Writerland, Chapter 36: You’re Smart. Don’t Think So Much.

Writerland, Chapter 36: You’re Smart. Don’t Think So Much. 

Hold on, you say: your advice makes no sense. You tell us we are smart but not to think too much. You are telling us to stop doing what we do well. 

Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. 

I say this because in thirty years of teaching aspiring journalists, and in editing journalists who have already achieved many of their aspirations, I have seen how often those writers end up undermining themselves by committing not the sin, but the mistake of overthinking. 

Sins are volitional. Mistakes are unintended. We don’t mean to overthink. We just do it. Yes, we. I do it all the time. I cannot help myself.

Overthinking is an insidious form of self-censorship. It works like this: an idea comes to us, quickly. We like it. But in that moment of happiness we begin to ask ourselves, really? Is it that good? How can it be when it seemingly came to me without thought? How can I trust it? I must examine it. 

If Freud were an editor he would suggest that at this moment writers are caught between their id -- what we want, need, are compelled to do -- and our superego, our ever present scold that reminds us what we should do. 

Much as we want to follow the excitement of our ids, we fear the blowback, the trouble we’re in for if we don’t pay close attention to our superegos. And that is when thinking, which leads to  overthinking, begins to drain the life out of our ideas and stories. 

Let me tell a story about what happens when writers overthink. For years I gave my students a deadline assignment in which they were handed a legal document in which a great story was buried. I say buried because legal documents are seldom written with a poet’s sensibility. How many poets begin sentences with the word “moreover?”

This legal document was an “affidavit for a search warrant.” Enticing, no? The search took place at an enterprise called the Long Island Pet Cemetery and followed complaints that the pet cemetery had not only failed to comply with the terms including tasteful burials it offered the clientele grieving for their lost pets but instead -- alert here for all animal lovers -- dumped a quarter of a million deceased animals in a giant pit. 

The owners of the pet cemetery had been arrested and charged with multiple counts of mail fraud, having returned to the owners ashes that were not those of their pets. A mock “press conference” followed. Students could ask anything they wanted about the case, the search, the charges, the alleged crime. I did this exercise with a lawyer friend and after twenty years we finally gave up because it had gotten to the point where it seemed no student in any class of very, very smart young journalists was ever going to get to the heart of the matter.

They asked very detailed questions about the specifics of mail fraud, the statutes, the potential penalties, risk of imprisonment, amount of fines. They had studied the document and seen clues that might have led them to a different line of inquiry -- like the words fetid and rats and hazmat suits.

But time and again, year after year, the focus was on mail fraud. And when the press conference ended my lawyer friend and I would look at each other and smile and, much to the chagrin of the students, say, “it happened again.”

What do you mean and why do you laugh at us? the students asked.

Why? my friend replied. Because in all the questions you asked, you never asked me what the giant pit looked like or smelled like. I told you I was there. But you never asked.

The students looked saddened but my friend assured them that this did not mean they were bad journalists. Rather, he said, the problem lay in their past.

“You are,” he said, “too well educated.”

They had spent twenty years focussed on doing well in school, which meant pleasing the teacher (and parents; can’t leave them out of the equation) by scoring well on tests, standardized and otherwise. They had worked hard to perform well, to prove their smarts. But smarts alone would not transport you and your cast-iron-stomach readers to the pit in the back of the Long Island Pet Cemetery.

For that you had to follow your gut.

The late New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal used to say that you edit a newspaper with your gut. That is kind of true. You edit a tabloid with your gut -- which is why one of the tabloid headlines about the raid at the Long Island Pet Cemetery was something along the lines of “Puppy Hell.” But Rosenthal, an editor as feared as he was admired, was onto something, though more in aspiration than practice. He presided over a newsroom filled with very smart journalists who were often caught between what their guts told them and what the copy desk -- his editors, doing what they saw as his bidding -- deemed acceptable. 

Over time being told “the question has been raised” can leave a writer in a perpetual state of second-guessing; “can I get away with this? Nah, they’ll never let me.” It is not exclusive to the Times. I have written for a lot of publications and a lot of editors and it is much the same most anyplace you go. Editors will always come back with questions, as they should. But annoying as those editors and their questions can be, they are not the problem. 

The problem is the doubt, the hesitation, the overthinking that comes in anticipation of their questions. Editors, like overbearing teachers and overly-invested parents, can put writers into a defensive, reactive crouch. And it is in that unfortunate pose (let the image stay with you a bit) that writers abandon their instincts and begin thinking, and thinking and thinking themselves out of whatever burst of inspiration or creativity they had, all too briefly, possessed.

“Puppy Hell” may not be a headline that captures why you decided to become a writer. It doesn’t do it for me. Yet I will confess to a certain admiration for a sensibility unencumbered by the need to somehow get it right, to do what is expected of me, to sound smart so that I will be thought of as smart and successful and at no risk of failure.

I have a new group of students and they are much like every group that came before -- eager, anxious, ambitious, terrified, smart. They have ideas. The ideas are fine, though often the sort that feel destined to end with pretty good stories, but not necessarily great ones. I tell them, I read your memo and it is thorough, strong, and yes, smart. Then I ask, what did you see that stopped you and made you think, that’s interesting?

Invariably, it will be something they had not written down. Something they may have noticed but set aside because in trying to figure out what I wanted, they did not think their impression, their hunch, what their gut told them was smart or ambitious enough. It was just an image, which led to a question that got them excited. Until they stopped themselves.

Tell me more about what you noticed, I say. 

Really? they ask, as their eyes light up.

Writerland, Chapter 35: Tracking Covid: A Reporter's Contradictions

Like millions of Americans, I lost most sources of income when the pandemic began last March. At the time, I didn’t have a full-time job. I held several odd gigs, including freelancing for the Review, editing other journalists’ work, babysitting and selling eyeglasses at random New York fairs. I was making the most money from babysitting. And I was embarrassed about this. I was twenty-five, with a masters in journalism and I was only able to pay rent because I made $450 a week taking care of a precocious third grader. In retrospect, this was a silly way to feel. Too many people starting out in journalism spend too much time thinking about what others are doing or what they might be thinking about them. I wish I could have told myself: Natasha, the others aren’t even thinking about you.

New York City, and the world, changed that March for reasons we all know. I couldn’t babysit anymore, I stopped hearing from the people I was editing for, there were no more fairs. I spent weeks and then months trapped inside my Brooklyn apartment with three roommates. On the rare days I went out to get fresh air, I was masked up, with gloves and clothes I took off the second I got back home. We planned out every meal we ate so that we only had to grocery shop twice a month. Every surface was scrubbed with Lysol wipes at the end of the day. There were no more guests. There was one pandemic dog. In the early days, I was woken up by sirens that somehow hadn’t stopped by the time I was going to sleep. Everyone watched Tiger King. Everyone got their hands on a sourdough starter. Everyone clapped and banged at 7 p.m. Everyone who could afford to leave the city left. I resented them deeply. But I’m sure I would have done the same if I had the option to leave. I could go on and on about how the start of the pandemic was for me, but those of us who have made it to today all know more or less how it went.     

Mentally, I was often overwhelmed, trying to keep level. My room was tiny. I had moved in right before the pandemic and my roommates were lovely but they were strangers. I spent hours crying in my room and hours trying to make my face look like I hadn’t cried so that I could leave my room. I tried to meditate. I tried to do Yoga With Adriene (my room was too small). I read. I watched reality TV. My journalism aspirations slipped away. I had no drive, no inspiration. I applied for, and received, unemployment benefits as a freelancer. Mostly, I felt so fucking guilty. I wasn’t doing anything. I had no purpose. But I was alive. I hadn’t lost anyone. I wasn’t putting my life at risk every day to help others. I was so privileged, so lucky. And I was so bored. And I hated feeling all those feelings.

By the summer, New Yorkers had relaxed a bit. The lines for covid testing got shorter, groceries were no longer sanitized before going in the fridge, the weather was warm and parks were packed with outdoor gatherings. Covid was still with us but not like it had been in the spring. In July, everything changed for me. I got an email from a former grad school professor asking if I had time to do freelance work. Of course I did. We got on the phone and he explained that the New York Times was tracking coronavirus cases and deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. They had a team of freelancers who worked collecting the data, and they were thinking of bringing in some more. I expressed my interest, although I didn’t think it would lead to anything. I had a phone interview and later that week I was hired on a freelance basis. It all happened so quickly. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. And then I panicked. I had been told the work would be difficult and require the utmost precision. I would be working with data, with numbers. This was something I didn’t have a lot of experience with. My focus in grad school had been on crafting longform narratives, not data journalism. 

I was trained on my first day. It was exciting and overwhelming. The spreadsheets and the numbers gave me anxiety. And the fact that everything had to be done remotely scared me into thinking I would struggle to do the work correctly. But over time, I was able to relax and let go of my anxieties and focus on the task at hand. I had joined a team of journalists from all over the nation tracking coronavirus cases and deaths in nursing homes and on college campuses. We also tracked coronavirus clusters across the U.S. It was demanding work. I spent eight hours, five days a week glued to my computer. I bought blue light glasses for my exhausted eyes. I got a folding desk so that I didn’t have to work from my bed. I started to see my name in the sea of names under the Times’ coronavirus maps. I was so proud of us. I felt so much better about myself because I was doing something. I was being useful. I was a tiny, tiny part of a giant team of individuals contributing to the world’s understanding of this new and deadly virus.

My entire life soon became coronavirus. I woke up and went to work in the same room, counting new cases and new deaths for hours. The numbers were always higher than the day before, sometimes shockingly so. I became everyone’s go-to person for coronavirus-related issues or questions. Is it okay if I go to the gym? What’s the current turnaround time for a covid test at CityMD? My throat hurts, do you think it’s covid? Can I get a haircut? Is it really that bad? I answered them all. Sometimes I was happy to. Sometimes I was exhausted. But I was eager to be useful. There was no escape from coronavirus. It was (and still is) impossible to have a conversation with anyone and not mention the pandemic. Coronavirus had seeped into every aspect of life. When I tried to escape into television or movies, I found myself questioning why people weren’t wearing masks in crowded scenes, only to remember that what I was watching wasn’t real life, and it was also the past.  

Counting deaths will get to you in one way or another, no matter how stable you are. It wasn’t easy in the summer, when so many people started acting as if the pandemic was over, but on my computer, I was just seeing cases and deaths increase. I spent time on the phone yelling at my parents, telling them they couldn’t do the things they wanted to do. I silently judged friends who dined indoors. Summer turned to fall and the notion that vaccines could be coming finally became a reality. My team began tracking vaccine distribution, administration and eligibility. I cannot put into words how incredible it felt to track something good and positive instead of sadness. As vaccine eligibility opened up, I made appointments for family and friends and patiently waited my turn. And then, I left the job. I was hired in a permanent position at the Times, this one with a focus on editing. Of course, I was overjoyed to get a full-time job. But a part of me wanted to see this through.

There was a time this summer when we thought it might end. For some time, I thought that coronavirus would one day become an event we spoke of similarly to how we speak of 9/11. We all remember where we were on 9/11. I thought perhaps in the future we would all speak about our year of coronavirus, where we were and how it was for us, and then move on to some other subject. But this nightmare is not over and seeing coronavirus reporting through to the end might not ever be an option. Coronavirus is now its own beat, there is so much to cover and I don’t think it will ever go away completely, it will simply be, exist as a part of our collective reality. I do hope I’m wrong about that.

I learned so much in the year I spent reporting on the pandemic. I realized that there are things that can never be taught in a classroom, but they can be learned on the job. I discovered that for me, graduate school paid off in the connections I made. I learned that so much in the journalism world is so random and seems to come down to luck and who you know, which isn’t really fair. I fell back in love with reporting. What I have described as hard work also gave me purpose and drive. I realize that I have spent this entry talking about my experience gaining employment during a pandemic where millions are struggling to find work and unemployment benefits have run out for so many. I feel guilty. My imposter syndrome always comes back to haunt me. This pandemic has taught me that you can be happy and devastated simultaneously.

I remember what an undergraduate journalism professor of mine used to say about journalism: history’s rough draft. What an honor it was to be a small part of a massive effort in writing that draft. And how strange and sad it is that most of the things we write and report on are tragedies, with no cure. Except to record them for whoever comes next.  

Writerland, Chapter 34: Yes, You May Go Down that Rabbit Hole. Carefully.

Writers love rabbit holes even though we are not supposed to. Rabbit holes are perilous places where writers are known to vanish. It just seems to happen, like a tattoo that appears on your arm the morning after a night you cannot recall. 

The journey down a rabbit hole begins with a reasonable question. Pursuing that question, however, may lead not to an answer but instead to another question and then another, each more alluring and intriguing. You think: This is fun! I am discovering questions I had never even thought to ask!

But that is also the moment when rabbit holes can begin to take on the power of a starter drug, a dangerous first step in chasing the reportorial dragon. When editors and people who love you hear you say you cannot write until you answer a particular question they might well stage an intervention in the hope of pulling you back to the keyboard lest you become so hopelessly obsessed that your extended procrastination risks ending in a block so extreme that law school begins to look attractive. 

Even the verb most associated with rabbit holes sounds like a warning label: Going down a rabbit hole. Nothing good comes from such a descent, right? After all, look what happened to the victim of the greatest, albeit fictional rabbit hole journey ever made: Alice, of Wonderland. 

But I am here to tell you that rabbit holes can be a good and exciting—a worthwhile—trip to take. You discover things you didn’t even know you were looking for, and those discoveries can make your stories better, fueling them with a sense of excitement and urgency. You just have to know when it’s time to come home.

I confess that I have always liked going down rabbit holes. One of my few happy memories of high school is of Saturday afternoons sitting in front of giant microfilm machines in the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library scrolling through old newspapers, ostensibly looking for articles that might help support a long-forgotten term paper. As I turned the crank I’d notice something else on the page, an ad or a small story unrelated to what I was supposed to be researching. And off I’d go, looking to see what other gems this newspaper held. I got very few “A”s on term papers.

Now, however, I get to do this for a living and believe that this is essential to my doing my work. When I am reporting I feel like a detective in a noir novel—think, The Big Sleep—who is hired to solve a case only to discover that that case is not what the crime is about. Which leads to the detective stepping into the darkness, the noir, where the story takes on what feels like a life of its own. 

Temperament dictates the nature of rabbit holes; after all, they exist only because we will them into being. I used to think that rabbit holes entrapped only reporters like me, who were not disposed to proceed in a straight line. But then my friend and colleague Sam Freedman, who is relentless in following the reporting path he established from the outset, told me about his rabbit hole. 

He was finishing a book and wanted to confirm that an anecdote told by one of his main characters happened as he recalled it. The story concerned a speech by Ronad Reagan at a G.E. plant in upstate New York, given years before he was elected president. The speech changed the subject’s life and Sam needed to know that it happened when and where his subject remembered. So he started calling everyone he could think of for confirmation. Sounded right, they said, but they couldn’t be sure. Sam could not let this one go. 

“I was utterly, completely obsessed with confirming it,” he told me. “My last, best tactic was to take Amtrak up to Schenectady and go to the public library to read the bound volumes of G.E.'s house organ. Surely if Reagan had spoken there, the employee newspaper would have reported it. Once again, I went through the entire decade of the 1970s: nothing. It was a very long Amtrak back to Manhattan.”

“To this day,” he added, his character still believes his memory of that speech is correct. “And I just shrug my shoulders and tell him, ‘Maybe.’"

I’ve been doing a lot of rabbit hole spelunking lately as I research a book that takes me back a hundred years, to worlds that no longer exist but that I am determined to recreate. The work is as thrilling as it is dangerous in that it leads, time and again, to rabbit holes that seem to go on forever. For instance, one of the main characters in my story, my grandfather, came to America as a sixteen-year-old orphan—at least I believe he was an orphan; still trying to determine if his mother was alive when he left his village—and made a great success of himself as what was known as a “butter and egg” man. But I didn’t know how he came to be a butter and egg man. How did he find his first job as an entry level “candler?” How did he know where to start looking? And while I’m at it, how did the butter and egg trade, which once occupied entire city blocks in Lower Manhattan, come to be dominated by Eastern European Jewish immigrants? 

That last one vexed me. I researched like mad but came up empty. Surely, I told myself, the answer was out there, and it was on me to find it. Weeks passed. And while I was in the same apartment as my wife, I was in a sense absent, having disappeared down the rabbit hole of 1912 New York. She saw it. So did my brother, to whom I mentioned my fixation about the butter and eggs trade in passing thinking that he and my wife would both say, dig on.

But that is not what they said. They said: stop. You have got to stop and start writing. If you are going to find an answer it will not be today or tomorrow or even next month.

I listened. And was grateful for their insistence because it took no time at all to see they were right. I had somehow convinced myself that no progress could be made until I had my answer. I started to write again. I still don’t have my answer. Maybe, in time, I will. But in the months since I have discovered many new questions. I am surrounded by rabbit holes. I am proceeding with a mix of delight and caution.

Rabbit holes are a trick of the mind. And short of having wise and caring people lower a rope to pull you out, it is important to remember that you can stop yourself, even if it means playing yet another game to short circuit the one that got you into this mess, that felt so thrilling but which has now become quite frightening. 

Another writer friend, the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, told me that much as she loves rabbit holes — she is perhaps the most curious person I know — she recognizes that the obsessiveness that compels someone to start digging a rabbit hole has at times gotten the better of her, like the time, as she put it, “in a period of romantic failure” when she started collecting orchids and succulent plants. One purchase led to another and another and when it finally came time to move from California to Chicago she had to mail 200 orchids and 400 succulents. 

Her rabbit hole-like obsession ended when she relocated. The plants died. And she met someone  whom she married. But what of the rabbit holes that cannot be escaped by packing up and moving east?

“What in my life isn’t a rabbit hole?” she wrote. “I had the horrified thought, staring at my book outline recently, that I’d gotten obsessed by one of the weirder and more exotic experiences people have (hearing a voice when alone), learned everything I possibly could about it, decided I knew far too much to know anything and anyway no one will ever care. 

“One way I manage those pre-writing rabbit holes: I pull out all the papers and books written by other people that I have collected, and I put them in piles. I look at all the titles, and I pat each one. Really. Then I put them back on the shelves.”

Stories get shared in all kinds of ways, and the most effective is also the oldest: word of mouth. Someone you know tells you there is a story, or book, you have to read and often that is enough. There are so many terrific stories out in the world that somehow pass us by, and we thought it was well past time to begin sharing them with one another. Meaning, the subscribers to this newsletter.

So, an invitation: If there is a story you’ve discovered and loved and want to pass the word, drop us a line at delacortereview@gmail.com with a link to the story, a one or two sentence description, and a quick word about who you are and why you loved it. We’ll start adding them to this newsletter. Think of it as the Writerland Reading Circle.

We’ll start things off. One of the best stories we’ve seen in a very long time is now out in the Atlantic — What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind — by the wonderful Jennifer Senior. It’s the story of one family, and what happened to each of them in the twenty years since a death on 9/11.

Writerland Chapter 33: The Story That Never Was

Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.

Less than a year after graduating from Columbia Journalism School, I received the opportunity of a lifetime. A former professor reached out to me asking if I had any interest in potentially freelancing for a newspaper. This wasn’t just any newspaper, it was my dream newspaper, the kind of newspaper that I never thought I would have a shot at writing for, especially in that moment. I was young and I barely had any published clips. I didn’t see why the paper would ever have an interest in working with me—a nobody—but of course I told my professor that I was interested.

An editor from the paper soon reached out. He explained that his desk was looking to work with more freelancers and that I came highly recommended. They wanted to expand their New York coverage and were hungry for pitches. If I was interested, he said, I should send him some links to previous works. So I sent four and expected to never hear back.

He responded in less than two hours, saying that he’d love for me to send over some pitches. I am terrible at pitches. Pitches give me anxiety. I always think my idea is dumb and embarrassing and that everyone else’s is better. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t even come up with a single idea. A couple weeks later (not a good look!), I sent the editor a pitch. It went something like this:

In the seventies and eighties, New York City streets and subway cars were drenched in graffiti. The taggers responsible were mostly teens from outer boroughs. There was no better feeling, they claimed, than sitting on a bench and watching a train that they used as a rolling canvas pull into the station. But the city eventually cracked down on graffiti. Barbed wires were put along train yard fences. Tagging public property became a felony. The city moved on and taggers grew up. Today, street art has replaced graffiti and those who made it big in graffiti no longer vandalize. 

But some refused to move on. There’s a group of graffiti taggers from the city, all in their fifties and sixties, who have not been able to stop tagging. They are starkly different—tattoo artists, professional artists, a warden at Riker’s. And yet they will all tell you that their greatest love has been graffiti. Many still go out and tag illegally. Some even break into train yards. They all refuse to give graffiti up. They have all been arrested for graffiti vandalism at some point. When they have been persecuted, people in the courtrooms laugh and judges are shocked because they do not resemble young, reckless graffiti taggers. They are much older. 

I’d like to write a story about older graffiti taggers who can’t seem to let go of their past and their youth, about men, who, no matter what they ended up doing with their lives, just want to write their names all over their city. 

The idea came out of a world I had discovered in grad school. In Michael Shapiro’s reporting class, we were each tasked with picking a Brooklyn neighborhood to report from. I chose Bushwick, and of course, I could not ignore the street art and graffiti. That experience opened up a part of New York that I, as a native New Yorker, was not familiar with. I kept exploring this graffiti theme in other classes, meeting different taggers of all backgrounds and ages, but it was the older ones who stood out to me. I hoped the editor would agree.

He was interested and asked some follow-ups: Was this a graffiti crew? Were they all male? Would they allow me to accompany them as they tagged? We spoke on the phone and he asked me to do some research on different crews from the seventies and eighties. It would be great if I could focus on a crew and see where they were today and how their lives had turned out, he said. I agreed.

At the time, I was going through a depression that I couldn’t shake. It just got worse and worse. I cried constantly and had no motivation to do anything. While I normally would have pulled an all-nighter to get my research to the editor, it took me a month and a week to do so. I apologized profusely, telling him that I had been sick and attaching my research doc in the email. Thankfully, he was still interested in my story. We decided on a graffiti crew to focus on and he asked me to write an outline with an emphasis on who these taggers were. The newspaper sent over a freelancer contract agreement for me to sign. I was elated. I could not believe that I was one step closer to seeing my byline in this paper. It was a surreal moment but it didn’t last long.

One tagger was especially compelling. He had been credited with originating a very famous graffiti style that appeared all over the city decades ago. And then he disappeared. Some mistakenly reported him dead, many did not know how to contact him. If I was able get an interview with this tagger, I would have a story. I spoke to people who knew him, and managed to get a phone number. I called and he answered. It was difficult to hear him over the phone but I was able to understand that he was game for an interview. The editor was excited and so was I.

But staying in touch with the tagger proved difficult. On some days, he would call several times to touch base. But then he would go dark for weeks. I told the editor the tagger was elusive and he understood and encouraged me to keep trying. I did. But I kept feeling more and more uncomfortable. Once on a call, the tagger told me he had looked me up and then proceeded to make comments about my appearance. I tried to laugh them off and remain professional but I felt like a line had been crossed. He often called me from the hospital and I couldn’t ever understand what he was saying or why he was there. He started to call constantly, always late at night, well past midnight. He sent me photos of my name written in graffiti style. I was worried that he wasn’t always sober when he called, and I while I didn’t know anything about the ethics of reporting on someone when they were under the influence, it didn’t feel right to me.

I didn’t know what to tell the editor. I wanted him to think I was a professional. I wanted him to want to work with me again. I was embarrassed that I was making such little progress. I never for a second considered telling him what I had been dealing with. He was a man, and I worried that he wouldn’t understand and would write me off as bad at my job, a disappointment. Eventually I stopped providing the editor with updates and stopped responding to the tagger’s increasingly frequent calls. The depression had come back and my coping mechanism was to avoid everything.

Two months later, the editor wrote to me, wanting to check in. He had an idea for a peg. I told him I was having trouble scheduling an interview with the tagger but that we were in touch. He offered a solution, one that really would have worked and that I could have reported out well. But I just never did it. My last email to the editor was telling him that I would try that approach. But I never tried and I never wrote back to him and he didn’t reach out, rightfully so. I was now the one being elusive.

At the time, I didn’t know who to reach out to for help on the story. Being depressed didn’t help. All of my full-time professors in graduate school had been men. The Me Too movement had just started when I arrived on campus but in classes, we never really talked about what that meant for female journalists. I was concerned about looking weak and dumb, but also I didn’t think that my professors would be able to relate to how I was feeling. My best friend put me in touch with a female journalist to talk to. But I was flaky and she was too and the talking never happened.

If I could go back and give myself advice it would be to talk about my experiences with this editor. He was nothing but kind and considerate, and he was enthusiastic about my story.  

Like I said earlier, this was an opportunity to be published in my dream publication and I squandered it. I have moments when this whole situation pops into my head and I get so, so embarrassed. I always wonder, what if? What if I had been able to write a version of this story? What if people liked it? What if it led to more opportunities at the paper? Where would I be now if I hadn’t messed things up? The stakes are so high when you are young and inexperienced and trying to make it in journalism.

There’s no use in having all this regret inside you, especially when you were dealing with depression. But I did build a bridge to something that I really wanted, and then I burnt it all down because I wasn’t ready to show others that I wasn’t a perfect reporter, that I kept running into bumps in the road, that I was a woman who didn’t feel comfortable. I’m still haunted by this experience. The tagger recently started calling me again at night. I’m surprised he remembers me after all this time. I don’t answer his calls but I’m genuinely glad to know he survived the pandemic.

Writerland, Chapter 32: You Must Remember This

What made the worst editor I ever worked for the worst editor I ever worked for had nothing to do with anything he said to me, though he said plenty and, well, don’t get me started. No, what made the worst editor I ever worked for so singularly bad was what he said about Mike Royko. Not that he said this to Royko himself because he was in no position to so much as ask Royko for the time, given that this took place in 1979 when Royko reigned as the undisputed king of all Chicago newspaper people, the five-day-a-week Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Sun-Times so revered and popular that people greeted one another with “You read Royko today?”

Royko was a classic — the working-class, tough guy who made the powerful cower. Which is what made one column he wrote that year stand apart. It mentioned no names. It ripped no politician. Instead it told the story of a man who, upon the death of his wife, returned to their vacation house on a lake to close it up. Royko had just lost his wife. He was 47. He did not say he was the man in the story and did not have to. 

He worked quickly, trying not to let himself think that this particular chair had been her favorite chair, that the hammock had been her Christmas gift to him, that the lovely house on the lake had been his gift to her.

He didn't work quickly enough. He was still there at sunset. It was a great burst of orange, the kind of sunset she loved best.

He tried, but he couldn't watch it alone. Not through tears. So he turned his back on it, went inside, drew the draperies, locked the door and drove away without looking back.

I read and was floored. This was an altogether different Royko, restrained and poetic. I said as much to my editor. 

He replied: It couldn’t have been that hard because he didn’t have to do any reporting.

I cannot recall that story without wanting to scream, “Fool!” Didn’t have to do any reporting? Could he not understand what Royko had done with the small heartbreaker of a column? Could he not appreciate how wrenching that must have been? Could he not see that in fact Royko had reported — that in drawing on memories he had gathered what was necessary to tell his story? Of course he couldn’t. And neither, at that moment, could I. 

This happened forty-two years ago and I remember it clearly, at least in parts. At least I think I do. I can recall the exchange so vividly, especially his words. But did I say anything back? I was not a model employee so might well have. I don’t recall. But something about that brief conversation compelled me to remember it, to file it away — just as Rokyo had done with his own memories. But were his memories precise or flawed? Did things happen as he recalled? Or without doing so consciously, did Mike Royko filter those memories, so that only those that he chose to recall propelled his story? 

There is no way of knowing. Mike Rokyo died in 1997 and even if he were still alive, I suspect he would not have been inclined to consider whether his memories were selective or flawed. Not Mike Royko. That was not him. It was, however, William Faulkner who famously wrote, “memory believes before knowing remembers.”

It is classically Faulknerian in that it takes a moment to move past the poetry and sort through the meaning, which in this instance is quite simple: we want to believe what we want to believe. But only with knowledge can we see.

Journalists encounter this with most everyone we talk with. We pose questions intended to make sense of the past. What happened? What happened next? What did you see and hear? How did you feel? Much as we want—and sometimes accept what we are told, we feel compelled to seek confirmation even from the most sympathetic subjects. (Think of accounts by victims of wartime atrocities that are accompanied by the phrase this account is consistent with those told by others). It is not necessarily that we doubt the subject’s version, though sometimes we do; it’s the nature of the business. More often, it’s understanding that memories can be unreliable, that they become clouded and muddied even as they’re clung to as fact.

But what happens when journalists, story tellers, turn inward and begin to ask those same questions of themselves? Drawing on memories is not limited to autobiography or memoir. We draw on what we have seen and heard and if those memories are confirmed in our notes or tapes we are reassured we have it right. But what about those we did not record — events, moments, encounters, conversations that took place before we thought to commit them to a notebook or recorder? What do we do with them?

I know I heard my editor say what he said about Mike Royko’s column. I know it. And I have told you this story convinced that I have it right. But did I? 

I emailed a couple of old colleagues who were in the newsroom that day. I told them what I remembered and asked if they did too.

One wrote, “Can’t say I remember this episode. Sounds like him - but I don’t recall it.”

The other replied, “I don’t recall it at all.”

If you are wondering whether I then tracked that editor down — last I heard he’d gone on to a successful career selling advertising — and asked whether he remembered a conversation from forty-two years ago, I will confess, at the risk of you thinking less of me as a journalist, that I did not. 

I did not want to reconnect with someone with whom I had such a fraught relationship. But there was something more that transcended the facts of that exchange: my need to remember as I did. And therein lay the story. It was less about what he said about that column than my desire to remember how I felt. Why did I choose that memory? Why did it endure?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently in the writing I’m doing. My story begins with a memory: I stand at the grave of my best friend. He is buried in a small plot in a corner of the kibbutz he helped found in the desert. It is surrounded by mountains and sand and nothing interrupts the pale brown vista. It is silent. There is a shade from a single tree. He has been dead for thirty-five years and this is the first time I have visited his grave. A day seldom passes when I do not think about him. 

That was two years ago and it is written as I remember it. But the more I wrote, the more I found myself wondering about that moment. I had waited so long to pay that visit, and in the telling, in what I recalled as I began to write, it felt so hurried, so compressed. 

As it happened, I had recorded the visit on my phone. I found the video and discovered that my memory was incomplete. So several thousand words later, I wrote: Only now, as I look again at the video I recorded on my phone that day, do I see there was more. Yes, there was the shade of the single tree over his grave. But there were other trees and shrubs and a wooden bench bleached and worn by the sun. Four stones had been laid neatly alongside the gray stone that bore Jonnie’s name. A low bamboo fence surrounded the cemetery. The silence was not complete; a bird chirped. Why did I not remember that? Perhaps because all I could recall was what I came to see and could not appreciate that there were things I was missing.

Writing is about choices. What we include, what we cut. Who appears in our stories and who does not. But it is also about the why — why we make the decisions we do. Especially when it comes to what we want and need and choose to remember.

Discovering that my memory was flawed, that I had remembered incompletely, was not reason for worry. Quite the opposite. It has forced me to see my story and the journey in finding and telling it in new ways. I am not discouraged that I didn’t have it right. I am excited.

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