Good Writing

I’ve recently started what I hope will become a ongoing feature around these parts called “What You Should Read…Now”. It’s my small attempt to highlight journalism that can, in my humble opinion, raise the level of our public discourse by making important points in fresh or concise ways or, additionally, it will serve as a clearinghouse for me to post work that I think is extremely well-written, whatever the topic.

After I put up this week’s post about the Iranian elections, I came across two pieces, one on a blog that I frequent, the other in a book I’m just starting, that, I think, are both just beautiful examples of thinking and writing at a very high level.

The blog post in by Ta-Nehisi Coates (one of my writing heroes). The post is called “Nathan Bedford Forrest Has Beautiful Eyes” and it’s a deep exploration of the nature of identity and how we view our own self worth. Here’s a sample:

I think, when you’re in your intellectual infancy, myth keeps your sane. When I was young I believed, like a lot of us at that time, that my people had been kidnapped out of Africa by malicious racist whites. Said whites then turned and subjugated and colonized the cradle of all men. It was a comforting thought which placed me and mine at the center of a grand heroic odyssey. We were deposed kings and queens robbed of our rightful throne by acquisitive merchants of human flesh. By that measures we were not victims, but deposed nobles–in fact and in spirit.

I don’t propose that blacks are alone in our myth-making, or in our desire to ennoble ourselves. But given the power dynamics of this society, we’re the ones who can afford the comforts of myth the least. This is doubly true for those of us who are curious about the broader world. By the time I came to Howard University, I was beginning the painful process of breaking away from the “oppression as nobility” formula. But the clincher was sitting in my Black Diaspora I class and learning that the theory of white kidnappers was not merely myth–but, on the whole, impossible because disease (Tse-Tse fly maybe?) kept most whites from penetrating beyond the coasts until the 19th century.

A few years later I read (like many of you, no doubt) Guns, Germs and Steel and was, again, heartbroken. Here was a book with no use for nobility, but concerned with two categories–winners and losers. And I was the progeny of the losing team. I was not cheated of anything. I had simply lost.

This was heart-breaking, in the existential sense. What was I, if not noble? What was the cosmic justice at work that put me here, that made me second? Slowly, by that line of questioning, I came to understand that there really was no cosmic justice, that I should just be happy to be alive. Moreover the truth–Harriet Tubman and Ida Wells–was sustenance enough. Finally I learned to actually like that old pain, that feeling of something inside me, deeply-held, falling away. It was not the end of me, just the burn of good, refining, moral and intellectual, work-out.

Please go check out the whole thing.

The other selection is from the preface of David Samuels’ Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a collection of some of his best reporting for Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker during the late 90’s through the middle of this decade. I’ve only just started reading it, but there are a couple of ‘grafs that are just shot through with wit and emotion that they’re worth highlighting. The below delves into what it means to write for magazines and what it means to write well:

The magazines that people actually read, like Us Weekly, or the various shopping and lifestyle publications put out by the well-heeled corporate editorial brains of the Conde Nast empire, are hardly magazines in the ancient or not-so-ancient senses of the word. Rather, they are creations of talented people who together in fancy offices with designed cafeterias, bottled water on tap, and free limos home to tiny apartments in downtown Manhattan or Park Slope. Their job is to shape a product according to the dictates of the people who sell ads – not too long and not too short, on subjects of general but fleeting interest. The result is a glossy, highly-reflective environment populated by photographs of brand-name desginer clothing, perfume bottles, skinny models in cigarette ads, fast cars, and private jets. The professionalism that this kind of environment prizes is nothing to be ashamed of. But it’s not the same thing as writing well.

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, but the truth is, I am. Being ungrateful is the first rule of magazine writing, the second and third rules of which are to issue sweeping pronouncements about people and places that you know very little about and to never, ever miss your deadlines. it is also a fact that the best magazine writers hit their peak within a decade or so of leaving college. By the time you make it to your late thirties, you should be thinking about getting a paying job and supporting a family somewhere outside New York. Magazine writers who survive into middle age are marvels of nature, or independently rich, or half-crazy, retailing fables about government secrets which are in turn part of larger conspiracies that never quite make their way into print. My advice for young writers who think about writing for magazines is to stay at home and sponge off your parents. Marry rich. Get thee to a gym. Spend a month holed up in some miserable Holiday Inn in the sticks, and then another two months trying to make sense of the sodden squiggles in your notebooks and dozens of hours of stoned conversation, and you’ll wish that someone like me had offered you this advice much earlier, and that you had chosen to purse a career in accounting like you Uncle Maury.


Writing for magazines, I learned, is a game that is played by different rules than the game of literature. The collision between sensibility and reality is in part a function of speed. You have to be ready to roll when you hit the ground, spring to your feet, notebook in hand, and start writing. A person can absorb these repeated impacts only a limited number of times. I went to California and found pyramid schemes which rooked Russian immigrants into selling high-priced phone time to their friends and neighbors. I went to rehab and found crack-smoking moneys locked in cages.

My premonitions in cabs and diners that there was something weird in the air was proven right – but I was looking in the wrong places. Around the corner from my apartment in Brooklyn was the mosque where the first World Trade Center bombing plotters used to meet. I never believed in politics as the answer to anything. The terrorists didn’t believe in politics, either. They believed in murder. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, I first made sure that my brother was okay, and then I went to the broken Pentagon, where the secretary of defense described what lay ahead as a second Cold War, a statement that led the nightly news in Germany but was not reported at home. I sat at home for a year and listened to records, and got married to the girl I was with when the planes hit the towers. I love her so much. When she got pregnant we went to Montana, which is truly the most beautiful state.

As the world changed, I began to experience what I did for a living as both difficult and shameful, a combination which left me feeling misunderstood. Exploring a complicated story in depth for four or five months, I would return to Manhattan and feel ashamed because the world that I saw was so different from what my editors saw. I felt ashamed at my mastery of the mimic’s art of throwing my voice just a bit to the side so that I might sound enough like the other writers to keep my work in print. I felt ashamed when I gave in on small points of fact and style that changed the meaning of what I saw and wrote. I felt ashamed as the fact that I was in my late thirties, and my bank account was empty. I felt like a sucker.


What’s exciting about writing for magazines is the knowledge that the game can be won or lost in the last two minutes, as the copy editor jams up the rhythm of the opening paragraphs, or the fact-checker discovers that the opening scene of your article was described with a somewhat different slant in one of your notebooks. Writing, the kind that appears in novels and poems, aspires to aesthetic perfection-to the formal beauty of a painting or a photograph. Writing for magazines is like playing sports. Nothing ever goes exactly according to plan, but sooner or later, you may experience a few moments of perfection in the middle of the scrum. My magazine-writing career is officially over, but I will continue writing for magazines, of course, provided that my employers continue to publish my work. The sad truth is that I don’t know any other kind of life.


~ by uvasig on June 19, 2009.

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