Writer’s Desk: Find a Safe Space

BlackBeautyCoverFirstEd1877.jpegThe life of a writer is usually a precarious one, for those of us who make their living solely on their wits and their pen. The lucky ones do not have to hustle all day and night from one assignment and check to the next, but are actually employed to write as part of their job. Whether or not that writing is what they want to do (and if not, there’s always the weekend and mornings to work on the novel), it’s always a relief to be employed to do what one loves.

The great journalist A. J. Liebling—who found his base of operations at the New Yorker—once compared his fellow ink-stained wretches to a certain famous fictitious horse:

The pattern of a newspaperman’s life is like the plot of Black Beauty. Sometimes he finds a kind master who gives him a dry stall and an occasional bran mash in the form of a Christmas bonus, sometimes he falls into the hands of a mean owner who drives him in spite of spavins and expects him to live on potato peelings…

Sometimes this can mean swallowing one’s pride. But if the stall is nice, frequently mucked out, and comes replete with fresh hay and the occasional apple, that comfort can leave more time for doing what you are meant to do: Write.

Nota Bene: Movies About Writers, Why?

From Anthony Lane’s despairing review of the biopic Tolkien:

Why do people keep making films about writers? And why do people watch them? It’s not as if writers do anything of interest. Unless you’re Byron or Stendhal, a successful day is one in which you don’t fall asleep with your head on the space bar. An honest film about a writer would be an inaction-packed six-hour trudge, a one-person epic of mooch and mumblecore, the highlights being an overflowing bath, the reheating of cold coffee, and a pageant of aimless curses that are melted into air, into thin air…

Nota Bene: What They Have Done Right

As a riposte to all the post-Mueller hand-wringing about “the media” (some justified, most not a bit), Steve Coll provides in the current New Yorker a handy reminder of what it is that journalists do all day and how it impacts real life:

  • “While covering the Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of removing immigrant kids from their parents, Ginger Thompson, of ProPublica, obtained and released a recording of young children crying in a holding facility. Her work provoked a public outcry, and the Administration reversed its policy.”
  • “Reporting by the Indianapolis Star helped bring to justice the child molester Larry Nassar, of USA Gymnastics.”
  • “A series of stories in the Baton Rouge Advocate found that a Jim Crow-era law, which allowed defendants accused of felonies such as murder to be convicted by a split-jury verdict, fostered racism and mass incarceration. Louisiana’s Republican-led state legislature approved a referendum to reconsider the law, and, in November, voters chose to require unanimous verdicts in trials involving felonies.”

Writer’s Desk: How About Oranges?

In 1965, New Yorker writer John McPhee met with the magazine’s famously hard-to-please editor William Shawn to discuss his next story idea. According to Wyatt Williams’ Oxford American essay:

The writer would suggest subject after subject only to be told that the idea had already been reserved for another writer or that Shawn wasn’t interested in it. This is the moment, as the story goes, when John McPhee finally just said, “Oranges.”

That was it. That’s all it took:

According to the version he told in an interview with the Paris Review decades later, “That’s all I said—oranges. I didn’t mention juice, I didn’t mention trees, I didn’t mention the tropics. Just—oranges. Oh yes! Oh yes! [Shawn] says. That’s very good. The next thing I knew I was in Florida talking to orange growers.”

McPhee came back with 40,000 words on oranges for the magazine. He later turned it into a book. Title? Oranges.

All from a one-word pitch.

Writer’s Desk: Get Raw

In her astounding 2015 novel, Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh conjured up a grubby, bleak, funny neo-noir whose female narrator didn’t mind in the least just how unpleasant she came off. That’s not a surprise, given how much Moshfegh takes after Bukowski. But even in today’s supposedly more open-minded publishing landscape, the presence of an unlikable protagonist (particularly if a woman) is stll enough to scare off publishers. Fortunately, Eileen found an audience.

It wasn’t an easy journey. According to a recent New Yorker profile, she worked hard in the city’s publishing circles (Overlook Press, The Paris Review) but eventually decided that college would help her along the path:

Hoping to escape the city, Moshfegh applied to the M.F.A. program at Brown, and was accepted. Her time there was productive, she said, but mostly because her scholarship allowed her to write without the distraction of a job. “You have a lot of people who aren’t good at writing yet telling you what to change about the way that you’re writing,” she said. “It’s a lot of mediocrity feeding on itself. So you better be radical, and you better hate everyone. Not that I did personally, but that I had to if I was going to protect the thing in me that I knew I wanted to grow.”

Be radical.

Writer’s Desk: Write About Cats

This one should speak for itself. Per the Times:

The author of the short story “Cat Person,” which became a viral phenomenon after appearing in The New Yorker this month, has received a seven-figure book deal, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.

A collection from Kristen Roupenian, whose debut story in The New Yorker became the magazine’s second most-read article of 2017 despite being published in the Dec. 11 issue, will be published by Scout Press in 2019.

Roupenian’s story hit just about every meme-worthy topic of the age: Cats, dating, creepy guys, social media, intellectual insecurity masked by blithe confidence. It’s all there.

This is what they call a teaching moment.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Dark Money’

darkmoney1Last year, the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer published Dark Money, a detailed expose of the massive, decades-long program run by billionaire conservatives like the Koch brothers to re-engineer American politics in a more libertarian, low-tax, and small government direction.

The paperback edition was just released, with a new preface that highlights how the agenda of the Kochs, who theoretically didn’t support Donald Trump, will nevertheless likely be supercharged under the new administration. My review is at PopMatters:

Written with the sharp but cool incisiveness that typifies her long form work for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer’s exposé is the type of book one reads first heatedly, then with a kind of sickened resignation. Her first book since 2008’s The Dark Side, a similarly disquieting investigation into the Bush administration’s legacy of post-9/11 abuses, Dark Money goes looking under a lot more rocks. Again, Mayer finds a cabal of authoritarian-minded Republicans looking to fundamentally alter the American landscape…