Interview conducted by Joylene Nowell Butler
Michael P. Geffner has been a professional journalist for over 30 years. He's won awards for both column and feature writing from the Associated Press Sports Editors and been acknowledged 7 times by the annual Best American Sports Writing anthology.
I met Mike Geffner last year when I joined his writers group: Mike's Writing Workshop. It didn't take long to realize that this was a man on the go, never taking long before he was onto another project. In addition to being an award-winning writer and social media professional, Mike is the founder/creator of the Writers Helping Writers groups on Facebook. The inspired Word: Passionate Readings of Poetry & Prose in New York City, Mike's Writing Workshop (on Yahoo, Ning, and Facebook), Mike's New York City Writers group, and Mike's Writing Newsletter.
How do you keep all that you do separate?
I guess I’m a pretty good juggler. LOL. Actually, I have so much energy for what I do that it’s incredibly easy for me to do a lot and to do it all and the discipline to maintain the lines between them all.
The key for me is constantly making “To Do” lists, virtually every day, and forcing myself through sheer will to follow those to the letter. So, in one day, I might set an hour or more aside for my newsletter and blog (http://mikeswritingworkshop.blogspot.com/), 30 minutes to moderate all my writing groups, two hours to do my own writing, and so and so forth.
What do you like the most of all the things you do?
At this point in my career – having been a professional writer over 30 years – I most enjoy helping others reaching their writing goals. I love being a mentor, a teacher, a coach. And it really makes my day to get an email or letter saying that something I said helped someone get a first story published or make a lot of money.
In recent days, I’ve fallen in love with producing performance poetry events. It’s called The Inspired Word (check it out on Facebook: http://bit.ly/SBMhs) and I’m hoping to grow it into something so huge that poetry makes a comeback.
Call me a dreamer, but that’s what I believe. And if you don’t believe you’re dead in the water.
Sportswriting seems to be your big love, but have you ever thought of fiction writing? If not, why?
Actually, sportswriting is NOT my first love. It’s just something I fell into. Fiction was my first love. I started out my writing career wanting to be a novelist or short story writer. In fact, in the year after college, I’d read over 300 short novels!—books by Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Conrad, Joyce, Camus, Tolstoy, etc., etc.
But someone I trusted told me the best way to make money as a writer at the beginning is to do journalism and that once I made it in journalism, I could branch out to writing novels. Except it didn’t turn out that way. For one reason or another, the novel thing never happened for me. I lost my desire to do that entirely and instead became a journalist covering sports for The Associated Press, The Sporting News, The Village Voice, and Details magazine, among many other places, however evolving into the type of sports journalist that writes stories in a way that focuses on what makes the athletes tick, rather than on the sport he or she plays.
I write in the creative nonfiction/new journalism genre, using fictional techniques of scene building to tell a true story, and I’m extremely proud of the fact that the compliment I receive mostly is, “Mike, I don’t know a thing about sports, but I really loved your story.”
That’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve.
The way I see it, I don’t write about sports, I write about people.
How do you go from interviewing the likes of President Nixon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to owning and running a very active Mike's Writing Workshop besides producing a popular newsletter?
I love building writing communities. I’ve been doing that in real time for nearly 20 years, arranging writer gatherings at cafes and bars in Manhattan. But in March of 2001, I was so frustrated trying to find the right community online—they were hosted either by snarky teenagers or preachy writers with virtually no pro experience—that I simply decided to start my own, Mike’s Writing Workshop on Yahoo (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mikeswritingworkshop/). And from a membership of one—ME—it’s grown to a group of nearly 10,000 writers. I still find that amazing. It goes to show you that if you build something of value, people will come.
What stopped you from becoming the next Howard Cosell?
I never wanted to be a Cosell. Never aspired to be a TV or radio broadcaster. I know that some young journalists use writing merely as a platform for broadcasting careers, but that was never me. I only wanted to write. And that’s all I’ve ever done.
Who were your mentors?
I didn’t have any early on. I don’t know if that was my fault or that no one around me was willing to help.
Later in my career, after I achieved a bit of success, I had a mentor who taught me about selling myself, which is something that didn’t come naturally to me. He was a retired salesman for The Wall Street Journal, a man in his 60’s named Al, and his words of advice continue to resonate for me. He taught me to see myself as commodity and that I could market myself with traditional sales techniques.
You've made a name for yourself, Mike. Do you find your reputation a hindrance, a gift or a little of both?
Having a good reputation helps get work. So that’s good. But one problem I’ve encountered over the years is having too many writers wanting me help them than I can feasibly handle. It saddens me actually. I truly wish I could help everybody.
Without exaggeration, I receive around a dozen emails from people wanting me to read their novels, poems, resumes, short stories, pitch letters, etc. Obviously, I don’t have time for all that. Plus, I absolutely hate offering opinions. I don’t want to be in a position to deflate someone’s spirits by telling them I didn’t think their writing was very good. Who am I to judge anyway? Maybe I’m wrong.
I don’t want the power to hurt an aspiring writer. My thing is to motivate, inspire.
What do you think is the biggest mistake new writers make today?
1) Not networking enough. Hobnobbing with the power brokers in publishing will get you more decent paying work than all the resumes, cover letters, query letters, and whatever else put together. This is a lesson I learned fairly late, but I DID learn it.
2) Writing for free too much and for too long. People get so addicted to seeing their words so easily published that they forget to make a career of it, to keep moving higher and higher.
3) Not shooting high enough. Rejection is a scary, painful thing. And as Freud said, human beings tend to move away from these things and instead gravitate toward safety and comfort. Problem is, safety and comfort are pure death to an artist. Play it safe and shoot low and you’ll not only accomplish little but you’ll get paid nothing or close to nothing.
4) Not putting everything they have into studying the craft. A lot of people talk a good game, but when push comes to shove, do little to get better. You must never stop learning. I’m still trying to get better and I’m 30-plus years in.
5) Focusing too much on online writing and not trying hard enough to get into print, be it magazines or newspapers. Online writing opportunities are so abundant these days that it’s incredibly easy to get published. That’s a good thing. But the bad thing is that most of these sites use aspiring writers’ desperation to see their words published as nothing more than a scheme to fill content. You should get used to having your writing edited and having strict deadlines and having enough fear that your adrenaline rages. In other words, challenge yourself to be better.
Two online sites I'd strongly recommend: Salon.com and Slate.com.
My advice to young and new writers is this: Develop a clear strategy: Create goals as well as deadlines to reach those goals. Attempt to make more and more money per story. Learn how to negotiate for better payments. And attempt to write for things that have greater and greater circulation.
Where do you find the industry headed?
I know this: EVERYTHING is changing! After that, I haven’t a clue, other than to say that probably everything or close to everything will be online eventually. And unless online sites figure out a way to make more money doing what they do, it doesn’t bode well for writers making a decent living.
Just look at The Huffington Post. Great site, great business model (especially in these tough economic times for traditional media), but the writers freelancing for them DON’T MAKE A PENNY.
What's it like writing in New York City? I bet there's no place like it. Do you think NYC has influenced your writing?
I know of no other life than living in this city, since I’ve been here since Day One.
For sure, the publishing action is right here. Almost all the major publishing houses, both in books and magazines, are here. It certainly makes it easy to meet with editors and network.
It’s been great talking to you, Mike. Any new ventures in your future? Where do you think you’ll find yourself in 5 years?
Other than my Inspired Word events, I just started Mike’s Writing Workshop on Ning (http://mikeswritingworkshop.ning.com/ ). And I love it! It’s sort of like a Facebook for writers. Very interactive. A slew of great apps. It’s a great way for writers to talk and share.
In five years? Who knows? My guess is I’ll still be juggling like a madman.