and hoping the show didn’t get canceled. At times the series would veer awfully close to ending prematurely. But instead, the writers and producers’ ideas and actions—some smart, some not—piled on top of each other, mixed together, and made history. They pulled star Mary Tyler Moore out of a perilous career slump. They weathered attacks from network executives who said the program was too different to succeed, or just plain rotten. They survived cast members’ insecurities and jealousies, divorces and diets, and screaming matches between producers and directors. Along the way, they made several unlikely stars, changed the fates of a dozen female TV writers who spun their everyday lives into comedy gold, helped usher in a more woman-friendly era in the television industry, elevated the sitcom to an art form, and killed a clown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Masters’ Degree in Journalism, or Not to Masters’ Degree in Journalism?

This is the graduation portrait of Mary Adele France in 1905; she was also one of the first women to receive a bachelor’s degree from Washington College./Wikimedia Commons

The Guardian‘s Tamsin Rutter explores the age-old(ish) question in a piece this week that covers both sides of the issue well, but as a graduate of a fancy J-school, a longtime journalist, and a journalism teacher, I have strong feelings about this issue. Bottom line, in my opinion: Yes, you need some kind of serious training. No, you don’t need a post-graduate degree per se.

I have a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University’s snooty Medill School of Journalism, and I paid a ton for it. That said, I think it was worth it: They trained the crap out of us for the real world as much as possible. They beat real-world sensibilities into us—for instance, giving us overachievers an automatic F if we made even the tiniest factual error. (For kids used to getting straight A’s in high school, there was no greater terror, therefore, than writing a beautiful piece but failing simply because we got a name-spelling wrong.) They constantly told us how dire the job market was, and this was back in the ’90s, when people at least still paid journalists for the most part. They told us the only way to overcome this was to get internships constantly during college. Real life experience would trump everything, they said. They were right, which is funny, since we were paying them more than a hundred grand to give us four years of non-real-world experience.

That, however, was crucial, too: We learned to balance great writing with great reporting. We learned how the media business worked. We learned media law and ethics, possibly the most crucial part of our education. We understood what was at stake when we wrote about other people’s lives in public forums. We took our responsibilities seriously.

I considered getting a master’s degree, but only for one reason: because they are usually required for teaching jobs, and I knew I’d want to teach someday.

At one crucial juncture in my life and career, I faced a stark choice: get a master’s in San Francisco, where I’d gotten into a program, or go to New York City with the man I loved at the time? I followed my heart, but I also factored in an economic decision: In New York, I could get even the lowest job in magazines, where I’d always wanted to work, and still at least make some money. If I went to San Francisco, I’d just wrack up more debt at a time when I was still paying off undergrad. I chose New York and eventually got a gig as an assistant at Entertainment Weekly. I worked my way up there for ten years, and now I get to write about pop culture as a freelance writer and author full-time.

I also, incidentally, get to teach, though it hasn’t been as easy as it would have been with a master’s. Luckily, Columbia University’s graduate journalism program values experience as much as advanced education, recognizing how much real-world practice counts for in this particular profession. I can vouch for this position as much as I can vouch for the education I got at Northwestern: I probably learned as much about journalism in my first year of working full-time at a local newspaper as I did in four years of school.

The fact is that journalists need about a 50/50 balance. We don’t know anything about real journalism until we’ve worked in the real world, where you make every possible mistake—flubbed interview, missed opportunity on the scene, giant error immortalized in print, somebody’s life affected by what you wrote. But we also need the basic grounding of education, some kind of training in reporting, ethics, and law. That could come from a journalism degree, undergrad or beyond, or it could come from taking extra classes while already working in media. One way or another, in real life or theory, the hard way or the easy, we have to learn—that’s what sets us apart from the irresponsible blogging masses.