Truth, writing, and journalistic practice

Due to the previously recounted writers block that was in full effect yesterday (an obscene amount of whining about and a rather, uh, heated discussion about content and ultimately some organizational suggestions from my parents has allowed for progress), I found myself discussing writing with a friend of mine. As I have not read anything of hers, of late, that wasn’t an email I can’t tell you exactly what kind of writing it is that she does, but I’m fairly certain it is of the personal essay kind (when it isn’t directly for school).

Earlier today I was reading an essay in an old issue of The Believer, July 2003, in fact. Protesting All Fiction Writers! by Tom Bissell, wherein he discussed the Underground Literary Alliance, who sound thoroughly crazy and often rather unpleasant. You can find them online (or you could back then). At one point he gets into the fact that writing is a solipsistic endeavor. Here’s the quote (I found it!):

“…the problem with novels is that they are written by novelists, all of whom necessarily share a basic similarity of foundational experience: bookishness, self-absorption, perceived alienation. Oftentimes, this can lead to shrunkenly personal work…”

Here is the note I made in my journal/bound pieces of scrap paper after reading that line:

Are journos (journalists) less self-absorbed than novelists? Is the outward goal of journalism, the banality & REPORTING a different drive from the novelist?

The point is, in our discussion, my friend compared writing to birthing, because it’s a personal and exhausting creative endeavor. She transmitted an air of a personal value/source of the writing and an organic process/nature/existence to it. Here is what I can tell you about journalistic writing, and what makes it, most often, so difficult: it can be neither personal, nor organic.

In that endless quest for “objectivity” or, my preferred term, balance, you have to reject all personal feelings/investment. Your personality cannot be allowed to guide you too far, although it will always guide you a little, and it cannot be allowed to dictate the tone or the sociopolitical leanings of the piece. So there goes the reliance on feelings.

Then there is the actual style and form of the piece. There are all kinds of rules about how you do it, depending on what you’re writing (hard news get the inverted pyramid structure; soft news can have a more emotional hook), and whom you are writing for (this piece is for a theoretical alternative publication intended for college students, written by college students, thus it has a slightly more relaxed tone at the beginning and possibly at the end). But you’re often given a word count (300 words). And the work will always be heavily edited, because you need to remove all traces of editoral commentary, and it needs to be smooth and clean and possibly even a little stylized.

Then there’s what my mother provided as further distinction: in a professional capacity, it needs to be like a tap. When someone says, “I need 300 words on ______ on my desk in an hour,” you have to be able to turn that tap on so that 300 words come out, with time to edit. My friend talked about “having something to give,” the idea that the quality of the writing changes with the emotional investment in the work.

There are times when I think that I might envy people who write fiction or personal essays. The idea that you get to write the things that matter most to you, and express yourself in the way that is most honest to your thoughts and emotions is so often appealing. But, at the same time, I have so much fun going on research hunts. The entertainment, the thrill I get as I go looking for data and statistics, quotes and interviews… That’s a rush that I would be denied. Then there are the challenge of style and structure; the fact that I have to go back and edit is a challenge (I love editing and hate doing it to my own work). When I’m writing my mock pieces for class, re-reading was an exercise in becoming someone else, both when I was writing it, and when I was reading it. I had to write as an even handed individual, and I had to read as someone with different investments than my own.

I also, must admit, that I like looking for those more abstract truths; I’m not in the business of philosophy. I don’t have to balance my arguments on the head of a pin or construct intellectual balancing acts when it comes to my statements. I deal with the truth, evolving and ephemeral as it may be. I feel like I need to address the fact that journalists, no matter how you slice it, seem to make their bank with the suffering of others. But that seems unfair. The purpose of journalism is to inform, always, above everything. There is a grand and noble tradition of people who bring reports of goings-on from the next town over, and long and not-so-noble traditions of gossip. The purpose of newspapers and journalists is not to commodify those traditions, but to provide standards and to cultivate a relationship of trust and community between itself as an institution and the public. (I don’t know where you get your news, but you certainly go there because you trust them to deliver both the news that you believe to be important, and you trust them to deliver it in a way that seems fair and balanced, or accurate, to you. Right? … If not, I consider re-evaluating where you get your news from.)

This writing here, this is the organic, personal, feelings kind of writing. I’m going to throw this up here without re-reading a single word. I’ve gotten a fair bit of practice generating text from my own personal thought processes. It’s not particularly fun or challenging anymore. (This is nearing on 1000 words, and it doesn’t feel like it’s particularly crucial.) Meanwhile, the work I’m doing for this stupid, badly constructed introductory class for school (though, likely, no one will see it but my professor) is maybe 300 words at the moment, and needs research and statistics, and has interviews and documents. And when I’ve finished the current draft I’ll have to re-read it and see which parts are weak and which need de-editorializing and I’ll have to check the language and the pacing. And maybe someone will learn something from it.

That is both noble to me, and so damn difficult it’s sort of ridiculous.

(Since there seem to be some folks who’ve stopped by, I would like to take this time to invite any and all readers to respond with their thoughts on writing both with regards to generating it, and its content. Also, if you would like to take pot shots at the media, I would love to hear what you have to say. As a future public servant, I would like to know how best to serve the public. Cheers.)

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