Take What You Can Get

If you’ve decided to walk Path Three after graduation — getting a job — you’re going to have to take what you can get. It is true that many fewer newspapers exist today than when I was looking for a reporter’s job. But the number is hardly zero. In fact, 1,300 dailies still operate in the U.S. — down from about 1,700 in the early eighties — and that’s not counting the weeklies and the semi-weeklies. In my day, we found reporter’s jobs by thumbing to the back of Editor and Publisherthe magazine of the newspaper industry, and looking through help-wanted classifieds. Now you go to E&P’s website and do likewise. Remember, too, sites like Reddit, Buzzfeed, and others that churn out  lots of copy. If you count online journalism, people are arguably reading more today than ever. So you should be able to find that first reporter’s job. (Do not work for The Huffington Post. They don’t pay writers.)

I hope you’re not one of those people who “has to be near the mountains,” or “couldn’t imagine leaving the beach,” or who places some other geographic limitation on the future.  Ditto the dog and the boyfriend/girlfriend. If what you want is to become a writer through newspapering, you’d do well to divest yourself of any limiting factors. Shoot the dog and ditch the sweetheart (but not the other way around) and be prepared to go somewhere you never imagined that you could live. If the job you can get is in Decatur, Alabama, off to Decatur with you. Hastings, Nebraska? See you in Hastings. As soon as you’ve filed your first story, you can start looking for your next job.

And remember this: the big stories of our time exist everywhere. Decaying democracy, poverty, inequality, discrimination, racism, corruption — they all are happening everywhere and need to be exposed with excellent reporting. Don’t tell me that covering school board meetings in Minot, North Dakota, is “boring.” Watching people passionate about public education — whether from a philosophical, Christian, socialist, or other perspective — is fascinating, and makes for reporting essential to the functioning of democracy. Inequality in Hastings is no less important than inequality in Los Angeles. So any place you find that first job will be terrific.

 

Another Non-Grad-School Path to Writing

If you looked at Third-Act Trouble starting with the word “skyrocket,” you already know that after getting a pay-the-bills job and trying to become a writer on my own in West Berlin, I took a job at a newspaper in New York. It was a dreary little trade paper for commercial and industrial energy managers, but it was a job that required me to put nouns against verbs. Even better, it gave me a taste for journalism and a desire to continue upwards from where I was: the very bottom of the newspaper food chain. I had a lot of fun over the next five years, and doing so ultimately led me to the freelancer’s life, and, even better, to Margaret.

So, three paths from college graduation to writing for a living: The solo high-wire act, grad school, and getting a reporter’s job, however lowly.

 

The Non-Grad-School Path to Writing

Another way to become a writer is to skip grad school and simply start writing. Find a mindless job that takes little of your mental energy but pays enough to buy health insurance, rent a room, and provide yourself with groceries, and use all your spare time to put words on paper (or disk). If you download Third-Act Trouble and do a keyword search for Cyclades, you can read about how I carved out two years to write in West Berlin, working for, variously, the American, British, and French armies. None of those jobs required much mental energy, so I had plenty to bring to banging out three terrible novellas on my little manual German-language typewriter. After two years of that, I returned to the U.S. and on the advice of my father’s friend, himself a writer, got what he called, “any job that will pay you to put nouns and verbs together.” Search in Third Act Trouble for the keyword “skyrocket” to read how I took no experience and no talent and from those built a career as a reporter, which led to freelance magazine and book writing.

Just Outta College

This being graduation season, let’s lift our eye from freelancing for a moment and consider the paths open to those just emerging from college. If the goal is to be a writer, where does one begin as one bursts from the starting gate?

One path winds through graduate school — either a Master’s in Fine Arts or Master’s in Journalism. All the people I know who earned an MFA claim to be glad they did so. Thomas Beller , an accomplished writer who is friend of ours in New Orleans, got an MFA at Columbia and says he genuinely learned a lot. Plus, he now has a “terminal degree” — he’s gone as far in his field academically as it’s possible to go, there being no PhD in creative writing —  which let him get  a tenure-track professorship at Tulane. (A similar position opened at Tulane just as Nine Lives was being published and I figured I’d have a shot, having just published a popular and well-reviewed book about the city. I didn’t qualify, though, because I didn’t have a terminal degree. “I’ve had a terminal illness,” I said. “Does that count?” — This was in my intracancer period , after my 1992 testicular cancer and before my 2015 brain cancer.– I remember wishing I’d gotten an MFA, and even took the Graduate Record Exams, at age 50, in preparation for doing so.)

My wife and writing partner, Margaret, got a Master’s in Journalism after college, which she says helped her in several ways. First, she found a really terrific mentor in the person of Wes Mauer, who not only taught her a good deal about journalistic integrity and the use of the language; he also gave her her first job at his small community newspaper on Mackinac Island, where she learned about community newspapering and wrote a lot. She also met there people who helped her get her next job, at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which is where Margaret and I met.

\Then there is the path I took, which I’ll take up tomorrow….

 

 

Writing for The New Yorker

On Friday, May 8, I began telling the story, on Twitter, of my short career at the New Yorker. As any number of critics have since pointed out, I had no idea what the medium was or how to use it. I simply began telling the tale, in an annoyingly rapid-fire series of 140-character bursts. On Twitter, I was @danielsbaum.
When I started, I had 25 followers. By the time I’d posted six tweets — five minutes into the enterprise — I had about 50. Then the number began growing very fast, , which freaked me out no small bit. It was like watching some demon organism spread across a petri dish. Within an hour I was over 300. It took three days to finish the job (it’s all posted, in proper order, here). At the end I had over more than followers.
This speaks less to my elegance as a writer (not much you can do with 140 characters) than to the obsessive secrecy of the New Yorker and the public’s justifiable fascination with such a venerated, and studiedly enigmatic institution.
This just in: the New Yorker, while a very good magazine, is just a magazine. It is neither an organ of state security nor an order of sacred monks. Yet it wraps itself in a cloak of genteel secrecy that is pretentious to the point of dishonesty. Not publishing a masthead, for example, is like not labeling the ingredients in food. As a reader, I want to know who has produced the product I’m reading. I suppose the idea — besides just setting the magazine apart from mere mortals — is to exalt the writers, as though they produce that deathless prose entirely on their own. Lemme tell you: They don’t. New Yorker articles are heavily edited, and they’re well edited. The editors and the fact-checkers are a big part of what makes the New Yorker good and I, for one, believe they deserve credit. Good or bad, we should know their names.
Of all institutions to depend so much on secrecy! It’s a journalistic endeavor, after all, which implies a certain commitment to transparency.
The magazine is also downright weird about protecting the way it contracts and pays writers. In that oxygen-poor atmosphere up there in the Conde Nast building, the prevailing pinky-out ethic deems money an impolite topic, too base for anybody who so loves the language to discuss. That, may I suggest, is patent horseshit. The reason the editors of the New Yorker don’t want people knowing how and how much they pay is that, like all bosses, they don’t want the people from whom they purchase services — us writers — to be well-informed negotiators.
When I was un-renewed in 2007 and Gawker called, I let slip that I’d been on a year-to-year contract and got an earful about it from the New Yorker.
I asked: Are you ashamed of how you pay writers? Is that why you’re upset that I leaked the details?*
That’s not it, came the answer. We simply don’t like that sort of thing discussed.
Well then, said I, with whom do you expect me to have allegiance? The boss (who just fired me), or the community of fellow writers who want to know how to break into the New Yorker and know how to negotiate their pay?
More on this tomorrow….

*Allow me to mumble down here that the New Yorker pays well. Even newcomers. Keeping writers at arm’s length as contractors instead of embracing them as full employees is annoying, and the year-to-year thing is needlessly demeaning and anxiety-producing. But it ain’t like I turned the deal down. Writing for the New Yorker is a privilege in all sorts of ways.

 

The Writing Starts Now

The usual way we work is we go out and do our reporting — conduct the interviews, dig up the documents — and then we come back to the desk and write. And when we come upon holes, we pick up the phone, or go back out in the field, to fill them. And so on.

     It’s time consuming. But worse, it disengages the reporting from the writing, when really, what we should be striving for, is the unity of the two. I am constantly trying, when out in the field, to be imagining how I’m going to write the thing — right down to imagining wording. It can be hard — I’m trying to listen, and ask questions, and also I have this tape running in my mind that is imagining structure, and plot, and character development. I’m not always successful, but it’s something I try always to do.

      This is especially true in long-form narrative writing — either a long magazine piece or a book. And it leads directly to the need to ask the overlooked questions, as discussed here. If you’re writing, about, say, the fight over a planned development in a protected wetland, you need to be imagining — as you’re talking with the developer — how you’re going to make the guy three dimensional, how you’re going to make his movitavations makes sense to reader, how the ebb and flow of his personal story brought him to this moment. (This is the difference between long-form and news reporting. The people in the story are fully developed chracters, like in a novel, not just names who’ve staked out a position and provide quotes.) If, while you’re talking to the guy, you’re imagining how your story is going to bring the guy to life by showing how he arrived at the place he’s at, you’ll ask the overlooked questions and also find yourself better equipped to write the complete story  without having to call him back.

    No long-form story is ever reported in a single day. The best way I’ve found to begin imagining the writing while still engaged in the reporting is actually to begin the writing while still engaged in the reporting. After a big day of interviews, sit down in your motel room, leave the HBO off, order in a sandwich, and write whatever part of the story you can. This is a compliment to my advice here about transcribing your notebook into your computer every night. The earlier you start writing — really structuring the piece and coming up with your wording and your voice — the better your reporting will be.