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.

Love it or hate it, continuing education is one thing that most professions share. When I practiced law, I did my share (I had to), and much of it, I’m pleased to recall, was pretty good.

As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for the chance to improve my skills, preferably in an entertaining way. That opportunity made its way to my inbox a few weeks ago, when I spotted an online class aimed at writing successful profiles. People profiles are in the wheelhouse of Arizona Attorney Magazine, the price was right, the location (my own desk) sounded good, so I signed on.

I was glad I did. Hosted by Poynter’s News University, it offered great faculty: Jan Winburn, Senior Editor for Enterprise at CNN.com.

Jan Winburn, CNN.com

You can read more about the Poynter Institute here.

One of the first things that charmed me in the webinar was Winburn’s willingness to use humor and to salt her webinar with attention-catching content. Here, for instance, is something that scrolled by my screen during the session.

Tolstoy? In a writing webinar? Excellent. Anyone who would refer to that master storyteller had my attention.

Poynter promised a few things for those who enrolled (always a dangerous practice for CE providers), and Winburn came through on all counts:

  • How to avoid profile clichés: the Heroic Do-gooder, the Freak of the Week
  • How to distill the larger meaning
  • How to report for character and complexity, choices and consequences, action and detail
  • Every profile is really a quest
  • Vulnerabilities make characters more appealing

I completed the webinar and went back to work. But not six hours after the education, I found myself reading a New Yorker Magazine profile of renowned photographer Thomas Struth, written by Janet Malcolm. It’s called “Depth of Field: Thomas Struth’s Way of Seeing.” (Here’s the opening spread.)












Later that week, I flipped forward 18 pages in the magazine and came across a second profile, this one by Peter Hessler. It’s titled “Dr. Don: The Life of a Small-Town Druggist.”

Illustration by Ben Katchor

I must add that I actually read these profiles in the print magazine—old-school, I know, but I enjoy reading a paper version when a long profile awaits my gaze. As I have said before, print magazines are a pleasure to hold, scan and share—which is why I love this cartoon.

(In any case, I have provided links to the articles, but it appears you may only be able to read an extensive abstract of Malcolm’s article. But all of Hessler’s profile is there for the reading.)

Malcolm and Hessler immersed themselves in their subjects, and their approaches could not have diverged any farther if they had tried.

I enjoyed both, but I found myself distracted by the number of times Malcolm inserted herself into her piece. I can appreciate the occasional use of “I” when the writer adds true value by calling attention to herself; in that regard, I am not so old-fashioned that I think the word must be banished from writing. But too much use crosses a line.

In contrast, Hessler painted a full and rich portrait of a man and his community. The writer was clearly present in his commitment to the story, but he was not present in the final story—save one important moment, very late in the profile.

Writing a person’s profile is a privilege and a nail-biter—after all, you might fail to capture the person entirely. You must decide whether the facts and instances you’ve compiled are signifiers of something greater and all-encompassing about the person—or if they are mere and occasional facts. Given that, I tip my hat to both Malcolm and Hessler, who crafted compelling stories out of the bits and pieces of individuals’ lives, some parts shared generously by the subjects, and others pried from them unwillingly. Ultimately, though, we readers all have our preferences.

What do you like in a profile? Have you read an article about a person, prestigious or otherwise, that set you back on your heels, or that yielded a view that surprised? Have you read a profile that you could recommend to someone who’s always looking to improve his own writing?

On Wednesday, I took my version of a spa day. Well, not quite. But I did clean my glasses.

The truth is less pitiful (and gnarly) than it sounds. True, it wasn’t much of a getaway (in fact, I sat at my desk as I did it). But the minute or so it took served to remind me of the importance of pushing back and taking a breather. And that led to even more good things.

Happy Change of Venue Friday. As the weekend comes upon us, I am happy to report that my glasses-cleaning vacay provided a residue of relaxation from which I’m still benefiting 48 hours later. And it can work for you too.

The action of cleaning eyewear may (or may not) get you jazzed, but my resulting good feelings flowed from doing something typical in a way that was atypical. Let me explain.

Usually, I gaze through lenses that give me a hazy view of the world, to put it mildly (and that is not always a bad thing). Try as I might to keep my glasses pristine, the day’s travails inevitably take their toll, and I’m back to Blurs-ville.

And when I do clean them, it’s typically just a quick swipe with my shirt-front or a (clean) handkerchief. (Young reader, ask an old reader about this “handkerchief”). The result is eyewear only slightly less smudged.

Wednesday, though, I pushed back from my overflowing desk and opened a lower drawer. There, gazing at me balefully, was the clear plastic packet that included the finest tools to clean your glasses: 

  • A “specially-formulated” solution to spray on the lenses
  • A towel made of a NASA-type fiber with antimicrobial something, or antioxidant something else.

I’m not sure what’s in that little towel, but here’s what I know: It’s really swoopy smooth. So smooth that I’m not sure why they don’t make entire robes out of the fabric.

Anyway, though the cleaning kit sits a foot away from me, I rarely use it. But on Thursday, I zipped it open and got to cleaning.

A marvel. That’s what it was. I could see clearly. And my conclusion after the 60 seconds of lens sanitation? I deserve this. Oh yeah.


So pleased was I with the larger result—a feeling of calm—that I set to work cleaning my desktop. Within the hour, I had refiled or discarded a mass of orphan papers. My desk was clear, and my day improved dramatically.

Your results may vary, but ignore dirty lenses at your peril. After all, each of us has work to do, and you might worry that the 60-second vacation may cause you to lose a brief moment of productivity.

Comfy chairs await me.

More likely, doing your work in a new way may cause increased productivity. Today, I’ve committed to moving from my standard-issue swivel-type chair to a perch across my desk—into one of my more inspirational guest chairs. Not for the whole day, but for at least a portion.

As I recline in a seat I got from IKEA on deep discount, I will read, write and edit, all as usual. But my viewpoint will shift—and so might my work’s result.

Have a great weekend.