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.

On the last day of a calendar year, it is commonplace for folks to take stock of their lives and resolve to do things differently in the coming year.

Yeah, right.

Don’t get me wrong. Aspirations are astounding. Goals are great. Resolutions are really, really remarkable.

But in my case this year, I need only look to my holiday presents to see what paths I have been treading. For it is my loved ones, you see, who took stock of me for me—and wrapped it up in bows.

On this last Change of Venue Friday of the year, let me tell you about three of those gifts.

The first came from our older daughter, Willa. She got me the book “The Best of Roald Dahl.”

I love Dahl, and a collection of his seriously askew tales is a great gift. But Dahl is not known for having been a fabulously cheery individual. And his stories tend to share the darker side of the human experience.

The cover squib trumpeted the fact that the author’s work was famously “nasty and wicked.” The first story I read featured a female main character who, by the fourth page, had killed her husband. By hitting him. In the head. With a piece of meat. Specifically, a frozen leg of lamb.

Put that in the category of “things that make me go hmmm.”

Next was a charming gift from our younger daughter, Thea. It appeared to be a beautiful pen, something I could use every day.

On closer inspection I could see a black ribbed crown. Pushing it caused the pen to vibrate.

A wondrous massage pen, the package announced. The perfect gift for those filled with stress.

So now I could write stories filled with Sturm und Drang, and then use my pen to obliterate it.

Hmmm, I thought. Nasty and wicked. Stress-filled. What could be next?

The last exhibit of evidence is a book I was given by our good friends. This last may be enough to convince the jury that my ways need mending.

The gift was a book by David Rakoff titled “Half Empty.” Rakoff “defends the commensensical notion that you should always assume the worst, because you’ll never be disappointed.” The book is his attempt to address the fact that “There seem[s] no longer to be any room in the discourse for anything but the sunniest outlook.”

In the first story, titled “The Bleak Shall Inherit,” Rakoff taps “deeply into the churlish vein,” concluding that “as best as I can determine, the universe cares not one jot for you or me.”

Rakoff acknowledges that “in the pessimist’s view of reality, there is often little difference between ‘worst possible outcome’ and ‘outcome.’”

Well, happy holidays to you, too.

Of course, friends and family know me well.  I am consuming the books and using the pen—both to shake the world with my thoughts and to massage my forehead.

But after all the gift-giving, I was glad all over again that my wife and I decided long ago not to exchange Christmas gifts. I had had enough with the peering into my heart of darkness, and I was not eager to have someone who knows the trail so well start spelunking in there. We’ll leave deeper excavation for 2011.

Have a great weekend.