My Life as a Writer

Lessons learned.

Posted Nov 14, 2019

pxhere, public domain
Source: pxhere, public domain

They say that early experiences matter. If so, no one would have predicted I’d end up having written 12 books, some which have sold well, and almost 4,000 nationally published articles.

You see, I was born to Holocaust survivors who spoke to me in very broken English. 

My high school grades in English were just okay, and I didn't write for the high school newspaper.

I took one writing course in college: Expository Writing, and got a B-.

My first paper in graduate school was “B. Should have been an F except that you tried so hard."

The first article I submitted for publication was rejected with a form letter plus the line, “Your writing needs work.”

The turning point was a visit to a kindergarten class where I saw my first word-processing program, one for young children, Bank Street Writer. I figured that if kindergartners could use it, I, an adult, might be able to. I tried it and loved that I could erase and move words without retyping the page.

I decided to get a computer and write something. I like to think big, so the first thing I wrote was a book: How to Get Your Child a Private School Education in a Public School. Because it was for the public, not for academics, I asked for feedback from regular people: my next-door neighbor (retired military) and my daughter’s friend’s mom. a kindergarten teacher. They made clear to me that my writing wasn’t clear. Unconsciously, I was trying to impress more than communicate. Since then, clarity is high-priority. The book got published.

Writing the book, a seemingly impressive accomplishment, required less work than I thought it would. So I decided to write another book, a sort of sequel, and a book that might help my daughter who was reaching college age: How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University.

Continuing on the theme of writing to help my daughter, although she's far from lazy, I wrote my first article, “A Lazyperson’s Way to Choose a Career.” I sent it to the local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, and it got published. A few months later, that newspaper started a career section and asked me to write a mini-column offering little-known career advice. I wrote Under the Radar for more than five years.

Then, the newspaper’s career section was eliminated, and I sent a few clips to a dozen publications, whereupon I started writing for Kiplinger's, U.S. News, then TIME, where I got my first exposure to media bias. I had submitted 19 essays for TIME’s Ideas section. All 19 were published. As #20, I submitted my first politically incorrect one, making the case for Israel, an essay that I believe was arguably my best. It was rejected and, from then on, TIME has never even responded to my submissions, let alone published any.

My next exposure to media bias was as a columnist for The Atlantic. My editor published 12 of the 12 columns I had submitted. Then he asked me to write a column on which gender, net, has it better. I argued that women do. He liked the column and published it but immediately got angry emails from three women’s advocacy organizations whereupon he terminated me.

That brought me to Psychology Today, which has published 1,528 of my 1,530 submissions, including a version of the essay that TIME refused to and of The Atlantic column that got me canned.

Interspersed, I’ve written more books but my recent ones have sold poorly. I've been saying that I don’t want to write more books—too likely to fail, especially in today’s short-form, videocentric era.  But judge a person not by what he says but by what he does: I’ve just submitted a proposal for yet another book: How to Do Life: The 77 ideas that have most helped my 5,700 clients.

Takeaways

  • Look at your recent efforts. While early experience predicts future performance, it’s far from perfect. Look for recent indicators.
  • Start with baby steps. If chance hadn’t exposed me to a children’s word-processing program, it might have been years before I started writing.
  • Think big. As Goethe wrote, "Small goals move no one." That's why a book was my first serious writing effort. That's why when the Chronicle cut its career section, I sent clips only to national publications.
  • Write from life experience. My first book was informed by my experience trying to get my daughter a decent education in the Oakland, California public schools. My second did the same for her public-college education. My first article was written at the time my daughter was choosing a career.
  • Prioritize clarity and helpfulness. Unless you're likely to write the next Ulysses, aim for clarity, not to impress. The two are inversely correlated.
  • Censorship of politically incorrect thought is real and accelerating, much to society’s ultimate detriment. It's dangerous to ignore that reality.
  • Don’t write for the money. You can almost assuredly make more money per hour flipping burgers. Write because it comes easily to you, you enjoy the process, it develops your thoughts on a topic important to you, the potential contribution to readers’ lives, and, okay, the ego gratification of being able to tell people you’re a writer.

I read this aloud on YouTube.