Why I Write

Back when I was in the newsroom, I had a managing editor who did a stint on the city desk at the Chicago Tribune. He was what newsies liked to call “grizzled.” Every afternoon between 4 and 5 p.m. we’d have our last “budget” meeting of the day (another unique newspaper term), when all the section editors would decide which stories go where. At that point, you had a good feel for everything that would be in the next day’s edition. Sometimes at the end of one of these meetings, the grizzled old editor would look around the table and say, “I don’t know if this paper’s going to be worth a quarter.” (I know, I’m dating myself with that reference to a 25-cent newspaper.) When he said that, we all went back to our desks to see what kind of rabbits we could pull out of the hat.

The author as a young reporter . . . always, always writing

I still use that value reference today, although the price point has changed. I continue to get the New York Times delivered every Sunday and plowing through it I wonder, “Was that paper worth $6?” Today it was. The covid coverage has been particularly good at the Times throughout the pandemic. This morning they had something a little offbeat. They asked a bunch of artists questions about what they did during the pandemic, including “What’s one thing you made this year?”

Aaron Dessner of The National, the mope-rock band out of Cincinnati, replied, “Right as the quarantine started, I started writing so much music, and I had no idea what it was. There was no horizon line, there was a lot of uncertainty — so I just made a lot of music that I didn’t know what it was for. And that’s when Taylor Swift approached me.”

That, of course, led to “Folklore,” Taylor’s quarantine album recorded at Aaron’s Long Pond studio in the Hudson Valley. The album is a small masterpiece and so is the mini-documentary on its making, an excerpt of which you can catch here.

But Aaron’s comment on “writing so much music . . . there was no horizon line” made me think about what I’ve been doing on this blog for the past year. I’ve been writing a lot. I made a total of 10 posts in 2019, which doubled in 2020. In the first three months of 2021, I’ve posted 18 times. Views went up 325 percent between 2019 and 2020. At the current run rate, views could reach 15,000+ in 2021. These statistics are available with a couple of clicks on the backend of the WordPress website where I host JEP. Love those guys.

The backend of WordPress give you all the data you need

Some of the reasons for the production increase are obvious. The pandemic, for sure (for stretches there I thought about renaming the blog “Just Exactly Quarantined”). Then I had shoulder surgery, which knocked me out of my golf rotation and freed up a lot of time. And, to be truthful, writing helps me through the fog of grief after losing my beloved Kit in May 2020. I think about Kit all the time. All. The. Time. Writing gives me the luxury of pondering other things for long periods, although whenever I post something, I always wonder what Kit would think. She appreciated a good turn of phrase and always had good ideas (hell, she wrote two books!). She was my best editor. So writing simultaneously takes me away from the grief but also connects me with her. That’s a good combination.

And to be honest, it’s fun. Not just the writing, but pulling together the artwork, thinking up some kind of clickbait headline, embedding links to deeper material, and reconnecting with old and new friends who stumble on JEP somehow.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize I write because of something Joan Didion said in a speech called “Why I Write.”

Joan Didion: “I write to find out what I’m thinking”

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” Didion said (before you dismiss this as misappropriating my motivation from another writer let me remind you that Didion herself stole the title “Why I Write” from George Orwell).

To go back to my journalism days again, I think a good newspaper creates order out of chaos — organizing information to help us make sense of the world (some newspapers, of course, are better at doing this than others). So too does writing. Like a good conversation with a friend, writing helps sort thoughts and sometimes leads to surprising realizations, or even epiphanies. As Didion said, writing is a mirror for my thinking. And the deeper you dive, the more you get at the meaning of something and experience the deep pleasure of seeing order rise out of chaos.

Plus, it’s something to do. You can’t watch Netflix or listen to Phish all the time. Can you?

See you at the next post.

3 comments

  1. Russ – this post is Just Exactly Excellent…Your golf game may have suffered this past year due to personal tragedy, surgery and a global pandemic but your writing has not! Easily worth a quarter.

  2. Russ: I returned to “rookie reporter” status back in May 2019 and started as correspondent for a local weekly. That eventually led to hooking up with Bay City News where I filed 10 stores in my last two-week invoice. The unofficial “Far East Bureau” is now covering Bay Point, Pittsburg, Antioch, Oakley and Brentwood. My only competition is one reporter at the East Bay Times. All the area TV and radio stations pick up my stuff. I’m working my ass off but I often wonder when I finally call it quits if anyone will replace me. It’s getting damn dry in this news desert. Keep writing.

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