Evelyn McDonnell to Richard Meltzer
EVELYN MCDONNELL (writer; author or coeditor of five books, including Mamarama and Rock She Wrote; assistant professor of new media and journalism at Loyola Marymount University)
Your greatest asset will be an original voice. Everything else is fungible in a rapidly changing world. You’ll accrue expertise, you’ll grab opportunities, you’ll make contacts. The marketability of specific skills will change during a lifetime: now it’s brevity and immediacy, in a decade, it may be depth and pensiveness. But your voice will always be your calling card. Hear it, hone it, stay true to it.
JIMMY MCDONOUGH (author—Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen and Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, as well as biographies on Russ Meyer and Andy Milligan)
1. Convey the excitement you feel about your subject, even to the point of embarrassment. Imagine you’ve just met a Martian, you feel a burning desire to express the greatness of Charlie Feathers, and they know nothing. What do you tell little Remulac?
2. Interview your subject until one of you just can’t stand it anymore. Repeatedly ask yourself why you are probing/poking/dissecting this flesh-and-blood being. You’ll never get to the bottom of it, but question yourself.
3. Phrase your questions so they require more than an affirmative grunt for an answer. Listen. Ostensibly, you are there to learn something, and one way to do that is to shut the fuck up. Respect the person you’re interrogating. Usually there’s nothing in it for them, so be grateful they’re spilling their guts. They may come to regret it.
4. Transcribe all your interviews yourself. It forces you to relive and catalog the experience, not to mention wince at all your pointless interruptions and unasked questions.
5. Do what the story tells you to do and listen to nothing/nobody else. Even if it disgusts/embarrasses/kills you.
6. Regard the words ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ with the same feelings you reserve for Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and unicorns.
7. Ten minutes after your article/book is published, you’ll hear from Wally, the Missing Witness—the one you spent two years looking high and low for but just couldn’t find—and now Wally’s screaming at you that Chapter 5 is all wrong, total bullshit. You’ll never get the whole story. Nobody ever does.
8. Want to find out about an artist? Talk to their maniac fans. They’ll educate you ‘til blood runs from your ears. Avoid the ‘rock critic.’ These near-extinct creatures frequently have the worst taste in music, tend to be the laziest researchers, and would rather rap your knuckles like an old schoolmarm over some trivial point than express an iota of actual emotion about anything. In order to avoid one of these froggy sadsacks cornering you in their dusty, companionless apartment, droning on about some crybaby like Gram Parsons, I suggest carrying a bazooka. Just blast your way out, no one will ever notice they’re even missing.
9. If you have to write about the music, deprive yourself the pleasure of listening to it until the moment you are actually writing about it.
10. If your gut tells you to stop researching and get writing, do it. If you don’t, chances are you might never finish.
11. Read books about subjects other than what you write about—and you might want to avoid ones on the subjects that you do want to write about.
12. Trap a hapless loved one or relative in a small room, lock the door, and read what you’ve written aloud. You’ll probably change something during the process.
13. As a group of great philosophers once sang, “It’s your thing / Do what you want to do.” There are plenty of so-called experts out there, just chomping at the bit to tell you what an untalented ape you are. Hopefully you’ll stick around long enough to spit in their drink. You have to live with the mess you make, so make sure you stink up the joint in that special way only you can do. But be open. If somebody gives you a good idea—be it an editor, a paramour, or that wacky little voice in your head—don’t be too proud to steal it.
14. Expect to feel suicidal once you have finished a big project. There is now a big, black void where your obsession used to be. Throw yourself right off the cliff into something else, preferably another unhealthy obsession.
15. Change everything right up until the last minute, but learn to cut the story loose and move on. It’ll never be as good as it is in your head. Nor will you ever in your entire life write anything half as sublime as the lyrics to “Hello, Josephine.”
16. This one’s obvious, except to a naive chump such as myself: never trust a rock star.
MIKE MCGONIGAL (editor/publisher—Yeti; freelance arts writer/editor; producer—Fire in My Bones: Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel, 1944-2007)
Well, this is a weird time to be getting into music writing but you probably know that already. I think that, more than ever, the reason to do this is because you absolutely have to.
Read books! Read a lot of music writing, but also read other kinds of cultural and arts criticism. Start with Ruskin (seriously).
One thing that’s a bit harder to come by these days is the chance to work with and learn from an editor. If you do have the opportunity to be line-edited early on, that really is wonderful. I myself came from a fanzine situation (similar in many ways to today’s blogs). I did my own writing and editing and never studied journalism in college, so I was not able to grow as a writer until way later than I wish I had.
If you can, interact with a group of people you respect to bounce your ideas and opinions off of; that’s crucial. Start a blog, write very regularly. Tell your friends about it. After you’ve done this for awhile, then post on the blogs of writers whose blogs you respect. If you have some back and forth, even just a bit where, like, they are thanking you for a comment you posted on their blog, it’s cool to ask them to look at and perhaps link to your own site (where you will undoubtedly have already linked their site and all others you like). You might not want to do this too quickly, but no sense in taking years either.
KEMBREW MCLEOD (music columnist—Little Village; freelancer; book author; also see roboprof.org/)
Without sounding too obvious or condescending, if you want to learn to write about music, you have to write. A lot. Start a blog, or paper ‘zine, or any other kind of outlet where you can stretch out, try new things, and, most importantly, get in the habit of pumping out prose every day. The flip side of learning-to-write-by-writing is reading those examples of criticism that compel you. Find models to aspire to—whether it’s Greil Marcus, Chuck Eddy, Ann Powers, or DJ /rupture—and soak them in. Imitate if necessary, but more importantly find that quality in their writing that is unique, dissect it, alter it, and make it work for you. Then keep writing.
RICHARD MELTZER (‘father of rock criticism,’ writer—Crawdaddy!, Creem, L.A. Reader; author—Autumn Rhythm, A Whore Like the Rest, The Aesthetics of Rock)
Here is my advice: don’t. Don’t be a music journalist. All you will become in doing so is a shill. On the other hand, if you wish to be a genuwine actual WRITER, whatever the hell that might entail anymore in a functional “real world” sense (now that nobody reads; now that writing as a full-time “occupation” no longer exists), be prepared to eat shit for the rest of your life. Period. Better to change the grease, or mop floors, at Burger King.