Who else would study, with the same quasi-scientific rigor and implicit irony, the following?
- Yucca Mountain (above), America’s preferred dumping ground for nuclear waste,
- Cathedral Canyon (below), a random crack in the desert turned into religious shrine,
- Emergency training centers such as Del Valle, California (all the way at the bottom), and
- the thousands and thousands of other non-obvious but telling places in America
And yet, we decided not to run a piece on it in The Economist. At least for the time being.
I decided to let you peak into the process because I think it might give you a useful glimpse into
- writing, and
- The Economist
Specifically, the issue involved all of the writerly themes that you guys and I have been writing about:
Here is what happened
After my visit to the CLUI, I did indeed write a draft, at about 700 words, for our US Section. And I sent it off.
I had an unsure feeling. I felt that I had not done justice to the CLUI or the places I had chosen as examples.
Our pieces in The Economist are short, and they are best when they compress complexity into a dense and yet simple and forceful narrative. The CLUI, however, seemed to need the opposite: not to be compressed but to be expanded and developed. It seemed to need length.
Worse, I had not spotted an underlying narrative in the CLUI (or the Museum of Jurassic Technology, for that matter) at all. This, in fact, is my criticism of the CLUI: They are so meticulous about their neutrality that they forget to do storytelling.
In fact, the Center’s name is a misnomer. It is not the Center for Land Use Interpretation but the Center for Land Use Observation. The interpretation is what is missing.
So I felt that to do this justice, I would have had to make it a humorous-but-profound story about a search for something elusive.
When you’re searching in vain, the story is about doubt, uncertainty, futility. Not things that The Economist is naturally good at, even though I excel at them personally. 😉
4) The First Person
To be really fun, moreover, a search narrative would have to be about me, the searcher. Me looking for answers and getting confused. Me on a CLUI bus in the desert with other searchers…
The First Person: Definitely not something that The Economist is naturally good at. 😉 😉
(Since we have no bylines, we also have no First Person. It is banned. The most you might see is “As your correspondent took his seat…”. Yuck.)
Conclusion: This really wanted to be a New Yorker piece.
A few weeks later, I got an email from my editor. He essentially said the same thing:
The problem with the piece as it stands is that it poses a lot of questions, but does not answer them. I appreciate that that is part of the philosophy the point of the CLUI, but it doesn’t really satisfy as a US section article. It reads too much to me like a long list of interesting and not-so-interesting places…
What is it, in fact, that we learn about American culture from the landscape, other than its uses are many and various? That America (like every other country) cherishes, abuses and neglects its physical space? …
I think this piece could benefit from being longer… Such a longer and more narrative piece would not, I think, work in the US section.
In a way, this was reassuring: My editor and I had come to exactly the same conclusion independently.
There was another upshot: Another editor had read it and expressed interest in a longer and more narrative version for our Christmas Issue, the one occasion every year when we really let our writerly hair down.
Did I want to expand the piece for the Christmas issue?
Opting for easy
This is when experience kicked in (13 years at The Economist now).
My experience told me that it was time to move on.
I did a risk-benefit analysis. I could sink a lot more time and effort into this story in the hope that a forceful narrative might emerge out of it. Or I could write the many easy and obvious stories that were offering themselves to me like streetwalkers.
In case you’re wondering, there is pressure on us to perform. We’re supposed to write something in every issue, on average. In fact, the last sentence in that same email from my editor was:
PS: that said, I am therefore in the market for a piece from you next week! Can you call me on the mob once you’re up and about?
And so I moved back into streetwalker alley, where it has been easy pickings and obvious stories since.
How judge ye?