John Hodgman’s Advice for Writers: The Competition is Insane, and Persistence Trumps Talent

If you only know John Hodgman as the earnestly inept “P.C.” of those “I’m a Mac” Apple television commercials, you may wonder why you’d go to him for writing advice. Or maybe you’ve read his books The Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and That is All. But just because a man can pen three satirical volumes of made-up knowledge doesn’t mean he can teach you how to properly cast your own ideas into print. No, to do that, Hodgman draws on his shadowy past as a literary agent, “a bold seven-year attempt to convince myself I didn’t want to be a writer.” Remembering that stint spent reading through piles upon piles of submissions, “the most elaborate procrastination technique that I came up with to avoid writing,” he confirms what we all suspect: a great many people want to write for a living, “but luckily, very few of them are sane.” And among that same minority, the “medium- to low-talented but persistent” succeed where the “merely super-talented” don’t.

Here we have an adaptation of a theory I’ve often heard, living as I do in Los Angeles, applied to film and television: while millions of hopefuls turn up every year trying to make it in The Industry, most of them are idiots. Hodgman delivers his version of these sage words with a newish look, miles away from the deliberately stodgy, poorly-tailored appearance with which he pitched the dubious virtues of the P.C. Behind his ascot, rounded mustache, and orange-tinted aviator glasses, he looks like nothing so much as a faintly disreputable Hollywood mogul of the seventies. But the subtle outlandishness of his self-presentation belies the sense of his advice. Whatever your level of talent, put yourself in the running with “the people who keep submitting and keep doing and keep making.” And make sure that, while writing what you know, you also know what you know.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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