Every so often you see something – some small fact – that nails shut a belief that you’ve held for a while and turns it into something solid you can truly take a stand on.
I have claimed for some time – along with many others – that the cultural gap between the media class and our military class was too large, and that the media persist in their devaluing of the military because of this gap.
Via local journalism blog LA Observed, I was brought to a series of tweets by New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum, describing his firing from his staff consulting writer gig there – but also describing how he’d been hired.
Still, the New Yorker is the New Yorker, and my next question to John was, “What can I do next?”
As any writer knows, editors almost never suggest stories. Generating story ideas is the real work; researching and
Writing them is the easy part. In one of our conversations, though, John let drop a real jewel:
“We have this sense that we should be paying more attention to the military,” he said. (This was now early 2003,
as the country was getting ready for war in Iraq. “Thing is, nobody here cares about the military, and nobody here
knows anything about the military.” Well, I certainly didn’t know anything about the military but I did find it
interesting, so I piped up, “I can do that!” I wasn’t worried about my lack of experience or knowledge in the field
of arms. Tom Wolfe is right, I think, when admonishes young writers to ignore the old advice about “writing what
you know,” and instead write about what you don’t know. If you have to learn about something from scratch, he
argues, you don’t bring any lazy preconceptions. John said I was welcome to give it a try. “Think about trying a
process story,” he said, using a term I’d never heard. “It’s a New Yorker standard,” he went on. “You simply
deconstruct a process for the reader. John McPhee was the master. It makes for a simple structure.”
By that time the improvised explosive device was the weapon of choice in Iraq, and limb loss was the signature
Wound of the Iraq war. So I followed one soldier from the moment he left his job at Wal-Mart in rural Wisconsin
To join the Army to the day he returned to speak to his high school without his leg. John Bennet gave me another
Great piece of New Yorker advice: “This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like,” he said.
“Just know that when I get it, I’m going to take it apart and make it all chronological.” Telling a story in strict
chronological order turned out to be a fabulous discipline. It made the story easy to write, and may be why New
Yorker stories are so easy to read. Of course, the magazine does run everything through the deflavorizer, following
Samuel Johnson’s immortal advice: “Read what you have written, and when you come across a passage you think
Is particularly fine, strike it out.”
My wounded-soldier story ran as “The Casualty” and can be found here:
Next I pitched a story about what killing does to soldiers, psychologically, and how the Army is ill-equipped to deal
With the damage that killing does. That proposal can be read here:
That piece, “The Price of Valor,” won the Medill School of Journalism’s 2004 John Bartlow Martin Award, and can be read here:
Now I was three stories in to the New Yorker, but I wasn’t about to let die my relationships with other magazines.
I’ll poke around in his proposal and other documents a bit and suggest that you do as well. It’s a very rare chance to lift the hood on modern high-end journalism.