"Reporting/Writing/Editing: Telling the Untold Story"


JoAnn Wypijewski

Former of The Nation


Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series

November 19, 2001



There are a million untold stories.  One of them is about love. So I'm going to tell a kind of story about love this afternoon, but first I'm going to read something:


It was not so long ago, perhaps three generations, that among peoples of the Pacific the Marshall Islanders were still known for the skill they perfected at least a thousand years before the Europeans first ventured into the great sea. "Navigators of the Pacific," they set out in boats whose hulls they had carved from breadfruit trees, with sails woven of pandanus leaves, pulling on rope made from the central rib of coconut-palm fronds, and plotting their course by curious charts, delicate and complex, made of wooden strips crisscrossed to mark the position of the land and the direction of the wind. Before there was compass or sextant, they traveled to other countries and among their own lands -- some 1,200 tiny outcroppings in the Central Pacific, only four exceeding one square mile in area, all awash in 750,000 square miles of ocean -- navigating by the reflected or refracted patterns of waves. The sea was their common highway' the heavens, the common source of winds and the longs waves; the land, the common sustenance of the people, who too kindly shared it with the Spanish, the Germans, the Japanese, and, finally, the Americans.


The foreigners' relics exist beneath the waves as graveyards for warships, planes, and unlucky soldiers, and on land as moldering bunkers or scars along the throats of unlucky Marshallese. Spain called itself the islands' discoverer in the sixteenth century but largely ignored them, casting its most covetous glances northward, to Guam, the Marianas, and the Philippines. Britain's Captain Marshall named them for himself and, he thought, the empire in 1788, before he realized that they'd already been claimed, but somehow the name stuck. Missionaries came and brought muumuus. Germany came and brought beer and the money trade, annexing the islands in 1885. Japan seized them unopposed at the start of the First World War and brought rice and roads, then arms, ultimately making them the center of its Pacific fleet in World War II. It's arguable who brought war exactly, but when the firing stopped the United States was in charge, and it brought soda pop and nuclear tests, sixty-seven of them between 1946 and 1958, hence cancer, hence those scars. Then it brought radars and missile tests, anthropologists and the cash economy. Now on the Marshallese atoll of Kwajalein, planes from America disgorge another generation of engineers and contractors and government personnel. They are the testers for National Missile Defense, sometimes called Star Wars, sometimes Son of Star Wars. Beside the runway on which they disembark are vestiges of decontamination showers, where U.S. airmen scrubbed down after flying through mushroom clouds over Bikini and Enewetak, while in the wind's path from ground zero native children whirled with delight as fallout fell like snow.  [from Harper's, December 2001]


Now that is the beginning of a story of mine that Harper's will publish next month. It was meant, like all leads, to be a seduction. It was also meant, like all leads, to solve a problem. In this case, the problem of getting people who might think they could never be interested in reading a story about National Missile Defense to read on. But I did not read it out today to seduce you, except in the sense that it's always good to begin a talk with a story or a joke, and I'm not particularly good at jokes.  I read it because at the time of writing, it was also meant to do something else. It was meant to seduce me, in a way. It was meant to make me happy. It was meant to win my love.  And I have read it a hundred times now -- in my house, alone, out loud (because I always read my stories out loud to myself as I write them) -- and I still love it. For our purposes here, it doesn't matter why, and I wouldn't expect you all to agree.  The point is that a person writes for a lot of reasons. She writes for money, or for adventure, or to change opinions, or to change the world (at least someday).


And here, as an aside, I have to say that what the students at Northwestern University have done to thwart, or at least stop, the machine of death in the form of the death penalty, is absolutely phenomenal, and must count as one of the great efforts of modern American journalism. That in itself makes me honored and humbled to be here.


So we go love to death, death to love -- only the big issues here.


Back to writing, for whatever other reasons one has for doing it, every piece of writing is also an act of love.  And it's complicated and scary and messy, the way love is. You may have noticed that I didn't use the word "wonderful." And of course it's that too but right now I'm not so interested in telling you that writing is a glorious profession. I remember when I was in journalism school, one of our professors, he welcomed every first class by telling us that, and it has made me suspicious of journalism and journalism school ever since.


And I'm not interested in all the sappy evocations of getting just the right word, getting just the right quote, finding just the right source, assembling all the special, maybe eccentric, tools, the Rolling Writers and yellow pads and Underwood upright typewriters -- blah, blah, blah, you've heard all that. So right now I'm interested in writing as an act of love, and writing as an act of self-exposure. Writing as a risk. Writing as an act of vulnerability that's expressed and also restrained, of discovery and doubt and, alas, rejection -- and risk-taking all over again.


Why do we look for love? Because we need it, of course. Because we want, we want, we want. We want more. We want to know more, and to be more. We are curious -- "Who is this person? How many layers can I penetrate? How much can I learn?" We want to discover the soul of another, and in the process, our own. We want to experiment, to prance around a bit, to perform, to have no need of performance, to feel safe, to feel on the razor's edge. We want all of these things.  Mostly we want that moment of absolute exposure, that moment where all the armor is dropped, and -- crucially, I think, if we're honest -- we want to witness the loved one in perfect weakness. You know that look, that look of captive honesty. "Here I am; please don't hurt me."  Transcendence, it's terrifying.


I'll leave you to draw all the correspondents; such as they are, in the realm of writing. The idea, the elaboration of the idea, it's pursuit, the blind alleys, the open doors, the approach to another person -- hesitant, confident, hesitant. "Why on earth should they talk to me?"  "Why on earth shouldn't they?" "Well, you know why they shouldn't." Would you talk to me? And so on. The magic of serendipity.  The thrill of learning for the hundredth of thousandth or hundred thousandth time that if you talk to someone long enough in the right way, you will always be rewarded.


Then, of course, the blank page. The false starts. The experiments that succeed, and those that fall flat. The surprises you give yourself; the passage you look upon later, in some moment of absolute despair, the moment when you have just about convinced yourself that you are certainly as dumb as a stone and life lacks all meaning, and there's no going forward -- and there it is: this beautiful sentence, or, if you're lucky, this beautiful collection of sentences. Then you say:


"Who wrote that? It couldn't have been me."


"But it was you."


"It will never happen again."


"It will happen again."


So you go through this agonizing -- ok, wonderful -- courtship, and there you are with the object and product of your love, this story.  And maybe you're a little guarded; you're a little bashful.


"No, don't look at it; no, do."


And maybe you're really proud, and you read it, out loud, to everyone you trust -- the equivalent of the first dinner party, the coming out. And then you remember that life conspires against love. And then you meet the editor. And the editor's love might be different from your love. Now, I was an editor for 18 years, and I certainly did my share of disabusing writers of the notion that their stories were perfect objects of beauty. But I also was lucky to have worked with some beautiful, passionate writers who really did love their work, and that experiences taught me, over the years that I have to share in that love.  I have to share in their experience.  I have to try to match their love and joy and spirit.


And when I say the editor's love might be different from the writer's love, I mean that quite literally. As an editor once said to me, "I love all the words. I just want them in a different places." That's like your mother saying, "I love Harry. I just wish he were a lawyer, not a union organizer; I wish he were white, not black; I wish he talked this way and not that way."


But then, of course, he wouldn't be Harry.


But we are in a profession where it is essentially taken for granted that, in the end, the editor's love counts for more. The editor pays the money.  The editor buys your love, as it were. The editor gets to make Harry into Wilberforce ("but of course you we'll still call him Harry if you like"). And you as a writer have to fight for your love. And maybe, in the course of that fight, you turn Harry into Harold. But then you think: At least it's not Wilberforce.  But it's not Harry either.  And your love is diminished. Your love is partial. Maybe it's broken altogether.


Now, I'm not saying editors don't often have good ideas, or aren't often helpful, or don't make things better, because they sometimes do. But I really wish we could overturn is this notion that there is some objective standard, and that standard must be the province of the editor (unless the author is very famous -- at the Nation they used to call them "the untouchables" -- we weren't supposed to touch a word. But I always did. But in that case, they're untouchable, and the editor abdicates all responsibility. Why? Because even though the editor pays the money, even though the editor buys the love, as it were, the fame of the author trumps the editor's money.


Again and again, I read stories in magazines, and there's a jolting transition, or a hurried, confused ending, or a lead that seems precious and beside the point, when you get to page 6 and think "Ah, there's the lead." And the remarkable thing is that time and again I find out from the writer, or a friend of the writer, or the gossip line. You find out, that in fact, that story did originally start on page 6. You weren't crazy. It wasn't the lack of editorial credentials; it was the wrong kind of editorial credentials. Then that the transitions are awkward because of what was removed, what was fought over; that the ending is hurried and confused because as the process dragged on everyone, editor and writer, tired of the struggle and as one friend of mine put it, "Everything's been compromised out."


What I wish is that the business -- and writers are complicit in this, because we accept it -- could distinguish between an actual mistake and a matter of taste. To distinguish between how someone chooses to tell a story, because it's part of who they are and what they feel and where they come through the story.  The story is a process, there's a history of it, and you lose the story.  I wish that those things could be given more respect than I think they are.  The whole business is organized in a way that "Of course the editor can tear this apart.  Of course he can move this around. Of course they can just redeploy those sections as per their taste.


I wish we could come to respect what a fragile thing love is.  I don't think this is just some metaphor for the sake me having to have a subject to talk on today.  I really think this is what it is. This is why you do it.  You don't make very much money.  It's a very hard life. You struggle and you struggle.  It's hard.  You're in your room, you're at your desk, and there's this piece of paper, and you can't call the assistant. I was an editor for years, and I could say "Do this job," and I could pass it off. You can't pass it off. So it is your blood, and your sweat, and all your tears.  All your tears, all your passions, all your feelings are there, woven into the story. It's love, and it's fragile and delicate.  I wish we could have better respect for how fragile it is, and how idiosyncratic it could be, and should be. I wish we could embrace Chekhov's philosophy -- just to create, to show, and leave the people, the audience, to decide whether it is good or bad.


Some years ago I was doing this project with the Russian conceptual artists named Komar and Melamid.  It was this poll of the American people on what they wanted in art. It was this crazy idea, but it worked on a lot of levels.  Partly it was to obscure the idea of a poll-driven society.  A society in which President Clinton can poll everyday to decide what foreign policy should be, what domestic policy should be; really big questions that affect people's lives in a very tangible way.  The artists, who were very , said why don't we poll the art world .  The art world  In a way


So they asked what did they want next.  But one of the other things, what would people say? Because no one had ever asked before.  The results were very interesting, almost magical, because people did have things to say. The whole project resulted in the book which I put together, Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art."


In it, I did a long interview with the artists and in the course of it, one of them, Alex Melamid, said:


"What is taste? What is good taste? Is it something that just exists among some special people? There's real taste and acquired taste, but either way it has nothing to do with quality, because taste is a matter of love, not a matter of art. You can fall in love with a very bad picture, by some standards, just like you can fall in love with a very ugly woman. But that's your love; it's something inside of you. You do not love this woman because she is better or worse than all other women, objectively speaking. You love her and then you like what you love."


I thought this was a great line.  We could go on and argue afterwards about quality and fairness, and good and bad and all that, but just as an interesting aside, when I turned this book in, this particular passage doesn't suggest as much as some others do the particular way of using the English language that Kelmar and Melamid have. How they're foreign speakers and you have these periods of putting words together and they sometimes mess up the tenses and all. 


And the editor said: This is all very fine, very funny, very good. Maybe though clean up all the language with standard English. And the top it had a little note that said he's speaking like an idiot. We have cleaned it up for the sake of the reader.


It was just unbelievable.  Everything about the way they talk is transferred to what they're saying. You can't separate them. You can't love the words and just put them in different places. You can't take the accents away. You can't endlessly reconstruct the piece. You can't endlessly move pieces around.  There is a logic to the story.  There is a heart and a soul to the story.  I think we need to stress that better.  And, you know, if the editors want to go out and buy Harry a new suit of clothes, or give Harry a haircut, that's fine.  But just let Harry be Harry. 


Thank you.




Copyright 2001 JoAnn Wypijewski. All rights reserved