On the writing life—past, present, and future. And why I'm continuing to do it here.
I've been following your writing since the Washington Monthly days, and I am glad to subscribe and keep on truckin'.
I apologize for being so late in commenting on your August 22 NO MAN BUT A BLOCKHEAD issue; it wasn't going to let me go, though, until I tapped out these thoughts, so here goes.
I love BREAKING THE NEWS, but the NO MAN BUT A BLOCKHEAD issue felt personal. I appreciate and admire, for instance, that you were willing to share the evolution in your thoughts about and plans for your business model: truly generous on your part -- thank you. I also liked your comment: "The only reason to write a book is if you feel you can’t not write it." On the radio one evening, years ago, I heard a writer (I don't remember his name -- sloppiness on my part; I'm sorry) in conversation with a group of young *aspiring* writers, one of whom raised the question of whether to pursue a career as a writer because he worried he wouldn't be able to make money at it. The published writer responded to him, if you CAN quit writing, DO, because the odds are against you.
Many mentors have graced my life, too, and I am profoundly grateful to and for each of them; none of them is someone you are likely to have heard of, whereas I sort of swooned at your mentioning David McCullough as one of your mentors. I did not know him, of course, but I have considered him a mentor of sorts ever since reading his books, especially TRUMAN, a book I still keep handy despite its raggedy condition (literally held together at this point with rubber bands and paper clips), so that I may look things up in it I want to read again ... and again ... and again. I have an audio version, too, that McCullough himself recorded; it is a great deal briefer than the book, naturally, but hearing McCullough's voice fill out his words somehow gives him an avuncular persona that I enjoy.
In closing, I offer another late comment, this one having to do with THE BOYS, by your friend Katie Hafner. When I got to the part that, you know, all who read that book will remember for the rest of their lives, I was so astonished that I dropped the book because I was laughing so hard I couldn't hold onto it. Did.not.see.that.coming. Equally astonishing to me is the extent to which, for a bunch of wildly different reasons, I keep thinking about THE BOYS. I tried to find the issue of your blog in which you recommended this book, because I wanted to see again what you said about it that made me want to read it but without giving away absolutely anything about ... you know.
Way to go!
I have enjoyed your work over the years, and had noticed your recent absence from the Atlantic so i was excited to discover and subscribe to your substack. I will also admit that your reporting from China is part of why I am typing this note from Shenzhen.
Keep on writing and we will keep reading,
The digital organization that allows me to stroll in here and read to get caught up is the key. The variety of what's on your mind, and/or experiences are the main attraction. As is the case with a book you can't not write, hopefully you stayed tuned in to that voice that brings you here as current events demand it.
Loved this post, especially to learn more about the arc of your career - and about the importance of your mentors. I knew about David Halberstam, but was not aware of your relationship with David McCollough. I loved his work. He made history come alive and seemed to have an overarching wisdom that he brought to the stories he told. In the 90's when I moved to Kansas City from the east coast, he published his book about Harry Truman. It gave me comfort to know that Truman had come from this place and made the city a little less alien. He will be missed.
Online Etymology Dictionary
also block-head, "stupid person," 1540s (implied in blockheaded), from block (n.1) + head (n.); probably originally an image of the head-shaped oaken block used by hat-makers, though the insulting sense is equally old.
[Online Etymology Dictionary: "This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English. Etymologies are not definitions; they're explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago.
"The dates beside a word indicate the earliest year for which there is a surviving written record of that word (in English, unless otherwise indicated). This should be taken as approximate, especially before about 1700, since a word may have been used in conversation for hundreds of years before it turns up in a manuscript that has had the good fortune to survive the centuries." ]
"1764, Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto:
"So I think, blockheads, said Manfred: what is it has scared you thus?"
"The Castle of Otranto is a novel by Horace Walpole. First published in 1764, it is generally regarded as the first gothic novel. In the second edition, Walpole applied the word 'Gothic' to the novel in the subtitle – A Gothic Story. Set in a haunted castle, the novel merged medievalism and terror in a style that has endured ever since. The aesthetic of the book has shaped modern-day gothic books, films, art, music, and the goth subculture.
"Walpole was inspired to write the story after a nightmare he had at his Gothic Revival home, Strawberry Hill House, in southwest London. The novel initiated a literary genre that would become extremely popular in the later 18th and early 19th century, with authors such as Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe, William Thomas Beckford, Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and George du Maurier." https://www.merriam-webster.com
once again, I wanted to mention that reading the comments section is great ! thanks for sharing the new evolution with your readership and best wishes!
Stephen King, On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft (it was hard to edit this list, the quotes are all good ones. A wonderful book by America's modern Hawthorne or Poe; Maine's author is also the best-selling author in the world) :
“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
“you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
“If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
“Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”
“Just remember that Dumbo didn't need the feather; the magic was in him. ”
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.”
“So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You've blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
“You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
As a paid subscriber, I encourage everyone to join and it is well worth it!
Here is Oscar Wilde on writing, and why we we are compelled:
oscar wilde goodreads quotes on writing :
“If you cannot write well, you cannot think well; if you cannot think well, others will do your thinking for you."
“A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”
“Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” The Critic as Artist
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”
“Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” The importance of being Earnest
“You don't love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.”
Long-time reader here. Happy to now be a subscriber and help support you and Deb's work.
Jim, that was a wonderful post, a rich pleasure to read on multiple levels. I'm proud and happy to have been a paying subscriber to your Substack since, I think, close to the beginning a year ago - and I say that not to congratulate myself, but to observe that the consistently excellent quality of your reporting and writing, over decades, is, well, well worth supporting financially. You write very movingly of your mentors McCullough, Halberstam, and Peters, and I know you're too modest to say this, so I'll say it on your behalf: You yourself are an important role model, and have been a generous mentor, to many of us, me included.
On the matter of the Johnson quote, in 1998 when Henny Youngman died, I was near the end of my intense five-year stint living in Bangkok, part of which (as you might remember) included some reporting for the magazine you were editor of at the time (cough, cough). I was 32 years old and had left myself broke from the intense nonstop hard work of following my calling all around Southeast and South Asia as a freelancer, but failing to square the business-side circle. So anyway, one day in February 1998 I happened to pick up on the street in Bangkok the issue of the International Herald Tribune that included Henny Youngman's obituary. And in it I read something he had once told an interviewer who asked him to what he attributed his long success on the Borscht Belt and on TV. He replied with what he called "an old Yiddish expression," and I've remembered it verbatim ever since: "Nem di geld. Get the money. Don't believe all the baloney people tell you when they're describing everything they're going to do for you someday soon." Reading that kinda changed my life :-)
I've been reading your work since my freshman year in college. You and Ben Beach and John Powers. I look forward to the next 50 years of your writing.
If you are taking nominees for left-behind towns, , my hometown, New Castle., Pa., would be a good one. It is next door to Youngstown, Ohio, another Rust Belt casualty. New Castle’s decline actually started earlier, in the late ‘50s. Since then, the population has dropped from about 50k to under 25k. The downtown, which had six shoe stores, three movie theaters,
more than a dozen restaurants, clothing stores of every type, is a ghost village. I am Jewish and the Jewish population is all but gone, the conservative shul and reform temple converted into evangelical establishments. What went wrong? So many factors, perhaps worthy of exploration. If you are ever interested…
Does this mean you're no longer writing for the Atlantic? I've missed your voice there, and open each magazine hoping that there will be a piece by you in that issue.