06 July 2007

My one-woman think tank

There’s a certain jaunty, I-did-it-so-you-can-too attitude all too present in magazine writing today, in which writers report on their adventures, now older and wiser and having not only accomplished feats of derring-do but spent the reflective time required to arrange them into a meaningful pattern that can illustrate some broader principle for the rest of us. We can only read with our mental jaws dropped, almost the way we watch television, saying to ourselves again and again, I wish I had thought of that!

I felt so misanthropic as soon as I advanced my magazine-unit theory. I've decided that what bugs me about magazines and newspapers is this presumption that a story is always supposed to fit into specific shapes and sizes: the survey pieces; the instructional articles, helpfully broken into chronological steps for you to follow; the confessionals, column-length and up; the photo essay detailing the lifestyle of People More Beautiful Than Us Who Look Like They Have Solved the Problems We Still Haven't.

Most of the queries I start write turn into one of these forms. I’ve had enough of that, though – I don’t want to write puff, or stuff that offers a false confidence in order to win yours. I am starting to seek out alternate forms of expression, ideas that go beyond genre, fiction or nonfiction, voices that don’t hew so closely to category but sound like themselves.

Perhaps that’s what rocks most about this blogging phenomenon. You can just decide what you want to do, do it, and it is what it is, not screened and sorted according to subject or whether it’s true or not.

Reading the second book of an author I'm liking, I wondered what I would do if I had a think tank working for me. I am drawn to the image of the professional novelist with a research staff (much the same as I am to the photographer with the staff who helps develop his sets and set up his shots), and I thought, what an interesting question to ask people in different walks of life: How much is enough? How much GDP growth does a country need to continue to stay viable? How much rainforest is enough? How much does a band need to tour and sell records to stay afloat? How much love is enough for a baby? How much cake is enough for a five-year-old? It would make a fun documentary. I think about that question all the time in so many ways. I personally would like to ask people like Jeffrey Skilling how much is enough for them. How many vacation homes are enough? How much salary? And what fun it would be (if a little mean and obvious) to juxtapose his answers with those of a single mother of small children living in low-income housing, or the answers of an immigrant picking peaches in western Colorado.

How much is enough?

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