Writing ‘Sex and the City’: The Notecard Phase

I get really excited in the notecard phase of writing any book. This is when I’ve done a lot of research and broken down all my notes and transcripts into bite-sized pieces. I put each piece on a notecard so that then I can spread them all out on my bedroom floor while listening to music (probably some Beyoncé Lemonade this time), then put them in little related piles that will become my outline.

I like this phase because it gives me the feeling of control. Finally, I have gotten (most) of what I need from others, and now I can be alone with my thoughts and figure them out. It’s very satisfying.

Here’s a photo from this phase of my current book, which is about Sex and the City.

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And here’s one from Seinfeldia that I still think is funny.

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Upcoming SEINFELDIA Events

In the next several weeks, I’ll be in Georgia, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Oregon, and Staten Island talking Seinfeldia. Join me if you’re in the area!

Feb. 16-19, Savannah Book Festival, GA: Appearance.

7 p.m., Feb. 22, Museum of Jewish History, Philadelphia: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

11 a.m., March 8, JCC Greenwich, CT: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

7 p.m., March 14, Mittleman Jewish Community Center, Portland, OR: SEINFELDIA talk and signing.

7 p.m., March 16, Staten Island HillelSEINFELDIA talk and signing.

This Video Gave Me Hope

Maybe it will boost your spirits a little, too. My sister’s partner, Sean Skyler, who also happens to be one of my favorite singer-songwriters, wrote a beautiful song about THESE TIMES WE LIVE IN, and he shot a video for it at the Chicago women’s march this weekend. I was at the Big Show in D.C., but I consider this a perfect memento of the day just the same. For an extra shot of progressive hope, read Rebecca Traister’s piece on The Cut, “The Future of the Left Is Female.”

We Are All Political Writers Now

Like many of my colleagues in the pop culture writing business, I had a career crisis after the election: What, exactly, was I doing with my life? Was it enough to write about TV, music, and pop culture history? Should I be breaking important political stories instead, or at least writing scathing commentary about the state of our society?

By the time I emerged from my post-election stupor/denial/insomnia nightmare, however, it was clear that what I do for a living is just fine. Because any subject matter, at least now, can become a scathing commentary. Every subject matter bends back toward the black hole that is now our U.S. government. Maybe it’s because our incoming president is an “entertainer” that I find myself quite able to write about him while staying in my expertise lane; after all, I covered the man for a few years when The Apprentice was a hit. But maybe it’s just because literally everything seems tainted by the mood of the country.

My first three assignments of 2017 have all been about Trump-related issues in comedy, television history, and pop music. Meanwhile, there was that great Vanity Fair review of Trump Tower Grill that had our future president fuming—and absolutely serves as both a thorough restaurant review and a political piece for the ages. And now there’s this delightfully snide TV listing (!) for Trump’s inauguration, which ran in the Scottish Sunday Herald and treats it like a dystopian drama that couldn’t possibly be real life. We are all political writers now.

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Drake’s Real Rap Debut (on ‘Degrassi’)

Before Drake was Drake, he was Canadian actor Aubrey Graham, best known for depicting Jimmy Brooks on the excellent Degrassi: The Next Generation. This totally addictive teen show, which continues with yet another generation of young characters on Netflix, hit its first heyday in the ’80s as a cult favorite after-school special, and another one in the 2000s with The Next Generation, which aired on The N in America, a now-defunct teen network.

Out of nowhere and for no actual reason besides Degrassi‘s awesomeness (and Drake’s current blossoming romance with Jennifer Lopez), I had a passionate online discussion about Degrassi, and specifically Drake’s time on it, with some friends (thanks, Pamela!) and my sister, Julie, who got me into the show back when she was in her early 20s and I was … older than that. But being in my early 30s did not make me immune to this show’s charms, and I wasn’t the only adult watching. Because it was Canadian, it dealt more honestly than American teen shows with major issues like gun violence (Jimmy was paralyzed in a school shooting), sex, drinking, sexual assault, class differences, and abortion (The N originally refused to air a character’s decision to get one). The actors were playing closer to their age than most American teen shows, which tended to employ actors pushing 30 to play high schoolers. They were also far more diverse. And this all made the show very compelling to watch.

One of my favorite set visits ever when I worked for Entertainment Weekly was to Degrassi. I spent several days there, roaming the halls of the actual former school building that served as the set. Most sets are sets—they have no fourth wall. But Degrassi was actually in a school building and felt like school. The halls had lockers. We ate in a school lunchroom. I sat on the steps of the school to interview the erstwhile Aubrey Graham—already Drake-charming and uncomfortably flirty at just 17.

To honor Drake’s rise, I give you his first rap performance on Degrassi. The show had a lot of music (there’s an epic Battle of the Bands episode pitting the boys—Downtown Sasquatch—versus the girls—Hell Hath No Fury), and the kids were all legit talented. But Julie and I both remember watching this and going, Whoa. I think he might be really good.

How Posting About Britney Spears Helped My Career

I love Britney Spears, and I’m not afraid to let the world know it. It may be the single subject I post most about on social media, a situation further exacerbated by three quirky facts about my life: 1. My sister also loves Britney, so we’re often posting Britney-related minutiae and tagging each other; 2. I take a weekly dance class dedicated entirely to Britney songs and choreography, so I’m often posting either links to sign up for the class or video of the class itself; and 3. I play pop covers on acoustic guitar at a monthly open mic, and my Britney catalog is immense, so I often do whole sets dedicated to her, which are posted on my feeds. In short: If you follow me on social media, the one fact you’re most likely to know about me is that I love Britney.

This seems trivial, but if you are a freelance writer, I strongly encourage you to post the shit out of any such passions you have. (I would add this to the other great advice in this piece about scoring freelance work on The Muse.) My incessant Britney posting resulted in three great assignments the week her new album, Glory, came out in August. (It’s really good, please go listen to it, and make sure you get the deluxe version, which has the best songs.)

Here’s why it worked so well: The number-one way freelancers get assignments is so basic that beginners, in particular, never think of it. An editor—who is, after all, just a human being—thinks to herself, “I want a piece on X subject. Whom do I know who could do this?” Then a name pops into her head, and she emails that person. That’s it. You want that name to be yours.

So when Britney’s album dropped and editors I knew wanted to assign pieces about it, they immediately thought of me—I had, via years of passionate Britney posting, associated my name almost directly with hers in many people’s heads. The result was a week of indulging my passion, starting with a Billboard assessment of this album in the context of her career, continuing with a feminist analysis of Britney for Bustle, and ending with actually going to the MTV Video Music Awards to see her performance and write about it, again for Billboard.

Of course, it’s necessary to note that other factors had to be solidly in place for this chain of events to occur. Namely: 1. I have many longtime friends on social media who are editors at cool places. 2. I have been a professional writer for more than 20 years, and have written full-time about pop culture and women’s issues for 15 of those years. So I had to know the right editors, and they had to trust me.

Still, it’s worth noting: If you’re a freelance writer, posting about your passions isn’t simply fun. It’s good business.

Real Writers Risk

I read an insightful piece on Fast Company‘s website today by novelist Michael Grothaus about how he quit his six-figure tech job to write his book. What I loved most was this part:

Like any dream venture, whether it’s writing a novel or launching a startup, there is a large amount of risk involved. It’s often the fear that risk brings—How will I find the time? How will I pay the bills? What if I’m no good and don’t succeed?—that often keeps people chained to careers they may, at best, tolerate and at worst, detest.

This explains why I get irritable when some most likely well-meaning person at a cocktail party tries to relate to me by saying something like, “Oh, I’ve always meant to write a book,” or “I really want to become a writer when I retire.” Maybe they really have meant to write a book, and maybe they will. And there’s nothing wrong with picking up a writing hobby upon retirement. But these offhand comments, which imply that anyone can be a professional writer, downplay the hardest part (beyond the actual writing, which is not always a picnic): the risks professional writers take every day.

I love my freelance writer life and the control it gives me over my days (sort-of … though I promise there are plenty of days that feel way out of my control, full of interview times being changed and assignments I take to pay the bills). But walking away from a steady paycheck is a risk. Writing something and just hoping someone will pay you for it someday is a risk. Writing something and publishing it is a risk, and neither the comments sections nor the critics will let you forget it.

Real writers’ main job requirement isn’t writing. To get to the writing, and to get it out there, they must take constant risks.

Some SEINFELDIA Press

People like to talk about Seinfeld! Here are some places it has been recently:

I talked Seinfeldia with my smart friends at Vulture.

Particularly great excerpt (i.e. I like the bits they chose) about “The Junior Mint,” “The Contest,” and others in The Guardian.

I also talked Seinfeldia with fellow Seinfeld geek Jim Turano at WGN (in my hometown, Chicago!). 

A Salon.com discussion about the antiheroes of Seinfeld.

And ‘How Seinfeld Became About Something,’ from NBC online.

SEINFELDIA Is Out Today!

SEINFELDIA“Her book, as if she were a marine biologist, is a deep dive…Perhaps the highest praise I can give Seinfeldia is that it made me want to buy a loaf of marbled rye and start watching again, from the beginning.” —Dwight Garner,The New York Times Book Review

Get a copy of Seinfeldia wherever books are sold, or online at AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks a Million, or IndieBound.

My Favorite ‘Seinfeld’ Scene: George’s Whale Monologue

I have a book about Seinfeld, called Seinfeldia, coming out July 5 (and available for pre-order now), and I’ve already done a handful of interviews about it. The natural question that comes up is: What is your favorite episode? I think I answer this differently depending on my mood because there are so many good ones. If I’m feeling geeky, it’s “The Chinese Restaurant” because that represented the show’s first risky departure from sitcom conventions. If I’m feeling feminist, I go for Elaine’s “spongeworthy” plotline. If I’m feeling indecisive, I start rambling about how I really love the entire arc in which George and Jerry make a sitcom called Jerry, which ultimately fails. If I’m feeling contrary, I go for the much-hated finale, which I’ve loved upon re-watch.

I do, however, know my favorite scene, and that’s George’s monologue explaining how he saved a whale after pretending to be a marine biologist while on a date. (“The sea was angry that day, my friends …”) If I were an actor who had to do auditions, this would be my go-to material. It displays Jason Alexander’s special skill as an actor that made this character so great—the dramatic talent he brings to comedy. He plays George as a guy who’s quite serious about the cosmic joke he knows life is. I also remember this scene as possibly the first time, during the show’s original run, that I as a young viewer really got how brilliant Seinfeld was, the way it brought all the crazy plotlines together at the end of an episode in one comic quadruple-pirouette. Let’s enjoy: