Thursday, April 26, 2007

Freelancer Envy

The time-line of a freelancer is different from the rest of the world's. I know that messes with the laws of physics, but I'm sure there's an episode of Star Trek that supports my theory. Freelancing is the ultimate "yeah, but what have you done lately?" gig. As cool and pride-provoking as some of my earlier work has been, I'm only as good as what I've done in the last year -- because I'm only as busy as my current roster of editors will allow.

Let's face it: my last two-plus years were extremely rough. I was suffering through a personal crisis and had no energy to devote to properly pitching, writing, and nurturing professional relationships. I was given several opportunities that I simply couldn't follow through on, and I blew several good assignments. Blow an assignment when you're on-staff and you get an intervention from HR. Blow an assignment as a freelancer and you're deleted from the address book. There's just too many good writers out here for anyone to be patient with me. Thanks to three or four really loyal, amazing friend-itors, who leaned on me to get things in and threw softball assignments my way, I was able to stay afloat professionally.

Try as I might to re-form those relationships, it's slow going and horribly hard. I know I'm great at this, I know I can do the work, but as good as my clips and resume are, it's still a very long and uphill climb. I'm making progress, but slowly.

Contrast this to my fellow freelancers. Apparently, they're all, effortlessly, getting generous assignments from the glossiest of magazines. In my online freelancer forums, I see their victories -- hard-won as they are! -- and just feel defeated. It's such an awful attitude, and I feel ashamed of it. But this is a blog, and what's a blog without a little embarrassing self-revelation once in a while?

My fellow freelancers fall into two categories:
• People I hate, and therefore begrudge their success.
• People I love, and still feel envious of, even as I applaud their success.
It's driving me up a frickin' wall, around the frickin' bend, and [preposition] the frickin' [noun]. Book projects! Plum assignments about my favorite TV shows! Successful networking! I tell ya, it's enough to make a gal's superior attitude feel downright hollow.

I also hear the same freelancers complaining about projects they screwed up, opportunities they didn't go for, ambitions they are afraid to have, and overloaded situations they are sure they can't handle. I know we all feel this way sometimes. I just feel like I'm the only one who really deserves to.

Except for those people I hate. They deserve to and never do -- of that, I'm sure. Which only makes me want to be like them even more. Oh, the self-loathing, so much more interesting than the deadline I must meet today!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Personal Essay, She Kicks My Butt

Hoo boy. The Holy Grail of magazine writing is the personal essay, sometimes referred to as a first-person-reported piece. The idea is this: you get to expound upon your life, Joan Didion-style, and use that as a jumping-off point for a helpy service piece, quoting experts that support your experience and actions and, Godwilling, coming to some sort of uplifting conclusion. Sometimes you don't have experts -- it's just about a moment in your life that's bound to touch others, like on the last page of the New York Times Magazine. But those are even rarer creatures, like baby squirrels or flattering Uggs.

My favorite recent personal essay is by the marvelous Wendy Shanker. It's beautifully written, details her struggle with a health issue, and despite a lack of a neat-and-tidy ending, manages to leave the reader feeling like there's hope. One of the annoying things about magazines is a trend, in recent years, to take the attitude, "Everything's GREAT! Here's how to make it GREATER!" That chirpy, unrealistic approach seems limiting to me. I get that magazines go with what sells on the newsstand, but I've never been convinced that a complete denial of negative experience is really what gets magazines in hands. So when I read this, I subscribed to Self so they'd understand that I supported this fresh view.

Of course they'll get right on that because I'm their A#1 priority. But ya do what ya can, right?

Anyway, I finally got assigned to write not one, but three personal essays for I write for them a lot (cast your eyes to the left if you don't believe me), and I have the world's most nurturing relationship with my editor there, so I was totally pleased -- and totally terrified. Writing about yourself seems fun till you realize that it's only interesting if there's something at stake. And when there's something at stake, well, you have to be vulnerable. You have to let the reader in. You can't just put up your sassy-brassy shields, and lob kicky bits of advice over your Wall of Comfort-Level. You have to level that wall, within reason, and admit to actual foibles, embarrassing ones, and confront not just how they make you feel, but how you can get past them and improve.

It's like taping a therapy session, having it transcribed, and handing it out to your nearest and dearest for their perusal. Look, I'm as shameless at the next GenX-er, totally willing to profit from my own embarrassment, but as I get older, and the embarrassing situations become less kicky and charming and more heart-wrenching and permanently damaging, the process of writing about them becomes more difficult.

I guess that's what makes them good and readable. But damn, it takes a lot more time, energy, and self-discovery than the usual three-point FOB service piece. Ha-doy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Banned Vocabulary Words!

Before Matt Groening was the Simpsons guy, he did a cartoon called Life in Hell which I read in the Village Voice. (Religiously. It was on the same page as my also-beloved Ernie Pook's Comeek.) Plots of the strips usually centered around Akbar and Jeff, two fellas in Charlie Brown shirts and fezzes, or a passel of maladjusted bunnies – but sometimes Groening would just talk directly to us, the readers.

Ferinstance, about once a year he'd print a list of words and phrases that had quickly become hot, then overused -- and were therefore verboten in the upcoming year. I don't know if these are collected in any of the books, so I'm working from memory here: He'd object to the over use of "uber-", say, or "ersatz," when hipster publications got too zanily reliant on these fangled terms. (He'd probably have banned "ferinstance," "verboten," and "fangled" at some point.) (And let's just not mention "zanily.")

I once had a tryout at a weekly metro events-listing magazine, and they had an extensive bible with several single-spaced pages of overused hipster lingo of the same sort.

So, without further ado, here are the terms I'm banning from my own writing, simply because I'm hearing them so much, they're becoming not just cliché, but lazy-butt go-tos. I've been relying on them too much. You might be, too.
  • "That's just disturbing." Please tell me what you really mean, because this is just vague.
  • "If by TK you mean OPPOSITE TK." I'm guilty of using this endlessly, and it's losing its flavor quicker than a stick of fruit-striped gum.
  • "I hate TK with a white-hot flame." Is that exactly how much? Can you think of no better analogy? God, Ihate this one… with uh… with… I just hate it a lot.
  • "throw up in my mouth." A moment in the word processor, a lifetime in every snarkster's vocabulary. Was funny exactly once, when Marcia Brady Stiller said it.

Add yours, please!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Writing With A Partner

I enjoyed The Nanny Diaries, which was authored by two gals who share equal billing. I also love Em&Lo, another two-headed monster who helmed an advice column on Nerve and now write books together. But separate from my enjoying their work, I always wondered: how on earthdo they do that? How does it work? Does one write a version and the other revise? Did they sit together and talk about what they were about to put on the page? Which one types? Who wins they really both thought they had le mot juste? Is once-twice-three-shoot involved, or is agreement achieved through discussion and synthesis? I read an article in the New Yorker about a couple who study the brain together and, after years of this, they barely know who comes up with what. That's either deeply cool or deeply weird. Or both.

When I had The Best Job Ever (a.k.a.TBJE), we'd sometimes do these 30-relaxing-rituals or 40-snappy-pickup-line-comebacks or 50-sexy-whisperables articles. Rather than toiling in isolation, we all soon learned that the best way to get one of these babies done was to run down to Duane Reade, pick up a couple bags of fun-sized Twix, and throw an idea-party. It was oodles more fun to have a writer's room, Sid Caesar-style, with ideas popping off like fireworks over our heads. Writing by committee: I yearn for it daily, even as I churn out freelance artciles in my wee home-based office.

But while toiling away for The Man might be possible on my own, writing comedy is more of a group effort. It has to be. I don't know, maybe Dane Cook sits by himself while writing his jokes…. Aaah, who am I kidding, Dane Cook doesn't write his own jokes. Anyway, I just find that sketch writing, joke writing, gag writing – that all works best if I have a buddy.

This is all on my mind (MY mind! MINE!) because I've been writing with a partner lately, and I love it sooo much. I wish he could write everything with me. Seriously. Instead of feeling stuck, and going on the Google to get unstuck, and ending up reading "Go Fug Yourself" for an hour while nothing got done, I just said, "Wait, what goes here?" and he made suggestions till he hit something we both liked, or till he fired off something in my head that made me say the right thing. It was like living in a TV show about a couple writing sketches: "No, play to the top of your intelligence," he said – seriously! He said that! – and suddenly the sketch pulled together in a neat little bundle, like a comedic tamale.

Weirdly, though, it's been hard letting him into bigger projects. Sketches are one thing, but we're working on a Big Secret Thing at the moment, and it's become really important to me that I get a rough draft on paper before I bring him in for consultation. It's weird, because I've been stuck for days on the first section – oh, who am I kidding, the first paragraph – and have had ample opportunity to ask him to pace around making suggestions while I hunch overy my keyboard and type. Do I feel like I have to own the process? Is this me asserting control, or demanding a neurotic amount of it? Is this feminist empowerment or just plain selfishness? I dunno, but it's nice to have something feel new again. Me and writing were in a rut for a while. I feel like we're coming back together again, like any long-standing couple.

My job. I think I'll keep it.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Oh, Oscar. Oscar, Oscar, Oscar.

I'm not afraid to admit I loves me a good Oscar montage. A fond look back at swashbucklers? Yes, please. A tribute to film noir? Mmm, tasty. Dead people? I see them --gladly. But this year's montage dedicated to writers, captured onscreen during their process, left me chilly.

I already have issues with writers at the Oscars. Tanned actors and leathery directors alternately swan and stride about, looking handsome and tough and heroic. Picture-perfect. Then they make the "best screenplay" announcement and out trot Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco. GAAH! The only people who look more pale, doughy and blink-blinky in the bright lights are the film editors, and at least the directors listen to them!

(I realize this is not an absolute rule. Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman are lucky they don't get corralled into the inky-finger ghetto right after they step off the red carpet. Andwhen my handsome old classmate Danny Futterman decides he's going to write, too, well – what can you do? But the general rule still applies: actors, ready for their closeup. Writers, more ready for a healthy dollop of Vaseline on the lens.)

Let's face it: ours is not an industry that lends itself to physical well-being. I sit all day. Then I go to yoga, and my body freaks out and says "I'm going to make you pass out and throw up NOW if you don't cut it out with this frickin triangle pose." Then I take a hike with my willowy sisters and start crying halfway through. Then I go out for a bike ride and turn around and go home when faced with my first San Francisco hill. If they made an elliptical trainer with a laptop-holder, I'd either be golden, or I would figure out how to disassemble the elliptical part and install a loveseat.

I heard Amy Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls, say something about how she had to rope her husband in right after she got that deal, before she started working in earnest and her buttbecame "chair-shaped." I hear ya, sista.

The fact is, the better I'm writing, the more awful I look. When things get really intense on the page, I hunch over like a homonculus. When something absolutely AMAZING flows out of my fingertips, my eyes might bug out slightly. Really, the only thing worth watching is when I'm doing dialogue, and I start babbling out loud to see how it would really sound. At that point, I most resemble an extra in the background of Girl, Interrupted. Scratch that. More like Cuckoo's Nest. At the moment, I am wearing a camoflage cotton nightie, Uggs, and a black sweater -robe. My hair hasn't seen shampoo since the last time I colored it. (It's red! Red fades!!) My tongue? Carpeted. This does not lend itself to caught-on-film photogenesis.

Compare and contrast to the Oscar montage. Jack Nicholson looks young and okay… till he axe-murders his family. Then things really get ugly. Nicole Kidman sports a fake nose and gazes. I uh… what is Diane Keaton doing? I mean she's at her keyboard and she's yelling? And we return several times to Sally Field in some sort of attic, with a ten-foot-long cigarette hanging out of her mouth. What? How? Why? She flails her arms. She stands, then sits. She paces. She howls! She throws the typewriter out the window. I love the Sally, I truly do, and I'm sure it wasn't meant to be accurate. But it's not even funny. Even the cigarette looked embarrassed.

I mean, this is a kobayashi maru if ever I saw one (Sorry. A no-win situation.) Show what really happens, and snoozery ensues. Play with the truth and risk the wrath of some lady in San Francisco complaining on her blog. Neither option is really safe or desirable. I really feel for you, Hollywood.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Thoughts Expressed While Sitting Alone at the Keyboard"

As opposed to...?!

Ha ha, just kidding. I am actually aware that there are other ways to express thought than sitting alone at the keyboard. On the phone, ferinstance, or (shudder) in a face-to-face conversation. In fact, talking by writing has its limitations, as many have discussed ad nauseum, most recently in this New York Times article.

I'm guilty. Sometimes I need to blow off steam, and it's less embarrassing to do so in print, where nobody can see that vein pop out on my forehead. I try not to do it directly, like in an email to someone who can save it, print it, and post it on her bulletin board so she can have a chuckle whenever she's feeling low. (I'm not saying I've done this. I'm also not saying I haven't. There is a hobag of my acquaintance who replied to a friend's mass-mailing with a flame of such venom, such unbalanced meds, such outsized outrage, that we passed it back and forth for weeks in the mid-nineties. When this person recently posted in a forum about how she'd fallen off a step-stool, konked her head, almost passed out, and feared she'd die alone, I saved it to my desktop in a file named "aahahahhaaa." I am a Bad Person.)

But some days you just need to pick at an online scab. Let's say I was on forum for people on a certain eating plan. Let's say it was a newbie forum -- labeled as such -- and someone kept posting complaints about stupid newbie questions. Would it not be understandable for me to craft witty, sassy responses designed to show her the error of her ways? Would it not be understandable for me to then return to the forum throughout the day to convince others that defending her is wrong? Are you really saying I should not have hacked into the online forum, gotten her information, and driven 800 miles in a Depends so I could leave a printout of my original post on her front door? Affixed there with a hunting knife?

Um. Okay, I didn't do that last thing. But in fact, I wanted to, and it's taken all I have not to return to that forum today. I hereby solemnly swear to procrastinate here, not amongst other unbalanced people. And to use wide-open writing time to craft sassy, witty posts for you all to enjoy, not for other nerfarious reasons. And to Be a Better Person.

Okay, again. Not that last thing. Hi there! I'm back!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hrant Dink

I joke about the ups and downs of writing for a living, but I have nothing at stake. Living where I do, writing about what I do, there's nothing in my day-to-day life that would result in anything more serious than a flame war. Here's a post of relative silence in honor of those who write, edit and publish in circumstances far more fraught than mine.