This is episode is the full, unedited interview with Jim Ruland. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined.
Guest Starring Jim Ruland, Author
Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield
Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE
Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE
Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:
Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation
Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League
Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory
Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC
The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.
MUSIC & SOUNDS
“Divider” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)
Hello, Adam Greenfield here, host of The Great Communicators podcast series. What you’re about to hear is the full, unedited interview with one of the guests we spoke with. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, I definitely encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined. You can find them all at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
The idea behind these longer, unedited conversation is to give you an opportunity to hear the entire talk, warts and all. This is not only a fun way to hear the full flow of the conversation but it also emphasizes the importance of the points made in the shorter, produced episodes, which again, can be found at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
Thanks for listening and enjoy the conversation.
Adam Greenfield: Alright, easy one. Name and occupation.
Jim Ruland: My name is Jim Ruland and I’m a writer.
A: What kind of things do you write?
J: I write a lot of different things. Professionally, I’m a copywriter, that’s my day job, I work in advertising, and I’ve been doing that for over 20 years. And I also do a number of other kinds of freelance types of writing, writing book reviews, columns, cultural columns. I also do some ghost writing, editing, I collaborate with people, help them get their stories out into the world. And, lastly, I do writing for myself, fiction and non-fiction.
A: Do you have a preference? If you could ideally write one thing what would it be?
J: That’s a great question. I think how it usually works, though, is when I’m working on a novel, working on a non-fiction project seems so much easier, where all I have to do is talk about what happened. But when I’m writing a non-fiction project and I’m in the weeds, I really miss the freedom of being able to make things up.
A: It’s nice to have that wide range of things to work on.
J: And then, also, the grass is always greener.
A: There’s a reason for that saying. There’s no reason to not search for it. Did you do any writing when you were in the Navy?
J: I did not. I was a deck seaman and I was not college educated. I went right from high school to the fleet and when you’re- when you get sent to the fleet first division, you don’t actually get the extra training that, say, someone who would- someone who’s gonna go into weapons systems is going to get basic, you know, math skills and someone going into the engineering field would get the basics of electronics and electricity. So I didn’t get any of that. “This is a paint brush, this is a chipping hammer, get to it.”
A: What’d you learn? What did you take away from all that, as far as implementing that into writing or communicating?
J: Well, I think that I learned that the people who tried to guide me as a young person were right, that they would speak in metaphors and windows of opportunity opening and shutting. On the first day of boot camp, that stopped being a metaphor. I realized that the doors had closed but they didn’t have to, I didn’t have to be where I was, that I put myself in this position. Literally, I volunteered. So when I got out of the military I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to go to college and I wanted to be successful. Whatever it was I was going to make sure I work hard and I didn’t have to go back to the military.
A: Was going back an option?
J: Oh, it was always an option but I knew that I didn’t want to, like, I didn’t want to turn wrenches.
A: That’s me right now, not wanting to go back to a corporate desk job. I quit that in August to do this and I’m struggling but I don’t want to go back. Alright, so, in all of my interviews I haven’t actually talked to anyone about written communication in a collaborate form that you do. Scientists are constantly collaborating. What is the- when you’ve spent time on your own craft, what is that like to, or what are the hurdles to communicating when you collaborate, even with ghost writing?
J: Well, there’s a lot of ways to approach it. We have this myth, I think, of the writer in the garret, you know, with a quill and the ink well, and pouring their heart and soul out onto the page and sending it off into an indifferent world. As soon as you try to put your work out there, as soon as you publish, you are collaborating. You’re going to be working with agents and editors and marketing people, your art, and the craft of whatever it is you’re working on is going to become a commodity, and that takes a team of professionals with whom you’ll be collaborating. So any kind of writing, ultimately, becomes a collaboration. For things that I’ve done, I think for ghost writing, the skills I learned in advertising were very helpful, in that you pay attention to be as succinct as possible and to always be considering your audience and to be attentive to voice because that’ll tell you how craft your piece. In terms of working with people, my first- the first kind of writing I did was punk rock zines, and that’s a fanzine, so you’re coming at it, not from a critical point of view, but you write for a fanzine to get access to get closer to the things you love and care about. And so that’s what I did, and that was my first regular audience, writing for that audience. And I still do that. I still write for punk zines, even though I don’t get out to as many shows as I used to. It’s something I’m still very passionate about. Now I write about other things other than the music itself but about being an old punk, being a dad, being a sober punk, all of these things sort of work their way in. To get back to your question about collaboration, a lot of the skills that I learned interviewing bands were a big help in terms of dealing with people one on one for co-writing assignments or ghostwriting assignments.
A: You mentioned voice earlier, getting your voice. Are there quick ways of doing that? Because these grad students are coming out with just a bunch of knowledge and data and probably haven’t spent a lot of time figuring out their voice. Are there tricks they can use to sort of figure out that quicker?
J: Well, I think being a good reader, an attentive reader, someone who is looking- reading in the field you want to participate in is always step one, always essential. And I don’t think- I say it’s step one but I don’t think it ever stops being a step you leave behind. If you want to write in a particular field you always need to know what’s current, what are people writing about, how are people doing it, what are shortcuts you can take, what are ways you can make a better impact, what are ways you can avoid redundancies. Just knowing the field will give you- as someone in the audience, will give you an appreciation for how you want to approach it.
A: Now, you’re most recent co-authorship was with Keith Morris. Was he the lead singer of Black Flag?
J: He was. He was the first singer of Black Flag. Most people when they think of Black Flag they think of Henry Rollins and I think he was the singer for the longest period of time, absolutely he was. But he was the 4th singer. It took a little while for Henry to come along.
A: I didn’t know that.
J: So Keith was there first. He was there in Hermosa Beach with Greg Ginn and other people like Raymond Pettibone was one of the original- one of many original bass players. I shouldn’t say original but one of many bass players. They went through until they found their guy, Chuck Dukowski. But yeah, that’s Keith on the first EP, the Nervous Breakdown EP, and it’s very much a South Bay LA viewpoint.
A: Were you concerned at all with the amount or type of audience that he had compared with some of the things you write with, say, the CityBeat or just some of the smaller….
J: No, I really- you know, my background in punk rock, I really felt like I had a good insight into what readers wanted. I read a lot of biographies. We’ve probably all read a memoir or a biography that was 35 pages of “when was a child” and “my education” and “my parents and their grandparents” and I knew that was not the way to go for this audience. We wanted to start on something really meaty and intense because that’s Keith, he’s an intense guy. However, I think the book- my damage, even more interesting than some of the things he said and experiences he had and things he did in punk rock and in music, was his relationship with his dad, which was just key to understanding Keith and understanding his development. So that absolutely is there but I just don’t open with it and when I get to it we get through it really fast. You know, Black Flag was a hardcore band. The songs were shorter and more intense so by design we made the chapters that way, too, so they were shorter chapters and a reader could get through two or three of them before even realizing, “Hey, I’m reading a book.”
A: I feel like that’s- I wonder if any of the hardcore Black Flag fans noticed that. Did you get any feedback on that?
J: I don’t know about whether it reads like a hardcore song, I think that’s kind of a stretch, but a lot of people commented on how reader-friendly it is and they read it in a day or two or a weekend. It was really very cool because the audience was a lot of people you wouldn’t consider readers. These are not people who read 20, 40, 50 books a year. These are people who had to wait for payday to get their money to go buy the book and then they read it. So when they did and had good things to say about it I was really proud.
A: Did you co-write that or were you a ghost writer?
J: I co-authored it so my name along Keith Morris, just smaller, as it should be. But the artwork is by Raymond Pettibone, who’s made his own change and has an amazing fine art career. But the type, it looks a little bit like a Black Flag cover, so even he had to use a microscope with my name to be there with Keith and Raymond Pettibone artwork is just fine with me.
A: So I want to ask a quick question about ghost writing. I want to know what- this is going to come out wrong so I may need to rethink or rephrase it but what added benefit does ghost writing have to communication? Because it’s not so much individual’s words, it’s someone else writing their words for them.
J: Yes and no. I would say it is their words but the syntax would be very different. Like in the example of Keith, Keith is a storyteller. If you get around that guy, he’ll tell you a story. Maybe not right after he got off stage because he’s diabetic and he’s 61 years old and might need a moment before he’s ready to clap people on the back but he’s a storyteller. But he has a very- he’s not a linear storyteller and he’s famously forgetful of dates. And he’s also not someone with a big ego in terms of his own output. He’s not really trying to mythologize Black Flag or Circle Jerks or his contributions. He usually can’t remember which song is on which album and when it came out. He’s not one of those- he’s not a historian of his own myth. Not at all. So he needs someone who can function kind of as a project manager, and I would say that’s kind of what a ghost writer does. There’s as much project management as it is writing. Because you spend a lot of time with the person, you record them, you get their words on tape, and then you go back and say, well, what did you mean by this or how did you- how did that make you feel or- and you figure out where to put the emphasis or how to construct the narrative.
A: How much back and forth was there with Keith or with anyone you ghost write with?
J: Well it really depends on the type of project. Keith was all in and I was all in, too, because he’s a legend, a huge part of the music that I grew up loving, so I was willing to spend as much time as he was willing to spend and he was willing spend a lot. So we spent dozens of sessions together in his apartment in LA just telling stories.
A: It’s weird- when I first moved out here in 2008, I would go up to Hillcrest. And I always thought it was weird to see- and his name just left my head. Judas Priest….
J: Rob Halford?
A: Rob Halford, yeah. So I saw him walking around once and thought he kinda looks familiar. So I asked someone and they were like, yeah, that’s Rob from Judas Priest. And I’m like, THE Judas Priest? He seems so- just chillin’, just walking. I wanted to ask him what his own stories were.
J: Keith’s very much like that. He walks everywhere he goes.
A: Is he recognized a lot?
J: Oh yeah. Well, he’s got dreads down to his ass so it’s inescapable, you know? People, like- even people who don’t know who he is, they know he’s somebody. But he’s really unassuming. He wears Vans and a t-shirt, a punk rock t-shirt. He’s still like- he’s kind of like a cult figure. He’s not tucked away in some Bel Air house, he’s not fabulously wealthy but everybody knows who he is.
A: You just said dreads. Do you know Ted Washington?
J: I don’t.
A: He does- he’s based out of San Diego here. He does Puna Press with- they published a book of my poetry, they have Ola Hadi, Ed Decker, Michael Klam.
J: Oh, ok. I know Michael Klam.
A: So he publishes this stuff and he does his own art and writing and he’s got, also, super long dreads so he stands out, he’s recognizable. Alright. So throughout your various assignments, how do you determine the tone and identity of the narrator?
J: Of the narrator…. Well, in a ghost writing project that’s pretty easy but that’s something you have to find. I kind of think about the mood. If it’s a fiction I think about the mood of something that I’m going after. Lately I’ve been writing a lot of darker fiction that is somewhere in the spectrum of horror and a ghost story. I’ve become enamored with ghost stories lately. And they have a very specific kind of mood. And so there’s- pay attention to the genre and something- for example, if you’re going to write a horror story, there needs to be something dark and creepy happening in the first couple pages. I mean, there’s- sometimes a horror story appearing in an anthology of fiction will let you know something bad is going to happen but the reader needs some context for all that. You just can’t take a left turn into that. So genre will play a lot to do with it and also audience. I mean, I’m not someone who thinks too much about where something might be published. I’m actually pretty terrible about that. But I always think about who the audience is in terms of the reader and that comes from my advertising background because you can’t write anything until you know who- and that’s a very retail and mercantile way of looking at it. If you’re going to sell to somebody, you need to know who you’re selling to. That’s the audience. Are they business people or are they stay at home moms? Are they weekend warriors? What kind of audience you’re trying to reach will determine how you speak to them.
A: Do you think that’s harder for scientists writing research papers or grant proposals? Because there’s not so much storytelling, there’s just reciting facts and data.
J: Right. Well, I would say, no, you’re not just reciting facts because there’s an objective. You’re reciting facts but there’s a desired outcome, and, the desired outcome, whether “give me or my university a bunch of money” or “publish these findings in your journal” or “share this information with your colleagues so that we can continue.” Whatever that desired outcome, that’s what you’re writing towards. That will inform how you open your piece and also how you close it. In advertising we call it a call to action. You always- you never write something without trying to give the reader a path for them to take or inspired them to take some kind of action, whether it’s clicking a link or picking up a phone or booking a reservation at a hotel or airline or whatever it might be. There’s always a path.
A: And there’s a goal. I spoke with a Scripps Research Institute scientist today and we were talking about how- we got into some weird, deep stuff, but we were talking about- she writes patents, trying to get patents approved. And when she writes it, she writes it for a specific audience, but then it goes to a patent lawyer who then takes that language and changes it. So it’s got to affect the- I mean, if you can’t write for- if you don’t know your audience, you have to have that someone in between, that go between. You have to have someone translate.
J: Right. That’s very common in a lot of forms of the corporate world, where someone will write something and the message will change. Like someone will decide, well, this message would sound better if it came from one of our executives and so now it has to change again because it needs to sound like it came from a person and not just your friendly corporation, whatever your corporation voice might be.
A: A template.
J: A boilerplate.
A: So, I want to talk a little bit about your editing process. How do you ensure what you leave on the page is enough to communicate clearly and not water down the subject or leave out enough to where it’s not understandable?
J: That’s a great question. I think having objectives in mind for what it is you want to communicate will help determine what to leave out. For example, in narrative storytelling, you’re always generating conflict so that your hero can overcome adversity or succumb to it and then give them an opportunity to reflect and rejuvenate and try again. But you’re always generating conflict in narrative. And so even when it’s something like a non-fiction account or even a book review, for example, you might be looking for, well, what was the book’s path to publication, if they had a really long journey, that’s a form of conflict that might be interesting to talk about. If their person is writing in field that’s very crowded yet enjoys success anyway, that’s a kind of conflict. Or if it’s something trailblazing and new, and you have to kind of convince people this is the kind of storytelling people should be paying attention to, that’s again another form. So, like, I think it’s funny, most writers would say, in life avoid conflict wherever possible. But on the page, we seek it out.
A: Yes. I would agree with that. At first I thought you were going to say you, as a writer, avoid conflict, but when I write, I’m all about conflict, especially with my poetry because that’s kind of what poetry is to me, it’s conflict of an emotional person in the world. At least that’s how I see it. But anyway. So when it comes to the amount of space you have between a news article and a book, what’s your mindset going into that article with that limited amount of time and space?
J: This was a big challenge for me when I first started writing book reviews, in that I would engage in all the necessary throat clearing, saying here’s the book, here’s the author, here’s the setup, here’s what it’s about, and then I would smack up against the word limit and realize I hadn’t really said the things that were most meaningful, that if I were to come up to you in a bookstore and you asked me to recommend this book, I hadn’t said the things that I might say to you in a 15 second conversation. And so I paid attention to that. Like, ok, I can’t be a slave to the format. What is it you really want to say? What is it you want to communicate to the people? And so I keep that in mind first. That’s always my first- I put that down first. Even before- because beginnings and endings can be tough so I start with thing I most want to say and I think that’s really helped me a lot because I’ve seen in my professional writing that I do for advertising, we don’t talk about word limits anymore. It’s all character counts. As things move online and become increasingly digitized, there’s less and less space to get your point across. Now, hopefully there will always be big, giant novels where you can spend as much time as want making your point but it’s- I think it’s a really good practice to always know what’s the thing you most want to say, make that your starting point, even if that’s in your headline. Then you’re free to meander.
A: Patrick was creating this MOOC, this How to Create a Comic MOOC. And I remember they were doing their elevator pitch on Twitter. So you had to fit it in- what that story was about in 140 characters, and I think that was a good test sometimes to really hone in on the crux, as John Hodgman likes to put it in his podcast, to really get down to the point of what you’re trying to say and then flesh it out from there.
J: Yeah, and I think, for example, if you follow comedians on Twitter, that can be a really useful tool just to study. Comedians are often responding to things and pop culture so it’s really interesting to see them use what they presume the reader will already know, it’s a springboard to what they have to say.
A: I follow a lot of comedians on Twitter. I think Twitter is best used for comedians and athletes and musicians. It’s perfect for that. Do you think a lot of it is attention span of an audience?
J: I was going to say no but the answer is yes, absolutely. One of the hats I wear is I organize a reading series and I’ve been doing that for about 13 years now. And just in that period alone I’ve seen a decline in just how long people are willing to sit in their seats. People will just get too antsy when it goes on and on and on, even ones they’re enjoying. It was a very- when I was in Europe two summers ago, it was a very vast difference in the way people consumed poetry and narrative in a performance space as opposed to here. Here it’s more like entertainment. So you got 5, 6, 7 minutes to entertain me. Otherwise, I’m turning the channel. Over there there was much more patience and there was much more willingness to sit for a longer piece, even if it wasn’t funny or moving, it was to be experienced and they were there for it. So I found that really interesting. So unfortunately yes, our attention span is getting smaller.
A: Does that make it harder for writers?
J: Oh, it’s never been easy for writers. It’s just yet another thing that- another obstacle for us to overcome.
A: And I’m sure- writers are very creative people.
J: Well, it’s really interesting to me, like, the niche that writers always have to carve out for themselves because- I mean, if you look at Twitter for example, at best 25, 35, 30% of the population uses Twitter. Everyone else doesn’t. But it’s still one of the many things that writers are competing against for readers. They’re competing against movies and television and new streaming TV and video games and now virtual reality. All these things competing for eyeballs and attention.
A: I don’t know what to make of it. I’m sort of that Will Smith character in I, Robot. Like, eesh, technology. I’m living with it, I’m dealing with it, but there’s a part of that uncanny valley that freaks me out, especially in that new Rogue One movie. Alright, um, just a couple more questions here. So your wife, Nuvia-
A: -teaches science. She also spent a lot of time in the pharmaceutical field. Are you able to connect any of her scientific pursuits with your writing and how the two work together? Not yours and hers specifically but just in general the two fields?
J: With Nuvia’s passion for education and science, the third part of that trinity is art and that’s always been a part of what she does. So she actually teaches science like an art class. It’s definitely a science course but she asks her students to do a lot, to work hard, and that’s something that I think is, for me, is valuable- been a valuable takeaway in my writing and that you want to make writing easy for people to get into but you also want to give them something to do when they’re there. You don’t want to spoon feed your readers or they’ll find something else that’s more interesting and more engaging. So you want your readers to work a little bit and that’ll make it more satisfying.
A: So be creative as a communicator and speaker, or educator. Do you have any advice to outgoing MIT students about effectively communicating and engaging an audience?
J: Yes, absolutely. If you’re one of those people that says, “I’m a scientist, I’m not a writer,” I think you need to scrap that way of thinking. Writing is just like anything else, it’s a tool, it’s a craft. Some people write at a level where it’s art, where they practice it like art, but it’s something that can be learned. The desire to communicate effectively can take you to some really interesting places and put you ahead of your peers who lack the willingness to go there. Things are- as technology moves forward, what’s interesting to me is that even though we see more video in advertising and more video in our online experience, it still works. All of that stuff is written and if you can express yourself in a way that’s engaging and interesting, you’ll be ahead of the game, ahead of the competition.
A: Can creativity be learned?
J: I think so. I think that- I mean, I think we’ve all had an experience where we read a book or seen a movie, maybe it’s one in a genre that we normally wouldn’t, like, say, a science fiction story or a fantasy, and it’ll just put you in a headspace and you’ll think about, wow, I never really thought about that before. And the next thing you know you’re spending the next few hours kind of what-if’ing around the world. “What if we all drove Land Rovers instead of cars? I don’t see any traffic signals in Tattooine. What is- how would that work exactly?” And the next thing you know you’re kind of engaging in some kind of problem solving for- it’s theoretical but all implanted by a story.
A: And a lot of scientists are always testing things, so in a way I guess they kind of have to be creative in that aspect. Obviously some of our biggest discoveries were by accident.
J: Well, it’s just kind of like writing. Nobody really knows what happens when you write. All we know is that it only happens when you write. I can think about writing and I can ponder and I can plan but until I actually sit down and start doing it, none of those things are going to take shape and they always take shape in a way that’s not entirely expected.
A: That’s all I have. Do you want to add anything else? Do you have anything else to add?
J: No, no.
A: Alright, cool. Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it.
J: You’re very welcome.