To Be Read, and To Be Understood

Recently, I noticed a flurry of views on a post I wrote in January. The post was my reaction to an article in the Washington Post Magazine, an article about a writer, Cynthia McCabe, who was e-mailed by a man, a complete stranger, announcing his intention to commit suicide. The reasons this man gave were that he, as a writer, had “said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished.”

It was an article to which I had a visceral reaction, and I don’t mean a positive one.

I won’t summarize my reaction–you can read it for yourself–except to say that I felt McCabe, as the writer of the article, was missing the bigger picture. I also figured that she had said what she needed to on the subject and that the story would be laid to rest.

Not so.

I was curious about what was behind the uptick in views of my post, so I decided to find out. The recent increase in views, evidently, was provoked by the story reappearing on the radio program Snap Judgement. Don’t get me wrong, I like the program and have listened to it on several occasions. But I question the resurrection of the story in a new format, the motives behind it, and the approach taken by the producer of the piece, Julia DeWitt.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

The story, in my opinion, should have been that a person named Dennis Williams (aka Katry Rain) had dedicated a lifetime’s worth of energy and effort into a body of work that has been essentially ignored, and that this emptiness led him to end his life.

I’m not alone in this. One commenter on the NPR website had this to say about the handling of the story:

I found this story very troubling. Not because the writer committed suicide, but because the producer, Julia DeWitt, seemed to so completely fail to respect or understand his decision…. It doesn’t sound like Ms. DeWitt read a single thing he wrote beyond the letter. How is what he died for not the story here?

And a commenter on my January post said this:

My uneasiness with reading The Washington Post article…was [from] the writers’ callous tone (listing her course of options rather than expressing genuine sympathies, or her semi meta-judgmental of the publishing world, yet failing to recognize her part in it).

It appears that McCabe has not given any further thought on the matter.

In the radio show, however, Dara Horn–the one who called the incident an “emotional mugging”–says this:

You know, I’ve been very fortunate to have had a fair amount of success as a writer. And so perhaps it’s not fair for me to say this because perhaps I would feel differently if I weren’t as successful as I’ve been, but it would never occur to me that my writing was the most important thing that I had contributed to this world.

Interestingly, many writers–successful ones–have felt exactly what Williams felt, that their writing was vitally important to their lives. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “On the other hand, for a shy man it was nice to be somebody except oneself again: to be ‘the Author’….”

John Updike observed that the embodiment of the New Yorker, Eustace Tilley, “was like a god to me, the guardian of excellence; he weighed my mailed-in words and paid a grand or so for tales he liked. A thousand dollars then meant we could eat for months. A poem might buy a pair of shoes. My life, my life with children, was a sluice that channeled gravelly water to my pan; by tilting it, and swirling lightly, I at the end of day might find a fleck of gold.”

Here’s the thing: why did DeWitt feel the need to re-warm this story for the radio? Was it because it really needed to be told again, that radio would provide something that print could not? I doubt it.

Yes, Dennis Williams has received a boost of attention from these events. But DeWitt seems to have no interest in Williams, and she admits that the people interviewed for the story don’t either. I rather think it was because it was a nifty story to tell, and DeWitt would get some feathers in her cap for doing it.

Williams was not looking for fame per se. He just wanted to be read, and also to be understood. DeWitt and McCabe and Horn clearly don’t understand.

[updated Jan. 31, 2017]

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Writing is a Crap Shoot

I want to let you in on something that I’ve learned the hard way: writing is a crap-shoot.

Case in point: Elizabeth Gilbert is the best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love. I have not read anything she’s written, but I’m sure she’s a fine writer. Fine enough to impress the editors at Esquire magazine, where one of her unsolicited manuscripts was pulled from the slush pile and published–a dream that most writers can only hope to achieve. That one event catapulted her into a career as a writer.

editor

Actual rejection slip from an editor (I have many).

It does not mean that she is a remarkably better writer than all the tens of thousands who silently toil with no success. Let’s all admit that she got lucky.

And about editors–they are human too. They have feelings, they have biases, and they make mistakes. They can be arrogant, misguided, and sometimes they cheat, steal, and lie. But they are the guardians of the gate, and they will exercise their power to either make someone’s career or make sure that a writer is never heard from again.

Recently, I submitted a short essay to the Washington Post Magazine. For a few years, they have been running a regular feature where the essayist describes a small, seemingly unimportant object that has significant meaning for them. After six months (editors are soooo busy), I finally received a response from an editor. He declined my essay, giving the reason that, while it was a “powerful” story about my grandfather, “there’s not a particular narrative about the object in question–which enters late in the piece.” (I subsequently self-published the essay here.)

Quietly, I accepted his explanation, believing that my essay just didn’t meet the magazine’s standards. I don’t know what constraints exist in the magazine’s editorial processes, and figured that if I studied other published essays, I’d understand what he meant.

Yet, in a recent issue, an essay was published that included everything that this editor said was wrong with mine.

When editors contradict themselves so blatantly, it’s hard for me to take any of them seriously.

If anyone tells you that there is a writing community–a network of support where writers find strength–then they are lying. Writers and editors eat their own, and secretly (or not so secretly) rejoice in the failure of other writers.

A few years ago, I realized that I wanted needed writing to be a significant part of my life. The need is there, the drive and desire. Maybe it is just that I don’t have the talent. Or maybe that I’ve started too late, that I have too many other competing interests in my life, that I don’t have the time and the space necessary for proper reflection.

I continue to roll the dice, hoping that I may get that magic combination that will take me to the next level. But it’s possible that I will never find out.