By Lauren E. Smith & Spencer Lee
When it comes to personal essays, Sarah Tomlinson is far from being the new kid on the block. Her music reviews, pop culture articles, and essays have been seen in publications such as Marie Claire, Salon, MORE, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Medium and Billboard.com. Sarah knows the secrets of getting published, making editors happy and writing great pieces that let your voice be heard. This past April, she published a memoir called Good Girl, and she is currently working on a variety of projects, including a novel, a pilot, and more personal essays.
Sarah took a little time out of her busy schedule to chat with us about her upcoming personal essay class this October and how she got to where she is in her writing career.
1. Tell us about how you came to writing and what led you to become a journalist and non-fiction writer.
I actually started out as a fiction writer. I took my first fiction workshop when I was sixteen. I immediately knew I was a writer, and I would devote my life to this path. Because I’d gone to an early college called Simon’s Rock, I was lucky enough to graduate with my BA when I was nineteen. This made me feel like I had a little extra time to play with, so I moved to the west coast, where I’d never been before, and started waitressing and writing. The only problem was I didn’t know how to “be” a writer. Although I took classes, hung out with writers, tried to write, I floundered.
After a few years, I was sick of waitressing and not getting anywhere with my writing. I decided I needed to learn a trade to support myself while I wrote my first novel. I opted for journalism school. Little did I know that becoming a freelance journalist for great papers like The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix would be the key to everything. I was paid per piece, and not very much, as newspapers can’t afford to pay as much as magazines. So I had to write a ton of pieces each week, just to barely survive. This gave me discipline and made me much less precious about my work. Also, newspapers are about content over style, so I really learned how to get a message across. From there, I was able to begin including elements of style when I wanted to create a particular impact. By the time newspapers were really struggling in the mid-00’s, I was living in Los Angeles, and I was lucky enough to stumble into celebrity ghostwriting through a friend. Again, what began as a trade has become a meaningful livelihood that has taught me so much about writing and storytelling. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the career I’ve had because it has fed my writing on so many levels I never could have predicted (and literally fed me).
2. You currently write reported pieces, personal essays, and you published a memoir this last Spring. Can you tell us about your creative process and how you approach hard journalism as opposed to more personal non-fiction work?
Because of my newspaper journalism background, I have been trained to follow certain protocols when I’m reporting another person’s story. Even when I’m acting as a music critic, part of my job is to provide information about the band I’m reviewing. And while I do express my opinion in these pieces of criticism, the writing is never about me. It’s there to serve the reader and answer their questions: Why is this artist significant? How does their work fit into the broader artistic landscape? Should I buy this album or go see this show?
When I’m writing my more personal, non-fiction work, the exact opposite is true: everything in the piece is about me. I am trying to be as specific as possible about my experience of the world, in order to share it with others, and maybe even impact their understanding of their own experience of the world. Even when I’m on deadline for a personal essay, I usually need to let the piece percolate inside of me for a little while before I begin writing it down. And many times, the connections I forge within my pieces – between events that have happened in my life, or ideas I’ve had about the world – are forged when I’m not actually at my computer. I’ve been a runner for more than 15 years, and I can’t tell you how many breakthroughs I’ve had while out running. Or washing dishes. Or talking with a friend. The longer I write, the more I trust that these epiphanies will happen. When they don’t, I dig into the piece anyhow, with the knowledge that writing down enough of the story will get me to the place where the breakthrough will happen. And it almost always does.
3. Magazines and papers these days are run on shrinking budgets and online magazines have ever tightening deadlines. Do you have methods for turning around work quickly while maintaining a high level of quality?
I really think it’s unfortunate that many publications can’t afford to have dedicated copyeditors and fact checkers in the same way they once did. It’s incredibly difficult for even the most conscientious writer to be totally responsible for editing and fact-checking a piece, and mistakes inevitably go out into the world.
That said, having been a music critic who often had to turn in reviews the night of, or morning after, a concert, I do have a few methods I still use. Write your first draft as quickly as you possibly can, and as messily as you need to, in order to really get your ideas down on the page. Sometimes this means writing five or six different variations of the lead sentence, until you uncover the best one. Then, save a version of that draft, so you can go back to it if you delete something you later decide you want for the piece. Make your first revision about clarity, rewriting until all of the ideas in the piece make sense and are well-connected. Then, your next revision should be about trimming your piece down to the assigned word count, if necessary. This is when you kill your darlings, and you make sure everything on the page is absolutely essential. Then, before you file, go through and painstakingly fact check every applicable item in your piece, using a reliable source. If you have time, double check the proper names one last time before you email the piece to your editor.
4. You’ve had several essays published in prestigious publications such as Marie Claire and The Los Angeles Times. What’s your biggest piece of advice for an aspiring journalists who are trying to get editor’s attention?
Write the story only you can tell. This is actually something I learned from years of pitching (and nearly selling) feature film scripts and TV shows. In most cases, the idea you came up with has already been pitched to the editor many times before. This is especially true of anything that came to you via press release, or anything related to a recurring holiday or event. You may think you’re being original, but you’re probably not. Editors deal with such a huge volume of pitches these days that it’s incredibly difficult to be fresh. Unless you use your secret weapon, which is your own experience of the world. You are the only person out there who had exactly your own heritage, upbringing, coming of age, and call to the writing life. Draw on your uniqueness whenever possible, even if you’re telling a more universal story. Some of my best pieces came out of my urge to tell a story that editors had not heard before (what it’s like to survive a school shooting, ask a man to sign a contract on a second date, learn to gamble from my father). I knew going into the writing and pitching of these stories that they would probably resonate with editors and readers because they were difficult for me to write – I revealed something vulnerable about myself in each of them – but I was compelled to write them even before I had a home for them. They were in no way about the paycheck. If you can find your version of the essential stories you need to tell, people will probably want to read them.
5. Pitching stories is one of the most crucial steps in landing assignments. What can you tell us about crafting hooks, determining an idea’s viability?
Again, so much of a stellar pitch starts with an idea that is undeniable. And many of my best pieces have taken years to percolate, write, and be published. Give yourself enough time to understand an experience before you try to write about it. Don’t decide you’re going to stop drinking, or become vegan, or bake your own bread for a month and pitch an editor the story two weeks into your experiment. It’s often in hindsight that we really understand the significance of an event in our lives, so give yourself the time necessary before you send out an idea or a finished piece.
Also, try to avoid sensationalism or hyperbole. Editors really have heard pretty much everything before, and so your claims of “first,” “best,” or “most,” are probably going to fall on deaf ears, unless there is substantial merit for your claim. Instead, keep your tone polite but casual. Engage them by presenting yourself as the kind of person they would want to listen to and learn from. If possible, show them your writing style in the language of your pitch, so they get a good sense of what you’re all about right up front. If you’re proud of your Lester Bangs influenced style, don’t write them a pitch that sounds like Miss Manners, or vice versa. Which is also a good reminder to be familiar with the style of the publication you’re pitching and make sure your idea genuinely is a good fit for them. Be gracious. There is another human being on the other end of that email you’re sending, and they will respond to a generous, genuine, likeable missive, just like you would if you were on the receiving end.
6. Can you tell us about how your memoir was developed and what it is about?
At the time this book came to be, I’d ghostwritten nine books, four of them for Gallery Books, which ultimately came to publish my memoir. And two of the books I’d ghostwritten for Gallery had been New York Times’ bestsellers. So I had a proven track record with them, as well as genuine affection and respect for their publisher, Jen Bergstrom, and all of the editors and staff I’d interacted with there. Jen and I discussed the possibility that it was time for me to write my own book, a book that would present my story and my view of the world. She was familiar with my troubled relationship with my dad and had even read some writing I’d done about him, so it was a natural progression for me to write this book for her. At a time when many writers are really struggling to connect with a publisher that will be interested in doing everything possible to put forth their work, I feel incredibly grateful to have found a publisher and editors who totally got my story, and its significance, and worked tirelessly to help me get it down on the page and out in the world.
I have said that Good Girl is my life’s work because it’s the story of my dad and me, and my relationship with my dad is my life’s work. It’s about how he was largely absent from my childhood because his compulsive gambling and metaphysical pursuits consumed him completely, as did his shame over his gambling. It’s also the story of how I invited my dad back into my life in my mid-20s, and we began to heal our past and forge a new relationship, which of course is also a story of forgiveness, unconditional love, and my eventual (if delayed) coming of age. I also touch on what it was like to grow up on a commune in midcoast Maine, go away to college at 15, survive a school shooting, be a female music critic in a largely male dominated field, and come into my own as a woman and artist.
7. What can students expect to learn from your personal essay class?
Students who take my workshop will learn how to uncover what they have to say and who they are as a writer. Sure, I’ll give them plenty of tips, too. But the craft of writing is relatively easily. Like anything else, examining the work of the masters who have gone before you, and practicing on your own, can go far toward mastering the discipline yourself. But the real challenge is to discover your unique story, your individual voice, and then to hone that on the page. Undergoing this process is incredibly rewarding and will not only make you a better writer, but it will also make you a better person. It will help you to write and live with greater authenticity. Which is what I think we’re all striving for in this lifetime. At least I know I am.
Powerful stuff, Sarah! Let Sarah help you discover your unique story in her upcoming personal essay class starting Oct. 4. After studying with her, you might find your voice and join the 74 other students who have taken our personal essay class and sold essays and articles!