Luke O’Neil, hard at work (photo by Kelsey Marie Bell)
Usually Luke O’Neil does this very column, explaining what normal people with real jobs do every day. It’s insightful and helps to remind us that not everyone spends their days getting trashed and “working” on their “projects,” that some people actually contribute to society in useful ways.
Anyway, on one of Luke’s “WTF” posts a reader asked, in true smart-ass Street Carnage-commenter style, what a journalist does all day. Luke was too classy to take the bait. I’m not, so I asked Luke to explain how he pays the bills doing, well, this.
(photo by Michelle Crowley)
Arv: So what exactly do you do?
Luke: First of all, a disclaimer: It’s really hard to talk about writing or anything “creative” without sounding like a self-satisfied cretin, so let’s get that out of the way right off the top.
That said, I suppose you’d technically call what I am a “freelance journalist,” but that title makes me uncomfortable for a few reasons.
The reason I hesitate to say “journalist” is because I think that term carries with it a set of associations that don’t necessarily apply to me. Although, yes, I do interview people about things that happen, and I do inform readers of news, it’s not uncovering secrets through good old fashioned gumption like an old-timey newspaperman with the card on his hat or whatever. A journalist, to my mind, is someone who is chasing down important stories and doing really investigative stuff, whether it’s major, like Seymour Hersh-type shit, or minor, like the guy who’s trying to expose corruption at city hall in some local newspaper. The majority of the stuff I have done in my 10 years or so career is music writing and arts and culture features, mixed in with the occasional hard news story.
On the opposite end, where I’m not over-explaining my inferiority complex, the term “freelance” is a little misleading to me as well. While I technically write for a dozen or so different publications and websites at the moment, and have done stuff in a dozen or so more in the past, freelance seems like such a low-rent thing to call yourself. When someone tells me they’re a freelancer, that basically means they’re unemployed, right? “I’m a freelance artist.” No, you aren’t.
At any rate, I write a handful of articles, five or so a week, for a bunch of different places, and for some of them, I have done so every single week for like five or six years. Freelance doesn’t seem to cover that, but I guess it will have to do until someone decides they want to start giving me health benefits — which I don’t see happening any time soon.
Do you have to pick up whatever editors hand you?
Basically the way it works as a freelancer is this:
Editor: “Do you want to do a story on x,y,z?”
You also have to always be pitching your own ideas to editors as well though, but that’s essentially how it works, even if it’s something you have zero interest in or really don’t know too much about. You then go do as much research as you can on the subject beforehand and do the best job you can. I am grateful to even be at a point where people contact me asking me to write stories about anything. If you told me I’d be in that position when I was a clueless English major in college, I’d have said, “Obviously that’s going to happen,” because I was sort of a dick back then. But to even have a job now writing about anything — never mind stuff I like — is pretty fortunate.
What’s the shittiest assignment you’ve gotten? Any “Review of Last Night’s Cat Fashion Show at the Golden Springs Retirement Center”-type shit?
I’ve done a lot of stuff for smaller city newspapers, particularly when I was first starting out, that I would probably be embarrassed to have anyone see now. Reviews of dinner theater and shit like that. Work is work, though. It can be really tough engaging in a critical review of something that you couldn’t possibly care less about. I’ve reviewed some atrocious pop music concerts, like all-day festivals where you just have to be there and tough it out all day in the sun, while the worst bands in the world are playing for the most average people you can conceive of. If it was for like Platform or Street Carnage, you could just have fun with it and shit on it, but if it’s for a mainstream newspaper, you have to leave all of that aside and be able to talk about it from the perspective of a general audience. You have to be able to understand why people at large would like, say, the Black Eyed Peas and talk about it from that perspective. Does it succeed on its own merits and rules? If so, it was a good show, whether or not I could make a dozen jokes about it.
Then again, being able to tell you why the Black Eyes Peas record blows is fun as well. Maybe critic would be a better description for me, because a lot of the times I’m just sharing my opinion on something. Here’s one: I’m bored reading this already, and I’m the one talking.
You smug bastard. What qualifies you to be a critic? Every drunk at the local bar knows what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it — why do your views get set down and read? Is it simply because you’re literate?
Because I show up to do the job every day? Bullshitting about the world is easy, but being able to do it in a concise, readable and mostly informed manner on deadline, while dealing with editors, interview subjects and juggling the varying demands of a few different publications, most of which will have a pretty diverse set of expectations for not only what you’re writing, but how you’re writing it and how you went about finding the information to write about it, isn’t easy. It’s not remotely as hard as a real job, but not everyone can do it.
Other than that? Who knows. I’ve read a lot, and I’ve written a lot. That’s all you need to do to form the basis of the job. Everything else you can learn or adapt to.
Oh, also I’m good at it because I’m better than everyone else and my shit doesn’t stink.
Besides Platform and Street Carnage, who else do you write for?
Most of my stuff appears in The Boston Globe, which is the major daily newspaper here. I write some really long, reporting-type music-related news stuff for Alternative Press, most of which you can find here. I write about music and nightlife regularly for other local pubs like The Boston Phoenix and for the Metro papers in New York and Boston and Philly. I was the music editor for the arts weekly here called Dig. I’ve done stuff for mags like Black Book, I just did a piece for Deadspin. I’m writing a lot of nightlife and cocktail stuff for AskMen.com right now as well. I’m about to go to Mexico to tour some tequila distilleries for them. I’ve got a piece coming out in The Wall Street Journal soon. I’ve got a book that will be published in the spring about the dive bars of Boston. For that, I went out to like 100 different dive bars around the city, interviewing regulars, the owners, bartenders and tried to tell the story of each place while also writing a sort of guide to places people might actually want to go. I hate dive bars now. Mostly, I just used it as an excuse to write jokes about drunk old guys.
You’ve previously said that your work routine revolves around sitting at a laptop checking emails, typing, smoking cigarettes and occasionally seeing the light of day, but there’s got to be more to it than that.
It’s weird because most of what I do wouldn’t really seem like work to most people. I go to bars and try all the drinks there. I go watch concerts or listen to music all day. So, in that sense, I have to go out a lot, but it’s not like a party. A lot of times you really, really do not want to go out, especially when you’ve had to the previous four nights, or you’re tired or sick or something — although being sick is a lie people with real jobs tell so they don’t have to go, so never mind on that. I realize that compared to 99 percent of the people in the world, it barely even qualifies as work, but it’s not as easy as it seems, especially when you’re on five deadlines at once, have to squeeze in 10 interviews in two days and are trying not to repeat yourself, all while being entertaining and accurate.
What about writer’s block? Is that just like calling in sick — that is, bullshit?
You can’t have writer’s block as a freelancer because then you basically have paying-your-rent-and-eating-dinner block. Pulling something out of the air like in fiction, sure, writer’s block exists there. Angle block is usually more problematic for me. I know I have this subject and it’s something people should know about, but why? How can I justify using this space to tell them about it? What’s the hook, as they say. From there writing the first sentence is usually the only hard part for me and the thing I dread every single time no matter how trivial or how important the story.
What about hoofing it about town, tracking down leads and getting tips from mysterious strangers with quasi-sexual code names?
Not my job so much. I used to think I wanted that job, but interviewing people who don’t want to be interviewed is really hard. I have a ton of respect for political writers who do that sort of thing, although I don’t know how many of those there are left.
My actual routine is writing, writing, writing, call someone, email, email, drink a gallon of coffee, smoke a pack of dukes, look at Internet porn for a while, go to the gym, then go out at night, then come home and write about what I went and looked at.
I wanted to ask you about that: Being online all day, you’ve got to watch a massive amount of porn, basically hopping on RedTube every time you so much as think of titties. How often are you “distracted” and by which sites? How do you keep from jacking off all day?
Haha. Yeah, there are a lot of distractions. I like Tube8, if you’re forcing me to choose. SpankWire is pretty good too. I actually took that piece on Street Carnage a while ago about not jerking off pretty seriously though. It was great advice! Who would’ve ever thought of that? Just don’t do it! I am pretty impulsive though. Like right now I’m getting a little movement going on there, so I gotta run for like four minutes. Be right back.
Is alcohol helpful or even necessary to the writing process? If so, what’s the best drink? If not, what’s your excuse for drinking so much?
I don’t write drunk, no. Writing jacked up on caffeine and nicotine is great for concentrating, but when I’m drunk, I am not motivated to do it. That’s like some Bukowski myth a lot of young “writers” get all into because they want an excuse to drink a lot and call it art. I actually don’t even really get drunk all that much for someone who writes about going out all the time. I like to have a Manhattan or two, then call it a day. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll occasionally go over to the other side and do shit I really shouldn’t have done, but that’s fewer and further between these days.
I feel like there’s a drunk story here. Ever had an occasion where you were supposed to cover an event but just got piss drunk and missed the scoop?
I used to work in an office at Dig for a few years at the music editor. It’s like the hip arts weekly here. I would show up late all the time because I was out all night going to shows and trying to live the dream and generally chasing the demon into another dimension on the reg. Getting up early wasn’t in the cards. Eventually I got shit-canned. Whoops.
Since then, I don’t really miss any deadlines that really need to be met because your job literally depends on it every time. If you don’t meet your deadlines, you won’t get asked to do a story again, and then you won’t have work. If it’s an editor I’m pretty good friends with and I get myself into the loud mouth soup a little bit, I might check ahead and see if I can grab an extra day when I know thinking coherently isn’t going to be in the cards tomorrow morning.
Last time I truly got fucked up, I got so drunk I tried to make out with every single person I could get my hands on, man or woman, tried to start a fight with a cab driver who had a gun and then shit the bed. Good night though!
I hear you have a MFA in Poetry. When did you first discover you were a closeted homosexual?
Haha, um…. Yeah, I studied creative writing in grad school, and I used to write poetry and affect this sort of modernist romantic pose and talk about Yeats and Auden all the time. But that was pretty much just an excuse to impress chicks, now that I think about it — like that piece I did on Platform a while ago. Then I realized publishing poetry and short fiction is really hard, and even when you do, no one gives a shit. Hitting the lottery in the literary world is squeezing your story about how your dad didn’t love you into some journal that like 500 people have heard of. That’s like being on top of the game. No thanks.
On a typical day, what do you read? Besides everything on Platform and Street Carnage, of course.
I subscribe to way too many magazines, and it always bones my girlfriend because she hates looking at them all over the house. The New Yorker is the only one I really care about anymore. That and Entertainment Weekly, which is exactly the right level of trash for me. I read a billion stupid blogs all day too. I’m addicted to IO9.com. I read Salon and Crooks and Liars and all the good liberal sites because I’m a radical lefty. I obsessively check the Patriots news sources because I’m a huge football dork.
What about fiction and poetry? Who are you favorite writers? Who do you model yourself after?
I don’t know if any of this applies to the type of work writing I do, but my favorites are pretty standard miserable young-man wannabe-intellectual stuff like Borges, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Barthelme and Carver. I think when I was deciding that I wanted to be a writer I had two more practical influences: Dave Eggers on one shoulder in an angel costume, and Gavin on the other with a pitchfork and shit. I tried to aim down the middle.
Are you scared that the Internet, news aggregators and other boogeymen are going to force journalism to implode on itself and take you with it? How long can you make a buck if The New York Times is firing hundreds of employees at a time?
This year has been one of the busiest and most profitable years I have ever had. Maybe that’s because everyone fired all their full-time staff? I guess that makes me a scab?
The year before things were awful. So I don’t know what to think. My girlfriend used to always tell me that I needed to be writing on the Internet more and I was like “Yeah, but they don’t pay you.” So now I split the difference, just in case. If newspapers go away, at least I’ll have my foot in the door online.