Michael Hastings was a 30-something journalist who broke a few big stories, including one about General Stanley McChrystal that caused him to turn in his resignation. Hastings kept going after big stories, the kinds about war and possible government conspiracies, but he tragically died this past year in a car crash.
New York Mag does a phenomenal job on his life and times and it got me thinking about the attitudes of writers.
First, writers have a romantic streak. Writers dream big, and some of us accomplish those goals and some of us do not. But there is usually something in us about the way things were–and the writers that chronicled those past glories. For me, I was really enthralled with the Beat generation (no surprise). But also Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer, some of the same people that Hastings admired for their political chops and unconventional journalism. For others it could be Hemingway, F.Scott, Jane Austen, or Zora Neale Hurston. We all have our idols that inspire us, and because of who we are, we get caught up in that world.
Second, writers are unstable. I’m not making this up. We’re depressives and often cope in healthy ways. We go overboard, we overgeneralize and exaggerate feelings and perceptions, we want to be with everyone and be alone at the same time. Hastings thought he was in the middle of a conspiracy to have him killed, but he was also kind of bi-polar, and an off/on heavy drinker. The NY mag piece is fascinating because it delves into all of that, and the inconsistencies in his life. But still, his story is not an unfamiliar one. I’ve heard of plenty of writers with similar afflictions and oddities. Check out the Gregory Sherl / Other People Podcast for a heavy dose of that talk.
Third, writers want to be known. Hastings was quoted in the piece as saying he wanted to be the best war correspondent of his generation, and he was well on our way. So much so that he put himself in several difficult circumstances–war-zone type stuff–often without the best safety gear. I’m not saying we don’t need war correspondents, and if you’re up for it, then you should strive for it, but some of Hastings acts were nakedly stupid. There is a definite celebration of those who are willing to get the story, go out on a limb, and go out in unconventional ways. That’s part of being a creative I guess, and some of us are better at knowing which rules to break and which ones not to. It also doesn’t mean that every writer who isn’t famous isn’t a good writer. There are tons of hilarious comedy writers for instance, working behind the scenes on awesome projects who never get the same type of recognition as a journalist or novelist for instance. But we all want our work to mean something–to be complimented. But to have it happen as our idea and our project that’s what’s really desirable. Hastings was starting to pull himself in way too many directions–magazines, website, some YouTube stuff, and that stress may have added to his mental stress and his instability.
That search for recognition is part of the pay. I remember pointing out my byline to my wife when we passed by a newspaper box and my story was on the front page–there I was, out in the world.
Fourth, writers want to be insider-outsiders. Hastings married someone who was part of the Bush administration. Jenna Bush and Barbara Bush toasted his family. At the same time, he made fun of his colleagues and peers relentlessly, believing that he had something different to add. Which he did. But he still needed access, and a place at the table.
I actually think this idea–of being both inside and outside–is essential to writing. You have to be palatable enough to reach an audience, but you need a new way of looking at things to bring something new to the table. It’s a quest to be both interesting and accepted. To have people like your stuff, but to be edgy enough to break habits and cultural norms.
What are your thoughts? Which of this stuff is true and what doesn’t work?