The open mic night I cohost in NYC’s East Village, Rock ‘n’ Roll Poetry, will be at Otto’s Shrunken Head for another installment at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26. Music and poetry, originals and covers, beginners and pros welcome. Come out and watch, or sign up now to perform. Costumes welcome (but optional)! I’ll be there doing some George Michael and/or Taylor Swift.
There’s a lovely piece on The Millions exploring the benefits of listening to music while one writes. Writer Jacob Lambert basically concludes that listening to some nice music while you write might get you in the mood, psych you up, or make your time at the keyboard a little more pleasant, but it won’t actually, you know, do the writing for you or instantly turn you into a genius. Darn.
I asked some of my clients and friends yesterday whether they listen to music while writing. Some of their favorite tunes of the moment include ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” Electric Six’s “Danger! High Voltage!”, and music by Explosions in the Sky and Pinback. I don’t listen to music that much when I write, but I do use it for inspiration: I like to create playlists for projects that I listen to as I go about my daily business. It helps me keep the project on my mind at a nice low level, perfect for creative mulling. Anything can make it on the soundtrack if it speaks to some aspect of the project for me. Lots of the selections come from the era I’m writing about, in the case of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted in the ’70s and Seinfeldia in the ’90s, but other selections are more thematic. I’ve gotten more good ideas than I can count this way.
Here are some selections from my Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted “soundtrack”:
Joan Jett’s rock version of the theme song, “Love Is All Around”
Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”
Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”
Carly Simon and James Taylor’s “Mockingbird”
Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move”
Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”
The Guess Who’s “American Woman”
James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”
Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”
Joni Mitchell’s “River” (I am convinced that Mary Richards listened to James Taylor and Joni Mitchell in her “off screen” time)
Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire”
Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song”
The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses”
The Rubinoos’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”
Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Tom Waits’ “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You”
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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.