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…

Writer’s Desk: Shakespeare Wrote on Deadline, Too

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For his essay on the somewhat nonsensical tendency for modern authors to keep reinterpreting the plays of Shakespeare, Adam Gopnik pointed out this about the Bard:

Shakespeare grabbed his stories more or less at random from Holinshed’s history of Britain and Plutarch and old collections of Italian ribald tales. As the “ordinary poet” of a working company of players, he sought plots under deadline pressure rather than after some long, deliberate meditation on how to turn fiction into drama. “What have you got for us this month, Will?” the players asked him, and, thinking quickly, he’d say, “I thought I’d do something with the weird Italian story I mentioned, the one with the Jew and the contest.” “Italy again? All right. End of the month then?” These were not the slow-cooked stories and intricately intertextual fables of the modern art novel.

In other words, we would all do well to remember that even Shakespeare had to write on deadline, for money, and while keeping an eye toward putting asses in seats. He was a great writer, one of our greatest, but a working writer, too.

Writer’s Desk: Published and Discarded

Book remainders and throwaways are a boon for readers. They lead not just to new discoveries but also access sometimes to desired purchases that are now suddenly available, whether marked down to $5.98 on a bookstore table or sitting out on a Brooklyn stoop for free.

That doesn’t mean that the author has to be happy about witnessing it, as in the cover illustration that graphic novelist Adrian Tomine did for the New Yorker:

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Where I live in Brooklyn, there’re always a lot of books being set out on the sidewalk, and there’re also a lot of authors walking around the neighborhood … I’ve had the experience of seeing stacks of New Yorkers with my cover out on the street, though I haven’t seen my books put out—but then, I also don’t have a giant photo of myself on the back cover.

Writer’s Desk: Being Careful

Nobody, particularly writers and artists, want to be told to go slowly when pursuing their dreams. Reach for the stars and damn the consequences! That seems more in line with what a lot of us want to hear.

renataadler1That’s why it’s helpful to hear somebody like Renata Adler, one of the great magazine writers of our time, sound a note of caution in this interview from The Guardian:

Her advice to writers is: cling to your day job – wherever it happens to be – for as long as you possibly can. “I’ve said it all along, in my even way: if you’re at Condé Nast, and they’re cutting your pieces to shreds, just hang on. Do your art in your own time, but don’t quit because then you’ll be out there, vulnerable.”

A day job can make things difficult for some writers; they need the time to concentrate on their work. But economic insecurity will ruin your concentration every time. As Adler says, “One needs an apartment and a job.”

Writer’s Desk: Getting Paid

There are many satisfactions in the writing life; though they all come with caveats. Setting your own hours—unless you’re on deadline. Being your own boss—unless you have to work closely with a narrow-minded editor. And so on.

hereisnewyork1But one of the truest joys that comes with being a writer is when you start to think that you can actually make a living at putting words onto paper.

Longtime New Yorker scribe E.B. White recalled that moment of realization for The Paris Review:

I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight before anything happened that gave me any assurance that I could make a go of writing. I had done a great deal of writing, but I lacked confidence in my ability to put it to good use. I went abroad one summer and on my return to New York found an accumulation of mail at my apartment. I took the letters, unopened, and went to a Childs restaurant on Fourteenth Street, where I ordered dinner and began opening my mail. From one envelope, two or three checks dropped out, from The New Yorker. I suppose they totaled a little under a hundred dollars, but it looked like a fortune to me. I can still remember the feeling that “this was it”—I was a pro at last. It was a good feeling and I enjoyed the meal…

Writing itself is of course a good feeling. Being paid to do so is an acknowledgement from the outside world that you’re not wasting your time doing so.

Department of Media: 2014’s Best Magazine Stories

(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

The winners of the 2015 Magazine Awards (the rather unfortunately named Ellies) have been announced. The New Yorker took home a few as usual, and Vogue won for publication of the year.

More interestingly, awards are also given out for best individual articles; here are some links:

Writer’s Corner: Staying Out of the Rain

Crowd at a Harvard-Princeton football game, Nov. 8, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Crowd at a Harvard-Princeton football game, Nov. 8, 1913. (Library of Congress)

There are plenty of good reasons to become a writer—excepting of course a desire for money, fame, or respectability.

In “Phi Beta Football,” a football-season essay for the New Yorker about his childhood watching Princeton football games, John McPhee identifies another superb reason to devote one’s life to the written word:

…on a November Saturday of cold, wind-driven rain—when I was about ten—I was miserable on the stadium sidelines. The rain stung my eyes, and I was shivering. Looking up at the press box, where I knew there were space heaters, I saw those people sitting dry under a roof, and decided then and there to become a writer.

Department of Weekend Reading: July 11, 2014

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New in Books: ‘The Sixth Extinction’

Men standing with bones of a mastodon, which were likely hunted to extinction by humans in North America over 10,000 years ago (Library of Congress)
Men standing with bones of a mastodon, which were likely hunted to extinction by humans in North America over 10,000 years ago (Library of Congress)

book-sixthextinction-kolbert-cvr-200According to scientific writer Elizabeth Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophoe), there have been five waves of mass extinctions in Earth’s history. They all had natural causes. In the current epoch — called by some researchers the Anthropocene in recognition of humanity’s transformative effect on the planet’s ecosystems — there is another wave of species disappearing, and it’s because of us.

The Sixth Extinction is on sale now. My review is at PopMatters:

In Kolbert’s account, the Anthropocene is marked by accelerated change and disruptions recalling the natural calamities of the past. In other words, humankind is the new asteroid. There’s the ocean acidification and increased carbon dioxide concentrations destroying everything from frogs to coral reefs (increased “biotic attrition” in one of the book’s more memorably clinical terms) … Interlocking webs of travel networks make continental boundaries meaningless, mixing flora and fauna together at higher rates of speed, dooming even more. The result, Kolbert writes, is much the same as the pulses of “megafauna” extinctions that started occurring some 40,000 years ago when humans began sweeping across the Earth and wiping out megaherbivores like Cuvier’s North American mammoths. “It might be nice to imagine there once was a time when men lived in harmony with nature,” Kolbert notes dispassionately. But “it’s not clear that he ever really did”…

You can read an excerpt of The Sixth Extinction in Audubon magazine.

Another victim of the Anthropocene: the passenger pigeon (Louis Agassiz Fuertes, c.1910-1914)
Another victim of the Anthropocene: the passenger pigeon (Louis Agassiz Fuertes, c.1910-1914)