As 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.