By Theresa Miller
American editor and journalist, editor-at-large of The Week, a contributing editor at GQ and at The Atlantic, and former White House correspondent at the National Journal, Marc Ambinder’s credentials speak for themselves.
Not one to shy away from the personal or political, he’s written controversial articles about national security and social inequality. His first book, “The Command: Inside The President’s Secret Army,” is an examination of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command. Ambinder previously worked at ABC News and was chief political consultant to CBS News from 2008 to 2011 and has broken several stories, including details about the raid on Osama Bin Laden. He received a B.A. from Harvard University in 2001.
Marc is also teaching our live online personal essay course, You in 1200 Words: Writing And Publishing The Personal Essay. He’ll help you craft a relatable, tantalizing personal essay that you’ll know how to sell! Marc took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about his life, career, and the world of journalism.
1. How did you break into and succeed in the competitive world of political journalism?
In college, I won an internship with ABC News, and then I interned the hell out of it. I came in early, stayed late, asked to box above my weight class, asked people questions, and generally made a polite nuisance of myself. When, later on, a job opened up, I knew enough about the job and about the organizational culture of ABC News to fit well. It helped that I was passionate both about politics and TV production.
2. You wrote “Beating Obesity” for The Atlantic Monthly about your gastric bypass surgery and subsequent weight loss. The piece was not only well researched and informative but deeply personal. How do you break up the “reported” sections with “personal essay” to improved readability?
Great editors. Never underestimate them! When I was outlining the piece, I began by dividing the personal narrative into discrete, linear sections. Each of them had an ending, or perhaps ended with a decision I had to make. Then I segued into the corresponding reported sections, backfilling the narrative with information that informed the choice or reflected my own decisions. I let my own actions drive the essay. After, for example, “I” wrote about my own experience with food post-surgery, I set out for the reader what “we” – the broader community, had learned about those subjects.
3. How do you find the confidence to tell an audience of strangers about such personal struggles?
At best, it’s cathartic. At worst, it’s an exhibitionistic thrill. I find that the degree of sharing is appropriate when I don’t feel I need to explain to anyone why I wrote what I wrote. The work justifies itself. But when I have to explain something, then there’s something about the work that leaves unanswered the question, “Why exactly did this guy want to tell me this?”
4. You are a contributing editor at GQ, The Atlantic Monthly, senior contributor at Defense One, and have written for numerous other well-known publications. What do you think it is about your work that resonates with so many readers?
I share their curiosity about complex and difficult subjects, and I have developed a talent for explaining them. Here’s the secret: when I write, I write to explain something to myself. I write in my own voice. I try to approach subjects (people, things, institutions) with humility. Personal essays usually hinge upon self-discovery, which in many cases introduces a genuine curiosity about something very important. The writer, as a narrator, will solve this problem for him or herself and bring the reader along.
5. Your essays about the NSA and obesity being an issue of social inequality have been controversial in some circles. Have you had to take heat for your articles and how do you deal with it?
The Director of National Intelligence once yelled at me. But that wasn’t too bad. In general, the “heat” draws attention to the work, so I don’t mind.
6. What do you feel are the necessary components of a good personal essay?
The obvious ones: a unique voice, a good story, solid writing. The less obvious ones: a humility about the subject, an ability to tie a personal struggle to a universal one, and very compelling transitions.
7. Can you take us through your writing process?
First, the thoughts come out. I tend to just turn on the computer, open MS Word, and start writing whatever’s on my mind. I’ll play with a few phrases. Maybe string a few paragraphs together. Then I’ll stop, open up a new document, and try to outline the essay or article using conventional story structure techniques. Often, since I don’t know what I’m going to conclude until I’ve gotten there in the writing process, the outline doesn’t reflect the final product.
I’m a piece-meal writer, not a chronological one. It’s not the most efficient way to work, but it’s how my mind organizes itself. When I’m done, I always do two things: I read each paragraph backwards, starting with the last sentence and finishing with the first. Then I read the first sentence of each paragraph. The former helps with flow; the latter, with basic grammar.
8. What will students be learning in your class?
Most people will come to the class with some sense of what they want to write about. I want to enable them. So we’ll start from the start: how the heck do you start to write a personal essay? We’ll look at how some of the best essayists (David Foster Wallace, Nora Ephron) did it. Then we’ll pick apart the structure of a good essay. We’ll finish by talking about the market for selling personal essays.
9. In your piece about sex in Washington, you shared some very personal information. There is a big fear among new journalists that including personal information in their writing (that even their families might not know about) might jeopardize their personal lives. How do you deal with this?
I’m almost always initially uncomfortable. That’s usually when I realize I have the germ of something decent. Often, though not always, the end justifies the means. And honestly rendered essays are almost always seen as such. Tendentious personal essays, on the other hand, stink of incuriosity.
Thank you so much, Marc, for that wonderful insight into your writing life!
If you want to hear more of Marc’s great advice, sign up for his Live Online Personal Essay class, starting up March 23rd.