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Thanksgiving 2016 Reflections from Lake Tahoe

Editor Terry McDonell on a Lifetime of Writing - and Writers

Terry McDonell, author of the new memoir, The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers, has edited some of the best writers of our generation -- and likely some of them are better because of him. Yet he opened his remarks at the independent bookstore Book Passage in Marin County, California with a confession - "I could not get a good job as a writer, so I began to tumble my way into editing jobs." That reflection was familiar ground to the appreciative roomful of writers, editors and would be writers and editors!

What's more, he added: "Perhaps the reason I wrote this book was to show myself as a writer to the writers I've edited. It's the vanity..." Another sympathetic chuckle rippled through the audience.2016-09-30 20.01.51

McDonell's down-to-earth honesty that makes his book all the better, as he offers real insights into the writers, interpreting their egos wryly, digging into their creativity with curiosity and augmenting A-list books with insider stories. During his appearance at the popular neighborhood bookstore in Corte Madera, here's what he had to say about a few of his star authors back in the late '60s-early '70s when the New Journalism was inspiring an entire generation:

  • Tom McGuane - "I went carefully, but steadfastly through an explanation of why I revised some of his material to make it better, and he said to me, 'I did that on purpose.' It made me more careful about assuming I could make moves like that."
  • Jim Harrison - "When I inserted a semi-colon in a sentence that ran two-and-a-half pages, he said, 'You lynched my baby.'"
  • Kurt Vonnegut - "I learned so much about him by watching him interact with other writers. We were once at lunch at Smith & Wolensky, and what I observed was that at a table full of writers, there is always one dominant writer. If you get more than one who wants to be dominant, it's trouble...Kurt also had a great time berating editors, but he knew he needed them."

McDonell was part of the heyday of major media companies like Time and Newsweek, giants of the media infrastructure that resulted from massive investments in the 1950s and 1960s, but, like interstate highways and airports, suffered structural failure from lapses of imagination and without continuous investments from the 1980s on. As cultural behaviors and information technologies began to change, most of these businesses didn't - at least sufficiently - and, today, he mused,"the lack of innovation and investment are bringing these buildings down..."

Likely the only magazines that will survive will be for the luxury market and other discrete segments, he forecast. The strength of magazines has always been their "voice....It's hard to create tone and voice on the web." What's more, beautiful words like "curate" ("one of the most greatest words of all time") have become jargon. "It makes me sad, but 'curate' is still an improvement over 'content.'"

While many readers will dive into McDonell's memoir for the stories about iconic writer-personalities, like George Plimpton and Hunter Thompson, let's also hope that one of McDonell's lasting contributions will be his sincere reflections on the craft of writing - and the purity and meaning of carefully chosen words on a page. Especially a printed page.