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Thriving in journalism

Written by mayborn


By: S. C. Gwynne

In 1982, at the age of 29, I found myself in Los Angeles working for a large multinational bank. I was putting in 60-hour weeks, syndicating multimillion-dollar loans in Asia, and I was deeply unhappy. I had always wanted to be a writer. In spite of the career I had fallen into, I still had very strong romantic notions of who I wanted to be, which amounted to a hybrid of Hunter Thompson, George Orwell, Wallace Stegner, Ernest Hemingway, Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey and Tom Wolfe. But here I was, nearly 30, sunk in a job that was completely at odds with that vision. As I drove to the bank in downtown L.A. in my pinstriped suit, Brooks Brothers shirt and wing-tip brogans, I would remind myself that Stegner and Orwell were not out hawking loans in their late 20s; not commuting to the financial district carrying a briefcase full of credit reports; not reading The Wall Street Journal at a large oak desk on the 38th floor of the First Interstate Tower.

I was looking ever more frantically for a way out — how exactly did one quit banking and become a writer? — when my wife came home with news that she had won $60,000 on a TV game show. (“Tic Tac Dough” with Wink Martindale, if you must know.) This was a great deal of money to us, even though some of it came in the form of cars (2), a Wurlitzer organ and a sailboat, all of which we sold for cash. In any case, it solved the problem of how to get myself out of banking. I quit.

Money suddenly made it quite easy to be a writer. Sixty grand is a lot when you live in a $500-a-month apartment, drive a fully paid-off Toyota and, because you are young, immortal and invulnerable, do not need health care. So with Wink Martindale as our patron, we set out to be artists. Katie drew cartoons. I wrote short stories and journalism. We both wrote screenplays. We produced large quantities of stuff and tried to sell it. Two years and a considerable amount of partying later — we both had a wonderful time — the money ran out. I was 30 at the time, working as a receptionist for the Southern California Gas Company. Being a writer no longer seemed quite so easy as it did in our early, post-TicTacDough, Scott-and-Zelda phase. Still, I was not going back.

It was just then, answering the phones at the Gas Company, that I accidentally figured out how to beat the system. When I left banking, I was tired of it, sick of the idea that I was throwing my life away because banking was not my gift and because, the deeper I sunk into finance, the less chance there was that I would ever get out. We are all given little gifts at birth. Mine was writing. I am not good at anything else. I was fleeing the life, which struck me as a monumental lie. But here’s the thing: It was my experience in banking that allowed me to become the writer I wanted to be. It was the magical key that I had always been looking for.

When young journalists ask me about my career path, I mostly say, “You don’t want to hear it. It wouldn’t make any sense to you.’’ I don’t mean to put them off. But they are invariably looking for something linear and practical — like a boat trip, where there is a clear point of embarkation, an equally clear destination, and a single, driving purpose behind all of it. I claim none of that. My career doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I am attending the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference this year as the author of a history of the Comanche Indians. Nothing I have ever done before would suggest that I am, or have aspired to be, a historian. Just as nothing in my early life and education would have predicted that I would have a first career as a banker. Or that, having used banking to launch myself into a career as a business journalist at TIME magazine and other publications, I would end up shifting away from that, too, and go into writing long narratives for Texas Monthly about Texas politics and business, going alone into the wilderness or running wild rivers.

Still, there’s a sort of screwball logic to my life as a reporter and writer. I can describe it in one word: flight. By that I do not mean the sort of thing a bird experiences when it spreads its wings. I mean it in a human sense: running away. I have spent a career fleeing jobs and situations that violated my sense of what I was supposed to be doing. Because I could not figure out how to copy my heroes’ careers, I could not move, in a calculated way, toward my dream. I could only back away from whatever looked wrong to me. My solution, always, was: abandon, shuck, jettison. In the process of doing that, however, I eventually stumbled into a life that is not all that far from my old vision of what I thought wanted — minus a few million dollars. This has only become clear to me in the last few years.

Call it my crawfish career.

It started with a voice in my head. The voice started speaking after I graduated from Princeton University in 1974. It would deliver entire paragraphs of what I believed to be beautiful English prose. I wrote some of it down that summer. I still have samples of it. It was, in retrospect, God-awful, like Henry James on Thorazine. At the time, it sounded to me kinda like F. Scott Fitzgerald. I taught French for two years at a private school in Baltimore, then got a fellowship in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins with John Barth. I wrote many short stories and a Nabokov-inspired novella. None of it was very good. I was not among the brightest fiction students in my class, which included Mary Robison, Frederick Barthelme and Lisa Zeidner, all soon to be published and prominent writers. Most of the class vanished into graduate studies. Inspired by Hemingway, whose career I still wanted to emulate, I decided to get a job at a newspaper.

This seemed like a reasonable plan. It wasn’t. I applied to 200 newspapers. All but one turned me down. The one was a job with AP Dow Jones in Dresden, Germany, writing financial wire-service copy for their European editions for $9,500 a year. I was offered it long after I applied and only after I had already taken another job. I am sorry to this day that I did not take it, if only because it sounded so completely surreal. In my own country, meanwhile, I could not even get a job at a small paper. I was devastated, and it took me years to recover from what amounted to wholesale rejection. It took me several decades to figure out the reason: My job hunt coincided precisely with the emergence of a generation of students who had been inspired by the investigative journalism of Woodward and Bernstein. In 1977 J-schools were spewing would-be reporters out at rates never seen before or since.

In the face of this catastrophic failure, I took the first job that offered itself, which happened to be with a commercial bank in Cleveland, Ohio. I landed in its international department just as the great lending boom of the mid-1970s took off. Because I was fluent in French, I was promoted quickly and sent overseas. I made big loans in the French-speaking countries of North Africa, but also in Korea, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Israel, Egypt, Syria, Indonesia and Taiwan. I traveled first class and stayed first class and drank expensive Scotch and wrote exactly one short story, which happened to win Cleveland Magazine’s annual fiction contest. It was a pretty good story. I still think so.

In those years, a friend and I tried to start a humor magazine, called Street. We had funding and an office in Royal Oak, Michigan. I commuted from Cleveland on weekends. It lived for about a year. In Street and the lone short story, my old dream still lived, and it seems strange to me now that I could see my career in such fluid terms. I still wanted to be a writer. I still went home most nights and read 19th and 20th century British and American literature — Charles Dickens to Graham Greene to Malcolm Lowry to Hart Crane. But I was taking night courses in finance and accounting. I loved making loans in the Philippines. I cannot account for this, but I have the feeling that plenty of people in their 20s are perfectly happy to have multiple, simultaneous ambitions. In those years, the lines of desire are not yet so firmly set.

I moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles to take a bigger job in banking. I don’t know quite why. Maybe it was just to get to Los Angeles. I lasted about year before rescue, in the form of my wife’s game show winnings, arrived. Though we were temporarily secure financially, breaking into writing seemed very hard, nearly impossible. I wrote a number of short stories and published exactly one, in California Quarterly. I wrote screenplays, one of which was an ambitious project about financial intrigue in Hong Kong with screenwriter Don Jakoby, whose credits included “Blue Thunder” and “Arachnophobia.”  It did not sell. I sent hundreds of queries to magazines and newspapers. All were rejected. So I began to rethink the idea of writing, in a nonfictional way, about my banking career. There were good reasons for this. In 1983, the world was in the grip of a massive international debt crisis. The oil price shocks of the 1970s had drained $600 billion from the Third World, and that money had been more or less instantly funneled back to those countries in the form of bank loans. And now those nations could not pay the money back. Writing those loans off would bankrupt America’s biggest banks. How could this have happened?  screamed the headlines in the financial press.

Well … uh … I actually knew the answer to that. Because I was one of the guys putting all that money out there. I sent two identical query letters to Harper’s and Esquire asking if they wanted a first-hand account of what went wrong, by a former international loan officer, complete with girls and Jaguars and exotic locales. In memory, my phone rang 15 minutes after I posted the letters. And of course it rang not once, but twice. Both magazines wanted the story. How soon could I deliver it?

Thus began my career as a business writer. My story, which appeared in Harper’s (where the young prodigy Michael Kinsley was editor) and chronicled a $10 million loan I made to a construction company in the Philippines that went bad, got me wide attention, an agent, a book deal, a place on the masthead of California Magazine (edited by the legendary Harold Hayes). It eventually led to a job as a business reporter with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and then a job as editor of California Business, which was then the nation’s largest business magazine. One of our covers featured Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was the first story that went into detail about his business and real estate careers in Los Angeles. In 1988 I landed the big one: a job as a correspondent for TIME in its Los Angeles bureau. The elapsed time between the Harper’s story and the TIME job: roughly five years.

“Lesson one: be an expert in something.”

Lesson one for prospective journalists: It helps to be an expert in something. Most journalists run screaming from business reporting. Proxy statements, 10-Ks, balance sheets, and the intricacies of Wall Street finance scare them to death. I, on the other hand, was a “former banker.” Regardless of what I actually knew, the words were like a secret password, and they permeate the first phase of my career. Though business and finance was not all I did, TIME’s editors persisted in seeing me as the “former banker” guy. I was named National Economics Correspondent in the magazine’s Washington Bureau. I had private lunches with Alan Greenspan and Cabinet secretaries. I pushed harder. Together with senior correspondent Jonathan Beaty, I helped break much of the global scandal around a rogue bank called BCCI in TIME in the early 1990s. We got a book deal with Random House and a $500,000 advance that resulted in the Outlaw Bank: A Wild Ride Into the Secret Heart of BCCI, (1993) a book that in fact drew heavily on my knowledge of international and offshore banking. We won a bunch of big awards. The next year I went up to New York as TIME’s business editor.

Which sounds nice enough. Except that I realized almost from the moment that I walked into my squash-court sized office on the 23rd floor of the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center that I had run the string out. The voice was back, this time reminding me of what I had known all along: That I did not really want to be a business journalist. Oh, I appreciated that it had opened the world for me. But now I felt boxed in and wanted nothing more than to flee. The voice reminded me that, as far as it knew, Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion were not bogged down writing business stories about General Motors and Paramount at this point in their careers. I wanted freedom. I wanted general assignment. I wanted to write about the great American West like Stegner or Edward Abbey or Marc Reisner.  I wanted big, endless blue skies and big myths and a sense of the enormous and raw power and potential of the lands west of the 98th meridian. What was driving me in part was a simple desire for freedom. In my bubble on the 23rd floor, I was working 80-hour weeks and was as un-free as I supposed anyone could be.

So, to the surprise of my bosses, I gave up the squash court and the title and fled to Austin, Texas, where I became a local TIME bureau chief again (I had been posted to Detroit for a while, covering mainly the car industry.) It was a career regression and a sort of self-banishment, but one that seemed to offer the best opportunity to reinvent myself. I covered the political infancy of George W. Bush, the bombing at Oklahoma City and the shootings at Columbine High. I was still seen as the business guy: I spent a month in the Soviet Union and Europe reporting a story about a Viennese company called Nordex, which was alleged to be dealing in Soviet nuclear components. I spent a month in London, Zurich and Geneva doing a story about private banks.

But these were exceptions in those years. In my quest for bigness, I now began to feel trapped in the smallness of TIME. Though it was then a magazine with some 22 million readers, it could also serve as a sort of exquisite torture chamber for its writers and reporters. Each week news and features from around the Planet Earth were inserted, like meat in a grinder, into a 50-page editorial hole. This had the effect of high compression: Stories that took a lot of reporting got squeezed down. Five-pagers became two-pagers. A single big story — like the death of Princess Diana — could kill weeks of work. We all did ridiculous amounts of reporting only to turn out 700-word stories. Was David Halberstam doing this at the age of 46? The voice had reason to believe that he was not. TIME, I finally decided, had become too restrictive for me.

So I fled again, this time into the waiting arms of Texas Monthly, one of the last bastions of long-form literary journalism in America. The voice was quite happy about this. It shut up for the better part of a decade. And with good reason. At Texas Monthly I was writing 6,000-9,000 word stories about anything and everything. I wrote about Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and about George Bush’s less-than-competent appointee Alberto Gonzales. I wrote about running the Devils River, one of the wildest left in the lower 48, and about spending a week alone in the most remote part of the Southwest, along the Mexican border. I replicated the legendary Texas writer John Graves’ trip down the Brazos River. I wrote about state politics. I wrote a 9,600-word opus on the King Ranch. I also got my taste back for business stories: Dell Computer, Clear Channel and Ross Perot.

With its remarkably free-thinking editors, its readership of 2.3 million, its utter dominance of the magazine market in Texas, and its endless supply of larger-than-life subject matter, the Monthly was a perfect place for a writer to be, as it had been since its founding in 1973. Or so you would think, anyway. But six years in, the voice was back. This time it was less upset about things – how could it be? – but equally insistent. I had learned to write long-form narrative journalism, yes …  but to what end? Where was the book? Journalists live in a world of terrible impermanence. Magazines and newspapers soon line the bottom of birdcages. Where was the permanence? Where were the Stegnerian classics, the big, muscular books about the great Western lands?

I did have an idea. I had read a book by Walter Prescott Webb called The Great Plains, which contained a chapter on the Comanches that had fascinated me. As Webb described them, they were a sort of force of nature, a giant, militarily brilliant obstacle sitting in the country’s mid-section that determined how our country was settled. They were the reason the Spanish were stopped in their northward drive from Mexico, the reason the French could not expand westward from Louisiana, the reason the frontier in Texas did not move for 40 years. They accounted for the near extermination of the Apaches, the invention of the Texas Rangers and the six-shooter. I wrote a 40-page book proposal, and sold it to Scribner for an $85,000 advance. I asked for and was granted a seven-month book leave to write it. I was fleeing yet again, I suppose …  or at least looking to break away from what I had been doing.

Writing history did not seem as different as I thought it might be. It was like doing really slow journalism with no editors breathing down your neck. I spent many hours submerged in archives, reading old books and manuscripts. There were days when, if the research was going well, I felt that wonderful rush of freedom I had always dreamed of. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, a project that I alone had thought up and that related in no way to any journalism I had ever done. There were no boundaries, only expectations.

Well, nothing lasts forever. The nasty recession in the journalism industry, which had started in the early 1990s and had gotten progressively worse, finally caught up with me in late 2008. My book leave became, as I joked with my friend and former editor Evan Smith, eternal book leave. My staff job was replaced with a contract that, while generous, was far less than I had been making. I continued to write for Texas Monthly. I free-lanced for other publications. I taught at the University of Texas, finished my book. The date of its publication at the end of May coincided almost exactly with a wonderful new job: writing features for The Dallas Morning News. It is as unpredictable as everything else that has happened to me in a career whose logic I can only now begin to see. Maybe it is the ultimate flight: back to where I began.

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