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Art Bell: “Find a good writing group.”

Undertaking big things requires you to put yourself in the spotlight, and to face the fact that if you fail, it will be a public personal failure you will live with your whole life. And you have to be okay with that in order to succeed. As part of my interview series on the five […]

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Undertaking big things requires you to put yourself in the spotlight, and to face the fact that if you fail, it will be a public personal failure you will live with your whole life. And you have to be okay with that in order to succeed.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Art Bell.

Art is a former television executive best known for creating, building, and managing successful cable television channels. He developed the concept of The Comedy Channel (which became Comedy Central) while working at HBO in the late 1980’s. More recently, Art was President of Court TV, where he was the guiding force behind one of the most successful brand evolution in cable television.


Thank you so much for joining us Art! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Irecall the precise moment.As a kid I loved comedy and soaked myself in it: my parents comedy records, Ed Sullivan show, George Carlin records, old sitcoms. I started a satirical newspaper in high school. In college, I performed in the comedy skit shows and theater. Coming out of college, instead of pursuing my interest in comedy, I started my career as an economist building energy forecasting models in Washington DC. One day I was at my desk reading Coal Weekly Magazine when my eyes started to glaze over. I tossed the magazine down on my desk and realized I couldn’t spend my life on this stuff. I went back to business school thinking this would be a good way to get into the entertainment business, then got a job at CBS as a financial analyst. At that time it was a giant lumbering corporation and my job was as boring as reading Coal Weekly. So when a friend called and said, ”Hey, I’m here at HBO. I think I can get you a job,” I grabbed it. Ironically they hired me because I knew how to build forecasting models, so I built some forecasting models for HBO. HBO was only a few years old so it felt like a startup. The mantra in the halls was, “We are going to change television!” and ultimately, they did.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Alan King, the great Borscht Belt comic, was one of my early comedy heroes. Years later, when I was at Comedy Central, a producer from HBO called me and asked if I would have lunch with Alan. We met at the Russian Tea room, a longtime show biz hangout. It was a thrill to meet him. Pretty soon we started talking about comedy-he told stories about the old days and I asked questions about some of the comedy greats he knew. At one point he said to me, “You really know your comedy, don’t you?” That was a thrilling moment for me.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

My book is a memoir. When I started writing memoir I realized I had a problem: I am a very private person and was not in the habit of sharing intimate stories about myself. My first attempts at writing memoir (I took an intro writing class at Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute) were funny stories, but listening to others read, I realized that memoir requires the author to reveal something about who they are. I realized in order to be successful I had to share some more personal moments. My writing remained humorous, but as I wrote more personal stories about my family and my difficulties growing up, my writing started to improve. I got around to writing a story about one of the scariest moments of my life, when someone in my family attempted suicide. When I finished reading it to my writing group, somebody said, “Well, that shows what you can do when you put yourself out there.” She was right.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Bobcat Goldthwait, a very funny and talented comedian whom I loved but had never met, came into the office to pitch a show. The pitch was so funny I was laughing so hard I slid out of my chair. Toward the end of the pitch, I said something I thought was funny. Nobody laughed and I felt like an idiot. When the meeting ended, one of the comedy writers took me aside: “Don’t make jokes around comedians. You can’t go head to head with professionals.” For the life of me, I can’t remember Bobcat’s pitch or my joke, so don’t ask me.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m learning to play jazz drums. I grew up playing piano and got interested in jazz when I was in high school. I include some music stories in my book. For years I wondered how jazz drummers made the drums sound so beautiful. I decided the only way I would solve that mystery was to learn drumming. It’s been fascinating and very rewarding.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

The whole book is the most interesting story of my life. It’s the story of how someone with no professional comedy chops, the unlikeliest of comedy television innovators, marched in with all the confidence in the world and convinced HBO to start a cable channel devoted to comedy. And it worked.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Undertaking big things requires you to put yourself in the spotlight, and to face the fact that if you fail, it will be a public personal failure you will live with your whole life. And you have to be okay with that in order to succeed.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

1. “Write drunk, edit sober.” This old saw, attributed (incorrectly I think) to Hemingway, is every writer’s first important lesson. Sit down, start writing, don’t stop to make corrections or edit. Spit it out, or better, let it pour out. When you get your daily 750 words done, walk away and come back later or the next day and edit.

2. “I hate writing. I love having written.” I keep this Dorothy Parker quote taped to my writing desk. I once struggled to write a piece about an experience in high school, something about playing in the band but feeling like an outcast. As soon as I finished, I read it and it made me cry. That’s the reward.

3. Write past your limits if you want truly exceptional stuff. I learned this when I took a course called “10,000 words in five days.” When you run a marathon and hit the wall at 18 miles, the last miles are the hardest but yield the biggest payoff. I learned that my second thousand words, the ones I had to push for, were sometimes my most satisfying and some of my best.

4. If you write memoir, you will end up putting some people in a very bad light. That’s okay, especially if they behaved badly. One of the stories in my book is about a betrayal by my boss. I didn’t realize how truly awful it was until I wrote it down. I considered taking off the rough edges, but decided not to because that’s what happened.

5. Find a good writing group; or two. Every writer needs useful critical feedback from readers they trust in order to become better writers. I wrote a story in my memoir that I thought was interesting. When I read it to my group I could sense they didn’t like it, but I didn’t know why. Then they told me: “It’s not about you,” they said, and they were right. When I read the rewritten version the following week, I realized how much better it was. And my writing group confirmed it.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Reading critically, and reading a wide variety. One of the great jazz musicians — I think it was Duke Ellington — said when he went to small jazz clubs he learned just as much from the bad musicians as he did from the good ones. And I find that’s absolutely the case with writing. I recall reading a memoir that I thought was terrible but I kept reading, saying to myself, “I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to do that.” Of course nothing is more instructive than reading the great writers, those whose every sentence is breathtakingly beautiful prose.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

Phillip Roth’s work has always dazzled me. I would like to write like him: personally, humorously, profoundly.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement you describe has already been started: The Climate Change Movement. I would further this movement because everything else is inconsequential by comparison. The focus would be on creating international laws that would ensure climate change policies are followed by every nation on earth.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My Facebook Author’s page is Art Bell, Author. My Instagram handle is artbellauthor. My website, where I post weekly writings, is artbellwriter.com.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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