Wednesday, November 16, 2011

So You Want To Be a Writer

It’s not the most auspicious opening.

One day a recent college grad and aspiring writer named Frances Bridges wrote to blogger Susannah Breslin asking for advice. Specifically, she was asking for a fifteen minute chat over coffee.

An accomplished writer and blogger Breslin occasionally receives requests for advice. Most of the time she does not reply.

She tells us why: “Generally, I ignore those emails. Usually, the emails are long, and filled with too much information, and I don’t have time to answer them. I feel guilty about this. I also feel annoyed someone I don’t know is asking me for advice, like I have nothing better to do with my time than dole out advice to people I don’t know. Sometimes, I answer their emails, but oftentimes I’m very short, and really I’d rather just delete their emails altogether.”

Breslin is too modest to mention it, but when people are asking for a professional service, like advice, they should offer to pay for it. If they do not, you do better to offer a business transaction than to ignore them. Ignoring them is rude. 

Breslin does not think in these terms, but she is right to be irritated by strangers asking for free advice.

Anyway, Breslin made an exception for Frances Bridges. She answered her email. And blew her off. Still, a response is a response and hers led, by a circuitous route, to an eventual meeting.

Why did Breslin respond at all? She seemed to be looking for a chance to right a wrong: “...young women get too much crappy advice. And a lot of the time, that advice is from women.”

In my experience the crappiest advice comes from feminists. Worse yet, feminism has taught many young women never to trust men, but only to trust women.  In the therapy world women who are troubled are told that only another woman can possibly understand them. By which they mean that only another woman can feel what they are feeling.

Of course, someone who feels what you are feeling will be less apt to help you to solve your problems. After all, your anguish is a sign that you do not know what to do. If s0me one else shares that anguish she will be more likely to feel overwhelmed by the problems.

Breslin seems to understand that women tend to give other women crappy advice. Will she now offer her protégé, Frances Bridges, good or crappy advice? That is the question.

Her first piece of advice is not auspicious. Breslin begins with an issue that is critically important for women: looks.

Apparently, good looks were one reason why Breslin did not ignore Bridges’ first email.

From doing a Google search, Breslin formed an impression of Bridges: “Frances is very tall, and she has long, shiny brown hair, and she has big, soulful eyes. There is something about her that probably drives young men her age insane with wanting to get at whatever lies at the bottom of Frances Bridges.”

Of course, she is not just talking about an attractive woman. She is talking about a woman who advertises her sex appeal. If that is true, then it makes sense to focus, as Breslin does, on: “the bottom of Frances Bridges.”

When she did meet Frances Bridges Breslin opened the conversation by emphasizing how pretty Bridges was.

In her words: “Eventually, Frances and I did meet, and one of the first things I told her when we sat down together was how important it is that she is pretty. Not because that fact matters more than the fact that she is smart, and a good writer, and ambitious, and driven, and willful, but because when you are a woman, and you want to get ahead, it really helps if you are pretty.”

I don’t want to be a killjoy, but if you aspire to be a writer and you get a chance to meet a successful writer and the first thing that she says is that you are exquisitely beautiful, that suggests that your mellifluous prose is not good enough to engage her rapt attention. She is intimating that your talents and assets lie elsewhere.

If Bridges wanted to be an on-air television personality/news reporter, then her beauty would be an important asset. If she wants to be a writer, not so much.

Breslin pays lip service to Bridges’ writing ability, but the truth is, she is not yet a very good writer. Read through her LinkedInprofile, one that would presumably help her to get jobs in journalism, and you will see that it is not very well written.

Perhaps this means that she needs to work harder on her writing. Perhaps this means that she should aim at a career where her looks will count for more. If Breslin allowed Bridges to believe that she is a good writer she gave her crappy advice.

Good looks will help you get on television to sell your writing. But first, you need to know how to write and you need to have something to say.

Writing is the kind of field where good looks pale into near insignificance.

Today, women are confused about what they should do about their looks. Breslin blames it on the confused and confusing messages spawned by feminism. I concur.

In her words: “Ever since feminism reared its Hydra head, feminists have been making being pretty complicated. Nowadays, you can read a million different articles, blog posts, and chunks of advice about what to do about your looks at work. Play it down. Don’t be too sexy. Or they say it doesn’t matter what you look like. Or they say attractive people do better, but don’t be too attractive. Or don’t play that card, or play that card but don’t play the sexy card. It goes on and on until young women don’t know what to do anymore.”

One despairs of clarifying the issue in a paragraph, but the general rule is that women should dress like women, that they should show less, not more, skin, and that, they should aspire to look like ladies, not vamps.

A woman should not suppress her femininity to the point where she looks like she does not know who she is. And she should not look as though work is a way station before a night of clubbing.

Of course, if a young woman wants to be an on-air television reporter, a more suggestive pose, like the one Bridges affixes to her LinkedIn profile, might be appropriate.

Since Bridges was pretty Breslin responded to her email. In it she rejected the request. Since she does not share the content of the email, we are left only with her description.

She writes: “…it was like I was standing in front of Frances, and Frances asked me for something, and instead of giving her what she wanted, I reached out and slammed the heel of my right hand into her shoulder as hard as I could. Why did I do that? I wanted to see which one of three things Frances would do if I shoved her: a) fall over, b) stand there, c) shove back.”

She does this fairly often and does not seem to consider it off-putting. It is her way of testing people, especially people who are asking for favors.

She does not mention some other possible responses. When shoved some people hit back and some people walk away from you. Different people have different responses to boorish behavior, and especially to people who feel a need to test them.

Breslin wants people to shove back. She wants young women to be strong and assertive, not weak and timid.

In her words: “Getting ahead at work is not about networking. Getting ahead at work is not about the sisterhood. Getting ahead at work is about big dogs and little dogs and what kind of dog you want to be.”

I agree that getting ahead at work is not about the sisterhood, but I do not agree with the cavalier dismissal of networking. Forming and cultivating relationships is crucial to success in any career.

I also find Breslin’s metaphor ill-chosen. No one, man or woman, should approach business as though it were a dog-eat-dog world.

And I do not see what is gained by telling women to act like dogs. If you begin by telling a woman that she should not be embarrassed by her good looks, you should not then add that she should act like a dog.

Women get much further with charm than they do with bitchiness. So do men.

Anyway, Frances Bridges passed the test. Instead of allowing herself to be blown off she went to one of Breslin’s readings and cornered her on a staircase.

In Breslin’s words: “I had blown her off, and instead of falling over or listing in the wind, she had come to get what she wanted: my time. We sat down together in the theater, and we talked, and I told Frances about what I had done in my career, and what I thought she could do with her career, and that’s how Frances got what she wanted.”

As I said, it would have been better if Frances had offered to pay for Breslin’s time. There is nothing especially attractive or endearing about taking what you want from another human being.

Besides, some people might read this advice and conclude that you should hassle other people until they give you what you want. Trust me, you shouldn't.

Then after having told Bridges that she is beautiful and a big dog, Breslin says that her writing should come from her heart.

Write about your feelings, Breslin says. Write about your father’s death. Make your writing more personal and more confessional.

She concludes: “That’s the part where you show the world your heart, and when you do that, you are being a journalist, and you are being who you want to be, and nobody can tell you otherwise, because that is who you are.”

It’s difficult to wrap up that much crappy advice in one run-on sentence, but Breslin manages to do so.

In the old days being a journalist meant reporting on and analyzing facts. Even today, in most quarters a good journalist is a great observer of detail, not someone who wears her heart on her sleeve.

Don’t we know enough Shakespeare to know that wearing your heart on your sleeve is not an admirable character trait?

If you are showing too much heart on your next job interview, it might mean that you need to button up more of your blouse.

Breslin’s advice about being who you want to be sounds like it comes to us straight from a therapy mill.

If you fill your writing with your own assertion that you are who you are because that is who you want to be, and that no one else should have anything to say about it, then you will eventually discover that no one else much cares.

Good writing touches or moves or stimulates readers. If yours does not do it, you should not try to rationalize your failure by saying that you are who you want to be, and if they don’t like it, they can go stuff it.

For a young writer, that is very crappy advice indeed.


Anonymous said...

Bridges didn't pay Breslin, that is true. But, Breslin didn't walk away empty-handed, either; she got an idea for a 3-page column. (Or, she got an anecdote that she could weave into the column that she was going to write anyway.) Seems like this exchange was win-win.

flynful said...

"“That’s the part where you show the world your heart, and when you do that, you are being a journalist, and you are being who you want to be, and nobody can tell you otherwise, because that is who you are.”

It’s difficult to wrap up that much crappy advice in one run-on sentence, but Breslin manages to do so."

Isn't this one fairly common failing of modern day journalism, the desire of many "reporters" to personalize news developments to show the world how caring they are? In fact, they aren't reporters any more, are they? They have graduated to becoming "journalists". "Reporter" must have some how become a dirty word, even though it is gender neutral. But, it brings to mind that not too long ago it was a more honest profession, if one could refer to reporting the news in such a fashion. For me, there was a time when I thoroughly enjoyed reading the NYT. That was when it reported the news and did not stoop to telling you how you must react to it. This suggests that a reporter was at one time respectful of his or her readers and their intelligence in being able to come to their own conclusions about the news.
It is a time long gone.
Steve Goodman

Stuart Schneiderman said...

True enough, Breslin got a column out of it and presumably got paid for it. Yet, the column is an effort to market Frances Bridges, and shouldn't she get paid extra for that?

Bizzy Brain said...

I read the Frances Bridges blog. It gave me "I" strain.

Nostradumbass said...

It seems that to be a good writer, one must have read extensively. That conditioning gives one a good feel and sense of effective and entertaining expression. It also helps to expose oneself to bad writing on occasion, or bad artistic expression in general. My background is in theatre and film, and I learned sooo much about what mistakes not to make by watching student theatrical productions and student films. In that sense, Ms. Bridges, you serve a noble purpose.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

That's great advice, Nostradumbass... It's absolutely right to say that reading great writing conditions the brain to recognize it when it sees it, and to know when writing is bad. This is especially true because great writing is really great editing and revising. A writer must be able to look at his drafts with a cold objective eye. And he must be able to tell the difference between good and bad writing. He can only do so if he has tuned his brain to good writing, to the point where he will feel seriously discomfited by the bad.

I also agree that one should on occasion read a little bad writing to know how the other half lives.