Seinfeld writer/co-executive producer Peter Mehlman recently published his short story collection: Mandela Was Late, which features his best and new stories about life in LA and NY.
Mehlman, who coined such Seinfeld-isms as “Yada Yada,” “sponge worthy,” and “double-dipping,” has had a very active post-Seinfeld career. He directed and produced several of his own TV shows, web series (The Narrow World of Sports), and independent films, including his award-winning short film, BLANK. plus, Mehlman won acclaim for his hilarious and poignant op-eds and personal essays in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Huffington Post, and Esquire.
Mehlman shares his experience going from sitcom writer to essay writer and published author, and offers insights and advice for writers.
On Thursday, April 4, starting at 7pm, Mehlman will be signing Mandela was Late at Book Soup in West Hollywood. Details here.
Why did you write Mandela was Late?
After 12 years of writing almost nothing but scripts, I was dying to get back to writing full sentences. I was originally a journalist at the Washington Post so it was like going home again. Of course, I couldn’t do actual newspaper journalism—they have staffers for that—so I focused on articles, essays and op-ed columns. The cache of having been a Seinfeld writer made it easier to get my stories read but I never really saw it coming together as a book. I just kept my eyes and ears open for subjects, one at a time.
It took seven years before Mike Sager, my publisher, started seeing some threads and themes running through a lot—not all—of the pieces. That was an upshot of my process: Just looking at the world around me and being very aware of my own little observations was conducive to writing essays with connective tissue. We see the world in our individual ways so there was no way the wide ranging array of topics wouldn’t start having overlaps of sensibility.
Mike and I met as cub reporters at the Post—we were covering the same darts tournament for different sections of the paper. We’ve stayed close all these years through some wild twists and turns in our careers. Having published several books himself, it was my good fortune that Mike grew weary of the publishing industry in much the same way as I’d gotten wiped out from the quirks of network television. It was as if, after all these years, our interests drifted back toward each other’s and we met in the middle. The Sager Group puts a tremendous emphasis on the writing over, say, stressing a specific target audience. It is truly an organization for writers in a time when the big publishing houses seem a little all over the place … not knowing what to publish or why they should or shouldn’t act on any one manuscript. Typical of this phenomenon: Before signing on with The Sager Group, another publisher looked at my essays and said, “We love this but it’s really hard to sell a collection these days.” I said, “Yes, I’m sure it is hard to sell a collection but guess what? It’s hard to WRITE a collection. That’s how the American economy works: I do a hard part, then you do a hard part.” Oddly enough, this person wasn’t amused and boom … I was blissfully in business with The Sager Group.
In what ways is writing essays different than/similar to writing for TV and films?
The biggest difference lies in how much more control you have over your product writing essays as opposed to scripts. With scripts, you can’t help but constantly wonder what any one of a thousand other people might think of your work. By nature, the essay is much more personal and it relies so much more on your own voice. If you write a crummy essay, there’s no brilliant actor who will turn your dreck into gold.
How did you make the transition into article writing?
Without having a TV show to funnel all my thoughts into, essays just seemed like the most convenient repository. And like I said, I always preferred writing full sentences to dialogue. Also, the transition was easy because Seinfeld forced you to explore your own thoughts to come up with story lines. Converting those thoughts into essays as opposed to say, a story for Jerry, was actually a relief because suddenly I could make observations and not think about what this or that character would do in this or that circumstance.
What was your favorite part of writing Mandela was Late? The greatest challenge?
The best part of was the freedom. And the greatest challenge was … the freedom. No one was looking over my shoulder, no one was dictating what I had to write about. Television and movies corrupt the very act of writing because of how collaborative they are. On the other hand, you’re so much on your own in writing essays that you have to discipline yourself in so many ways: What you write about, when you write and, most torturous, evaluating your own work.
Can someone “learn” to write funny? How?
To some extent, you can learn a bunch of the fundamentals of writing funny: brevity, subtlety, the humor power that lies in really good grammar. But as far as just having a funny sensibility, you either have it or you don’t. And once you realize you have it, there’s a whole process of cultivating it … as inexact a science as there is.
Additional advice for writers?
Just write all the time. Even if you’re working on something you know has the possibility of being garbage, try to finish it. You really learn more from your bad writing than your good writing because the good writing entails a degree of magic you can’t count upon.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
It would have been nice to know how much your writing can be improved by reading. Finding authors whose work you love and reading them in the most focused way possible is so helpful.
So, Los Angeles or New York: Which holds your heart?
I love Los Angeles. What people in New York (or anywhere else in the world) find kooky or flaky, I find inspiring. A whole city of people who move here armed with big dreams? Isn’t there something so incredible about that? And now that Hedge Fund operators have strong-armed all the cool/creative people out of Manhattan, LA looks even better. I always thought the alleged culture war between New York and LA was fought by the most miserable people in both places but if there is a culture war, LA has taken a sizable lead.