On Writing…And The Point Of It All

One of the first things you learn as a writer is how to lower your expectations, lest you self-immolate.

Then, there’s the (very gradual) acceptance that your taste for great, great literature clearly exceeds your abilities…followed by a lifelong struggle to rectify that.

My transition from journalist to author — and then balancing the two — felt like an imperative, because I longed to delve more deeply into the topics about which I was writing. In journalism, there’s this need to retain a sense of immediacy at all times in a story, forcing current events to the forefront and important things like context and history into the background. Sure, there’s a little context, but it always takes a back seat — a waaay back seat — to unfolding events.

Yet you know as the writer that context and history mean everything. Hence, you are always fighting to put as much extra information as you can into whatever you’re writing.

Getting the necessary financing and logistics in place to allow yourself to write comfortably for months on end is, from a scale of 1 to 10, a solid 10 in terms of difficulty. I found that hewing to one goal — publishing my first book and then moving on to long-form writing — was the only way to get through to the other side. Anything between me and that had to be eradicated, and was. Although I did not know what lay on the other side.

When you are book-writing, acquaintances and family frequently seem to think you are at home all day eating macaroons and watching Animal Planet. Not so. I was at home all day, but that’s where it ended. I was undertaking a herculean effort trying to engineer, fund, preserve and defend a story that required long conversations with sources, lawyers, accountants, photographers, agents and editors, all of whom are more or less terrified of the final product, because nobody really knows what you are actually doing. Meanwhile, at no time are you sure you’re ever going to get to your destination.

Then there’s the writing of the book and, frankly, compared with the administration and project management, that part is easy, but very isolating. When you get up in the morning and go to work, your world is what you are developing on the page. And that’s it. You do interviews or have meetings, but it all anchors back to the narrative universe to which everything is tied — and that comes from sitting down, alone, and writing. Most of the time, you don’t notice the weather outside. You forget to eat. Your lose your physical realm and disappear into the research completely.

At the end of the day, I had to go for a run to reconnect (I have arms, I have legs) to fend off any potential impending disintegration. The best counterbalance for the cerebral is the physical. This would often be followed by a visit to one of a rotating group of friends’ homes in my particular quadrant of New York (which entailed me showing up unannounced, wordlessly pouring myself whatever was available for quaffing purposes and draping myself over a couch to watch TV for about a half hour before wordlessly slipping out). There was one rule: do not ask me about the book-writing. I’d had my head in it all day and this was my one time to unplug. My needs were simple.

I worked on the book obsessively for nine months, passing it in to HarperCollins in late 2009. It was published, on time, in January 2011. What working on a book revealed to me was that if you’re going to wait more than a year for something to be published, you’d better have some shorter-term projects going on to keep you limber. While long-term projects offer the chance to include deep history and context in your work (something that all writers long for more of in their newspaper and magazine stories), book-writing is all about delayed gratification. In fact, by the time your book is published, you’re not even the same person anymore.

I realized that to be truly happy as a writer I had to be working on both long-term and short-term projects. Book-writing is great, because you can dive deep, but shorter pieces keep you gratified and stimulated.

These days, I am writing for Newsweek and am loving it. Magazine-writing and book-writing often inform and complement each other. My weekdays are for the magazine; my spare time is for all other writing projects. In my earlier days, I used to see everything in stark black and white. One of my favorite sources once told me, “Young writers are wonderful, incisive, incandescent, but they are often more cruel.” This, I think, is true. In my 20s, I looked more harshly upon my subjects. In my 30s, I see people in greater context. Journalism will always seek to simplify, but shades of gray are inevitable.

After years of covering controversial topics, it’s no longer intellectually challenging to just point out corruption. There is corruption and there always will be. There is not enough ink in this world to cover it. Simply shedding light on it as a hit-and-run act of journalism is not enough without striving for something more. What is challenging — and important, I think — is to capture the ideas, events and mindsets of people driving change and do it with as much compassion as possible. The Fourth Estate, to my mind, is only as good as its ability to elucidate the world and bring about a greater understanding of it.