Ready to Face the Void?

My writing career, such as it is, seems caught between desires, one to write fiction, the other to write nonfiction.

When I first started writing, the desire to write fiction was dominant. The stronger desire now is to write nonfiction, specifically to write literary journalism, not the genteel, narrow attempts I made as a daily newspaper feature writer, but the serious kind like Bob Shacochis writes.

Yesterday I spent several hours distracting myself online reading selections from Mayborn magazine, a publication of The Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton.

One of the selections was an essay by Shacochis, a piece that nagged me yesterday, and all day today, in the way good writing is supposed to nag you: there are sentences, images and ideas that your mind won’t let go. Things you weigh, analyze and think about for hours, weeks, months, years afterward.

Shacochis writes about his own divided interest:

I will be torn between the two, fiction and nonfiction, marriage and promiscuity, living an imaginary life internally and bearing witness to the firehose-in-your-face-blast of the external, between invention and reportage, between the profound truths that spin out of elegant lies and the profoundly damaging lies that are the inevitable by-product of inauthentic truths. For a writer, both this and that, you might agree, are spellbinding.

At his one-room cabin in New Mexico, he’s writing a novel, a task which has forced him to become reclusive “hunkered down in the wilderness, betrothed” to the book, and harnessed to the “monotony of the dream-like repetition of one’s lonely days.” But, he ruminates about his currently “dormant” career as a journalist:

Being a correspondent, on the other hand, is like flinging yourself into whirlwind affairs with one fascinating partner after another. Seduction runneth over. I miss the road. I love it so, love the gravity of the illusion that out there-on the move minute by minute-life is finally, indisputably, meaningful, one’s intentions to contribute something useful to society are being consummated, one’s insatiable curiosity is getting a good soaking, et cetera. But I don’t much miss editors, except for the very few great ones who aren’t insulated morons or breathtakingly negligent and careless, who aren’t shameless lying bastards, who aren’t visionless mandarins of the status quo, air-headed cheerleaders for fatuous trends, or tyrants of self-aggrandizing little fiefdoms. The truly good ones, though, are like second, better, selves-precious and indispensable, a writer’s grace and blessing.

I want to be a disciple of literary journalism, which is how Shacochis describes himself. I want to write journalism that is as Shacochis explains “narrative-based” and employs “character development, dramatic arc, linguistic dexterity and texture, an operative aesthetic (anathema to strict reportage), authorial voice or presence (subjectivity).”

At the same time I feel as if I’m floundering, flip-flopping around not really knowing what I want, or how to go about becoming a literary journalist. I was really just beginning to learn how to write when I was at the newspaper, but then I cut myself off. Largely out of frustration. I wasn’t going anywhere with what I was writing, not making a big enough leap from strong feature writing to something more creative. Also, through no choice of my own, I was caught in the asinine niceties of customer service, and being nice to other people simply because they have money makes my bile surge.

Like Kevin Fedarko, who also has a strong piece in Mayborn magazine, I long for a mentor. Someone to lead  me, so I will challenge myself and become the best writer I can be. Fedarko found his mentor in Shacochis, but only after almost a decade of frustration as a staff writer at various publications.

“Those were hard, mean, frustrating years for me,” he writes. “Years in which I stumbled and careened from one debacle to the next, wallowing in mediocrity, awash in confusion, beset by the aggrieved conviction that if my uber-mentor would just have the decency to show up, clock in, and get down to business, things could start falling into place.”

The advantage of a mentor, Fedarko reports, is more than just learning to up your craft ante. Working with Shacochis has taught him two things:

The quality of what you produce-good, bad, or indifferent-isn’t something anyone can bequeath you. But what a mentor can give amounts, in my experience, to two things. First, a glimpse into the nature and the depth of solitude: its terrifying severity, its austere magnificence. And second, a demonstration of the courage that is required to chase the tail of one’s own truths, whatever they may amount to and wherever they may lead, into the face of that void.


2 thoughts on “Ready to Face the Void?

  1. Nice piece. The quotes from Shacochis are great – in particular his reference to editors “who aren’t visionless mandarins of the status quo, air-headed cheerleaders for fatuous trends, or tyrants of self-aggrandizing little fiefdoms.”. Those are words of wisdom in any industrialized-yet-creative endeavour like writing (fiction or non-fiction).

    Finding a mentor (or even just a good person to turn to for input) is a problem. I’ve seemed to have solved it to some extent by forming a local writer’s group which meets monthly so that we can exchange work and discuss. However, it’s good that you are looking – that simple act may have beneficial consequences down the road.


  2. It seems rare to find good editors. I think Shacochis names some of the worst problems, in particular the reference to “insulated morons.” Some of the people I’ve worked with, especially the recent college grads — editors and reporters — were very much like stereotypical academics locked in ivory towers, uninterested in the world around them. There doesn’t seem to be an insatiable curiosity about anything. There are also some who don’t seem interested, except superficially, in reading and reading widely — fiction of all sorts, magazines, history, philosophy, etc. Which makes me wonder why they went into journalism in the first place.

    When I worked as an editor for a religion section I tried to deepen my understanding of religion, even — devout agnostic that I am — taking a confirmation class. And, of course, reading, and my reading led me to some excellent writers, including Karen Armstrong.

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