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Writerland, Chapter 4: Before You Write a Word...
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
I was new to journalism and eager to find how I might fit in the world of which I so much wanted to be a part. Though I had never been much of a reader I began devouring all the journalism I could. One of the books I was sure I had to read, if only for blue-skies-aspirational reasons was “The Kingdom and the Power,” Gay Talese’s magisterial history of the New York Times.
Tucked among all those stories of Times intrigue was a point I was sure directed me to my journalism path – that in the Times newsroom there were two sorts of journalists: the reporters and the writers.
The reporters covered city hall and the state house and if they were really good were sent to Washington where they broke news, investigated federal agencies, and hounded politicians. They were not stylists, nor were they expected to be.
The writers were, in comparison, effete. They cared about words, and the sparkling turns of phrase. They were alchemists who could transform a seemingly insignificant story – the person no one ever heard of but whose story you would never forget – by dint of their skill and word choices.
I did not want to cover city hall, nor was I particularly good at it; I was the guy you could count on beating. In my first newspaper job I was assigned to cover several suburban New Jersey towns. I sat at city council and school board meetings and as I listened to debates about streetlights and curriculum guidelines my mind wandered. I saw myself standing with the writers. And writers, I believed, did not cover night meetings.
But then, a few years into my career – when I was covering yet more suburban towns, this time on the edges of Chicago – a colleague, Tom McNamee, brought me up short about how I saw my place in the journalism firmament. Tom, who became the longtime editorial page editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, was nothing if not direct, and for that and more we remain good friends.
I cannot recall the conversation that led to it, but I still remember vividly the moment when he looked at me and said: “Shapiro, the day your reporting catches up with your writing you’re going to be pretty good.”
To which, I replied, or more likely thought: Huh?
I was a writer, no? I wrote about life on the backstretch at Arlington Park racetrack, and the kids who worked the overnight shift at the donut shop, and the World War II Battle Reenactment Society’s recreation of the Battle of the Bulge. I observed, interviewed and took copious notes. I did not regard reporting as Norman Mailer did – he called it “chores.”
But I did not fully appreciate how essential reporting was. People, I believed, did not see the reporting. They saw the writing. And like all writers I lived to hear nice things said about what I wrote.
There was something more, a certain dismissiveness among the reporters who let it be known while the writers were deft with their prose, what they did – all the immersion, observation, and recording with an eye for the narrative -- really didn't count as reporting. Who did you ever get indicted?
So I, like a subset among my post-Vietnam/post-Watergate generation of journalism newbies, was smitten less by the relentless task of investigative reporting than by the selections in Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism anthology. And if those pieces were not enough, Wolfe offered his hyperbolic treatise, in which he argued that journalism was so big, so hot, so very much of the moment that it had supplanted the Great American Novel so even novelists like Mailer and Truman Capote were flocking to it.
But in my longing to join the Writers’ Club, I overlooked the essential point of Wolfe’s essay: it was all about the reporting. Reporting of a particular sort. “The basic reporting unit is no longer the datum, the piece of information, but the scene,” he wrote. Reporting was key to achieving the novelistic effect that writers of fiction, new to the field, had relied upon their imaginations to provide. There was something more, a cautionary note: “Reporting never becomes any easier because you have done it many times.”
I suppose I kind of knew this. But how could the often maddening business of reporting – best described by a journalist friend as beginning when someone says “no” -- compare with the pats on the back that came when the story ran.
It was about the words, wasn’t it?
No, Tom McNamee, had told me. It wasn’t.
I should have known this. I had all the evidence I needed, in a book tucked on my shelf whose true lessons I had somehow failed to recognize: “The Longest Day.”
The Longest Day held sentimental value: it was the first “grown up” book I ever read. It told the story of D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of Occupied France, one of history’s most famous battles. I devoured the book and the 1964 movie based on it and, having grown up before the dark illumination of Vietnam, had a romanticized view of war. Years later, I was working in Chicago when my father sent me a new copy as a gift. Neither he nor I saw the connection between what I was doing for a living and what the book’s author, Cornelius Ryan, had accomplished when he set out to re-create than one, fateful day.
The book sat on my shelf for years until 2010 when I picked it up again and, all those years after that exchange with Tom McNamee, could fully appreciate what Ryan had done. In truth, I had been doing much the same thing. But I had seen it as a means to an end – the reporting as a way to get to the writing, when it was always the other way around.
I started re-reading “The Longest Day.” And from that reading came a story – a story propelled by reporting on how this brilliant reporter had done it.
His notes were stored in a college library. I asked the curator if he could send me a selection. When those pages arrived in a thick envelope I found myself immersed in a master class, fueled by one largely forgotten reporter’s obsessive need to know everything.
How did he get that story?
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