The Professionals: GQ Writer, Cole Louison
In the middle of his so-called "ape-shit crazy" week (a.k.a. shipping week) at GQ Magazine, Ithaca College alumnus and GQ contributer, Cole Louison sat down with Imprint. Here, he talks about what really prepared him for the industry and what his average day is like working for a top publication while freelancing for others, like The New York Times.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Well. It's odd because I always loved stories but was not a kid who read a lot (though my sister was), and my closest friends were and still are music and art people. But yeah, starting in fifth grade, Miss Baker's class-an assignment that resulted in a call home; I was really turned on to writing and that world you could build. The journalism aspect started circling writing a few years later, because for me a story that's a true story always has a special spanning weight you can't find elsewhere. But THIS said, any kind of writing that's good is going to have a very true aspect to it, be it reporting or otherwise. Recently I took The Sun Also Rises out of the sack, and while it's fiction, it's also full of observations and reporting that are real. That book's 80 years old. And yet the stuff about the bulls and the bars and the fishing is still so accurate, so true, and that's what takes you there, just like any Joseph Mitchell newspaper item, or when Matt Dellinger busked around Nashville with Old Crow Medicine Show, or when Sarah Vowell goes home to Montana and shoots a cannon with her father. Tom Bissell, who writes great fiction and non-fiction kicked off one of his books-there's a name for this but I don't know it-with a Dickinson quote:
"The Heart asks Pleasure-first/ And then-Excuse from Pain . . . "
Which for our purposes here let's say means those thing you feel as true are the first and foremost, and what follows are excuses. He also said the difference between writing nonfiction and fiction is that for fiction he doesn't have a notebook to look at.
So while I've always read more books than periodicals, pretty early on I gravitated toward newspapers, probably because there's little time between writing something and then holding it printed in your hands. And because at its best reporting is a pretty egoless form of writing, as compared to say that of the workshop/lit-mag drove. (By the way, I was the Ed of my H.S. lit-mag.)
How did you come to work for GQ and The New York Times? Did you start by just pitching stories? Any odd jobs in between you'd like to share?
Let's do the odd jobs first, which are good comic relief but are also important, because I think being a good writer or reporter or just humanitarian one needs to exist and work and talk and live with people who seem very different than yourself.
You will meet such people doing odd jobs.
OK . . . After leaving the good old Vineyard Gazette there was a Help Wanted sign in a window at the upisland post office for a Temporary Rural Mail Carrier. More than anything I wanted to be the RMC, but could not because of some parking tickets. I did carpentry on Cape Cod, and kept that up in Vermont while sometimes helping out in the kitchen at an art colony. Also worked as a landscaper, painter (fired), mason (fired), and dishwasher (fired and the kid who replaced me was retarded). Once an older wealthy lady who said she'd like to stick her tongue in my cleft paid me $100 to wash and wax her Volvo.
But it was after the masonry bit that I came to New York and temped around at some magazines: Marie Claire was the first one which was pretty interesting, then Esquire, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker--who invited me to play on their softball team. I also volunteered for 826NYC and McSweeney's, and became an editor there. This was all my first like six months in New York, so it was very exciting. Eventually I interviewed at GQ, then started freelance fact-checking. I've been here since then.
The Times has been different from magazines-where stories are long and thus often planned out, then written, then often reshaped. With the Times it was just like HIT IT. What happened was I met a guy at a party who worked in their photo department and told him about this spooky house I'd seen way out in Queens. We emailed the next day and he said to email the City editor, Connie Rosenblum. Now-this story was not timely, not angled, and it was really weird. But she wrote back. Her note was: "please call me 212-XXX-XXXX" We talked for a minute and then she said "this is really weird . . . [that sinking feeling came on] . . . but we like it." I guess maybe she could feel my enthusiasm. We've continued to work together. She barely tweaked my last story, which was a totally sweet.
What's most important is good work. There's stuff from HS soph year and the Ithacan I'm still proud of, and a Buzzsaw story on web law that basically got me the Vineyard, etcetera. But if you take your classes seriously, the reading and papers and push yourself and just try to be aware and engaged and drive around and not just smartly watch TV, then that builds a fitness you'll take wherever you go. Different things prepare you in different ways. While we all wrote a lot for Buzzsaw, there were fat production and administrative responsibilities which no one had anticpated, but were hugely educational. It's like what some old guy once said: Things you've never done contain the greatest amounts of education, which is maybe why they're the hardest things to do.
One thing we tried to do with Buzzsaw was bridge that gap between reporting, literary & creative writing, analysis of said writing, and analysis of reportage, on and on. A collective. As far as strait IC, Mead Loop is a learned longtime newspaper man. Ben Crane's classes are basically classes in critical thinking, and fact-checking (a good way to get into magazines) is critical thinking 101, so that was very handy. Patty Zimmermann's classes are splendidly hard with a lot of reading. Michael Serino is always connecting folks, and that invaluable.
Just chatting up people like Chris Harper who have traveled and been in the field will give you stuff you simply can't read. But the opposite is also true, because some people who've been writing too long get this Voice, and it's authoritarian and boring and awful, because worse than not getting enough as a reader is being condescended to by the writer, who floats above and dictates with a tone that almost expects you to take notes. As soon as you take this tone you're hosed, because it means you stepped away from your subject and stopped getting your hands dirty and you've lose that touch-and as a reader it's pretty easy to see, to feel. This happens a lot in journalism and it happens a shit-ton in literature.