“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going; you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
That sounds like really good advice. I just ran across it recently, and it has already affected the way I think about writing, and, for that matter, about life and the future.
There is nothing wrong with me that I know of. I just passed my semi-annual physical with flying colors. None of the things that deteriorate in older people are deteriorating any faster in me than in the typical retired, 63-year old upper-middle class professional.
With advancing age, I do find myself musing on how I will be remembered (if at all). A small circle of friends and family will remember me as a swell guy, smart, fun-loving, a good father, husband, uncle, son and brother. I have written a lovely three-page obituary (pre-written obituaries are a tradition in the journalism business). No one will every publish it unless they are paid (if there were still a UPI or an Oregon Journal, I'd get a courtesy obit. But the OJ disappeared in 1982 and UPI two decades later). The larger world will remember me--not much. This is the fate of 99.99% of us, and I accept that.
Besides my real-life familial roles, I want to be remembered, 20 or 30 years from now when I'm gone, as a hard-working journalist and a good teacher.
I guess I'd also like it if I were remembered by a borrowed characterization. Some of you have heard it already, but for those who have not:
"I write better than anyone who writes faster and I write faster than anyone who writes better."
--A.J. Liebling (a New Yorker writer who, among other things, did media criticism)
I think that sums up my journalism career. I was good, but not great. No one, however, can deny that I was prolific. The two prolific moments that stand out are the night in 1973 when two ads came in, forcing The Tech, the MIT student newspaper, to add two pages (160 inches, 40 double-spaced typed pages) of editorial content. I admit, I filled part of it with big, lovely pictures, but I also wrote 30 pages off the top of my head about the media landscape at MIT, profiling The Tech, Ergo, and WTBS, where I had worked, and Thursday, where my friend Daniel Dern worked. And I wrote it in the space of three hours. It was, as I recall, pretty clean copy. The other moment that stands out is August 1985. At the end of the month, InformationWeek publisher E. Drake Lundell called to tell me that I had personally written one-third of that month's four issues of the weekly magazine. It was a time of editorial turmoil, with firings and resignations that had passed me by. I knew I'd worked hard, but was mildly surprised to hear I'd worked that hard. He called to say thank you, a courtesy several of my later bosses failed to offer.