How Journalism Made a
Poet Out of Me
Gillian Conoley on Objectivity, Reportage, and Truth
In 1977––just three years after the publication of Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism, a landmark, incendiary anthology that declared journalists using fictional technique had erased the novel as literature’s dominant form—I was fresh out of college and had just landed my first job as a journalist. Wolfe had cracked open a fissure in staid reportage, the old inverted pyramid style of journalism, and left in its place the glamorous, the transgressive, the freedom to experiment, to write, not just report. The movement proved to be instrumental in my development as a writer.
Underneath all the glamour, the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, New Journalism was my first experience of the recognition of the complexity of reality, the impossibility of truth. I may have been trained as a journalist, but I was a writer. And the worst kind: a writer’s writer. I had known it since childhood. I was odd—my perceptions, my digressions, my predilections for what lay outside the mainstream.
For much of my undergraduate days I was already at a crossroads between the actual and the imagined. Alongside my BFA in journalism I first sought fiction and took short story workshops, but soon turned to poetry. While I loved fiction’s alternate world, poetry was mind-blowing. The alchemy of its sudden shifts between the rational and irrational, the full-throated, no-holds-barred musicality of language, the precision, the leaps of imagination and logic, the infinity of perception and consciousness itself: so much was possible in a poem.
On weekends I haunted Dallas’s few independent bookstores and began with women I could find on their shelves: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov. My poetry reading in general was sporadic and haphazard. I had stumbled upon Wallace Stevens, the French Surrealists, Lucille Clifton, Lorca, and Bob Kaufman. Without an English major, and with no sense of received canon (also freeing), I had no clear path through poetry. I just wanted it. I loved what it did to my synapses.
I also knew there was no way I could earn a living writing poetry. The New Journalism seemed the perfect way to both practice literary writing and get paid. Fictional technique and a paycheck: maybe that would be enough to give me an arena, a modality through which I could pour the often discordant though melodic songs I heard in my head, the experiments with language I longed to play out. Armed with a well-thumbed copy of the Associated Press stylebook, an ability to type at high speed, freed and hopeful as a second-wave feminist, I had also absorbed Wolfe’s intoxicatingly wild language––just say The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlike Baby aloud, relish in its hyphenation, and then throw in the cool, distant, utterly subjective stance of Joan Didion, her licked-clean-as-a-bone sentences, her skepticism honed to the sharp edge of what-just-might-pass-as-truth, if there was truth.
All was dizzyingly innovative, divine and sexy, and moreover, it solved my problem: how to write serious literary work and keep my already bare-bones apartment. I could write for a living and be an artist! Simultaneously! Plus, I was young: time was endless. Hunter S. Thomson, Terry Southern, Truman Capote, Barbara L. Goldsmith. I could be one of them! They needed more women!
In university journalism classes, my professors had preached against the subjective, leaching adjectives out of my classmates and myself: we were to be trained in hard news. It had always struck me as odd, this belief in objectivity: that following the formula of “who-what-when-where” meant “fact.” Didn’t someone select the who, the what, the where, and weren’t there myriad methods of order and presentation that were, ultimately, subjective?
Never mind. A paycheck was to be earned, rent paid. I didn’t have a three-piece white suit nor Tom Wolfe’s pedigree, but I had black patent leather high-heeled boots, moxie to mask my insecurities, and permed, wild frizzy locks. I obtained a black satin jacket with slightly over-articulated shoulder pads under which I perfected a certain swagger. My nascent poet self knew art held a higher truth, or at least had the capacity to do so; I wasn’t above embellishing the facts in the service of art.
I was also lucky in my first post-college job as a journalist to have a bright, well-intentioned, forward-looking editor who also happened to take a daily three martini lunch and return every afternoon stiff, listing in his gait, to put in the briefest of appearances at editorial meetings. He gave me leeway to fill the Irving Daily News’ feature section in any way I saw fit. The man needed content, and he needed to go home to sleep off lunch before dinner. His only requirement: the news had to happen in Irving (Dallas’s closest suburb).
I was already keenly aware of my fellow journalists in the newsroom, much older than me, who still hoped to write that novel, their poetry, or literary nonfiction. As much as I admired their doggedness in the pursuit of fact, the supreme craftsmanship of reportage they had mastered, I didn’t want to carry that sense of dashed dreams.
In Dallas, literary writers came through to do readings. I knew one day I’d have to toss off the affect, the costume New Journalists sported with great aplomb: Woolf’s dapper suits, Capote’s scarves and fedoras, Didion’s signature oversized sunglasses and cigarettes. In imitation, I managed to maintain my fashionably rumpled black satin jacket. Meanwhile, writers appearing at Dallas’s Southern Methodist University’s prestigious reading series put on no such airs. Uncertain as to whether or not I could be a writer, I wanted to study them, to talk to them. I wanted to know how real writers lived, who they were, as people.
Thanks to a donor who could supply visiting writer fees, over the course of three years, some of the most remarkable writers of the time came into my proximity: John Cheever, John Hawkes, Grace Paley, John Gardner, Elizabeth Bishop. I had never met a writer. Hearing them read their work, seeing them, interviewing them, spending time with them made me realize they were humans who had worked awfully hard at a trade. To an early twenty-something-year-old with a press pass, they were, for the most part, kind, bemused, fragile, flawed, vulnerable.
At a post-reading party, John Cheever, sober, sipped tea out of a cocktail glass so that it looked like scotch. That was his costume. He told me to write every day and to love my family, how he regretted how often his family had to search for him passed out on the streets, missing for weeks on end. Grace Paley, who had just published her second book in her fifties, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, was charming, doting, fierce: “Honey, those shoes are doing you no good,” she said, pointing to my high-heeled boots. Paley had a disarming, clear-eyed manner and a quick laugh; she was both a brilliantly concise short story writer and committed activist. The War Resistance League (of which Paley was a member) had sent activists to the Soviet Union and Washington to unfold banners reading “End the Arms Race” simultaneously. Americans arrested in Red Square were released in an hour. In the US, Paley and her fellow activists were jailed for two days. “I don’t know when the trial comes up. I guess soon,” she said, unconcerned, grazing the hotel luncheon buffet.
John Gardner was unpleasant. He read from On Moral Fiction, his famous treatise calling for an ethical life/art aesthetic, but his presentation was that of an anarchist: black leather pants and vest, biker boots, long white hair he toyed with as he spoke. On stage, one couldn’t take one’s eyes off him. Restless, agitated, he looked like a shorter, more dangerous Johnny Winter. Off stage, he was snarky. In the car, on the way to the post-reading party (where a not yet sober Ray Carver, who had at one time been Gardner’s student, was hiding in the bushes inexplicably, and no one could get him to come inside), Gardner snarled in an adolescent, high-pitched tone to his wife (poet Liz Rosenberg), “Oh, looook, Liiiiz, it’s English Tuuuudor in Dallas, Texas.” The house was in Highland Park, Dallas’s toniest neighborhood, where today one can tour George W. Bush’s presidential library.
John Hawkes (one of the more experimental writers Gardner was critiquing as being not “moral”) had just published The Passion Artist, and among them all, spoke in the most unpretentious manner about his work. I remember him saying what would later be oft-quoted: “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained.”
Totality of vision or structure––it wasn’t lost on me that Hawkes had begun as a poet. He abandoned poetry to become “an experimental fiction writer”––a moniker he used often throughout his career and never shied away from. Hawkes was child-like, appetitive, delighted to be in Texas. At 54, he had lived his entire life in his native New England. He told me to be as regular and routine in ordinary life as possible, so that one could be wild and free when writing. Rather than attend a dull academic party before his reading, Hawkes convinced me to drive him to Waxahachie, a nearby town full of gothic Southern houses: “That party: I don’t really want to go, do you? Let’s go look for tumbleweeds.” We bought barbecue and lunched on a lawn under a magnolia tree. He told me of his correspondence and visits with Flannery O’Connor, who he had sought out as a young man.
I published my interviews, which landed me a better job at a bigger paper, The Dallas Morning News, but something was missing: my own writing. After working as a wordsmith all day, I had no other words, no poetry. Like the writers that journalism had led me to, I wanted to invent whole cloth. But those writers were far better subjects than myself. I couldn’t take the stance or shift of focus that was key to New Journalism: the author at the center of the story. I had also lost my freewheeling, hard-drinking small town editor. The Dallas Morning News wanted hard news. I had no hard news, and didn’t believe in the objectivity it pretended.
One fateful night in Dallas, a poet came to read. I had never heard of her. It was Elizabeth Bishop. I was late. The auditorium was packed. I stood at the back, in the doorway, the only place left. I was grateful I didn’t have to interview anyone. I had quit journalism and was working as a waitress, trying to write poetry. At the time, I was writing a poetry stumbling somewhere between surrealism and the haunting, lilting lyric of the country western music I had been raised to.
I was floundering, but learning to trust in my materials, in poetry. Just barely visible over a podium, Bishop was in a spotlight, her close-cropped silver hair glinting. Her round head shown distant and steady as a planet. The audience was hushed, still, calm. Bishop was shy, devoid of the flamboyant, and a terrible reader. But it didn’t matter. As in all of Bishop’s poetry, one could sense the presence of the ordinary and the eternal, her steady, uncanny attention to the actual. It seemed an infinite expanse, the quiet, attentive audience, the dark, long slope of the auditorium. Bishop was reading “The Waiting Room”––
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
To this day, I often think of that distant silver head in a spotlight, blurry, so far away in the dark auditorium. I drove home that night, happier than I’d been in years, reciting what lines I could remember in my head. I had a glass of wine. I sat down to my typewriter, and as I often did at the time, rolled in a sheet of paper, and typed away at it, just for the sheer glorious sound of the clacking keys.