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.

 

A Very Good Six Years

Today marks six years of writing as a free agent. When I hung out my shingle back in 2006, I wasn’t sure what it would be like to get up in the morning, walk into the next room (my office) and find my job waiting for me.

I wondered, would it be a matter of time before my writing turned into more of a hobby than a profession?

Actually, it was the other way around.

My home life, for a long time, disappeared. In its place was my writing life, only my writing life. During this time, the phone would ring at all hours with editors making frantic requests that frequently fell under the rubric of pie-in-the-sky. (This often would be something along the lines of, ‘We really love what you did with the contango piece, but do you think we could add a talking dog? We’d really love a talking dog.’ To which, I’d say, ‘Of course, how could I have forgotten the talking dog?’ And just as often as not, we’d never speak of it again.)

When I relocated to London, the New York editors’ calls would roll in past midnight. The hardnosed, salty-mouthed (usually male) editors were my favorite. I strongly preferred them to the pinched Barnard ladies who would fuss and fidget over every last accent aigu until their magazine was put to bed. It was a long time before I learned how to balance the steady stream of demands with a life that allowed for, among other things, regular meals, the occasional exposure to sunlight and sleep.

But it was worth it, because any topic I stumbled across I could make into a story. The world, I found, was full of maddeningly fascinating mysteries nobody else seemed to be noticing. On an Emirates flight to Dubai, I thought, how is it we are allowed to quaff champagne on a Muslim airline — and have Muslims serve us without breaking with their faith? This led to a series of feature-length articles on Islamic finance.

My first book proposal was written from snatches of time over many weekends, because it was impossible to do during the busy work week. Once I returned to New York in late 2008 with my first book deal, Wall Street was falling apart. Yet even with half the magazines I’d written for cratering, there were still plenty of stories to write about the crisis for the publications left standing.

Whether boom or bust, it has never been boring. This is the reason, I believe, so many executives on Wall Street can’t bring themselves to ever leave. Certainly, there is the realization that any sickness of mankind will be exacerbated there and duly amplified. That is unavoidable. But the genius is there too. There is a loneliness among the truly gifted that seems to find a home along the corridors of Wall Street.

I have talked to many people over the years who say they would like to leave. But for what? The money is good. But that’s not the main stumbling block. It’s more furtive than that. It’s a feeling that to remove oneself from the vortex of power would be to forevermore live life in the outback. The vortex is addictive. And, ultimately, it’s not really about the money. It’s about being an insider. To leave would be to become an outsider.

Unless, that is, you leave for politics. Because the fight here is not for money, but personal relevance.

Even for mere Wall Street writers, this is true (despite the fact financial journalists are outsiders by definition). I could very well write about art and wine and great, great literature. Sometimes I do. But artists and vintners and writers will never be as interesting as the people I talk to on Wall Street. Sooner or later I am going to ask a vintner how much artisan wine is pressed in California annually or what the yearly cash flow is of an average vineyard and I will get a blank stare. Faced with a dearth of quantitative facts, I cannot help but be crestfallen.

On the other hand, Wall Street is never so banal. One of my favorite hedge fund managers is into extragalactic physics and biblical textual analysis. Not for any reason. Just for fun. How can any writer walk away from that?

I was raised by an English teacher and an artist. They did all could to ensure that I would never be interested in finance. They discouraged me from taking an unwholesome interest in balance sheets, Beige Books, black swans.

But as soon as I found out about triple witching, it was all over.