Breaking into television is tough. Staying there is even tougher. Three decades? Nearly impossible. Enter: Karen Hall. Since her time as a staff writer on MASH in the early 1980s, Karen has written for sitcom (ROSEANNE), political drama (THE GOOD WIFE), and crime (BROTHERHOOD). She’s mastered longevity. She’s mastered versatility. In this interview with TV Writer Karen Hall, she discusses her long career.
Karen will be teaching a fully-conferenced live online class “Intro to TV Writing” (7 Wk) at Writing Pad starting Tuesday, 10/18 where you will learn everything you need to know about TV writing fundamentals and crafting a great TV series. But until then, here’s a little bit about Karen.
1) Would you start by telling us about your background and how you broke into the biz?
I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was six years old. My first grade teacher made the class write stories. I told her that I didn’t know how to do that. She said, “Write three sentences and make something happen.” (To date, some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received.) I did that, and I loved the feeling. And I discovered that I was good at it. So, I had a laser focus from then on. I was extremely fortunate to have had some truly gifted writing teachers, and they are why I was able to succeed. I had originally planned to major in English (Creative Writing) and write novels, but my advisor and I did not love each other (interesting story – I’ll tell you if you take my class) and I switched to playwriting. When I was ready to graduate, I decided that I wanted greater job security than Broadway could provide, so I moved to Los Angeles with the intent of becoming a television writer. I met Alan Alda through a class I was taking and he liked my writing, so about a year later, when MASH was ready to hire a new staff writer, he recommended me. I went in and pitched ideas and they gave me a freelance script. They were very happy with it, so I was off and running.
2) What are the top five scripts that all aspiring TV writers should read?
I recommend scripts for writers to read based on what they are working on or would like to do. I tell them to read pilots because that’s what I think they need to be writing right now if they are trying to break in. For sitcoms, I recommend reading/watching the pilots of Friends, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Frazier, and The Big Bang Theory. For half-hour one-camera: Pilots of The Wonder Years, The Office, 30 Rock, and Arrested Development. My favorite one-hour pilots are The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. I also really like the Bloodline pilot and The Night Of pilot.
The great thing about wanting to write for television (or any media, really) is that a wonderful and inexpensive education is out there to be had: I learned everything I knew, before breaking in, by studying what the people who went before me had done. But then, I was learning when there were no great writing classes like the ones that Writing Pad provides. I would have killed for that opportunity!
3) During your 1980 debut on “Eight is Enough,” what was the most crucial thing to learn?
I was very lucky because I had a great mentor, my playwriting professor Louis E. Catron (whose books are available on Amazon) and our class was set up in a way that taught me both how to write and also how to take criticism from my peers. (Writing Pad’s classes are set up the same way.) Being able to get feedback from my fellow writers was really valuable because television is such a collaborative effort, and I learned early not to take criticism personally, and how to use it to make my writing better. One thing that I did not learn from my classes (because they were for playwriting and not for television) was how to structure a television script. It’s something that most beginners don’t seem to learn from watching television and it can be taught in a way that gives beginning writers a big advantage over their competition.
4) You’re a script cleanup pro. What is your most dramatic example of a script revision?
Well, as a showrunner I’ve had to throw scripts out entirely and do a page one rewrite in 24 hours, complete with all new stories. That’s about as dramatic as it gets. I typically check into a hotel, hide, have people bring me food, focus on the script and nothing else. It can be done, when you know what you’re doing.
5) What is the most valuable piece of advice that a writing mentor has given you?
It came from my sister, who is also a television writer/producer (Barbara Hall, currently EP of Madam Secretary). I was in the early stages of writing my novel and I was calling her constantly to talk about it. One day, having had enough, she said, “Just shut up and write the damned thing.” It not only worked for the novel, but I have internalized it and every time I find myself complaining about writing instead of actually writing, I hit myself over the head with it.
6) What was the writers’ room like for women in 1980?
I can only speak to my own experience, and I was so young then, it has always been hard for me to separate how I was treated because I was young from how I was treated because I was a woman. I can tell you that there were a lot of requests for me to wear dresses and sit across from the mirror, which were made in jest, but not really. One thing I remember well is that the first 20 minutes of every morning at the writers’ table would be talk about sports. As a result, I became a lifelong sports fan. I had to start watching sports and learning about sports, so I wouldn’t be bored out of my skull for the first 20 minutes of every day (I bore easily and I can’t stand to be bored, which turns out to be a good trait for a writer) .
7) How television writing evolved over the last 30 years?
The changes in the form of technology have been mind-boggling and they have been constant and fast (Writers have also listened to 30 years of “the technology is in its infancy, you can’t share in the profit yet” but that’s another story). When I started, there were just the three big networks and everything was “appointment TV” because there was no way to record a show and watch it later. A show didn’t have to be something like Game of Thrones to be a “water cooler show.” It wasn’t difficult for a show to get attention. In the course of 30 years, telling someone what I do for a living has changed from “I LOVE that show!” to “I’ve never heard of that.” I really don’t like that part of it.
I like it when everyone is sitting around the campfire, listening to one story that they will all talk about tomorrow. On the other hand, the sheer number of shows has created a great advantage for writers because there are now so many jobs for them. Choosing to be a television writer is not as outlandish as it was when I broke in. In fact it’s a very pragmatic career choice right now. As far as the storytelling itself, the basics of telling a good story haven’t changed since Aristotle wrote The Poetics. I do like that part.
8) You’ve been in the game writing longer than the average screenwriter. What’s your secret?
I actually know the answer to this! Again, I have my mentor, Louis Catron, to thank. He started his classes by teaching students the importance of writing from a credo. He harped on this and made us actually write our credos. This gave me an early sense of the importance of “self as source” that I think it responsible for the longevity of my career. It is impossible to guess trends and figure out what “they” are going to be buying this year. But if I ask myself what I’m going through, what my friends are going through and what people really care about at present, I can come up with ideas that I’m excited about writing (so I don’t get burned out) and touch something in people because they are universal.
That’s a deep well from which to draw, and so far, I haven’t reached the bottom. I think it has also been important to be versatile, to be able to write many things. When I was on MASH, I remember people declaring that comedy was dead. And it was starting to limp. So I went from there to Hill Street and I have jumped back and forth between comedy and drama, long form and short and everything in between. I always take a job if it’s something I haven’t done yet, though these days that’s hard to find!
9) From political dramas to sitcoms, you’ve written it all. How do you cultivate versatility?
Like I said, I push myself to do things I haven’t done yet. Right now I’m working on a lavish 16th-century mini-series set in Spain and a British movie that is a cross between Emma and Atonement. Those are both things I haven’t done yet. I push myself to say “yes” when it’s something I’m afraid of doing. One thing I have to say, though, is that versatility has a lot to do with talent. If I hadn’t been born with a sense of humor, I wouldn’t be able to write comedy. So a lot of my versatility has to do with things over which I had no control. But there is a lot about being versatile that can be learned, and it’s smart business practice. If you are a versatile writer, you have a much better chance of finding a good job.
Thank you so much, Karen! We’re all one step closer to writing our first eye-catching pilot. We can’t wait for your Intro to TV Writing class. Sign up before it’s sold out!
When it comes to writing about cringe-worthy life events, essayist KK Goldberg is an expert. Her talent for turning painful experiences into sidesplitting comic relief has caught the eyes of editors at likes of The Sun and The New York Times. She also recently published a memoir, “The Doctor and the Stork: A Memoir of Modern Medical Babymaking.”
We were lucky to catch up with KK and pick her brain about what it takes to succeed as a writer, tips for honing your craft and learn about her upcoming personal essay class at Writing Pad.
1. Tell us about your writing background and your journey to becoming an essayist and author.
Like many writers, I read voraciously in childhood, devouring anything I could get my hands on, ranging from A Wrinkle in Time to less-age-appropriate findings like Clan of the Cave Bear. I loved the way a written story could create meaning, insight and resolution from otherwise chaotic events. I couldn’t imagine doing anything but becoming a writer.
In my twenties, I took a class in personal non-fiction writing, which launched me into personal essays and memoir. I didn’t consciously decide on this genre, but the stories I wanted to tell fell most naturally into this format. I lived in Laos for several years, and much of my writing focused on that experience.
While in Grad School, I had essays accepted to various literary magazines. I went to Bread Loaf, spent a summer at MacDowell, and was lucky to find incredible mentors and teachers. It’s crucial to have community and connection; the idea of the solitary writer is a myth. Over time I trained myself to regularly submit writing for publication and to see that in itself as a success, regardless of outcome. There have been seasons of silences and passes, but also huge highlights, like getting a phone call from Sy Safransky at The Sun. He wanted not only to print my essay, but also to chat about it. This was a story a few other places had declined, and to make contact with a publication I loved gave me excitement to keep going. I wrote and placed the Modern Love story, and another for The Sun. The joy for me comes from the writing process itself, but it’s also exciting to see my work in print. If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, that tree still counts—but far better it make noise and be witnessed.
2. How do you know when you have a good story that’s worth writing about?
My best stories have emerged from life experiences that were unresolved and troubling. For example, I began writing my essay “It Takes a Village to Please My Mother” to decompress from what had been a difficult weeks-long encounter—my mother traveling from Bethesda, Maryland, to stay with me in Laos. In tangling with the process of writing about our conflicts, especially as they unfolded in a foreign setting, I discovered something new about those events and our relationship. I know a story is worth recording when it’s either something I discuss all the time, while holding back the potentially dark parts, or when it’s something I never tell anyone. Those two things signal that there’s meaning to be mined, and enough emotional energy to propel the narrative.
3. Can you take us through the creative process of how you write your personal essays, from the conception of the idea to rewrites/edits, and eventually getting published?
I often start with a scene or a line of dialogue, and build outward from there. If you start with dialogue, there’s immediate potential to show character, conflict, and setting. I almost always start with the situation—what happened—and then work my way down to the underlying issues—the story. It’s important to pin down the beginning and the end of an essay early. It’s like fitting a bed sheet on a mattress—if you get one edge sorted, the rest becomes much easier. Finally, I’m a huge reviser. I can go through dozens of drafts, cutting and polishing and experimenting. You’ve got to be the Marie Kondo of your own writing, and purge everything you don’t love.
4. One of the biggest challenges of writing personal essays is being vulnerable and exposing very intimate parts of yourself to your audience. Has that been difficult for you? What advice do you have for aspiring writers to overcome that barrier?
Part of what makes an essay worth writing and reading is that element of personal disclosure.
By social necessity, most of us don’t walk around sharing what truly matters to us, what has changed us, including those memories or experiences we can’t quite understand or shake. Writing is the space to do that. One of my criteria for sending something out for publication is to ask myself, have I offered something real here? The night before publication, I often curl up in a ball of anxiety and regret—how could I have exposed so much? In every case, however, people respond most powerfully to the vulnerable parts of a story, and when I begin to get that feedback, I remember why it’s worth the risk.
5. You’ve been published in some very prestigious places, including the New York Times Modern Love and The Sun. How do you write the kind of essay that the top outlets want? What separates a good personal essay from a great one?
One thing that separates an essay that lands in a top publication from those that don’t is not only the presence of a compelling story, but also the attention to language and detail. That means looking at every verb, and questioning it, and also paying attention to each image and the metaphorical resonance it might carry. A good story rendered with passionate artistry will always stand out.
6. You have a knack for creating vivid, specific scenes that draw the reader in with just a few sentences and finding humor in your most painful moments. What’s your secret?
In early drafts, I’m often pouring out the painful parts of an experience, getting down the facts as I recall them. I’ve also been avid about keeping journals, so I can look back for those random details or observations that can be lost to memory.
Often it’s in revision that I begin to see humor in a situation and not simply the rant. I almost can’t tolerate rereading my own accounts if they are strictly one note, and I end up finding something funny. The second story I wrote for The Sun, called “Where Water Comes From,” chronicles a sad time from my childhood, but each time I worked through a draft, I found moments of levity now clear from my adult point of view. It’s a way of broadening my perspective, to step outside the immediate sense of drama and find a new and sometimes lighter angle.
7. You also published a memoir “The Doctor and the Stork: A Memoir of Modern Medical Babymaking.” Why did you decide to write a memoir and how did you get it published?
I kept rigorous notes throughout my IVF twin pregnancy, as a matter of venting my own feelings.
I decided to turn it into a memoir because there was so little out there for women having this specific experience. In particular, there was nothing that covered the emotional or personal aspects of this highly medicalized manner of baby-making and almost everything was either scary or sad. I wanted to put forth something that was humorous and hopeful, while still honest, and mix in all the ways that conflicts within my family of origin re-configured as I became a mother.
I had three different agents go out with The Doctor and the Stork over a two and a half year period. It was a wild ride. At one point I received an offer to sell my story to a celebrity, who would publish it as her own, despite the fact that my book has some extremely personal details about my husband and I, not to mention my parents and sister. I declined. I’m a believer in preserving one’s soul and integrity in putting forth anything creative, and I ended up with a small experimental press. I’m gratified by the feedback I’ve received, from parents and non-parents alike, and also from doctors and medical professionals.
8. When you wrote your New York Times’ Modern Love essay “A Little Lint and Suddenly You’re a Bridezilla,” did you write it with the intention of getting published in Modern Love?
I did write this essay specifically for Modern Love. It had a hook into a broad relationship topic—weddings, and the idea of “Bridezilla”—but also an angle that seemed unique—getting sued over my wedding dress. I hadn’t met anyone who’d had that precise experience, no matter how many times I told the tale, and I knew there was an underlying narrative to explore regarding my feelings about marriage, especially as a child of divorce. Also, I had submitted to Modern Love before, and had the luck of receiving detailed feedback with my rejection. Dan Jones, the editor, pointed out that the childhood story I’d initially sent was far too focused on the past, and the column itself, in its very name, requires something contemporary. I took that to heart.
9. What are three things you learned from working with Modern Love editor Daniel Jones?
Dan is a genuinely nice guy, who is himself a writer, and working with him made me realize that editors and writers want the same thing—for a piece to be as strong as it can be, while fitting into the particular constraints of a publication.
I also learned that the Modern Love column, as part of a major newspaper, has certain journalistic requirements—for example you can’t change anyone’s name or location. Also, Dan was slightly incredulous about the ending of my story—walking out of my court case, which revolved around black lint on a wedding gown, to see an SUV with the license plate that read “LINT.” However it happened that I had a photo to prove it, and so he ran it. Certainly a literary magazine doesn’t practice that level of rigor over facts, though they will get extremely technical over semi-colons and commas.
Finally, in working with Dan, I learned an important lesson about perseverance and continuing to submit my work. As I mentioned, the piece that ran was my second submission. It’s so important to remember as a writer that rejection is not the end of the story—it’s an inherent part of the process, and no matter how uncomfortable, almost a prelude to publication.
10. Speaking of learning, let’s talk about your awesome class coming up on July 12. Can you tell us how your class is structured, and what students can expect to take away from it?
The class is structured so that students come the first day with an idea, and leave the final class with a publishable essay. Early on we read a variety of published stories that demonstrate crucial elements of craft and structure, and then practice those concepts in class. Everyone gets a draft down early. We also work in class to develop each student’s essay idea to its best potential. Then, everyone’s piece is workshopped. In later classes we cover key aspects of submitting for publication to a range of outlets, and each student receives a final round of feedback from me in a one-on-one conference. The writing that has come out of these five-week courses has been incredible.
10. In addition to being a writer, you have a busy schedule with twins! How do you find time to write and what advice do you have for aspiring writers on how to stay disciplined and keep writing this summer?
Birthing and raising twins has helped me eliminate procrastination—I have to use every moment I find, and/or create moments in which to write. I’ve learned it’s possible to accomplish a tremendous amount in small increments. In twenty minutes, you can write the opening paragraph of an essay, or polish a revelation at the end. It’s better to work regularly in modest chunks than await great swaths of time that might never emerge.
If you have a week in a cabin, that’s fantastic. That works too. However, if you don’t, you can still accomplish your writing goals. It wasn’t as relaxing as an artist’s colony, but I was scribbling out sentences during crazy hours while my newborn infants slept in tiny doses. If I wake up early, I still grab that time. Constraint can actually enhance creativity.
Toni Morrison wrote several of her most beloved books in the mornings before dawn, and Edward P. Jones conceived his masterpiece The Known World while working full time as an accountant. If they hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have those gorgeous works. If you’re engaged in your story, you can do half of it daydreaming, and half of it in those tidy slots of time you set aside or seize.
Thanks, KK! That was fascinating. San Francisco writers, enroll in her personal essay class starting on July 12 here.
Melissa Cistaro is the bestselling author of Pieces of my Mother (winner of the “Best Nonfiction Book of 2015” by The Northern California Independent Booksellers Association), a memoir which recounts her difficult childhood and attempts to make sense of her illusive mother. Her book is a testament to the power and healing that comes from embracing our past. Melissa’s stories, essays and interviews have appeared in The New Ohio Review, Brevity, Publisher’s Weekly, PBS: To the Contrary, Good Housekeeping, among other places.
We caught up with her to talk with her about memoir craft, her inspirations, future projects and her Memoir Class starting this Sunday, May 22nd.
Why did you decide to write a memoir and how did you get it published?
I come from a long line of women who wanted to be writers but never had the opportunity because they died too young or didn’t have the confidence to believe that their voices mattered. I thought about my mother who left behind her folder of “letters never sent” and often confessed that she wanted to be a novelist. I couldn’t stand the thought of growing old saying, ‘I wish, I wish, I wish’ I’d written that book.
How did your family react to reading about themselves in your book?
The book was especially difficult to hand to my father. There were many facets of my childhood that he wasn’t aware of, and it was definitely emotional for him to take in our story on paper. He has been exceptionally supportive of the book and, ultimately, a proud father. My brothers also have been generous in their responses. Naturally, there were some details that we recalled in different ways, and we have since had some great conversations about our childhood. Our emotions and memories will never be the same as our siblings and parents and lovers. Their stories are ultimately their own. This is always a great conversation that surfaces again and again in every memoir class.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
If there is a story you must tell, find a way to tell it. Writing my own memoir has been a long, painful and ultimately healing journey, and I’m glad I stayed with it. I am especially grateful now as I hear from readers from who express how much the book has inspired them to tell their own stories. I love this passage by poet Mary Oliver, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.”
You’re passionate about horseback riding. Is there a tie between riding and writing?
Communicating with an animal requires a great deal of paying attention and observing, and I think that certainly translates into the writing process. I once had to throw myself off of a horse that was running at full speed back towards the barn. I could see the low awning of the barn ahead, and I knew I had lost control of the horse. I didn’t want to end up trapped under the awning or thrown dangerously sideways. So I made a decision to pull my feet out of the stirrups and make a flying dismount. I skidded and tumbled across the hard summer dirt, landing safely (and sorely) between two spindly birch trees. I think, whether we are parenting, writing, or riding a runaway horse, we have to make big decisions and sometimes we don’t know precisely what the outcome will be.
How did you find your voice as a writer? Was there a moment where everything clicked?
I like to say that becoming a mother is what turned me into a writer. In college, I still considered writing one of my greatest weaknesses. But when I saw my own child for the first time, I knew I had to figure out how to tell the stories that had been hiding inside of me for so long. I started taking classes and writing workshops and it was there that I caught a glimpse of my writing voice, and after that, I couldn’t stop writing. I’ve always believed that motherhood opened a portal inside of me that gave me permission to write.
What’s the best thing you’ve read lately? Do you normally read a lot of memoir?
I really love when authors write in concise vignettes, like memoirist Abigail Thomas, author of “What Comes Next and How to Like It, and of Safekeeping.” She writes in chapters that can be anywhere from three sentences to three pages. One of the most moving (and difficult) memoirs I have read recently is “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala. I also read a lot of Joan Didion, and fell absolutely in love with Bill Clegg’s novel, “Did You Ever Have a Family?” It’s a powerful, condensed narrative about the aftermath of terrible family tragedy.
I really believe in the transformative power of storytelling. I spent 12 years working on my memoir. There were so many questions and false starts I had over those years. Whenever I reached out to mentors or took a writing class, I came out of it not only with renewed inspiration, but with a set of tools specific to telling my story.
Finding the structure of our stories is one of the most challenging aspects of memoir and also one of the most vital. How can we put together the pieces of our past and find the courage to craft our narrative truths? This is where my passion soars. I also really believe in the power of specific in-class writing exercises and prompts that can help you to dig deeply into your life experience and find ways into your story you may not have considered. I can’t wait to share all that I have learned about writing and publishing memoir at Writing Pad.
Thank you, Melissa for such a stimulating interview!
Don’t miss the opportunity to take Melissa’s Memoir Workshop starting this Sunday, May 22nd in San Francisco.
Cindy Caponera built her career as a writer/performer starting on Saturday Night Live and on Mainstage Second City and The National Touring Company (The ETC). Cindy has 15 years of staffing experience up to the Co-Executive Producer level, where she has written on television shows including Nurse Jackie, Shameless, and Saturday Night Live, but also including the Bill Lawrence series, Ground Floor, Comedy Central’s Exit 57 (starring Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris), Norm, Strangers with Candy (guest writer), and That 80’s Show. Cindy has sold 9 pilots to HBO, FOX, Showtime, ABC, and CBS. Her first solo show Against the Grain, debuted in Chicago to rave reviews, followed by the critically acclaimed The Debutante Ball which played in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen, and was produced for Oxygen Network’s Life Out Loud series. Cookies and Booze, her third solo show, has been seen at the HBO Workshop Stage and the Comedy Central Stage in Los Angeles. Cindy also still performs regularly on the storytelling circuit, including shows like Sit & Spin, Say The Word, Scratch It, and Word-a-Rama. Cindy also just published her collection of short stories as a book, entitled “I Triggered Her Bully… tiny memoirs.”
By Marco Moreno Flores and Jeff Bernstein
Jaimal Yogis’ first book, a best-selling coming-of-age memoir called Saltwater Buddha, was praised by The Times of London, Publishers Weekly, and selected as one of E!’s Best Summer Reads. It has been translated into numerous languages. A feature documentary film based on the book will premier in 2016.
Jaimal’s second book, The Fear Project, was widely praised, translated in numerous languages, and is currently being used in a number of high schools as a way of teaching neuroscience and psychology.
Currently, Jaimal is in development for his first feature screenplay and working on a new non-fiction novel for Harper Collins.
Jaimal took a moment out of his busy schedule to answer a few of our questions about the craft of memoir writing and his writing career. Learn more from Jaimal in his upcoming 4-week Memoir Bootcamp class starting Sunday, Jan. 31 at Writing Pad San Francisco.
1. If I want to write a memoir, how should I start figuring out what kind of story to tell? How do I know if there is a market or audience for the stories I have to tell?
There definitely are people out there who have amazing stories – someone who’s a war hero, for example – or someone who rose up from poverty and became a billionaire, and that’s an interesting story for sure, but people are also interested in the everyday and the mundane. Each time you break through a little fear inside yourself, or an insecurity, or you have an insight about what you should be doing in your relationships, those are heroic battles inside yourself. And those heroic battles are often more interesting than the gun battle in Fallujah, if they’re written honestly, with compassion and humor.
Never say I’m just a schoolteacher or I’m just a divorced parent or everyone has written a book about having a stroke or getting laid off or whatever. Everything has been done, but your creativity is like your thumbprint. No one has it except for you, and your story will add to humanity’s collective wisdom.
In Saltwater Buddha, I had some luck in that I’d written an article about surfing: how it was a contemplative practice for me, not just a sport.
The article buzzed around the internet, and I got some feedback on the persona I put forth in the article. I was already thinking about writing a book about it, and a publisher called me because I said in my bio in the magazine that I wanted to write a book about Zen and surfing. Zen was already a big part of my life – I lived in a Buddhist monastery, and I had been surfing. But there we 18 other things that were big parts of my life, but I decided that I had this book deal and I was going to follow wherever Zen and surfing and ocean and meditation crossed paths, that this was the story I would follow.
Think of your persona in a memoir as a container or a bottle. In each piece, you “bottle” yourself in a certain way. As long as you’re telling the bottled version of yourself as honestly as you can, you can always bottle it differently the next time. Your readers will let you do that.
3. Tell me some more about the magazine article you wrote. How did that essay grow into your memoir?
The article I wrote was only 1000 words. I took one idea, and that was the idea that our true nature – one’s Buddha nature – is like the ocean, and all of our thoughts and ideas and identities are like passing waves. There’s an idea in popular meditation that the purpose is to get past the waves, to get to the placid lake. But when you study Zen, the masters keep coming back to the idea that the rough seas and the storms are part of your nature too, and the enlightened mind recognizes that there will always be changes in your temperament. It’s all water – it’s all the same stuff.
I experience this every time I surf. I have this macro experience, through surfing, of something that is often made into a metaphor in Zen. The essay was very short. Once I saw that this simple personal experience was attractive to readers, I decided that I wanted to show readers what this learning process was like for me.
4. When I think of a story of enlightenment, I think of Hesse’s Siddhartha. Did you have a specific model in mind when you wrote your memoir?
Yes, definitely. I did think of Siddhartha when I was writing Saltwater Buddha. It was the one book I took with me when I ran away from home in high school, so I went back to that book that struck a chord with the masses but also retells the Buddha story in novel format. That was an ancient epic, sort of like Homer’s Odyssey, so I wondered how I could tell that story in novel format. You have to be very careful who you decide to take as your leader as you’re writing. I first took Anne Lamott.
This is a woman who wrote great novels, and then murder mysteries, and eventually became an alchoholic. Then when she quit drinking, joined joined a gospel church, and now writes about her own spirituality. But it’s a quirky liberal Christian spirituality, and she’s hilarious. She does something totally unique, and I thought that this is more or less what I want to capture. She is an easy writer to pigeonhole: woman quits drinking and finds Jesus. Then you read the story and it’s not that at all: she’s just herself. This is a voice I can follow, the writing is great – it’s simply and funny. And I continue to use her as a guide.
Then I went and found surf writers, like Daniel Duane, who is here in San Francisco and wrote Caught Inside, and Stephen Kotler, who wrote West of Jesus – their books were doing well at the time. They didn’t have quite the voice I was trying to capture, but they wrote great books. They captured the feeling of surfing. I combined what I learned from their books with Anne Lamott and Siddhartha, and I tried to make they guiding lights. I didn’t want the models to take over my book.
5. So with your new memoir, are your going through this process all over again, finding a new version of yourself? New inspirations? What’s that like?
With Saltwater Buddha, I went through the process of finding a container for myself that was honest and real. I had what I thought was horrible fortune at the time, which is that I tried to write a novel and couldn’t finish it. I was frustrated, and I said that I wanted to live off my writing and I needed to write a book that I could get an advance for. I wanted a package that would sell – and that was the fear project: a project about neuroscience and psychology. In writing that, even though I liked the book, I felt that I didn’t find quite the right container for myself. Even when I published it, the voice didn’t feel quite right.
It was a good experience, because when I got started with my third book, I was able to look at both of my previous books and ask myself what I did in Saltwater Buddha that allowed me to find that authentic persona. I realized that it came from looking at myself in the third person and realizing that I’m a bumbling fool. I’ve made a hundred mistakes and yet if I were talking to someone who had made all the mistakes I had made I would want to give them a chance – I wouldn’t think of that person as a total idiot that I shouldn’t listen to. Saltwater Buddha was more honest – in that book I was spiritually vulnerable, psychologically vulnerable, so I said okay, I’m going to do that in this third book because it felt right.
But it is ten years later now. Hopefully my voice is more mature, but it still has to get to this essence, this compassionate vulnerability, to allow myself to bleed onto the page and say hey, this is okay, this is true – and if, on my death bed, I can say that whether or now by my book made any money, I told my truth, which means more than making money and telling a half truth. Those two things – the idea of seeing myself in the third person and this question of whether on my death bed I can still say that I wrote an honest book – push me to keep it real in this next book. And I think I’ve done that. Hopefully my publisher will agree.
6. How did you come to writing? Was this something that came later to you, or did you write as a teenager when you were surfing? Did you keep a journal? How did you evolve as a writer?
I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer. Reading and writing came naturally to me as a kid – I wrote stories about animals and stuff – and my teachers would say I had no trouble writing a lot, but I didn’t see myself as a writer. I did like Kerouac and the other Beats in high school. But I was interested in everything and wasn’t especially interested in writing. My sister was studying English and was the poet in the family. I was in a Buddhist monastery before college, thinking I was going to be a monk.
Then I went to college thinking I was going to be a marine biologist before deciding to major in religion – and when I got out of college I wondered what I was going to do with all of this experience. Get a Ph.D? Go back to being a monk? I started a journalism program at Columbia, which was a dual master’s program in religion and journalism. I thought I would be able to travel and do cool stuff – like Sebastian Junger out in the jungle, with a little Indiana Jones mixed in. I was 25, and I was insecure about my writing. I thought everyone at the school was going to be a better writer than me. It turned out that I was just fine. I could put one word after another just like everyone else, and that was when I realized that I was good at structuring stories. I wasn’t as good as some others at the investigative research part of journalism, but once I had the material I could write a good story. That was when the lightbulb went off.
I was reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and I realized that being a writer was a way of seeing the world. You can be interested in everything, like I’ve always been. I didn’t think I would write books until I was older – I thought I would be in the magazine journalism world for a long time. But then I wrote that piece about surfing and meditation. I almost didn’t write it, because it felt too vulnerable, like I was giving away too much. My career changed direction as a result.
7. Do you have a standard creative process that you use to approach each project? Is there some process that’s classically you, that you use to approach any project at all – article or memoir?
I think in terms of movie scenes. I will always go and close my eyes and picture the movie. This helps me find my central scenes. I want to hang everything around a moment, and I see the characters and the lights and the director. I want emotion to lead, and film is the genre that cracks at your heart. I find the scenes, and then I dangle the characters off of them. This is what makes a good magazine piece. I also am really good at taking breaks. I write and write, and then I need to find something to do – running or surfing or meditation, something nonverbal – that gives me space from my writing. If I don’t get this space, I feel like I’m in a bad relationship. I start fighting with my pages. I’ve also been doing some screenwriting, and I follow this process for these projects too.
8. On that note, are you working on a documentary as well?
Jamail: Yeah. Right when Saltwater Buddha came out, a pair of national geographic divers said they wanted to make a film about it and I sort of rolled my eyes. But I was excited and over the course of five years we pieced together some funding and went to Hawaii and New York, and all these other places where the book takes place, and we did this sort of retelling of the book as a doc. It’s done now, we’re submitting it to a couple of film festivals. It’s been an interesting ride and a good way to learn about grassroots film making—and fun to see your words live in a different way. It’s going to be out sometime in the next year.
9. So, how do you even go about starting to adapt the memoir to a film or a documentary?
This process was so unique, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Saltwater Buddha is the kind of book that if it was going to be a film, should have been a feature film. But we didn’t have money for if that so what could we do? We thought: We don’t want to make surf porn, because I’m not that great of a surfer. What if we capture the essential spirit of the book and retell some of the stories? And that’s what we did.
To be honest, it was frustrating having to do that because we didn’t have a script, we were just winging it. A lot of the editing came after we shot about two terabytes of footage and had all these interviews with different people and with me, and then realized, somehow this has to get whittled down. In the end we were happy, but it would have been better if we had written a script and then shot that script.
It was a good lesson. I was going along with these film makers who had done it before. I mean, a good way to make a doc is just shoot the heck out of it and then see what you have. Anyway, we’re happy with the way it came out, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It took 6 years, but it’s been fun. It’s nice to say we finished a film, because so many people never do.
10. So what’s coming up for you next, for your third memoir?
I’m turning it in and then we’ll go through the editing process. I have a really great editor, Cary Brunell, at Harper. That’s another thing about pitching that is like matching. She’s an editor who works on amazing books, but she’s also a water person, so we connect on both the soul level and on the narrative level. There are people out there who will match with you—you don’t believe it, but they’re out there. I can’t believe I found her.
So to bring that in, I’m working on another doc with a filmmaker based on a story I did in Afar magazine, about the first female Muslim surf star in Bangladesh. She rose from the most severe poverty you can imagine, to being one of the best surfers in the country. Her struggle is incredible and we’ve shot the whole doc. This was one where we really did have to shoot it all, just terabytes of footage, and now they’re editing it. I’m a producer, overseeing it a bit.
Thanks Jamail! That was very inspiring. If you want to learn how to write a stellar memoir like Jamail has, sign up for his 4 week memoir class starting Jan. 31, and you could have your memoir in Oprah’s book club in no time.