Journalism, exquisite torment

by Jeff McMahon on March 25, 2011

Publicity still from the movie 'The Hunger' with Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie.

Those eyes. She’s starting to crave her next story.

I left the daily life of journalism at the turn of the Century, just before the daily life of journalism collapsed. That left me feeling a bit like Charlie Chaplin, who sold all his stocks in 1928.

Since then I’ve maintained journalism as a practice more cyclically, and less cynically, focusing more on reporting and writing during Spring and Summer months, focusing more on teaching during Fall and Winter.

Whenever I’m away from journalism for any spell of days it tugs at me like the junk. I dream of it, writing stories in my sleep. I recall its abundant glories—the hound-dog lust of a good story, of being completely possessed by its scent, an utter servant first to its research and then to its succinct and potent expression, the clear telos of the capture, the deadline, the splash of it all crashing in the morning on the doorstep.

With increasing nostalgia I recall the culture of the brick and mortar newsroom, with its pica poles and sizing wheels and red wax pencils, its radioactive terminals, its rogues and ruffians, its paupers and poets, its blunt seekers and speakers of truth. I’ve had the pleasure of rubbing elbows with power brokers, politicians, academics, courtiers… and that experience has made me love journalists all the more. As a culture, they shoot straight.

But there is a darker side to journalism that those imperious cravings sublimate. Often when we’re owned by a story like a hound on the scent we’re not thinking at all about the next story, the one we have to write as soon as tomorrow.

Five minutes beyond that satisfying slap of the paper on the doorstep the hunger begins anew: what’s next? What have you written lately? And if that hunger isn’t fast sated, it can turn a gruesome green—into a shaking, salivating starve.

In an enterprise in which writing has a shelf life of a week, or a day, or—these days—a few hours before it lines the proverbial birdcage, we know too well we’re only as good as what we published a minute ago.

This is why experienced journalists keep a notebook full of next stories. It’s not to be diligent workers with pride in their productivity. It’s to stave off the stark emptiness, the sheer fear, the junk sick, as Burroughs would call it—the hunger.

Amanda March 30, 2011 at 8:24 am

Just saw this, Jeff — brilliant. I can only imagine the hunger one feels as a daily journalist. As a poet, the hunger’s there all the same, but we tend to grow to love that gnarl, that growl. In any case, that gruesome green’s akin to sea sickness. That “stark emptiness, the sheer fear” is what keeps us writing. The trick for me has been attempting to live each day as the story, and let it unfold. I do keep notes, notes are like little nibbles of story-bread. Thanks for writing this, it instigates, alleviates, all at once.

Jeff McMahon March 30, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Instigates, alleviates… it’s the exquisite torment of a life of writing, isn’ it, Amanda. Maybe this helps with a conversation I’ve been having with another correspondent about what a writer is. She writes, and beautifully, but says she’s not a writer. There are those we all know who call themselves writers but don’t write. Maybe exquisite torment is the crucible.

Amanda March 30, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Yes, maybe its not the words themselves but the power of that hunger to find them that makes one a writer — the obsession, preoccupation, caginess, even? I remember when I started writing poems people lovingly told me that I always knew the right thing to say. I was flattered, but really I thought, and still do, that the reason I started writing is because I rarely have the right words, never know quite what to say, and poetry is the road trip to life’s great amusement park of true feelings. Thanks for the conversation.

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