I wonder how many people will take up the challenge. Writing is, typically, a private, unseen and invisible process, the machinery whirring away — we hope! — inside our heads.
I had dinner this week with a fellow writer who asked how my book was coming and what my process is. I usually bang out as much as I can, perhaps 1,500 words, maybe 2,000 at most in one go, then stop and take a break. My eyes and my head get tired.
I do some housework or stare at the sky or read a magazine or take a swim class. Then it’s back at it.
I let new material sit for a few hours, preferably a few days, a cooling-off period that allows me to read it more objectively. I print it out on paper and edit in hard copy only. Then I revise on the computer. One joy of being a writer is that no one tells you how to do it. There is no “right” way. You can scribble on a napkin or use a quill pen on parchment or a Mac at the beach.
The final product is yours, all yours. If it’s lousy, well…
I still have 44,000 words to produce to meet my contractual agreement within the new few months. It’s enough to make me huddle in the fetal position beneath the duvet. But, no.
Finding the right ones, making sure they read smoothly, that the entire story is compelling and engaging, are all part of my job. I did use two terrific researchers to help me gather material for this book (the last one used four). Kelly and Peter are both so skilled that, of course, they each just got hired into full-time journalism jobs and are no longer available.
I’d love to add a bunch of elves to my workshop to lighten this load, but, in the real world, it’s not an option.
So I become, once more, the kind of person I can’t bear: the female critic who despises any female writer who doesn’t project what she feels is the accurate or ideal vision of modern womanhood. This critic believes it is her job to tear down women who are “off-message” because there is only so much publishing space allotted to women, and so more attention for them is less attention for her and other worthy types. This critic lives inside us all, but she is also embodied, occasionally, by real people. One of them, an online “feminist” columnist, once wrote a supposed defense of “women’s voices” that dismissed something I’d written because the photos that accompanied the essay were of me lying (rather unprovocatively, to my mind) in bed. She’d said that the question wasn’t why my voice was being heard–the implied answer being, presumably, my bed-lying ways–but why others weren’t, “in a media landscape in which there are a severely limited number of spaces for women’s writing voices.”…[There is a ] kernel of truth at the heart of that columnist’s infuriating declaration that only a handful of women’s writing voices are heard, and that those prominent voices are too often salacious, self-revealing, “unfeminist”, or otherwise unworthy. Wrong as she is, she is right about one thing: women have not yet come so far that we can shrug off worries about being misrepresented.
It is tempting to feel resentful when we don’t see ourselves or our stories or our ideals reflected in the prevailing narratives of femaleness. Luckily, there is an alternative: instead of simply criticising other women’s stories, we can take it upon ourselves to make sure that our own stories get told. Creating something takes a lot more effort than writing a bad review or a dismissive blog post. But if we don’t make that effort, if instead we keep insisting that a mere handful of female writers are qualified to speak for us, we’ll miss out on the larger truths that are to be found somewhere in the chorus.
I love this and wish we were having that conversation more often.
But we’re not.
The blogosphere, by its nature, is disembodied and asynchronous. There are women out there, of all ages, writing stuff that makes me dance with joy and others whose neck I’d truly like to wring, utterly mesmerized by issues I find trivial and/or inane and/or so deliciously titillating — lurid sex!! celebrities!! celebrities having lurid, preferably adulterous sex!!! — they’re absolutely guaranteed gazillions of pageviews, book deals, fame, fortune! (No doubt there are women whose hands might reach happily for my neck, too.)
It’s one reason I’ve given up reading most “women’s magazines”, and am so damn grateful for the alternate universe — literally — of the blogosphere. Magazines’ vision of what it means to be female is so narrow, white, thin (or dieting really hard to get there), middle-class, aspirational and, natch, dying to get married and have babies, stat! I know it pleases the advertisers, without whom there would be no magazines, nor the pay rates that make it worth my while to sell a story to a magazine editor. I get that.
Here’s something funny — not! We have a little system here at T/S called Zemanta that suggests photos to accompany our posts. Or you can type in what you seek. Here’s one it can’t handle — “angry woman.”
Seriously! It offered me photos of women mourning (noooo, grief is a little different) and this very, very, very old statue. This is what I’m talking about, the narrow gauge railway along which women are publicly expected to travel: be nice! make people happy!
Tonight I’m off to hear an author (male) talk about his new, raved-about history of Paris, with a new friend, a fellow Francophile and an author of two books about cops. We met recently at a writers’ dinner and — how cool is this? — turned out we know the same lovely, gentle retired NYPD detective, the one who saved me from the con man, whom she interviewed for her book.
The way she thinks, and writes, does matter to me: fearless, tackling tough stories, telling powerful tales that are hard to winkle out. I celebrate women who write cool stuff.
I tend to ignore, (not trash), other women who write stuff I find stupid. It’s only my opinion and millions clearly adore what I find risible or tedious.
An early women’s magazine had the delicious name of The Delineator, and it published from 1873 to 1937, a good, long run. I like the truth of its title. That’s what women’s magazines do — prescribe and proscribe what’s normal and OK and acceptable. Which is why most of them are booooooooring, because the monocultural values they enshrine encourage women to — buy stuff! get married! have kids! work really hard at a white-collar job!
Pretty radical. It’s probably why I sat at the guys’ table in our high school cafeteria and did some of my best writing — sports, guns — for Penthouse. (And, yep, I also wrote for Ms. Go figure.)
As journalism tangoes between old-school, shoe-leather reporting and in-your-PJs-opining, I think of irrigation and what our stories are meant to be and to do.
I think journalism’s essential and unchanged job description is to offer smart, nuanced, researched, accurate information (and, yes, some entertainment value, but maybe 10% relative to these other components) — the intellectual equivalent of fresh, clean water gushing into the fields whose produce feeds us and keeps us alive and healthy. If all you consume, intellectually, is Doritos, you’re fat, happy — and consistently malnourished.
We are not the water. We are the pipe. From the beginning of my career as a college undergraduate, writing for national magazines, I knew my job was writing a story, not being it. Today, when I write for print, the same rules still apply: I’m just the conduit for the story, and my role in finding, researching, reporting, writing and revising it should be as invisible and seamless as the miles of pipe conveying water. I’m ideally bringing the reader something they need, and it’s my role and my responsibility to deliver it untainted by my views and opinions. (Every news story, I’m well aware, is colored by the inherent biases, and multiple filters, of the editors and writer, but each knows it’s also their job to leach these out as best they can.)
But I feel this as strongly as the air in my lungs, which is why blogging, (which I enjoy), sometimes feels to me like marathoning in ski boots — do-able but a little awkward and weird. Every time I use someone else’s reporting and ideas (credited!), I’m playing water, not pipe. The story is what matters most. I think many readers remain desperate for clarity, insight, analysis, history and context. No, not all readers, all the time.
Can we say “media hoax?” Can we say “What a (**&^%#@^^##! waste of time, energy and attention”?
But those of us who thirst for this clear, fresh water too often get a mouthful of PVC pipe instead — what now passes for journalism, in any medium: a toxic mix of ego, whim, fantasy, drama, posturing, eye-rolling and hand-flapping and chicken-necking.
Do you care if you’re the pipe or the water? Which would you rather be?
The scene I always find fascinating in the 2006 film “The Devil Wears Prada” is when Miranda Priestley drawlingly reminds her assistant Andrea, as she prepares to step into a crowd of Paris paparazzi, that “everyone wants to be us.” Only three years later, it feels like a century ago.
I just heard Ruth Reichl on Terri Gross’ NPR show “Fresh Air” mourning the sudden demise of Gourmet, one of the most glossy of all glossies, of which she was editor in chief, a place she described as the best job she ever had — 10 years of big budgets, free rein and a wildly creative team. Gone. And gone for good with no warning. I also heard today from the partner of a long-time Gourmet staffer, agreeing they had no clue the axe was about to fall. For journos with a deep and abiding taste for covering, if not living, the best of things, what’s next?
True Slant harbors a few ex-glossy mag staffers, so they know what’s been lost.
Given the Conde Nast bloodbath, the widespread Titanic-ness of the magazine industry these days and the paucity of jobs available at any level, does anyone even want those jobs anymore? Will they even exist in a few years?
What is the staff media job everyone wants — that actually pays?
In 1970, my Dad made a feature film for Disney called “King of the Grizzlies”, which featured, naturally, a grizzly bear. While he’d been a celebrated film director for years, my Dad found directing a large wild animal presented entirely new challenges — how exactly do you direct a grizzly? Jelly donuts and electric fences, he told me. To entice his furry star to walk in the right direction, a crew member would hold out jelly donuts. An additional guide were the low-voltage, low-level electrical wires installed along the desired walkways, out of camera range. (Having literally run into one of these wires, designed to contain cattle, in a pitch-dark Irish field, I can tell you they work.)
That’s sort of what blogging — for an old-media old-fart like me new to this medium (a big ho-hum for some of you) — feels like. I’ve been writing professionally since my freshman year of college (no, I never studied journalism, instead English lit. at the University of Toronto) and quickly grew accustomed to, and enjoying the fact of, millions of readers reading my stuff. Sometimes they took the time to write to me or the magazine or newspaper to say so, sometimes sent a clip of it by mail (paper, postage, that old-media thing) to someone they thought might enjoy it. Only once did my writing elicit a wild reaction, and that unmediated, overwhelming, unanticipated international attention was both, to a young and ambitious journo, exciting and terrifying. I wrote a front-page story about Queen Elizabeth, after spending two weeks following her tour through three provinces, that examined the nature of celebrity. You don’t mess with the Queen, certainly in Canada, and hate mail poured in from Canada and Britain. One writer demanded I be hung, drawn and quartered. It was one of the few times so many readers at once made themselves, and their ire, fully heard.
This is my first crack at blogging for a large audience; I also blog about firearms, crime, violence and women at theopencase.com, but less frequently. For anyone who’s ever worked for a large, serious, old-media news organization — which I feel lucky to have done — it’s a distinctly disorienting sensation to…just write. Post. Publish. Not to worry if I’m treading on the toes of the city hall or education or media or health reporter; newsrooms can be insanely territorial places, where who’ll take your call and pass along a scoop can make or break your career. Not to have to wheedle and whine for days, sometimes weeks, to an editor why we really need to run this story. For better or worse, many of those filters disappear through the medium of blogging.
What old-school journo’s also know, (and some of us miss), is that producing a newspaper or magazine or radio or television newscast is an industrial process. Whatever’s happening out there in the world has traditionally become “news” non-journos hear about only after much selection, sawing and carving and polishing and buffing. The finished product, as shiny and alluring as a new table, can sometimes no more resemble the “truth” than the trees-to-lumber-to consumer product it became along the way.
It also reconfigures the very shape of what you read here and how we choose to present it to you. Autoworkers on the assembly line know it’s their specific job to instal windshields, or seats, or dashboards, and maybe all of these. They don’t make the whole car, nor are they expected to — which we do here. Journalists still working within structured news environments, whether Time or CNN or The New York Times, are similarly chosen and hired to focus on, ideally deeply understand and produce one small piece of the puzzle, never the whole thing.
Here, for example, we write our own make-or-break headlines, even if we’ve never done it in our lives and are bumbling along, bear-like; writers never do, not for magazines or newspapers, anyway, whether staff or freelance. Nor, typically, have reporters shot our own photos or chosen, all the time, whenever it suits us, what we want to write about or get you to think about. There is always an editorial hand, frequently many and sometimes competing, lying heavily on our shoulders. That’s not such a bad thing.
Freedom feels…odd. You’d think it feels great, right? Well, of course on some levels it does. But who’s there, other than your profound uninterest and single-digit pageviews, to let us know, “Sweetheart, this sucks!”? Popular opinion, which essentially rules this medium, isn’t always the best judge of taste or quality. One old-media artifact, whose use lives on as a verb, was a tall, sharp metal spike that sat on the desk of your editor(s). If your story was appalling, and, then, it was written and read in the newsroom on a piece of paper, it got spiked. Killed. Boom! Go do something better, a lot better. Or else. Here, we can post again seconds later, if we dare, optimistic enough to think we’ll get another grab for that most valuable commodity in the world — attention.
I loved working with editors who sat in the same room with me, some of them — OK, many of them — eccentrics who, thank God, wouldn’t last a day in a more formal environment. One kept an enormous cardboard cutout of comedian Mike Myers in the window of his office. Another strode through the newsroom every afternoon, bow-tied, carrying his teapot. Several loved the freedom to shout out whenever they wanted you, their command audible the entire length of an open newsroom. By example, it gave us explicit permission to be unconventional, even weird, sometimes deeply weird, (which is where some of the smartest thinking comes from), and sometimes so anti-social we’re almost feral and forget to wear clothes that match. Working alone at home can do that to you.
Great editors, and they are rare, are intellectual anatomists, able to discern the bones of the best stuff you may not have even imagined in your own work, even when your notebooks and tapes are full. On the really tough, frightening, high-stakes stories — the ones that matter most — they’re our cut-men, taping us back together when we stagger back, bloodied and scared, into our corners, wiping us down and sending us right back in there to finish the job. I firmly believe the very best and bravest journalism will always demand cut-men, whatever the new-media equivalent is.
Here, I’m a grizzly bear, looking out for the donuts. As all of us do, I’ll also keep running into the wires. It’s a fascinating, odd, sometimes confusing way to communicate. Please feel free to email me with ideas for stories, comments, people you think worth looking into.