Writing Questionnaire

My wonderful friend Isaac passed this quiz along to me; I am going to try to find three people with blogs to pass it along to, and will link to their responses at the bottom. You can (and ought to) read Isaac here. He’s a director of note and writes very good, thoughtful cultural criticism about a number of forms but most vitally, theater on his blog, Parabasis (see previous link) and sometimes at The Hooded Utilitarian. He’s the senior editor at Perception.org, an anti-discrimination organization, and his memoir, “The Thousand Natural Shocks: A Father, a Family, a Crisis of Faith” is agented and looking for a publisher, which it will doubtless find with great rapidity as soon as he’s done with it. I greatly admire the man and the writing and recommend both to you unreservedly.

(1) What Am I Working On?
Quite a few things. I have two lengthy profiles of high-level entertainment executives due in the next two weeks, for consecutive covers of our magazine, “Adweek”, where I’m a staff writer, and it’s scaring me half to death. Both are worthy subjects who were incredibly cooperative and nice/interesting, but I tend to bite off more than I can chew and I’m a little disturbed that I may have done that on kind of a massive scale this time. I can always tell when I’ve overcommitted because I start to fantasize about time travel and what my two-weeks-from-now self would say to me about how the one feature was received and the other one is going. I write fast, but it’s nervewracking.

I’m also responsible for a certain amount of breaking news and traffic-getting on our website, Adweek.com, which is a very nice mix of trade-specific media and advertising news and our great blog Adfreak, where we just post funny ad- or agency-related videos and try to make people laugh enough in the copy to link to the page rather than the YouTube video. I’m constantly complaining that I’ll spend two months carefully interviewing sources and negotiating timetables with publicists, write 2,000 carefully-chosen words and then the final product will sit there like a lump for weeks with maybe 200 social hits; then I’ll spend ten minutes writing a post about screaming goats and making really dark jokes about depression and that will be at the top of the most-viewed list and people I’ve never met will put it on their Facebook pages.

Secondarily, I write short stories on my own time, which is an intensely rewarding experience despite my sending them to publishers and magazines really stingily. I’ve got one that appears to have made it past the first round at an online magazine I love but you just never know. I’ve gone from form rejection letters to detailed critiques in the last few years, which has been a real ego boost, perversely. Kind words and mild success induce me to write more quickly and well than anything else I can think of, at least as far as fiction goes. Anyway, I’ve got a short story I’m finishing this weekend and then, depending on the fate of the other story, I will either send it out somewhere or stare at it and think about all the ways it will never be good enough.

The last thing I do is write criticism—book reviews, and theater reviews as often as I can. My next book review is of a debut novel called “The Quick” by Lauren Owen—I’m starting it this weekend and greatly looking forward to it. I’m also trying to piece together some thoughts on Will Eno’s “The Realistic Joneses,” which is intimidating because he’s a much better writer than I am.

I also teach a writing class at my church, which is very fulfilling and tends to produce a discrete piece of writing that, while probably not saleable, is very satisfying to hold as I wend my way through a life of rolling deadlines and disposable news copy.

(2) How Does My Work Differ From Others of Its Genre?
I’m not sure. I try to make my journalism both well-informed and fun to read, though of course there are many good writers who can do that. I have kind of a grim sense of humor and when I can get away with incorporating that into my reporting and writing, I do. If my stranger, more absurd jokes make it on the paper, they tend to get laughs and comments, which I think means that the editorial screen is working—the stuff that’s too dark or too off-the-wall or stylistically dense gets weeded out by my editors, who are all very smart people with very different sensibilities and enough respect for my writing to want the voice to stay intact.

One of the reasons my fiction writing is so hard is that it tends to try to be as high-concept as I can manage without stinting on character depth. Again, these are two really difficult things to do and I sit in awe of anybody who can do either of them well—Stephen King and P.G. Wodehouse, for example, are both such wonderful writers of character that it doesn’t much matter whether or not there’s hard science or deep folklore behind King’s scenarios, or some kind of incredible central metaphor to Wodehouse’s comic novels. China Mieville and Terry Pratchett are incredibly good at delineating really difficult ideas in profound and surprising ways, and if their characters are drawn with broad brushes, the depth of the world makes up for it. So I’m kind of trying to follow two different paths simultaneously and failing in progressively more interesting ways, at least from my own, limited perspective.

Writing criticism is just tremendous fun. I love art, I love digging into art to find out how it works, and I love trying to find my own ideas either in unison with or contra the author of whatever it is I’m reviewing. I try very hard to make my work discrete and pleasant to read, and I tend to eschew basing any personal authority on all the stuff I’ve seen/read/listened to, partly because I find that exhausting in other critical writing and partly because I’m insecure about being undereducated in the media I’m writing about.

(3) Why Do I Write What I Do?
Well, not to be glib, but I write journalism because I can’t quite believe they pay me to do it. It’s a different job every day and I love it a lot. Stringing together a breaking news story on my phone during a corporate event is fun; trying to slam out a pithy observation on a surprising press release before my competition gets to it is fun; gathering three or five or ten interviews into a lengthy, layered feature is probably the most fun and closest to what I feel like I’m supposed to be doing with myself.

I write fiction because I have to.

I write criticism, frequently, to figure out what I think. I’ll have a lot of different thoughts about what the world ought to be like or what the best Captain America comics are and I’ll realize that I need to organize them and set them up against one another until they resolve into a worthwhile piece of writing; most of the time I don’t even publish them. I’ve got a “memoir” that is mostly just me remembering things that happened to me from childhood forward and trying to make sense of them as an adult with some perspective. One of the interesting discoveries over the course of that project, which is entirely for my own mental health and written with absolutely no intention of publication, has been that time is not the only thing that lends perspective to an event; actually, sometimes it doesn’t lend any perspective at all and you have to wait until something else happens to take you far enough away from it to see it properly. I realize this is in the “criticism” section when most people would probably call it long-form journalism but it really is me looking critically at various events in my life, and those are the muscles I’m using.

I teach the writing class because I wanted, a little begrudgingly, to give something back to my church and found instead that it was the single most valuable thing I’d ever done for my own imaginative writing. I find church often works that way for me.

(4) How does my writing process work?
When I’m writing at home, the trick has always been to get myself into the chair. My wife and I made our second bedroom an office now that we’ve moved out practically into the Lower Bay; the commute is a schlep but it’s done wonders for my writing. As often as I can, I get up early enough to get in some writing before work; more realistically, I take my only solo day off (Saturday, when Pamela is working) and sit at my desk, with natural light coming in over my shoulder, and I write in a program called Kabikaboo for as long as I can. I used to try to use Google Docs and it was seriously the worst idea I’d ever had. My theory was that I could use it to make my work portable from computer to computer, but actually what happened was that I barely wrote anything at all. I think I wrote one story, total, in that program. The internet is really good for a lot of things but if you’re trying to write, it is The Last Enemy. Other enemies are mostly myself: I find that when I have a good idea the first time, I write in a white heat for that first sitting and try to draw said sitting out for as long as possible. When I come back to finish it, the writing becomes harder and harder until I’m adding just a few paragraphs or sentences to something I was able to cram pages into the day before. It’s frustrating, but I’m getting better about pushing through to the finish line, and I’m having more than one good idea per story, which is encouraging.

When I’m at work, I have deadlines. Deadlines are great. I sit at my desk and transcribe or pull interviews into a single file—usually in Word—and then the pressure of the shipping time for the pages just kind of works its magic. Somestimes if I can’t write a good lede, I’ll write a really absurdly long-winded or tangential one just to get into the story so I can say what I know I need to say. My saint of a features editor came back to me a few months ago and said, “This is a good story about cable affiliate fees, but I’m not crazy about the lede about the French Revolution.” And of course it was the work of ten minutes to come up with a better lede graf, because I’d used the wildly inappropriate one to weasel my way into the story and had the full weight of the completed story behind me when I was trying to craft a better opener.

When I feel my writing flagging—when I discover I’m having trouble finding the right word or ending sentences before the start of the tenth line, for example—I do a few things: 1) sleep 2) eat something relatively good for me 3) read P.G. Wodehouse. Your mileage may vary, but Wodehouse is for me the perfect blend of stylistic virtuosity and utter, light, reader-friendliness. Friendliness of all kinds, really—somebody said that it was impossible to be unhappy while reading Wodehouse and that is my experience, as well. It’s important to be happy, both for your own personal well-being and for your writing. There are people who contend that you have to have a terrible life or be a terrible person to be good at anything creative; we call these people “idiots.” You have to be selfish enough to claim time to write when you need it, and you have to have some life experience, but if you go through life for any length of time, you’ll suffer, and that’s a promise. Whether it makes you a terrible person is largely your own choice.

I didn’t mean to end on such a moralistic note but I think I’m going to just own it.

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is samthielman.com, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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