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Posts Tagged ‘Origin Stories’

I’ve written before about my habit of digging up the “origin stories” of writers I admire. This weekend, while procrastinating on a story rewrite that’s due on Monday, I fell down the internet rabbit hole (it started with a Twitter reference to a writer-on-writer feud, detoured through a bizarre story about a person in a pink gorilla suit crashing a Grantland recruitment meeting, and finally led me to a writer’s blog on writing) and came across a new one, by Esquire’s Chris Jones.

Jones first came on my radar with his incredible profile of Roger Ebert a couple years back. Here’s the story of how he got into journalism. It begins with a big-name former journalist – the Headmaster of his graduate school residence – taking note of his writing and setting him up with a job interview, and ends with Jones landing a gig as a sports writer at the then-brand new National Post.

(Incidentally, Jones started that job at almost the exact same time that I, a self-righteous 16 year-old, scrapped plans to go to journalism school because I didn’t want to work for Conrad Black, who then owned the Post and almost every other paper of note in Canada. By the time I finally circled back around to journalism in my mid-20s, Black was a convicted felon, newspapers were generally considered to be a dying breed, and Jones was a regular at Esquire.)

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Thanks to Matador Nights co-editor Kristin Conard, who posted this interview with Jon Krakauer in the comments of my Origin Stories post.

Here’s Krakauer on his early writing efforts:

I knew that you couldn’t make a living simply writing about the outdoors, so I made an effort from the beginning of my freelance career to write about other subjects. Since I had been a carpenter, I felt like I could bullshit my way writing about architecture for Architectural Digest. I had been a commercial fisherman, so I had queried Smithsonian about a commercial fishery in Alaska, and they went for it. I queried Rolling Stone early on about firewalking, walking on hot coals, and agreed to write it on spec.

I tried writing for local Seattle magazines and found that it was just as difficult to get published locally as it was nationally and the local magazines paid literally ten percent as much, so I said fuck the local stuff. I was setting quotas that I would write ten query letters a week, and I definitely worked hard, but I got lucky. Because I wanted to pay the rent, I didn’t have any grandiose ambitions of being an artiste; I wanted to pay the fucking bills, so I worked really hard.

I realized that what I wrote for Rolling Stone had to be pretty different from Smithsonian, and I gave them whatever they wanted, I wanted to sell the article. It was useful, as a writer, to try out different voices and it was also smart, as a businessman.

The whole thing’s worth a read – there’s also some interesting stuff about the emotional process of writing Into Thin Air, and returning to climbing, in the wake of the Everest disaster.

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Origin Stories

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a sucker for a great essay about how the author “got his start” as a writer.

Jeffrey Tayler told his origin story (to borrow a phrase from the world of comics) earlier this year on World Hum — Inspiration, Travel Writing and L’Esprit Frondeur — and one of my all-time favorite essays is Ian Frazier’s variation on the theme: Out of Ohio, which is behind an online paywall but is also available in The Best American Travel Writing 2006, as well as in Frazier’s essay collection, Gone to New York.

I know there are lots more. Anyone who’s been to the Book Passage writing conference has probably heard Tim Cahill talk about Rolling Stone’s founding of Outside Magazine — Cahill, being the only staffer at Rolling Stone who actually liked to go outside, became a key player there by default. And I seem to remember reading something by Jan Morris, once, about winding up at Everest Base Camp covering the Hillary expedition thanks to a similar default situation: Morris, a rookie newspaper writer, was the only reporter in the newsroom young and fit enough to make the trip.

Anyone else know of any travel writing “origin stories”? I’d love to see a link — or some clue about where to track them down in print — if so.

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I wanted to draw attention, briefly, to this essay we published at World Hum last week: Inspiration, Travel Writing and L’Esprit Frondeur. It’s by Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Tayler, and it’s about how he became a writer. I always get a kick out reading the “how I got started” stories of writers I admire, but I especially appreciated this one for making an important and surprisingly regularly overlooked point:

I’d like to clarify something fundamental. I take for granted that if you want to be a writer, you’re a wordsmith, a lover of the classics and a connoisseur of literature. Writers must, initially and throughout their lives, be readers first and foremost, and readers not primarily of journalism, but of the classics, both modern and not-so-modern. I also take for granted that aspiring writers know how to compose a proper declarative sentence and don’t misuse words. Reading the classics will help hone your ear, but there are many good books on usage out there and writers should read and digest them and reread them. Inspiration and an esprit frondeur won’t help aspiring writers who don’t know the basics of their craft. No matter what motivates you, no matter what experiences you have and seek to put down on paper, editors buy well-written words, and your writing has to be exceptional if it is to see print.

In all the talk about building your online brand, social media, and so on, this basic point – that aspiring writers should love words and know how to use them – can sometimes go overlooked. So thanks for the reminder, Jeffrey.

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