THE PRICE OF KNOWING
ONE OF THE things that makes being a magazine writer rewarding is what you can learn, what you can come to know about a subject on which you may have been totally ignorant before your research began.
Staff writers for this magazine have a minimum of a month to completely plunge themselves into a subject. Sometimes they conduct research for as much as six months before writing the first word of a manuscript. My personal experience in the three years I wrote for D before becoming editor was that intensive research always showed me that the story was never exactly what 1 thought it was before I started reporting. My conception of the reality I thought was the story had always changed and, as a result, so had I, at least to a minor degree.
Frequently the sheer amount of information I could gather in a month was somewhat overwhelming to me. This phenomenon apparently occurs to most reporters. That was apparent to me a few weeks ago when Associate Editor Amy Cunningham, after completing the reporting for her first full-length magazine article (this month’s cover story) came bursting into my office, waving her arms in what is her characteristically emotional, pixie-like manner and declared: “I know more about the juvenile justice system than anyone in Dallas.”
She was, of course, wrong about that. It’s not that Amy hadn’t learned enough to know that “juvenile justice” frequently constitutes a contradiction in terms in Dallas County. It’s not that Amy’s research hadn’t made her enough of an expert to write authoritatively about the frailties and faults of this county’s methods of dealing with juvenile delinquents. It’s just that Amy was at that point so close to her subject that she had become temporarily overwhelmed by it. She was in what former Senior Editor Jim Atkinson used to call “the zone.”
The zone is a euphoric form of delirium a writer begins to experience after he or she has been researching and writing for enough days to forget that anything else but the story exists. Somewhere along the way, you stop controlling your typewriter. It controls you. If you are truly a writer, the story starts to tell itself then. There’s no time for mundane trivialities like changing clothes. (I didn’t get around to shaving the morning of June 21, 1979, when I sat down to write the July 1979 cover story, “How We Got American Airlines.” I haven’t found a razor in my hand since then.) At one point when Amy was writing this month’s cover story, “Little Criminals,” she phoned in the following progress report: “I’m about three takes (pages) away from being finished. I think. I haven’t been out of my room in six days.”
Those of us who had been there understood.
The zone can take you to incredible heights. If the story is right. When the story is depressing, the zone can take you to depths I don’t think anyone but a writer can experience. Such was the case with Associate Editor Michael Berryhill, whose saga of courage and cancer, “The Death of a Poet,” appears in this issue.
If you think it’s depressing to read a sad story, try writing one. We watched Berry-hill die a little with Judith McPheron. As he sat in his study at his typewriter, he took her through months of chemotherapy, through temporary triumphs and depressing defeats, and, finally, to her deathbed. It is significant that when Berryhill called to say he was finished, his first words were, “I’ve killed her.”
Berryhill’s only actual meeting with Judith was a brief and formal introduction at a poetry reading months before her death. When a group of writers gathered to go out for drinks after the reading, Judith said she was a little tired. After she was out of earshot they told him: She had cancer. She would probably die. Ber-ryhill’s first response was one of pragmatism. “That woman,” he told himself, “will be a significant story someday.”
He pitched the story to me a year later in a waffle shop on Oak Lawn. It wasn’t that her being a young poet made her death any more important and compelling than that of an architect or a pipe fitter. But the fact that she was a poet, the fact that she was a writer, that she was in the business of interpreting life, meant she could teach us a lot about death. “If I can find this woman and talk to her before she dies, I’ll have an important story,” Berryhill said.
The first thing Berryhill learned when he started looking for Judith was that she was already dead.
But it wasn’t too late to learn about her, to learn from her. After convincing her friends that he was not out for some voyeuristic, tawdry adventure with Judith’s literary legacy, Berryhill was given a stack of her journals. When it was nearly over, the days and nights with Judith’s manuscripts and memories, Berryhill had become overwhelmed with the death of a woman he had barely met. Just before he finished Judith’s story, he had to stop for a while. He sat motionless at his typewriter for a few moments. Then he cried. He had come to truly know a woman he had barely met.
When the story was finished, it was obvious that Berryhill had changed. He was distracted, noticeably saddened by his work. It is the price of knowing.
One of the more pleasant aspects of my job is hiring talented people. This month, I’m happy to announce the hiring of two such people, Managing Editor Chris Wohlwend and Associate Editor Greg Jones.
Wohlwend, 35, comes to us from the Times Herald, where he was assistant editor of Westward, the Herald’s Sunday magazine. He has a decade and a half of experience with papers like the Louisville (Ky.) Times, the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer. Chris has held an unusual assortment of jobs, including professional Santa Claus and carnival barker. Not surprisingly, he has a marketing degree from the University of Tennessee.
Jones, 34, is a journalism graduate of Baylor University, a former journalism professor at Sul Ross State College, the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Texas at El Paso. He hasbeen a reporter for the Houston Post, theEl Paso Times and the Waco Tribune-Herald.
THE PRICE OF KNOWING