Camille Noe Pagán (pronounced “no pay-gahn”) is the author of the novel The Art of Forgetting, a funny, poignant read about the meaning of friendship and love in the face of injury. Also a journalist, her work has appeared in dozens of national publications and on websites including Allure, Cooking Light, Forbes.com, Glamour, Men’s Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, Prevention, Reader’s Digest, SELF, and Women’s Health, and she is a contributing editor at Arthritis Today.
Meredith: What do you do when you sit down to write and nothing happens? Is it really nothing?
CAMILLE: I can always write something; the question is really how good it is. I know when my writing isn’t working because I don’t care enough about the story, don’t want to sit down to write, or can’t see past the next scene.
That said, I think writing crap is crucial–it clears the way for the good stuff. Before I started on my second novel, I started (literally!) five different novels, none of which felt like the story I absolutely had to write (the way I felt while working on The Art of Forgetting). It was frustrating, but my writing improved in the process.
Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope?
But for me, it was never about being a Writer, capital W; writing was just something I had to do. When people ask me what I would be if I wasn’t a journalist or novelist, I stare at them blankly and think, Someone trying to be a writer? A screenwriter? A songwriter? A poet?
If you’re going to have the chops to stick with it–and it does take courage, because once you’ve actually created something, there are going to be tons of people who are happy to tear it to shreds, and you have to deal with that–it’s because there’s simply nothing else you can think of doing with your life.
Meredith: As an accomplished journalist, what did you have to unlearn (about your work, yourself) to find your truth as a novelist? What had to go?
CAMILLE: As a journalist, I’m always asking myself: Is it true? Am I presenting information in the most accurate light? I used a lot of those skills for the brain injury information and plot points that I included in The Art of Forgetting, but when it came to shaping the lives of my characters, I had to go beyond facts.
To write a gripping novel–one that makes people absolutely have to turn the next page–you have to asking what if? over and over, and push your characters is ways that you may not have personally been pushed. It’s the opposite of fact, but without it, your novel is going to be colorless.
Meredith: What is happening when a writer, poised to reach their “tipping point” (thank you, Malcolm Gladwell), pulls back and retreats? This could apply to the novice who finally gets into a writing groove then abandons the practice or the seasoned pro hitting their stride but then who stops querying? Has this ever happened to you?
CAMILLE: Oh yes. Absolutely. I wrote the first draft of my first novel (Forgetting) quickly–it was all-consuming and wonderful. I found an agent within a month, and the story sold at auction to my dream publisher, Dutton, with foreign rights selling to four countries. It was the success story that I’d dreamed of since I was a girl.
Then I sat down to write another novel and hit a wall (see above about five different novels started; sob!). I never saw it coming, and I didn’t think it would happen, but it did–and let me tell you, I took it hard. I think the Winston Churchill quote says it best: If you’re going through hell, keep going. If life was always easy-breezy, triumphs would never feel like much of anything. For me, I kept writing and just when I thought it would never get better, I moved past the rough patch.
Meredith: Tell me about your relationship with the muse. Is it love-hate? Up-down? Boy-girl? What I’m really wondering is this: does it feel like a part of you? Or something you have to catch? Or if you even have one.
CAMILLE: I feel like there is a little voice in me that is both sad and overjoyed by life’s possibilities (having read Forgetting, Meredith, you may know what I mean by this; I am drawn to things that are tragic but redeeming), and she is always with me as I write. That said, there are times when the lightening bolt hits and I just know that I’m working on something I was meant to. I finally got that jolt for novel number two, and I am so glad, because I was beginning to worry it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing!
Still, the muse is nothing without work. You can be teeming with inspiration, but if you don’t sit down, start typing and stay put, it doesn’t matter because you won’t write a thing.
The Art of Forgetting comes out June 9th from Dutton, and through June 1st, she will donate $1 per pre-order to the Bob Woodruff Foundation/ ReMIND.org, which provides resources and support to service members, veterans and their families to successfully reintegrate into their communities so they may thrive physically, psychologically, socially and economically. Visit her website for details.
Camille told me this, when I asked for something quirky: “I am a health and nutrition journalist; and incidentally, a very short person (I’m 5’1″). I included that fact because people I know online are always surprised when they meet me! Although I swore I’d never live in Michigan again after moving to New York a decade ago, I recently moved to Ann Arbor with my husband and two kids, ages 3 and 5 months.” She is also the co-creator of Svelte Gormand.
“I have never been one to write for myself.”
—Vera Marie Badertscher
Vera Marie Badertscher has written for some of the most prestigious travel magazines around including National Geographic Traveler and Arizona Highways. In addition, she recently co-authored the book Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist with Charnell Havens after ten years of research. The co-authors’Tahoma Blog is devoted to the research and process of writing a biography. Vera Marie also writes about books and movies that influence travel at the award-winning A Traveler’s Library.
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned? How about as far as your own personal process in creating?
VERA: When I started writing it was because I had things I wanted to say. I quickly learned that if I was going to get paid for writing, I needed to write what editors (and by extension their readers) want. What we call “rejection” or “acceptance” are loaded words that we use to describe the game that writers and editors engage in. If an editor says “no” you can think of if as missing the bullseye with the dart. You take the opportunity to figure out why it missed, practice your aim, and throw again. Or you can choose to take it as a personal attack and go out in the back yard and eat worms. Personally, I’d rather throw the dart again. The worst kind of turn down gives you no clues. A simple “no” is no help. However a reply that says, “we just ran a piece on that subject,” tells you that you are in tune with the publication and you’re eventually going to hit the target. A reply that says, we really are not looking for any “x” at the moment, gives you an opportunity to say, “could you tell me what you need?”
Meredith: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you can discover what will work?
VERA: Wow! I wish I had an easy answer for that. I always try to follow the “kill all your darlings” philosophy. If there is something I have written that I am in love with, I automatically question it. Is it part of the direct path leading through the article. Does it say something new? Is it clear only to me, or will it shed light on the subject for any reader. Experience has taught me that I don’t really know the best parts of my writing until I return to it a year or more later. THEN I can see what is actually good and true as Hemmingway might have said.
That is why it was valuable to write the biography of Quincy Tahoma (Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist) with a partner. Another pair of eyes could point out things that did not work for a reader. Not that we always agreed on what worked, but most of the time, as soon as she questioned a passage I would recognize that it was a problem child and needed a time out.
Meredith: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write and blog? Any deals?
VERA: Yeah, I always say, “This time I’m going to be concise.” And I never am.
And if I am having trouble getting started, my deal is “You will write for five minutes.” Of course by then, I’m hooked and just keep going.
Meredith: Dennis Palumbo has a quote at the very end of Writing from the Inside Out, from Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” There is this collective sense that experts are better, but perhaps, in a roundabout way, what it suggests is that more power comes to the beginner, because the beginner sees hope and has no expectations. Like, if you’re going to be an expert, be an expert in being a beginner/newcomer. What’s your take?
VERA: I think I have the opposite reaction. A writers job is to make sense of things. Having too many possibilities can stop you cold. Experienced writers can write more quickly because they’ve tried a lot of those interesting side roads and know which ones work and which ones don’t. If you are writing as a business, it is good to have a grasp on reality. I’m no fan of false hopes.
Another way I could read this is something my father frequently said about becoming an expert. ‘ A PhD is someone who has learned more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.’ In that sense, if you substitute interests or curiosities for possibilities, I would agree it is better to be a beginner.
Meredith: How do you balance writing for you and writing for an audience. How do you find the sweet spot?
VERA: I have never been one to write for myself. Maybe it is because my background and education is in theater, a collaborative art which does not exist without an audience. My whole motivation for joining Charnell Havens to write the biography of Quincy Tahoma, the Navajo artist, was to share his life and his art with as many people as possible. Therefore, I was constantly questioning whether the stories I was telling and the background information would be interesting and helpful to the reader. It is true that I wanted to tell them EVERYTHING, and had to restrain myself, but I wasn’t writing just so I could hear myself. I was writing because I took on the task. I love the Dorothy Parker quote “I hate writing. I love having written. I actually don’t hate writing, but every once in a while I hate having to write.” That’s me.
One more thing Vera told me: “Few people in my writing life know about my work in politics, where I knew personally every Governor of Arizona in the past 30 years, and chatted with three presidents and numerous Senators and Members of Congress.” Learn more about her and her work by clicking on her website right HERE.
The writer talks about obsession, finishing and a certain something she is completely powerless over. And the art of being one’s own editor.
Gina Frangello is the author of the short story collection, Slut Lullabies (a must-read according to Vanity Fair and More) just out from Emergency Press and the novel My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006.) She is also the Executive Editor of Other Voices Books, an imprint of Dzanc Books, as well as the co-editor of fiction on the popular online literary community, The Nervous Breakdown. Her short fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Five Chapters, StoryQuarterly, Swink, Prairie Schooner and the International Book Award winning A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection.
MEREDITH: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you can discover what will work?
GINA: I have a fabulous writing group, and I think both outside feedback and time are key to being able to let go of our own work enough to be able to see it more clearly and approach it from another angle. Giving something to a writing group is helpful not just in terms of getting new perspectives (which are extremely valuable, but can also be conflicting and confusing, as anyone who’s ever been in a workshop knows), but also helpful in that it takes my group time to read my work, and during that necessary downtime I take a break from a story or a novel. I find that as a result of taking some time away, I often can tell pretty clearly which comments from group members resonate with me and just sound “right,” vs. which ones might be interesting but simply don’t fit with me as a writer or with my own vision or intent with a piece. I’ve worked as an editor at Other Voices magazine, Other Voices Books and The Nervous Breakdown for so many years now that I don’t have any illusions about writers always being perfect judges of our own work . . . but I do think we have to maintain a strong sense of our own intent and not just try to turn our work into a “crowd pleaser” by trying to incorporate every change a workshop or writing group member suggests. We have to learn to be our own editor in terms of weeding out what’s useful and what’s not.
MEREDITH: What did you have to unlearn, un-believe about yourself to find your truth as a writer? What had to go?
GINA: I grew up below the poverty line in inner-city Chicago, and although I’ve been writing since before I could actually write (I’d dictate stories to my mom and then illustrate them when I was three or four) and started writing my first “novel” at the age of ten, it never really occurred to me that I could be a writer by profession. I believed this was a luxury reserved for people with trust funds or affluent parents—I had college loans to repay and parents I would need to financially support as they aged. I had majored in psych and gone all the way through a master’s in counseling and was practicing as a therapist when I started writing the manuscript that would become my first novel, My Sister’s Continent, and calling in sick to work all the time, staying up all night to write. I had to look very hard at my life and what I wanted—what would fulfill me. My husband was a struggling academic at that time (a PhD student in space physics, which was a shrinking field) and we didn’t have a lot of financial security, but I ended up realizing that I needed to write and needed to be able to forge a life around that, even if the result looked very different from the financially comfortable life I’d aspired to in my youth.
When you grow up poor, it is very easy to see “making money” as the goal. As I reached adulthood, I realized that one of the huge characteristics of the working poor tends to be being stuck in menial jobs that are not fulfilling or nurturing—that it’s a larger, more systemic issue than being poorly paid. I was okay, in the end, with being poorly paid if I could make a life I loved. That—more than the income—was the part my parents had never quite been able to achieve and that had haunted them with regrets. Luckily for me, it turned out that my husband found a more conventional career route and has made a nice living, so the existence I’d imagined—on the perpetual edge of poverty—didn’t actually come to pass. But I think realizing I was willing to go there and to give up the rest of it for my writing was essential to being able to take other risks as a writer later on.
MEREDITH: As an author with many projects in motion, many platforms at work and many works in the public eye, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? Does it feel like you are moving forward on parallel tracks or is the process more unified and seamless?
GINA: Well, to be honest, it’s really difficult to balance these things . . . not because of left vs. right brain, but simply because of time. I’m a writer, but I’m also many other things, as are most writers. I’ve been an editor for fifteen years, and I teach at two universities, and I blog and write book reviews, so I have to keep all of that going while also promoting my new collection Slut Lullabies, and while trying to create new fiction. But on top of that, of course I have a personal life. I have three children—ten-year-old twins and a four year old—and right now it’s summer and they’re all out of school. As I brought up earlier, I don’t make a lot of money in my line of work, so I try to limit my childcare because I don’t want my work to be a financial liability to my family . . . but on an even deeper level I also don’t want to miss my children’s youth.
One of the great freedoms and luxuries about being a writer and running my own indie press is that I work predominantly out of my home, so even though I put in a lot of hours, I—unlike friends of mine who teach third grade or are attorneys or doctors—have the ability to take my kids to school in the morning, to pick them up, to cook them dinner every night, to take them to the beach and the playground in the summer. I’m not going to give that up. Kids grow absurdly quickly and soon enough my husband and I will be alone in our house again, free to work or . . . have sex in the kitchen or whatever . . . whenever we like. So right now, my work has to exist around the rest of my life, the personal part that keeps me energized and nourished and motivated to create. Sometimes the balance isn’t perfect—it’s a constant juggling act, as any working mother can attest.
But for me this sometimes means something has to give. Right now, I’m in promotional mode. I’m touring—Austin, New York, Los Angeles, Iowa City, Seattle, Portland—and that’s very difficult with kids. I’m gone for as much as a week at a time, so when I first get home I’m not going to lock myself in my office for ten hours a day writing, I’m going to hang out with them and spend a lot of time talking to them and hugging them and bustling around my kitchen. So I’m not working on a longer writing project right now. I’m doing a lot of publishing industry writing for blogs, especially The Nervous Breakdown, and I just wrote a short story I really like, but many weeks I don’t write. That comes back—it always comes back. I’ve learned not to have anxiety about that, because the drive to write is something that always returns in me, and when it does I’m pretty much powerless to stop it, so I’ve learned to enjoy my downtime.
MEREDITH: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope? Have you ever been seduced?
GINA: This is such a funny question to me because, while I know you’re right and I see this mentality a lot in my writing students, I spent most of my early life trying not to be a writer and thinking being a writer would bring me to some kind of derelict financial ruin, so it’s hard for me to grasp why people think it’s going to be so glamorous! Other than janitors, I don’t know a whole lot of professions less glamorous than being a writer. You spend a lot of time in your pajamas, alone in front of a computer. You spend a lot, lot of time being rejected, and even when your work is accepted you’re usually radically underpaid, and your audience is usually very small. Most of us are never going to be Hemingway . . . or J.K. Rowling. Vanity Fair is not going to do a fancy little spread on us like they did on Donna Tartt in the 1990s! I mean, Slut Lullabies got one little blurb in Vanity Fair’s June issue and I nearly went into coronary arrest I was so happy . . . the writer’s life is one that is solitary and often desperate for small scraps of recognition. You fail a lot. You may be very poor. Your relatives and non-writer friends don’t understand what you do, and don’t understand why you’re not famous, and assume it means you’re either lazy or untalented . . .
And yet, of course, there are incredibly seductive aspects to being a writer. If you’re doing it right, your characters are incredibly seductive. The ability to live multiple lives is seductive. Touring, even on a low budget, can make you feel slightly like a rock star, even if maybe a D-list rock star. Editing and writing can help you meet a lot of extremely interesting people. I love this life and the lifestyle, but I think a lot of young people are under vast misperceptions about it. It’s not about drinking scotch during the day and waiting for fame to arrive. In fact, the more you expect it to be some kind of cliché like that, the less you probably care about writing and the more you care about image. In this culture, having a good “image” has a lot to do with making money, so there are a hell of a lot of more suitable professions to people with that goal than writing fiction, that’s for sure.
MEREDITH: I’ve asked the question before: What does beginning feel like? Look like? But I’d like to flip that and ask: What does finishing look like? As in a particular work? Is it harder than starting? Is there a part of you that doesn’t want to let go?
GINA: I’ve talked about this issue before in some other interviews—it’s a very pertinent question for me. I have a very difficult time letting go of longer work—of novels—that take years to create and where I’ve been living with the characters for a prolonged period of time. Stories aren’t like that for me, because when I’m writing I binge-write and I usually finish a story in a couple of days. But I work slowly on novels—I have long periods where I may not be writing but where the characters are always with me, or when I’m revising as I go along. I may spend four years on a novel, maybe more. I’ve had a few . . . I guess you could call them “psychological disturbances” . . . on letting a novel go. I can get manic when I’m approaching that end stage. It’s delicious and terrifying, and afterwards there’s a big crash. Longer works are risky, on a variety of levels. I love them for that. I also choose them carefully, because of the risk involved. They have to choose me—it has to be a true obsession.
I’ve been writing my whole life, but I’m still learning that the grief—the loss—after an obsession like that is always temporary. I always think I’ll never love another character or another project that way again, but that’s the crazy beauty of writing fiction . . . there is always another love, another obsession down the line.
Gina (who I interviewed here for my “Agents and Editor” series) teaches at Columbia College Chicago, Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies, and has contributed book reviews and journalism to The Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader. Check her out online at her website, (and in real life with three kids on her body or in front of her computer answering emails).
According to popular opinion, she never sleeps.
[Thanks (again) Gina!]
First published June 2010.
The writer shares his views about taking it slow, starting from a place of strength and how writing is like a puzzle.
Andrew lives in southern California with his wife, the writer Lisa Alvarez and their son Louis. In the summer, however, you’ll find him at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley where he is a staff member. Visit Andrew’s radio blog at: http://bibliocracyradio.blogspot.com/. Visit the Community of Writers at http://www.squawvalleywriters.org/ . Visit the Santa Monica Review at http://www.smc.edu/sm_review/.
The writer riffs on pain and inadequacy, alchemizing fear and images that begin a story.
JAMES R. SPRING is a former foreign correspondent for Cox Newspapers. He now contributes to National Public Radio programs, including This American Life, and he’s been featured in radio expeditions for Atlantic Public Media. His stories have ranged from ’embedding’ with the Minutemen at the border, to covering the Baja 1000 off-road race – to motorcycling solo through Mexico’s Sierra Madre where he recorded his experiences with Tarahumara drug traffickers.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength? What is that place like?
JAMES: I never stopped to recognize this before, but suddenly it’s clear. I write from a place of pain and inadequacy. I write from fears. Even the funny stuff comes from fears. My NPR stories have sometimes revolved around becoming older and less relevant to the world. And now that I have two toddlers, some of my short stories have sprung from the enormous fear associated with the possibility of losing one’s child. Sometimes I just write about a fear of being pathetic. Now that I understand this about myself, I feel very bad about it. And, thus, I’m inclined to start writing. Does anybody write from a place of strength? If so, don’t tell me. THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth creating? Is there a telling, pivotal or aha! moment?
JAMES: The times I have been most successful with this writing stuff, I’ve found that the serious stories have filled me with melancholy, and the funny stories have made me laugh out loud. That said, some of my best stories have hardly blipped on the reader radar. I’m thinking particularly of a short story called The Book of Jack, which I really like, but nobody else – including people who profess to love me – has ever acknowledged. Who knows? Maybe we’re the worst judges of our own stuff.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Pretty, ugly, other?
JAMES: The beginning is just a thought, and it is beautiful and pure. It makes me all warm and tingly inside. In describing this notion, my pal Stephen Dobyns (“The Church of Dead Girls” and a zillion others) once quoted a Buddhist adage that goes something like “First thought, pure thought.” It sounded a little like horseshit when he said it, but I mention it now so you’ll know that I have famous friends. Regardless, my first thoughts on a story really are a thing of beauty. It’s when I go to put those thoughts to words that everything goes to hell. I take that beautiful little Buddhist baby of a story idea, and I run it through the wood chipper that is my first draft. It is a huge mess. When I call in the paramedics, which represent my second draft in this increasingly convoluted metaphor, they will often tell me that the story is dead on the scene. As a result, I have two bankers’ boxes full of mutilated stories and a novel that nobody has ever seen.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: The refusal to be creative is self-will and is counter to our true nature. This is what Julia Cameron says in, The Artist’s Way. What’s your take?
JAMES: I guess it all comes down to what you define as “creative” or “art.” I believe that the refusal to dance, for example, is completely understandable. Some people should be encouraged to NOT dance. If you don’t believe me, I will dance for you. (continued below)
Standby for something heretical… In my heart, I believe that we each possess a certain set of skills. I think I can best describe this by invoking the world of Tinkerbell and the fairies of Pixie Hollow (I know… that’s exactly what I was thinking, too. It sounds like a porn star name… but it turns out that it’s the place where all the Disney fairies live). In Pixie Hollow, each tiny fairy is born into a certain job. There are “garden-talent” fairies who help flowers bloom, and “light-talent” fairies – essentially the fluffers of the pixie world – who help turn on the fireflies before each night’s show, and “tinker” fairies who fix all the shit that breaks. There is also a “tooth-whitening” fairy. No. My mistake. That was a TV commercial. Regardless, what I’m saying here is that, after four years of attending a monthly open mic, I have developed the conviction that some people should not be encouraged to write. Perhaps those people are great dancers. Or fluffers. But, contrary to what writers with bigger hearts will tell you, I am convinced that writing is not the best creative outlet for every person on the planet. Does that make me a bad person? Or is it all that other stuff I said that makes me a bad person? Let me try to gain a little forgiveness here. In the 1960’s the composer Leonard Bernstein was asked for his take on the brand new musical form known as rock and roll. He said, essentially, that 80% of it was pure garbage, but that the other 20% was so important and so vital that it more than makes up for the bad stuff. I think we can all agree that there is no excuse for the music that Elton John made during the 1980’s (“I’m Still Standing,” “Nikita,”… I mean, come on.). But without Elton John there would be no “Rocket Man” or “Tiny Dancer,” or the award-winning songs from the Lion King that make children go absolutely nutty. Perhaps people should be allowed to write whatever they want. God and the audience will sort it out.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Do ideas come to you in words or images, sounds or something else? Has it always been this way for you? Are you sometimes caught off guard?
JAMES: Without sounding too much like a blow-hard, and using words like “muse” and “dreamscape” and “Posture-pedic,” my first notion of a story arrives as a snapshot. It’s a little fuzzy:
There is a little girl and she is standing next to her father.
If there is a little magic (or tequila), the details come into focus.
Where are they? Why isn’t the mother there?
It looks like a zoo. A lion’s enclosure. But there is no lion.
“He’s probably sleeping,” the father says.
“Maybe he’s dead,” the little girl says.
“He’s not dead,” the father says.
Whoa! Maybe we have something here. Pour another drink and start typing. I’m just kidding. Don’t start typing. Put it off for another day, because if you’re a real writer, you know that tomorrow is always the best day to start writing a story.
James lives in San Diego with his family. He writes that he is currently pimping a manuscript and book of short stories. Visit him at his website.
The writer and stand-up delivers on storytelling, not abandoning or complicating ideas, and the challenge of one too many words.
CRAIG MATTES is a copywriter with Pacific Communications, a west-coast advertising agency, where he writes ad campaigns for multi-million dollar pharmaceutical products and medical devices. Craig, who is originally from the east coast, previously worked at Saatchi & Saatchi in Manhattan, and studied film at NYU. Craig is also a stand-up comic who competes regularly, wins frequently, and is always seeking new creative outlets to hone his craft.
MEREDITH: WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR MIND AS A FRIEND OR FOE?
CRAIG: Friend, absolutely, but a fair-weather one. I don’t consider myself to be the sharpest tool in the shed, which really helps me write. If I grasp an idea without having to explain it to myself, then I know the average reader will [get it], too.
On the other hand, I have a major inferiority complex stemming from the fact that many of the people I’m presenting work to are PhDs, biochemistry majors and other geniuses. I find it really hard to keep my brain under control and not start over-writing things so that I sound smarter or more complex than I have any right to be.
So yes, my mind is a friend, until it starts to think about the smarter and cooler people in the room, in which case it starts thinking of ways to screw me over.
MEREDITH: YOU WRITE AND PERFORM STAND-UP AND WRITE (AND PERFORM?) MAJORLY MAJOR PHARMACEUTICAL AD CAMPAIGNS. DOES ONE FEED THE OTHER; STEAL FROM IT? ARE THESE SEEMINGLY DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED GENRES ACTUALLY FRIENDS AS THE PEN HITS THE PAPER, OR YOUR FINGERS HIT THE KEYBOARD?
CRAIG: They totally feed each other in more ways than I could have imagined. One of the biggest inspirations in my life was another writer you interviewed on your site, Jordan Levinson. He also worked in pharmaceutical advertising and was at one point a comic. Not one day goes by that I don’t imitate something I learned from him, especially the way he told a story and brought his comic (yet brilliant) attitude to everything he presented. Without his influence I never would have made the link, but by following his lead I learned to present concepts and write copy the same way I do stand-up—even with the same cadences.
Writing jokes is exactly the same thing as writing headlines. If a joke has one word too many or even one wrong word it won’t work, same thing with ad headlines. Another major similarity is in writing material that’s usually been covered before. Most pharmaceutical ads are based around efficacy and safety at some point, sometimes convenience sneaks its way in too. Even though these topics have been covered by other brands for decades, you can always find a fresh take on them. Same thing with stand-up, I’m covering my marriage, my kid, my parents etc. and I certainly think my take is different than other comics who have been talking about these things since the 50s.
Most importantly, I got into stand-up because I love comedy (no art form has inspired me more greatly) and also because I thought it would make me more confident. I can’t get shaken up by a client when I stood in front of 50 hostile drunkards trying to make them laugh the night before. I highly recommend everybody bombs at one open mic in their lifetime—nothing else will ever be as painful.
MEREDITH: YOU STUDIED FILM, SO I HAVE TO ASK, WHAT DOES IT MEAN—TO YOU—TO THINK CINEMATICALLY? DO YOU WRITE CINEMATICALLY? IMAGES FIRST? WORDS? A SENSATION? IS IT ACROSS THE BOARD?
CRAIG: My biggest shortcoming in film school and my biggest struggle professionally is visual thinking. I’m sorry, but I’d rather have a root canal than sit through “The English Patient” again. Beautiful shots of the desert can’t move a story along.
To me, movies are all about story. I think I do write cinematically, in that everything I do is storytelling. I love movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Fargo” where the plot unfolds perfectly and you don’t want to take your eyes off of the screen. I try to bring that aspect to everything I do, whether it be a letter to our sales force or a brochure. Every brand has a story, and if we find a good way to tell it, the visuals will follow. This is especially true in comedy, where it’s my job to paint a picture, then sell a punch line. To me, a joke becomes 100 times funnier when you can picture the circumstances in which it takes place. Louis CK is a master at this and I would give anything to be able to do what he does in setting a scene for his material.
MEREDITH: HOW AND WHEN DO YOU KNOW IN YOUR GUT THAT AN IDEA IS VIABLE AND WORTH FOLLOWING? IS THERE A TELLING MOMENT FOR YOU?
CRAIG: I very rarely think that anything I do is worth keeping or forcing another human being to put eyes on. That’s why I love both advertising and comedy—instant gratification or failure. It’s torture for me waiting for feedback on a screenplay, but when I can put up a concept or a line and have my creative director either fall in love with it or yank it off the wall, I’m good.
In comedy, I know what makes me laugh. There are some jokes that died a horrible death on stage that I still think in my heart are hilarious. For me it’s a rush to expose my inner self so openly on stage and get confirmation that I’m not alone, and that other people think the same things are funny. I only tell jokes on stage that I know in my gut are really funny, but I’m still wrong 50% of the time. If it makes me laugh when I think about it, I feel it’s viable and I’ll say it with no fear. The telling moment is when I tell my wife. She is my muse, my partner and my toughest critic (not to mention the only person that makes me laugh every day)…she’ll let me know what’s kickin’ and what sucks. I can always count on the audience to tell me how I’m doing, too.
In the ad work I do, things just end up clicking at some point. A really good idea or a great angle in copy pop-up in every job, and there’s no mistaking it. The trick is not abandoning or complicating it—which is harder to do than you might think. Luckily I work with amazing people (seriously I am blessed at the moment) who won’t let that happen. The telling moment for me is the first time you see a job laid out with art, sometimes the copy just isn’t working at that point, and sometimes it all falls together. Art directors seem to get a little peeved when copy comes back really hacked up, but there’s no replacement for seeing something in layout and evaluating how well it works.
MEREDITH: IF YOU WERE AN ADVERTISING AGENCY AND ASKED TO PITCH YOUR METHOD OF CREATIVITY, WHAT WOULD YOUR TAGLINE BE? WHAT WOULDN’T IT BE?
CRAIG: What? This question is insanely hard! Either “Mediocrity in Motion” or “Will Mattes Ever Shut the Fuck Up?” Umm, seriously I guess it would be:
“This is supposed to be fun.”
I know I’m at my best when I’m working with people I enjoy being around and when I’m encouraged to play around with the work I’m doing. And when I lose the ability to make myself laugh, I’ll stop doing comedy for good.
It certainly wouldn’t be “Keep it in your pants”—that would stifle my creativity far too much.
CRAIG is a New York Yankees fan. He lives in Orange County with his wife, Megan (also a writer!) and their adorable toddler Leo, whom Craig is unabashedly training to be a Yankees fan.