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.
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.
I love this quote from Oliver Sacks. It’s nice to go back to this on days when “the act of writing” is just kicking your ass. Most of us love writing, I think, because it helps us, forces us, to sort out our own thoughts. That’s why it’s so magical.
For more inspiring Oliver Sacks, check out this great post on Brain Pickings where I found this quote.
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.
I actually like editing. I find it soothing to impose order on chaos. But editing is also an easy step to skip over. I mean, you wrote. It’s written. Why not just post the thing or send it out or whatever? Right?
No! Editing is when the magic happens. It’s the reason great writers are great writers. They don’t necessarily write beautiful first drafts. They get the basics down. Then they revise, revise, revise, until it really sparkles.
You don’t have to make a big production out of this. Here are some really simple ways to make your drafts better:
1. Print out what you’ve got. There’s something about seeing something in physical form that helps you spot what’s not quite right. Maybe do it in a different font from the one you used to write it. Now take it somewhere pleasant—outside, a cafe, wherever—and read it over, marking your thoughts as you go. I like to use a marker in a color that makes me happy. I bought a large package of Crayola skinny markers for this purpose.
2. Read it aloud. You’ll hear what’s clunky because you won’t be able to say it.
3. Have some friends read it and give you feedback. I wrote about this before. It’s invaluable.
4. Get Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit. There you’ll find these tips plus a whole bunch more.
I wrote yesterday about how much writers hate writing. Obviously that’s a huge problem, and anyone who actually becomes a functioning writer solves it, by definition. If we want to make money at this writing, however, we encounter an even bigger problem: We need to become marketers. Many, possibly most, possibly all, of us hate this.
The marketing can catch you at every turn. You write a great novel, short story, or essay; now you have to “sell” it to someone. You want to write a nonfiction book or article; you have to propose it, and get someone to buy it so you can make it. You write and publish a book; now you need to get readers to buy the thing, lest no one ever let you write a book for them again.
If you want to get paid for your writing, the marketing never ends. Even if you get an agent. Probably even if you become a bestseller. Because you still have to get out there and sell the next thing.
Most of us just want to create, quietly, at our little computer screens. We don’t, and can’t, magically morph into salespeople. If you haven’t noticed, salespeople are often the personality inverse of many writers. Writing requires a kind of intense introversion: observing, quietly typing and retyping. Sales requires a kind of extroversion: talking to others to get them to see things your way, then hand over some money. We want to stay in our artiste bubble. We know our ideas are good. Why do we need to sell them to other people?
We don’t, unless we want to make money. That’s something many of us do want to do.
My answer to “what to do about hating writing” was to keep writing. In a way, that’s the answer here, too. Think about your marketing as writing. All of it is a form of writing.
If you have to write a query letter to pitch an article to an editor, think of it as an essay about why your idea is so awesome. Same goes for book proposals; they’re just longer.
If you have to send out an email blast about your new book, think of it as writing a letter to your readers.
If you have to give a speech, you have to write a speech. If you have to Tweet or Facebook about a project, that’s just tinier writing.
If you have to do media, well, you’re lucky. Suck it up and do it.
A lot of beginning writers think that hating writing means they shouldn’t be writers. I generally think it means they should. I’ve never totally figured it out, but I believe we hate writing because we love it so much. Like, we want it to be good. We know what we want it to be. Why doesn’t it just come out the way we want it to be? This is related to what Ira Glass says is the gap between our standards and how our first drafts look:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.
So we have to keep writing. It’s the only answer. Writers write. Keep writing until the gap narrows. It will.