What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
(Those are such good questions that I’m going to answer each of them twice.)
The two answers to this one are paradoxical. One lesson is to listen to what other people say about your writing; the other is not to listen to what others say about your writing. The trick is knowing which one the situation calls for.
Starting out, when something I wrote was turned down, I would take it as a judgment both on my piece and myself. The latter is of course ridiculous, but human. Writers, actors, musicians—everyone who’s rejected a lot—have got to learn, early on, to separate their work from their worth as a person. What came a little later, for me, was to understand that an editor’s view of something I’d written was just his or her opinion, not ultimate truth. If I have faith in an idea or a finished piece, and it’s turned down, I’ve learned to just keep sending it out, if possible making it a little better each time. It usually (not always) finds a home somewhere.
At the same time, it’s important to learn to take honest criticism or suggestions in good faith. Right now, I’m developing a book idea, and when I described it to a writer friend, who I respect a lot, she suggested, if not a 180-degree turn, then at least a 120. At one point, I would have nodded and made polite sounds, but then kept going on exactly the same way. But I’ve learned my lesson over the years, and when I thought about what she said, I realized she was totally right. I’m going with her idea.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
The first answer is a positive one, the second mixed. Number one has to do with the subjects I’ve written about. Most of them have to do with things I’ve been interested in since college or high school or even before—literature, sports, humor, music, American culture in general. But I wouldn’t have expected that I would develop a side specialty in language and writing—with four books so far, dozens and dozens of articles, and a website on an obscure point of usage that I’ve been writing for nearly nine years and has had 2.3 million page views (notoneoffbritishisms.com). Looking back, though, I shouldn’t be surprised at all. Probably half of my childhood memories have to do with hearing a word or expression for the first time or an unfamiliar or unusual way. This interest-bordering-on-obsession of mine had been hiding in plain sight all along.
The second surprise relates to that blog, and another I write on an equally obscure topic (moviesinothermovies.com), and specifically my monetary compensation for them, which is nada, zilch, bupkis. That’s the same rate I’m getting for answering these excellent questions. The surprising thing is loads of writers—not just me— are doing good work for free, or perhaps the hope or promise that the work will promote their books, or lectures, or trucker hats, or whatever. Writing gratis would have been unthinkable when I was starting out. If you didn’t have a staff job, you freelanced, a Grub Street hack, with all that that entailed. The current climate is bemusing. It’s unfortunate that readers have come to expect not to pay for what they read online; I’m not sure if that genie can be put back in the bottle. And corporate owners who rake in profits and don’t pay writers (or artists) for “content” are detestable. But there’s so much good, clever, passionate, knowing stuff out there on relatively narrow or obscure topics, stuff that just isn’t commercial. It’s sort of a 19th-century thing, and not completely terrible, that these enthusiasts have day jobs supporting their writing habit.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
I’ve got a single answer for this one, with two parts. The metaphor for me as a writer is a floor cleaning company. First, I vacuum up every possible thing on a subject: stuff I read (especially), interviews, possibilities and notions that I follow through in my own mind. Then, after I’ve put something down, I bring out the polishing machine and run it back and forth over the floor for a long time, smoothing out all the roughness and buffing the surface till it gleams.
Ben Yagoda is the author, coauthor or editor of twelve books, among them “The Sound on the Page, ” “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It,” “How to Not Write Bad” and “The Art of Fact.” He has written about language, writing and many other topics for Slate.com, the New York Times Book Review and Magazine, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and magazines that start with every letter of the alphabet except K, Q, X, and Z. Between 2011 and 2018, he contributed roughly one post a week to Lingua Franca, a Chronicle of Higher Education blog about language and writing. You can find links to all his posts here. His personal blogs are Not One-Off Britishisms and Movies in Other Movies. He’s a native of New Rochelle, New York; a graduate of Yale; and a resident of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. In 2018, he retired after twenty-five years teaching writing and journalism at the University of Delaware. Before that, he worked as a film critic for the Philadelphia Daily News and an editor for Philadelphia and other magazines. He currently consults, edits, and works with writers.