- Gay Talese Has a Secret
For a long time, I had no idea I was writing the same essay again and again. Since each piece dealt with a different topic—the pleasures of planning trips on the Internet, the intricacies of baseball-card collecting, the similarities between writing instruction and psychotherapy—I actually thought of myself as a writer with a lot of range and versatility. It wasn't till a friend praised me for having found an "effective formula" that I went back and discovered in horror that I started every piece by confessing to some guilty pleasure; then spent pages describing and analyzing my behavior; and finally ended up suggesting that I was probably no more neurotic than anyone else, just more honest about my neuroses.
Even when I would set out to write about a subject specifically designed to take me and my reader out of my head and into the physical world, I'd be stymied by my apparently endless capacity for turning the outward inward: a review of a jazz festival turned into an essay about my obsession with categorizing my old albums; a piece about a basketball tournament turned into a defense of all the time I've spent over the years listing and memorizing sports statistics; and my guide to Internet travel turned into a tortured examination of why I keep planning trips I almost never take. It was like the Kevin Bacon degrees-of-separation game: no matter where my essay began, I could get it back to me and my obsessions in six moves or less. Usually way less.
At first I tried to convince myself that my predictability as a writer was not necessarily a bad thing: after all, what readers love most about most writers they love—Jane Austen or Hemingway, Virginia Woolf or Tom Wolfe—is not their infinite flexibility in topic choice or prose style; it's their ability to do an [End Page 135] enormously impressive thing over and over. Once you get past the external details, I told myself, maybe every writer really has only one core story to tell and one signature way to tell it.
I probably could have lived with that theory, except that when I tried it out on other writers, it generated a maddening mix of skepticism, smugness, and pity. I could tell what they were thinking: Maybe you have only one story and style in your repertoire, but truly talented writers can write about anything and can adjust style to fit content. "Take Gay Talese," one of my writer friends said. "He never goes into a magazine piece with a fixed formula or agenda. Like when he wrote 'Frank Sinatra Has a Cold' for Esquire, and Sinatra backed out of their scheduled interview at the last minute? If Talese had only one way of working, he'd have been sunk. But instead he came up with a whole new approach—just hanging around and observing Sinatra's entourage and getting to know his world so well he was able to write the whole thing from Sinatra's perspective."
I knew the reputation "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" had as both one of the best and most influential works of New Journalism. "Read Talese," my friend concluded. "He never writes the same piece twice." As a writer who'd be happy if I had written the same piece only twice, I was intrigued by this claim of infinite versatility. And as a writer who kept going deeper and deeper inside my own head, I was eager to see how Talese could so effectively move readers inside someone else's. So that clinched it: "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" would be my new writing guide.
I'm not sure I ever had an old writing guide. In fact, I've always tried to avoid modeling my own writing too directly on anyone else's, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy for me to find all sorts of things that Talese does in his Sinatra profile that I wanted to try in my own essays. There was the graceful and understated way that Talese moved us in...