When Writers Write about Writers

Pamela Hill NettletonEssaysLeave a Comment

When the voice of a superb writer is stilled, a community of people who make their living by putting feelings into wise and nuanced words does what it does best. Writers write about writers we have lost.

The colleagues and friends of New York Times media columnist David Carr have remembered and mourned him since his untimely death in the newsroom on February 12.

Before he was published in The Atlantic Monthly and the Times, Carr wrote for and then edited an alternative weekly newspaper in Minneapolis/St. Paul called the Twin Cities Reader. The Reader took on civic issues of urban policy and social justice, running long form stories that annoyed and delighted people, depending on whether or not you were the subject of the news. Carr’s years in the Twin Cities, once legendary among local journalists, are now legendary on a national scale, thanks to his riveting Night of the Gun, an account of that time and his struggles with addiction.

During those years and beyond, I was a freelance writer and then a magazine editor in Minneapolis. I did not know Carr well, but everyone I did know well, did. He was admired. He was adored. Things he wrote made other writers shake their heads and say, “Damn. I wish I’d written that.”

Journalists are a crusty lot, given to harboring professional jealousies and doling out praise to worthy competitors with an eyedropper, but fiercely loyal to each other in foxholes and on barstools. The best storyteller at any party is a journalist, and one doesn’t always want another within earshot to fact check the veracity of the tale. We’ve all said things to each other about each other that we have forbidden each other to write about. But journalists have big, broken hearts and a yearning to make at least small corners of the world right again, so they remembered Carr by gathering together in that metaphysical, existential way in which words penned miles apart fly through the ether, meet and acknowledge one another, and then pass right by.

Minnesota boys Brian Lambert, Jim Walsh, and Scott Gillespie deftly eulogized Carr. David Brauer, who wrote for Carr’s competition, City Pages, and who has been my editor in other incarnations, tweeted a heartbreakingly gorgeous remembrance that is a lesson in how to write a memoir in 140-character bits. You can read what they and others wrote on the print and web pages of the finest publications in the land. They don’t need to be quoted by the likes of me. But I do want to take note of their task because it says something not only about a writer, but something about writing.

It hurts us so to lose a writer because a writer’s voice becomes a reader’s internal one, lingering like a party guest who forgot to go home, commenting and critiquing, suggesting better adjectives, and making certain we don’t miss the scenery or the good bits. The loss of a writer is the loss of a conscience.

In remembering Carr, other writers explore the human meaning-making mystery of laboring to leave a mark—on a cave wall, a page or a life. Writers feel a kinship with other writers, even ones we never meet, because we are mutually intimate with the frustration of staring at a blank screen and trying to will genius into existence. Like parents who are strangers but meet each other’s gaze over the heads of their toddlers in a shopping mall, we nod wearily in recognition when we meet. We know our own people, and salute. It is a noble and aspirational and doomed thing to try to write words that touch other humans, and it’s so rarely done well that one wonders why we bother.

As a media critic, Carr didn’t just do our work, he wrote about what it was like to do our work. He wrote about us and welcomed young people who wanted to be us and said cogent, sensible things about how to write your way through the world. He honored the heroic dream of journalism—that it ought to count, and change things, and be a tough slog. And he and those who loved his work honor, too, the doomed task of a writer: to attempt to delight and repair the world with mere syllables and semi-colons, because there may be no more mighty way to do it.

Pamela Hill Nettleton is an author and assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Marquette University.

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