As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I took part in a National Outdoor Leadership School backpacking trip three summers ago. I was on assignment for Inc. magazine, where I was a contributing editor. The idea was to tag along with an executive group that was doing the expedition as a team-building exercise; the story was my idea. I was committed to narrative nonfiction, and I thought of myself as a journalist.
The idea, then, was not for me have a personal experience, or at the least, to write about whatever I experienced personally, the idea was for me to write about what was happening to the people I was with. I did my job, and the story was, I think, a success. In any event, it was my favorite of all the magazine journalism I’d created.
But, it also the experience that made me uncomfortable with the entire nature of journalism. I stopped wanting to do it, then I stopped doing it — a career change that was eased by a coincidentally imploding magazine market. I asked to come off Inc.’s masthead.
For by the time I left for Wyoming, I knew that all stories were about conflict — or, rather, a character that experiences change through conflict. I had a stenopad with me on the trek, and the front side was filled with my observations of the conflicts and torments of “my subjects”, the words they spoke ( which I’d use for dialogue) and so on. At night, wearing a miner’s light, I’d flip the notebook over and from the back record my own thoughts and torments before I’d pass out. The notebook was about 7/8ths them and 1/8th me.
That’s about right for journalism, but as I wrote the story, and after it was published, I began to feel uncomfortable about this ratio. It began to seem rather vulture-ish to publicly and permanently chronicle the group’s conflicts and discomforts while staying silent on my own — displaying them publicly, protecting my privacy. They all knew that I was having an experience right along with them, but aside for a very few sentences, the rest of the world, or Inc.’s half a million readers or so, knew nothing of what had happened for me. For all they knew, I was just along for the ride, a bemused monarch observing her subjects.
Janet Malcolm is the one who famously said that journalists are always selling someone out* — I was aware of that, but I didn’t really get it until I wrote the NOLS story. She’s also recently confessed that she’s having a helluva time writing her own autobiography, which gets to my other, more practical problem with journalism: it forces the writer to disregard the material they have the most access to — what’s happening to her, inside her — in favor of trying to delve into the lives and thoughts of others.
In her essay On Keeping a Notebook, Joan Didion says that Jessica Mitford’s nanny would oft remind her charge “You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it.” This strikes me as unreasonable a stance as “objectivity”: there is absolutely no person in any room who does not think they’re the most important, and there is absolutely no one in the world who is objective and impartial. You can attempt to keep your prejudices at bay, and you can certainly be fascinated by something or someone other than yourself. You can tell a story that is not yours. But you can’t escape the confines of the self. To think otherwise is certainly delusion, and to write stories that labor under that delusion…well, I just couldn’t anymore.
To be clear, I have always had a great deal of respect for the work of journalists and I still do. But I get uncomfortable when I read stories that granularly reveal others without revealing the writer too. This is becoming less common now that blogs are having their influence on American letters; I’ve read that transparency is the new objectivity, and I applaud that. But while Jessica Mitford’s nanny rules the halls of journalism, I’ll just call myself a writer, thank you very much.
And oh yes — here’s the start of my writing about my own experiences at NOLS. Big Emotion, Small Stream in Perceptive Travel.
*Clarification:”One last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out”. It was actually Joan Didion who wrote that, in the intro to Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I note, with full irony aimed at myself, her use of “writer” and not the word “journalist” in that sentence. Ah, well.
But my summary of Janet Malcolm’s sentiment is also accurate, so I’m not correcting it above. Here’s Malcom’s intro to The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full himself to notice what’s going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”