Gay Talese’s Advice for Aspiring Journalists

 

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Gay Talese at his typewriter

 

Gay Taleses piece on Frank Sinatra titled Frank Sinatra Has a Cold is regarded by Esquire as one of the most influential magazine pieces ever written in the history of journalism and a pioneering example of what came to be called New Journalism. When I read that piece along with his other writings such as a story of New York Times obituary writer named Alden Whitman and the history of The Paris Review, I paused and pondered: All of his writings are non-fiction, dealing with heavy facts and real characters, but are written like short story. How did he even do that?

In conversation with Longform Podcast in front of a live audience at NYU, Talese answered my question. He generously shared his secrets of being who he is–one of the most well-respected journalists of our time. Although Talese’s counsel is aimed at aspiring journalists, it is replete with wisdom that applies as much to journalism as it does to any other intellectually and creatively ambitious endeavor.

The transcript is below (He starts sharing his advice at 00:38:20)

Interviewer: You graduated college in 1953. If you’re graduating from the University of Alabama today, you’re 21, how would you navigate this world today? How would you do your thing in 2013?

Mr. Talese: […] the way I worked then as a reporter is what I do now. I don’t think I have changed except get older. I don’t think I have changed a bit as a journalist. Doing your research more than you ever need, doing in person, looking at faces, never using a phone–if you can avoid it, and showing up. I am unannounced sometimes. Just show up. Just knock on the door.

Interviewer: You are still showing up?

Mr. Talese: Showing up is a part of it. [And] making good impressions […] And I tell you, I’m not selling clothes today, but I tell you, being well-dressed, it does not hurt when you knocking on the door try to appeal to strangers to give you their time and to ultimately let you inside their lives, so you can learn who they are and write knowingly about them. And write with respect about them as well. This is so important. We are not talking about journalism-put-down. We are not talking about snarky kind of stuff. We are talking about respectful reporting of people that might have been overlooked but have something to say, maybe has not been said or maybe it has not been said by these people in their own way of saying things. But it’s the way of quest for knowledge, expanding the table of interest to people who normally are not heard from, except statistically. Making people who are unknown people worth reading about and describe them in a way that a short story writer does. That’s all it is.

Interviewer: You get those people to reveal things about themselves […] How did you develop that kind of trust?

Mr. Talese: […] journalism is going on a date. You start with respect, reverence to know people. Gradually telling about yourself as you’re inquiring about them. Second date, a little more. Third date, a little more. Fourth date, more and more. And in my case, the first knock on the door, If I am allowed in, is telling them why I wanna talk to them. I have a reason on knocking on doors. I wanna see a certain people […] And I’m sincere.

Interviewer: […] you’re upfront with them about what you’re doing?

Mr. Talese: Yes, I have always been that way […] What I’m saying is being there. It’s pursuing your curiosity. Presenting yourself as a respectable person and a person that respects others and good manners […]

Here is the full interview with him:

 

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Gay Talese reading a newspaper

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Gay Talese.

 

Images: portrait of Talese via (Andrew Romano)

 

 

Rebecca Solnit: Two Meanings of Lost and The value of exploration for children

 

 

I have a long history of things disappearing in my life. My favorite hot-wheels truck disappeared from my possession when I was in kindergarten. It was a devastating day. In high school, my precious brown wallet was found unexpectedly in the river far away from my house by an old bearded man who mistook my wallet for a fish. He found it six months after I lost it. The money was all gone, but my driver’s license was still in it. Shirts, socks, trophies from early childhood’s competitions, coloring books, shoes, postcards that I acquired from friends who travelled overseas, photographs, have disappeared from my life. A few of them miraculously have reappeared, years later, damaged and musty.

Losing things and getting lost, these are the things that are more commonly avoided than aspired to by people. Through her nine galvanizing essays from a book titled A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Public Library), Rebecca Solnit, one of our most lyrical writers, pens descriptively and meditatively stories of facing the unknown and finding oneself by losing oneself. This book looks like a self-help book but it does not offer explicit and practical steps to navigate oneself in the face of uncertainty. Instead, this book demands its readers to ask themselves critically about what it means to be far away from their “home” and figure out the way back.

In the first essay titled “Open Door,” Solnit contemplates the difference between losing things and getting lost. 

“Lost has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.”

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A New Mapp of the World by Samuel Thornton. 1702. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Both of these notions, Solnit argues, getting lost and losing things, have a common denominator–a loss sense of control.

She writes:

“Either way, there is a loss sense of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in on rushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss, that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”

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The Dancing Shoes by Margaret Evans Prince. 1921. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Another favorite passage from this book, Solnit draws a connection between childhood roaming and self-reliance. She argues that parents’ excessive fear of letting their children to explore a neighborhood limits the children’s capacity to exercise their self-reliance muscle, which in fact can be a beneficial trait for them when they grow up.

“A recent article about the return of wildlife to suburbia described snow-covered yards in which the footprints of animals are abundant and those of children are entirely absent. As far as the animals are concerned, the suburbs are an abandoned landscape, and so they roam with confidence. Children seldom roam, even in the safest places. Because of their parents’ fear of the monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely), the wonderful things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them. For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back. I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”

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Financial District Map of New York City.  Aero view of financial district above map. 1921. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Choosing Curiosity over Fear: Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity

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Elizabeth Gilbert. Via: (ABCNews)

Elizabeth Gilbert has never wanted to be anything else in her life but a writer. When she was young, with nothing but a candle, under the dim lights in her room, she took a vow to be a writer. She was married to writing. Until now, she is still a writing’s faithful wife. For almost two decades of her career as a writer, Gilbert has done so much more than one could have imagined. Her memoir of a journey that she embarked on following to her devastating divorce titled Eat Pray Love was a wild success. Prior to Eat Pray Love, when she was still an obscure writer, she had published a novel about Maine Fishermen and a short story collection. She had also done a deep investigation of the live of Eustace Conway, an eclectic man who abandoned the comfort of his suburban environment to live in the wilderness of Appalachian mountains. His story appeared in her book titled The Last American Man (Her essay about him on GQ is epic). In 2013, her most ambitious novel came out. It is a novel that revolves around the live of Alma Whittaker, a brilliant female botanist living in the 19th century. Recently in 2015, she had just published her newest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, a self-help book for aspiring creators, not necessarily for those who will devote their lives to the arts, but it is a guide for “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” 
 
In conversation with Krista Tippett in her show, On Being, Elizabeth Gilbert was invited to share what she knows about creativity. They started off the conversation with the distinction between passion and curiosity. Gilbert is not a fan of the word passion–one of the most overused words in today’s lexicon. The reason is simple for her. The word passion gives so much pressure and too daunting for people who are still uncertain about their aspirations in life. Instead of advising people to start following their passion, Gilbert invites others to trust their curiosity, wholeheartedly.
She said:
“I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes not so available. And so when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there is a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you do not happen to have a passion that is very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you are in a change of life where your passions are shifting or you are not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it is easy to solve your life, just follow your passion.” I do think that they have harmed you because it just makes people feel more excluded, and more exiled, and sometimes like a failure.”
 
Gilbert loves to follow her curiosity. It has led her to discover the main ingredient for her newly published novel about a female botanist living in the 19th century. The idea of this story started as she was obsessed with gardening. Being an ardent gardener herself, she started to grow curious about the history of every plant that she had in her garden. Her curiosity about plants and their history amplified. As a result,  she decided to write a novel about the live of a female botanist from 19th century.
 
Living in a culture that glorifies passion over curiosity, Gilbert spoke to Tippett about the reason why people are ambivalent to follow their curiosity:
 
 
“. . .and I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they are waiting for a bigger sign. And your curiosities sometimes are so mild and so strange. And so–almost nothing, right? It is a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you are looking up at the mountain top waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God.”
Author Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert. © 2006 Ryan Donnell. Via: (RyanDonnell)

One of the interesting stories that Gilbert shared in this conversation was when the idea that she had hoped would give her a book went suddenly missing and strangely was captured by her beloved novelist friend, Ann Patchett.
Gilbert initially set out to write a book about a middle aged spinster woman and her adventurous Amazon expedition. She neglected the idea for so many years because things distracted her mind and she eventually wrote a completely different book. When she returned to her initial idea of this book, she had realized that the vital impulse of the book had disappeared. In other words, the idea left her. It was not too long after she had lost the idea, she met the novelist, Ann Patchett. Patchett told Gilbert that she had been working on a novel about a middle aged spinster woman and her Amazon expedition–the exact idea that Gilbert once had (This idea became Patchett’s novel  State of Wonder).Gilbert was shocked. It was a revelatory moment that made Gilbert believed that once an idea feels neglected, it will seek another human collaborator because every idea longs to be made.
 
Gilbert said:
“Ides are conscious and living, and they have will, and they have great desire to be made, and they spin through the cosmos looking for human collaborators.”
 

We often think of creativity as experience that can only be cherished by the originals, the gifted, and the privileged. In fact, Gilbert believes that our world has been altered for millions of years by our ancestors who shaped or altered things as they liked and everyone, regardless of who they are, has a tremendous agency within themselves to voluntarily participate with creativity. Believing that creativity is a “shared human inheritance”, Gilbert spoke to Tippett:

Ms. Tippett: And it seems like people are coming — a lot of people come to you with precisely that longing [longing to be creative] and feeling of being left out of the experience of creativity.

Ms. Gilbert: Yeah. Most people are left out of it, which is not even the right way to say it. Most people are cast out of it because I think it is innate. And I think the evidence that it is innate is pretty airtight. And that evidence is multifold, but here’s some pieces of it. One, all of your ancestors were creative–all of them. You and I and everybody we know were descended from tens of thousands of years of makers.

The entire world, for better or for worse, has been altered by the human hand, by human beings doing this weird and irrational thing that only we do amongst all our peers in the animal world, which is to waste our time making things that nobody needs, making things a little more beautiful than they have to be, altering things, changing things, building things, composing things, shaping things. This is what we do. We are the making ape. And no one is left out of the inheritance of that. That’s our shared human inheritance.

And another really strong piece of evidence is that every human child is born doing this stuff innately. It’s an instinct. There’s no child that you put crayons and paper in front of who doesn’t get it, what you’re supposed to do. No four-year-old boy was ever sat in front of a pile of Legos and said, “I don’t know, I’m just — I’m not feeling it.

I do believe that creativity is not exclusively reserved for the recreation of the privileged. This suddenly makes me think of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in which he said that if a person’s deficiency needs such as psychological, safety, love/belonging, and esteem, have not yet fulfilled, the road to self-actualization (the fifth level of the pyramid) that consists of creativity, is a little bit hard to obtain. I have heard that his theory has received a lot of criticism as it lacks of scientific grounding, but it gives us some perspectives to think about.

 

 

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Via: (Storify)

 

Believing that the most authentic creative process is a collaboration between one’s own diligent labor and the invisible magic hands of inspiration, Gilbert spoke eloquently:

“It’s [creative process] a collaboration between a human being’s labors and the mysteries of inspiration. And that’s the most interesting dance that I think you can be involved in. But you are very much an agent in that story. You are not just a passive receptacle. And also, it is not entirely in your hands. And standing comfortably within that contradiction is, I think, where you find sanity in the creative process if you can find it.”

At the end of the conversation, Gilbert shared the technique that has helped her to get through the unglamorous and dull part of a creative process:

“What gets me through those 90 percent of it being boring part of creativity without turning it into angst anymore — and I say “anymore” because I used to do it — is that faith that the work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through me. And so when it’s not coming, and it’s not working, and it’s not being good, and I’m stuck in a problem around the creativity, it’s a very important shift in my life over the years to not think that I’m being punished or that I’m failing, but to think that this thing, this mystery that wants communion with me is trying to help me.

And it hasn’t abandoned me. It’s nearby. And it wants — it came to me for a reason. That’s what I always think when I’m working on a project and it’s not working. I think — I will speak to the idea and say, “You came to me for a reason.” But in the meantime, I’ll come to my desk every day with the faith that you are also at my desk every day.”

I have a literary debt to Gilbert. She has taught me to sit in discomfort whenever I can not solve a narrative problem in my own writing. She certainly does not wait for any inspiration to strike. Eat Pray Love and her six other best-seller books would have not flooded bookstores, had she waited for any inspiration to dictate her to write. Her work ethic reminded of a line from E.B. White, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

To enjoy the full conversation between Tippett and Gilbert on creativity, treat yourself with this podcast:

 

Also, do not forget to read Gilbert’s wise thoughts on self-kindness, and her Ted-talk is one of the things that have altered my relationship with creativity.

 

 

The Great Stoic Philosopher Seneca on the value of time

 

 

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Seneca. Via: (Classical Wisdom)

 

Something extraordinary happened last week. One of my favorite thinkers, and a self-proclaimed “human guinea pig” aka Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, gave away freely three volumes of pdf version of some of the most remarkable Stoic writing, starring Lucius Annaeus Seneca or Seneca the Younger. Seneca was born circa 4 BC in present day Spain, and grew up to be one of the most towering figures in the ancient Rome. From being a Nero’s advisor, successful playwright, one of the wealthiest people in the Roman empire, until he was being exiled to the island of Corsica for eight years on the premises of supposed adultery with the emperor’s niece; Seneca had experienced the sweet taste of success and the bitter taste of failure. 

In this first volume of the book titled The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master, there is a letter that shifted the way I think about the value of time. Written centuries ago for Seneca’s friend, Lucilious, the substance of this letter is timely and timeless, reminding us that our time in this world is very short and yet most people are squandering it as if it were replaceable. This letter is a poignant reminder of what we know so deeply but chronically fail to put into practice.

Seneca wrote:

“Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius–set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words–that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.”

Seneca was absolutely correct when he said, “Make yourself believe the truth of my words–that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach”. Sometimes we have tried to protect our time but once in a while something beyond our control steals it from our possession. It is normal and occurs all the time. However, Seneca, extracting exclusively from the core of stoicism, wanted us to think critically about the distinction between the things that we can control and we cannot control. Stoicism, the school of Hellenistic philosophy that was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, teaches us to accept what we cannot change, and control what we can control–ourselves and our responses.

Touching on humans’ chronic habit to procrastinate, Seneca wrote:

“Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.”

Thinking differently than Seneca, Adam Grant, one of the most influential management thinkers of the 21st century, has counter-intuitive thoughts on the topic of procrastination. In his recent remarkable book titled Originals: How Non-comformists Move The World argued that “strategic procrastination” is necessary to formulate more creative ideas.

 

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Grant, one of Fast Company’s 100 most creative people in business, wrote:

“Along with providing time to generate novel ideas, procrastination has another benefit: it keeps us open to improvisation. When we plan well in advance, we often stick to the structure we’ve created, closing the door to creative possibilities that might spring into our fields of vision.”

In another page of the book, Grant wrote:

“Great originals are great procrastinators, but they do not skip planning altogether. They procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities.”

His video below from Ted-Talk is a worth to watch.

 

 

Returning to our main topic, Seneca, he continued to speak about humans’ chronic habit to waste time. It is funny to ponder that we, humans, are heavily obsessed with protecting our replaceable material possessions such as cars, money, phones, from being lost and stolen. The irony is we are rarely thinking of protecting the most precious and irreplaceable resource that we have, which is our time. 

Seneca wrote:

“Nothing, Lucilious, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity–time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.”

 

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Seneca

 

Seneca, just like the rest of human beings, was far from perfect, but he knew how to articulate his imperfection. The rest of the letter he spoke about his own failure to be in control of his own time and continued to offer his unshakeable truth about the value of time to his dear friend, Lucilious. He wrote:

“You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practicing. I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of may who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile. Farewell.”

 

 

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The Death of Seneca, 1773 – Jacques-Louis David. Via: (Wikiart.org)

 

 

Elizabeth Gilbert on self-kindness

 

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Elizabeth Gilbert

 

In conversation with Krista Tippett of Onbeing, the phenomenal writer of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, shared her life-changing experience of four months she spent in India that taught her about self-kindness and letting go of self-loathing that had been a toxic for her life for years. We falsely often equate self-kindness with weakness. To Gilbert, without self-kindness or as she would say, “friendliness towards our selves”, the road to self-transformation might be a little harder to attain, or even unattainable. 

Ms. Tippett: . . .what are you learning about that you did not know before about what it means to be human?

Ms. Gilbert: . . .I feel like everything we want is on the other side of this dark river of self-hatred that is so prevalent in ourselves and in our culture. . .And I see self-loathing everywhere I look in so many different forms. And it’s so — it breaks my heart. And I also know self-loathing because I have been in it. Anybody who’s been in depression knows what self-hatred is. In many ways, depression is — the best definition of it is anger turned inward. So, there’s this battle that’s going on within you where you become a rival of yourself and an enemy of yourself. And what transformed my life about that journey that I took with Eat, Pray, Love were those four months that I spent in India where I had to be alone with myself, and we really made a peace accord. And when I say myself, I should say my selves. Because we’re not a self, we’re selves.

And one by one, I really went around to all my selves and we shook hands and made peace with each other and said, “We’re not going to operate against each other anymore. This has got to be a better neighborhood to live in. [laughs] We have to put down the weapons. We have to put down the old complaints. We have to put down the perfectionism. We have to put down the judgement. We have to put this stuff away because we’re doing such tremendous harm to this poor being, Liz, who has to carry this war around within her.” And so, I really came away from that trip having befriended — and the word “friendly” — I keep using it in this in conversation. And I use it a lot.

[. . .]

Ms. Gilbert:. . . That you’re a friend not only to the world, but to yourself. And there, you can find your way home, I think, in almost all circumstances. I hope. [laughs] Because I don’t know any other way. And that’s the best I’ve got.

To enjoy the full transcript of this remarkable conversation, please visit: (OnBeing)

The full podcast is below, exploring Gilbert’s insightful ideas on how to live a creative life which she describes as “choosing curiosity over fear”.