David Remnick, The New Yorker editor in chief who carves out time to write

David Remnick, The New Yorker editor in chief who carves out time to write

The role of magazine editor ain’t exactly digging ditches, as a sometime-friend has advised me. And he’s right: My work tasks never involve picks, hoes or laying pipe. A fellow appreciates that, especially when the Phoenix temperatures hit 116 or so.

But (you knew a “but” was coming) sometimes when I face a stack of documents requiring close scrutiny, or when I have to somehow trim a lawyer’s sentence that is as long as a page, or when I must decide whether an attorney’s success on the tennis court is really (really?) worthy of inclusion in the People column … then, I begin to gaze out the window into the shimmering heat island and think, That’s not so bad.

Of course, that’s just temporary insanity, because I’m always able to remind myself of an important fact: Despite an ever-flexible list of “Other Tasks as Assigned,” I am, to a large extent, paid to write. So, dammit, stop gazing out the window.

That fantastic job benefit comes to mind on this Change of Venue Friday, as I think about the recent new-President profile I was privileged to write last month. And I am reminded every year that although that annual profile holds its challenges, it never fails to be a rush to interview people about important matters, and then to transform those conversations into something—occasionally—revealing.

The “revealing” part of the profile-writing job can make you feel you’re on a ledge, let me tell you. For it is straightforward enough to put someone’s resume into narrative form—and I’ve done that, when on a short deadline. But to go beyond, and to say something essential and insightful about a person, requires a large investment of time and energy. It requires that a writer become so conversant about the subject that she or he can confidently draw some conclusions—conclusions that may not be inked in the four corners of a notepad, or uttered in the stream of anecdotes from secondary interviews.

Besides the views into Bar leaders, I’ve gotten quite a few chances to write profiles, and I always feel like I have more to learn. And one way I aim to learn is by reading as many profiles as I can. One of my favorite spots to locate fantastic, rip-out-and-save profiles is The New Yorker. I routinely find myself drawn into a profile on a topic or on a person for whom I have had zero interest before I opened the magazine. But before I know it, I’ve encountered a new favorite “true story.”

The idea of the best profile being a “true short story” is an ideal, and it comes from a terrific magazine editor. If you have a few minutes on this Friday, watch this brief video with David Remnick, New Yorker editor in chief, on “The Art of the Profile.” I have to agree with his assessment of how fortunate the profile-writer is. For, as he points out, writing is an opportunity to carve something artful from what is almost always a mundane task-list of a day. Much better than ditch-digging.

If you’re in a hurry, here is some of Remnick from the video:

“Let me be honest with you: You’re failing all the time, all day long, all week long, all year long. And when you can write something, and publish something, do something out of the ordinary, that is a little funny, or a little insightful, or more artful, maybe—maybe maybe maybe—you don’t disappoint. I think constant disappointment is a very good spur to sometimes doing something halfway decent.”

“If you’re really self-satisfied all the time, you probably are a lousy writer.”

Or a lousy lawyer, chef, or ditch-digger, I would guess.

(Remnick reminds me of writer David Rakoff, who passed away this week. Among many things, Rakoff was the author of Half Empty, a paean to pessimism.)

Let’s hear it for the creative power of disappointment! I wish for you an unsatisfying—but creative—weekend.