Who Gene Is, More or Less

I was born & raised in Hartford, Connecticut, attended local schools, graduated in 1974 from the University of Connecticut. Should have set off on my own, but lollygagged around until I drifted into a copyediting job at the Hartford Courant on Jan. 17, 1977 which, if memory serves, was also the first night of ABC’s “Roots” mini-series. [UPDATE: It was actually the second.] Begged for a “field” job & reported in eastern Connecticut towns before finally getting the urge for going, in 1981, to Philadelphia and the last progressive populist tabloid in America, its Daily News. (Though 28 at the time, I no longer contradict people so readily when they assume that I “grew up” in Philly.) I did rewrite on the city desk, traveled to every neighborhood for reporting duties, begged for a feature writing job and finally got one in 1987.

Within a year, I was writing TV reviews four times a week, which led to a short, unhappy stint at the then-fledgling Entertainment Weekly, which in turn led to a longer, happier one at Newsday, where I wrote mostly about jazz and the movies. Sometime after 1999, I was doing film reviews full-time and this split off into such pleasant experiences as my one-and-only trip to Cannes, a year-and-a-half doing weekly TV reviews on WPIX, six annual trips to Toronto and a few good movies. Not-so-pleasant experiences: My one-and-only trip to Sundance, chairmanship of the New York Film Critics Circle (the awards ceremony was fine, everything before wasn’t), many mediocre movies. Took a buyout from Newsday in March, 2008.

If you bothered scoring, you’ve counted more than thirty years of professional experience in various media, even television. Still, there’s always more to add, even to a thick paragraph as that…
Writing is serious, but never solemn business to me. I believe you should be careful where you use all words; not just the ones that, say, begin with “n” and are considered so combustible that you refer to at least one of them as the “n” word. Whether as weapons or as nourishment, words should never be wasted or sprayed, but aimed with precision – even when you have to use as many of them as you can to paint a picture, evoke a sound or gut a mosquito. Make a joyful noise, whenever you can. But don’t squander your time or anyone else’s.

It’s taken me a long time, of course, to find that balance – or, at least, recognize that it was something to strive for. I was infatuated with words in high school and, because it was the 1960s, the most spellbinding arrangements of words were often deployed to describe real events – and to extract much more from beneath their surfaces than what you could see on television. They called most of that stuff, “new journalism”, back in the day. Now they call it, “creative nonfiction.” Whatever it was, I wanted in.

So I did what I supposed you were supposed to do: Work on (eventually editing) the high school newspaper and spend as many afternoon study halls as you could in the library, devouring Harpers, Esquire, the New Yorker, New York and even this new thing called Rolling Stone. Then you go to college and pile on the courses that would let you play with words.

The way one figured it back then, one could start out on one’s hometown newspaper and eventually work one’s way up to the New York magazine world where the REAL action was. Imagine the cosmic disappointment one found when all those wide-open spaces navigated by Mailer, Wolfe, Halberstam, Talese, Larry L. King, Michael Arlen, John McPhee and others were slowly being closed off to all except those willing to settle for shiny nuggets and picture captions. Do I exaggerate? You could go long and deep in a newspaper in the 1980s, but now they want it lighter and brighter…wait, maybe not so bright at that…

Grousing aside, I have made the best out of journalism, even as the craft has been beaten down into the bewildered, overly circumspect shape it’s in today. But even when the trade was in its proverbial cups, able to make grand leaps into rococo descriptions and hyper-realistic illumination, I always recognized its limitations. There is truth that you can approximate through observation, inquiry and legwork and there is truth you can achieve by making stuff up.

These days (and I have written about this in at least a couple of my book reviews for The Nation), the imagination is under siege as never before and even those who should know better have trouble making distinctions between the lies we tell, inadvertently or not, when we selectively organize facts into a narrative and the lies we tell to find out what’s beautiful and true.
Something else: Everything is narrative, whether you’re writing a play or a review of that play. Whether the protagonist is someone who can’t find a shoe or a sensibility struggling to justify the time wasted watching man-eating spiders in a dark room smelling like popcorn, there must be momentum blended with a keen view of the surrounding landscape.

Many writers, too many (and too diverse) to mention here helped me learn and internalize such things over the decades. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that Bill Cosby was as instrumental to my learning about the dynamics of storytelling as Chekhov or Garcia Marquez. (Listen to Cosby’s “Revenge” album and you’ll know what I mean.)
I am ready to share what I’ve learned about writing and other shiny things with those who are feeling their way through shadows and glare for their own voices, their own stories – or at the very least, their own sense of what narrative is. I hope that what you read here will encourage you to communicate further.

Thanks, in advance, for listening

Gene Seymour