Writers and writing

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A soldier asked Hemingway's legendary editor Maxwell Perkins for some advice on a writing career. Jack Limpert provides excerpts and background: "I should think you had seen plenty by now, but I do not think you need be impatient to put it into writing. I think, in truth, that the best writing of all is done long after the events it is concerned with, when they have been digested and reflected upon unconsciously, and the writer has completely realized them in himself."

Ida Tarbell biographer Steve Weinberg explains what made her the progenitor of investigative reporting: "Her appetite for documents was never satisfied. She located Congressional hearings and transcripts of debate, regulatory agency initiatives, railroad contracts with shippers, records of Rockefeller’s philanthropy, filings about previously mysterious Rockefeller family members, and more … She convinced both current and former Standard Oil executives to talk with her."

Michelle Nijhuis examines the evidence and concludes that the bard was one of us: "Journalists — and all kinds of writers, fiction and non — are constantly borrowing authority, becoming temporary experts on a place, or a field of knowledge, or a group of people. We learn as much as we can as fast as we can, mostly by asking lots and lots of nosy questions … We’re serial experts, and professional amateurs. I suspect Shakespeare was too." Also, some words he gave us.

James Sullivan reviews Mary Roach's keynote at the Power of Narrative conference, where the best-selling science author described her reporting as purposefully chaotic: "She does do research, though she doesn’t like to be too thorough. Instead, she’ll let the circumstances dictate where her questions might lead … To her, the work is almost like making a documentary film: as the writer, you choose the people and the setting, then let the situation go where it may."

Even before he finished their first drafts, John Steinbeck's novels were steeped in his journals and other writing, including letters excerpted by Maria Popova: "In January of 1951, as he was setting out to write East of Eden — a book he considered the most difficult he ever attempted, the ultimate test of his talent and discipline as a writer — Steinbeck decided to loosen his creative ligaments by writing a daily 'letter' to his dear friend and editor, Pascal Covici."

Max Nelson surveys the work of "outlaw poets" ranging from François Villon to Merle Haggard, whose writings balance defiance with shame: "starved, browbeaten figures for whom pariahdom, persecution, imprisonment and homelessness were both facts of life and the materials out of which they made their art. Outlaw poets are what certain prison writers become when their term is up — when they’ve been let loose into a world that spurns them and whose values they reject."

From Maria Popova, some thoughts from Ursula K. Le Guin on how to make a piece of writing good and why it's pointless to look for rules: "There are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time."

Alex Belth talks to Mark Warren about his stories, with Tom Junod, on a young war widow whom they helped get treatment for the cancer that was killing her: "Tom and I blew through every caution sign between journalist and subject. Those rules exist for a good reason, but they typically deal with not compromising journalism that’s about powerful people … In my view, they don’t typically apply when you’re talking about a war widow dying of cancer in southern Mississippi."

Mississippi reporter William Browning writes about the Pulitzer winner's year at one of the state's smallest and least sophisticated newspapers: "Its circulation was approximately 4,000, which made it the smallest daily paper in Mississippi, a state known for its conservative and, at the time, racist majority. Not to mention that West Point, population 6,500, lacked the excitement that would have appealed to a young bachelor. But, for Halberstam, nothing else was doing."

Maria Popova lists the neurologist/author's 121 favorite books, with comments like this about an event where he met Eve Curie, biographer of her mother, Marie Curie: "As I was talking I became conscious of a very old lady in the audience, with high Slavic cheekbones and a smile going from one ear to the other. I thought, 'It can’t be!' But it was — it was Eve Curie, and she signed her book for me sixty years after it was published, fifty-five years after I got it."