The Accidental Life by Terry McDonell, Reviewed.
I heard about The Accidental Life on National Public Radio, in a Renee Montagne interview. (Can anyone who reads Mark Rubin Writes imagine life without NPR?) I was not familiar with Terry McDonell, but I bought his book within days. Reading it has been a pleasure!
Terry McDonell has been a major-league magazine editor for decades. He served as Editor-in-Chief of Esquire, Smart, and Us Weekly, Managing Editor of Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated, etc. Mr. McDonell’s métier? Bringing to his magazines great essays by fiction writers extraordinaire. And producing great books, weekly and monthly.
Mr. McDonell uses the essay format for The Accidental Life. There are 75+, varying in length from a few hundred words to almost 5000. The word count is a conceit, explained in Word Count (320), the second essay. It’s a worthy reminder that writing involves both ideas and mechanics, and that limits always exist. (Later, Mr. McDonell mentions the value associated with pages in a publication. Everything should be worthy!)
Early on, in Rejection (1,492), we get both an acknowledgement that writing for others, for money, requires thick skin, and—obliquely (with more direct words later)—that having a pair helps. Here’s Native America poet Francesca Bills, shared by Mr. McDonell, on both subjects:
I Long to Hold the Poetry Editor’s Penis in My Hand
and tell him personally,
I’m sorry, but I’m going
to have to pass on this.
Though your piece
held my attention through
the first two screenings,
I don’t feel it is a good fit
for me at this time.
Please know it received
my careful consideration.
I thank you for allowing
me to have a look,
and I wish you
the very best of luck
placing it elsewhere.
As an amateur writer, I enjoyed very much the pieces about the work of writing. I also appreciated the insights into the world of publishing, before, during, and after the advent of the Internet. Alas, non-writers may find the stories about Mr. McDonell’s writers more entertaining. I won’t address directly the several essays which focus directly or indirectly on Hunter S. Thompson. Sidesplittingly funny and poignant at the same time, and I don’t want to spoil any of them … but don’t miss Warren Hinkle (1,162) and the tale of Henry Luce, the office mascot.
Mr. McDonell has had special relationships with many great writers from the second half of the last century, including Hunter Thompson, Edward Albey, Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, Peter Mathiessen, and P.J. O’Rourke. Most special, perhaps, was his relationship with George Plimpton, bon vivant, professional amateur, fine writer and great editor. (Mr. Plimpton was a founder of, and until he died on September 25, 2003 the editor of, The Paris Review. Mr. McDonell is its board president.)
George Plimpton (4,992)—the longest piece in the book—may be the finest essay I’ve ever read about a man. Early on, Mr. McDonell offers these words:
The Lesson of George, I came to think, was “Good times should be orchestrated and not left to the uncertainties of chance.” This was the most important thing A.E. Hotchner* said he learned from Hemingway, and George said “Papa” had taught him that same lesson. There is nothing sadder than small regrets, and when I first met George I thought he had very few of those. When I knew him better, I wasn’t so sure.
Alas, the essay ends with the last thought George Plimpton committed to a piece of paper or a computer, saved in a file very early in the morning of the day on which he died in his sleep. Quoting André Gide, he observed:
The drawback to a journey that has been too well planned is that it does not leave enough room for adventure.
From a writer’s perspective, Mr. McDonell pulls off this juxtaposition over 12 pages—almost all of the essay—without any signposts or explanations. Less can truly be more! And for a reader whose life always included Mr. Plimpton as a “one-off,” not enough room for adventure? Really? How terribly sad!
Many of us live in the space between order and chaos, always trying to reconcile order and chaos. The issue challenges me more than any other, at this particular stage in my life. That the issue plagued someone who seemingly had it all, and that someone else—Mr. McDonell—can share that fact so beautifully, gives me comfort on a cool winter night.
Terry McDonell has shared his life—the life of a magazine editor, during the beginning of what may ultimately be the end of print publishing as many of us knew it—in a very broad way. In addition, though, he has provided an intimate look at the way in which people collaborate. All in all, it’s a fascinating memoir, and one I expect that I will return to often.