A NotGraphs Fireside Chat with Jeremy Blachman


The NotGraphs Fireside Chats comprise a series of ruminations on the craft of writing, sometimes in relation to baseball, sometimes less so. The goal of this exercise: to learn something about baseball from the way we craft meaning about it, and perhaps about ourselves from our need to do so.

All Fireside Chats are rated TLDR.

Today’s guest is Jeremy Blachman, who you may be familiar with from his writing on a website called “NotGraphs”.

Patrick: So let’s begin. What are you going for in a baseball article? How do you know when you’ve achieved it?

Jeremy: I don’t know that I’m ever sure what I’m trying to achieve. What I’d like to think are my best posts are the ones that have a genuine idea behind them. My favorite post I’ve written for NotGraphs was a mailbag of rejected fantasy chat questions, because I felt like it was not only a legitimately worthy idea for a piece, but that I’d read so many real chats over the years and felt comfortable enough with the form that I knew I could execute.

On NotGraphs and elsewhere, I feel like the things I have the most fun writing are ridiculous versions of real content we see all the time — prospect analysis, trade rumors, Hall of Fame ballot justification columns. I tackled a lot of the obvious ones when I first starting writing for NotGraphs, so I feel especially pleased when I can occasionally stumble on something new along those lines to parody. The rest of the stuff I come up with, who knows — to come up with four actual post ideas a week is absolutely a challenge, and whenever I can find a series that works — Ask NotGraphs, the MLB TeeVee series I played with last season, etc — it’s a bit of a relief. How do I know I’ve achieved whatever I’m going for? If no one posts a comment that makes me think about pulling the post, I guess I feel okay about it…

Patrick: I can’t imagine writing four articles every week. I can barely imagine three, and I write three. Is it something you’ve adjusted to over time? Does it cause you to change your approach, take a few miles off the fastball to save the metaphorical arm? How much or how little do you consider yourself a perfectionist in your approach to writing?

Jeremy: I think the blog form prevents someone from being too much of a perfectionist. What’s nice about four pieces a week is that it’s hard to feel too precious about them. Especially on NotGraphs, where the goal is merely to entertain. Some work, some don’t, and I don’t know about you, but it’s often a surprise to me what gets a bunch of comments and what quickly slips into oblivion. When I was blogging as Anonymous Lawyer, at its height, I was posting 4 or 5 times a week… so the quantity doesn’t really faze me, but certainly I want to hit on something that works as often as I can. But, sure, there are days when I’m just trying to find an idea — anywhere — and get something up there in time.

I’m certainly more of a perfectionist when it comes to longer form material — scripts and screenplays, or writing that I know is going to have a life beyond the 24 hours it takes for a blog post to slip down a page. I think reader expectations are different for a site like NotGraphs that’s throwing new content up every few hours versus a book or even a magazine article that’s going to live somewhere for eternity. I think, even with all of the online writing I’ve done, sadly, I do still feel a difference between print and online. If you make a typo online, you can fix it– which, at least for me, takes a little of the pressure off, as far as any perfectionist tendencies I might have.

Patrick: Do you consider yourself a satirist? The term has lost some of its edge in the last half-century, but in The Olden Days satire meant really gunning for your target, and trying to evoke some change in either the target itself or the common readership. Do you have an understated cause behind what you write?

Jeremy: I’m certainly not gunning for anything on NotGraphs. I’m sure I have pieces with an actual point of view, where I do have a completely genuine opinion about something and am trying to use humor to illustrate — I don’t have tremendously positive feelings about Hall of Fame voting, for instance, although even as I write that, I don’t know how much I truly care. I wish I could summon the passion that a site like Fire Joe Morgan lived on– that was so excellently driven by a real point of view. I’m mostly just trying to be amusing, when I’m trying anything. My Anonymous Lawyer material is much closer to genuinely being satire. I do have a point of view about law firms, or at least I did, and I absolutely felt like I had a cause behind what I was writing. But it’s hard to find causes to feel strongly enough– and to feel informed enough– to satirize.

I wrote a couple of political humor pieces for The New Republic site during the election cycle, but I don’t think they rose to the level of satire. I’ve written a few pieces about the business of writing — a piece about a “social media for writers” talk I went to probably comes closest to anything truly satirical I’ve had published recently — I was definitely aiming at a target there, and absolutely feel like there’s an entire industry of uselessness trying to take advantage of aspiring writers and separate them from their money.

Patrick: It’s hard to judge you for your inability to take baseball seriously. But I feel like at the root, for any humor to work, it has to have its fingers in something serious: not necessarily locking it in its grip, but at least enough to brush against it at times. Absurdity with no foundation, it seems to me, means nothing more than random words.

Personally, and this is probably more than a little self-incriminating to admit, the absurdity in how I write about baseball is reflected in an absurdity in myself, my willingness to care about these trifles, both the game itself and how much I care about something that disappears off the page in 24 hours. I recognize this as self-absorption. It seems as though you, of all the NotGraphs authors – and correct me if I’m wrong – interpose your own identity the least in your writing. Is this a result of the development of your voice, a conscious choice? Or do you bifurcate yourself, save that serious part of you for your serious work?

Jeremy: Hmm. I’d like to think that an writer’s identity comes through no matter what they’re writing about, but I think you’re probably right that the stuff I’m writing on NotGraphs is not terribly personal — though I think I’ve had moments in the Ask NotGraphs series that I brought some personal reality into. It’s definitely not a conscious choice on my part to leave myself out of most of my NotGraphs posts, although as I type that, I realize maybe in some ways it is. I initially started blogging while in law school, back in 2002, and the stuff I blogged about was about as personal as I’m ever going to be comfortable writing on the Internet. And I blogged like that for a while, but at some point — coinciding, coincidentally or not, with finishing law school, getting a chance to write professionally, and meeting my wife — I kind of stopped feeling that need as much, and — not on purpose — found a lot of my writing — at least the short-form stuff — was less about me. I think it’s also a function of how I see the mandate on a group endeavor like NotGraphs — rightly or wrongly, I worry that if something’s not tied closely enough to the baseball, it’s better off elsewhere. This question did make me reflect, though — and if someone’s looking at my archives from the past couple of weeks, I’ve tried to push in a few posts: my fantasy baseball rant, for instance — to hit at something a little closer to home.

Patrick: Right now, I’m in the midst of a pretty awful funk when it comes to writing. There are weeks when everything I write works instantly, and other weeks where I can’t seem to put two good words next to each other. Do you deal with a similar sense of streakiness in your writing? If so, what do you imagine causes it, and how do you try to work your way out of it?

Jeremy:: I read interviews where writers talk about waking up each morning, sitting in front of the computer, spitting out the next 2,000 words of whatever they’re working on, and going on to spend the rest of their day in unburdened bliss. I’ve never been able to get into any sort of successful pattern like that. What gets material out of me is someone waiting for it — and even better if there’s a hard deadline. Make me feel like you’re evaluating my worth based on how quickly I do it — and it’s done, like magic. The stuff that no one’s waiting for (a second novel!) linger on the to-do list until inspiration strikes, and sometimes inspiration strikes quickly and sometimes I write three chapters of a novel and then it sits on my desk for months, tormenting me, until I can summon the motivation to turn back to it. The way I work my way through writing that isn’t happening is by throwing as many things onto my plate as I can, and hoping that giving myself lots of choices will at least get the words flowing on something… and if I can make steady progress on a bunch of different projects, even if they don’t get done in the order I’d like, eventually there’s some finished material. Also, promising things I haven’t done yet, so that eventually the guilt kicks in and it gets written.

Even faceless, invisible readers motivate me. My secret, anonymous blog with an audience of a few hundred people a day gets regular posts, no problem. My comedic play set in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (yes, seriously), which no one is or will ever be waiting for, is really, really hard to finish. I’m co-writing a novel right now and, honestly, I wish I was co-writing six different novels with six different people, because the guilt of not sending my chapter when I’ve promised it somehow forces it to get written. Short humor pieces, for me, are like a drug. The instant high of getting them accepted somewhere. The distraction from larger things I wish I could finish instead. The ability to fool myself into thinking they’re the most useful things I can be spending my time writing. The analogy falls apart, but, I don’t know.

There are absolutely days when all that ends up getting written are some e-mails, and those are the days I either force myself to stay up late and write in the middle of the night, or I give up and go to sleep at 10 and pretend that tomorrow will be better. Forcing myself to stay up late is inevitably the better way to get anything written, but, too often, I give in and go to sleep. Sleep is great.

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Patrick Dubuque is a wastrel and a general layabout. Many of the sites he has written for are now dead. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.

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