Your Writing Coach

Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff

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Creative Careers in the Arts Interviews

A Conversation with Author and Writing Coach Jurgen Wolff

By Molly J. Anderson-Childers | Posted February 7, 2008 | Updated June 27, 2019

Jurgen WolffI am pleased to be interviewing Jurgen Wolff, a writer who teaches creativity and right-brain writing workshops around the world, and has written half a dozen books, including Your Writing Coach." His screen credits include the feature film, "The Real Howard Spitz," starring Kelsey Grammer, and more than 100 produced episodes of various television series, including "Relic Hunter," "Benson," and "Family Ties," as well as his animated series, "Norman Normal."

Q: What was your first job as a young man?

A: The earliest was a disastrous attempt to sell Christmas cards door to door, during which I quickly found out I'm not much of a salesperson. Next my father got me a Saturday job serving behind the counter at a deli owned by a friend of his. Being a vegetarian, I was not ideally suited to this — I didn't know which meats and sausages were which. I lasted two Saturdays.

During high school, I worked in the school library as a shelf reader. That entailed making sure that the books were shelved according to their Dewey Decimal System numbers. I'd do that while the popular kids were pretending to do homework but actually flirting with each other or throwing spitballs at the shelf readers.

My first proper job was working in the circulation department of the local newspaper. My task was to answer the phone and pacify the people whose newspaper hadn't been delivered that day. It's interesting how enraged some people get when deprived of their newspaper.

Q: How did you transition from those early "joe-jobs" to the work you're doing today?

A: Even though those early jobs didn't have much to do with writing as such, they did give me an excuse to be around books and newspapers, I guess that's the connection.

Q: Can you tell us what inspired you to write "Your Writing Coach," and give our readers something to look forward to when they read it?

A: I'd been teaching writing workshops around the world and a lot of the participants said that the methods I use helped them to overcome writing blocks and to approach writing in a totally different way that made it easy and natural. I wanted to find a way to share those methods with more people, and decided to do the book and also to use the website to add material (such as video interviews) that you can't include in a book.

Q: With all the "how-to" writing books on the market, it can be difficult to choose one. What makes your book so special — so unique — so different from the others on the shelves?

A: My book reveals a right-brain approach to writing that I don't see in other writing books. I start with a look at the fears that often stop people from writing (or finishing what they write), and how to overcome those. I also tackle the issues of how to motivate yourself, how to deal with rejection, and a lot of other psychological aspects of writing, as well as the more traditional craft elements. I think too many books take kind of a mechanical approach and point people toward methods that strip away their individuality.

Q: On your website, you state that two chapters are missing from most books about writing. Can you speak to that, and let us know what we're getting from your book that we can't find elsewhere?

A: In addition to what I've said above, the book has a chapter on the new media. I think there are going to be tremendous opportunities for writers in the new media — which is reflected by the fact that the Writers Guild of America is willing to go on a very painful and costly strike in order to try to make sure that they will share in the profits from this arena. I believe it's vital for writers to educate themselves about what's happening in this field. There's not much money in it yet, but there will be, and there is the chance for writers to innovate and participate in shaping this new landscape.

I think one example of this is how I've used the web site that goes with the book. In the book, at the end of each chapter there is a code word. If you go to my writing website and type in the code word, that unlocks additional material that supplements and enriches what's in the book. For example, there are video interviews with Robert Cochran, who co-created the series, "24," and with a top agent and a successful novelist.

The book also has a chapter on guerrilla warfare for the writer. Every other book I've seen is still telling you just the traditional approaches. I cover those in one chapter, too, but then I added a chapter on unconventional marketing techniques that writers can use to stand out in today's crowded marketplace.

Q: This can be a tough business to break into. Do you have any specific advice for young writers or would-be coaches who would like to make a good living without compromising their creative dreams?

A: The first important thing is to find out which branch of writing best suits you. For example, scriptwriting, especially for TV, is very collaborative, and you have no say, ultimately, over what is done with your work. If you have talented collaborators who make your work look even better, then it's wonderful; if you end up with people who are more intent on feeding their egos than serving the material, it feels terrible. If you write plays, the people who produce them can't change anything without your permission. If you write novels, you may get suggestions from your editor, but again the final decision is yours. If you want to write non-fiction articles, you'll have to work well under deadline pressure. Each kind of writing has its good and bad points, you just need to be clear on those at the start.

Second, I would suggest that you specialize, at least in the beginning. When I started out, I tried to do every kind of writing. It was only when I focused my energy on writing sitcoms that I had a breakthrough. Eventually I was able to branch out into writing drama, TV movies, feature films, and plays and books as well, but it pays to pick one and stick with it until you've had a bit of success.

Q: Can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced early on in your career, and how you handled them?

A: I think the hardest part for everybody is that period before you really break in. It took me about three years of full-time effort before I had my first success (being hired to write an episode of a sitcom). With hindsight, three years doesn't seem so bad. But when you're in the middle of that period, you have no idea when — or whether — that breakthrough is going to come. You just have to keep writing and have confidence. It really helps if you have some moral support. In the book, I dedicate a chapter to how to find that support — that's another topic I don't see covered in other books, and I think it's vital. The great thing is that these days even if you don't have that kind of support from your family and friends, you can get it online.

Q: Can you explain some of the benefits of working with a writing coach? Would you walk us through a typical session, so our readers will know what to expect if they decide to work with you to enhance their writing skills?

A: Actually, I have tried to put as much as possible of that process into the book and the website, and I take on a very limited number of writing clients as a writing coach. When I do work with individuals, it's usually to help them with the big steps. For instance, someone came to me recently who wanted to write a non-fiction book but he had so much material and so many ideas that he couldn't figure out how to organize it into a structure that made sense. I looked over his topics before our meeting and then we had a 90-minute session in which I suggested a structure and we refined it together.

In another case, I was helping someone figure out how to market his novel — again, that was a one-time consultation. I've also helped people who have writer's block — there's not just one way to handle that, it depends on what's causing the block, but I've been very successful with that, usually with just one or two sessions either in person or via phone.

Q: What is your standard fee for your coaching services, and what does it include?

A: I don't have a set menu, it really depends on what the individual needs. For individual coaching, I charge $500 for the kind of session I just mentioned — that would include first finding out (via email or phone) what the person needs, then looking over sample material if that's appropriate, and then having a 60-90 minutes session in person if they happen to live in London or in Southern California (I divide my time between the two), or more typically using the phone and email. It also includes coming back to me for follow-up questions. To be honest, for lower-level kinds of coaching, I'm not the best choice, my specialty is getting people on the road to writing and marketing their writing successfully.

Q: You've had a very successful career. What's in the future for you, Mr. Wolff? Where do you hope to be in ten years? Are there any exciting projects you're involved in, or events coming up that you'd like to tell us about?

A: I've got another book coming out from Pearson Publishing, called "Focus." It's a right-brain approach to time management and goal-achieving for creative people. Most of the materials out there are by and for left-brain people so there's a real gap. As I've done with "Your Writing Coach," I'm going to be using the accompanying website to add a lot of value.

I'm currently writing a screenplay that's a surreal comedy on the topic of global warming — very different from anything else I've written before, and in this case I'm working with the director right from the start, which is very helpful. The working title is "Global Beach."

I've also recently finished writing a novel, so in that arena I'm in the same boat as a lot of new writers, looking for the right agent and publisher (my current agents don't handle fiction). There's a lot of starting over in this line of work, but it does keep you engaged and alert to continue learning new things all the time.

I hope that in ten years time we'll be talking about my successful novels, and that I will have found new ways to encourage and nurture people whose dream is to reach others through their writing.

Q: Can you give our readers a simple writing exercise to do at home when they are feeling uninspired, blocked, or "fresh out of ideas"?

A: I like to collect those postcards that you see in racks in restaurants and stores — they're usually advertising something but the images are quite varied. I keep a stack of them on my desk and when I need some stimulus, I pick one at random and try to forge an association with what I want to write. The image is really just the starting point, the idea is to let it nudge your ideas to start flowing.

For example, later today I'm writing a dinner scene for the script I mentioned above. I've just picked a postcard randomly, and it shows a kitten. This makes me think about the fact that in some countries they eat kittens or puppies, and it gives me the idea that maybe the chef has decided to serves something very unusual (not a kitten or puppy!). The way the characters react might be a good way to reveal a bit more about their personalities.

You don't need the postcards, you can do the same with any magazine or book that has a lot of different kinds of pictures. If you're not working on anything specific, a good exercise is to take an image and write a couple hundred words about it. Maybe the kitten was a Christmas present for a child...

Q: Is music an important inspirational tool for you? Many writers I know love to listen to music while they create. What's in your stereo or iPod right now that just you can't get enough of?

A: I love You can listen to music on your computer as you write, and it's free. You name a few songs or artist you like and they will play songs by them and also by others whose music is similar. You can judge their selections, so gradually the program gets better at predicting what you'll like. You can set up a separate "channel" for each kind of music you like — I have a blues channel, a world music channel, a classical music channel, even a country music channel, and I listen to them as the mood takes me. At the moment, Mavis Staples is the artist I'm listening to a lot.

Q: What is the most fabulous advice you have ever received? Who handed down these words of wisdom?

A: There are two books I recommend highly for inspiration about being creative and following your dream — I re-read these once a year. One is "The Courage to Create" by Rollo May, the other is "No More Second-Hand Art" by Peter London.

One very specific bit of advice I got from TV writer/producer Stephen Cannell was, "A good idea, badly presented, sounds like a bad idea." That applies to pitching and to writing query letters and book proposals. It taught me that you have to apply your creativity to marketing yourself and your work, too. It led me to researching the creative and inexpensive ways that people have done this, and I used that information to write the book, "Do Something Different" (Virgin Books). It contains 100 case studies, with suggestions for how you can apply what each of those people did, to your own efforts. It has been published in Spain, Korea, India, and China, as well as the U.S. and U.K., and I've had emails from all over the world from people who have said it inspired them.

Q: What is your favorite way to relax when you're not at work?

A: Reading, movies, and the theater. I also like to do some cartooning. My "Focus" book has one of my cartoons for every chapter, and I've also got a cartoons page on my Web site.

Q: Just for fun…Do you have any tattoos?

A: No, maybe because I'm from the generation when the only people who had them were sailors and carnival workers. Now they're so common that they don't seem very interesting anymore.

Q: What is your favorite little "guilty pleasure" — the most luscious way you spoil yourself after a hard day at work?

A: I'm a bookaholic. One room in my flat is a library/guest room and there are more books in there than I'll probably ever have time to read. Of course that's no reason not to buy a few more...and there's a big book store one block from where I live.

Q: What inspired you ten years ago? What inspires you today?

A: Ten years ago I was working as a consultant for Sony to help them develop series for German TV — it was kind of a new frontier. Today I'm inspired by how easy it is for the individual, or a small group of people, to create and distribute material without requiring huge budgets or the OK of established big businesses. I think it will be easier for the writer or artist who has a unique vision that may fall outside of the mainstream to find people who will appreciate what he or she does and, with luck, to pay for it as well so the artist can keep on creating.

Q: What is your favorite movie? Favorite book? Favorite artist? (Or your top ten list of favorites…)

A: My favorite films are "Lawrence of Arabia," "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "Midnight Cowboy," "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Godfather I and II." The other day I saw "Charlie Wilson's War," which is very good.

Among contemporary authors, I'm fond of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, and Robertson Davies. "Freedomland" is one of the best books I've read for long time, by Richard Price — don't hold the movie version against him! My favorite artists are Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali, and — purely for his marketing genius — Andy Warhol.

One thing that influenced me a lot was watching the original "Twilight Zone," created, hosted, and sometimes written, by Rod Serling. He used the best writers of the day, including Richard Matheson. As a teen-ager, I read in the newspaper that Serling had been hospitalized and I wrote to him in care of the hospital, telling him how much the series had meant to me. He was kind enough to write an encouraging note back to me, and unfortunately he passed away not long after that.

Q: Where do you go when you need to "get away from it all" for awhile and re-focus your creative energies? It seems that most of the folks I work with have a need for solitude and a retreat from polite society once in awhile to keep those creative juices flowing…why do you think this is so important for artists, writers, and other creative souls?

A: Yes, I think this is absolutely necessary. Writing looks easy from the outside, but we know better. It's a kind of outpouring, and periodically you have to refill the well. I need a little of that time every day, just to be quiet somewhere, or to read, or to surf the internet with no particular purpose. I work out at the gym three times a week and find that is suitably boring to also serve as a brain-rest. In between projects I do also travel to some nice warm places and just read or hang out — the most isolated was a couple of weeks in the Maldives. There was no TV, no newspaper, and just one phone to be used only in case of an emergency. It took a few days to get used to that, then it was bliss.

Q: You've already proven yourself as a screenwriter in the competitive world of Hollywood. Do you have any new scripts you're currently working on? Which actors or directors do you dream of working with in the future?

A: I've actually shifted more toward books recently, but I am working on the global warming script I mentioned before, with an up-and-coming director named Fulvio Bernusconi. I would love to have Edward Norton or John Cusack star in something I've written — they are two of the best younger actors around.

It was fun having Kelsey Grammer star in my film, "The Real Howard Spitz." I actually appear with him in a scene toward the end (I'm the tall guy in the coffee shop, complaining to his agent about writing sitcoms). If you see it, you'll understand why my acting career never advanced...

Q: You've traveled the world, inspiring people around the globe with your workshops on creativity and right-brain writing. Can you talk about some of your experiences in using creative work as a bridge to communicating with and understanding people from other cultures? What do you feel is the most important aspect of your work?

A: I hope that I can help people to connect with what only they can write and to help them have the courage and persistence, as well as the craft, to keep going in the face of rejection. These days, in so many cases when you submit something, you get no answer — not a 'no,' just silence, which is worse, I think. It's easy to get discouraged and think about giving up, or to get blocked and not find your own way out. I hope that my books, websites and blog will encourage people to follow their vision and dream.

One of the most rewarding times I've had was going to Soweto to help some of the young people in the township start to write their own stories — stories the world had never heard. More recently, I taught in Slovenia and again the writers there were so excited about finding their own voices and figuring out how to share their stories. That process goes on inside every individual and it deserves to be honored.

©2008 Molly J. Anderson-Childers. All rights reserved.

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Jurgen WolffJurgen Wolff is a writer who teaches creativity and right-brain writing workshops around the world. He has written half a dozen books and his screen credits include the feature film, "The Real Howard Spitz," starring Kelsey Grammer and more than 100 produced episodes of various television series. ...

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