- Who are they: If you can begin conceiving of audience, before putting words to the page, the work will be better off. You won’t be able to do this entirely because the story is still ahead of you. But, in my case, I had a sense of who would be interested — Turks, moderate middle-aged and liberal millennial, diaspora, mid-east scholars, history or lit. fans — and I began to join the conversations they were having. That way, I can see what they are getting, missing, commenting on and enraged about, and I can appeal to those factors later in my work.
- What do they want: Determining what the story will incorporate, beyond the general topic, will shape its reception ie. Settings, sources, historical resources, location, statistics, applicable quotes or, in my case even, a fable. It is nearly impossible to determine the use of the various tools at your writerly disposal without first reporting and then beginning to write the story, so it is imperative to keep memos on your observations, interviews, scenes and thoughts in order to be able to retroactively meet your audience’s desires. This is especially true if time or distance from the reporting alters the narrative.
- How to give it to them: Whether you begin as your own audience (as I did in the Turkey story) or you eventually ingratiate yourself with them through diligently following their conversations and news, by the time you set out to write, you are your own audience. The importance of choosing stories that you are personally invested in, no matter how tangentially, cannot be understated. It will show. Beyond that, though, you have to hone an acute sense of what you, and therefore they, would want out of a story like this. That sense incorporates a rough idea of the style of your piece, the most salient scenes, emotional or political valence, revealing interviews, and length. After enough reporting, research, time and meetings related to it, you’ll be invested. Then ask, What do I want answers to?
- Begin: What is the story? It will, hopefully, be different than your original conception. If you are not knowledgable enough on the topic, you cannot be flexible; if you cannot be flexible, the story will suffer. Then write.
- Edit: You are entering the conversation as an authority, inherently, in your position as a journalist. So your work must reflect knowledge and, in my opinion, a thoughtful and informed opinion, however implicit. If you then find what has already been offered in the Conversation (what has already been argued; what was the counter argument), you can offer a new perspective, or empower with new evidence an existing one.
- Get to the audience: You’ve found the audience already, now you have to REACH them. In my experience as a individual writer with a small publication, this typically works on a reciprocal level; you have to do the ground work early-on to build the networks necessary to your story’s eventual publication. Then, stay up to date on the topic’s news, write a relatable story, and drive your narrative toward impact.
- Get the audience to act: Usually I wonder if my fate is only to write something that people call pretty but that does nothing. So, you have to set standards of what you want to be done on account of this story. Do you want the readers to: Start a revolution, or share the link via email? Are you imploring them to vote in the next election, or Tweet the article? Do you want them to donate, or go to another site for more information? Figure it out, and build it into the narrative and, possibly, the vertical on which it will run. If you don’t have readers feeling compelled to act after you’ve written a story, you haven’t made clear enough what you want them to do.
- Watch: Follow the analytics of the piece. Where is the traffic coming from, how much is social media, how much is aggregated sharing, what are the origins of people who are interested, and where in the world are they? Pay attention to how the story is being spread, then look at engagement. Who comments, and is it in general agreement or controversy? How many likes as compared to readers? How many donations etc. Then, for your next piece, improve upon steps 1-7.
I couldn’t stop thinking of the absurdity of how the drone of a dark sea covered that fine madness with such ease; of having been enjoying that same night, that same hour, that same moment that someone had been maimed and others might still be hiding, crouched listening to the death seeking them.
The trust comes pretty quickly, if the writer is honest with herself and the editor is good. He strikes that word, or paragraph, or page. A slight tinge of reluctance evolves into a swelling pride, then morphs unsentimentally into embarrassment of and disdain for one’s own writing. How could this have been the job I chose, for I’m terrible at it.
The disdain, when allowed to dissolve by the suppression of pride, then realizes its potential. To clarify and correct, to simplify, to self-edit. Yes, it was useful to have written it, but it does not belong to the piece. The writer begins to hear the blue-inked pen in her ear. “That word is almost always unnecessary”; “This section is nonsensical”; “Do you mean escaped where you wrote rogue?”
So the editing process goes — battles fought on the same side of the war. And small victories are won, spots of blood surfacing at the margins. Ultimately, certain things become clear: A writer must have a purpose; obstruct the ego; ‘currently’ is always redundant, and God lives in specificity. Do not avoid the truth but do not presume to be able to capture it; inform; nothing will remain the way you wrote it, and it may never have existed that way to begin with.
She was a crook-nosed beauty of blonde hair, high brows and sharp cheekbones to guide you, mercilessly, to her blue, teardrop eyes, always enhanced by a cat-like black liner. Old photos reveal a bright, inconsistent woman who changed expressions and hair like her day’s clothes. As a dancer and singer, she was a piece of Istanbul’s burgeoning artistic world, her band behind her in one photo, Terry Moore and Conrad Hilton beside her in another.
In several, someone catches her in the reflection of a mirror, withdrawn, coy. There is one, though – a photo of a man’s hands sketching her in pencil – which revealed the most to her granddaughter. His thin lines dictate a lifted eyebrow, closed but soft lips, an uncertainty in her eye. I recognize her. This is the same woman who sits before me now, peering out the loft window to Nisantas, skin like paper, eyes searing blue and clear as day. They give away her inherent trepidation where otherwise it would never be found.
These are some of my people, and some of their people.
Strangers whose blood runs through me.
Who resemble my uncle, my grandmother.
How fabulous they seem, trapped in their smiles and eras, silent and fixed there, unmoved.
But they do move. They date, age, expire.
I cannot explain what unease it is to tell a personal history – what it forces and corrupts, what it distills, propels, means – because its tribulations are difficult to express. But my youthful insistence to keep myself out, a matter of inexperience, proved to make this particular story more, not less, trite than I intended. So came the day that I listened to the patient editors and began to write the story of my maternal family. I read recently, “Any personal or family history, large or small in scope, can throw light on the human condition.” This is my toss, let’s see how far it goes.
There are so many things a writer can do with her days. There’s the paper and the park. There’s breakfast and juice to squeeze. There’s no more paper towels warranting a grocery run. There’s the aunt she forgot to call and the email that has been, for days, lingering. There’s budgeting. There’s museums. There’s friends and cafes and people going by and, well, there’s a whole damn city, the kind that is always just waiting for you. So in her youthful inexperience, she cannot write. She does not write because there’s so much to write and nowhere to begin.
Sometimes the world spins so quickly beneath my feet that it feels foolish to attempt to grasp it. Doesn’t bode well for a journalist. Writing on Turkey for this project feels a great task, an explanation of a country and its history. Of course, it is not all of that, it doesn’t need to be. Instead, it might serve as just a glimpse of an experience of a single family over a couple of generations battling with its identity, with its nationalism.
When one sits down to write, though, it becomes too easy to confuse the desire for understanding (the reason I went into this strange business) with the ambition to write well, and meaningfully, so that other people can understand. Something. This is where the youthful inexperience creeps in — I can’t quite determine what I want the reader to understand. So I sit down at my desk every day, I drill something out. Some words, some sentences and paragraphs. Usually what comes out is trash. Usually it feels like exhaustive exercise, like filling in empty spaces with all the force you can muster for very little reason and even less return. Until, after days, a thought that has been hidden under the current of trite pages comes into focus. And then I call my brother, or my mother to discuss it. I bring it up at dinner parties. I back-read the newspaper. I exhaust the theory, to death. And, at last, I have an opinion on it that can stick. That can be understood. That can, even if the circumstances change, last. They call this the truth. It is not an arrogant objectivity — it is a discipline, a drill. If I can tell the truth, if even just in a single sentence, on a remote country, in a particular time, then I’ve done the job.
2,000 sentences to go.
A quote I came across, by McInerney: …Before then, I had thought of writing as something akin to divine inspiration. I would wait for the muse. Turns out you have to be dressed and ready for the muse or she will never come.
If ever you land at Ataturk Airport and make your way through the customs and baggage claim and the general civil anarchy that is Turkish travel, you’ll find yourself in a taxi weaving through traffic in a way that inspires the desire for a seatbelt, even in a New Yorker. He’ll use the exit lane and ask where you’ve come from, he’ll tell you about his family and 26-year-old son who died in a car accident last month. He’ll shed a rogue tear. Then he’ll drive you through the choked and narrow and tangled back streets off the highway, and down through Besiktas, past the old palace, onto the main road that winds along the Bosphorus.
That’s when it’ll strike you — the magnificence and its chaos. They’ll reveal themselves all at once, mutually exclusive, and Istanbul will remind you of other things (this is her greatest trick). The blurry expanse might recall the train ride between London and Paris, and the jagged coast of the Bosphorus will echo the California coastline, the sunlight shone through deep blue gradients. None of these similarities are actual; they are more like haunting whispers of nostalgia, another of her awesome powers. So then it will draw you into its wild beauty in the manner of all great loves: a sense of belonging coupled with a vast uncertainty.
This is my speculation. As it sometimes goes when one feels strongly about a place, I have the conviction that you would fall for it too; that you might, upon seeing it, wither away in an instant just to be injected with a red hot blood, for that is what this place is capable of. You’d love it. You simply must.
It goes: A wrong calculation made comes back from Baghdad.
Where I wrote “Turkey” in the margins but, likely, many a place would do:
“I could not do without the soil.” -Letters to a German Friend, Third Letter
“…with the blood of men.” -The Blood of Freedom
“This dreadful travail will give birth to a revolution.” -The Blood of Freedom
“It lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition.” -The Night of Truth
“They were served coffee and then handcuffed.” -The Flesh
“Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great unequal battle has begun.” -The Unbeliever and Christians
“The world I live in is loathsome to me, but I feel one with the men who suffer in it.” -Why Spain?
“to bear witness and shout aloud, every time it is possible, insofar as our talent allows, for those who are enslaved as we are.” -Why Spain?
“Thus, in my opinion, there are to ways for an intellectual to betray at present, and in both cases he betrays because he accepts a single thing…” -Bread and Freedom
“And if anyone, knowing it, still think heroically that one’s brother must die rather than one’s principles, I shall go no farther than to admire him from a distance. I am not of his stamp.” -Preface to Algerian Reports
“And censorship, always stupid, whether resulting from shame or cynicism, will not change anything about these truths.” -Preface to Algerian Reports
“When violence answers violence in a growing frenzy that makes the simple language of reason impossible, the role of intellectuals cannot be, as we read everyday, to excuse from a distance one of the violences and condemn the other.” -Preface to Algerian Reports
“Let me repeat, this is our wager.” -The Artist and His Time
“Like all freedom, it is a perpetual risk, an exhausting adventure, and this is why people avoid the risk today, as they avoid liberty with its exacting demands, in order to accept any kind of bondage and achieve at least comfort of soul.” -Create Dangerously
“Today everything is changed and even silence has dangerous implications.” -Create Dangerously
We sat at a beachside café that night, sipping raki under a dark sky, clouds known only by the disappearance of the stars they cover then reveal again, murky in their invisible insistence. These are the young philosophers, studying for doctorates or teaching in Istanbul. Just 800 meters or so from the brightly lit morbidity of the hotel dinner of speakers, hosts and the occasional sycophant, these drunken and cheap friends speak abstractly about philosophy but particularly about sex, drugs and politics.“If you want sex to be perfect you’ve failed somehow.” “My kids don’t know Rembrandt so I begin the lessons with porn. You have to get their attention, and work up.” “Hillary Clinton is a fascist.” They’ve deemed themselves “The Parallel,” the naughty underbelly of intellectualism here, Assos, as to not let the stench of the academic rigor mortis reach them too soon. Then, though, the news fell swiftly down when one Englishman with wifi announced that an attack had killed 20 at the airport. “20 now, 50 tomorrow,” someone uttered between sips. People undug their previously buried phones to connect to the terror, watched the facts unfold with a strengthening signal, and began to call friends and relatives. As we sat in this deadened night, of skinny dips and playful abstractions, the absurdity of our place descending on us with no remorse. Like a brutal unraveling, it seemed the hope and humor, the optimism of centuries of history and thought on this land, the calm of a black sea at our feet evolved into horror and guilt, guilt for a distance sought by coming here, by not being there, and horror in knowing such escapism was long impossible, that someone had been maimed and others might still be hiding, crouched listening to the death seeking them. There was nowhere to run, here. Even if you wanted to, it would be bold and you would be a bold coward. Who was traveling today, people asked themselves. Among the day’s travelers were classmates, cousins, brothers, a daughter. I could not help but ask what this group of people would do, what was their permanent, if unexpected, responsibility. Is it not the burden of the intellectual, this group of countrymen and educators, to stand for justice and intelligence, expression, liberty? It is. Yet, they do not budge. They go on, fearful, uncompelled by their position — a fight is not what they chose. It is for someone else. “Just when you being to feel settled, it happens again,” one woman remarks. “And the worst part is, we are no longer surprised,” the man next to her said. Across from him, a philosophy of art teacher remarks that his brother was hoping to become a journalist and his family implores him to choose more carefully, reminding him of the contemporary risk of such a radical endeavor. “It is a radical thing to do in Turkey,” he said. But then, I asked, who else will do it? Are our memories so short? Have we forgotten the black night of tyranny and how silently it ruins? Will we not demand of ourselves a declaration of opposition? Injustice has a clever way of soundlessly destroying its threats. Then, reluctant to heed its warnings, just rubble will be left and it is much harder to build than to destroy. At last, when the rubble has settled and the haze of its dust has obscured the night’s sky, justice will call in our debts then, and we will pay with blood or, worse still, our liberty.
My mother calls. I answer with the solemn knowledge that my brother is in the airport. He was leaving for New York today. “It’s all ruined,” she said. “They ruined it. It’s ruined.”
Here I am, between worlds.