General Education

An Author’s Advice For Wannabe Writers: Go to Law School

An Author’s Advice For Wannabe Writers: Go to Law School
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Thelma Adams April 24, 2019

Sheila Weller, UC Berkely grad and author of three New York Times bestsellers, has a warning for wannabe writers: magazines are dead.

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Sheila Weller is a rock star among nonfiction writers, with three New York Times bestsellers to her name. The University of California Berkeley grad wrote the book on O. J. Simpson’s marital relationship in Raging Heart: The Intimate Story of the Tragic Marriage of O. J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson and told the story of the influential female songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s in Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–and the Journey of a Generation. Her forthcoming biography Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge, about the famed Hollywood insider who gained unexpected fame as Star Wars’ Princess Leia, will be published in November of 2019.

She’s also had a stellar career as an award-winning magazine journalist, contributing to Vanity Fair and New York Magazine—but in the following intimate interview with Noodle, Weller describes a sea-change in the industry. The big magazine paydays that solidified her career are a thing of the past, print magazines have given way to online content and, with all the current journalistic emphasis on politics, maybe going to law school would have given her an edge over the long haul.

How do you explain your profession to people who’ve never heard of it?
I’ve been an author and a magazine writer for a million years. I started to do it when people didn’t think about making money as much as they do now. I have written seven or eight nonfiction books, including the one to come. Three are New York Times bestsellers.

That’s incredible! What an achievement. Do you feel validated? Do you have… plaques?
Ha ha, no plaques. All were different. I count one that I slightly hold my nose about because it was a co-authorship and her name (ask your moms) is a laugh line: Amy Fisher, My Story. Big bestseller. Having gotten that out of the way, the other two are very different, were differently challenging and I’m very proud of both.

I was the only writer in any forum who got to so many of OJ and Nicole Brown Simpson’s best friends to write the story of how their relationship, in a close community of friends, turned into domestic violence and murder. That book, Raging Heart, was #2 on the NYTimes bestseller list and entered into the trial because I introduced a witness nobody knew about: Ron Shipp. Sold maybe 250,000 copies and was the top of the national news on Feb 1, 2005.

The next book was/is Girls Like Us—happily kinda adored, voted by Billboard #19 of the 100 Best Music Books of All Time and…truly kinda beloved by lots of people. It was very gratifying—the story of three musical legends and EQUALLY the story of the women who came of age in the late 1960s.

Among the many benefits of this career path, you’ve met many interesting, famous and sometimes infamous people.
Every situation is different. One of the most captivating was the O. J. Simpson book. I flew out from New York to my home state of California. In LA, I got many of O.J. and Nicole’s friends to talk to me. It opened up the couple’s relationship and that was really kind of one of those head-spinning experiences. I had access. That was a big thing.

Girls Like Us was the book that I was destined to write. I spent 20 or 30 years thinking about it; it’s about my generation and it’s also about these particular hugely talented women. The karma was right. Everything seems harder now than it was then. It’s a funny business.

It’s not unusual for writers to marinate over an idea for a book for years, even decades. What’s your advice to writers—or wannabe writers—to get started?
Do it both ways. A, B, C, and D: Get started NOW! Find a niche, a brand, a forte, a specialty—a category that is YOU—and come up with four ideas for books. Like: The Lazy Girl’s Guide to x, y and z (I am just making this up). Be of the moment and brand yourself for a series of books. And take notes! On a crisis, a sweet memory, a turning point or whole-fabric sense of your coming-of-age story in your family of origin. Let that brew. Also let brew notes and clips and others’ articles on your generation. Let that stuff brew for later.

People who have said books took decades either have another daily gig or lots of money or are exaggerating OR were doing other books in the meantime. Girls Like Us did in fact take years and a couple of decades. The idea of writing about my generation of women was as big as wanting to write about the three famous ones I pinioned it on. It worked because, yes, I did percolate.

Similarly, my family memoir Dancing at Ciro’s—the dramatic story of my parents and their generation—was something I was never NOT going to write. I did it as a reported memoir, pinioned in part around the Hollywood nightclub they owned and the culture of the time. I wrote it just in time—many of the witnesses were old and would die soon after I interviewed them. But, again, it had to brew.

We both attended Berkeley but in different decades. And we both became writers. I studied history and am now writing historical fiction. I’m curious: how has your education impacted your career?
I attended UC Berkeley, where I majored in sociology and anthropology. My mother was a writer. After I graduated from Berkeley, I came to New York City. I applied and got into the graduate program of the sociology department at Columbia University. It just wasn’t the time to study. It was the time that people want to be a little crazy. I had done enough papers and banging on my typewriter during undergrad.

Over the years, there was a period of time when I wondered why I didn’t go to graduate school. I think getting a Master’s or a PhD is a good thing. A PhD is good. I’ve experienced situations with writers and they have PhDs and it definitely burnishes their brand.

Honestly, now, I think people should go to law school. When I watch MSNBC or CNN, so many contributors went to law school. Seriously! We’re living in an age of journalism when it’s all about lawsuits. For example, the New Yorker writer and TV pundit Jeffrey Toobin is a lawyer. I think that’s what you should do.

Would a teaching degree be valuable for journalists and nonfiction authors?
I always have the feeling that teaching as an adjunct professor was a time drain so I never did it, but I regret that I didn’t become a tenure-track teacher.

So, maybe grabbing a teaching degree along the way wouldn’t have been a total loss; is that what you’re thinking looking back? Would you have changed where you started your college education—or was that a decision you’ll never regret?
Berkeley was a great place to go to school and it was very inexpensive. And all you needed was a B average if you were in-state tuition, which is absolutely not the case now. Now you need an A-plus-plus average.

What was the single-most important thing you learned in school?
I had lunch with my old college fiancé the other day. We reminisced that it was such a crazy time to be in college. I came away thinking: Seize whatever’s out there. Get good grades and take advantage of the milieu. It was rich. We were in the middle of a revolution and it was a very sexy one. Make time for the cool stuff and use it—while getting good grades.

What is your advice for students who want a career like yours?
There are no magazines any more. It’s all digital. Go to the digital sites that you like the best, whatever they are, and read them every single day, and think of becoming an entrepreneur. Think of starting something that does news and source news and picks up other content and is daily and go there. Find one website that is most promising—try to get in there and try to do your own startup. Look for the stories that are about to happen and claim them. Be an entrepreneur for your own startup.

What is your advice for students who know they want to go to Berkeley?
It’s a great place. It’s a fabulous university. Get good grades. Enjoy it and the whole town/environment. It is so incredibly left wing. That time you spend in college is short and precious. Enjoy it. It’s only four years. At the time I attended, choosing colleges was not a big thing you did. It was a choice between A, B and C. Don’t stress it.

How has the college-to-career pipeline changed since you attended college?
It’s a much more careerist world. Kids I know see attending college as a pre-professional world. They know the professors they want. Just know: If you have some idea of what you want to do, there are good professors everywhere.

In the woulda-coulda-shoulda department, is there something you would have done differently?
My sister’s a brilliant lawyer. I’m so not that. I would take jobs when offered.

What were the publications that made the offers?
It is immaterial and it would be confusing. They were highly respectable. cool and liked women’s magazines that are now digital versions of their long ago former selves. My advice: Do NOT turn down a good job. And multi-task! I would have taken jobs as editors. Do it. The magazine industry is dead and I would appreciate the financial security of a full-time job.

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