Hampton Sides, historian and author of bestselling books including Ghost Soldiers and In the Kingdom of Ice, gave the following commencement address to graduating students of Colorado College on May 22, 2017. Our thanks to the author for allowing Longreads to reprint it here.
Warm greetings to the Class of 2017! It’s such a tremendous honor to be here today, to wish you well as you begin your life’s adventures. I’ve taught some of you, I’ve read your work in the college publications, I’ve rooted for you on the soccer fields. I’ve even tested my hand-eye coordination skills with some of you in the exacting sport . . . . of beer pong. I’ve greatly enjoyed my experience teaching here at this most unique and authentic school set at the foot of Rockies, a school that has perfected the fine art, the almost forgotten art, of doing one thing at a time. Read more…
Scott Korb | Longreads | February 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)
The following essay is adapted from a talk presented at Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program. It includes advice from writers of “YA fiction, writers for television and stage, of novels and essays, investigative journalism, and criticism” on how we might produce meaningful work in the next four years.
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I often teach a piece of writing by David Foster Wallace, included originally as the introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays. He called the piece “Deciderization—2007,” a title that jabbed at the then-current president, George W. Bush, who, in the midst of his second term—in the midst of the Iraq war, which as fought had been lost—reminded the country during a press conference insisting he would not fire Donald Rumsfeld, whom he would later fire, that he, George W. Bush, was “The Decider.”
The moment seems far away now, but Bush’s choice of words here, it was said at the time, “struck the national funny bone.” Writing in the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg said,
On the Internet, it was memorialized to the tune of “I am the Walrus,” by the Beatles. (“I am me and Rummy’s he. Iraq is free and we are all together.”) On late-night television, the Decider emerged as a comic-book hero, courtesy of Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show.”
In other words, in making fun of Bush, Wallace was not alone and, as he was well aware, was far from the most high-profile or widely observed jabber. Opening the book’s introduction, he wrote, “I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction.”
Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose. There isn’t the same kind of linear commitment as in a regular book. … There’s a kind of triage. The guest editor’s intro is last, if at all.
This sense of being last or least likely confers its own freedoms.
When I’ve taught his introduction before I’ve tended to highlight how Wallace considers and reconsiders the essay form itself—“one constituent of the truth about the front cover,” he writes, “is that your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is.” This confusion is fun in a way that Wallace is often fun. It does what this particular writer tends to do—puts his own subjectivity front and center in an effort to pull a rug out from under us. What do you mean you don’t know what an essay even is?
Continuing on, Wallace then addresses his lack of both confidence and concern with the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—more fun for us—only to change course a moment later, explaining that he does care about such differences, but conceding that they’re “hard to talk about in a way that someone who doesn’t try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand.” At which point he dives into the part of the essay I’ve always been most interested in talking about with writing students, who tend—as I am—to be interested in how to do what writers are trying to do. What is writing supposed to feel like?
Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.
The intergenre debates that go on in our culture have been a great pleasure to me over the years. I like what journalist Jeff Sharlet says on the point: “Fiction’s first move is imagination; nonfiction’s is perception.” And to be sure, I’m always delighted to hear from someone about the abyss under poetry’s tightrope. Read more…
Eva Holland | Longreads |February 2016 | 25 minutes (6,339 words)
There’s been more talk than usual lately about the state of freelance writing. There are increasing numbers of tools for freelancers: among them, the various incarnations of “Yelp for Journalists.” There’s advice floating around; there are Facebook support groups.
With the exception of one 10-month staff interlude, I’ve been freelancing full time now for seven and a half years. I’ve learned a few things along the way, but I also still have a ton of questions, and often feel as if I’ve outgrown some of the advice I see going by in the social media stream.
So I gathered a handful of well-established freelance writers and asked them to participate in a group email conversation about their experiences and advice. Josh Dean is a Brooklyn-based writer for the likes of Outside, GQ, Rolling Stone, and Popular Science. Jason Fagone lives in the Philadelphia area and has recently published stories in the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Matter, and Grantland. May Jeong is based in Kabul, and has written for publications including the New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, and Al-Jazeera America. (She managed to fit in her contributions to this roundtable while reporting from a remote corner of Afghanistan, so thank you, May.) As for me, I live in Canada’s northern Yukon Territory, and my work has appeared in AFAR, Pacific Standard, Smithsonian, and other places on both sides of the border. Read more…
Through a lot of corporate razzle-dazzle, Ling had taken LTV from sales of only $36 million in 1965 to number 14 on the Fortune 500 list just two years later. Ling, it should be noted, had never displayed any managerial skills. But Charlie told me long ago to never underestimate the man who overestimates himself. And Ling had no peer in that respect.
Ling’s strategy, which he labeled “project redeployment,” was to buy a large company and then partially spin off its various divisions. In LTV’s 1966 annual report, he explained the magic that would follow: “Most importantly, acquisitions must meet the test of the 2 plus 2 equals 5 (or 6) formula.” The press, the public and Wall Street loved this sort of talk.
In 1967 Ling bought Wilson & Co., a huge meatpacker that also had interests in golf equipment and pharmaceuticals. Soon after, he split the parent into three businesses, Wilson & Co. (meatpacking), Wilson Sporting Goods and Wilson Pharmaceuticals, each of which was to be partially spun off. These companies quickly became known on Wall Street as Meatball, Golf Ball and Goof Ball.
Soon thereafter, it became clear that, like Icarus, Ling had flown too close to the sun. By the early 1970s, Ling’s empire was melting, and he himself had been spun off from LTV … that is, fired.
Periodically, financial markets will become divorced from reality—you can count on that. More Jimmy Lings will appear. They will look and sound authoritative. The press will hang on their every word. Bankers will fight for their business. What they are saying will recently have “worked.” Their early followers will be feeling very clever. Our suggestion: Whatever their line, never forget that 2+2 will always equal 4. And when someone tells you how old-fashioned that math is—zip up your wallet, take a vacation and come back in a few years to buy stocks at cheap prices.
I have previously shared with you Balk’s Law (“Everything you hate about The Internet is actually everything you hate about people”) and Balk’s Second Law (“The worst thing is knowing what everyone thinks about anything”). Here I will impart to you Balk’s Third Law: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” The moment you were just in was as good as it got. The stuff you shake your head about now will seem like fucking Shakespeare in 2016. I like to think of myself as an optimist, but I have a hard time seeing a future where anything gets better. Do you know why? Because everything is terrible and only getting worse. We won’t all be dead in twenty years, but we’ll all wish we were. I used to have hopes that once the Internet got completely unbearable some of the smart people would peel off and start something new, but with each passing day it seems ever less likely. (If anyone peels off to start something new it’s going to be teens, and we know what idiots they are.) No, the Internet is going to keep getting worse and there will be no chance for escape. It’s a massive torrent of sewage blasted at you at all hours and you pay handsomely for the privilege of having a hand-held cannon you carry with you at all times to spray more shit-sludge at yourself whenever you’re bored or anxious. Some of you sleep with it right next to your head in case you wake in the middle of the night and need to deliver another turgid shot to your wide-open mouth.
When I was about nineteen I showed my poems to one of my teachers at Wayne. He said these were incredible poems, poems that should be published. I said, “Oh really?”—I was thrilled—“How would I go about doing that?” He walked over to his bookshelf and brought back a copy of Harper’s. He wrote down the name of the editor and said, “Send the poems to him. I met him once at a party, he may remember me. It doesn’t matter, the poems are so good. Just send them.” So I sent them. A month later they came back with a little printed note telling me they didn’t suit their present editorial needs. I was just shocked. I took it to the teacher and said, “Why, you assured me.” He said, “I don’t understand it.” He was a very sweet man, but he didn’t know the first thing about publishing. …
Many young poets have come to me and asked, How am I gonna make it? They feel, and often with considerable justice, that they are being overlooked while others with less talent are out there making careers for themselves. I always give the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able.
From September 1957 to December 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. penned a monthly advice column for Ebony magazine. The “Advice for Living” column addressed a wide array of subjects, from race relations to interpersonal relationships. Below is an excerpt from the September 1957 issue of Ebony: Read more…
Four advice columnists, Dear Sugar’s Cheryl Strayed, Salon’s Cary Tennis, Slate’s Emily Yoffe, and The Globe and Mail’s Lynn Coady, discuss what it’s like to give advice to people online:
Are there common threads or themes that you see over and over in the questions you get? Questions that seem to be real problems in a lot of people’s lives that they keep writing in about in variations?
Cheryl: Yes, a ton. There are a lot of people with broken hearts. And they’ll never get over so and so leaving them.
Emily: Yeah, I never run those because the answer is the same and it’s very boring. It’s just, ‘Move forward.’ The guy I thought I’d kill myself over when I was 27 I can’t remember the name of now. There are some big general categories. One is cubicle land. The horrors of the farters, the breathers, the hummers, the eaters. I can only do a limited number of ‘My husband looks at porn.’