My relationship with journalism began with a subscription to Time Magazine. It was a gift from an aunt, inspired by my keen but undirected talent as a writer and my appreciation of news and news media. I soon had a favorite columnist, Joel Stein. Joel’s writing was never the kind of hard, investigative work that Time’s photography is so well known for. In high-school I would have described his writing as fluff. Now, I would describe it as suburban gonzo journalism. Joel would write stories about new crazes in responsible parenting, or how his family argued over the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate. He would describe his own experiences in normal American life, and therein express some dominant attitude or analysis of American society. His stories in his column was often formulaic, following this structure and peppered with his signature dry, sarcastic wit, but they were always exceptionally well-written and often the most conceptually strong element in an issue.
I liked Joel because he was employed full-time by one of the most respected news magazines in the world to be, in my opinion, professionally interesting. Joel’s writing never made use of very much research, most of it was just the expression of his own experience in his own words. It was always funny, it was always personal, and it always developed elegantly into a grand characterization of American life that was sharply captured and wittily executed. Not much work, I immediately thought. The idea that if I got my own formula that people responded well to and was able to consistently reproduce that formula in new stories, I could have a career in being professionally interesting.
But Joel was more than that. His column was relevant to me as a writer because it proved that a strong individualism and personality were integral to being not just a good writer, but a consistently good writer. You don’t need a formula, but you need to know your strengths, what skills you have and how to maximize these skills in choosing content and form. In essence, it informed an educated approach to becoming professionally interesting, an imperative that still informs much of how I write today.
Reference: The Awesome Column by Joel Stein. Time Magazine. 2015