The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers

The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers

by Terry McDonell


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An Amazon Best Book of 2016

A celebration of the writing and editing life, as well as a look behind the scenes at some of the most influential magazines in America (and the writers who made them what they are).

You might not know Terry McDonell, but you certainly know his work. Among the magazines he has top-edited: Outside, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated. In this revealing memoir, McDonell talks about what really happens when editors and writers work with deadlines ticking (or drinks on the bar). His stories about the people and personalities he’s known are both heartbreaking and bitingly funny—playing “acid golf” with Hunter S. Thompson, practicing brinksmanship with David Carr and Steve Jobs, working the European fashion scene with Liz Tilberis, pitching TV pilots with Richard Price.

Here, too, is an expert’s practical advice on how to recruit—and keep—high-profile talent; what makes a compelling lede; how to grow online traffic that translates into dollars; and how, in whatever format, on whatever platform, a good editor really works, and what it takes to write well.

Taking us from the raucous days of New Journalism to today’s digital landscape, McDonell argues that the need for clear storytelling from trustworthy news sources has never been stronger. Says Jeffrey Eugenides: “Every time I run into Terry, I think how great it would be to have dinner with him. Hear about the writers he's known and edited over the years, what the magazine business was like back then, how it's changed and where it's going, inside info about Edward Abbey, Jim Harrison, Annie Proulx, old New York, and the Swimsuit issue. That dinner is this book.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101970515
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/11/2017
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 819,658
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

TERRY McDONELL has won numerous awards for his editorial work at various magazines and websites. He is also a novelist and poet, and has written and produced for film and television. In 2012 he was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame. He is the president of the board of the Paris Review Foundation and serves on the Board of Overseers of the Columbia Journalism Review. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

My Editor

There is nothing finer than deciding to write.

And if, like me, you were a young writer in the 1970s, there was almost too much to write about. Norman Mailer actually complained about this. Vietnam had a lot to do with it because friends had been there, or had gone and weren’t coming back. And there was The Movement, however you defined it, and the music and the drugs, and everyone drank and had sex with each other. No one wants to read any more about that, but there was a shocking inevitability to the way things were turning out.

Something else was always there too, just beneath the surface, no matter how uncomfortable or embarrassing it was to define. Writers talked about it, about writing and being writers. Ken Kesey said, “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.” That’s the kind of writer we all wanted to be. What if writers were the story? What an idea.

Depending on how well you wrote and how often you changed jobs or assignments, other writers came in and out of your life. Some of them were already famous and others would be soon, but celebrity didn’t matter because you knew something together—the private thrill that comes from writing a clear and unique sentence. The craft of it. James Salter liked to “rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them.” Writing is exactly that, and there is no work like it because it is so complicated to know when you are done. Riffing about writing journalism, Renata Adler wrote, in her novel Speedboat, about giving “a piece of sugar to a raccoon, which in its odd fastidiousness would wash that sugar in a brook till there was nothing left.”

Editors can help with that.
Before I became  an  editor,  I had an intuition about what readers wanted: they wanted to read whatever I wanted to write. Sure they did. I just needed a little editing sometimes. Every editor I ever had, including the bad ones, was strict about a piece living or dying by its language—even if they couldn’t write themselves, which of course they couldn’t. That’s why they were editors. Or so I thought until I met the editor who made me an editor.
His name was Bob Sherrill—the Other Bob Sherrill. He used the Other to distinguish himself from Robert Sherrill, the writer who had just published The Saturday Night Special, a book about handguns so smart that the Other Bob Sherrill said you just wanted to hold it up to your forehead. The Other Bob Sherrill was Robert Sherrill’s editor for a while, and he was my editor, too.

At forty-one, he was known in the magazine world to be crazy and shrewd and kind all at once. He was said to be especially good with young writers, and was also known for outdressing them in his white high-top Chuck Taylors with the fluorescent red laces (untied), his baggy blue-and-white seersucker suits and his black T-shirts, a green-and-pink silk bandanna around his neck and a Black Watch beret over his shaggy strawberry blond hair. Plus his Ray-Bans, rain or shine. Bob was colorful.

He was also a bit surreal, a flipped-out literary ice-cream man, but handsome too, and women liked him, and I worked for him as a reporter at a start-up weekly called LA that we were saying was like, you know, “the Village Voice, but for Los Angeles.” Bob never said that, though. He had come west on an “editorial whim” (his phrase) after some turbulent years in New York at Esquire, where he had been a sly packager and helped “midwife” (ditto) journalistic innovations from Dubious Achievements to that genre-cracking run of pieces that defined the New Journalism. Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Mailer—every writer in the country knew the grow- ing roll call and wanted to be on it. Bob had edited many of them and liked to talk about how they got their story ideas.

“From editors, of course,” he would say, riding shotgun with a Mexican beer between his knees, motoring around Southern California with one or another of the young writers who worked for Bob had hired me thinking he was getting a solid wire service reporter, which I was not—although I had spent time in Beirut and Amman during the 1970 Jordanian civil war that became known as Black September and had been picked up by AP News features in New York. What I was, was ambitious and that’s what Bob said he liked about my story ideas—that, and that I had been reading Esquire since high school, was a little older than the other reporters, and had the best car.

Bob would never let you use eventful in a piece but this particular day was that for me, driving us both down the coast in my Fiat convert- ible to a party in Dana Point thrown by a former AP reporter named Pat McNulty, who had reinvented himself as the editor of Surfer mag- azine. I knew McNulty and the invitation had come through me. When I’d told Bob about it, I’d said there would be surfers for sure but also journalists, maybe a couple novelists, and also people in the new MFA program at U.C. Irvine, where McNulty was teaching. If there was a West Coast literary “scene” (a word Bob liked) to match up with Tom Wolfe’s recent piece on surf culture, “The Pump House Gang,” this would be it.

I knew Bob would be the center of the party as he always was wherever writers and alcohol came together. All the way down the Pacific Coast Highway we talked story ideas. Bob was warming up for the writers who would soon be circling for a chance to talk to him, all of them wanting to break trail for an assignment from Esquire, where he was still a contributing editor. Somewhere near Laguna Beach I said something about how anybody interested in journalism (like me) would want to read a piece by someone like Wolfe or Talese or Mailer or anyone good on Bob himself, and what was about to hap- pen to him at the party.

Bob had a way of cocking his head when he was enjoying whatever he was thinking. That’s what he did then, and told me he thought I thought like an editor and we should both think about that. Think about me becoming an editor. Think about making magazines.
“Think about monkeys jumping out of boxes,” he said. “That’s what good editors do.” I had not heard that one but figured he was talking about jack-in-the-box surprises. I nodded. He cocked his head again. I waited.
  “Plus,” he said, taking another pull from his Tecate, “good editors never have to drive.”

Word Count (320)
Editing is about ideas, but it is mechanical, too. You have to get under the hood of the language, and editors use many tools. I’ll start by leaving the word counts at the top of my chapters because as an editor I always wanted to know how much I was about to read. This helped me evaluate pacing or the lack of it in a piece. Writers were sensitive to this once they found out how I worked, and were generally attuned to length, even if they weren’t being paid by the word.
At all the magazines I edited (Rolling Stone, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, et al.), feature stories were assigned at a specific length— usually four thousand words—and most writers would take that over five thousand and say they were close. Others would come in under three thousand and say the same thing. It was mysterious why being direct about the number of words they were filing was so difficult but I am sure it had more to do with alchemy than lack of discipline. Before Microsoft Word, stopping to count how many words you’d typed could be refreshing, like stopping to make tea or smoke a cigarette. Now doing a word count can have a slot machine kick to it if you have the discipline not to do it every time you hit Save.
None of this matters if the piece is good—and that’s determined by voice and narrative, not length. Going long is always more ambitious and usually more fun. This was true before lengthy pieces became “creative nonfiction” or “narrative journalism,” and it is true now that we’ve finally debunked the simple-minded Web assumption that no one will screen-read anything longer than a news capsule. No writer I ever edited wanted to go short, anyway. Neither do I, but I also know that the best pieces seem to find their own length. That’s the alchemy.

Jim Harrison (525)
The first chapter of Jim Harrison’s first novel, Wolf, begins with a two-page sentence. He says it was vanity, that he wanted to show it could be done because he was a young writer and hungry.
That was in 1971. A few years later when I was starting to work with him, I asked if his editor had tried to do something with that first sentence.
“Of course,” he said wearily, as if in my tragic inexperience I was unable to grasp the basic construct of editing him. Jim did little revising and was proud of it. Rewriting was for people who hadn’t worked everything out early—not for Jim, who insisted that he always thought things through before he wrote anything down. As for edi- tors, why should he let them fool with his choices? They were not, as he had explained to me when we first met, writers. He also liked to note that he was a poet and “editors don’t change poems.”
“I wouldn’t change any of your poems either,” I said, but when it came to his journalism I wasn’t so sure. Being above editing was a pose some writers found situationally useful, the way some children are “allergic” to lima beans. It was the foot Jim liked to get off on and, sure enough, we tangled over copy our first time around. I was at Outside magazine and suggested that his lede on a story about Key West was really the second paragraph and the first paragraph should be the kicker at the end of the piece. He hung up on me.
I got an immediate follow-up call from his agent, Bob Datilla, a tough, reasonable guy.
“You want to pull the piece?” I asked, after his declension of my shortcomings.
“Of course not,” Datilla said. “We just want to be on the record about what a dumb shit you are.” (Pause.) “But Jim can be difficult, too.”
 “So we’ll all think about it?” I said.
I’m not sure how much we all thought about it, but I switched the paragraphs to what I’d suggested and we never discussed the piece again. Maybe Jim didn’t notice. But I learned to tread lightly or risk being told, as I once was by him, “You lynched my baby.” His raw copy was so ambitious that I usually just checked the copy edit and wrote the headline. We talked about other things, like what we were having for dinner, as well as what we were reading. My working relationship with Jim and other writers, my growing friendships with them, was nourished by even the mundane details of their lives.
In Wolf, Jim wrote, Perhaps I’ll never see a wolf. And I don’t offer this little problem as central to anyone but myself. Fair enough. As a reader, I took that as a glance at a private mystery. As an editor, I wanted that wolf to be my problem, too. I wanted to ride along. I hoped that was how I could become a good editor, by editing great writers and getting to know them. The ancient Greeks had a word for this: hubris.

From the book THE ACCIDENTAL LIFE by Terry McDonell, copyright 2016 by Terry McDonell. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Table of Contents


My Editor 3

Word Count 7

Jim Harrison 8

The Other Bob Sherrill 10

Rejection 12

Ed Abbey 17

Sans Serif 25

Peter Matthiessen 28

Learning Curve 35

Boy Howdy! 37

Tom McGuane 41

Cahill 51

Pygmalion 55

P. J. O'Rourke 60

Money 62

Bob Ward 65

Editcraft 70

Kurt Vonnegut 71

Writer's Block 75

Steve Jobs 76

More Money 80

Jimmy Buffett 84

Richard Price 88

The Hallmarkcardian Wars 96

Discouragement 102

Jann Wenner 104

Covers, Newsstands, Hits 109

Hunter Thompson 113

Gonzo 119

Dark Nights 121

Bibliomemoir 125


Ambition 129

Shooters 132

Slide Culture 136

Collaboration (with Rust Hills) 140

Assignments 147

Little Jimmy 152

Display 157

The Older Bob Sherrill 159

Women's Magazines 162

Men's Fashion 168

Liz Tilberis 170

Cowboy-Hippie-Poet Weird 179

Truth(s) 181

Richard Ford 183

Fiction, Nonfiction 189

James Salter 191

Rocks, Feathers, Shells 199


Elaine, Francis and Louie 207

George Plimpton 212

Camouflage 227

Hunter 229

Weather Report 243

Hunter and George 245

Warren Hinckle 250

Jann 254

The End of Fun 261


Pocho 267

Deadlines 270

Mozart de Prairie 273

Mix 279

Robert F. Jones 282

Less Money 288

David Carr 290

Shipwreck 297

Letters to the Editor 299

SI 301


Reilly 309

Swimsuit 313

Ad Sales 321

Steve Jobs Thinks Your Work Is Really Stupid 324

The Machiavelli Club 328

Google 333

Tenure 336

When Editors Were Gods 340

The Accidental Life 343

Photographs 349

Stet 357

Sourcing 367

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