Write Hard, Die Free: Searching for a Mentor and Finding Bob

Kevin Fedarko

Early in my career, lusting as I was to become a literary light in the nonfiction world, I realized that I desperately needed the services of a mentor. I imagined a sort of a cross between an Oxford don, a Jesuit spiritual advisor, and Dr. Phil – an uber-mentor in my mind’s eye. I pictured this person in very specific terms. He (not she, please—the idea of a female mentor seemed too fraught with the possibility of messy emotional complications) would be ferociously smart, of course, but he would impart his wisdom in a user-friendly manner that also left me feeling warm-and-fuzzy. From behind his massive mahogany (or possibly teak) desk, surrounded by shelves groaning with the weight of his manuscripts, he would take it upon himself to steer me from idiocy to greatness.

After writing professionally for nearly 20 years, I’m sorry to say that I still have yet to meet this fellow.

Instead, I wound up with Bob.

~

The impact of Bob Shacochis on my writing career is a bit like that of a terrorist attack from an Al-Qaeda sleeper cell: explosive and devastating, but triggered by an incredibly long fuse. The full force of Bob’s creative munitions failed to detonate until I’d been at the writing game for a decade and half, first as a staff writer at TIME, later as a senior editor at Outside. Those were hard, mean, frustrating years for me. Years in which I stumbled and careened from one debacle to the next, wallowing in mediocrity, awash in confusion, beset by the aggrieved conviction that if my uber-mentor would just have the decency to show up, clock in, and get down to business, things could start falling into place. Whoever that person was, he never bothered to materialize – a dereliction of duty which eventually convinced me that if I truly wanted a mentor to help me figure out the hard stuff, I would have to go out and recruit that target on my own.

This proved to be difficult, mainly because my older colleagues at the publications where I worked – the sort of whip-smart folks who seemed to offer the most mentor-worthy material – displayed, at best, a passing interest in my development. Their apathy, I now realize, had little to do with the shallowness of their commitment to helping others, and was instead a completely appropriate reaction to the grotesqueness and the absurdity of my own desperation, which was a reflection of my belief that excellence was a gift imparted by someone else, instead of a quality cultivated from within.

During my second year at TIME, where I started out as a fact-checker, I asked editor Priscilla Painton (by this point, I was frustrated enough that I was willing to adjust my standards and consider a woman for the job) if it would be OK for me to sit in her office for about a week and basically listen to her answer the phone. Priscilla, obviously one of the most talented people at the magazine (she was eventually promoted to deputy managing editor, the highest-ranking woman in the history of the magazine, before becoming editor in chief of Simon & Schuster’s adult trade imprint) shot me a look normally reserved for the neighbor’s cat when it meanders through the front door and vomits on your couch. We later became friends, but she never quite recovered, I think, from her astonishment over meeting someone who had failed to grasp the rudiments of journalistic pedagogy: the act of teaching oneself is indispensable to the process of becoming a writer.

Before I knew it, 15 years had somehow slipped past and I was forced to conclude that along with a wife, a family, a fat 401K, and a number of other achievements that have eluded my grasp, perhaps a mentor simply wasn’t in the cards for me. At which point, having decided to abandon the search, I found exactly what I was looking for.

Well, sort of.

~

 I’m not sure I can pinpoint when, exactly, Bob Shacochis became my mentor – a confusion exacerbated by Bob’s insistence that he is not my mentor but that we are simply colleagues and friends. This is an asinine assertion because, among other flaws, it implies a parity of talents and achievements belied by the fact that while he is a National Book Award-winning author who has mastered both fiction and nonfiction, I am – and will continue to remain for the indefinite future – a struggling, dirt-bag hack.

I first met Bob when I was at Outside, but we began to form a meaningful connection only after I quit my job and started lurking around the patch of turf he occupies in a remote corner of northern New Mexico. Bob allegedly maintains a wife and a home somewhere in Florida, but most of his year is spent on a five-acre meadow surrounded by a dense ponderosa forest in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Here, in an adobe cabin at the end of a nearly impassable dirt road, he spends his days banging out novels, nonfiction books, essays, and magazine articles.

Our relationship got off the ground tentatively, a hesitation stemming from the fact that I had decided, fairly early on, to write Bob off as incandescently brilliant and fantastically gifted but also insane. There was, I hasten to add, an overwhelming body of evidence to support this conclusion. Whenever I would make the hour-long drive from my home in Santa Fe to pay a visit to his lair, I would find Bob in a state of high indignation. Clad in the wooly demeanor of a bear emerging from a long and profoundly troubled hibernation, he was always ornery, invariably profane, and often apt to fire a blast of buckshot – sometimes rhetorically, occasionally with a Winchester 12-gauge Double X magnum – into the branches of his apple tree. But it was the ferocity of his anger that most took me aback.

As I huddled in front of the fireplace with his dogs while the winter storms sought to bury his cabin under a mountain of snow, or sat on the patio on warm summer nights as the starlight filtered through his strings of Tibetan prayer flags, I slowly came to fathom the depth and the vitality of his contempt for the current state of American magazine journalism. He hated the endlessly expanding power of publishers and marketers, corporate owners and advertisers, of course – and rightly so. But he reserved a special loathing for editors of magazines whom he viewed as hypocritical liars and self-righteous nincompoops, the corrupt custodians of America’s tradition of literary nonfiction (Harpers, The New Yorker and The Atlantic being the exceptions). As for the quality of the reporting and writing overseen by these bureaucrats of the fourth estate, he regarded the bulk of it as a cultural disgrace.

Having only recently ceased being a magazine editor myself, I reacted defensively to these criticisms, and thus it took some time for me to recognize that Bob was almost entirely right about all of this. After finally coming around to his point of view – a perspective I fully embraced, to my shame, only after seeing my own work mangled in the very same manner I had once mangled the work of my freelancers – I was forced to change my opinion about Bob’s sanity. At which point our friendship started to change and his imprint began to leave its mark.

~

Over the last five years as Bob and I have grown closer, my career has slid inexorably downhill, a trend I attribute almost entirely to his influence. Each year I make less money, I turn down more assignments, and I blurt out more inappropriate remarks – often at Bob’s instigation – that antagonize the dwindling number of editors still willing to work with me.

A few years ago, for example, I got upset when an editor at Outside expressed interest in publishing a particular photograph to accompany a story I had written about the Siachen War in the Himalayas. I feared the photograph might provide the Indian Army with some clues about the exact location of a Pakistani military base I had visited – a concern shared by the art director and the photographer. The editor went ahead and published it anyhow. Several months later when the military base in the picture was hit by an Indian artillery shell that killed three men and a string of high-altitude pack ponies, a number of my friends pointed out – correctly – that there was probably no connection between the photo and the explosion, and they advised me not to say or do anything that might upset the magazine. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face,” they urged. “You cannot afford to piss off Outside.”

Only Bob argued that by even the loosest definition of journalistic ethics and integrity, I couldn’t afford not to piss off Outside. He declared that I should stop writing for the magazine as long as the editor in question remained on staff. And he announced that in the spirit of solidarity, he would stop writing for Outside too – thereby ensuring that both our incomes took a substantial hit until the offending editor was let go.

Another magazine sent me off to do a feature story on Mount Everest and ended up gutting the manuscript, botching up the language and cutting the length by two-thirds. When I later re-stitched the discarded material and sold that piece to a competing publication, the editors of the first magazine announced their intention to sue me for $30,000—several thousand more than I had made the previous year (thanks, in part, to the boycott Bob had initiated). The moment Bob learned of this, he offered to start a second boycott, and to get other freelancers to participate. Fearing this whole boycott business was starting to get out of hand, I decided instead to apologize and beg forgiveness. When Bob heard about this, he hauled off and punched me in the solar plexus so hard that I thought I heard a piece of cartilage pop.

The force of that blow underscored Bob’s outrage at a writer who would compromise on principles for the sake of trying to make things easier on himself (the principles in this case being a writer’s absolute ownership of the ideas inside his head, and his inalienable right to publish those ideas wherever the f*** he sees fit). But Bob’s fury didn’t end there. What incensed him even more was that by caving in to this kind of intimidation and bullying, I had done a disservice to my craft. His point wasn’t simply that cowardice is inimical to good writing – although that notion carried a sufficiently damning indictment on its own, given what I’d done. The true focus of his rage, I think, had to do with the vital connection between creativity and subversiveness.

I’m not sure Bob and I ever discussed this explicitly, but the insight I carried away from our confrontation was that the flame that burns at the center of your work, the heat around which you cup your hands, is sustained by defiance. And without the flare of defiance—the irrational urge to stand up to commercialism, to stupidity, to incompetence, to mediocrity, to raw power; or the blunt, unapologetic inclination to demonstrate that in a free society, defiance for its own sake sometimes carries value and meaning—without such impulses, a writer has nothing worthwhile to say.

This notion, which I still find electrifying, is articulated perhaps most pungently by a pair of talismans that hang next to a shelf close to my writing desk at home. Both were given to me by Bob. Together they offer a summary of what I understand to be a significant part of the philosophical code he embraces as a writer.

The first object is a small enameled pin that hangs from a chord. The face of the pin bears the image of a skull with two crossed pencils, superimposed over a typewriter. It is emblazoned with the words “Write hard, die free.” The other object is a piece of paper that bears a quote from the reporter and novelist John Hersey. It reads: “There is one sacred rule of journalism. The writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read: None of this was made up.”

If, like me, you’re the sort of person who appreciates credos that can help you  calibrate your moral compass, this isn’t a bad place to start. “Write hard, die free, and don’t make stuff up.”

Most students of nonfiction would harbor nothing but reverence and gratitude for a mentor who is capable of producing such a succinct aphorism. So why, I sometimes wonder, have I allowed my relationship with Bob to become stained by the sin of betrayal?

~

As I’ve explained, I spent years wishing I had someone who could advise me on what I should and should not do as I bumbled forward in my career. Now that my wish has been granted, I find it odd (and also a bit embarrassing) to report that I almost always respond to Bob’s advice by flagrantly ignoring it—a tendency made even more bizarre by the fact that I have usually taken the trouble to solicit the very council I’m tossing into the trash.

Esquire called yesterday and asked if I’d be willing to do a story on the Horn of Africa,” I’d inform him. “Should I take the assignment?”

“If you go to the Horn, you may be kidnapped by Somali gunmen and you’ll probably wind up dead,” he’d reply. “Don’t accept.”

Thanks for the advice, I’d say. And off I’d go.

Since Bob teaches graduate writing seminars at both Bennington and Florida State, and thus is continually surrounded, like some sort of Ottoman Grand Vizier, by earnest supplicants beseeching his council, it took a while for my insurgency to register on his radar. But eventually he caught on and objected, stridently.

Outside wants me to go to Pakistan but is only willing to publish 4,000 words. What should I do?”

“Why the hell should I tell you what to do when you’re just going to ignore what I say and do the opposite?!”

“No I won’t.”

“Oh yes you will!”

“Will not.”

“That’s it, where’s my shotgun?”

The pattern of these exchanges often leaves me dismayed by the distance dividing the serene discourse I’d first imagined, in my original mentor fantasies, from the crabby bicker-fests into which so many of my evenings with Bob devolve. And in fairness to myself, I’d like to point out that these disputes often arise out of Bob’s refusal to appreciate the difference between me mindlessly blowing off his advice, and me deliberately electing to contradict it. That may sound like splitting hairs, but when I started thinking about this matter I realized that the distinction illuminates a key aspect of the mentor-protégé relationship.

It turns out that much of Bob’s advice when it comes to the question of whether or not to go to places like Kashmir, Iraq, Pakistan, or the Horn of Africa is driven by a concern that I might get killed, and by the knowledge that there are easier ways to make a buck. The irony, of course, is that Bob’s own commitment to the craft of literary nonfiction journalism renders these arguments ludicrous. By the standards he himself has set in places ranging from Haiti to Kosovo to the Himalayas, not doing something because it’s dangerous or impractical or, worst of all, just too hard, is simply bullshit.

What’s more, if someone were to advise Bob to follow the same course of action he often urges me to consider, he’d tell them to go to hell. Which is why when he complains about my impudence, I refuse to feel bad. When you fertilize your field with the manure of independent thinking, when you cultivate a commitment to excellence by systematically weeding out prudence, diplomacy and the desire for financial gain, one of the fruits you should expect to reap is disobedience.

If I’m an obstreperous punk, the fault for planting the seeds of my insubordination rests entirely with Bob.

~

I wish I could say that during the infrequent moments when Bob and I aren’t having yet another argument about all the fabulous advice I’m ignoring, we’re immersed in high-brow discussions about the nuances of language, the power of metaphor, or the mechanics of sustaining narrative arc. Of course, we do talk about these things – sometimes. Mostly, though, we just drink. And when we’re not drinking – and, now that I think of it, often when we are drinking – we tend to do things like pounding nails, chopping wood, misusing power tools, taking his dogs for a walk, cleaning the outhouse, and any number of chores at his homestead nestled among the fragrant junipers and the soaring ponderosa pines.

If such activities, shared between a mentor and his protégé, were taking place in say, Japan, there might well be a series of profound lessons residing within each task. And at the appropriate moment, Bob would turn to me and say something like, “So, Grasshopper, can you hear the sound of the one hand clapping?” However, since this is not Japan but, alas and wondrously, northern New Mexico – where folks prune the sunflowers from their alfalfa fields with chain saws and use their washing machines as lawn art—the chores we perform are devoid of any larger meaning. Indeed, they have no meaning whatsoever other than the fact that they’re all part of an elaborate campaign on Bob’s part to procrastinate the pain of having to drag his sorry ass back to his writing cabin and resume work on his novel. And it is this, the subject of pain, that has opened the door to his greatest gift.

When I wandered into my colleague Priscilla Painton’s office all those years ago at Time, I was partly in search of concrete tips: how to talk to sources; how to follow a lead; how to shmooze people over the phone. What I really wanted, however, was simply to watch a writer at work – a desire that, by virtue of my relationship with Bob, has finally been fulfilled. By hanging out at his cabin and insinuating myself into his life, I have at last been given the chance to take a peek under the hood to see how the pistons fire, the cylinders compress, and the engine of writing thrums to life. Now that I’m privy to the spectacle, let me assure you, it is completely horrifying.

For Bob – and thanks to Bob, for me too, because his curse is contagious (Damn you, Bob!) – writing is searing agony. He puts it off as long as possible; and when guilt, shame, or the looming specter of financial apocalypse prevent him from doing so any longer, he shuffles into “the pain cave” of his writing cabin and thrashes around like a Cyclops whose eye has been poked out with a sharpened log. For the full details, you can read his story, which should dispel any delusions you may be nurturing about the romance of writing. But what’s relevant here is the unsettling fact that, even for the recipient of the National Book Award, the Prix de Rome, and a final nomination for the New Yorker Magazine Book Award for Best Nonfiction, nothing about this process comes easy.

The pace of the work is glacial (poor Bob has been hacking away at his current book for more than six years). The act of summoning beauty from the ether of nothingness inflicts torments that can be assuaged only by alcohol, drugs, or not writing. Most daunting of all, however, is the loneliness of the labor itself, a desolation of the soul that may perhaps best be likened to a kind of self-imposed solitary confinement in the Abu Ghraib of one’s mind. Labor done in silence. Labor devoid of companionship. Labor performed for weeks, then months, then years without the slightest notion of whether anyone will read it, respond, or even care.

Watching Bob raise the scaffold of a novel upon the rock of his imagination is so awful that I sometimes wonder why I don’t just give up writing altogether and explore a less unpleasant line of work like, say, mining coal or cleaning airport bathrooms. Partly, I don’t do that because at the age of 42, it is simply too late for me to switch gears. But the real reason I haven’t run screaming for the door has more to do with the example my mentor has set. An example that, God help me, has instilled an unwilling acceptance of what I imagine to be one of the fundamental truths of this craft.

~

In my view, there is perhaps only one great truth about writing, which resides in the fact that it is done alone. The quality of what you produce—good, bad, or indifferent—isn’t something anyone can bequeath you. But what a mentor can give amounts, in my experience, to two things. First, a glimpse into the nature and the depth of solitude: its terrifying severity, its austere magnificence. And second, a demonstration of the courage that is required to chase the tail of one’s own truths, whatever they may amount to and wherever they may lead, into the face of that void.

A mentor, an uber-mentor, who is capable of imparting this kind of understanding—and who, by force of example, can help steel you to the prospect of stepping into the abyss yourself—isn’t someone you will ever be able to search out, or cultivate, or conjure from the darkness of your own desperation.

In the end, such a person finds you.

 

bobkevinoutside (credit Chris Boss)


Originally published by the Mayborn School of Journalism