There’s an anecdote in David Handleman‘s 1985 California piece about Terrence Malick (titled “Absence of Malick“) that has always amused me. It’s a brief recollection about Malick having landed a New Yorker assignment in the late ’60s to write a piece about Che Guevara, and his having travelled to Bolivia to research it. But he over-researched it, Handleman wrote, and “got drowned in it, and never turned [the piece] in.”
The story actually comforted me because I did the same damn thing in ’85. I had pitched an article to an American Film editor about the inner lives of film critics — who they were deep down, what had lit the initial spark, what drove them on and so on. I was calling it “The Outsiders.” And I knew it had the makings of something really good. So I talked to many, many critics and transcribed the interviews and wound up with at least 25 or 30 pages of single-spaced pages, all typed out and corrected with side notes and thoughts about structure and whatnot.
And I got into it more and more, and it became a small mountain. And then a big one. And then it became quicksand and I slowly sank into it, knowing I’d gotten myself into trouble and unsure whether to keep trying or to forget it and walk away. I felt like I was covered in glue or tar. I finally gave up. The guilt was awful. I’d never worked so hard on something to no avail. But it taught me three things.
One, never churn out that much research about a single topic ever again without writing anything down — write as you go along. Two, forget about big subjects and grand designs — always choose a topic that appears to be small or smallish and then make it bigger or richer with your interpretation of it. And three, always listen to what people say and let that material point the way.
My next whopper-sized article was a 1995 Los Angeles magazine piece called “Right Face,” about the struggles of conservative-minded writers and actors in the film industry. I did almost as much research on this as I did on “The Outsiders,” but somehow I pulled it together and turned a pretty good piece. And then Lew Harris, my Los Angeles editor, gave me dirty looks for years after that because he felt my research hadn’t been quite thorough enough. Or so it seemed from my end. Dick. But the piece was well received. It was labor well spent.