Live Wire brought Lizz Winstead to Portland this weekend, and she led a writing workshop in Curious Comedy Theater's amazing space. Text in quotation marks = Lizz. The rest is her paraphrased advice, grouped roughly by subject. Corrections welcome. Follow Lizz on Twitter: @lizzwinstead.
Lizz on Integrity, Passion, Clarity, Focus
"Your voice matters, so act like it." Believe what you're putting out there. "Own it. Write about the stuff that inspires YOU."
Rather than feel you have to cover topics that bore you, or topics that other people (e.g. David Sedaris) are already doing well, "be consistent and write [only] what you love," so that people know they can "trust you on two or three things."
"Be critical about your own writing. Sometimes it's not the audience" that doesn't get it, sometimes your stuff is not good. "You're your own obstacle." Write every day and get your "percentages [of good stuff] higher".
Re public performance, sometimes there's just a mismatch. You might be Miles Davis but the audience came to hear country music. "If you love it and you prepared it [properly], you did your job."
"The only ownership you have is the belief in the material." Get "so much under your belt" that you're not defined by any one performance. Quoted Roseanne Cash re "play to the 6% of the audience that are poets."
"Find your clarity." Once you figure out what you're supposed to be doing, "kill the other babies": stop doing the other tangential things so that one thing can grow.
Lizz on Writing A Memoir
"You cannot make an assumption that you can control who you are going to offend." If you are "trying to keep the peace," you get a "crappy memoir." "You can't keep the peace if you're a writer."
Put out "the best product you can and take the lumps."
"If you have to leave out details, don't even tell the story" at all. Rather than tell a good story with all the best stuff left out and self-censored, choose a different story where you can tell the whole story and get behind it.
Lizz on Co-Founding Things and Paths Into Comedy
She was unemployed (or underemployed) for two years after 9/11 because it was as if there was a moratorium on ... public critique and satire, her kind of thing. Then she got a call asking for her help finding a "Lizz Winstead type" of person to help launch Air America and she said, what's wrong with Lizz herself?
Co-founder's comment on The Daily Show history: In the first stack of 150 submissions (right after founding) only three were from women. To work there, must be news junkie and able to be funny under pressure, which takes a special kind of nerdiness. "It's a nerd club, not a boys' club." [My note: today's Oregonian Q&A said she worked at TDS until 1997, but Lizz confirms it was 1998.]
She said it was great to see today's participants half female. But only one of us was African-American...
"There is no one path to breaking into comedy." She used to "burn Harvard resumes in a Folger's can in my office." She did her first stand-up routine on a dare.
If you want to write for TV, you must submit via an agent. "Understand the tone," of where you're submitting to and/or what you're doing; lots of good material is rejected just because the tone is wrong.
If there isn't an entity where you can see your stuff appearing, create an online presence "that feels like an entity where" your work can live. Again, get the tone right, set the tone for that future entity...
Lizz on Context and Perspective
"Have some context about" yourself and your story. Be aware of your context.
"Keep writing [about an event or issue] until you get perspective," and then "share the perspective." That's the best and most useful thing you can offer other people.
Lizz on Criticism and Trolls
"Engage when they say your philosophy is flawed, but not when they attack you personally." Unless you want to joke with them [she gave great examples]. You can use humor to have a moment of connection with people you otherwise profoundly disagree with.
[Question] How does she find the distance, emotionally, to watch what she has to watch to get stories?
"I do it because you can't." Don't want to sift through? Media Matters for America and Crooks and Liars will show the key clips. In terms of how Glenn, Rush, etc work: she studies "the theatre of the thing": emotional people, people crying, even crocodile tears, wake up corresponding emotions in the audience.
Lizz on Other Ways To Improve
Hang out with people who are "smarter than you". "Always ask questions."
Seek out collaborators who do things that you respect but don't do (or want to do) yourself, "that you don't have but embrace."
To get great stories: click on names you don't know, ask questions and answer them. (Yesterday she discovered a good angle that no one else had, by questioning and looking for answers: only four clicks, but too few people dig down.) If there's a national story, go to its hometown and read what the local newspapers (that local newspaper base) are saying about it.
"Listen instead of see." [Me: *ex-radio person pumping fist*] Watching TV news doesn't make you smarter. She recommends the C-SPAN app, so you can listen to hearings while you're driving, etc. She wants a ban on people sitting at desks looking like newscasters when it's really an opinion show using news visual tropes.
Lizz Cares That People Don't Care, and Is Curious Why More People Aren't Curious
It's sad when people aren't curious about anything. "How do you fight people who aren't curious?"
"There's something very boring about not caring." Call those people out! "It's a cop-out to not care."
[Me: Lizz mentioned @elonjames; calling out people who don't care, and are not curious goes well with Elon's point about calling people on facts that are just wrong.]
Caring for our parents as they age: "No one is writing about it."
Thank you, Lizz!
[In the second half we practiced collaborative comedy writing. I didn't do very well and as soon as I have perspective I'll post about it :).]