7 For Seven: 7 Questions For ... Michael Tedder
"Your subconscious knows a lot and has already made connections that you just aren't aware of yet."
Michael with Penny and Gus
Every second and fourth Friday of the month, Brady Gerber’s “7 For Seven” interviews writers talking about writing. This week’s guest is Michael Tedder! Michael is the co-founder of the Words and Guitars reading series and podcast, and he has written about film, music, mental health, and finance, among other topics, for Esquire, The Ringer, The Daily Beast, Stereogum, Mel, The Village Voice, and Variety. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. And Michael wants you to check out … his work on Contently, and his recent oral history of Myspace for Stereogum, which he is thrilled to announce that he will be expanding into a book for Chicago Review Press. He says to look out for that … in a few years. Read this interview on your browser.
Tell us: What (all) do you do? Bonus points if you show us how you got to where you are today.
After graduating from college, I bummed around my hometown of Orlando, Florida for a while, writing for the daily paper and the alt-weekly. After moving to New York for graduate school, I got an internship at CMJ and eventually worked my way up to Managing Editor. From there, I started freelancing for everywhere from The Village Voice and Spin (two big goals of mine) to NBC, Esquire, and anywhere else I could get a foot into, while also working full-time as a Managing Editor at The Talkhouse and Paper for a spell.
Along the way, I decided it would be a smart career move to not just focus on popular culture (music, film, television) but to branch out into health, finance, and general news writing with the occasional political piece. Some writers advocate for being the authority on just one topic, and while I see the wisdom in that, I find being a flexible, jack-of-all-trades type suits me well, keeps my days surprising, and my punchcard filled.
Walk us through a typical day.
I write for a variety of different outlets. Some days I focus on the less-fun stuff that pays the bills, such as copywriting and project managing for various brands or financial news pieces (which can sometimes be very interesting). Some days are set aside for researching feature ideas or for pitching either the editors I already have a working relationship with or tracking down editors I have not worked with yet. Some days I get to focus on reporting and writing longer-form features or writing essays, and at the moment I spend some days working on a book proposal, which is coming along well but always seems to need another pass. I try not to lose too much of my day to Twitter and internet rabbit holes, but it's not unheard of.
Describe more about how you work; how do you do what you do?
Sometimes story ideas come to me pretty quickly, or it's as simple as "this awesome songwriter has a new album out." But it can be helpful to unplug from the internet, go to the park or cafe, and just write down whatever ideas come to you, randomly. You'll get some useless, half-baked notions, but your subconscious knows a lot and has already made connections that you just aren't aware of yet. Giving your space room to let your conscious mind discover them can be an enlightening process.
From there, let's say I'm writing a longer profile or feature or whathaveyou. I will go through my notes and transcripts, and in a separate document make a beat for every potential story point. I do this for every single possible beat. Then I go through and arrange the story beat until I find the "correct" order, discarding anything that doesn't need to be thee. (Which is a lot.) Think of it as "the statue is already in the clay, just take out what isn't needed" approach. Of particular importance is how you start the piece, draw the reader in, and get to the nut graph, but also how do you construct the arc, get to the rising action and conclude the experience. What do you hope the reader takes from your piece?
What’s your trick for when you’re feeling stuck?
This is not the most original advice, but plenty of solid advice is everyday wisdom because it works. If you can't figure out how to fix a story or if you only have half-an-idea for your pitch, go for a walk. Watch a movie. Work out. Focus on a different project. Read a book. Let your subconscious work on the problem for a while, while you direct your conscious mind elsewhere. Trust your mind to solve the issue in due time, and respect that you can't always rush the process.
List some of your notable influences, past and present: writers, books, works of art, anything and anyone that has inspired you. Also: The best article you read recently?
I was inspired to become a writer after reading Joseph Heller's Catch-22 as a teenager, as his blend of absurdist humor, bone-dry sarcasm, and bleeding heart, underdog politics spoke to my sixteen-year-old self.
As a culture writer, I've always looked to Rob Sheffield, Dave Eggers, and Joan Didion as the goalposts for what good writing should be: engaging, curious, and not up its own ass. Some current writers that I find myself inspired by include Hanif Abdurraqib, Maria Sherman, and Miles Klee.
He's one of my dearest friends so feel free to take this with a huge grain of salt, but the best piece of culture writing I've read this year is Zachary Lipez on the mythic doofusry of Danzig.
Michael! He’s the best. So glad we could make this happen. This interview is possible because of subscribers. Thank you for following! Other ways you can support 7 for Seven: Tip for coffee (so I have fuel to edit everything) and share this dang thing. But the most helpful thing you can do is:
Advice time: What’s a piece of wisdom that you wish you first heard when you were starting out?
Here are a few:
If you are full-time freelance, or just doing some freelancing on the side, save 25% of your check as soon as you get it. Put it in a separate bank account, and don't touch it. Use Google Docs to keep track of how much you are making, and pay your Estimated Quarterly Taxes every three months using Official Payments. Places like TurboTax aren't well-equipped to help out freelancers or those with unusual careers (don't get me started) so find an accountant who specializes in small businesses.
If you work from home, try to exercise a little every day, even if you aren't very athletic. (I certainly am not.) It's good for stress release and will help boost your self-esteem, and for music writers, it's a way to test drive the latest banger. You can find free cardio and HIIT videos on YouTube.
Read your work out loud. Read pieces you admire out loud. Great writing is about rhythm and feel, and you can't be taught this but you can learn it through dedication and work.
After you ask a question, zip it. Silence is your friend. It's truly remarkable the things people will say to fill up a gap.
See a therapist. Once you work out your own shit, you will have a sense of what drives everyone else. Having to talk through your personal issues and learning to listen to yourself will make you a much more insightful interviewer.
“Art”: What the heck is it?
What you do to get someone else to understand what you're feeling.
BONUS: Cats or dogs?
I'm looking at my cats Penny and Gus sleep as I type this. I am a cat man, through and through.
BONUS BONUS: Pick a piece of writing that you're proud of and walk us through how it was done: How you got the idea, how you confirmed it was going to happen, drafting the piece, editing it, and publishing it?
I've been a fan of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists since Heart of Oak, and I was overjoyed in early 2017 went he announced on Twitter that he was crowd-funding a new album. He hadn't released a solo album or toured much since the 2010 album The Brutalist Bricks, and I figured there was a reason behind the delay and why he wasn't on Matador Records. I immediately sent a pitch to Scott Lapatine and Michael Nelson at Stereogum, arguing that I wanted to tell the story about why the once prolific and hard-touring Leo had taken a break, while also making the case that his empathic, community-building leftist approach to music-making was what we needed in the Trump Era.
My editors agreed, and I reached out to Leo, who was eager to talk. I took a train to visit him in his Rhode Island home, where we talked for several hours. (He also insisted on paying for the muffin I bought when we stopped to get coffee.) I also met his wife and got a tour of his home studio, and he very nervously played me songs from his upcoming album The Hanged Man. After we talked for several hours, Leo began to open up, and he talked about the traumas in his life, from being sexually abused as a child to he and his wife losing their daughter due to a late-term miscarriage. He later met me in New Jersey for a follow-up talk when he further discussed therapy, splitting with his label and his money woes, and why he felt he had to take a break for a while.
I had about a week to write the story after interviews were done, as Stereogum had arranged to premiere his first single. I wrote the 10,000-word first draft in one day from 10 am to 2 am, and spent the next several days polishing it up. I received a lot of moving comments from people who connected with Leo and his struggles, and to this day it's probably the most rewarding piece I've ever done in my career.
Photo credit: Michael Tedder