A universe of content

My glorious moment today came from the Longform podcast. Aaron Lammer interviews New Yorker writer Sam Anderson, who puts into concrete form the struggle I’m up against.

I’m grappling with a super-sized project involving tens of thousands of document pages and dozens of hours of interviews and interview transcripts. This, an entire universe of content, can feel overwhelming, which in turn can lead to paralysis.

Here is Anderson’s take on this problem:

When I decide to write about a subject, it’s my favorite way to be a human on planet Earth, is to be just blasting off on that jet fuel of enthusiasm into this universe of the subject. And that means it’s like every cell in my body flips to some open position and the whole world is just streaming in, everything that has to do with the subject. It’s just this incredible richness, it almost feels like a religious, like a buddhist sense of openness and transparency and non-existence for myself, because everything is just aimed at taking in whatever that subject is. 

And then when you sit down with it as a writer who has a job and whose job is to fill a little window of a magazine or website, all of that ecstatic inhaling has to stop. And you realize that you’ve collected approximately 900,000 percent of what you need or could ever use. And then there’s this terrible sense of betrayal, of betraying the subject, because I understand the full richness of the subject, I’m holding it in the wide open arms of my soul, and what am I going to do with it? I’m going to squeeze out this tiny little toothpaste bit onto the toothbrush of the magazine space.

I’ve had a lot of conversations about this with different therapists and many editors, trying to come to terms with it, to accept it. And I still have a lot of trouble accepting it. What my great editor Sasha Weiss tells me is, ‘Your imaginary version of the thing that you’re holding in your head, this wondrous vastness of the subject, it doesn’t exist for anyone else outside of you. So if it’s going to exist in the world you have to turn it into this thing that can be transmitted to other people.’

That universe of content is like the most epic and glorious landscape. Imagine you’ve gone to the wilderness of Alaska and you see this mountain range with glaciers and fifteen different waterfalls and forests and meadows and just a truly sublime panorama. And what I had to realize was you can’t give anybody that landscape. What you have to do as a writer is you have to construct a path that goes through a part of that landscape and that is strategically placed so that it shows off your favorite parts of the landscape. It gives a big panoramic view like you’ve enjoyed of different parts of the landscape, maybe it curls behind one waterfall and through a meadow and in the course of making that trail, which someone will follow step by step by step by step. You have to find a way to give them as much of that landscape experience as you can. But you can’t give them the whole landscape itself. 

So that’s what I’m trying to do, is to reduce that. Is to create a word by word path that somehow gestures at the whole landscape without expecting them, the reader, to put their foot on every piece of that landscape as I have tried to do in researching it.

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