I’m cohosting a music/reading open mic on July 28 at The Roost in New York’s East Village. If you’re in the area, please come join us — to play, read, or listen! Sign-up starts at 7:30 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m. Luxurious 20-minute slots! It will be fun.
Two fun podcasts to share with my Seinfeld fans here:
And sometime Seinfeld writer/Everybody Loves Raymond character actor/all-around funny guy Fred Stoller has launched his own interview podcast. You’ll particularly like the episode in which he talks to Larry Hankin, who almost landed the role of Kramer, then got to play the guy playing Kramer on the sitcom-within-the-sitcom, Jerry.
As a freelance writer, I get my share of sneaky requests for me to do stuff for free. Some of these make sense: appear on a podcast I admire to promote a recent piece I wrote and my upcoming book, help a talented friend with a promising book proposal. Now, I’m not saying everything I do must include some clear payoff for me and only me. I’m not even saying that you can’t ask me to do something out of the goodness of my heart. But more than anyone else, freelancers in the arts must set boundaries. You cannot imagine how much the world wants us to give for free. I teach writing, I edit, I help people launch their writing careers, and I write … for my job. This seems fair to me. I am good at what I do, and I believe that I provide valuable services to the world. If it weren’t for people like me, all of this stuff would probably still get done, but it would be done a lot crappier. If only hobbyists write your books and articles from now on, please expect a noticeable downtick in quality. And if you’re willing to hire a non-professional to teach you writing or consult on your writing career, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, and neither do you.
I can see this difference most clearly with my chosen hobby: singing and playing guitar. Because I’m an overachiever, I practice pretty regularly and am determined to perform in public as a way of furthering my skill and making “use” of it. But the thought of someone paying me for what I do does not enter my mind because I’m not that good. I actually don’t plan to be that good. I mean, maybe someday someone will pay me in free drinks to do a regular set of covers in the corner of their bar or something. And I’m planning to start hosting an open mic soon. But I am not a professional. I do not dedicate the majority of my time and educational resources to being a skilled musician. I believe very strongly in paying people who do this, who put in the work and will bring you a professional performance. These are the people who will have all of their own sound equipment, will know exactly what they need to make things great, will be able to take requests or improvise on the spot or perform their own material. I know several of these people, and they are great at what they do.
To be clear: There’s also definitely an in-between area, in writing and music and many other fields, where people are highly skilled and do get paid for this even if it’s not their main profession. My partner, Jesse, gets paid for some of his serious photography work even though he’s a full-time programmer. He should. He’s put in the work and it’s great. Lots of people write articles on the side about their area of expertise, like psychologists who write self-help pieces or books. I know more than a few people who have jobs to pay the bills and put on excellent musical productions or rock shows for money as well. It’s the sad reality of being an artist that you often need a day job.
That’s exactly why we need to pay our skilled people in money. If you want art in the world, you need to pay someone for it. (Taylor Swift agrees.) Here are some things that are not money that friends have been offered in exchange for their services, as they noted in comments after I posted a Facebook rant about this recently: nothing at all (singer-songwriter Sean Skyler, who is excellent), “an excellent opportunity for exposure” (photographer), T-shirts (stagehand), internships (stagehand).
My photographer sister also noted that people often post online looking for a “photographer/volunteer.” Nope, that’s not a thing, not if you want real services. Please pay for services. In money.
And one more thing: I’ve realized while writing this post that the people I’ve ended up giving services (editing, consulting, etc.) for free all offered to pay me first. They let me be the one to offer it for free. Just a tip.
I 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
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
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
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.
For The Verge, how hard it is to translate German into some other languages and cultures: Translating Seinfeld
Every 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”?
I 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.”
Here’s how it will work:
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!
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.
Just a reminder of — or for new folks here, an introduction to — my writing coaching packages. The total breakdown:
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.
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.