reviewed by Rita Settimo
This is a fascinating collection of pieces written over Lawrence Grobel’s entire career, starting back when he was 15 and won a writing contest sponsored by Newsday, and got to meet Robert Kennedy when he was the Attorney General.
Reflecting on his life as a freelance writer, even he’s amazed that he managed to survive for six decades. He writes instructively about all the pitfalls and the difficulties of freelancing, including the rejections, and the need to persevere and believe in yourself.
He includes and discusses the articles, essays, and interviews that allowed him to keep on going. Whether it was that first published essay, or his first magazine profile about an African sculptor from Ghana written when he was a Peace Corps Volunteer, or a failed Esquire article about “The Black Eagle,” Hubert Fauntleroy Jr., or his first celebrity interview with Mae West, or a rejected interview with Elliott Gould, or an interview with Hugh Hefner which got him into Playboy, or an interview with Henry Moore who gave advice to his artist wife, or the last in-depth interview with Tony Bennett (12,000 words), unpublished until now, every one of the pieces included in this book helped him continue on his freelancing journey.
The intent of this book is to show, through examples that span 60 years, how a freelance writer can still learn to navigate the ever-evolving field of journalism. Despite the advances in technology, there are some things that remain consistent: finding the idea, developing the concept, figuring out how best to pitch it to editors, convincing reluctant subjects to talk on the record, organizing your research, editing your material, writing a catchy opening, understanding storyline, and be willing to rewrite if necessary.
The pieces Grobel includes are ones that pushed him forward, opened a new door, or made him see the craft in a different light. Each piece has a preface and a postscript, describing how they advanced his career or set it back. It covers the successes, frustrations, and the occasional dangers of the freelance life. When writing about stuntmen, Grobel’s willingness to do anything for a story reached its limit when he was offered a fire suit before being set on fire.
I must admit I was disappointed that he failed to include any of his work with the Peace Corps. Of course, outside of his position as a journalism teacher, there were no paid writing assignments. Just the same, having read Turquoise: Three Years In Ghana, his memoir from those three years, I feel it taught him a lot about dedication, resourcefulness and perseverance, all qualities needed to prevail in the difficult world of freelance.
And now, after all his experience in that field, he gives us a blueprint for what to expect, revealing the tricks and strategies he the used to navigate his way around reluctant subjects and demanding editors.
Though print magazines are disappearing, articles and stories are still being published. The venue may have changed from print to digital, but the principles that freelancers have always used remain the same: Pursue what is timely, figure out a fresh angle, go deep with your research, and engage the reader with a compelling story delivered with style and originality.
I believe Grobel is warning that success may not come easily, but if you have the forte and drive, you can learn the skills. Then persistence, hard work, and determination will see you through. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Grobel’s examples resonate for me, because it demonstrates that with some talent and a healthy dose of chutzpah, you can pursue any career.
Lawrence Grobel has published 31 books.