How to murder your darlings.

When I was still a young pup, I was asked to write a draft of an incredibly important newspaper ad. It was to explain to the American public the historic breakup of AT&T into eight different companies. This pivotal moment would end a century of monopoly and change American technology overnight. 

I  pounded away at my Selectric® for days, dog-eared thesaurus at my side, then dumped reams and reams of copy on my boss’s desk. He looked over his reading glasses at me, sighed and said, “I see you didn’t have time to write less,” then picked up a red grease pencil and started to slash at my masterpiece. When he handed it back, gutted and bloody, I was appalled. How could he cut this phrase, that similie, those seven paragraphs of blinding brilliance? 

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How to find your voice.

Recently, we went to see Gatz, a wonderful staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The play isn’t based on the novel. It is the novel. All 49,000 words of it, read aloud, over eight hours (including a few intermissions). All they left out were the chapter titles.

Gatz was a profound experience and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I felt as I sat in my narrow theatre seat for the better part of a Friday. The part I’ve been thinking about most wasn’t the length of the experience. Yeah, it was long but I’ve spent more time binge-watching shows on Netflix. The thing that stayed with me was the personal experience of voice and what that means to the way I make things.

Let me explain.

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How to start.

It’s Friday and I have to write a blog post. I could start with a humorous anecdote, maybe something self-deprecating —I’ve been doing a fair amount of that sort of self-flagellation lately. Maybe about the time I fell asleep in the library in college and was so embarrassed when I was awoken by another student that….

Or how about a shocking  fact —  someone just told me that in a recent poll 80% of Americans said they want to write a book (I wonder what percentage want to read one?). Or maybe a bold assertion, like “I shot a man in Reno, just so he would stay still while I drew him…”

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How to shake things up.

We just got back to New York after a month in California. We went west because November had been so awful and cold in NY and we couldn’t bear the idea of an unbroken stretch of winter reaching long over the horizon. So we borrowed a friend’s house near the beach in Venice, then moved inland to a Spanish revival house (above) on a big piece of land in Echo Park.

It was admittedly quite a luxury to flee and cross the country but it wasn’t a vacation. JJ and I spent much of each day sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, working away at our laptops, while the rain beat against the windows and the wind howled through the palm trees. It’s great to have job you can do from anywhere on earth with access to wifi!

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How to become a professional.

When I was a sophomore at Princeton, I had to pick a major. It seemed like the one crucial decision that would determine my life’s path. I sweated over it for months.

There were certain disciplines it was easy to eliminate, the ones that had always seemed like Greek to me. Math. Physics. Chemistry. Greek. History was sorta interesting but I couldn’t stand memorizing dates. Economics? Of course not, I wasn’t going to become a businessman. Art? Give me a break. Who majors in art at Princeton?

English? Well, I loved and devoured books but I wasn’t sure what an English degree would give me. I didn’t want to be an English teacher. Or an academic writing books about other people’s books.

But I’d always loved to write. Stories. Essays. Articles for the school paper. If I could write for a living, I knew I surely would be happy.

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How to not give a damn.

When you make something with no consideration of the outside world, no interest in other people’s opinions, no desire to find a market for your product, but just simply because it expresses how you feel, because you find it interesting, because it something you want to do — your creation is authentic.

Being authentic does have a price. You may not be compensated as handsomely as if you created something designed just to satisfy others (but then again, you might).  But it’ll compensate you in other ways that are much more meaningful and lasting  —like insight, community, credibility, beauty, value and truth.

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How to make your imagination work harder.

I love New York but it can be way too much — and the last few months have pushed me to the limit. The streets have been too damned jammed with holiday tourists and texting millennials.  The pre-dawn construction project down the block had been going on for too damned long. And winter came too damned early and frigid this year. 

JJ and I concluded we had to get out of Dodge, sit in the sun and eat clementines. Now we’re in LA for a month and my sluggish brain is starting to thaw.

Continue reading “How to make your imagination work harder.”