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)


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.