Euphamisms

When the failure of a product or service is discussed, people will say how “the market wasn’t there.”

When a company tries to launch something new and doesn’t succeed, they’ll say that it “didn’t do well with consumers.”

When a writer is unsuccessful, they’ll say he “failed to find an audience.”

These are all just variations of the same thing. They are euphemisms that grown-ups use for age-old playground judgements:

“You suck!”

“Loser!”

Creating fancy phrases derived from social correctness or business school lingo doesn’t make it hurt any less.

In fact, all of these smell of head-shaking and pity. “Poor soul,” they seem to say as the ice cubes clink in their glasses of scotch, “he just couldn’t rise to the occasion, didn’t have the right stuff.”

“Shame, really.”

“Indeed.”

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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]

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.

Just Have to Say

Yesterday, I finished reading an article in the Washington Post that has really stuck with me, and not in a good way.**

The article, written by Cynthia McCabe, is about man who e-mailed a dozen or so writers–all strangers to him–of his intention to commit suicide. The reasons he gave were that he, as a writer, had “said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished.” He goes on: “I believe I have an immense amount to give, not only from my mind but from my heart, and there are just no takers.”

It was a suicide note from a writer who had failed to find an audience.

Sadly, I found that McCabe’s reaction, and that of some of the other writers, showed an appalling lack of compassion.

Writers, in my experience and from anecdotal evidence, are all too happy to sacrifice their own as they claw their  way to the top. McCabe has the privilege of being allowed to write and publish about this failed writer. Instead of saying how she may have felt similar feelings at one time or another, she voiced her disdain and that of the other writers for this failed writer and his tactics to bring his work to the world.

The suicidal writer, a man named Dennis Williams (or his pen name, Katry Rain), is described by his ex-wife, who perhaps knew him best, as a philosopher, a thinker, a writer of both prose and music, and a popular teacher.

But in McCabe’s article, he is called narcissistic and selfish. One writer who received Williams’ e-mail said she felt emotionally mugged. A Washington Post reporter basically said that Williams should have called someone who cared, implying that he didn’t.

McCabe herself calls Williams’ writing clunky and not particularly noteworthy. If whether your prose is impressive or not is the benchmark against which we should measure success as a writer, then “Fifty Shades of Grey” and countless other commercially successful but otherwise unremarkable works would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Williams is in no position to defend himself. McCabe’s article, written from the point of view of an author who has tasted some success, feels like bullying.

This is exactly why he took his life.


**NOTE: For an update on this topic, see here.

Finding My Way Along the Career Path

“Why don’t you go to any professional development seminars?” my boss asked me once. She wasn’t just my supervisor; she was the division head. Since our division was relatively small, I had frequent interaction with her. Rarely did she ask such a pointed question.

I mumbled some reply and moved on to another subject. But it was a valid question. I had done little in the way of career development training and it left me with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. And now I know why.

I didn’t know what career I was in.

Back in 1994, I joined a journalism organization with the intention of becoming an environmental journalist. Think Bill McKibben. I started as a researcher but figured that, before too long, I would be able to move up to more prominent writing positions. Years went by, however, and I ended up not doing much journalism. I am partly to blame for that because I was, I now realize, ambivalent about journalism in general.

In college, I worked on my student newspaper but never took a journalism class. After graduation, I tried to write for newspapers, but never applied for a staff position. Writing held an allure for me, but pursuing journalism for its own sake–all that interviewing and beat reporting–did not spark my interest.
23

After college, I saw two paths to where I wanted to go. One was that of the environmentalist who was also a writer. The other was the journalist who specialized in the environment. I preferred the former but left myself open to the latter if the right opportunity presented itself.

I once asked an editor whether he was looking for the environmentalist writer or the specialized journalist. “Journalist,” was his answer. I was dismayed because I did not believe that journalism was the only path to being an effective writer.

In the area of nature and the environment, some of the nonfiction writers who I admire the most–Annie Dillard, David Gessner, John McPhee–do not consider themselves journalists at all.* And in spite of that–or because of that–I feel they have contributed the most to the conversation. Not needing to fit into the constraints imposed by modern-day journalism, they are free to push the boundaries.

Journalists appear to believe that they have exclusive access to the facts, and that writers who are not journalists are sloppy or unable to grasp the story. Journalists act as members of a club–the Fourth Estate and all that–and consider writers to be wannabes lingering around the fringe. (Writer Joan Didion refers to “the contempt for outsiders” in her article about journalists and the political types they report on.) Needless to say, I disagree.

To many people, the terms “journalist” and “writer” are interchangeable, which is not surprising since the majority of the current generation of writers came up through the ranks of journalists. But it’s worth asking whether that was just a historical coincidence. Today, when news is published on what one writer calls “the vaguely Soviet-seeming syndication-fed news pages,” journalism and real writing seem to be drifting further and further apart.

Frankly, journalism as a career path for a young writer is dying. The website CareerCast, in its annual Jobs Rated report, lists newspaper reporter as the number one worst job in America in 2013. “The opportunity to climb the [career] ladder disappeared,” says one reporter who was interviewed. Furthermore, according to one recent poll, only 28 percent of the public think of journalists as contributing a lot to society’s well being. This does not make for an enticing career choice.

The writing I’m interested in is less about a recitation of the facts than the finding of greater truths. To do that, writing must have a strong voice and an informed point of view. Journalistic objectivity doesn’t allow for either of those.

Gould

I’m no longer afraid to make known my lack of journalistic ambition. Journalism is not my career, and being around journalists day after day has not provided the professional development that one would expect from over 15 years on the job. I’m not entirely sure where I’m headed, but I’m sure of one path to avoid.

*McPhee, in a piece in the July 2, 2012, issue of The New Yorker, refers to himself as a “writer of long fact” and that he teaches “factual writing.” Another writer who I deeply admire, William Langewiesche, studied anthropology in college and “does not want to be viewed as a straight news reporter” according to one interview.

 [Do you think you might be in the wrong career? Take The Glenn O’Neill Test and see.]