Paul MacArthur is the National Writers Union’s Assistant National Contract Advisor and Vice President of External Organizing, is the Chair of the Public Relations and Journalism Department at Utica College. He’s an accomplished freelance writer, having published hundreds of articles in more than two dozen publications, and co-author of The Speech: A Guide to Effective Speaking. As a representative of the National Writer’s Union, he’ll be advising writers on what to look for in their book contracts this weekedn at Killer Nashville 2010. MacArthur shares what drew him into the world of journalism, advice for aspiring writers and who has influenced his career.
PC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
PM: When I was in 5th grade, I decided I wanted to be a radio station disc jockey. That dream never really faded and by my junior year in college I actually started to DJ. Since then, I’ve been able to work as a radio announcer and radio programmer over the years, mostly in the jazz format. My passion for radio led to a lifelong passion for media. In addition to radio, I’ve worked in the cable television business and I’ve been an active freelancer since 1994. I’ve also been teaching at the college level since 1992, and am currently the Chair of the Public Relations and Journalism Department at Utica College.
PC: What drew you into the world of journalism?
PM: I fell into it accidentally. While I was working on my master’s degree in 1990, I started the Wrestling Perspective newsletter with my college buddy, David Skolnick. We both loved pro wrestling and wanted to write about it, so we started our own newsletter. The print version lasted 17 years and the website is still going.
During the mid-‘90s, I was able to parlay my experience writing, editing and publishing the newsletter combined with my jazz radio experience into various freelance music writing gigs. Over time, I was lucky enough to have my work published in some high profile publications such as Down Beat. Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve expanded my writing beyond music, wrestling and entertainment, into sports and even academic writing.
PC: You have co-written The Speech: A Guide to Effective Speaking. So many of us struggle with public speaking. Will you share a little about why that is, and what we might do to overcome it?
PM: When you speak in front of an audience, you’re exposed. We normally don’t think about speaking because we do it everyday. But, the moment we’re put in front of an audience, the fear factor sets in because we don’t want to look stupid. We don’t want to say the wrong thing. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves. If you believe the surveys, many people are more afraid of public speaking than death.
The easiest way to overcome a fear of public speaking is to do enough preparation. Know your topic cold. Know what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. Most importantly, practice. I can’t stress that enough. Practice. Practice in front of a mirror, practice in front of your friends, practice in front of your pets. But practice. As I said in the book: “Practice, Practice, Practice. And when you think you’ve got it right, practice again.”
PC: What do you see as the influences on your writing?
PM: I write about my passions. I love music, jazz in particular, so I’ve written about jazz. I love snowboarding, so I started writing about snowboarding and winter sports. I love travel, so I probably should start writing about that too…
In terms of writers who have influenced my writing, there’s not anyone I’ve really emulated over the years. Not sure why. The sole exception to that is Ken Auletta, whose writing for the New Yorker is tremendous. We got our Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees at the same schools (SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University respectively, tough at different times) and I find his writing to be an inspiration. I find his work humbling, to be honest. I’ve taken a technique or two from him over the years, though my writing isn’t nearly as graceful.
PC: What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing?
PM: I’ve interviewed my musical heroes, such as Brian Wilson, Tony Bennett, Gladys Knight, and jazz guitarist John McLaughlin. I’ve interviewed legendary pro wrestlers like Terry Funk. I was also able to snowboard next to Olympian Bill Koch, the only US athlete to win a Silver Medal in Cross Country Skiing. I watched him ski while I tried to keep up on my snowboard; no such luck! He also showed me a trail he’d cut on Stratton Mountain, mostly by hand. I’ve also been able to uncover the history of snowboarding and dispel many myths about the sport.
PC: Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
PM: I don’t like to disclose my upcoming projects as I don’t want to jinx them, but I can say I’ll follow my muse. So far that’s worked fairly well.
PC: What advice would you share for aspiring writers?
1) Write about what interests you. Writing about things that don’t interest you is a sure way to hate the process. At the same time, be open to new ideas. Don’t let yourself get pigeonholed. Explore new things … writing is a great way to learn about the world. I got to meet Huey Long, who at the time was the sole surviving member of the Ink Spots because I was assigned to do a story that, on the surface did not interest me that much. It turned out to be a tremendous experience and my friendship with him lasted from 1999 until his death last year. So, write about what you love, but also be open to try new things.
2) Write often.
3) Read great writing. The New Yorker is a good starting place.
4) Don’t sell yourself short and write for free or insultingly low pay. Writing is a profession and you are a professional. You should be paid as such. There are several places out there that will exploit you. Don’t let that happen. Act like a professional and you’ll be treated like a professional. Act like an amateur and you won’t get any respect.
5) Join the National Writers Union. It’s a great organization dedicated to helping writers in all stages of their careers.
PC: What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
1) You have to be able to meet deadlines.
2) You have to be able to research.
3) You have to be able to work independently.
4) You have to be able to do revision and be self-critical when you edit your own writing.
5) You have to have thick skin. Editors can be brutal. The reader who doesn’t like what you wrote will be even worse.
6-10) You have to get it right.
PC: You’re attending Killer Nashville this year, what do you believe sets it apart from other conferences?
PM: I think this conference provides writers with tremendous opportunities to learn about both the craft of writing and the business of writing. The intense focus on the mystery/thriller genre allows the conference to provide even more specialized plenary sessions that simply aren’t available at general writing conferences.
PC: Which aspect of the conference are you most looking forward to attending?
PM: I’m looking forward to meeting fellow writers and talking to them about the business of writing and publishing.