Ever since I started this question-and-answer column, people have been coming over and asking me questions.
Baruch Hashem, right?
Unfortunately, most of these questions have been about my column. That’s helpful. I can’t just spend every single column writing about my column. But this time, in honor of my first anniversary writing for The Jewish Press, I decided to see how many of them I can get in to one article:
Where did you grow up? And where do you live now?
I haven’t actually grown up yet, but I spent most of my childhood in my parents’ backyard. They live in Monsey, which is nice, because there are actually nice backyards where you can do things like torture insects and dig holes to China.
These days I live in New Jersey, because I wanted the feel of living in a punch line. Particularly, I live in Passaic, which is closer to New York City than most of New York State is. Not that I work in the city. I work mostly in my house with my kids hanging off my arm, because these days you can’t just let your kids play in the backyard unsupervised. What if the Chinese invade through a hole in the ground?
What do you do for a living?
You mean besides write for the Jewish Press? Actually, newspapers don’t really pay enough to live on, unless you don’t have kids and you don’t really need to eat or live anywhere. The Jewish Press is more of a side hobby that pays just enough to keep me from leaving. Other side hobbies that I have that pay just enough to keep me from leaving include writing for Hamodia, Aish.com, The 5 Towns Jewish Times, The Lakewood Shopper, The Queens Jewish Link, The Brooklyn Weekly, and various other magazines, writing a comic strip for The 20s and 30s, putting out books, teaching Language Arts to a bunch of high school kids who don’t really want to learn Language Arts as much as they want to go to recess, and writing and sprucing up speeches, web copy, scripts, and various other things for people who need it. Oh, and stand-up comedy. At the end of the day, I don’t really have time for a job.
How did you get started in writing?
I think I got started in Pre-1A. (For non-New Yorkers, this is the year between kindergarten and first grade. We need the extra year over here, for social reasons.) The teacher sat us down and made us write an “A”, and then a “B”, and so on. And the rest was history. And math and science. And recess.
Also, I used to make up stories with my action figures back then. As I got older, the stories got more sophisticated, and the reason I was still playing with action figures got flimsier and flimsier. Luckily, I’m the oldest of a truckload of kids, so my official reason was “babysitting.”
But eventually, I started actually writing things down, and got into the lucrative field of being rejected by newspapers using self-addressed stamped envelopes that I paid for. And the rest is davening.
What types of readers do you hope to reach?
Anyone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously. If the little things offend you, then this column is probably going to make your head explode.
Do you have any plans to write a book, or if you already have, to write another one?
At the moment, I have three books with Israel Book Shop Publications, and have a fourth coming out in May. My first book, Don’t Yell “Challah” in a Crowded Matzah Bakery! is about the stresses of putting together Pesach. My other two books, A Clever Title Goes Here and This Side Up, are mainly collections of articles that I’ve written — short spurts on random topics that are great for people who have Attention Deficit Dis-Let’s go ride our bikes.
This Side Up is also the first book ever to have been purposely printed upside down. That we know of.
Do you want to continue to integrate writing into your life in the future? How?
Like I said, it’s already pretty integrated. My entire life at this point, 24/6, is either writing, teaching people how to write, or thinking of things to write. Actually, if you include that third thing, it’s 24/7. I always get my funniest ideas on Friday nights, and then I have to try to remember them until after Shabbos. The worst is when I get them on the first night of a 3-day Yom Tov.
Do your family and friends play a role in your writing? Do they provide feedback and suggestions?
I give most of my articles to my wife for feedback, so she can roll her eyes and tell me they’re not funny. I think that ideally, my wife would like my columns to be made up of jokes that I hadn’t already told her when I was planning the columns. My kids don’t read my columns yet, which is great, because they’re in them, and my parents, who also show up in them from time to time, view them with a mixture of pride and embarrassment. Which is exactly the basis of a parent/child relationship anyway.
What is your writing process like? Describe it.
Before I start, I generally clear off my desk, so there’s nothing to distract me from writing. Then I clean the floor around my desk, wash some dishes, take out the garbage, dust the seforim shelves, and clean the dust out of my keyboard, and by the time I’m finished with all of that, it’s like 5 minutes to deadline. So most of my articles are written with a clear mind, but in a mad panic. I think that might be the secret to humor.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I like the process of planning everything beforehand — coming up with all the fun ideas without having to worry about which ones actually fit, whether any of them are actually good, and how many of them I have to cut out so we can shoehorn my article onto the page without having a foldout on the bottom. The best part of this process is that I can talk to myself, and when people look at me funny, I can say, “What? I’m a writer!” I don’t even have to pretend I’m wearing a Bluetooth.
What do you hope to accomplish in your writing? What message do you want to send?
My advice column tackles questions and problems that many of us face on a day-to-day basis, though it doesn’t focus so much on providing answers. The point, mainly, is to show the asker that he’s not alone, and that everyone struggles with the same things. And often, that’s enough to make him feel better, at least until he notices that he still has the problem.
A lot of times when something frustrating happens, people say, “One day, you’ll look back on this and laugh.” My column says, “Why not today?”
Got any questions for “You’re Asking Me?” You’re not alone.Mordechai Schmutter
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