December 4, 2022

40 years of horror stories from a career in letters

Those iconic words, warbled by the mother of an old warehouse buddy named Tom Wingfield, began my 40-year quest to write and sell a screenplay called Menagerie, about a small community theater group and all their associated headaches. But even before I met Tom (or at least the actor who played him), I had wanted to be a professional writer. That impulse probably began the day ghastly ol’ Miss Fronefield sent a nasty note home to my parents accusing me of plagiarizing a book report on A Tale of Two Cities. As she wrote in her note, it was too well done to have been written by a ninth-grader. 

I didn’t plagiarize that damn report.

My career began just two years later, as a stringer for my hometown newspaper on Long Island. After graduating college, I went into magazine journalism and corporate communications, and set a goal to become a published author of nonfiction books and novels. But when I played The Gentleman Caller in a community theater production of The Glass Menagerie, I eagerly added screenwriting to my list of goals. 

Little did I know at the time that the result of that compulsion would become yet another exercise in distress and exasperation — two words often synonymous with professional writing. In fact, my Menagerie project ended in a strongly worded cease-and-desist order from a New York City law firm. (More on that in a moment.) How’s that for exasperation?

I’ve been a professional writer now for forty-five years. And I’ve been complaining about it for forty-three years. On the other hand, there’s nothing else I’d rather do. 

Over the years, I’ve spoken to many students about the writing business. First I laugh. Then I say it’s a frightful occupation. But in the end I tell them that if it’s in their blood, they’ll pursue it no matter what. So when someone asked me recently to come up with a different kind of article idea, first I laughed. Then I fretted. But in the end I decided to write about being a writer. 

There are three reasons for that. One, I love to share stories, and I’ve got a few doozies. (Getting taken to task by Kathleen Turner is just one, but more on that in a moment, too.) 

Secondly, I want to do my part on behalf of the merits of good writing. Social media and, to some extent, corporate America have somewhat devalued the art of skilled, impactful writing. I want to help reverse that. 

Lastly, it may be therapeutic for me to let a few people know that I’m giving them the finger without ever using their names. It’s safer that way. There are a bunch of them — like the moron who swore to me that Karen Carpenter’s brother might try to punch me in the face. (I promise not to say “more on that in a moment” ever again.)

I had been working in New Jersey for 20 years. That was fine until the 2008 recession, when all the regional magazines I had been writing for went out of business, and all the companies that were using my editorial services stopped hiring freelancers, for budgetary reasons. 

It was time to leave the Garden State. Even though Gov. Chris Christie had not yet wedged himself into a beach chair, I was liking neither the political climate nor the fact that New Jersey was more crowded than a Wiggles concert. Speaking of which, since my wife and I had a daughter in Windsor who was about to give birth, the Nutmeg State became our first choice for relocation. 

Right off the bat, the move to Connecticut gave me the opportunity to jump right back into the writing game. Buying a new house was a maddening process. Working on our behalf was an inept and duplicitous team of professionals. If Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute from The Office were in real estate instead of paper sales, I bet they would have done a much better job. The experience compelled me to publish an e-book called I Would Rather Have Root Canal Once a Week For the Rest of My Life Than Ever Buy a House Again

I also threw myself into magazine journalism again, which came with some not entirely unexpected emotional manipulation. 

One of my first assignments for the now-defunct Hartford Magazine was to profile actress Kathleen Turner, who was appearing in a new drama called High at TheaterWorks. The editor helped set up the interview and told me that I had 45 minutes to sit with Ms. Turner and ask whatever I wanted. Since it was one of the highest-profile magazine interviews I had ever been assigned, I developed a list of more than a dozen carefully worded questions. But after just 10 minutes with her at the Hartford theater, Ms. Turner stood up and in her distinctively sultry and impudent voice said, “That’s it, kid! We’re done.” And walked out. 

In retrospect, it was a bit more impudent than sultry. 

There were, of course, many holes in the interview that I wanted to plug. So I went over the group email string in which the original plans were discussed and found an email address for the actress. I wrote and thanked her and asked if she wouldn’t mind answering a few more questions. Her response was — well — remember how mad she got at Michael Douglas in The War of the Roses?

Worse than that.

Turner demanded to know how I had acquired her email address. I explained it to her in a return email, but she never responded, and since there was no response, there was no contrition, either. In fairness, I’m sure her need for privacy and security had been compromised in the past, and she probably reacted instinctively. But she also made a grown man cry.

The author’s interview with Kathleen Turner quickly took a turn for the worse and provoked the actress’ ire.

YouTube.com / Photo illustration

There was another assignment, for a glossy quarterly, that was far less emotional but, in a way, far more egregious. I interviewed a Connecticut TV meteorologist for an article on regional weather patterns. It is not inconceivable to me that this man once got snatched by a tornado and had his intellect sucked dry, because what he told me just didn’t seem right. Climate change, he insisted, was a good thing for the planet and for the country. 

Really? In what universe?

A few months later, I pitched an article about another Connecticut television news professional to the same publication, and the idea was officially assigned to me. So I did some research, set up a meeting, went to the newscaster’s home, interviewed her about her life and career (she had an extremely intriguing backstory), and handed in what I thought was a compelling profile. A week later, I was told that the article wouldn’t run, and it became fairly clear that the reason had to do with the television station’s refusal to advertise in the magazine. Guess how much money I received for all my effort? Zero. Zilch. Not even what’s called a kill fee (a small percentage of the original agreed-upon rate).

As important as it is for society, journalism is also a business, and many policies are made more for the sake of the business, not for the sake of society — nor for the sake of the writers. Pay is often low. Compensation frequently comes months after articles appear in print. Can people like me dream of being adequately remunerated for the work we’ve spent days and weeks researching, writing and re-editing? Sure we can — but as we used to say in New Jersey, fuhgeddaboudit.

Policies like kill fees (or worse, no fees) are both emblematic and problematic. It reeks of unappreciation for the work. Consider this comparison: let’s say you decide to build a room above your garage for your mother-in-law to move into. A contractor gives you a quote of $12,000. But just as the final coat of paint is going up, your mother-in-law decides to move to Florida. Can you say to the contractor, “We’re not gonna use the room. Will you take $200?” 

Fuhgeddaboudit.

Maybe my next book should be I Would Rather Have a Colonoscopy Once a Week for the Rest of My Life Than Ever Accept a Kill Fee Again.

Speaking of books, while I’m proud of my Amazon page, it says nothing about the occasional turmoil that has been part of the book-publishing process. 

After complaining to one of my first editors about how difficult it was to earn a decent living as a full-time writer, he swore he had an idea for me that could put me on Easy Street. First imagine how eager I was to sit down with him so that he could tell me about the exciting book project he had in mind. Then imagine how homicidal I became when he told me that his idea was to set me up as an Amway salesman. 

As part of my research for a book on the legacy of singer Karen Carpenter, I interviewed dozens of people who had been involved with the Carpenters’ record company and worked with the group on tour. One source was at first very accommodating. But when he found out that the main title of my book was Some Kind of Lonely Clown, he demanded that either I change it or stop writing the book entirely. Richard Carpenter, the surviving sibling of the musical duo, would sue my butt off, the man said to me. It didn’t matter that the title was a line from their hit song, “Rainy Days and Mondays,” nor that it also referred to Karen’s well-documented personality traits — part playful jester, part struggling malcontent. This man wouldn’t let it go. He badgered me. It made me wonder just who he was protecting. Me? Richard? Or his everlasting love for Karen? (As I wrote in the book, many fans harbored savior fantasies for the ill-fated singer.) 

I didn’t change the title, and no one punched me. 

That wasn’t the only time I had to defend the name of one of my books. The Carpenter situation may have been the mother of all title terrors, but there was one that was even more upsetting because it was the mother of all — well — it was my mother! She was upset about the title I selected for a biography about my paternal grandfather, a comedy-music artist named Benny Bell who for many decades wrote and recorded novelty songs with names like “Everybody Wants My Fanny,” “Take a Ship,” “My Janitor’s Can” and “Shaving Cream.” The book’s main title was Grandpa Had a Long One, a reference both to the length of his career and also the name of one of his songs (which was really about noses). I was proud of Benny Bell, and proud of my book, but my mother feared that the title would humiliate the family. 

I didn’t change the title, and the family wasn’t humiliated.

Whether flushing himself down an (old-timey) toilet, as on his LP Laugh Along with Pincus, or giving himself a shave for his surprise Top 40 hit “Shaving Cream,” Benny Bell was more than happy to poke fun at himself for a laugh. He passed a touch of that trait to his grandson.

Whether flushing himself down an (old-timey) toilet, as on his LP Laugh Along with Pincus, or giving himself a shave for his surprise Top 40 hit “Shaving Cream,” Benny Bell was more than happy to poke fun at himself for a laugh. He passed a touch of that trait to his grandson.

Courtesy of Vintage Stand-up Comedy, Joel Samberg

Grandpa Had a Long One never made me rich, either. 

Indeed, many writers must supplement their income from books and magazines with something a bit more robust and consistent. It’s not like I can call Eversource and say, “Don’t worry, guys. I’ll pay my electricity bill as soon as 500 more grandmas buy Grandpa Had a Long One.”

The way I’ve always supplemented my income was by working with various corporate communications departments. Unfortunately, that was often as comforting as an 11-day power outage. 

Here’s the problem. Almost every communications director I’ve worked for has boasted about being a terrible writer. It was almost like a badge of honor to admit how they managed to be appointed to an important position without one of the most basic competencies. American business (with many exceptions, of course) devalues the importance of exemplary writing over other corporate needs. I believe it’s because very few regard it as a unique skill. Many executives, it seems, believe that since we all learn how to read and write in school, then just about anybody can serve as a company scribe. Well, by that logic, since we all learn math, too, why can’t just anybody be the company’s chief financial officer?

That’s why I’m pleased to reside just a few miles from where Mark Twain once lived. His quotes about the art and craft of writing may not help the profession today, but just rereading them gives me a vicarious emotional massage. There are so many good ones: One should never use exclamation points in writing. It is like laughing at your own joke. (Guilty!) … Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words. … The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. … If we learned to walk and talk the way we learn to read and write, everyone would limp and stutter.

Oh, how I would have loved for Mr. Twain to comment upon a national sales meeting I was once asked to attend. I was working as the sole corporate writer for a company in Stamford, having been brought aboard to develop, write and edit an employee newsletter. It was a project the company had tried to launch for years, with no success. I got it up and running. The director of corporate communications accompanied me to the meeting — a nasty and incompetent man who for safety’s sake I’ll call Fred Johnson. 

“And now,” a top executive announced during the awards ceremony, “it’s time to acknowledge our great new employee newsletter.” 

I straightened my tie and cleared my throat, ready to sprint to the podium. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he continued, “please welcome Mr. Fred Johnson.”

I felt like squashing that little lightning bug. 

Instead, I wrote an op-ed for a business magazine about what I saw as a serious lack of regard for writing in corporate America. When it ran in the magazine three weeks later, guess what. It contained two grammatical and two spelling errors that weren’t there when I handed it in. I limped and stuttered into bed that night, cursing the day I decided to become a writer. 

Still, I wrote many more articles, books, op-eds, a couple of plays and that screenplay to which I referred earlier. But here’s the problem: a relatively boring life like mine is not conducive to becoming well known as a writer. I don’t drink, never did drugs, and my arrest record stands at zero. Hell, I can’t even get anyone to publicly slap an unseemly label on me, like “vicious pest” or “cynical grouch.” With the possible exception of Twain, doesn’t it often seem as if you can’t be successful unless there are some honest-to-goodness skeletons in your closet that People magazine can write about? 

I have no such skeletons. But I do have that cease-and-desist letter about my screenplay. It’s not heroin or assault with a deadly weapon. But it’s something.

Menagerie is about the fictional Bedford Avenue Playhouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a little theater group that literally and figuratively sits in the shadow of Broadway, just across the East River. The story follows a group of actors and crew members who work against all sorts of personal and logistical odds to put on Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, while also trying to live their lives, deal with their families, and hold onto their dreams. In some ways, the four amateur actors who play Amanda, Tom, Laura and The Gentleman Caller reflect the characters they portray in the show.

After copywriting Menagerie and registering it with the Writer’s Guild of America, I started to send it around. A motion picture finance firm in Los Angeles agreed to discuss it, but worried that the rights would be cost-prohibitive. That baffled me; why, I wondered, would rights even be involved? It’s not the actual play, but merely a pragmatic chronicle of an amateur theater group putting it on.

Still, with neither a track record nor professional representation, I decided to check it out. I hoped to report back to that L.A. company that usage rights were not an issue at all.

Through research, I was able to get the screenplay over to a New York City law firm that represents the copyright owner. The law firm sent me the cease-and-desist letter. It appears that what troubles them is the fact that several lines from The Glass Menagerie are heard during rehearsals by the Bedford Avenue Playhouse cast. I’m convinced that no one actually read the screenplay in its entirety, but merely skimmed it to count how many lines from the play were used. As I explained to them several times, had they absorbed the entire narrative, they would have seen that Menagerie is neither an adaptation nor a story based on the original play. It is the tale of a group of people who live and work in modern-day Brooklyn, and it’s a tribute both to community stages and to Mr. Williams as one of theater’s most enduring creative legacies. Why is that a crime?

The law firm would not accept that justification for allowing Menagerie to move forward. As I mentioned to them, The Simpsons was allowed to devote an entire episode to Marge starring in a silly, mocking, musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire, also by Tennessee Williams. But my affable and deferential story about a community theater putting on The Glass Menagerie is outlawed? The law firm provided no rationalization.

I even revised the screenplay with fewer rehearsal lines. No go. Though mine represents just one small artistic endeavor out of tens of thousands, it sure put a sour taste in my mouth about writing in America. Or perhaps more specifically, the business of writing in America.

The cease-and-desist order remains to this day. I’m still not famous. I am still writing, though, because there’s nothing else I’d rather do. I’ll still rise; I just may never shine. But at least I can now officially be called a cynical grouch.

Joel Samberg’s new novel, Almost Like Praying, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. His previous articles for Connecticut Magazine included a reflection on record stores of days gone by, and a profile of the late Hartford Jazz Orchestra bandleader Donn Trenner.


https://www.ctinsider.com/connecticutmagazine/news-people/article/The-Misadventures-of-a-Writer-17192316.php