A Letter to Writers, and How the Wiest was Won

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Tuesday, 17 June 2003.

Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone, responds to queries about how to get into writing. He also recounts a a busy day, including a gig with Sheila E. and a chat with Oscar-winning actor Dianne Wiest.

One recent Saturday, I emceed a lunchtime fundraiser for Oakland High School, featuring fellow alumnus Sheila E, did a reading as part of Litquake in San Francisco (one author every ten minutes-kind of like a Wordstock), then raced up to Marin County to conduct an onstage interview with Dianne Wiest for the Mill Valley Film Festival.

And I didn't have a heart attack. Woo-HOO!

Sheila was great, improvising on timbales with a swinging Oakland High School Band at Yoshi's, the jazz club in Jack London Square. Litquake, taking place in two theaters in Civic Center, was hopelessly behind schedule when I arrived at 4:30 for my 5 o'clock spot, and I wound up following a bright hip-hopper from Youth Speaks. Fortunately, I chose short excerpts about three artists who are hipsters in widely differing ways: Rickie Lee Jones, Rodney Dangerfield, and the Rolling Stones, and the audience members held back their rotten tomatoes.

At the Rafael Theater in San Rafael, Dianne Wiest, Oscar winner for Bullets Over Broadway ("Don't speak!") and Hannah and Her Sisters, swept in just before our 7 p.m. start time. We said hello as I escorted her into the theater, and, minutes later, there we were, chatting away in front of a packed house. Well, "chatting" is not quite accurate. Overcome by nerves, she giggled her way through her first answers. We'd begun by showing clips from several of her earlier films, including Footloose. Saying that she doesn't watch her own films, Dianne claimed that she couldn't even remember some of the scenes we'd just seen, and laughed some more. Much more, actually. I told her not to worry. Willie Nelson, who I interviewed earlier this year, told me he forgot entire films.

Later, when I mentioned Bigfoot, a 1987 TV-movie that's part of her filmography, she drew a blank. She had no recollection of being in such a film. "Oh my God," she cried. " I am Willie Nelson!!"

If you're wondering why she's no longer on Law & Order, on which she played the D.A. for two seasons, Wiest responds: "I failed to fulfill what should have been an interesting role. I couldn't take their formula and bring what I had, my humor, my ideas and make it my own. It's not an 'actor-dependent' show The formula is the star. I couldn't work inside that formula."

Far more fulfilling is her latest film, Merci Docteur Rey, in which she portrays an opera diva. Her co-stars include Jane Birkin and Vanessa Redgrave.

Yowza!: Emeril Lagasse, who's been doing specials on various cities, came to San Francisco not long ago, hit Chinatown, and gave us not a "BAM!" but a splat. Praising Chinatown as one of the best in the United States, his report consisted entirely of a visit to a restaurant he called "Yowt Lee." He was actually in Yuet Lee, which he said he's been going to for 20 years, but he called it "Yowt" about a dozen times, and no one thought, or dared, to correct him. However, the calamari dish did look spectacular

To Would-Be Writers: Read On, Write On

The other day, I got a letter, through Asian Connections, asking for some advice. I told the writer I wouldn't answer him. Instead, I'd write an open letter to all the people who've written over the years, or who've asked similar questions wherever I've given talks about journalism or the music industry. Now, I'll be able to direct all future inquisitors to this letter. I'm such a lazy guy. Here's the letter I got:

Mr. Fong-Torres, My name is Jonathan Sanders, I am a journalism major at Indiana University in Bloomington. I have been a long-time reader of almost everything on music that I could get my hands on, and music is my life. My goal is to be able to spend my life being a music journalist.

I've read a lot of your early works with "Rolling Stone," and I respect your opinions as a writer and a music fan. I'm still in my junior year, but I'm looking to start freelancing before graduation, in hopes of jumpstarting my career. So far, I've written for the Indiana Daily Student for a year, and I've been a staff writer at the independent music site Gods of Music where I'm the first person to become a site editor in less than six months.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I felt I should write to you and see what you thought might be a good path to take if I want to be a freelance journalist in the music world. Is there any good way to get my writing out there for editors to see it? I appreciate any comments you can send me, as someone who has done so much in the world of music journalism, I felt you'd be a good writer to contact for advice.

Sincerely, Jonathan Sanders

* * *

Dear Jonathan,

Here's what I've told others who share your goals: The best advice I can give to young people who want to be writers is to read, to read widely (and not just about music and entertainment), to absorb reporting and writing styles, to be able to identify favorite writers without copying them, and to be able to learn story structure from them. Read not only books, magazines, newspapers, and online publications, but good, short-form writing as well, whether they're gossip items or advertisements. I learned the importance of hooking readers with sharp lead paragraphs from clever ads; they also helped me when it came time to write headlines in newspapers and magazines I edited.

If you're writing for whoever will have you, you're doing the right thing. It doesn't matter whether it's a school paper or a bowling alley newsletter. If you're accumulating experience, feedback, and clippings, you're on the right track. Years ago, I would've cautioned against sliding over into writing public relations material-press releases, biographies, ads. Now, with the entertainment industry so perforated, with so many people jumping between and among media, working both sides of the journalism/PR fence-I'm thinking it may be useless to advise avoiding the PR side. Early in your career, you can pick up useful experience writing from the artist's and record label's perspective. You can learn the tricks they employ to get attention from the press. You'll also learn that working on publicity pays better than interviewing artists for the media. Decide which side you want to be on -- and stay there.

Speaking of pay: I wouldn't advise anyone to set, as her or his goal, freelancing. You are asking for low-rent trouble. It's a tough existence, scraping by on assignments from here and there, fighting to get paid, dealing with rejection. It's like choosing to be an actor or a musician. Prepare to maintain some other kind of employment while you bang out your articles in off-hours. Get reference books on publishers and editors and write to everyone. Come up with sharp, unique story ideas, and understand that celebrity profiles are being done by everyone else already; that many magazines rely on staff writers and a few favorite independent contractors; that most magazines haven't upped their writers' rates in decades, and that some of the most prestigious publications believe they're doing you a favor by letting your writing onto their pages. One fledgling freelancer I know wrote a profile of a well-known comedian for a local paper for $25. She then sent it to various newspapers around the country, where the comic was touring. Three papers bought it, giving her a total of $450. It's an insult, but this is how you start.

Once you're established, it's another story. Now you're talking a buck or two a word. The trick is to get established before you can no longer afford postage. Get a job at a paper, magazine or site. Get on the masthead, whether it's as an intern or an editor. Write like crazy. Attend media and music conferences and network whenever possible. Keep track of the editors you do work with as a freelancer; many do go on to bigger magazines, and you may be able to go along.

And enjoy yourself. Whatever you're writing, think of why you got into it in the first place. Put some of that feeling, that passion, that fun, that interest in illuminating a subject, of enlightening a reader, into your work, so that it never becomes just work.

Whenever I talk about my career, I say how lucky I've been, to have gone to a liberal college like San Francisco State, to be in a position to get into Rolling Stone early on, and to go from there to just about wherever I wanted. But I know it wasn't just luck. There was a lot of work-work that hasn't stopped yet-and of grabbing and taking advantage of opportunities.

So here's wishing you luck. And a lot of work.


Ben Fong-Torres

For more insights by Ben, visit his official website at www.benfongtorres.com