An amalgam of influences with a life of its own, the Chronicle is smarter than we are
-- Isaac Babel, "Guy de Maupassant"
I'm a lousy writer, really. No cheap self-deprecation here or coy ploy to elicit contradiction or praise. I'm fine at communicating; for the most part, I lay my ideas out so they are accessible and in a somewhat logical order. Reading over my stuff, as often as not I am satisfied that the points are made. But my prose is awkward, getting it to work difficult, and my writing, as writing, unimaginative. Nothing here but true confessions.
"I refused to become a clerk.
"Even in those days when I was twenty years old, I had told myself: better starve, go to jail, or become a bum than spend ten hours every day behind a desk in an office.
"There was nothing particularly laudable in my resolve, but I have never broken it and I never will. The wisdom of my ancestors was firmly lodged in my head; we are born to enjoy our work, our fights and our love; we are born for that and for nothing else."
-- Isaac Babel, "Guy de Maupassant"
This comes up because the end of the year brings the more-often-than-usual question about our plans for the Chronicle's future -- are there changes, new frontiers, unusual directions in the works? I have to tell the truth: It isn't like we have that much control. It seems likely that we would. Co-founder and co-owner Nick Barbaro and I not only work here every day but also share an office. The truth is that it's like a child: You have input, you try and offer guidance and influence, but control is limited; as often as it does what you hope, or at least expect, you're surprised. Although it has a will of its own, unlike a child's the Chronicle's identity is the composite of so many influences. A coming together of an army of personalities, out of its past and of its community, shaped by flotsam and jetsam (gentlemen poets) as well as the long highway it's traveled, including the tumbleweeds, tires, trash, and wind along the way. As marble guides a sculptor, it leads; we follow, trying to keep up.
As my writing is so out of my control, offering no evidence of the writers whose work influenced me and independent of my carefully thought-through intentions, how could this paper be any less free?
"I met a young child beside a dead pony,
I met a white man who walked a black dog,
I met a young woman whose body was burning,
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow,
I met one man who was wounded in love,
I met another man who was wounded with hatred,
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall."
-- Bob Dylan, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
Some years back, after a several-year tenure, Amy Smith got tired of being the Politics editor and decided to go back to writing and reporting. We went looking for a new editor. Louis DuBose had recently left the editorship of The Texas Observer. We didn't think we could get him to work for us, especially to be an editor again, but went after him anyway. After a couple of meetings and some negotiation, he agreed. We were as delighted as we were surprised.
Any chronology I offer is not to be trusted, but sometime later DuBose informed us that Michael King, another Observer veteran, was looking for a new job. Now, we couldn't afford him and didn't have a job opening, not really even a niche. But King was such a splendid writer, not just on politics but on culture -- plays, books, and film -- that we were interested. Fortunately, this is a mom-and-pop operation (if you don't believe me, come visit during Halloween, when Nick is Mrs. Bates), with neither business plan nor profit goal projection. It made no sense to hire King, nor did his salary fit in any budget plan. We decided to splurge, just because it would be such a privilege to have King writing for us. We'd figured him for a utility infielder who would write as much on arts as politics.
Then DuBose came in, crestfallen, to tell us there was a firm offer on a book project he thought was dead. He was leaving. Nick and I reluctantly asked King to take over. Reluctant in that it meant focusing King solely on politics/news, and because we didn't know him that well.
At first, it was somewhat rocky. Our core Chronicle belief is that we cover Austin. All our departments should be Austin-centric, even if to an embarrassing degree, especially politics. Other media covers the state, the nation, and the world. Our job is Austin.
Michael cared about Austin, but his turf was the state. To state it better, Michael has a deep sense of mission; he's committed to social, economic, and political justice -- pursuing his job not simply for a paycheck but from deep beliefs, knowing there are stories to tell and information to share. His canvas, for more than a half-decade at the Observer, had been Texas. No matter what we told him, and we never told him well, Michael followed his vision, because he couldn't imagine we would leave untold the stories he and his staff were telling.
Nationally and in Texas, the body politic radically changed, altering government and its sense of mission. This affected all of our readers. When we finally looked around, we also realized that most media weren't covering this at all or, at best, were doing a very inadequate job. Michael was leading in the direction we needed to go. The Chronicle was, as always, smarter than we were; the marble knew where the lines needed to go. "In the parlor of the Plankinton Hotel in Milwaukee during the state fair, Boss Sawyer, the lumber king tried to bribe [congressman Bob La Follette] to influence his brother-in-law who was presiding judge over the prosecution of the Republican state treasurer;
Bob La Follette walked out of the hotel in a white rage. From that time it was war without quarter with the Republican machine in Wisconsin until he was elected governor and wrecked the Republican machine; this was the tenyears war that left Wisconsin the model state where the voters, orderloving Germans and Finns, Scandinavians fond of their own opinion, learned to use the new leverage, direct primaries, referendum and recall.
"La Follette taxed the railroads.
"John C. Payne said to a group of politicians in the lobby of the Ebbitt house in Washington 'La Follette's a damn fool if he thinks he can buck a railroad with five thousand miles of continuous track, he'll find he's mistaken....We'll take care of him when the time comes.'
"But when the time came the farmers of Wisconsin and the young lawyers and doctors and businessmen just out of school
took care of him
and elected him governor three times
and then to the us senate."
-- John Dos Passos, "Fighting Bob," The 42nd Parallel
(About Robert La Follette, Wisconsin's Progressive governor and senator who ran for president in 1924, receiving 5 million votes. When he died in 1926, his son, Robert La Follette Jr., replaced him in the Senate. In 1946, Bob Jr. was defeated by Joseph McCarthy.) Writing is so tough for me. I can talk and talk, but writing is a bare-fisted grudge match. Technically, I'm not very good: I'm weak on grammar (I don't know how to use commas), lousy on spelling, terrible on tense. I bang, I hack, I moan, ripping words out and pasting them together in a style that resembles a demented ransom note. Just read any of my sentences. Imagine diagramming them in junior high school. Subject followed by predicate followed by an unwieldy traffic jam of clauses. Coherence is a possibility, grace and elegance so far away they're not even distant.
This is even more painful as Anne S. Lewis, my wife, regularly writes for us as well as freelancing for other publications (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Texas Monthly). She struggles as I do, but she doubts, as I never do. She asks me to read draft after draft, which is simply depressing. Every word is working, each carrying its own weight, every sentence elegant but functional, paragraphs coherent, the whole piece a carefully crafted work. She turns out fine furniture while, as always, I'm sticking a board on two cement blocks and calling it a bookshelf.
Ironically, two of my favorite writers are Dashiell Hammett and Isaac Babel, two of the greatest economical and stylistic craftsmen in literary history. Rarely has anyone created work so deeply influenced by others while evidencing virtually none of their qualities. Since I first read John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy of novels, their poetic structure has informed my every word. The intense, rhythmic sound of Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain" drives my writing as it has for over three decades. Babel's and Hammett's words are in my head, sentences and fragments often popping into view. But as with some impossible spiritual destination, I don't even try to head in their direction. I take comfort from the genius as I brutally hack my way to what I hope passes as coherence. As the Chronicle is its own, as my son is his own, as my influences have so shaped me but bear no responsibility for what they've wrought, I can only answer any question about tomorrow by suggesting the past provides us all equal guidance.