Deciding to Write: A New Series on LitHub

"There is nothing finer than deciding to write..."

That's the lead of The Accidental Life and also the impetus behind a series of columns about writing, writers, and editing.

Depending on how well you write and how often you publish or change jobs or assignments, other writers come in and out of your life. Some of them are already famous and others will be soon, but celebrity doesn’t matter because you know something together—the private thrill that comes from writing a clear and unique sentence. The craft of it. James Salter liked to “rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them.”

Writing is exactly that, and there is no work like it because it is so complicated to know when you are done. Riffing about writing journalism, Renata Adler wrote, in her novel Speedboat, about giving “a piece of sugar to a raccoon, which in its odd fastidiousness would wash that sugar in a brook till there was nothing left.” Editors can help with that.

Read more on LitHub.

The Accidental Life is available now in paperback from Vintage Books.

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"Peter Matthiessen’s Notebook": A Way to Talk About Work and Friendship

In the Paris Review, McDonell writes about Peter Matthiessen's lost notebook and a meaningful act of friendship. 

Peter traveled with universal notebooks, taking notes on the right-hand pages, leaving the left blank until he used them for his first run at usable copy—usually in the evening after a day of reporting. It was an efficient system that made him productive on the road. The notebooks were artifacts, too, and I think they meant as much to him as the research they held, although he insisted that this was a silly idea.

He lost one of those notebooks once, at the San Francisco airport, while returning from reporting in Klamath National Forest in Northern California. Those were the days of pay phones, and Peter had left the notebook at one in the main terminal—for only a few minutes, but when he realized what he had done and quickly returned, it was gone. Hans Teensma, who was the art director at Outside, had driven Peter to the airport and was seeing him off. They went on the search together. Then as now, there was no effective lost-and-found at any airport, so that took about five minutes before they started reverse engineering the trash-disposal procedure. They found rooms full of sorted garbage, but Peter, forlorn and increasingly resigned to the loss, had a flight to catch.

Read the excerpt in the Paris Review Daily.

The Accidental Life is available now in paperback from Vintage Books.

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by Terry McDonell

Letter from Hunter S. Thomson
At the stroke of midnight in Washington, a drooling red-eyed beast with the legs of a man and a head of a giant hyena crawls out of its bedroom window in the South Wing of the White House and leaps fifty feet down to the lawn… pauses briefly to strangle the Chow watchdog, then races off into the darkness… towards the Watergate, snarling with lust, loping through the alleys behind Pennsylvania Avenue.

—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing:
On the Campaign Trail ’72, 1973

Hunter Thompson wrote a lot of letters about money, especially when he was writing about politics. He would say politics was always about the money and he was too. He turned getting paid into theater, stopping just short of sending his editors dead cats in the mail. But at the other end, when he was negotiating assignments, he was a charmer, pulling you into his jokes.

That’s when he winked at you. Maybe he'd even write for a little less cash (if it really was cash!) and if he thought the assignment was worthy. Richard Nixon was especially worthy. And that’s where he found the voice that armed his pieces with such high humor and low opinions — like suggesting that “if the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles.”

Hunter S. Thomspn letter

The letter here suggests that he might be interested in an assignment I was proposing because “It’s about time we had some real fun..." I don’t remember what that assignment was but it was 1985 so it probably had something to do with the Reagan Presidency and the attendant “voodoo” economics, or perhaps Oliver North and Iran-Contra. Hunter feasted on all of that. I was still at Newsweek but making secret plans to launch my own magazine and told Hunter that if he wrote for me he would also get stock, which he did. But it was in his earlier work for Rolling Stone, his best work really, that you see an eerie significance reflecting what he might write today. You can grab random passages from those pieces and just switch out the name Nixon for Trump.

 “It is Nixon/Trump himself who represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character,” Hunter wrote in Rolling Stone in 1973. And in the wake of the Comey firings, as the word Nixonian became ubiquitous, Hunter’s instinct to make political journalism part performance art underlined how interesting he would be covering Trump. Plus Hunter was taller than Donald.

Hunter followed Nixon from the 1960s when he wrote in Pageant Magazine that Nixon/Trump was “…a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad… absolutely humorless; I couldn't imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn't quite reach the lever on the voting machine.” Ring any bells?

Or try this from The New York Times, no less, on January 1, 1974: Nixon/Trump was a… “mixture of arrogance and stupidity that caused him to blow the boilers almost immediately after taking command. By bringing in hundreds of thugs, fixers and fascists to run the Government, he was able to crank almost every problem he touched into a mind-bending crisis. About the only disaster he hasn't brought down on us yet is a nuclear war with either Russia or China or both but he still has time, and the odds on his actually doing it are not all that long… Even Senators and Congressmen have been shaken out of their slothful ruts, and the possibility of impeachment is beginning to look real…” Ding, ding, ding!

Also relevant are these excellent recent pieces in The Nation and The Washington Post that point to Hunter's identification of the Hell's Angels as having an “ethic of total retaliation” which, flashed forward, is at the heart of Trump’s power base — counted out economically and left behind in their own country. As Donald himself said during the campaign, “Motorcycle guys like Trump.” 

Hunter knew those guys too, and he would have understood Trump — and rollicked with the rise and fall of Anthony Scaramucci before he got the chance to push leakers out of Marine One at two thousand feet. "The Mooch" served up such clueless vulgarity as to be even more worthy than Nixon’s two-faced press secretary, Ron Zeigler, who Hunter said was a "bilious pleasure” to deal with.

Hunter's best political coverage began in December 1971, when he moved to a rented house on Juniper Street in quiet, Northwest D.C. to work on his campaign book. Nixon was in office and Hunter said it was "living in an armed camp, a condition of constant fear." He sensed “the slow-rising central horror of ‘Watergate,’” and wrote in Rolling Stone that it was "not that it might grind down to the reluctant impeachment of a vengeful thug of a president whose entire political career has been a monument to the same kind of cheap shots and treachery he finally got nailed for, but that we might somehow fail to learn something from it."

Now, with Trump in the White House degrading the Presidency and enriching his family at the same time, how far are we really from Jared Kushner getting caught red-handed taking cash bribes across his desk in the West Wing. Hunter would be all over that. And he’d want to get paid for sure, but maybe he'd work for a little less because the assignment was so worthy.


The Accidental Life is available now in paperback from Vintage Books.

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My Dinner with Ed Abbey, or, How to Blow Up a Dinner Party

Edward Abbey in 1987. Photo: LA Times/Getty

One of the guests had a first edition that I could see had passages underlined on many pages, and he knew some of them by heart. He wondered if Ed could expand on his idea that There are no vacant lots in nature. Better yet, could Ed tell the table what he was thinking when he first saw the flaming globe, blazing on the pinnacles and minarets and balanced rocks. It was impressive, but Ed just shrugged and said, yes, that’s what he had written. Someone else suggested that Ed had become a “philosopher of nature,” but it was clear to me when I caught his eye that Ed wasn’t feeling very philosophical.

Finally, in response to an achingly long question about the importance of saving the beauty of the desert canyons, Ed asked about what he had heard to be excessive drinking, drug use and sexual promiscuity among the Buddhists at their nearby Naropa Institute. It was a question to silence any dinner party, especially one with Naropa connections to some of the guests. But then, as several people finally pointed out in a low-key but surprisingly aggressive chorus, there really wasn’t much to all those rumors. The young Buddhist in the hiking boots said he could vouch for that, but his voice broke when he tried to say something about being misunderstood himself.

“Well, then, just kidding,” Ed said, to everyone’s relief, but he was not smiling.

Read the excerpt in Outside magazine.

"There’s the Great Man": Befriending George Plimpton

A story I heard over and over about George was that he’d been very nervous before his first wedding—to Freddy Espy, who was even more beautiful than Lauren Hutton, the model who made her acting debut playing Freddy in the movie of Paper Lion. George’s friend Thomas Guinzburg tried to calm him by praising Freddy and suggesting that whatever else George was thinking, he should realize that after he was married he would never be lonely again. The punch line was George’s response: “But I’ve never been lonely in my life!”

I believed that story, but I also believe that as he got older George was bothered by the transience of the people he knew and loved, and there is no deeper definition of loneliness than that, even as the party swirls around you. When famous friends die, do you miss them more? That was a question I wondered about. George said no, but you were reminded more often that they were gone. - TM

Read the excerpt in the Paris Review Daily.

The Invention of Outside

Newsweek Life Outdoors 1977.jpg

McDonell talks to Outside magazine about adventure travel before it was a category.

OUTSIDE: In the Outside library, I found an old Newsweek cover story from the summer of 1977 headlined “Life Outdoors.” The cover shot shows two men, two women, four external-frame backpacks, moustaches, perms, short-shorts, the whole mid-seventies deal. Newsweek had noticed the surge of interest in the outdoors, and they mentioned the launch of Mariah. For somebody who’s young right now, it’s automatic that magazines like Outside have always been around. You were there when that leap happened—when people saw the demographics and the trends and where they could go.

TERRY McDONELL: The thing we always said about Rolling Stone was that it was about a lot more than the music. So we had variations on that—Outside was about a lot more than the Sierra Club and nice camping trips, or anything we saw to be kind of square and soft.

At the same time, what we knew—and what I was a fan of at that time—was Mariah. Larry Burke had conceived of it from his own experience traveling around the world, so it had an adventure travel kick to it before there was any such thing as adventure travel as a defining idea. Mariah hinted at expat-ism and everything that’s a little bit dangerous, a little more fun, and it covered going to very far-out, deep places. Outside was going to be about that, too, from the beginning. But Outside also had an environmental-news edge to it. We were very interested in covering the radical environmental movement particularly. And we wanted to be literary at the same time. So I went after Ed Abbey, who of course had written The Monkey Wrench Gang, which was about blowing up a big dam to free rivers.

Read the interview in Outside magazine.