Series: Keeping the Faith Fridays, Spotlight Jess Merrill

Welcome back to the second installment of “Keeping the Faith Fridays.” This series aims to shine a spotlight on some writer friends of mine who’ve yet to hit it “big” (whatever that means), yet are plugging away, working in all different genres and keeping the faith. ‘Cuz we all gotta keep that candle burnin’!

Today we meet Jess Merrill, a comedy writer in Atlanta, GA. Although she’s my twin sister, it’s not nepotism to say that she’s the funniest person on either coast: this is simply an objectively true fact. Meet Jess, and then follow her adventures on her website, Twitter, and Instagram.

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1.) Why do you write? What does writing mean to you?

High-brow answer: I write to understand. You know when something–a person you met, and conversation you had, even just a word or phrase–won’t stop tugging at the edges of your brain? Writing is the ultimate form of paying attention; of saying, “Okay, I’m here now. Let’s figure out what the hell this thing that won’t leave me alone means.”
Low-brow answer: I write comedy. So I write to make others (but mostly myself) laugh. Really, isn’t all writing just a form of entertaining yourself?
 
2.) What do you write?
 
I answered this question already, and I refuse to answer it again. KIDDING! As I said, I write comedy–specifically, sketch comedy. I love writing words that others will bring to life. It makes me feel like a magician. Plus, the length of the typical comedy sketch (5 pages or less) is a good match for my ADD.
 
3.) How long have you been writing seriously?
 
“Seriously writing comedy” is a fun little paradox, isn’t it? I’d say January 2015. That’s when I was all, “hey, this something I wanna do, so I’m gonna take a bunch of classes and give these writing programs all my money so I can figure out how to do it.” I’ve exhausted the classes, and now I write for a team.
 
4.) Do you have a writing regimen? (Outlining vs. pantsing? Process for various drafts? Beta readers? Revision m.o.? Do you send pages to someone as you’re drafting? Tell us anything/everything!)
 
 The inside of my writer’s notebook looks like the scribblings of a madwoman. The conventional wisdom in sketch writing is that you fill out a “beat sheet” for your sketch–that is, a rough outline of the plot points and jokes you will hit–but I never really do that. I just do that spider brainstorming thing you learned  in 3rd grade and scribble down a bunch of insane non-sequiturs until I get bored with that and start writing my sketch half-baked. In my experience, most of my sketches don’t tell me where they’ll go until I actually begin writing them.*
 
*I just looked up the term “pantsing”–apparently, that is what I do. 
 
My sketch team meets every Wednesday; we read each other’s work aloud, and give each other notes. You really can’t write sketch comedy–or, in my view, anything–without having it read aloud. There is a very specific type of pain that occurs when your jokes are greeted by silence at the read-aloud. But when they land–ahhhhh, the dopamine hit!
 

5.) What’s the number one thing you’ve learned while writing? What piece of advice would you give to others/yourself?

“Don’t worry about getting it perfect– just get it written.” Hoo boy, is that helpful! In the parlance of Anne Lamott, this is the famous S***ty First Draft. It always serves as a great reminder to get over yourself and just put words on a page.
  
6.) What non-writing activities do you do to help your creative process?
 
I try cooking new recipes. I get very zen about my holy Sunday meal prep time. And I listen to podcasts obsessively. I’ll mention two in particular: Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert, and You Made it Weird with Pete Holmes. Jenn’s already given a shout out to Magic Lessons, so I won’t describe it again here, except to say that I  would literally take Liz Gilbert’s advice about anything. She is so wise and so practical and she has filled the Oprah-sized hole in my heart. I LOVE YOU LIZ.
Pete Holmes is a comedian who grew up as a conservative Christian (hello, my life!).  He is very much a seeker, which I appreciate. He’s not trying to be cool, he’s trying to figure stuff out. He interviews comedians (and sometimes spiritual teachers–Buddhist monks and the gurus and the like), and they have terrific, wide-ranging conversations that cover love, comedy, and God. AND THERE IS AN EPISODE OF YOU MADE IT WEIRD WITH LIZ GILBERT!
 
Aside from that–I try to watch a lot of movies and read a lot. It can be hard to to do both regularly and write, but I believe it’s important as a writer, and maybe especially as a comedy writer, to have a deep well or references to draw from. It’s just shoveling coal into the steam engine, you know? You never know what will spark an idea, so it’s important to keep feeding the creative beast.
 
7.) What are you working on right now?
 
My sketch team is putting together a show to open our comedy theater’s new venue for September, so I’ve just revised some pieces for that.
 
8.) Who are your big influences in your genre?
 
Conan O’Brien will always be the lightning rod for me. When I discovered him in middle school, it was like my world opened up. Subconsciously, I’m always trying to write for Late Night with Conan O’Brien (which is unfortunate because that show doesn’t exist anymore.)
 
Aside from Conan, I am toooooo obsessed with The Onion–I am likely to trot out an appropriate Onion headline for any given situation. Sketch comedy-wise, I’m a huge fan of the British duo Mitchell and Webb. Here’s one of my favorite sketches of theirs, called “The Scarecrow” (synopsis: a guy trying to hit on a girl at a dinner party gets massively out-gamed by another attendee, who is a literal scarecrow. It’s as stupid and brilliant as it sounds.)
 
Lastly, I would say the mid-90’s cult sketch hit Mr. Show, if I had seen it. But I haven’t and that’s just embarrassing.
 
9.) Top three favorite books of all time. Don’t think. 
 
The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer
Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd
The Giver, Lois Lowry
 
10.) Your turn for the Sorting Hat. Which is your Hogwarts House? Why?
 
As I’ve been told by NUMEROUS internet Sorting Hat quizzes, I am the compassionate, working horse simpleton of the Hogwarts world: a Hufflepuff. I used to be bummed out by this, but according to a Google search I just did, Nymphadora Tonks was a Hufflepuff, too, so I’m okay with it now.
 
*Bonus Question!: A magic fairy waves her magic wand and grants you one super power. What is it?
 
I would have the power to snap my fingers and clean up my house like Mary Poppins. KIDDING! That’s boring as hell. I would have the power of flight, duh.

 

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