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.

‘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.