Lessons from Personal Essay Class

58251_7227I’ve taught a few class sessions on personal essay writing lately, which means I’ve read some personal essay assignments of late. It’s much easier to see the chinks in others’ writing than it is to see it in our own, so I feel as if I’m constantly learning by teaching. (Don’t worry, I still tend to be more of an “expert” than my students, simply by dint of experience.) Here are a few of the principles I’ve learned (or been reminded of):

Be clear about what you’re trying to say. Your first draft of a personal essay can often be a rambling, beautiful mess. You’re typing deep thoughts, stringing together a bunch of incidents and insights that you didn’t even realize were related until you started writing. Personal essays allow for some of the most self-discovery through writing. However, once that first draft is done, you need to figure out what its actual point is, then revise to make it come through.

Have a dramatic, easy-to-understand opening. You need to get my attention with a story. Make it a good one, and make it very clear. One thing that often happens in personal essays is that you assume readers understand your life and your leaps from one thought to another. You often have to slow down and explain the significance of certain people, places, and stories.

Have an audience in mind. Even if you’re writing the essay without knowing where it will ultimately be published, have a publication in mind while writing it. You have to write to a specific audience — true in any kind of writing, but particularly true in essays.

Launching Your Blog: Class Coming Soon!

IMG_0760I am starting a short (three-session), in-person class this month about Launching Your Blog. This will take students step-by-step through the process of setting up and starting a blog: establishing your mission, choosing a name, coming up with posts, writing headlines, making a blogging schedule, and actually setting up/launching the thing. It will consist of three two-hour sessions in NYC, for $199. It will be in my living room, complete with Wi-Fi, and we will walk through the process together. I will also probably give you tea. You’ll get homework and feedback on your ideas from me and your classmates. It will be fun! Email me if you’re interested, and we can talk scheduling and other details.

I also offer one-on-one coaching on this and other topics. You can find more info about that here.

My Favorite Books About Writing Nonfiction

41lhhayQO9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I always love reading about writing. I caution students about spending so much time reading about it that they never actually do it, but these books in particular have been invaluable in shaping my own approaches to writing. Some of them focus on nonfiction specifically, while many are great for any kind of writing:

The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell: I use this every time I do a self-edit on a manuscript. It’s also a fun book to read straight through. She uses the editing process for The Great Gatsby — detailed in letters between Fitzgerald and his editor — to show how editing makes everything better.

The New New Journalism, by Robert Boynton: Interviews with all the rock stars of current creative nonfiction — Ted Conover, Erik Larson, Susan Orlean. This is like a fan magazine for nerds like me.

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron: For anyone doing any kind of writing, or any kind of art, this is a go-to for kick-starting your creativity. It’s a practical, step-by-step process full of nutty self-helpy stuff that I just tune out. I resist what Tom Bissell once brilliantly called “tea and angels writing” — you know, workshops about finding yourself through writing and that sort of thing — and this book has a lot of that silly ’90s self-help language in spades. But underneath is an effective plan for getting your creative juices flowing. I’ve done it at least five times throughout my adulthood.

Storycraft, by Jack Hart: Helps with the hardest parts of nonfiction — making real life into great stories, while still telling the absolute truth.

Telling True Stories, by Mark Kramer: Covers journalism as well as book-length nonfiction, through written pieces by and interviews with writers and editors.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott: A classic. Great inspiration to just keep going with your work — even, especially, when you’re feeling despondent or overwhelmed.

A Few Thoughts on Pitching (That Have Nothing to Do With the Pitch Itself)

magazines-0607-lgI’ve been advising a few clients lately whose main goals are to pitch magazine articles (and hopefully get some assignments as a result). I’ve also been teaching pitching in my classes the last few weeks, and I’ve been working on my own pitching. So. I’ve been thinking about pitching a lot. And here are some things I’ve learned, just from talking about it and doing it so much lately, all of which have more to do with the mentality and approach behind pitching rather than how to write the pitch itself (which you can learn about here):

1. Talk through your idea with someone else. It’s easy to get everything all jumbled up in your head. And the more great research you’ve done, the more jumbled it can feel. Once you start trying to convey that out loud to someone else, you start to streamline the story and highlight the best points on your own. Then the person starts to react; their face lights up at certain points, they ask more questions about certain points. If your listener is also a writer, or is at least savvy about how articles work, he or she will often spit back to you a crystallized version of your idea, synthesizing its best parts. He or she also often has ideas about where your story might fit in. It’s easier to see others’ work as a whole from an objective standpoint than it is to make sense of your own.

2. Just get that first pitch letter doneSure, you probably plan to eventually send it to a couple of places; chances are that your first try won’t work out. But the hardest part is getting that first pitch written. Even if you’re considering multiple targets, pick one and write the first draft right to that editor. Pitches are best when they’re as targeted as possible, not when they’re written like form letters. There’s a good chance you’ll be able to use this letter as the basis for your similar pitches to other targets as well, with some tweaks in terms of audience. But once you have it down, it’ll be easier to do this; and thus you’ll be more likely to actually get it done.

3. Get to your point quickly. There’s nothing worse than reading sentence after sentence and thinking, “Okay, but what’s her point?” I say this even as someone who is paid to read pitch letters and provide feedback on them. A busy editor won’t take the time to figure out your point.

4. You’ll know when it’s a good one. Not every one of my pitches is brilliant. But I always feel it when they’re solid. That doesn’t mean they’ll definitely land. But every one of my pitches that has landed has been the kind that I knew were good from the start.

5. Pitching takes longer than you think. It seems like an idea should kind-of magically appear on your computer screen once you’ve had the thought, right? It’s annoying to figure out how to convey it to another person, making clear why it’s so good and unique and would be perfect for this publication at this time. It’s even more annoying to figure out which publication that is, and which editor at that publication, and etc. But if you don’t do your homework, it’ll be obvious, and you’ll get even more rejections than those of us who do the work. You’ll be wasting even more time, on balance, that way, than if you took the time to study up and aim your pitch. This means taking time to just sit and read, which, I know, feels maybe a little indulgent. Maybe you get distracted and actually read more pieces than you need to. I don’t think this is wasted time. I think it’s getting a feel for the market. This is hard, because it’s not for any guaranteed outcome. But it’s worth it.

6. Did I mention the rejection? Yep, get used to it. And don’t let it get you down. We’ve all been there, and, in fact, we’re all there right now with you.

New Resolution: Stop Complaining (Too Much) About Writing

cropped-1408767_87215604.jpegI read the funniest thing today: Some poll found that 60 percent of British people wish they could be authors, making it the most-desired job in all of England. A writer at The Guardian had the same first instinct I did, which was to explain to people why it’s actually a terrible job. He’s right about the “insecurity, loneliness, and paranoia” referenced in the headline. I’d add to that the fact that it’s not even really a “job” for most people who do it — at least not a full-time one. Even the reasonably paid ones (which I feel lucky to count myself among, because nonfiction sells better than fiction on average) don’t make enough on books alone to call a living. We either have full-time jobs and write around them, which means having no life at all, or freelance, which means we spend most of our time chasing down tiny checks just to make our bill payments every month. I would also add the routine rejection, on a daily/weekly basis from editors we pitch freelance pieces to, and on a grander scale when we submit our work to public consumption and reviews.

That said, I think I understand where these people are coming from, all these people who said they’d rather be an author than a “television presenter” (I like this Britishism better than our “TV host”) or a movie star. Being an author, at least a hugely successful one, allows a person to be some level of “famous” but does not involve being chase by paparazzi. No one is too concerned about, say, whom Stephen King or Gillian Flynn is dating. (I think they’re both married, but you get the idea.) It also allows a person to be famous for his or her brains and talent, not for a “bikini bod” or some other unsustainable quality. For a scant few very successful authors, the job allows for the best of all modern worlds: fame, recognition, respect, money, a profession born of passion, and a chance to work from home in a bathrobe. (I am literally in a bathrobe right now, so at least I got one of those down.) I submit to you that television presenter is a better job — you just read stuff off a screen and are still unlikely to be tailed much by paparazzi. But I guess you do have to spend more on skincare and get dressed, so maybe that’s a tossup.

In any case, I’ve decided to take this hilarious and rather meaningless poll as an opportunity to appreciate my “job” instead of indulging in the defensive urge to complain about it (aside from the above nitpicks). Writers have a funny habit of complaining about what they do at every opportunity. I think it’s actually related to this poll: Something about the job of “author” makes almost everyone think he or she could do it, so we feel the urge to explain that it’s not as easy as it looks. And that’s true; to be the kind of “author” these people are dreaming of takes a lot of work beyond sitting at the computer with coffee. Still, being an author does involve sitting at the computer with coffee, and those of us who do it for a living can also take a moment to appreciate that. Then we’ll get back to the complaining.

Why ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ Fans Should Read Nick Hornby’s ‘Funny Girl’

urlNick Hornby is one of my writing idols. His way of combining pop sensibilities with serious emotions, humor, and great characters has always spoken to me and inspired me to become a better writer. So I almost felt like I had made it up myself when I read that his newest book, Funny Girl, was about a British woman in the 1960s who happens to be both beautiful and funny, who also happens to land on a groundbreaking television comedy. I wrote a book kind-of like that, except it was the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, and it was real, and the woman’s name was Mary Tyler Moore.

If you have any interest at all in The Mary Tyler Moore Show — and I suspect at least some of you found me because you do — you should definitely check out Funny Girl. My book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, focuses a bit more on the female writers and the feminist movement than this one does. But it’s easy to see Funny Girl almost as a prequel, documenting a fictional history mixed in with some real history; the book does mention the influence of Til Death Us Do Part, for instance, which was the precursor to the massive U.S. hit All in the Family. It also documents the difficulties of being an ambitious, independent woman at the time. I even suspect that the heroine, Sophie Straw, is modeled loosely on Moore; Sophie rises to fame as the wife in a domestic comedy, like Moore did on The Dick Van Dyke Show, though Sophie gets first billing in the humorously punctuated Barbara (and Jim). Her follow-up show includes a female co-writer and features Sophie as a single woman, though her show sounds fluffier than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In any case, if you love Mary, you’ll love Sophie.

What ‘The Bachelor’ Teaches Us About Narrative Structure

1417720585_chris-soules-lgI have a number of legitimate excuses for watching The Bachelor regularly: I really did start watching several years ago because I had to cover it at Entertainment Weekly. I write about television, particularly gender on television, and it is certainly some very gendered (and heteronormative, and white) television. I’m also very interested in the biology and psychology of attraction, and it’s full of that as well. But as I sat and watched two hours of it last night, about 90 minutes longer than I had intended, and past my bedtime, I was more aware than I normally am that The Bachelor is, at its core, just damn good storytelling. Professionally manipulative storytelling, lacking in all subtlety and art. But if you want to know how to tell a good story (then, hopefully, add your own subtlety and art), you can learn some things from The Bachelor:

Add some competition. At its heart, The Bachelor is a sport. Every week is one game, and the overall arc is that of a bracket elimination. We love it in sports, we love it on dating shows. It satisfies our human desire for order and sorting the good from the bad from the best. If you can give your story some sense of competition leading to a final showdown, you have a good story. This is among the many reasons sports movies like The Karate Kid are so compelling.

Plant revelations along the way. The Bachelor always involves some major revelations at some point. A number of the women vying for the bachelor’s affections inevitably have secrets they must eventually tell him. Traumatic past relationships are big; we had two widows this season. So are secrets that may cause some judgement, like Jade’s Playboy past this season. Secrets cause tension, and their revelation always leads to some kind of resolution.

Make heroes and villains. We love rooting for an against people. The Bachelor will always have at least one villain per season. Once, in a fun twist, the bachelor himself (Juan Pablo) became the villain.

Pull characters out of their element. This season has the advantage of a farmer from a teeny Iowa town as its title star. This inherently means that at some point, the women — most of them model/actress/waitress types from places like Los Angeles — have to decide whether they can live on a farm. This discussion began with a trip to bachelor Chris’ hometown this week; the expected explosions did ensue. Other seasons contain this element, too, even if it’s just giving the bungee-jumping date to the girl who obviously said on her pre-show questionnaire that she was afraid of heights.

My Favorite Freelance Writing Resources

58251_7227There are so many great sites, groups, etc. out there to help freelance writers new and old. I’ve definitely developed some favorites through trial and error. Since people often ask me, here’s a handy list of the ones I like:

Freelance Success: the forums, where writers freely share contacts and other key info, are worth the membership fee

Freelancers Union: for insurance info and other benefits

Hiveage: an online invoicing system that keeps track of your earnings

MediaBistro: super-useful media news like the comings and goings of editors, plus the best resource on pitching available — the How to Pitch section, available with an affordable membership fee

ProfNet: great way to find expert sources for stories

The Renegade Writer: one of the few writing-related blogs I read regularly, probably because it’s one of the few that offers advice that helps “advanced” freelancers as well as beginners

A Little #TBT Memoir-Writing Exercise

Here's a family photo (in front of my sorority house at Northwestern) that I wrote about once for this exercise.

Here’s a family photo (in front of my sorority house at Northwestern) that I wrote about once for this exercise.

I’ve been assigning this exercise for as long as I’ve taught Creative Writing and Creative Nonfiction, but lately I’ve taken it up as a regular habit for myself: Find an old photo from your own life, and write a few hundred words about it. That’s basically it. Nothing revolutionary. I personally resist elaborate writing prompts, and this one always brings forth great stories from my students. Since I recently got all of my photos scanned (ScanMyPhotos.com, though there are other sites as well), I just pull up the files, pick one, and write about it. You can do this every day, maybe even a few times per day. I love doing some kind of writing every day besides the professional kind, and this exercise has reminded me of so many surprising little memories. I’m hoping some of these pieces will yield some publishable work, too; maybe a few could come together to form a personal essay or somesuch.

If you’re wondering what to write about today, try it. It’s like a prose #TBT.