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13 FEBRUARY, 2015

Addiction to Truth: David Carr, the Measure of a Person, and the Uncommon Art of Elevating the Common Record

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“We all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

We spend our lives pulled asunder by the two poles of our potentiality — our basest nature and our most expansive goodness. To elevate oneself from the lowest end of that spectrum to the highest is the great accomplishment of the human spirit. To do this for another person is to give them an invaluable gift. To do it for a group of people — a community, an industry, a culture — is the ultimate act of generosity and grace.

This is what David Carr (September 8, 1956–February 12, 2015) did for us.

He called out what he saw as the product of our lesser selves. He celebrated that which he deemed reflective of our highest potential. And by doing so over and over, with passion and integrity and unrelenting idealism, he nudged us closer to the latter.

He wrote to me once, in his characteristic lowercase: “am missing you. how to fix?” Such was his unaffected sweetness. But, more than that, such was the spirit in which he approached the world — seeing what is missing, seeing what is lacking, and pointing it out, but only for the sake of fixing it. He was a critic but not a cynic in a culture where the difference between the two is increasingly endangered and thus increasingly precious. The caring bluntness of his criticism was driven by the rare give-a-shitness of knowing that we can do better and believing, unflinchingly, that we must.

This is what David Carr did for us — but only because he did it for himself first.

David Carr (Photograph: Chester Higgins Jr. courtesy of The New York Times

The test of one’s decency — the measure of a person — is the honesty one can attain with oneself, the depth to which one is willing to go to debunk one’s own myth and excavate the imperfect, uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary truth beneath. That’s precisely what Carr did in The Night of the Gun (public library) — an exquisitely rigorous, utterly harrowing and utterly heartening memoir of his journey from the vilest depths of crack addiction to his job at The New York Times, where he became the finest and most revered media reporter of our century, and how between these two poles he managed to raise his twin daughters as a single father. It’s the story of how he went from “That Guy, a dynamo of hilarity and then misery” to “This Guy, the one with a family, a house, and a good job.” It’s also a larger story reminding us that we each carry both capacities within us and must face the choice, daily, of which one to let manifest.

The story begins with Carr’s point of reluctant awakening upon being fired from his job as a newspaper reporter in Minneapolis:

For an addict the choice between sanity and chaos is sometimes a riddle, but my mind was suddenly epically clear.

“I’m not done yet.”

With his flair for the unsensationalist drama of real life, he recalls the aftermath of one particularly bad trip, which precipitated his journey out of the abyss:

Every hangover begins with an inventory. The next morning mine began with my mouth. I had been baking all night, and it was as dry as a two-year-old chicken bone. My head was a small prison, all yelps of pain and alarm, each movement seeming to shift bits of broken glass in my skull. My right arm came into view for inspection, caked in blood, and then I saw it had a few actual pieces of glass still embedded in it. So much for metaphor. My legs both hurt, but in remarkably different ways.

[…]

It was a daylight waterfall of regret known to all addicts. It can’t get worse, but it does. When the bottom arrives, the cold fact of it all, it is always a surprise. Over fifteen years, I had made a seemingly organic journey from pothead to party boy, from knockaround guy to friendless thug. At thirty-one, I was washed out of my profession, morally and physically corrupt, but I still had almost a year left in the Life. I wasn’t done yet.

It isn’t hard to see the parallels between that experience and the counterpoint upon which Carr eventually built his career and his reputation. His work as a journalist was very much about taking inventory of our cultural hangovers — the things we let ourselves get away with, the stories we tell ourselves and are told by the media about why it’s okay to do so, and the addiction to untruth that we sustain in the process.

David Carr with his daughter Erin

In fact, this dance between mythmaking and truth is baked into the book’s title — a reference to an incident that took place the night of that bad trip, during which Carr had behaved so badly that his best friend had to point a gun at him to keep him at bay. At least that’s the story Carr told himself for years, only to realize later upon revisiting the incident with a journalist’s scrutiny that the memory — like all memory — was woven of more myth than truth. He writes:

Recollection is often just self-fashioning. Some of it is reflexive, designed to bury truths that cannot be swallowed, but other “memories” are just redemption myths writ small. Personal narrative is not simply opening up a vein and letting the blood flow toward anyone willing to stare. The historical self is created to keep dissonance at bay and render the subject palatable in the present.

We are most concerned, he suggests, with making ourselves palatable to ourselves. (One need only look at Salinger’s architecture of personal mythology and the story of how Freud engineered his own myth for evidence.) But nowhere do we warp our personal narratives more than in our mythologies of conquering adversity — perhaps because to magnify the gap between who we were and who we are is to magnify our achievement of personal growth. Carr admonishes against this tendency:

The meme of abasement followed by salvation is a durable device in literature, but does it abide the complexity of how things really happened? Everyone is told just as much as he needs to know, including the self. In Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky explains that recollection — memory, even — is fungible, and often leaves out unspeakable truths, saying, “Man is bound to lie about himself.”

I am not an enthusiastic or adept liar. Even so, can I tell you a true story about the worst day of my life? No. To begin with, it was far from the worst day of my life. And those who were there swear it did not happen the way I recall, on that day and on many others. And if I can’t tell a true story about one of the worst days of my life, what about the rest of those days, that life, this story?

[…]

The power of a memory can be built through repetition, but it is the memory we are recalling when we speak, not the event. And stories are annealed in the telling, edited by turns each time they are recalled until they become little more than chimeras. People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.

In this experience one finds the seed of Carr’s zero-tolerance policy for untruth — not only in his own life, but in journalism and the media world on which he reported. If anything, the mind-boggling archive of 1,776 articles he wrote for the Times was his way of keeping our collective memory accurate and accountable — an active antidote to the self-interested amnesia of cultural and personal mythmaking. He toiled tirelessly to keep truthful and honorable what Vannevar Bush — another patron saint of media from a different era — poetically called “the common record.”

David Carr with his daughter Meagan

Carr writes of the moment he chose sanity over chaos:

Slowly, I remembered who I was. Hope floats. The small pleasures of being a man, of being a drunk who doesn’t drink, an addict who doesn’t use, buoyed me.

So much of Carr’s character lives in this honest yet deeply poetic sentiment. He was, above all, an idealist. He understood that our addiction to untruths and mythologies spells the death of our ideals, and ideals are the material of the human spirit. He floated us by his hope. He was the E.B. White of twenty-first-century journalism — like White, who believed that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” Carr shaped for a living; like White, who believed that a writer should “lift people up, not lower them down,” Carr buoyed us with his writing.

In the remainder of The Night of the Gun, Carr goes on to chronicle how he raised his daughters “in the vapor trail of adults who had a lot of growing up to do themselves,” why he relapsed into alcoholism after fourteen years of sobriety and “had to spin out again to remember those very basic lessons” before climbing back out, and what it really means to be “normal” for any person in any life.

Toward the end, he writes:

You are always told to recover for yourself, but the only way I got my head out of my own ass was to remember that there were other asses to consider.

I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.

David Carr by Wendy MacNaughton

Am missing you now, David — we all are. How to fix?

Perhaps some breakages can’t be fixed, but I suppose the trick is indeed to be grateful — even when, and especially when, the caper does end; to be grateful that it had begun in the first place.

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09 FEBRUARY, 2015

Some Thoughts on Hope, Cynicism, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

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To live with sincerity in our culture of cynicism is a difficult dance — one that comes easily only to the very young and the very old. The rest of us are left to tussle with two polarizing forces ripping the psyche asunder by beckoning to it from opposite directions — critical thinking and hope.

Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.

Finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving the situation produces resignation — cynicism is both resignation’s symptom and a futile self-protection mechanism against it. Blindly believing that everything will work out just fine also produces resignation, for we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. But in order to survive — both as individuals and as a civilization — and especially in order to thrive, we need the right balance of critical thinking and hope.

A plant needs water in order to survive, and needs the right amount of water in order to thrive. Overwater it and it rots with excess. Underwater it and it dries up inside.

I thought about this recently in observing my unease — my seething cauldron of deep disappointment — with an opinion piece commenting on Arianna Huffington’s decision to continue publishing necessary reporting on “what’s not working — political dysfunction, corruption, wrongdoing, etc.” but to begin giving more light to stories that embody the “perseverance, creativity, and grace” of which we humans are capable. The writer criticizing Huffington’s decision asserted, with ample indignation, that “to privilege happy stories over ‘unhappy’ ones is to present a false view of the world.”

Let’s consider for a moment the notion of an un-false view of the world — the journalistic ideal of capital-T truth. Let’s, too, put aside for now Hunter S. Thompson’s rather accurate assertion that the possibility of objectivity is a myth to begin with. Since the golden age of newspapers in the early 1900s, we’ve endured a century of rampant distortion toward the other extreme — a consistent and systematic privileging of harrowing and heartbreaking “news” as the raw material of the media establishment. The complaint which a newspaper editor issued in 1923, lamenting the fact that commercial interest rather than journalistic integrity determines what is published as the “news,” could well have been issued today — if anything, the internet has only exacerbated the problem.

The twentieth century was both the golden age of mass media and a century marked by two world wars, the Great Depression, the AIDS crisis, and a litany of genocides. Viewed through that lens, it is the worst century humanity has endured — even worse than the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages, for those deaths were caused by bacteria indifferent to human ideals and immune to human morality. This view of the twentieth century, then, is frightening enough if true, but doubly frightening if untrue — and Steven Pinker has made a convincing case that it is, indeed, untrue. Then, in a grotesque embodiment of Mark Twain’s wry remark that the worst things in his life never happened to him, we have spent a century believing the worst about ourselves as a species and a civilization.

Carl Sagan saw in books “proof that humans are capable of working magic.” The magic of humanity’s most enduring books — the great works of literature and philosophy — lies in the simple fact that they are full of hope for the human spirit. News has become the sorcerous counterpoint to this magic, mongering not proof of our goodness and brilliance but evidence of our basest capabilities.

A related point of cynicism bears consideration: Coupled with the assertion that giving positive stories more voice distorts our worldview was the accusation that Huffington’s motives were purely mercantile — a ploy to prey on Facebook’s algorithms, which incentivize heartening stories over disheartening ones. Could it be, just maybe, not that people are dumb and shallow, and algorithms dumber and shallower, but that we’ve endured a century of fear-mongering from the news industrial complex and we finally have a way of knowing we’re not alone in craving an antidote? That we finally have a cultural commons onto which we can rally for an uprising?

We don’t get to decry the alleged distortion of our worldview until we’ve lived through at least a century of good news to even the playing field so ravaged by the previous century’s extreme negativity bias.

As for Huffington, while we can only ever speculate about another person’s motives — for who can peer into the psyche of another and truly see into that person’s private truth? — this I continue to believe: The assumptions people make about the motives of others always reveal a great deal more about the assumers than the assumed-about.

This particular brand of cynicism is especially pronounced when the assumed-about have reached a certain level of success or public recognition. Take, for instance, an entity like TED — something that began as a small, semi-secret groundswell that was met with only warmth and love in its first few years of opening up to the larger world. And then, as it reached a tipping point of recognition, TED became the target of rather petty and cynical criticism. Here is an entity that has done nothing more nor less than to insist, over and over, that despite our many imperfections, we are inherently kind and capable and full of goodness — and yet even this isn’t safe from cynicism.

Let’s return, then, to the question of what is true and what is false, and what bearing this question has — if any — on what we call reality.

The stories that we tell ourselves, whether they be false or true, are always real. We act out of those stories, reacting to their realness. William James knew this when he observed: “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”

What storytellers do — and this includes journalists and TED and everyone in between who has a point of view and an audience, whatever its size — is help shape our stories of how the world works; at their very best, they can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better. In other words, they help us mediate between the ideal and the real by cultivating the right balance of critical thinking and hope. Truth and falsehood belong to this mediation, but it is guided primarily by what we are made to believe is real.

What we need, then, are writers like William Faulkner, who came of age in a brothel, saw humanity at its most depraved, and yet managed to maintain his faith in the human spirit. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he asserted that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” In contemporary commercial media, driven by private interest, this responsibility to work in the public interest and for the public good recedes into the background. And yet I continue to stand with E.B. White, who so memorably asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life”; that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Yes, people sometimes do horrible things, and we can speculate about why they do them until we run out of words and sanity. But evil only prevails when we mistake it for the norm. There is so much goodness in the world — all we have to do is remind one another of it, show up for it, and refuse to leave.

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20 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Humane Art: Virginia Woolf on What Killed Letter Writing and Why We Ought to Keep It Alive

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“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.”

“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence,” advised an 1876 guide to the art of epistolary etiquette, “but also as a work of art.” More than half a century later, and another half century before the dawn of email as we know it today, one of the greatest letter writers of all time turned a concerned eye toward the death of that singular art form. In April of 1940, Virginia Woolf was tasked with reviewing a new biography of 18th-century English art historian Horace Walpole, a prolific writer of sixteen published volumes of letters. Woolf’s essay, titled “The Humane Art” and found in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us Woolf on the malady of middlebrow and the piece she read in what became the only surviving recording of her voice — is less about Walpole or his biography and more about the art of letter writing itself: its private function, its cultural evolution, its uncertain future in the face of emerging forms of media.

Countering the biographer’s assertion that Walpole’s letters were “inspired not by the love of friends but the love of posterity” — a tool of history rather than of his inner world — Woolf considers the general genius of the letter writer:

If we believe that Horace Walpole was a historian in disguise, we are denying his peculiar genius as a letter writer. The letter writer is no surreptitious historian. He is a man of short range sensibility; he speaks not to the public at large but to the individual in private. All good letter writers feel the drag of the face on the other side of the age and obey it — they take as much as they give.

Woolf makes the curious but instantly sensical proposition that the rise of her very own ilk — the paid writer — is what spelled the decline of fine letter writing:

Was it … the growth of writing as a paid profession, and the change which that change of focus brought with it that led, in the nineteenth century, to the decline of this humane art?

In prescient sentiment that resonates all the more loudly as we consider the currency of the social media age, she points to new media in particular as the dagger at the heart of the personal letter:

News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private; and how monotonous after a page or two the intensity of the very private becomes!

As though with blogs and Tumblrs and Facebook feeds in mind, Woolf writes:

Instead of letters posterity will have confessions, diaries, notebooks… — hybrid books in which the writer talks in the dark to himself about himself for a generation yet to be born.

Returning to Walpole, she considers what his letters — and the traditional art of epistolary correspondence in general — reveal about the vitalizing role of real letters in our lives, as an anchor to both our tribe and to our own identity. As we continuously struggle to understand what binds our past selves and our future selves together into the same person, Woolf points to the power of the letter, which bridges two privacies, in assuring us of our own selves, at once stable and self-renewing:

Above all he was blessed in his little public — a circle that surrounded him with that warm climate in which he could live the life of incessant changes which is the breath of a letter writer’s existence. Besides the wit and the anecdote and the brilliant descriptions of masquerades and midnight revelries his friends drew from him something superficial yet profound, something changing yet entire — himself shall we call it in default of one word for that which friends elicit but the great public kills? From that sprang his immortality. For a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.

Whether it is an act of supreme irony or supreme affirmation that Woolf herself ended her life with a letter — and a letter so cruelly commoditized by the era’s parasitic news media — remains an open question.

Page from 'How to Write Letters,' 1876. Click image for more.

Complement with Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, writing and consciousness, and her breathtaking love letters to Vita Sackville-West.

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