Joan Didion once famously said that a writer is always selling someone out. I don’t think that’s true, exactly. I mean, we’re not that malevolent, are we?
What I do think is that most people don’t understand anything quite significant when it comes to dealing with writers and journalists. That is: A writer will almost invariably get the last word. Why can’t people figure that out? Why don’t they realize that it’s usually in their own best interests to at least be polite to writers and journalists?
One of my journalist friends (who knows exactly who she is and will recognize herself immediately) once profiled another friend of mine who had one of the most miserable ex-husbands on the planet. I exaggerate not at all, I kid you not one whit. This guy redefined the parameters of jerk-dom and was loathed by women up and down every street in our neighborhood. All of which I repeatedly hinted to my journalist friend, just to properly inform her and give her important background information. I recalled many, many stories of his various misdeeds and his cretinous nature. The more she seemed to ignore me, the more I talked. Wasn’t she going to listen to my objective concerns?
Then the article came out. I had told her that this man, an oral surgeon, always liked to refer to himself as a “doctor,” trying to blur the distinctions between the worlds of medicine and dentistry. She’d written a long article, mostly about my friend, but with some quotes from her slimy ex. In the initial description, she referred to him as a “dentist.”
The beauty of that oh-so-innocent reference (slipped in like a shiv) was that it was technically true, and, at the same time, very precisely wounding to a preening ego.
“Way to go!” I told the journalist, when I spoke to her.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said.
Similarly, as a beginning journalist, I once interviewed a university theater director in Virginia. He and his students were putting on a play from Preston Jones’ Texas Trilogy, “Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander.” I was from Texas, I loved plays, I wanted to write about it, I called him and arranged for an appointment.
I still don’t know why he did what he did. Maybe it was because I was interviewing him in front of a student — and he wanted to show off. Maybe it was because I worked for a shitty newspaper and he assumed I was a moron. Whatever. In any event, I had a list of questions he proceeded to answer very brusquely and flippantly; then he and the student exchanged knowing glances and laughed at me.
For example, “How does ‘Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander’ fit in with the rest of the Texas Trilogy?”
He looked at me like I was an imbecile. “It’s the first play in the trilogy.” More laughter.
Finally, after being mocked for several minutes, I’d had enough. I slammed my notebook shut and stalked out. I went back to my office shaking with rage, wondering what I was going to write about. So, I went to the library (it was a long time ago, when you actually had to walk places to glean information) and read more about Jones’ trilogy. That proved quite interesting — and rewarding. “Lu Ann,” it turned out, was the second play in the trilogy.
As I began to write, I recalled the director’s many remarks about “surrounding” his students with Texas music, especially “Bob Wilson’s.” It was a mistake I normally wouldn’t have ever mentioned. But all’s game at a time like this. I wrote up a tongue-in-cheek piece pointing out the director’s slight confusion about the play he was directing and his constant mention of “Bob Wilson’s” music. “If Bob Wills is still the king,” I wrote, “then Bob Wilson must certainly be the crown prince.”
I never heard from the director, but I think it’s fair to assume he wasn’t any happier with me than I was with him. None of this is brain surgery, you know: Treat people well and they’ll probably treat you well, in return. Treat people badly, and you’ll get the same back. Make fun of a journalist and she’ll make fun of you, too. In the worst of all worlds, she might be far funnier than you are.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)