The Schmooze, or Why I am Irritating

I was interviewed on The Schmooze this past week. This is the podcast of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA., and it was one of the first podcasts I listened to when I started studying Yiddish, because it is in English and because it is generally very interesting.

I had a hard time listening to my own interview. Something that is likely invisible to other listeners, unless they are Toastmasters, gave me quite a lot of trouble: I say "um" a lot.

I used to not. I did college radio and my own podcasts, and I couldn't stand to hear myself say "um" back then, so I stopped doing it. I guess I started again.

There are a few things about this that are annoying, I know. The fact that I notice such things is a bit vain. The fact that I analyze my own interviews like a consultant on the subject of professional speaking is a little twee. And the fact that I get press is irritating. I know it is. I've always been irritating about this.

The podcast didn't happen by accident. The Yiddish Book Center linked to my In geveb article on Twitter, and so I tweeted something back to the effect of "Oh boy! Maybe someday I can be on The Schmooze," and they emailed me and asked me if I wanted to be on The Schmooze. I do that sort of thing a lot.

I am not what I would call a machine of self-promotion. I knew a machine of self-promotion once, a young filmmaker who once stood on Hollywood Boulevard in a sandwich board to promote his own film, and that sort of work seems frankly exhausting to me.

But I do regularly promote myself. I'm a Minnesotan, and there is a peculiar quality to Minnesotans that they don't like anything that has a whiff of self-promotion. So if I did things like send out press releases when I had a project I was working on, I would get ignored as often as not, because who did I think I was?

But I quickly discovered that the way to get local attention was to get national attention. So I sent my press releases to national publications, and it sometimes worked, and, at that point, the local press could no longer ignore me, and they would write sort of irritated articles about me.

I put out a pop punk album once. I recorded the whole thing in two weeks entirely on an iPad in Garageband and released it through the iTunes store, and, because I was the first person to ever do that, I got a story in Wired, a national publication about technology and culture. This led to other articles, and, when the local press got around to writing about the album, mostly all they had to say was that I was far better at self-promotion than I am at making music.

I'm not that great at self-promotion. But I do self-promote, and a lot of people don't, or don't do a lot of it, and that's how I have a Twitter following of 11,000, despite being nobody in particular. It's not a massive amount of followers, but in the world of Yiddish, it might as well be a million. It's more than YIVO, the Yiddish Book Center, and In geveb have -- combined.

So in my first year of studying Yiddish, I managed to write stories about Yiddish for Tablet and In geveb and get featured on The Schmooze podcast, mostly because of the novelty of me studying alone in Omaha. I have enough of a sense of perspective to know that I haven't earned these stories in the way others have earned theirs, stories which they may never have gotten. I know there are people who have spent years, decades, a lifetime on Yiddish and go unmentioned.  As I said on The Schmooze, I always try to be cognizant of how little I know. At least, I think that's what I said -- I couldn't stand my "ums" and so stopped listening before I got there.

While media attention is not a zero-sum situation, where any attention I get is attention someone else did not get, it sure can feel like that. I have been a member of the media, in one way or another, since I was in my early 20s, and I know how frustrated people get when they see the deserving go unnoticed while the undeserving get attention.

Also, since I am a relative novice in the subject of Yiddish, there is a risk I will misrepresent the language, or make some fundamental error, and that's a real concern. Reporters tend to look at what other reporters have written, they cannibalize previous stories, and so a simple error sometimes jumps from story to story, uncorrected, sometimes for decades.

I try to be aware of this. And so if I find myself with a microphone, I try to use it, when I can, to promote the work other people do. I try to remember to amplify other people's voices, especially those that tend to be invisible to the media. I try to defer to others' expertise, and not represent myself as having an expertise I do not have. I'm not always great at doing this, but I strive to do it as well as I can.

I'm going to keep self-promoting. I come from a show business background, and so the ballyhoo is part of the fun of doing anything. I once wrote an entire book on self-promotion for playwrights, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, arguing that people who write plays must take responsibility for their own press, and, more than that, should just behave like David Bowie in doing so.

And I discovered a long time ago that it doesn't hurt to pitch big. Not only did it turn out to be easier to get local coverage if I got national coverage, it also turned out that you found a bigger audience if you pitched, say, a theater story as a news story. So I'll probably be pitching my Yiddish stuff this year to national publications, publications that reach beyond the Jewish community, when it seems like I have something to pitch.

I do this knowing that the local press was probably right when they wrote that I was better at publicity than I was at making music. I'm better at publicity than I am at Yiddish.

But that still felt a little unfair. After all, an example of me being good at publicity is that I had written an essay for my webpage, intended for other local musicians, instructing them on how to write an effective press release. I had put this together by interviewing members of the local music press and getting their suggestions for what works and what doesn't. This helped both local musicians, by improving their ability to communicate with the local press, and it helped the local press, by reducing the amount of crappy, useless pitches they received.

So that's how it's likely to be. I will chase after news stories. But I will also try to share the benefits. I'm going to continue to be irritating, but perhaps I can also be of some service to the larger Yiddish community.