Sunday, March 26, 2006

We're Three Years Old

Three years ago today, I distinctly remember thinking that things had hit a crossroads.

That was true for me personally, as well as for my country. A week earlier, the U.S. military had marched into a war in Iraq that really didn’t make much sense, and need not have happened. At least that's what I thought then, and nothing has changed my mind since.

As for me, I was burned out and bummed out. I was flat-out depressed about the state of journalism in my hometown, with so-called “alternative weeklies” gone all to hell (becoming part of chains and often acting as clueless and lost as the big corporate media they were created to critique and challenge). It had forced me a few years before that to begin to seriously investigate web-based publishing as a way around those hurdles. I'd been bewitched by its possibilities ever since the mid-'90s, at least since reading a long piece in my favorite magazine, the New Yorker, written by one of my favorite writers, Ken Auletta, about one of my favorite people, Michael Kinsley.


In this illuminating piece, Auletta brilliantly described how the longtime print legend (who had been editor of The New Republic in its glory days) went on a voyage of discovery about the possibilities of web publishing, as founding editor of Slate.com. I soon spent almost a year, mostly self-funded when I didn't have much in the way of funds, further investigating that and how I might do it myself. That led to a couple of wild ventures finding me, including one (archived here) in which I briefly oversaw a half-million editorial budget to develop web content. It ran out of venture funding quickly, but not before I had absorbed about 60 years worth of education about the web in six months. That, and another later venture proved to be too big and too fancy. All I really needed or wanted was to publish my own writing on the web, but it didn't seem to be in the cards. I went back to other things.

My work was suffering, though. Three years ago, I was beginning to drift off in different directions, some more interesting than others. But there was little coherence to the various things I was doing. Most importantly, I was bringing no joy to the work, and it showed.

Still, I continued to read widely from the web. On March 26th of '03, I noticed that Gary Hart had begun a blog. I knew it was time for me to do the same—I figured I had at least as much to say, and lots more experience saying it (he’s long since given up and gone on to other things). With the free tools now available, I didn't need a webmaster or a budget. All I had to do was pay for my own time with other projects, which I knew I could do.

But what to call it?

I spent precious little time thinking about that. I wanted a name that would be large enough to cover most of what I did and cared about, but still specific enough to give readers a sense of what they could expect from the experience. On some level, I think I also at least dimly understood that this name could well become the name under which my entire writing practice (which includes journalism, the right bit of judiciously selected marketing communications, book ghostwriting, teaching and mentoring) could one day be housed. After possibly five minutes of thinking about it, I chose Working With Words. While I didn’t know what I was beginning, I still knew enough to understand that it would be an adventure of sorts, and that it would all be pursued squarely in the spirit of my uber mentor, Bill Zinsser. And so in my first entry I nodded to both.

I have of course written of many things in the three years since I began, but this entry on April 10th, just two weeks into it, brought them all together, in a kind of pleasing harmonic convergence. I noted that a single discordant voice in the media, NPR correspondent Ann Garrels, seemed at odds with the rest of her media colleagues in describing the scene in Iraq. It went like this:



The world and all its media are awash today in images of victory in Baghdad, and they all seem to center on that now-famous toppled statue of Saddam. It led all the newschannels, was repeated on continuous loop on the 24-hour cable stations, and a color photo was above the fold of today's N.Y. Times, once known as the "gray lady" before switching to color not so very long ago.That single image, of course, was supplemented by all the related scenes of crowds jubilantly whooping it up, kissing each other and U.S. soldiers when they weren't hauling off as much looted booty as they could carry. You had to look, watch or listen pretty hard to find a subtler reality that wasn't remotely consistent with what you thought you had learned from all those TV and even print images. The veteran war correspondent Anne Garrels, asked this morning on NPR about the mood in Baghdad, said that actually the city's mood was "subdued," and that most people were actually fearful, largely staying home in worried anticipation of what might happen next. And so it would seem that in a vast city of about five million people (roughly the size of Philadelphia), all those celebratory photos and TV footage didn't really suggest the larger reality. Sorry, I hate to be a contrarian here, but I'll have to trust the veteran Anne G.--whom I've watched and listened to for perhaps 20 years, and who is forced because of the medium in which she works to go well beyond the compelling visual image--to tell me what's really going on there.


Today, I especially like that entry, not only because it seems at least a tad prophetic, but also because it shows that we can discern much about life and about the future, if only we know which voices to listen to more closely than others. Ann Garrels later went on to write a fine book about the war. But she typifies the kind of experienced journalistic voice, armed with a finely tuned BS detector, a deep sense of history and an independent streak that forces her to do her own homework, that Working With Words likes to celebrate. And her home, NPR, one of the ever-shrinking number of places that still encourages those things, has only gotten better since (thank you, Mrs. Krok). Which is why I like to celebrate that organization every chance I get.

I’ve used this forum to call attention to great writing and storytelling, to encourage those who are just beginning to those at the top of their games, from people I know to those I’d only admired as a reader. I’ve tested my beliefs, advocated on behalf of a few causes and institutions I like, thought out loud, and posed questions I was myself trying to answer. In the process, I've found a few answers, but even more interesting questions. These things travel in circular rather than linear fashion, after all.

When, last fall, I added photos and the ability for readers to leave comments, it opened an entirely new window on this conversation. Now, I could add the haunting, ghostly visage of Thoreau to the words one day, or inject the face of the jaunty, eternally bemused Mark Twain the next. I could pepper the proceedings with the image of a cover from a book or magazine I wanted to recommend, or throw in Hillary Clinton's face just for the sheer bloody hell of it. And through the comments, I could let readers sound off directly on what they had just read, pose questions for me or others, or just say hello. And have they ever.

The viral nature of this medium, and the power of Google, has enlivened things immensely. Unlike just about every other blogger I’ve ever known or heard about, I have never known for a moment what my readership traffic is, how many people visit and when. But I hear from my audience in other ways. I'm constantly heartened by running into people who know me through my blog (and others who knew me from another life but have been reunited through stumbling over it). I’ve heard from New York Times reporters (during the power outage of August ’03) who wrongly assumed I was a techie just because I had a blog. I’ve even had the good fortune to have this blog be the missing link in returning some family heirlooms to a friend (he left them behind in his home after selling it, and the buyers had been trying to find him ever since. When I wrote about him, they found it through Google, and asked me to forward a note to him).

It’s a rare gift to be able to make one’s living from arranging words. No matter how long I do it, I’ll never take it for granted, not for a second. After all, I know too many people who dream of such a life. Judging from the writer’s magazines one flips through at the bookstore (and extrapolating from the writing conferences I've attended), there are literally millions in this country alone. While most of them may well harbor unreal notions of what such a life entails, there is no getting around the fact that those who can do it should count themselves among the truly blessed. And I do.

Someone once asked me when I decided I would become a writer, for which I had a stock answer: writers (myself included) tend to discover they are writers more than set out with a plan to become one. But the more I thought about it, the more pat that answer seemed to be, and the more I figured I owed someone a better answer next time. In time, I came to remember the first time I told someone about my writing plans.

It was more than 20 years ago, and I was in Italy with my then-girlfriend, now wife. We spent six gorgeous summer weeks backpacking through Europe, two weeks of it staying with my grandmother, in her 15th-century hilltop village overlooking the Adriatic. It was a place of impossible contrasts, with charming old women silently sweeping out the ancient church, the "Duomo" as they called it, seemingly in 24-hour volunteer shifts, while a few hundred yards below, thousands of German tourists outfitted in the latest fashions vied for an open spot on the beach to pitch their umbrellas.

I was taking it all in on a sun-soaked, windswept back porch of a distant cousin whom I had never met before, but who now seemed closer to me than a sister after just 48 hours together. And her mom, knowing I had graduated from college not long before, asked me about my career plans. The Abbruzi sky was cloudless that day, the Adriatic sea lapping at the coastline in all its azure-blue perfection.

“Escritor,” I said, making a squiggly motion with my fingers as if writing, just in case I had chosen the wrong word (as it turns out, I had added an “e” at the front that didn’t belong). I couldn’t have known what that really meant at the time, but there it was: I’d made my intentions public.

In the years since, the Lord has heaped more on my writing plate than I could have ever known to ask for in the first place. More humbling still, I have the feeling that this work is only just now beginning to get interesting, as I emerge from my more than two decades of writing apprenticeship—that long, painful march when one learns the basics of one's chosen trade--and begin taking things up a notch. And this modest piece of virtual real estate, Working With Words, has helped make it all happen. It's given focus to my work, tied together various strands and disparate audiences. It has nourished my many sides—writer, editor, teacher, critic, mentor and crank—even as it has helped me find new audiences and, best of all, has knitted me more closely with likeminded friends and fellow civic agitators/innovators. Our work and fun--there is no easy way to distinguish between the two--is only just beginning.

I’m looking forward to the next three years.

13 Comments:

At 6:48 PM, Blogger Ron Copfer said...

Ah, there's my buddy. This post reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Vaclev Havel...

The role of the writer is not simply to arrange Being according to his own lights; he must also serve as a medium to Being and remain open to its often unfathomable dictates. This is the only way the work can transcend its creator and radiate its meaning further than the author himself can see or perceive.

And as Anthony Robbins once told me...The strongest force in a human peronality is the need to remain consistent with how you define yourself.

To this end, you are surely succeeding beyond measure my friend. Keep up the good work.

 
At 8:13 PM, Blogger Jill said...

Happy Anniversary, John. Double the sentiments since you and Wendy Hoke were my inspirations.

 
At 3:49 AM, Blogger Sandy Kristin Piderit said...

Many happy returns of the day, John!

Do you have time for a tea/coffee date any time soon?

 
At 8:44 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Ron, that's some heavy-duty stuff. And I would love to some day see a picture of you standing next to that man-mountain Tony Robbins. That would be a keeper. Jill, inspiration is a two-way street. You rather inspire me, too. And Sandy, I haven't gotten an offer that good in years. I'll call you shortly to set something up. Thanks to you all for visiting and leaving some thoughts.

 
At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Roldo Bartimole said...

John, congratulations and continued courage of pursuit.

A little saying to your mission:

"Men are accomplices to that which leaves them indifferent."

 
At 11:48 AM, Blogger Wordsanctuary said...

A newer medium, such as a blog, can be energizing for a veteran writer. Thanks for writing about your drier spell with candor. Some creative people don't seem to acknowledge these...but new life can emerge from (despite?) them...

I also enjoyed the passing reference to backpacking in Europe decades ago and--in particular-- inspiration near the Adriatic.

The early stories of one's life as a writer are important.

 
At 10:33 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for that quote, Roldo. Isn't that the truth. Maria, that experience of backpacking through Europe with our Eurorail passes and our backpacks, sleeping at hostels, looms increasingly large in my memory the older I get. There's probably nothing else that comes close to that as memory glue between my wife and I. It's a life-changing experience to travel like that early in your life. It only leaves you wanting to see more.

 
At 9:24 PM, Anonymous MilesB said...

Congrats John. You sum up rather well the challenges and joys of the writer's life. And I, too, really liked the Adriatic story. I too spent a good part of a summer once discovering the Adriatic, only from the other side of the sea in Montenegro.

 
At 11:58 PM, Anonymous anton said...

Hooray for you, John. It's been a pleasure reading your blog, and I'm always inspired by your words here. Thank you, and keep up the great writing.

 
At 10:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you could write a marvelous, Italy Through the Back Door. I'm going to look for a writer's conference in Tuscany.

 
At 3:25 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Dear Anonymous, first I hope you'll feel free to share your name sometime, so I won't confuse you with fellow anonymous readers. More importantly, thanks for your nice comments. I think a writer's conference in Tuscany is a first-rate idea. Perhaps we'll go together some day (which is all the more reason for you to share your name, if you're comfortable doing so). Mostly, though, thanks for reading.

 
At 4:06 PM, Anonymous Anne said...

Hi! My name is Anne and I have recently become acquainted with your blog after reading an article you wrote in a publication I picked up from the library...while I don't remember the title of the publication, I think the article was titled something like, "A Few Men I'd Like to Thank"?

Florence is on my top 5 places to visit. I fear, however, that while I would be tingling with inspiration should I find a writer's conference in Tuscany, I would be most distracted. :)

In any event, I do enjoy your blog.

 
At 4:18 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Anne,
Many thanks for coming back and adding your name and your wonderful new details. I'm always especially happy to hear from readers who've followed me from print to online. Thanks for taking the time to do so.

And if you're reading that pub in which the column in question appeared (Cleveland Family is the name, by the way), I'm going to hazard a guess that you're a parent, though perhaps not. In any event, I do hope you experience both a visit to Italy and a writer's conference. If they happen to merge, fine, but they're equally wonderful, mind-expanding experiences.

I owe you another thanks: with your comments, you've reminded me of another subject I've been meaning to share here, but haven't yet: the first out of state writer's conference I ever attended (in Missouri). It changed my entire outlook, and gave me renewable spiritual fuel that's still in my gas tank after nearly 20 years.

 

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