#CNF Episode No. 17—Brin-Jonathan Butler on Bullfighting, How Surprise is His Biggest Weapon, and Access as a Drug

Brin-Jonathan Butler, Brendan O'Meara

Written by Brendan O’Meara

“Surprise is one of the biggest weapons you have as a journalist to affect people emotionally.” — Brin-Jonathan Butler

“The juice for me with journalism is not money or recognition. My ego is tied into access.” — Brin-Jonathan Butler

IMG_4707

Two pics? Whaaaaaaat? His photos rival Eva Holland’s irreverent, dare I say, get-the-fuck-out-of-my-face pic from Episode 15.

Butler is one of the smartest people I’ve ever spoken with. There’s a level of thinking and depth you don’t often hear from someone who’s in their mid-30s. You expect it from, say, George Saunders, but listening to Butler speak was a treasure for me and I hope so for you.

Like Holland, Glenn Stout, and Charles Bethea, Butler never studied journalism, yet he’s one of the best at his craft. I sense a theme that some of the best at this craft aren’t journalists by trade, but people who have a keen sense for language, are widely read, and think long and hard about the work. They aim for impact, not a sound bite.

You should also listen to him on the Longform Podcast from back in 2014. Pairing that interview with mine will give you tremendous insight into Butler’s mind.

Here’s a bunch of links to Butler’s work:

Buffalo and Wide Right, Broken Hearts and No Illusions
Myths Made Flesh: Last Breaths in a Spanish Bullring
The Poison Oasis
The Kindle Singles Interview with Mike Tyson
Errol Morris: The Kindle Singles Interview
The Domino Diaries

Please subscribe to my email list. You get access to these exclusive interviews and other cool stuff ONLY when I publish something and ONLY once a week. Small cost for big info.

 

Tennessee Williams and his 1947 Essay “The Catastrophe of Success”

“I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed.” —Tennessee Williams

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Tennessee Williams, one of if not the most famous American playwright (please excuse me as I don’t know many playwrights), was, like many writers a struggling writer, until, of course, he was no longer.

Ed Norton, while being interviewed on The Tim Ferriss Show, spoke about Williams’ essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” which, I imagine, strikes a chord with anyone who has managed to fulfill his/her creative visions. But the overarching theme of the piece is emptiness, that “success,” as everybody else sees it, is hollow to the newly minted “successful” artist.

After the third anniversary of the Chicago opening of “The Glass Menagerie”, Williams had to face the fact that he was no longer the anonymous writer toiling away in obscurity, a writer who was likely bitter that he hadn’t reached a level of notoriety he deeply wanted. I’m imposing my feelings on him because I think it’s quite universal. One does crank away and wonder when the “big break” will come. For a select few the BB arrives and suddenly s/he must deal with an entirely new and foreign role: a successful writer.

Williams wrote in a New York Times essay in November of 1947 that:

The sort of life that I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.

That climb, that struggle, as he so eloquently puts it, is the bane and the crutch, both hated and needed. The Struggle, if I may now capitalize it, keeps the artist hungry, both literally and fig.

Williams writes:

I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last.

One gets the sense that the security created a creative vertigo, a sense of imbalance that caught him off guard. It’s not supposed to be this way, is it?

He says:

I lived on room service. But in this, too, there was disenchantment. Some time between the moment when I ordered dinner over the phone and when it was rolled into my living room like a corpse on a rubber-wheeled table, I lost all interest in it. Once I ordered a sirloin steak and a chocolate sundae, but everything was so cunningly disguised on the table that I mistook the chocolate sauce for gravy and poured it over the sirloin steak.

One sympathizes, maybe, but it illustrates a key point: “success,” “arriving,” “making it,” are empty without the work. It’s the work that must continually ground the artist.

Needing to see the world differently, Williams had another eye surgery (his fourth) and set out for Mexico where he would write his most famous play. He says:

“Then, as a final act of restoration, I settled for a while at Chapala to work on a play called “The Poker Night,” which later became “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial. The right condition for him is that in which his work is not only convenient but unavoidable.

Maybe it’s part delusion, or maybe it’s part of having a rosy outlook, but one can stem this disenchantment by coming up with a plan to combat the excesses of “success.” Maybe by assuming it will happen, practices can be put in place. It’s something worth thinking about so as not pour chocolate sauce over a perfectly seared sirloin.

Williams writes:

Security is a kind of death, I think, and it can come to you in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all this removed from the conditions that mad you an artist, if that’s what you are or were intended to be. Ask anyone who has experienced the kind of success I am talking about—What good is it? Perhaps to get an honest answer you will have to give him a shot of truth serum but the word he will finally groan is unprintable in genteel publications.

So what now? Williams would have you stop focusing on such things saying:

William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life—live!” That time is short and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

You have received your call to action.

 

Episode No. 16: Charles Bethea on Late-Night Pitching, the Anxiety of Reporting, and the Magnitude of Breakfast

Charles Bethea
Charles Bethea, world traveler, great writer.

Written by Brendan O’Meara

“I was a poetry major in college which was of course of great concern to my parents.” —Charles Bethea

Here we are with the first episode of 2016, No. 16, sweet sixteen, Charles Bethea. This was a fun episode as we talk about Charle’s start in freelancing, his love of breakfast, and one of his favorite quotes of all time.

Like Eva Holland, Charles’ writing takes you places. He’s funny and his writing has a smooth feel to it. Suddenly you’re done with the piece and it felt like nothing, like gravity did all the work for you.

Aside from having his work published in The New Yorker (where he has a regular sports column on its website), the now-defunct Grantland, and Outside Magazine, he was also a producer on the short documentary Fair Chase, about persistence hunting. If you read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, you know that this is a theory about man’s early hunting by wearing down and overheating four-legged prey.

Anyway, point being Charles is a busy man with serious chops.

Here’s the link to the episode since folks with mobile devices still can’t stream it from the blog post (Podomatic is NOT on its game with this bout of customer service). Here’s the embed anyway.

Also here are links to a sampling of Charles’ work. You can find more at his website charlesbethea.com.

Selected Work

Fair Chase from Outside
Obama’s In-Box from The New Yorker
The Many Lives of Aubrey Lee Price from Atlanta Magazine
Star-Maker from The New Yorker
Will Shortz and the Ping-Pong Prodigy from The New Yorker

Books Mentioned

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Proud Highway by Hunter S. Thompson
No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie
Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade by Robert Sabbag
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell