A Healthy Streak of Delusion: An Interview With Jeff Weiss

Jeff Weiss is a writer by definition. By vocation. His work is a product of passion when he has time, and a work of dedication when he doesn’t. He doesn’t claim to be an expert, but he does have experience. He was a staff writer at a business blog. He worked for free for the now-defunct Stylus magazine. He writes a weekly column for LA Weekly, and his articles have appeared in publications such as the Washington Post, Noisey, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone. He has a podcast with rapper MC Nocando. He runs his own music blog, Passion of the Weiss, which has grown to have about twenty-five contributors. But please, God, do not call him a music writer. The only thing worse would be to call him a hip-hop writer. He enjoys writing about music, but focusing on one subject isn’t interesting to him, “fuck specialization…I want to write about everything…it’s not just music and it’s not just rap. I didn’t work hard enough to learn how to be a writer…just to fucking write about rap music.” Life is too big to write about one thing, he says.

I interviewed Jeff over the phone while I drove through upstate New York. He claimed he was tired; he didn’t get enough sleep the night before, but his intense responses to my questions were anything but tired. During our conversation we talked in a winding way about what makes a writer. Weiss is careful not to sound like he knows everything. He knows that his answers aren’t for everyone, but his fifteen-or-so years as a writer lend him credibility. Luckily he doesn’t attempt to qualify his argument with “I mean that’s just what I think,” the classic Millennial strategy of not taking responsibility. He believes what he says is true without sounding pedantic. His views on writing wrenched me out of my comfortable position as an excited liberal arts student with the whole world before me.

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Jeff Weiss talks about Biggie and Tupac on SkeeTV

He tells me that writers (really, artists in general, although he doesn’t like that word) are a little quirky; “if you don’t have a drug or drinking problem you’re going to want one. Because it’s humbling. Writing is a humbling pursuit, and that’s one of the cool things about it. On a day to day basis you wake up, and the greatest writers can’t write anything.” If that doesn’t already deter you from wanting to be a writer, then consider his other advice, “Whenever I talk to younger writers I’m like, ‘honestly, what’s the most important thing I could tell you about a career in writing is to be prepared to sacrifice. I don’t know what it is. Everybody has to sacrifice something different.” In another conversation this past summer Jeff told me he’s had to sacrifice a lot; sleep, financial stability at times, relationships, and small bits of sanity. At one point he offers me some advice; don’t be a writer. When I told him that I would probably ignore that advice he seemed please, “if you listen to anyone that tells you not to do it, you shouldn’t be a writer.” I sheepishly took some minor pride in that.

It’s not all doomsday. Jeff isn’t trying to ruin writing for every excited young Buzzfeed contributor out there. He’s starkly realistic, which is refreshing. Frequent visits to campus by over-eager alumni touting their industries need some mitigation. Our conversation was a much-needed smack to the face. Like most worthwhile pursuits, writing is a struggle which takes up time and energy. That’s what makes it worthwhile.

Writing is human, which is what makes it so hard and so intriguing. To Jeff, writing is a practice in empathy. He says the best part about his job as a journalist is that he gets to meet people that bring with them a lot of different perspectives, “I have to try to get along with them, you know, and I have to try to learn from them and figure them out. That’s the most valuable thing as a writer, as a human being, is kind of…have empathy, or understanding.” For Jeff, good writing is a solid connection, breaking the surface tension. Tom Clancy writes about action; what you see. Ernest Hemingway writes about what happens in the absence of action, and makes it much more interesting.

I tend to think my writing is good. I’m narcissistic about what I write. Probably in an attempt to feel better about my narcissism I asked Jeff if you need to have an ego to be a good writer:

“I would say that you have to have a healthy streak of delusion. Because when you first start out you’re always bad. You know what I mean? You have to be like, ‘no one can tell me I’m bad. I’m fucking the greatest ever.’ I mean a lot of people give up. You can’t give up. If you want to be a writer, it’s like anything, sports….that was probably the most valuable pursuit I could have. Be competitive. Every writer is competitive, every writer is different, you know? But I would say that you have to have a healthy streak of delusion. Delusion can empower you because you have to know…you have to know who to listen to and who not to. Some people have good ideas. You gotta trust your instincts.” It’s not to say that you won’t get knocked down a peg or two, you will. Writing is a practice in delusion-in-moderation.

Young writers hone their craft in academic settings that don’t allow for delusion. Ironically, professors and teachers often provide some sort of outside source of delusion. Grading isn’t critique, it’s strategic reinforcement. What Jeff is saying is different. You need delusion from the self, and you need to believe you’re good. Eventually outside forces, friends, editors, the Internet, will knock you down, and you’re left to either quit or continue the delusion with a heightened level of self-reflection. Maybe I’m putting words in Jeff’s mouth. Maybe I’m delusional.

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The Shots Fired podcast crew

I asked Jeff what he thinks of online writing. For most aspiring young writers, the online realm provides the best chance to break into serious writing. For Jeff, it can be a personal hell; “If you want to be a good writer, don’t read anything on the internet. Read dead people.” We talked about Buzzfeed, the Odyssey. The journalistic Sarlacc pits of the internet. He didn’t even seem to want to discuss them. To Jeff, good writing is hard to find online. I felt a bit guilty at this point. Aside from the book I keep on my nightstand, almost everything I read is online.

He also recognizes the benefits of writing online. It’s hard to find good writing online,“but it also makes the good stuff sometimes more uncompromised.” Your writing can’t be skewered by editors with agendas that don’t match yours.  You have untethered opportunity, “online made it so you don’t need to have your dad know someone…You could just start a blog and say fuck it…You can go around editors sometimes…It’s empowering. It is democratizing.” While online writing is generally bad, the ability to self-publish had made writing a more egalitarian practice. The quality just needs to catch up.

Jeff does laud Grantland for its model of bringing in a handful of good writers and allowing them to write about whatever they choose. If you want to find good online writing, head there (that’s a cruel joke…Grantland closed down earlier this year).

Jeff admits that his own writing was once bad. He tells me that he once wrote a novel, prior to 2005. He doesn’t mention much more, but from the tone of his voice I could tell he wasn’t about to send me a copy. He tells me he’s also written hundreds of poems, which he says are equally as bad. Although he started his blog in 2005, he claims his writing didn’t even start getting good until 2008 or 2009, years into a career as a journalist and a writer. When I ask if he feels he could teach writing, he evokes a quote from a dead author, “As much as a golf pro can correct the flaws in your swing, you know? And that’s sort of how you can do writing or editing. You can’t make someone a good writer, it’s all internal, but you kind of have to push them in the right direction. Hopefully they do the rest of the work. It’s hard.” What really makes your writing good, he says, is reading a lot and writing a lot. They say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. But to be a good writer you’ll have to put in 10,000 hours of reading and writing. That’s two and a quarter years. Start now.

The truth about writing is that it won’t be good if you aren’t writing about what interests you. It could be well-written. It could be enjoyable. But it won’t be good writing. I asked Jeff how he chooses what to write about, ““use your own…narcissism to make it about you. For me it’s more about trying to write something that I’m proud of. I’m trying to do stuff that makes me want to remember why I was a writer. Which is stuff that has more imagination, creativity, and less linear ‘this is a review, this is a think piece.’” It was what he said after, however, that struck me the most, “You have to love writing first.” Most people think writing is a vehicle for illustrating your interests. For Jeff, writing is a vehicle for writing; an interest in itself.

I liked this sentiment because it flies in the face of conventional online journalism, where sites like the Odyssey take in young writers and tell them to, “Share, share share! After all, what’s the point of writing if your work is not read? Right? Right!” Write because it interests you. Write because it’s therapeutic. Write because words sound awesome together in your head. Share it if you like, but don’t write for the pure sake of sharing. I, like Jeff, have hundreds of poems spread throughout various notebooks, homework assignments, and Google documents. Even if I don’t show them to people, they exist as practice and pleasure. That is just as important as writing for others.
Passion of the Weiss’ tagline reads, “Even when I was wrong, I got my point across,” which seems to tie everything together. You don’t necessarily have to be right, you just have to be honest. Certainly don’t go making up facts, but don’t worry if you make mistakes. Writing is a learning process. Just work on getting your point across.

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