Writerland, Chapter 13: The Unbearable Weight of Form
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
Mark Westerbeck was a good newspaper writer but that was not his gift. Mark’s stories were solid and strong but they did not distinguish him, and that is a shame because while his published work reached a wide audience, very few of those readers knew that in a different form Mark was brilliant.
He was, I truly believe, the greatest letter writer ever. If that seems too hyperbolic by half, and a claim impossible to back up, consider that 32 years after his death, those of us to whom he wrote invariably talk about his letters when we talk about him.
Mark died young – a heart attack at 35 – and not happily. I wish I had saved his letters because then I’d be able to quote from them, to show you how terrific they were. I remember Mark’s letters as sardonic and filled with imagery that never felt forced. Yet interestingly, when I wrote to friends who had also corresponded with him – we had all met in our 20s in Chicago where we worked for the Tribune’s suburban edition -- I discovered that we each remembered the letters differently. Not in their quality – no dissent there – but about what he wrote, and what we took from them.
“Mark's letters always seemed a bit like Larry McMurtry at his best -- immediate notice of detail, cumulatively building to an unexpected climax,” wrote the Review’s senior editor, Cissi Falligant, who recalled how she and another friend would read Mark’s letters aloud to each other. “For a big, shy man, he didn't miss a thing and there was a lot more going on in that head than was apparent when you met him in real life. His descriptions were evocative and his letters were constructed so beautifully that they were each like short stories.”
“It was easier for him, I think, in letters,” wrote author and journalism school professor Tim Harper. “He could be revealing in a way that most guys wouldn't -- and that most of us, I suspect, were unwilling or unable to match.”
And this, from my colleague, author Sam Freedman. “The main thing about the letters is that they were the form in which Westy trusted his own voice. He was such a capable newspaper writer, but always well within the safe boundaries of standard newswriting or feature-writing. The shame is that he didn't let more of his ‘letters’ voice into his published work.”
Taken together, the different experiences of Mark’s letters suggest how successful they were at transporting us -- the hallmark of writing so good it becomes literature. There are too many writers like Mark Westerbeck, great creative forces stuck in forms that so constricts them that their voices are all but lost. Sam was onto something when he wrote about “safe boundaries.”
For journalism, which attracts creative people, can often squelch that creativity by hewing to the imperatives of form.
I learned this the hard way. In 1980 I was writing my first story for The New York Times Magazine, and I was as excited as I was terrified of failing. I filed my story. My editor called.
“Do you ever read this magazine?” she asked, in a voice that I can still recall for its weary impatience.
“Yes,” I stammered. “For years…”
“Haven’t you noticed that all the stories are written the same way?” she asked.
“I thought I’d try something different,” I replied.
To which she snapped, “We don’t want something different.”
With that I went back and revised to form: anecdotal lede; nut graph, scene with quote and/or dialogue; digression with quote from prominent academic (Ivy League preferred) or “expert;” repeat until reaching and never exceeding the assigned 5000-word mark.
They killed it anyway.
I wrote for them again a few years later, this time determined to follow the rules. The experience felt akin to playing Mad Libs at a birthday party for one: fill in the nouns and verbs, adjectives where necessary and voila, a story fit for the Times Magazine. I did not enjoy a moment of it. They liked it.
There is a reason to teach form, or at least some forms, in particular the standard news story; no one has ever come into this world knowing how to write one. But there is danger in taking that necessary lesson and applying it broadly. Bear in mind that journalistic forms have changed over the decades; stories from the late 19th century were sometimes 2500-word heaves in which the lede appears in the fourth paragraph. Fast forward to the mid-1920s, and the rise of the tabloids, and newspaper stories are something else entirely – quick, urgent, and short. But from a purely story telling point of view, the moment that changed everything occurred in the 1960s – of course – with the rise of the New Journalism.
While much was made, and rightfully celebrated, of the work of such luminaries as Gay Talese, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson, that revolution was fueled, in good measure, by the arrival of a new kind of non-fiction story teller: novelists. As Tom Wolfe wrote, writers like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer had decided that the Great American Novel was no longer the ultimate aspiration. It was journalism. Capote went so far as to claim that with “In Cold Blood” he had invented a new literary form: the nonfiction novel. He hadn’t; others had done it before him.
Still, novelists brought their literary sensibility to journalism, and though many didn’t stick around, nor want to roll up their sleeves and do the reporting essential to the work (Mailer famously dismissed reporting as “chores”), they and their journalistic counterparts had nonetheless redefined what nonfiction story telling could be: the sensibility of fiction fueled by fact.
And then, like so many revolutions, this one stalled. The explosion of creativity gave way to formulaic storytelling, to a set of rules the violation of which led to a story being spiked. You could take some risks, getting florid and even metaphorical, as long as the story fit the form.
Nonfiction storytelling, especially in magazines, became akin to a haiku. You were fine so long as you weren’t a syllable off. I can tell you from too many mournful conversations that for many years there was no unhappier group of journalists than magazine writers, creative souls caught between the quick twitch sensibilities of their newspaper counterparts, and those who wrote books and had far more freedom to do what they liked.
Then, in what felt like an instant, digital disruption blew up everything. Even as magazines saw their pages shrink and their story lengths contract, new online publications emerged, and suddenly, it seemed, stories could be as long as they had to be, so long as they succeeded in the only narrative metric that really matters: did the reader keep going?
Just as importantly, rather than determine a story’s success by whether it conformed with an editor’s or publication’s sensibilities, it was now possible to know what readers thought. You could measure page views, time on page, shares. Analytics showed that often those editors and gatekeepers who had relied on their guts to decide a story’s fate, and who had tolerated no deviation from the accepted forms, were discovering that readers were devouring all sorts of stories, of different lengths – and not just silly cat videos but 10,000-word narratives in places like BuzzFeed -- told in different ways, and in different voices.
Just as they always had with fiction.
It is a hard time to be a journalist. The reliable ways of making a living are vanishing, ever more so at this moment. And yet it is also, with apologies for all those who have lost their jobs and outlets, a time of great creative ferment. You can write as you want to write, and publish it too, so that readers can discover your work.
And if I sound naïve, or not truly understanding of the devastation of this time, perhaps it’s because I am thinking of Mark Westerbeck and his letters. It is good to imagine Mark taking his letters and posting them and friends sharing them. It is good to imagine that at long last, Mark would have seen his gift, his voice, having resonance, reaching an audience that delighted in them, readers unencumbered and never much interested in the arbitrary demands of form, telling their friends, “you’ve got to read this guy…”
Last fall we published our most widely read story, Abigail Covington’s remarkable account of one professor's final attempt to get Washington and Lee University to confront the legacy of its namesake, Robert E. Lee. Nothing changed. Then came the killing of George Floyd and in its wake a backlash against enduring symbols of the Lost Cause. Suddenly, the college in Lexington, Virginia found itself in the center of a debate about what to do with the legacy of the man who lay in repose in the campus chapel. This week the faculty voted overwhelmingly to change the school’s name.
Here is Abigail’s story – “What Do We Do With Robert E. Lee?”
Writerland will return on August 5th. In the meantime, stay safe and well.
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.