Monday, April 9, 2018

Brad Herzog. The Curious Writer

I first met Brad at a bookstore event last year where we gave presentations to a group of writers. I loved what he had to say about his take on writing because it jived with mine. Well, of course, you love people who agree with you, right?

The next time we met, he talked more about himself as a writer and a publisher. I had to share his take on this business with IWSG members. I think you'll love it, even if you don't agree with it.

Take it away, Brad.

As a bit of an iconoclast—and as a longtime author and freelance writer—I tend to question everything. When the rest of the world is zigging, you’ll often find me zagging. In fact, I believe that’s my job description: Tilt your head at the world, wonder out loud, grab an unusual idea, then write about it.

So I tend to question clich├ęs about writing, too, including these:
*Write what you know (I prefer to write what I don’t know so that every fascinating subject is a mini-education for me).
*Don’t pitch it until it’s perfect (Nothing is perfect. Not even To Kill A Mockingbird. Rewriting is paramount, but it can cross the line into procrastination).
*Be disciplined (If a strict writing schedule works for you, great. But mood and motivation contribute to the strength of my work. When I force writing, the Force is not with me).

Still, I most question this: Brand yourself. Pick a genre. Stick to it. 

I understand where this comes from—the notion that a jack of all trades is master of none, that an agent or editor should be able to categorize you, that expertise is focused, and that success in a certain arena breeds more success. And yes, a great many mega-successful authors are nearly inseparable from a genre, whether it’s Stephen King or John Grisham or J.K. Rowling.

But King and Grisham also have written about baseball. And Rowling penned a novel, The Casual Vacancy, about social issues. They could write about anything they wanted, and that’s exactly what they did—expectations be damned.

So why can’t any author? Why can’t anybody gain the sense of satisfaction that comes from a bit of courageous experimentation? Why can’t it actually be viewed as a triumphant attempt, perhaps even a beneficial one? After all, we may think we know which genre lures us. We may think we know where our talents are best suited. But how do we really know until we dabble a bit?

I suppose I’ve made a career out of this.

In college nearly 30 years ago, I was a summer intern at Sports Illustrated for Kids, which (through its publishing arm) released my first books a few years later—a sports puzzle book, a couple of sports trivia books. Was that my destined path? Well, roads veer and fork. Now my list of published children’s books includes fiction and nonfiction, little board books for preschoolers and nonfiction collections for middle graders, rhyming alphabet picture books and co-authored autobiographies.

I’m not a genre-specific children’s writer. I’m a writer.

I actually began my career as a newspaper sportswriter who soon realized I was more interested in the human angle than the X’s and O’s. So I began writing magazine features—mostly about sports. But roads widen. I broadened my scope. A quarter-century later, my portfolio includes everything from Sports Illustrated to in-flight magazines, from stories about Monopoly and miniature horses to profiles of the Wright Brothers and Dr. Joyce Brothers (um, separately, that is). My first book for adults, The Sports 100: A Ranking of the Most Important People in U.S. Sports History, was a book about sports history. But really, it was a foray into cultural trends, business, media, gender, and race.

I’m not a sportswriter. I’m a writer. And that means I’m an historian, an observer, a commentator, a critic, whatever I want to be.

When The Sports 100 was about to be published, I found myself staring at an atlas one day. I noticed tiny little towns named after virtues—Pride (Alabama), Wisdom (Montana), Inspiration (Arizona). On a whim, in a Winnebago, my wife Amy and I decided to hit the road on a year-long, 48-state journey. “We’ll search for those attributes in those places,” I said, “and I’ll try to write a book about it.” The resulting book, States of Mind, did rather well (look it up if you want to read about its goofy journey involving Regis Philbin and Oprah). I’ve since written two more American travel memoirs in which I examine the big picture by visiting the tiniest dots on the map. It’s where I flex my writing muscles. I’m tremendously proud of the writing and the scope (if not the subsequent sales).

But I’m not a travel writer. I’m an author.

Of course, not every experiment pans out. I written a couple of manuscripts (think The Phantom Tollbooth and Where the Sidewalk Ends) that I truly love. Someday they’ll have covers and ISBN numbers. But not yet.

But there, too, I haven’t limited myself. Like so many writers, I grew frustrating with the publishing gauntlet. So I zagged again. I started my own little venture, Why Not Books, which has grown beyond my own books (ranging from a picture book about golf to a civil rights memoir) to publishing a couple of other authors whose manuscript and message resonated with me. And lots of things resonate, which is why I’ve created blogs about everything from 100 literary lists to the merger of place and prose.

But I’m not a publisher. I’m not a blogger. I’m a peddler of notions. I send ideas out into the world.

So if you’re focused on a specific genre, and that’s where you feel comfortable, that’s great. Embrace it. Ride it out. Have a blast. But hopefully, your motivations are internal. True writing comes from within. And as the great Walt Whitman contended, “I am large; I contain multitudes.”

If you’re a square peg of a writer, don’t try to fit yourself into a round hole of oft-repeated rules and arbitrary categories. Anyway, more likely you’re a squircle… a heptagram… or nonagon. If that’s the case, you have to create your own fit. In fact, why peg yourself at all?

To be curious about many things is human. That’s why we’re writers. And to dabble is divine.


Brad Herzog is the author of dozens of books for children, including W is for Welcome, a celebration of the challenges and accomplishments of America’s immigrants (Sleeping Bear Press, April 2018). He also has written a trilogy of travel memoirs, which the American Book Review deemed "the new classics of American travel writing." As a freelance magazine writer, Brad has been honored several times by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), including a Grand Gold Medal for best feature article of the year. As a speaker, he visits schools around the country and has presented a popular TEDx talk about “Catching Creative Ideas.” Along with his wife and two sons, Brad lives on California’s Monterey Peninsula.


L. Diane Wolfe said...

His common thread is human interest and that can result in any genre. I'm working on my fourth genre now and I understand the need to wander and try new things sometimes.

Heather M. Gardner said...

This is awesome. I love how you follow wherever the path leads you! Thank for sharing with us.

Christine Rains said...

This is a fantastic post! I agree we all should dabble. Let curiosity take us where it may. It'll make us better writers. :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Amazing where your journey took you. I bet between sports and history, you have enough material to write whatever you want for a very long time.

Juneta key said...

Wonderful post. Enjoyed reading so much fun to read. I do like the way you think.

cleemckenzie said...

He's easy-going and open to sharing his experience with others. I'm really pleased he joined us here today.

Tonja Drecker said...

Wonderful how he's gone with whatever path opened up. It was refreshing to read about.

Pat Hatt said...

Questioning all is the way to be. Pffftt to branding is all I say and write what I want.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Lee good to meet Brad ... and oh yes I quite agree with educating myself as I blog along ... always have always will by the feel of it. No brand either ...

Write as you feel comfortable ... there's enough people out there ... who will encourage you on - I was never a writer - but now I must be ... and now need that discipline to convert the posts to booklets ... and perhaps ultimately a book ...

I just don't tow the line ...

Cheers to you both - great read - Hilary

Mirka Breen said...

Yay! Another of my tribe of the Imperfects. I never believed (or understood) this "make every word shine" thing. Really.

Thanks for this post, y'all.

Michelle Wallace said...

What a fantastic post!
Brad epitomizes the idea of thinking out of the box!
" dabble is divine." Love it!!
What an interesting person - I love how his mind works.