A few years ago, in the first few rumbles of the H1-B avalanche that cut the legs out from under a whole generation of young men who had dutifully followed the advice of their guidance counselors into comp-sci degrees, I learned a fascinating phrase: “do the needful.” Indian men of a certain age say it as shorthand for handle your business. “Krishna, we haven’t had a software deployment in three days, so if you do the needful I will restart the broker service.” The Millennials from the subcontinent consider it very fuddy-duddy, like saying “Daddy-O” or, come to think of it, “fuddy-duddy.”
Anyway, last week I “did the needful” and checked my LinkedIn mailbox. It would be difficult for me to adequately express my contempt for the entire concept of LinkedIn in any context other than perhaps an opera of Wagnerian scale and dynamic range. I can see it now, actually. The incomparable Renee Fleming belting out that G6 while she plunges a flaming sword into the heart of LinkedIn’s founder on a Parthenon-esque stage made from the bleached-white bones of every “marketing professional” in the United States, floating in a moat of blood drawn from the jugular of every woman who has ever used “dialogue” as a verb in a meeting. The chorus swells with a threatening minor. Certain chairs in the audience are connected to 500,000 volts of power, frying the skullcaps right off anyone who works for a consulting firm in any main-office capacity. Jesper Christensen leans over to the woman next to him and quips, “Well, Tosca is not for everyone!” You get the idea.
I have to “do the needful” periodically because every once in a great while someone of interest will contact me. Last month I heard from the fellow who sold me my 911 fifteen years ago. I’d given him up for dead. The vast majority of my Inbox, however, consists of LinkedIn spam and “connection” attempts from third-tier PR staff at electronics-accessory companies. Lately, however, I’ve started to notice a new trend: people who want some sort of advice from me about “becoming a writer”.
Here again we can perform a sort of rough reduction. Most of the people who say they want to “be a writer” want nothing of the sort. What they want is to be an autowriter. They want to be the person who attends twenty overseas press events a year, staying at five-star hotels and adding passport stamps at a (Lewis) Hamiltonian pace. They want to drive Chirons and Aston Martins and Bentleys. They want to have an Instagram chock-full of beautiful scenery and exclusive dining. In short, they want to be Basem Wasef, the handsome and cheerful world traveler whose byline can be found small-print-buried beneath the text that grudgingly accompanies the manunfacturer-provided photography for every one-percenter-focused automobile in every glossy travel magazine in every airport bookstore.
I don’t blame them. Basem is quite a fellow. I’d trade places with him, I think. He’s probably asleep in British Airways First Class right now as we speak, jet-setting between two fabulous vacation destinations with a serene expression on his unlined countenance. By contrast, I just had a seven-dollar-and-thirty-seven-cent lunch which I ate on a barstool while trying to rub the pain out of my right wrist and left knee at the same time before walking up a hill back to my degrading day job. In the rain. The worst thing I can say about the man is that he came awfully late to the ownership of a Porsche 993. In this, he is not alone. Tony, Larry, Basem, and all the other media-job 993 nouveauwners are like people who heard Vampire Weekend’s “Unbelievers” on the radio and said I GOTTA GET ME SOME OF THAT FROM THE NEW VAMPIRE BAND WHOEVER THEY ARE. But that’s just me being bitter, largely because the left front bumperette on my impeccably-provenanced 993 fell off while I was parking it last month.
Allow me to return to the point. When these would-be Wasefs think about their future in the automotive business, they think almost exclusively about what they will be doing and very little, if at all, about what they will be writing. They have innocently, and correctly, internalized the mechanics of the business. The trips and the perks and the parties are the point of being an automotive journalist. The writing is besides the point. It’s just how you sing for your supper. If you want to understand why so much of the text-and-context in this business would not pass muster in a freshman college comp course, well, that’s why. It’s not meant to. The people who wrote it weren’t trying to write something memorable or even passable. They were just doing the needful so they could get on the plane to the next trip.
I rarely, if ever, respond to anybody who writes me about “getting press cars” or “how do u get on the trips their cool” or “I want to drive a new Ferrari when it come out”. Those people can, and should, correspond with their local automotive press association, who will tell them how to get on the gravy train. I don’t have time for them, whether or not they ever achieve their “dream”. They are aspirants to the status of background noise, roughly equivalent to would-be backup dancers for Katy Perry. The only way I’ll ever notice them again is if they Left Shark their way into ignominy Scott Evans style.
There are exceptions to the above. Rare exceptions, but real ones. People who want to be writers. Writers whose subject of choice happens to be automotive or automotive-related. That’s a very different thing from being a mere autowriter. It’s the gap between Csaba Csere and LJK Setright. Regardless of their individual merit, you have to agree that one of them stuck doggedly to a hoary, ragged script while the other one tore it up, urinated copiously upon it, then refashioned it into a papier-mache statue of Louis Rene Panhard which he then drowned in a pool of often misappropriated allusions to the classical era or high-school-level engineering doggerel.
What follows is my advice to the would-be writer. It is very simple. Be a servant of the story. This is a basic brief indeed but it has wide-ranging implications. To be a servant of the story is to be in thrall to the story. That’s an old phrase, “in thrall”, thick with connotations feudal, religious, and sexual. It connotes that you have no power, that you will do what the story requires, with no more free will than a bound slave could express.
When you are in thrall to the story, then you will seek it out. You will be a good listener. You will truffle-hunt, rooting up the actions and thoughts and feelings and motivations of your interviewees, your friends, your lovers. Go on. Tell me more. It is said of Michaelangelo that he saw David in the stone and merely chipped enough to let him out. You will listen, read, observe. You will chip until the story is revealed.
If the story is about you, then you will serve the story by being truthful. You will not Mary Sue yourself. You will present your body and soul to the world unedited and unretouched. Oddly enough, most of us who choose this vocation are relatively okay with that level of self-abnegation. The problem comes when you have to do the same to others. The mark of a poor writer is that his lens is Zeiss-sharp when it observes strangers but it seems to wander out of focus when it is pointed at people whom he admires or desires. I do not mean that you have to be cruel. To the contrary. Be truthful, and remember the quote that Mr. Rogers was said to have carried in his pocket: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love, once you’ve heard their story.” That’s a burden that would have staggered Atlas, but it is fair.
Understand that nothing matters until it becomes a story. Nothing is understood. The story is what makes it possible for us to go on. The first storytellers came into existence trying to explain the sun, the moon, the earth, the wind and rain. When you hear the thunder and do not run or cower like a child, it is because you have derived power from a story, an explanation. If you have the belief that life is anything but a series of unspeakable and random cruelties visited upon the weakest and poorest among us, then you are in the grip of a story.
The story is how we assign meaning after the fact, whether we are #ShoutingOurAbortion or gazing at the folded flag on the coffin of our only child. The story has power. It justified slavery and then it ended slavery. It afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. Sometimes it does the reverse — hello, autowriters. The story is all that matters. Everything you see, hear, think, feel, and experience is grist for the mill of the story. In the end you, too, will be ground beneath it, grist for someone else.
No individual human being has the power of a story. Stories survive after the mere facts disappear to dust, whether the subject is Beowulf or Christ or Rosa Parks. If you wish to traffic in the currency of eternity, you will serve the story. It is your only chance, and a slight one at that. Otherwise you are here and gone. Two vast and trunkless legs of stone, and all of that.
Not everyone is cut out to serve the story. Nobody does it perfectly. Your failure is predetermined, trust me. The vast majority of what you write will be worthless even to yourself. Still. Somebody has to do it. Somebody has to take up Milton’s torch and explain the ways of God to man. Even if you do not believe in God. If that is your desire — if the story has more power for you than a free flight to Tenerife or a fine dinner or a babbling valediction from the bought-and-paid jesters of the automotive circus — then I am here, and you may ask what you will. I will share that road with you, even if we do not know where it leads. It was once the custom to mark slaves, to mark those who were in thrall. I am so marked. You may recognize me by it. See if you recognize yourself.