They still call it The New Journalism, but when I started in 1969, it was still new. Journalists gave themselves permission to be writers, not just chroniclers. We explored our reactions to the people, subjects, and events we wrote about, instead of trying to hide them. We used fiction-writing and story-telling devices to tell true stories. We became participants, even characters, in our stories.
Magazine and newspaper feature writers learned to start with “narrative leads,” extended anecdotes that led the reader to the grounding who-what-when-where-why-how “nut-graf,” eight or nine paragraphs into the story.
Journalistic accounts of interviews openly include the writer’s personal reactions so often, we don’t notice it, or remember it was once cutting edge. ”I met So-and-So in a sidwalk cafe on a sunny morning. She appeared…”
Highly structured “straight” news stories began abandoning the old inverted pyramid, which required the first paragraph to answer the questions who, what, where, when, why, and how. Those opening sentences and paragraphs were extremely thick, opaque, hard to read, and boring.
We began writing one or two simple 30-word sentences telling the reader why he should care enough to read further. Then, in a “nut-graf,” we grounded the reader with the facts and background he needed to continue reading the story. It made stories much more reader-friendly.
I Become a “New Journalist” By Default
In 1968-9, my senior year at Oberlin College, I got permission to do an independent study on the short novel, and write one to complete the course.
I tried, but found that I can’t write fiction. Made-up stories don’t interest me as much as true stories. And “serious writers of literary fiction” think they are artists, making art, but almost never a living. Most have independent means or teach.
What I did was not art. Choosing words and arranging them in sentences is a craft. Calling it art felt pretentious. I was proud when fellow writers called me a “wordsmith,” a top craftsman.
So I was blocked for several months trying to write an artistic short novel.
Because the term “New Journalism” was so new, I did not realize I was already an avid fan. At the super-literary, artistic New Yorker magazine, Roger Angell was inventing “The New Baseball Journalism.” By exploring his personal reactions and memories, he showed us baseball as we’d never seen it before, and permitted us to write about our game that way.
Writing “A Mailer”
In 1968-9, Norman Mailer published Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago. There were better books about the anti-Vietnam movement, and the political upheavals of 1968, and better examples of early New Journalism, but these two short books showed me what kind of writer I wanted to be. (They also introduced me to the term “New Journalism.”)
Mailer explored his idiosyncratic feelings about The Left, Richard Nixon, Rockefeller and Reagan Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce delegates to the Republican Convention, the big power bosses of the Democratic Party, the peace delegates who were challenging them for control of the party, and the Lefties, who were demonstrating outside in downtown Chicago.
He participated in the peace demonstration at the Pentagon, and included that, and his conversations with peace movement leaders, in Armies of the Night. And when the confrontations in Chicago escalated, he became a participant/obersver, and got arrested. He included that in Miami and the Siege of Chicago.
The super-egotistical Mailer made himself and his feelings more important than those world-changing events, critics said. But I found the books riveting, and agreed with Mailer that the true stories of that era were more epic and powerful than anything a novelist — even a good one like Mailer — could invent.
After Spring break in 1969, Oberlin students occupied the college administration building for four days protesting the school’s participation in the “U.S. war machine,” and the expulsion of a radical student who disrupted classes protesting the presence of a Peace Corps recruiter in the college placement office.
I was blocked trying to write a short novel to complete a private tutorial for my senior thesis that was due in six weeks. I could not make up stories, write “literature” or make “art.” Choosing words and arranging them in sentences is a craft. Calling it literature is pretentious. All my attempts at art felt artificial to me.
I decided to write “a Norman Mailer” about the campus demonstration. Like Mailer, I started as an observer and became a participant. I handed the professor 24,000 words on time. He hated it.
“It broke the wall between fiction and non-fiction,” he said. “Reporters keep themselves out of stories. Only ego-maniacs like Norman Mailer think the reader cares how the writer feels.”
Despite that, I sent the story to a magazine and became a published writer. A few months later, I became their assistant editor, which made me a New York writer and editor. I did not live happily ever after, but I did become a published, professional writer ever after.
Exploring my personal connections with real events, from politics to baseball to the arts, has been my subject ever since.