Writer Justin Heckert: The Generalist Interview

Justin2I first became aware of Justin Heckert through that old writerly emotion: jealousy. I noticed that he’d won not just one but two Writer of the Year titles at the City and Regional Magazine Awards. When I read his stuff, I saw why. Justin is one of the most lyrical writers working in magazines today. I’m quite pleased to publish my own interview with him about three stories he selected for discussion, but would be remiss if I didn’t also point people to the insightful, behind the scenes Q&A he wrote about “The Hazards of Growing Up Painlessly,” a great story he wrote for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

 The Generalist: Can you talk to me a bit about your origin as a writer? From what age did you get interested in writing? You attended the University of Missouri Journalism School. To those of us in the field, that means a lot. Can you talk a little bit about your experience there and what it’s meant?

Heckert: Well, I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. A few years ago I came across a small bound notebook assignment I’d been given in grade school. The teacher had asked us students what we each wanted to be when we grew up. The notebook contained the answer for every student in that class, along with an explanation. Along with mentioning a disdain for Umbro shorts, I wrote, “I want to be a writer.” It’s just always been the case. I still want to be a writer, when I grow up. My mom is a writer, a published writer. She has also been a teacher of English Lit to kids and teenagers for nearly 45 years—she started teaching when she, herself, was a kid, at 19. It all stems from her.

The journalism school at Missouri was an accident. I didn’t apply to the university thinking I’d major in that. And unlike pretty much everyone in the J-school there (they come from all over the world), I’m actually from little ole Missouri. I knew I wanted to write but I didn’t know what to major in, or how eventually I might end up practicing writing. I had interest in art and creative writing—at one point in my life I also wanted to be a cartoonist, or an illustrator. I had never written an article before I was accepted into the J-School. I had never read a “literary magazine story/newspaper story” at all. I met some amazing people in the J-school, some really competitive, talented people, who I still call my best friends. I saw what they were doing, and eventually started reading the kinds of magazine and newspaper stories I wanted to try and emulate. Mostly everything for me had to do with that group of people, the atmosphere it fostered, and how much I was reading. I feel lucky in that for me it feels like it was a matter of being in the right time and place.

The Generalist: I remember I had a professor at the University of Florida, Bill McKean, who had us read Timothy Crouse, The Boys on the Bus, Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing, Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and spun my whole head around. Any particular authors, books or pieces you remember having that kind of effect on you? I remember being stunned that journalism—something I equated with newspapers—could be so moving. And, ever since, I love getting a hold of interns at Philadelphia Magazine and saying, “Hey, have you ever read ‘The Silent Season of a Hero,’ by Gay Talese,’” to which their answer is usually, but still shockingly, “Who is Gay Talese?”

Heckert: It’s really hard to pick one thing. I’ve been influenced, in a way, by everything I’ve read, good and bad. But, for example, I do remember very early on reading the Mr. Rogers story by Tom Junod and The House That Thurman Munson Built by Mike Paterniti—two of the first magazine stories I was given to read in J-school—and having my eyes opened that journalism could be like that.

The Generalist: The three stories I’m linking to deal with autopsies, a tornado and a father and son, lost at sea. Can you talk a little about how you came to each story, or how each story found you?

Heckert: I reported and wrote “And In The End” when I was 25, and I remember wanting to write about people who deal in death. The people who have to see it every day as part of a job, and what that does to them, how it affects them, if they ever get accustomed to it. I ended up seeing a lot of dead bodies for that story. And hanging around a morgue at odd hours. And was present at crime scenes. The story contains, in spots, some of my best and most lyrical writing, still. But looking back I wish I’d focused on one case, all the way through, instead of just random scenes from different cases. When I was working at a city and regional magazine (and Atlanta is one of the truly great ones), most of my ideas came from just taking a big topic, and finding a local angle. Not finding a specific story that I wanted to do, but, for instance: if I knew I wanted to write about AIDS, or the National Spelling Bee, I just had to find a local way to focus those ideas. Writing for national magazines has been vastly different because it’s impossible to just pitch that you want to write about a big idea, without knowing a specific story as a focus.

Lost in the Waves” happened because I saw a blurb about Walt and Christopher and their epic night at sea. My wife (Amanda Heckert, EIC of Indianapolis Monthly) actually sent the blurb to me. I did some reading around and found that there hadn’t been a big story written about them. So I pitched it around (somewhere Mediabistro did a thing about the pitch), and waited. While I was waiting, I received an email from an editor at Men’s Journal named Terry Noland, out of the blue. Asking for ideas. At this point in my career I was 28 years old, three years into my job as a contributing writer at ESPN The Magazine. But they never seemed to have a problem with the idea that I wanted to do non-sports stuff for other magazines. So Terry assigned me that story.

In 2011, as part of research for a story about zombies in Atlanta and The Walking Dead, I was riding along through the woods far south of the city with someone from the show’s production staff. Near the studios in Senoia where they make the show, we took a wrong turn that led us through an obliterated portion of the woods. It was where an entire little town used to be, now gone. “This was Vaughn,” the production guy said. I made a mental note that I would come back there. One person was rebuilding a house at that time. I’ve read a lot of stories about tornadoes, some good and some not—but I didn’t ever remember reading one about an entire place vanishing.

The Generalist: You know, finding the Vaughn story (“The Town That Blew Away“) that way is so instructive. That was about staying alert, about being open to something beyond the story you were there to pursue. When I read over the three pieces you’d suggested, I was re-reading one of them and seeing two others for the first time. What struck me about all three is that I feel like you head straight for the existential. I mean, these stories all deal with areas of life and/or the sorts of dark events that, not to be too dramatic about it, cause people to question the meaning of life. To what degree is that what drew you to them? If those sorts of stakes aren’t in play, is it harder for you, as a writer, to warm to a piece and give it the same level of attention?

Heckert: Ha, I dunno. Maybe it’s just those three stories. Some of the best stories I’ve done have nothing to do with those very high stakes, nothing to do with darkness, or death. Some of my favorite stories that I’ve done are about happier things. No matter what it’s about, you have a few paragraphs to hook me, which is how I’ve always been as a reader—so, when I’m writing, that’s where the drama comes from; I always try to have some tension in every story.

The Generalist: Now I have one specific question about each piece. Your story on the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office is almost a kind of anti-journalism. There was “no reason” to do this story, at that time, at least in the way reporters traditionally think about these things. The story isn’t tied to a scandal, a political maneuver, or a particularly compelling and current criminal case. The last line of the subhed that sells the story is “…the men and women of the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office have a lot of work to do.” And frankly, I think we need more journalism like this—a peek into a world we normally don’t get to see, merely because that place is intensely interesting. Still, how the hell did you convince an editor to buy this piece?

Heckert: I was good at coming up with a lot of ideas, and my editor at the time, Rebecca Burns, let me go out and see what I could find. She trusted me as much as anyone ever has. I never really had to do my best to convince her about anything. The work I was doing then was speaking for me. If I was passionate about a story idea, she usually at least let me see what I could find. And I don’t want to paint her as someone who said yes to everything—it wasn’t that easy. But this particular story came at a time when I was on a bit of a roll.

The Generalist: Your MJ story, on the father and son who get dragged out to sea, is one of my favorite things I’ve read in the last few years. I don’t want to give too much away, but what surfaces over the length of the piece is this sense that the episode at sea is really a metaphor for their relationship, in general. The boy is autistic, and he and his father have developed a kind of communication over the years but the difficult nature of their bond really comes into play during this crisis. Did you realize this part of the story—the thing that really gives the story its power—was in play before you pitched the piece? Where, along the way, did you discover this? This is kind of a selfish question on my part. In fact, I ask because I have to confess, more often than not, I pitch a piece based on what turns out to be some very superficial or obvious appeal. Then, pretty deep into the process, there is often a moment where I am doing the Homer, slapping my forehead and saying “This is what the story is really about!”

Heckert: My pitch (gleaned from the few things that had been published about their experience) was about a heroic dad jumping into the ocean and trying to save his son. I knew their relationship would be a huge part of the story, but “Lost in the Waves” really turned out to be nothing like my pitch. Not about a heroic dad trying to save his son. Unless you’ve reported the story and written it on spec before you pitch it, I find this happens after every pitch. The story just always changes, sometimes significantly so. I didn’t realize how much the story would be about the family, and what it’s like to try and raise this boy. Someone I really admire emailed me after reading it and said this: “It managed, I think, without saying so, to link the enormities of the sea to the enormities of family love.” And I just use that any time someone talks to me regarding what it’s about. Because that’s what I was trying to get at. It’s so much more than a story about being lost at sea. And yeah, I completely agree with your last line there. That’s just what happens.

The Generalist: Your story on a tornado that swept through Vaughn, Georgia is one of my new favorites. The challenge here seems primarily structural to me and what you arrived at moves with such great pacing that I can only imagine you wrestled with it and cried over it and pulled a few muscles. In sum, you go 1. Aftermath, then you take us through the tornado itself in sections 2, 3 and 4, then we get the Immediate Aftermath in 5, and finally bring us back to essentially where we started (and beyond) in the final sections. I think a lot of people would have been tempted to start with the storm, but to take us back to my question about how you arrive at your ideas, and your existential bent, you chose to start in the aftermath, which I think in some ways, as you make clear, is every bit as challenging, if not more, than surviving the storm itself. I’ve written a lot here—too much. But please, tell me about how you landed on this structure and perhaps anything else that occurs to you from what I laid out here.

Heckert: Nothing nearly as involved as that. It’s terribly simple. I wrote the words “Vaughn, Georgia” on a blank page and just let them percolate there for a while. I liked the way the name of the town sounded in my mind. Then I just went from there, sentence by sentence. Writing one—reading it, then writing another, then reading the two, then writing another, reading the three, and so on. That’s how I write. It has to build that way. I knew I wanted to use a metaphor in the story about doves and pigeons, and how people choose to look at things. Other than that, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about structure. I wrote the story, more or less, in a day or so.

The Generalist: I caught a tweet from Thomas Lake, about “Lost in the Waves,” in which he noted how hard you worked on the lede for that story. That opening section is just epic. Is there any story for you to share about writing that?

Heckert: I spent a while on the beginning of that piece because I had a friendly deadline, about 10 days to write. But no matter the deadline, the same could pretty much be said for most every story I write. I am usually dealing with tighter deadlines. No matter how much time I have to write—a day or two, or a week—I spend it trying to figure out the best and most compelling way to start a particular story. I can’t, like, start in the middle. I have to get that first sentence right. So, right now and for the past few years, I’ve been fighting through this phase of trying to write perfect first drafts. Self-editing and polishing to a microscopic degree, hoping the editor will be really pleased with what I turn in and not have to do a ton of work. And to the point of either banging out a rough draft or polishing it until you think that it frickin’ gleams—I see so much advice that I either completely disregard, or vehemently disagree with, I don’t want anyone to take this as the way it should be done. Whatever works, you know. And this has worked for me.

The Generalist: I am addicted to hearing about the process writers I admire use. And here, I really am talking about the very basics. Is there a particular time of day or night you tend to write? Do you write a story straight through, till you get to the end, then start fiddling with the words? Or do you go line by line, re-reading all that came before as you progress? Do you have an office at home? How’s it set up? Give us a sense of how you work.

Heckert: Line by line. Write one, read it, write the next, read the two, write the third, read the three, write the fourth, and then read all of them again—until I have a graph. And all the way through like that, through the whole story, mostly, while I’m writing (If I’m 5000 words in and have more to go, I’ll stop doing that if I can). And usually my writing hours are the hours of the graveyard shift, because I hate getting up early to do anything. I feel like epiphanies come to me easier in the quiet and dark of the night. And I don’t write with music, because the words themselves have to be like a type of music in my empty head. And as I get older it gets harder to grind through the night like that. I do work from home. And actually, while I was writing recently about a clown, I actually tried listening to music, and it turned out pretty well. I’m open to change.

The Generalist: Finally, anything to add? I am going to point journalism students toward these writer interviews on a regular basis. What would you tell them? No pressure. Just a few lines…

Heckert: I’ve always been high-strung. And a perfectionist. And supremely disappointed when even the tiniest break didn’t come my way. And I’ve taken a lot of things personally when dealing with editors, because of the effort I put in on every story, when I just shouldn’t have taken the shit personally. It’s just the business. My only advice to younger writers is probably to just chill out, and let it all roll off your back, and just put your head down and write as much as you can, no matter the place. I’ve been doing this professionally since I was 23, so I’d probably go back and tell myself to just chill the fuck out.

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Top 5 of the Moment

5

I Believe You Gotta Serve Somebody

Tripping I was catching up on some reading the other day when I ran across a piece by New Yorker writer Sasha Frere-Jones on The Basement Tapes Complete. “In October, 1979, Dylan and his band were playing ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ on Saturday Night Live,” he writes. “… Dylan sang, or spoke, lyrics about ‘the heavyweight champion of the world,’ someone with ‘women in a cage,’ and ‘the head of some big TV network,’ and about how, at the end of the day, these big cheeses all had to serve somebody. I was twelve, and even then I could tell that he was setting up straw men as some ridiculous proof that religious faith was universally necessary.”

There are a lot of problems with this passage. (The bit about recognizing a straw man argument at 12 was perhaps best left unwritten.) What really caught my attention, however, was how casually he tripped over his biases. Frere-Jones allows (evidently from the age of 12) his own irreligiousness to blind him to any interpretation of “Gotta Serve Somebody” other than the most literal possible. Maybe the fault is my own ecumenical background, where metaphor—even in religion—is acknowledged. But “Serve Somebody” remains one of the rare gems from Dylan’s too-slickly produced Christian period. And Frere-Jones’s rejection of the song itself smacks of superstition.

Writing of God and the Devil in a manner that even permits a literal interpretation isn’t really the same as preaching, and 30-odd years on, Dylan’s old blues tune still smolders with conviction, both religious and secular. I mused on this to a friend who suggested I listen to Dylan’s “I Believe in You,” from Slow Train Coming, another overlooked victory from Dylan’s Christian period. Recalling The Platters’ “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Dylan sings, “They asked me how I feel, and if my love is real.”

He could be singing about a wife, lover or God. I’m not only all right with that, but found myself playing the track on repeat. “I believe in you even though we be apart,” Dylan sings, his voice cracking, and “I Believe In You” emerges as a devotional with universal appeal, a love song it would take a narrow view to interpret any more narrowly than that.

4

The Torture Report

Like many Americans, I was mortified by the details included in the recently published Senate Committee Report on CIA torture. I won’t recap any of the details here, but I found some solace in the mere fact of the report’s existence. America, for all of its flaws (many of which are evidenced in the Report itself), is a country given to self-correction. While it strikes me as deplorable that we took up such a devil’s bargain—endeavoring to stay safe on the high road by getting down in the dirt— putting our own bad behavior up on a billboard and asking for comment suggests there is great hope for us yet.

3

SUE (Or in a Season of Crime)

MurderBalladOriginal tracks added to greatest hits compilations usually aren’t all that original, ranging from remakes like “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ‘86” from the Police to new songs that trade on past glories, like The Rolling Stones “Doom and Gloom.” Bowie’s “SUE (Or in a Season of Crime)” is something else altogether. At once sinister and grand, the seven-plus minute version of “SUE” is an epic conflagration of tastes not previously married: experimental jazz and American murder balladry, a genre associated with blues and country music. The jungle rhythm that threatens to tear the whole carefully orchestrated production apart from the bottom up acts—intentionally or not—as a rebuke to Bowie’s critics: If Bowie only pursued Jungle music for 1997’s Earthling in a vain effort to sound contemporary—the usual conceit—why is he still mining that field?

“SUE” works best, however, without further reference to the singer’s own career. Bowie’s decision to cast a murder ballad—“I pushed you down beneath the weeds”—against so sophisticated a backdrop (his backing band here is the Maria Schneider Orchestra) seems anything but accidental. From factory to field, from shotgun shacks to moneyed estates, the impulse to love can turn into the intention to destroy with terrifying speed.

2

My Brakes

Years ago, as a child, my uncle would take me out sometimes when he ran errands around the city. If he felt the car behind him drew too close, he slammed on his breaks. He’d laugh heartily as the other driver fell back. I only realized the danger he was putting us in when I got behind the wheel myself. I recalled this recently because of late I have been driving some country roads, where locals know each curve so well they tend to take even the sharpest of turns at high speed. A few drivers have essentially hitched themselves to my bumper, as if they think I’m going to speed up on unfamiliar roads because their headlights are filling my rearview mirror. In response, I’ve developed what I come to call “The Modified Uncle.” I tap my breaks, like I’m keeping time to a rainfall. No one is ever at risk, but seeing my break lights flash on and off at a steady rhythm has the desired effect, granting fellow motorists a renewed sense of patience and restraint as they fall back a couple of car lengths.

1

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Bonhoeffer I spent the last few weeks, twins permitting, plowing through Bonhoeffer. For those who don’t know, Deitrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who saw through the Nazi party’s thinly veiled attempts to turn the church into a pagan, state-worshipping institution and tried to do something about it—from fighting for the church’s independence and traditional beliefs to plotting to assassinate Hitler. The book is sprawling, comprehensive and meticulously plotted, with enough historical detail to make you feel the weight of each decision Bonhoeffer made on the way to his own personal destruction. The result is a tale of personal triumph—of the deep victory inherent in acting according to your highest principles, whatever the cost.

 

The Dad Files: The France Test

FrenchCafeAs the father of two and a half year old boys, I feel almost constantly pressed for time. I am either taking care of the boys, or trying to pack as much productivity as I can into the moments when I am not taking care of the boys. The best coping mechanism I’ve discovered is something I call “The France Test.”

         When I am changing a particularly pungent diaper, or worse, trying to wait out some inexplicable temper tantrum, I ask myself if I’d rather be sitting in a Parisian café with a cup of coffee, a croissant and an excellent book to read, or taking care of my sons. The answer, every time, is that I’d rather be right where I am—even if that means listening tone of my boys screech because I won’t let him dent up the kitchen table with his plastic triceratops.

I’ve discovered that pursuing my fantasies is the best way to dispel them. When I think through the implications of just dropping everything and going to France, even when I grant myself a superpower—instant teleportation—I regain my calm.

In my circumstances, if I’m alone with the boys it’s because my wife probably can’t be. So… what? The boys I love would be alone? My wife would need to take off work and sacrifice her own career? Or we’d need to hire a nanny? These options don’t work for me, or the people I love.

I think we often fail to grasp just how frequently, how constantly, we are making choices. We talk about feeling trapped but the truth is we are rarely “trapped” into anything. You’re never, and I mean this, never even stuck in traffic. A driver idling on a gridlocked road is entirely free to put the car in park (or not), exit the vehicle and start walking. If drivers tend to stay in their cars, it’s because they’re actively choosing this unyielding traffic and the ramifications of staying there over all that would happen if they walked away. Similarly, I could up and split the next time my kids are giving me trouble. I’ve got money in the bank and credit cards and a passport and could be on the next flight to Paris, if that’s what I actually wanted. The fact is, I prefer the consequences and pleasures of staying—the love, the sense of accomplishment—to the consequences and pleasures of leaving. And ever since I started looking at life this way, I bitch less. I’m probably also much better company.

Happy Happy Funk Funk

If I had the opportunity to interview Bruno Mars, I’d ask him how difficult it is to find his way to all this joy every time he performs. Imagine fighting through the flu, or a break-up, or a relative’s unwelcome medical diagnosis, to bring the happy with this much conviction and swagger.

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The Dad Files: What Happens When You’re Done Breastfeeding—But Your Wife Isn’t

*I originally published this over at Be Well Philly.

The second time my wife developed mastitis, an infection related to breastfeeding, she sat there shivering on the couch, feverish and chilled, swearing repeatedly, “That’s it. I am so done! I’m weaning. Done. No more breastfeeding.”

I greeted the news cautiously, but after my wife spent the majority of the next 15 minutes dropping “f” bombs on the entire notion of breastfeeding, I chimed in.

“Do you mean it?” I asked. “Are you really done?”

“Hell yes,” she said. “I am sooo done.”

“Good,” I told her, “because I’m done, too.”

BfeedingAt the time, I believed she might actually have reached her breaking point. Her first bout with mastitis necessitated a four-day hospital stay; for months, she endured cracked and bleeding nipples and a stabbing pain that radiated across her entire breast. Every so often, if a few days passed without my seeing her grimace, I’d ask if the pain subsided.

“No,” she’d say, “I’m still waiting for the good part.”

Of course, my wife chose to breastfeed because of the notable health benefits. But the “good part” held real, emotional allure: the bonding between mother and, in her case, twin sons; the joyful moments when the babies would look up at her and smile as they fed, milk dribbling down their precious chins. But now, her teeth chattering, the good part seemed a mere phantasm. And many of those studies on the health benefits associated with breastfeeding looked at children, like our boys, who had been breastfed for six months.

“Enough,” my wife said, “is enough.”

She seemed unequivocal. But even as I walked to the drugstore to pick up an antibiotic to fight her latest infection, I figured she’d probably change her mind. And sure enough, a couple of days later she started hedging.

“Have you talked to your lactation consultant about weaning?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“What did she say?” I asked, afraid of her answer.

“She asked me if quitting breastfeeding is a decision I should be making at such a stressful time,” she replied.

My wife is usually expansive, elaborating on her answers in anticipation of any further questions. But now she was tight-lipped, like a hostile witness before a Senate committee.

“Did you say anything to her?” I prodded.

Lisa turned red. Her voice dropped several octaves. “I said I’d call back in a few days,” she admitted.

Now, I’d heard what it was like to attend a breastfeeding support-group meeting with this consultant. She led a discussion among all the moms in the room. And each woman who felt so inclined told her story and shared her problems. Invariably, some of the women there were encountering complications severe enough that they had to supplement their breastfeeding sessions with a bottle. Each time, those women received warm support from the entire group. But often, some woman had “made the transition,” successfully negotiating all the pitfalls of breastfeeding so that she could eliminate bottles entirely. And those women? Well, they received a big round of applause.

I started thinking of those support meetings as cultish. And I imagined this consultant, a woman I’ve never met, sitting in front of a big, colorful mural of a giant boob, the nipple dotted with milk, as cherubim circle around the areola, ready to feed. I mean, doing the best you can deserves support. But a woman resorts to a bottle—well, they’re not really applause worthy, are they?

A few days later, my wife explained that she was going to quit breastfeeding. Not now. And not in a month.

“I’m going to go as long as I can,” she said.

Now, I was of course plainly on the record as being done. And unlike my wife, I’d undergone no subsequent change of heart. So where did this leave me? Well, it left me just another guy with a list of grievances. My wife had become a Breast Nazi to a great enough degree that after I gave her this column to read she swore I got it all wrong. Pretty much. So, know that. But hey, they’re her boobs. And this is my column. So there.

What are my grievances?

Well, I could tell you that because she breastfeeds we don’t ever know how much food our boys are getting, and this can raise questions at naptime and every time we get them weighed. I could tell you breastfed babies wake more often in the night, meaning the whole thing with the breasts is robbing the entire family of sleep. And I could tell you that the threat of another infection is always there, and mastitis can be serious enough to require surgery. But, the truth is, just to be really selfish and personal for a second, I am just ready for her to put those things away: her breasts, I mean. I used to see them on what felt to me, every time, like a special occasion. Back then, the sight of them … served notice. But for the last six months, it is not unlike Mardi Gras at our house. By this I mean, boobs. Everywhere. And far from sex objects, my wife’s first set of twins are now hugely symbolic of our new responsibilities, individual and shared.

But the decision on when to quit breastfeeding remains my wife’s alone, and in spite of all I’ve written here, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, the other night around 3 a.m., I watched her, eyes drooping, as the boys fed. They made little grunting noises at first. Then they made little lapping noises. And finally, they just breathed peacefully, in a steady rhythm. Our sons were, as my wife calls it, “dream eating”—sleeping, but continuing to eat automatically.

My wife softly stroked their heads, combing their hair with her fingers, and I noticed that, as has become their custom, the boys themselves were holding each other’s hands.

This, she tells me, is the good part, finally arrived.

A little too late for me. But I suppose, after how hard she fought to get here, my role is to be among those giving my wife a round of applause, even if I still have to get up in the middle of the night to do it.

 

The Dad Files: Don’t Do This

obsessedAs a writer, I take it as a mark of pride to not only turn in well-researched and written copy, but to turn all that material in on the appointed deadline. I’ve been working as a professional journalist for 17 years. The people I’ve seen wash out of the business or simply leave too much wreckage in their wake didn’t respect deadlines or the time and efforts of the staff—editors, copy editors, fact checkers, the art department—that make any publication go.

If a writer is assigned a story at 5,000 words, that is due on, say, December 15th, that writer can best prove their professionalism by turning the piece in very near that word count and on or before the given date. Deviations from the agreed-upon story, its length and due date must be communicated ASAP. I mention all this so you’ll understand how odd the following story is, both within my career and in journalism as a whole.

In October, 2011, Discover Magazine assigned me to write a story about Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a neuropsychiatrist and an expert in “self-directed neuroplasticity.” The adult human brain was long thought to be fixed. Schwartz proved not only that it could change its shape and function but that we could “self-direct” or will these changes. The story, as I remember it, was due in February 2012, at a length of 5,000 words. But my wife was pregnant at the time with our twins and the obligations I had—from prepping for the babies, to promoting my book Fringe-ology and maintaining my role at Philadelphia— forced me to keep pushing back the delivery date.

At one point, after I wrote a first draft of maybe 7,000 words that I could not seem to chop down any further. I called my editor, a terrific, veteran wordsmith, and told her about my struggles.

She told me I could turn the story in at 6,000 words. I did. She didn’t like it,  and neither did I.

“This happens to everyone who writes for us,” she said. “Synthesizing all of this science, making the reader feel like they are peering over a great scientist’s shoulder as he works, this isn’t easy.”

She made a single, sound structural suggestion—namely, that I needed to stick to a strict, chronological sequencing of events–and sent me on my way. I probably hung up feeling worse than I ever had in my career. I had tried to get the story to her ahead of the birth of my twins, knowing that my life was about to be reconstructed in ways I couldn’t fully predict. My experience told me that when an editor offers such a brief critique, with an admonition that is purely about the structure of the story, I essentially had to start over. My first draft wasn’t even close.

Some time shortly after that, the boys were born, and I could barely function. They ate every 2:30 to 3 hours, all day and all night. They required supplemental bottle feedings. For the first four to five months of their lives, I got just three intervals of sleep each night, ranging from 45 minutes to 1 hour in length. Otherwise, I tended to my wife, washed bottles, prepared food, and tried, for eight hours a day, to act like I was still holding my work life together. At least three times I walked to my office, at 18th and Market Street in Philadelphia, closed the door, and cried.

I feared for my own survival, as well as that of my new twin sons. That might sound melodramatic. But sleep deprivation has a way of heightening emotions associated with anxiety, anger and fear. The Discover story manuscript sat, unopened, on my computer hard drive, for more than six months. Money was tight with these expensive little babies in the mix. We could of used an influx of cash. But I lacked the time, energy or emotional clarity to even get started.

As I remember it, it was winter, 2013, before our lives settled down enough that I could carve out a stretch of three workdays—a weekend with a Monday holiday—to try my hand at recasting that story. I left the boys with my wife, Lisa, and relatives, and set out to find some public space in which to write.

I had decided, at this point, to treat this second draft like a first attempt. Without regard for length, or even quality, I was simply going to sit down and write the story in chronological order.

I also decided to work in a rather famous little Philadelphia dive bar, McGlinchey’s, thinking the smoky, active atmosphere—not to mention a couple of beers—might loosen me up. For three days, I worked there from a ratty booth, putting in shifts of five or six hours, writing through Schwartz’s career as fast as I could. I ignored the word count, writing in a text format that didn’t display one. When I finished, I knew there would be a lot of work to do, refining or rewriting every sentence. Yet I had a feeling of completeness I only get when I connected with the material.

I came home, reported success and told my wife I would need the following weekend to carry out a rewrite.

That time, for two days, I worked longer hours, and from home. I sat upstairs in my bedroom office, wearing headphones that played classical music and tried to get each scene, each sentence, right. As I neared the end, after maybe 16 hours of effort, I felt very good about what I’d achieved—good enough, even, that I packed up my laptop and headed back to McGlinchey’s. My thought was that I would finish the piece and email it from the bar where I found the stroke this piece required—and where I’d realized that life, after twins, could still include time for the work I’ve always enjoyed.

I ordered a beer, re-read the story from first word to last and made very few changes. The deadline I’d originally been given was long past, the assignment more than a year old, but it was finished. I had, by this time, still not looked at the word count. I figured it was around 7,000 words.

Feeling good, maybe a little buzzed by then with a second beer in me, I went ahead and looked. Clicking on the toolbar, I selected “word count.”

A second later my buzz was gone: The computer spat the total out at me:  14,721 words.

I gasped. I felt sick. And then, well, I laughed. I scrolled through the piece, back and forth, multiple times, for any whole scenes that might be unnecessary. Then I thought about how hard the last year had been. I thought about how desperately I longed to be finished with this piece. And I hatched what—looking back—was a rather naïve if not stupid and disrespectful plan.

“Ah, screw it,” I thought.

I figured I’d send the story in, at its current length, and if they didn’t like it—well, I would just release it myself, through Amazon or some website, in e-single form. The length was just write for a growing pile of stories published at Byliner, the Atavist and Longform. I opened an email, put in the address of my editor, Pam Weintraub, and started to write a note apologizing for its length. Then I stopped.

“Screw it,” I thought again, and this time I even said it out loud. Then I attached the file and hit “send.”

I thought my relationship with Discover might very well be over. A few days later, when my phone rang and Pam came up on my caller ID, I figured this was it, her very well-deserved chance to tear me apart for my lack of professionalism. I had, at this point, broken every rule I could think of, turning in a story more than a year past its original deadline, at 270-percent of its contracted length. “As you can imagine,” she began, “when I opened the file the first thing I did was look at the word count. And when I saw what it was, I was in shock. But I read the lede, and I just kept reading, and I loved it.”

Discover subsequently published the piece as an e-single, and our relationship continues. I recently turned in another piece, which they project for an April 2015 pub date.  I feel grateful, however, that Pam even read the lede. A lot of editors would have just closed the file and written me off. In purely professional terms, they would have been justified. But this story was meant to be—and meant, I believe, to be long.

The Best Bands You Never Heard Of

I saw Donkey perform in the mid-90s, at the Covered Dish, in Gainesville, Fla., when the music scene surrounding the University of Florida was booming with great music, like For Squirrels, Big White Undies and Bloom.

Donkey, from Atlanta, came in carrying its own flag—a swaggering, jazzy balladry that, well—that had that swing. I can’t remember if I was working the door that night or just a customer. I do know that I loved the band’s whole shtick. Over the years, I’ve played their album, Slick Night Out, from time to time, and continued to be amazed at how fresh it still sounds. The other day, when they came up on shuffle, I decided to kick around the Internet for a minute to see what became of them. Turns out they reunited over the summer. You can see that performance here, but this is a pretty cheaply produced video of the band playing “Never Too Late To Mend,” from around the time they played in Gainesville.

 

Writer Tony Rehagen: The Generalist Interview

TonyRI met Tony Rehagen at a conference in Atlanta, in 2013, when he was nominated for Writer of the Year at the City and Regional Magazine Awards. I first saw him as he is here, playing guitar.

I didn’t know what I was walking into when I arrived. Rehagen’s friend, fellow writer Justin Heckert, had urged me to come to a house party, where it turned out pretty much everyone but me had come prepared to sing.

I heard a lot of great music that night, played by a lot of great writers. In addition to Rehagen and Heckert, Thomas Lake was there, as well as the novelist Charles McNair. And when I remember that night I think mostly about the relationship I felt between their singing and their work. Every moment seemed an act of creation, and Rehagen was one of the stalwarts. He sang and when others took a turn at lead vocals he supported them with his guitar.

By that time I’d read his award nominated stories and already counted myself as a fan. Rehagen’s great strength, it seems to me, is adapting his voice to his material. For the sake of this interview, I asked him to send me a few stories to use as a jumping off point to talk about writing in specific and the magazine business in general. The three stories he chose are incredibly varied in tone.

The Crossing” is spare and muscular, like something I’d imagine Cormac McCarthy producing if he lit off after a true story about trains: Some death, an existential dread, the creeping sense that everything isn’t going to be all right.

My favorite of the three is “This Land Is My Land,” which is perfect from its well-chosen title to its inevitable, crushing end. I think of it as the nonfiction equivalent of some dusty tune by The Band, capturing the romantic myth of what it means to own—a house, land, a legacy—and the dangers of wanting too much.

I was pleasantly surprised when Rehagen sent me “Re: Fredi,” which is light—jeez, it’s about baseball—in comparison to the other articles he chose. The fun here is Rehagen’s novel structure—a one-sided email exchange between him, and his editor.

The Generalist: Let’s start with some introductions. You’re a University of Missouri J School grad. Tell me something about that experience, please. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Give me your origin story…

Rehagen: I totally fell into this profession. I set out to be a musician, played in bands all through high school and college. I liked to write and was at MU so I figured journalism would be a fit for a degree. I liked sports and started there, with zero experience. The first story I ever wrote was a volleyball preview.  Along the way, I fell in with a group of classmates and fellow sports writers (especially Daimon Eklund, Justin Heckert, Wright Thompson, Steve Walentik, and Seth Wickersham) who introduced me to the work of Gary Smith and Tom Junod and Michael Paterniti. The guys in that little Mizzou sportswriting cabal were just a bunch of writing junkies—talented junkies who inspired me, and continue to inspire me. But I burnt out on J-school. I took a break after graduation and played music. After a year or so, I was married and had to start making money, and I had this journalism degree, so I went to work for this small-town weekly newspaper where I could write what I wanted and as much as I wanted. The fire was just reignited.

The Generalist: So, let’s talk about these three stories on the docket, beginning with “The Crossing.” I imagine you read about the circumstances in the paper. I pulled a few of the briefs. They all run along pretty much the same line: “Man killed by train while trying to rescue crash victim.” These are 200 word stories, but you saw something else there. How did you come across this, and what made you decide it was a bigger story?

Rehagen: I did see it in the paper, and it immediately struck me that there was something profound there. I mean, the idea that these three characters—two complete strangers and the train—would arrive at the same place at the same time and their courses were forever altered because of it…I knew I wanted to explore it.

The Generalist: Can you tell me anything about the pitch process? The seeming waste—a 48-year old man dies trying to save an octogenarian with bone cancer—isn’t a sexy story. It’s pretty brutal. Was it a hard sell?

Rehagen: There was no pitch. My editor, Steve Fennessy, saw the same story and had the same idea, the same sense that there was something deeper there. He brought it up to me before I had a chance to pitch it.

The Generalist: That in itself is remarkable. A story like that could be so easily passed over without much consideration. I’d add this, too: This piece ran five months after the men involved died. And as a reader, I don’t think I learn anything more—not a single detail— about Atlanta by reading it. But as a person, I feel like I was put in direct touch with the precariousness and seeming unfairness of life. I think a common problem at city and regional magazines is to be so caught up in connecting people to the area they live that we can forget that a universal story, as I’d suggest this is, is still worth sharing with “local” readers. I’m curious if there was any discussion about whether the story had enough to do with Atlanta.

Rehagen: Well, one thing that makes it very Atlanta is the train. I mean this is a railroad town, founded as “terminus,” and the rails are still a major, if overlooked, presence throughout the city. Reporting this story, I also discovered a pretty significant subculture of trainspotters who collect photos and videos of trains. (In fact, I found one spotter who had taped this very train just fifteen minutes or so before it hit Dekai—that’s where I got the details of the train in the last section.) But your point is valid. Fortunately, I have an editor who wants those universal stories. He lets me travel the entire state to find them. But, of course, he’d prefer I find them in the city casting reflections on what’s going on here at the moment.

The Generalist: You know, as a Yankee, and a writer, I probably romanticize the South and its story telling culture. When I saw that this story ran at all it struck me as being of a piece with my image of the South, anyway, as a place that understands that the value of a good yarn—complete with hard, life and death themes—transcends anything so temporary as “news.” Is there any truth in that admittedly shopworn image of the South I’m carrying around?

Rehagen: Well, Missouri, especially Mid-Mo, where I’m from and went to school, isn’t exactly the South. It’s this weird border-state nether region that had plenty of people fighting on both sides of the Civil War. So moving down here from Indiana (which I found to be more like Mid-Missouri than North Georgia), I had the same romantic notion of the stories of the South. I’ve indulged that notion, written about moonshiners, land feuds, alligator hunting, peach farmers, and cotton mills during the War Between the States. But I think there is a special esteem bestowed on writers down here. And I always joke that the warmer climate makes people a little more stir-crazy (or just plain crazy), yielding more fascinating stories. That’s why my journalist friends in Florida are neck-deep in bizarre, compelling material.

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The Legacy of Jack Wheeler

john-p-wheeler-iii-hhs-62I’ve been thinking a lot, of late, about John Parsons Wheeler III. Wheeler was a driving force for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, one of the most visited sites in all of America. His murder, almost four years ago, received international attention. His death has been ruled a homicide, by blunt force trauma, a category that covers assaults by an object, like a baseball bat, or a fist. Other than this ruling, however, we seem no closer to an answer now than we did when his body was first discovered.

The mystery is perplexing. But I’ve been thinking about Wheeler for this and other reasons. A West Point grad, Wheeler served as a soldier in Vietnam. He was a driving force behind the Veterans Memorial. He worked as chairman and CEO of Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, helping to push them to prominence; and as President of the Deafness Research Foundation, where he battled to make tests for deafness in infants standard. He pushed to create effective, modernized schools in Vietnam, through his leadership of the Vietnam Children’s Fund, and sought reconciliation with the country where he served and many of his classmates died in war.

A spiritual man, Wheeler also spoke to friends and family at times about the notion of “grace.” In theology, grace is usually described as a kind of gift that God bestows upon us, not because we deserve it but simply because he desires us to have it.

In the years after Wheeler succeeded in efforts to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—“The Wall”—built, stories cropped up of veterans finding each other there after years without contact. Others might hear these stories and think of them as fortunate coincidences. What were the chances that former war buddies, from different parts of the country, would choose to turn up there on the same day and time? Wheeler referred to these coincidences as examples of “grace.”

I remember reading, many years ago, in an interview I can’t seem to find now, the rock singer Bono’s lament that we willingly share intimate details of our lives to friends over dinner, yet if someone mentions the word “grace” everyone will feel embarrassed. Notions of spirit, of religious belief, aren’t just personal. They also seem to risk triggering interpersonal versions of the larger cultural war in play between high-profile atheists and believers. In this milieu, the very idea of something like grace becomes ghettoized. However, I think that Wheeler left behind a sense of grace that lives on after his murder and sits apart from the mystery surrounding his death. The Wall he helped create was a great source of healing for the entire country after the Vietnam War. MADD likely saved many millions of lives with its campaign to stop drunk driving. Many adults can hear, today, became of the work he did with the Deafness Research Foundation. And schools he helped imagine and fundraise for, in Vietnam, are still being built today. His murder remains unsolved. Yet the work he did still touches people, most of whom probably don’t know of the role he played in bettering their lives.

In theological terms, I don’t suppose that the sort of afterlife evident in the story of Jack Wheeler qualifies as grace. However, I think of it as related—a gift people have received, from a man they can’t see.

Here Comes The Night Time

Many of my favorite songs sound like a prayer, and Emmylou Harris has a voice that seems to reach forever up, rendering her the perfect messenger between God and the rest of us. This track, “Where Will I Be,” stems from her collaboration with producer-songwriter Daniel Lanois, who joins her here. I recommend playing this one after the sun sets.