Thursday, March 29, 2012

Esquire piece

Hi all,

So there'll be a link at the bottom of this post to a piece that's out in this month's Esquire. But first, a few words on it—for anyone who's interested in how the magazine feature sausage gets made.

Last September I'd been off work for a few months. Finishing my novel, doing a little freelance, just paying the bills. I get a call from my old editor, Ryan, at Esquire. He says:

"Craig, what do you know about hormone replacement therapy?"

Ryan likely asked for two reasons: one, he's a good guy and has a very kind habit of looking out for me when he thinks there's an idea I can do a good job on. And two, because of this piece I wrote many moons ago for the magazine:

Look Ma! I'm a Big Strong Boy!

A word on this article. I wrote it just to write it. Or rather, because I'd taken steroids and the experience was profound enough that it seemed I ought to write something. I wrote a 7.5k piece and just sent it out blindly to a few magazines. I didn't know any other way to do it back then—since then I've learned that, of course, you 'pitch' articles: an idea, a piece in its infancy, and try to entice an editor into letting you pull the ripcord on it. But to this day that approach is difficult for me: I started as a fiction writer, and I've always thought if I'd had to convince an editor to let me write any of my early stories, or novels, well, I'd never have written a word because they'd have just said: Sex addicts? Guilt-ridden boxers? Vicious dogs? Killer whale amputations? Uhhhh, no way kimosabe. Sell that shit down the road.

But anyway, the piece went out there. I forgot about it and went on to new stuff, as one has to. Then I got home from the gym one night and there's this message from this dude, Ryan, editor at Esquire:

"Craig, we got your piece. We really like it. [long pause]. This ... this never happens, but ... well, we want to publish it. So call me."

I was floored, of course. And really, I've learned since that it really doesn't happen often that a piece is picked up off the slush at a big magazine for a lot of reasons. Firstly, each magazine has its staff of great writers who are on contract to deliver x words for x dollars a year, and those pieces/writers alone fill a great deal of the magazine's article allotment. Secondly, well, it's not like a lot of the stuff that comes in from the slush is necessarily applicable to the magazine's readership—I can say so having worked at magazines myself and seeing what comes in via the slush. Thirdly, I'm not sure a lot of writers just send stuff to magazines; they're smarter than me, probably have J-school degrees, and know to pitch stuff to editors.

But I did once hear—and I forget where—that before that steroids piece, the last article that Esquire plucked out of the slush was by a little someone named Elizabeth Gilbert. Ms. Eat, Pray, Love. I don't know that's true. Probably not. But I'll hold onto that belief anyway, because it soothes my tortured soul.

Anyway, so in September Ryan called and asked what the hell I knew about HRT. As I recall, my answer was an honest one:

"Next to nothing, Ryan."

"Well," he said, "how much could you know in a few weeks?"

"Conceivably a whole lot," I speculated, rashly, as I'm wont to do.

So I started investigating HRT. I won't go into it here; that's what the article's for. So in a few weeks I'd cobbled together a pitch and sent it in and a few days later I get a call from Ryan saying, hey, great, we've got a story. And I could write it. We agreed on a fee, a very generous one, and set a deadline. Then I was off to the races.

Now, another thing: this piece was conceived as a two-author thing. Another well-known, very talented writer was actually going to do HRT, and write a first-person narrative of the experience. I was going to provide, I think it was, 4,500 words of sort of backing scientific evidence, interesting tidbits, etc and so on.

Things progressed. I did my research. Talked to my sources. Spend time at a clinic. Once I had all my interviews and whatnot I sat down to write it.

Once I'd turned my draft in I got a call. Turns out the other writer wasn't going to do the first-person bit. He'd been tested and his hormone levels were fine. It wouldn't be needed.

My only concern was that I'd written this piece (which came in long, btw) that had no first-person aspect to it. Of course I'd've done it if I'd known—once you've done steroids, HRT is nothing. HRT is safe. HRT is lemonade; steroids are hard lemonade.

But now the deadline comes in. April issue. So it was really too late for me to embark on HRT therapy. And there were edits to do on the piece I'd written.

A lot of edits.

One thing I can say after writing novels, stories, for newspapers, for other magazines, for this that and the other: nothing is quite so arduous and taxing, in my experience, as a major magazine feature edit. I mean, yes, all of us hope and pray for our editors to call and say:

"Davidson, you marvellous bastard, you've done it! Don't change a word, don't change a comma, we're taking this to press as-is. You shit a solid-gold rainbow of perfect prose you rascally sonofabitch, you!"

Now this never happens, and editors don't talk like that ... at least it doesn't happen to me; maybe the really great writers at Esquire, the Jones's and Junods and Sagers and Raabs Dittrich's, yes, but me, no, it's never gone down like that—and that's fine, I need the guidance, I need the editing.

So we went back and forth. I found new sources, talked to new experts, rattled new cages and got the info that I could. As often happens, some of this stuff stuck and some got kicked away. We worked on a new intro and conclusion, something a bit more personal. It was exhaustive and exhausting—not just for me, but for Ryan and the fact-checker and all else concerned.

And then it was sent to the art department, I put together a sidebar (with the help of Drs. Life & Komer & Andry, who were invaluable and I thank them for their input, along with Dr. Handelsman and Bob Johnson at the Toronto Zoo and "Jack" and all the other dozens of people I spoke to in the process of writing this) and saw proofs, and it came together slowly, then slammed together fast, then it was done and out in the world.

So it's done. And now it's the aftermath, when you look at what you've done and evaluate its effectiveness.

And I've got to say I've never worked harder or had more help editorially or gotten a nicer, more considerate "push" than I got with this article ... but I'm not certain that I hit it dead-on.

Articles, like stories, like novels, like anything, are delicate things. There is an element of magic to them—and the more skilled you are, or the more veteran, the more able you are to curry that magic I think. But after doing this, writing for a living, for, well, nearly ten years, I can say that I know my strengths. I'm always trying to work on them, stretch myself, be something more as a writer today than I was yesterday ... but it's a slow process, often a difficult process, and besides, there's still this inborn sense of what I do best.

When it comes to magazine writing, I truly feel that some level of immersiveness is needed. I have to breathe the story, get dirty in it, let it happen to me and report on it from inside. My best pieces (in my opinion) are like that: the first Esquire piece, or the bus driving piece published earlier this month. I can touch and feel and taste, smell and hear and interact with the story—it happens to me, I receive that new information, contextualize it for myself and hopefully pass some of that on to the reader.

And if this story misses the mark just a bit, it's not for lack of me trying—and certainly not for lack of Ryan working his ass off on my behalf to pull this into true. And I am really very pround of this piece, because it took me out of my element and forced me to approach something from a different angle. All the flaws in it are mine. Everything that's good in it are the result a careful, kind edit ... well, okay, a few of the good lines I cooked up all on my own.

But I guess it worries me a little because ... well, let's face it, opportunites like this don't come along often. I know that now. There's no cooler job on earth than I can figure than writing for a good magazine, but just about every other swinging dick feels the same way. So when you get a shot like this out of the clear blue you've got to do your best to make your bones. Make it count, y'know? Because who know when lady luck might float down off her cloud and gift you again? You never know, really. Maybe never.

So anyway ... that's my take. It was a hell of a process. I can honestly say I've never worked harder on an 8k piece. Ever. Hell, novels rarely get this much editing. But it put some stronger bark on me, boy howdy I can tell you that much.


All best, Craig.

1 comment:

  1. Craig
    You managed to capture the spirit of our clinic and understood what we are trying to do: use a scientific approach to testosterone replacement and helping men thrive in life. Great job; you should be proud that you have translated a complicated subject into an interesting readable article.
    Dr Larry Komer,
    Masters Men's Clinic
    Burlington, Ontario