Brian Doyle

If, in your rare buoyant or less rare unassured moments you fancy yourself a fine writer, you regard other fine writers, especially the ones you know, with a complex gumbo of admiration, envy, respect, jealousy, mystery, yearning, studiousness, fondness, and recognition.

Brian Doyle, who died Saturday from what brain cancer does to the body, would have written the latter part of that sentence more like “with a complex dark astringent wild gumbo of admiration and envy and respect and jealousy and a deep mystery and a human yearning and studiousness and fondness and recognition” because more than anything else he was exuberant with words, a wild and reverent and irreverent and exalted word-drunk scribbler who could deeply move me one moment and piss me off the next. Writers who can do that are the real thing. They write like they mean it. They knock a wobble into our stride, an essential forced veer from the witless path we are on, the one that leads to our fearful and semi-blind and smug and sketchy “grasp” of life.

I knew Brian for more than 20 years. Our friendship most often consisted of brisk emails, his invariably signed “bd.” I paid close attention to his unique university magazine, Portland, and he paid attention to mine. We’d bitch about things, share a discrete derisory chuckle about some new folly of our academic milieu or publishing niche, and on those rarest occasions when we found ourselves in the same city, have lunch. He had an assurance about his judgement that lived on the fringes of arrogance. William Blake was the English language’s greatest visionary poet and that’s all there is to it, Van Morrison had no equal as a singer and songwriter, Robert Louis Stevenson and Plutarch were without peer, the serial comma was essential. He once argued strenuously with the Dalai Lama about which was the greatest sport, basketball or soccer. He never made Van Morrison listenable for me, but to several classrooms of undergraduates I taught his roisterous exemplary essay on Van the Man, published by The American Scholar, one of Brian’s regular launchpads. I thought that sometimes he worked too hard casting himself as another in the ancient line of voluble Irish bards, and I may have been the only person in the room who cringed when he induced a rapt audience at the CASE Editors Forum to sing “Amazing Grace.” Can’t say why, I just did. Then I’d read something new from his pen and think goddam that boy can write, and understand all over again that he was one of those rarest of scribblers who make writers want to write something new on the chance that they too might create something so resonant and true and emotionally potent. Now and then I got a note from him praising something I’d written and I’d think, Well, there’s something.

I think he was a serious Catholic and reverent about many things, but he could be gleefully irreverent and obscene. As I’ve said, he wasn’t much for commas, especially not commas impeding the cascade of adjectives he might fling into a single sentence, and I remember him telling me about going over an edit of one of his essays. The copyeditor, following her stylebook or Strunk & White or whatever her source for grammatical edicts, had doggedly injected commas into Brian’s prose. No no no. He began marking them for excision one by one—stet, stet, stet—countermanding the editor, who perhaps had edited with her brain and memory for rules instead of her ear. After a dozen individual annotations, a dozen stipulations that he did not want a comma there or there or there, he lost his patience and scrawled on the manuscript “STET FUCKING STET!!!” He cackled with joy when he told me this story.

In a 2007 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, Brian wrote this:

…At age 50 I conclude that I was born and made for stories; I am a storyman. I believe with all my hoary heart that stories save lives, and the telling and hearing of them is a holy thing, powerful far beyond our ken. Without the sea of stories in which we swim we would wither and die. We are here for each other, to touch and be touched, to lose our tempers and beg forgiveness, to listen and to tell, to hail and farewell, to laugh and to snarl, to use words as knives and caresses, to puncture lies and to heal what is broken.

…I am a storycatcher, charged with finding stories that matter, stories about who we are at our best, who we might be still, because without stories we are only mammals with weapons. I am here to point at shards of holiness. That’s all. That’s enough.

I now have, above my work desk, a small slip of paper taped to the cabinet. It reads “RBD/DIN.” Remember Brian Doyle. Do it now. The “do it now” part refers to those creative projects I want to do but keep putting off; I often have trouble starting, trouble with that first step. Brian did not appear to have that problem, editing his magazine, raising three kids, being a good husband, and writing eight or nine books. I doubt Brian expected to be dead at 60. Were I to die tomorrow at age 63, I’d have a much shorter list of accomplishments because, in part, I always think I’ll have time. I don’t feel that way now.

So those of you with creative projects with some vague deadline in the future? Things you want to accomplish for your magazine? Things you want to do with your life? Tomorrow, or today, in the next hour, take a first step. It doesn’t have to be a big one. Just take a step. then take another one tomorrow. Remember Brian Doyle. Do it now.

Jacqui Banaszynski

Jacqui Banaszynski—Pulitzer winner, globe-trotting teacher, editor, writer, frequent presenter at the CASE Editors Forum—has been a friend of mine for more than 25 years. She thinks about the importance of story and the role of storyteller as well and with as much eloquence as anyone I know. The Romanian writer Cristian Lupsa, who has studied with her, recently posted this bit of writerly wisdom from Banaszynski. It reminds me of Brian Doyle:

Stories are our prayers. Write and edit them with due reverence, even when the stories themselves are irreverent.

Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.

Stories are history. Write and edit and tell yours with accuracy and understanding and context and with unwavering devotion to the truth.

Stories are music. Write and edit and tell yours with pace and rhythm and flow. Throw in the dips and twirls that make them exciting, but stay true to the core beat. Readers hear stories with their inner ear.

Stories are our soul. Write and edit and tell yours with your whole selves. Tell them as if they are all that matters. It matters that you do it as if that’s all there is.

Though you can never be sure where in the world she is at any given moment—Missouri, Florida, Romania, China, Maryland—Banaszynski has a house in Seattle. Next year’s Editors Forum will be in Seattle. You see where I’m going here.

Editors Forum 2017, Day Two

And on the second day, no rest for us. A full day of keynote presentations and elective sessions.

— From Evan Ratliff, co-founder of The Atavist and the Longform podcast (who was superb): “We’ve just experienced a radical failure of comprehension. You can’t fix that with hard news. You fix that with stories.”

— More from Ratliff: If you are ever describing your story to someone, notice the first thing you tell them about it. And never take that thing out of the written piece.

— And more: Stories, deep meaningful stories, are essential to our primary mission, to engaging an audience in the only way that matters—sustained reading. And what matters is not the digital media metrics. “You’re trying to reach people. Clicks are not people. Tweets are not people. Downloads are not people.”

— Kerry Temple, Notre Dame Magazine: “A Notre Dame education does not end when students graduate. Notre Dame Magazine extends continuing education to them.”

— Temple again: “When I say we cover the institution, we cover the institution. We are not a mouthpiece for the administration.”

— And again: In anticipation of controversy over a story you want to do, address the concerns of your bosses early in the process. “Don’t get too far out in front of your blockers.”

— And: “When readers get the magazine, I want them to feel like they’re having a visit to campus.”

— Kat Braz, Purdue Alumnus: Question the rules about what’s acceptable in magazine design; you might find that you want to break some.

— More Braz: “Crop [photos] like a mofo.”

— Sean Plottner and Wendy McMillan, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine: Stop shooting pictures of professors and students standing next to a globe, a bookshelf, or an open laptop.

— More McPlottner: Stop worrying about stealing. Stop running crappy headshots. Stop with the boring history. Stop being so serious with science stories. Stop with all the meetings. Stop running cutesy author’s bios. Stop running editor’s notes. And stop using semicolons.

— Richard Rhys, Wharton Magazine, and Renee Olsen, TCNJ Magazine: Casual conversations with senior administrators over lunch are much more fruitful than office meetings.

— Matt Jennings, Middlebury Magazine: “Recording an interview frees you up to notice things the digital device doesn’t. That doesn’t mean get lazy.”

— Jennings again: “Have a good plan [for an interview], but plan on deviating from your plan. The interview subject is driving the train.”

— Madeleine Baran, American Public Media and the podcast In the Dark: “Start [reporting] by assuming you’re wrong.” Continue reporting until you’ve run out of good arguments for being wrong. Only then are you probably right.

— Some more Baran: “It’s not just about knowing the facts of a place. It’s also important to know the feel of a place.”

Editors Forum 2017, Day One

 

The 2017 CASE Editors Forum wrapped up in Chicago last week, attended by about 230 magazinistas from dozens of North American colleges, universities, and independent schools. I thought it was a success, but then I would, since I co-chaired it with the wicked smart Pam Fogg of Middlebury.

Judging by what was posted to the conference’s Twitter hashtag, (#caseedforum, which quickly became known among the wags as California Seed Forum) here are the points that had the most meaning for those who attended Day One:

— Teresa Scalzo, Carleton Voice: University magazines are not competing for readers’ attention with other institutional magazines, they’re competing with all other magazines. We have to be that good.

— More Scalzo: “Print is now a luxury item. Let’s celebrate that and give our readers something they can’t get online.”

— And: Art in the magazine can start a dialog that the reader resolves.

— And: Plan content for the 5-, the 15-, and the cover-to-cover reader. Then plan to transform that 5-minute reader into a 15-minute reader.

— And: Photo captions can do more than just explain a photo. Because people commonly read photo captions before they read the story, captions can be to the story what a trailer is to a feature film.

— From Ann Finkbeiner, science writer: Don’t ask scientists why they’re doing their work. Ask them about their surprises, their struggles, their breakthroughs, their excitement.

— More Finkbeiner: In pursuit of an engaging narrative, never compromise the science by veering from fact.

— More: “You’ll know it’s a story when you’ve figured out where the tension is.” Is it between competing scientists? Between contending ideas? That’s where you begin.

— And one more: “The whole enterprise of finding the truth depends on our telling it.”

— Alissa Levin, Point Five: Limitations such as small staff or small budget can work for you. “Restraint breeds creativity. Restrictions are good. We need them to get started and know where we need to go.”

— Levin again: A digital redesign starts with what needs to happen on mobile platforms. “Mobile-first helps us focus on what’s most important and therefore leads to the best, cleanest design.”

— And: “Your website will never be finished. You always have more to do. But take it in stages, it’s less overwhelming.”

— From Evan Ratliff, co-founder of The Atavist and the Longform podcast (who was superb): “We’ve just experienced a radical failure of comprehension. You can’t fix that with hard news. You fix that with stories.”

— More from Ratliff: If you are ever describing your story to someone, notice the first thing you tell them about it. And never take that thing out of the written piece.

— Kerry Temple, Notre Dame Magazine: “A Notre Dame education does not end when students graduate. Notre Dame Magazine extends continuing education to them.”

— Kat Braz, Purdue Alumnus: Question the rules about what’s acceptable in magazine design; you might find that you want to break some.


And yes, UMagazinology has resumed. Thank you for reading.