There is nothing finer than deciding to write.
And if, like me, you were a young writer in the 1970s, there was almost too much to write about. Norman Mailer actually complained about this. Vietnam had a lot to do with it because friends had been there, or had gone and weren’t coming back. And there was The Movement, however you defined it, and the music and the drugs, and everyone drank and had sex with each other. No one wants to read any more about that, but there was a shocking inevitability to the way things were turning out.
Something else was always there too, just beneath the surface, no matter how uncomfortable or embarrassing it was to define. Writers talked about it, about writing and being writers. Ken Kesey said, “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.” That’s the kind of writer we all wanted to be. What if writers were
the story? What an idea.
Depending on how well you wrote and how often you changed jobs or assignments, other writers came in and out of your life. Some of them were already famous and others would be soon, but celebrity didn’t matter because you knew something together—the private thrill that comes from writing a clear and unique sentence. The craft of it. James Salter liked to “rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them.” Writing is exactly that, and there is no work like it because it is so complicated to know when you are done. Riffing about writing journalism, Renata Adler wrote, in her novel Speedboat,
about giving “a piece of sugar to a raccoon, which in its odd fastidiousness would wash that sugar in a brook till there was nothing left.”
Editors can help with that.
Before I became an editor, I had an intuition about what readers wanted: they wanted to read whatever I wanted to write. Sure they did. I just needed a little editing sometimes. Every editor I ever had, including the bad ones, was strict about a piece living or dying by its language—even if they couldn’t write themselves, which of course they couldn’t. That’s why they were editors. Or so I thought until I met the editor who made me an editor.
His name was Bob Sherrill—the Other
Bob Sherrill. He used the Other
to distinguish himself from Robert Sherrill, the writer who had just published The Saturday Night Special,
a book about handguns so smart that the Other
Bob Sherrill said you just wanted to hold it up to your forehead. The Other
Bob Sherrill was Robert Sherrill’s editor for a while, and he was my editor, too.
At forty-one, he was known in the magazine world to be crazy and shrewd and kind all at once. He was said to be especially good with young writers, and was also known for outdressing them in his white high-top Chuck Taylors with the fluorescent red laces (untied), his baggy blue-and-white seersucker suits and his black T-shirts, a green-and-pink silk bandanna around his neck and a Black Watch beret over his shaggy strawberry blond hair. Plus his Ray-Bans, rain or shine. Bob was colorful.
He was also a bit surreal, a flipped-out literary ice-cream man, but handsome too, and women liked him, and I worked for him as a reporter at a start-up weekly called LA
that we were saying was like, you know, “the Village Voice,
but for Los Angeles.” Bob never said that, though. He had come west on an “editorial whim” (his phrase) after some turbulent years in New York at Esquire,
where he had been a sly packager and helped “midwife” (ditto) journalistic innovations from Dubious Achievements to that genre-cracking run of pieces that defined the New Journalism. Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Mailer—every writer in the country knew the grow- ing roll call and wanted to be on it. Bob had edited many of them and liked to talk about how they got their story ideas.
“From editors, of course,” he would say, riding shotgun with a Mexican beer between his knees, motoring around Southern California with one or another of the young writers who worked for Bob had hired me thinking he was getting a solid wire service reporter, which I was not—although I had spent time in Beirut and Amman during the 1970 Jordanian civil war that became known as Black September and had been picked up by AP News features in New York. What I was, was ambitious and that’s what Bob said he liked about my story ideas—that, and that I had been reading Esquire
since high school, was a little older than the other reporters, and had the best car.
Bob would never let you use eventful
in a piece but this particular day was that for me, driving us both down the coast in my Fiat convert- ible to a party in Dana Point thrown by a former AP reporter named Pat McNulty, who had reinvented himself as the editor of Surfer
mag- azine. I knew McNulty and the invitation had come through me. When I’d told Bob about it, I’d said there would be surfers for sure but also journalists, maybe a couple novelists, and also people in the new MFA program at U.C. Irvine, where McNulty was teaching. If there was a West Coast literary “scene” (a word Bob liked) to match up with Tom Wolfe’s recent piece on surf culture, “The Pump House Gang,” this would be it.
I knew Bob would be the center of the party as he always was wherever writers and alcohol came together. All the way down the Pacific Coast Highway we talked story ideas. Bob was warming up for the writers who would soon be circling for a chance to talk to him, all of them wanting to break trail for an assignment from Esquire,
where he was still a contributing editor. Somewhere near Laguna Beach I said something about how anybody interested in journalism (like me) would want to read a piece by someone like Wolfe or Talese or Mailer or anyone good on Bob himself, and what was about to hap- pen to him at the party.
Bob had a way of cocking his head when he was enjoying whatever he was thinking. That’s what he did then, and told me he
thought like an editor and we should both
think about that.
Think about me becoming an editor. Think about making magazines.
“Think about monkeys jumping out of boxes,” he said. “That’s what good editors do.” I had not heard that one but figured he was talking about jack-in-the-box surprises. I nodded. He cocked his head again. I waited.
“Plus,” he said, taking another pull from his Tecate, “good editors never have to drive.”
Word Count (320)
Editing is about ideas, but it is mechanical, too. You have to get under the hood of the language, and editors use many tools. I’ll start by leaving the word counts at the top of my chapters because as an editor I always wanted to know how much I was about to read. This helped me evaluate pacing or the lack of it in a piece. Writers were sensitive to this once they found out how I worked, and were generally attuned to length, even if they weren’t being paid by the word.
At all the magazines I edited (Rolling Stone, Esquire, Sports Illustrated
, et al.), feature stories were assigned at a specific length— usually four thousand words—and most writers would take that over five thousand and say they were close. Others would come in under three thousand and say the same thing. It was mysterious why being direct about the number of words they were filing was so difficult but I am sure it had more to do with alchemy than lack of discipline. Before Microsoft Word, stopping to count how many words you’d typed could be refreshing, like stopping to make tea or smoke a cigarette. Now doing a word count can have a slot machine kick to it if you have the discipline not to do it every time you hit Save.
None of this matters if the piece is good—and that’s determined by voice and narrative, not length. Going long is always more ambitious and usually more fun. This was true before lengthy pieces became “creative nonfiction” or “narrative journalism,” and it is true now that we’ve finally debunked the simple-minded Web assumption that no one will screen-read anything longer than a news capsule. No writer I ever edited wanted to go short, anyway. Neither do I, but I also know that the best pieces seem to find their own length. That’s the alchemy.
Jim Harrison (525)
The first chapter of Jim Harrison’s first novel, Wolf, begins with a two-page sentence. He says it was vanity, that he wanted to show it could be done because he was a young writer and hungry.
That was in 1971. A few years later when I was starting to work with him, I asked if his editor had tried to do something with that first sentence.
“Of course,” he said wearily, as if in my tragic inexperience I was unable to grasp the basic construct of editing him. Jim did little revising and was proud of it. Rewriting was for people who hadn’t worked everything out early—not for Jim, who insisted that he always thought things through before he wrote anything down. As for edi- tors, why should he let them fool with his choices? They were not, as he had explained to me when we first met, writers. He also liked to note that he was a poet and “editors don’t change poems.”
“I wouldn’t change any of your poems either,” I said, but when it came to his journalism I wasn’t so sure. Being above editing was a pose some writers found situationally useful, the way some children are “allergic” to lima beans. It was the foot Jim liked to get off on and, sure enough, we tangled over copy our first time around. I was at Outside magazine and suggested that his lede on a story about Key West was really the second paragraph and the first paragraph should be the kicker at the end of the piece. He hung up on me.
I got an immediate follow-up call from his agent, Bob Datilla, a tough, reasonable guy.
“You want to pull the piece?” I asked, after his declension of my shortcomings.
“Of course not,” Datilla said. “We just want to be on the record about what a dumb shit you are.” (Pause.) “But Jim can be difficult, too.”
“So we’ll all think about it?” I said.
I’m not sure how much we all thought about it, but I switched the paragraphs to what I’d suggested and we never discussed the piece again. Maybe Jim didn’t notice. But I learned to tread lightly or risk being told, as I once was by him, “You lynched my baby.” His raw copy was so ambitious that I usually just checked the copy edit and wrote the headline. We talked about other things, like what we were having for dinner, as well as what we were reading. My working relationship with Jim and other writers, my growing friendships with them, was nourished by even the mundane details of their lives.
, Jim wrote, Perhaps I’ll never see a wolf. And I don’t offer this little problem as central to anyone but myself. Fair enough. As a reader, I took that as a glance at a private mystery. As an editor, I wanted that wolf to be my problem, too. I wanted to ride along. I hoped that was how I could become a good editor, by editing great writers and getting to know them. The ancient Greeks had a word for this: hubris.
From the book THE ACCIDENTAL LIFE by Terry McDonell, copyright 2016 by Terry McDonell. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Copyright © 2016 by Terry McDonell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.