George Saunders’ Heartwarming Email To His Students During This Anxious Time

The writer Cheryl Strayed has a new podcast with The New York Times, Sugar Calling. It debuted maybe a week ago, but who knows, because I can’t feel time anymore. Anyway, today I listened to an episode featuring her mentor, the prolific and talented writer George Saunders. His collection, Tenth of December, is one of my all-time favorite books, and I like to re-read his commencement speech, “Congratulations By The Way,” for a pick me up.

In the podcast episode, he shares a letter he wrote to his graduate students at Syracuse during this terrifying time. It felt so affirming and nourishing to hear it, just as I’ve been really hitting the wall with this kind of contained lifestyle. Here it is, but not in its entirety.

“Dear S.U. writers —

Geez, what a hard and depressing and scary time, so much suffering and anxiety everywhere. I saw this bee happily buzzing around a flower yesterday and felt like, “Moron! If you only knew.”

But it also occurs to me that this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds. This has never happened before here — at least not since 1918. We are, and especially you are, the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterwards. What new forms might you invent to fictionalize an event like this, where all of the drama is happening in private, essentially? Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important.

Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us about something crazy that happened in 1960. What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this. And what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you’re paying now and what records you keep, also, I think with how open you can keep your heart. I’m trying to practice feeling something like, ah, so this is happening now. Or hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth — did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker. And then I real quick tried to pretend I didn’t just call the universe a stinker.

I did a piece once where I went to live incognito in a homeless camp in Fresno for a week. Very intense, but the best thing I heard in there was from this older guy from Guatemala, who was always saying, “Everything is always keep changing.” Truer words were never spoken. It’s only when we expect solidity, non-change, that we get taken by surprise. And we always expect solidity, no matter how well we know better.

Well, this is all sounding a little preachy, and let me confess that I’m not taking my own advice — at all. It’s all happening so fast. Paula has what we are hoping is just a bad cold, and I’m doing a lot of inept caregiving. Our dogs can feel that something weird is going on — no walk? Again?

But I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger, and we tend to live our lives there on its back. We’re much smaller than the tiger, obviously. We’re like Barbies and Kens on the back of a tiger. Now and then, that tiger wakes up, and that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up when someone we love dies or someone breaks our heart or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it. And always, there have been writers to observe it and later make some sort of sense of it — or at least bear witness to it.

It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer too, especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting — warts and all.

All of this to say, there’s still work to be done, and now more than ever. “

Hear Saunders read the whole thing, and talk with Strayed, in the episode.

My Mentor Marty And The First Time I Learned About Sinclair

“Nothing says ‘we value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult.”
-John Oliver

Marty at his desk with his firstborn, Andrew, in the late eighties.

I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that I would not still be in journalism today had it not been for the mentors I met along the way. One of the most important was Marty Haag. He warned me about Sinclair 15 years ago.

Marty was a legend by the time I first heard his name, which was sometime in 2000 when I went to intern at WFAA, the ABC affiliate which Marty led as news director for more than a decade. He turned down numerous job offers to lead TV networks because he was committed to the Dallas-Fort Worth community, a fact we all only learned of after his death. He was an executive at the station’s parent company, Belo, when I was at WFAA. But because of his focus and exacting leadership, that station was known across the country as a powerhouse and representative of the highest values in journalism. Marty had clear vision, creativity, encouraged risk-taking and empowered his reporters. He is the kind of boss that all his employees wanted to make proud. It’s rare — I have been in the business for a long time now and I have only come across people like that two times since.

I came to know Marty only by chance. I was interning that summer of 2000 and his son, Andrew, decided to intern, too. Andrew and I became friends and together, we went with the WFAA team to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia to do tasks such as picking up lunch and cutting tape and running scripts. I was headed off to college that fall (incidentally also Marty’s alma mater). During my senior year a few years later I asked Andrew if, when I came home for the holidays, whether I could meet Marty. He connected us and we all went to eat at their country club because that’s where people from Dallas eat lunch. (True story: When I was on the golf team in high school we were expected to just practice at our own country clubs because it was assumed that everyone had one to go to.)

From then on, Marty and I began one of the great email correspondences of my life. He was quick with the wisecracks and always generous with his advice and wisdom. We met up IRL around graduation to talk about my job hunt. He was retired by then, and teaching at SMU. I had harebrained ideas about maybe just packing up and moving to Nepal to make a documentary. He never seemed to shoot down ideas like that, always willing to imagine what was possible instead of what was not. My more “traditional” notion was to find a job in television news. This is the part of the conversation I remember vividly, and it shaped my trajectory.

Me: Should I just send resume tapes* everywhere throw everything up against a wall and see what sticks?

Him: No. Be targeted in your job hunt. Work for newsrooms with integrity because they will make you better. Don’t work at companies that don’t value journalism. I wouldn’t work at any Sinclair stations, because they only care about the bottom line.**

Marty then proceeded to write down on a Post-it, in pencil, the specific call letters of stations I should work at for my first job and their respective cities. One of them was KWTX-TV in Waco, where I wound up. When I wrote him telling him of my troubles at work (the kind of pedestrian problems the likes of a senior reporter being mean to me), he wrote, “Just keep your head down and work hard and let the work speak for itself.”

I still hear Marty’s voice as clear as day, in my head. It’s powerful how people’s voices really stick with you.

Epilogue, aka, this is no longer about Sinclair

Not more than three months after I started that job in Waco, Marty died suddenly of a stroke over Christmas/New Year’s break. I spent several days afterward at the Haag house with his sons and his beloved golden retrievers and a steady stream of loved ones who flowed in and out of that place. Marty is the first (and only) mentor I’ve had who died and while it cannot compare to what his sons and wife must have gone through, this loss hit me hard.

What I remember about those days at the Haag house was his younger son, Matthew, playing a lot of chess. And at some point when his brother was taking a long time to consider a move, Matthew, then just a teenager, recalled what his father often said to him. “Just make a decision and move forward,” Matthew said, recalling his dad’s advice. He was talking about chess but also about everything.

So many journalists-who-you-know were nurtured, shaped and guided by Marty: Scott Pelley, Russ Mitchell, Andrea Joyce, Leeza Gibbons, Paula Zahn, Verne Lundquist, Dale Hansen (who still talks about him in interviews), hundreds more. A few years after Marty’s death when I ran into Matthew at a bar, he introduced me to his girlfriend and told her, “This is my dad’s last protegé.” There was no one behind me, as Marty died when his son Andrew and I were both only 21.

With Andrew at CNN in New York last month.

Today Matthew is a reporter at The New York Times, Andrew is a producer at CNN, and two weeks ago I got to see Andrew in person when I was in New York. I’m sure Marty is so, so proud of them.

Most of the time I find it a huge privilege to do what we do but over the years I have often gotten down in the dumps and unmotivated and plainly just want to do something else. But I often think, what would Marty say, and I either keep my head down and work hard or just make a decision and move forward.

I have never worked at a Sinclair station.

*These were actual VHS tapes, kids

**Now we know Sinclair cares about not just the bottom line but also conservative orthodoxy. Trivia: Marty fired Bill O’Reilly for breaches in journalism ethics back when O’Reilly worked for him in the 1970s.

Advice, Illustrated

I was just in a regular gchat with my sister from another mother and part of it showed up in one of her drawings. Love!

Talking Shop With Gigaverse

“We often get caught up in platforms rather than the most important tool for success, which is not a technological platform at all: it’s intellectual curiosity. It’s that persistent tug to want to know more, to ask questions, to seek answers. The best reporting comes from the best questions, and no matter what the platform, great journalists are asking them.”

my chat with Gigaverse about finding good work, my favorite platform on which to report and balancing parenthood and journalism

The Best Advice I Got Last Year

One of the most pleasurable aspects of having brilliant coworkers is basking in the wisdom, knowledge and good-humored counsel of said colleagues. I am lucky to count among my people Shankar Vedantam, who, among many other things, is the social science correspondent for NPR and author of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.

It goes without saying that it’s pretty sweet to have this guy around when I’m in the middle of a professional or personal crisis and just need some sage advice.

Last year I was considering another job offer, since I had just hit my three-year-mark at NPR and three years was the longest professional association I’d ever had. I was feeling anxious to do something new, maybe just for the sake of the stretching and growing that comes with leaving your comfort zone. The role being offered was pretty great and something my 29-year-old self would have leaped at, but I was at the much-better-cooked age of 31 by then. I worried about the organization of the other place — was the leadership stable? Did it have a sustainable business?

Shankar said none of it mattered. What mattered most, he said, was passion and what we feel most passionate doing. Which gets to the best advice I got last year:

He said, we tend to make personal decisions with our hearts and work decisions with our minds, but it should actually be flipped.

It makes more sense, he said, to make work decisions based on emotion because so much of professional fulfillment — and success — flows from passion, and the other details (who owns a company, the board, etc) are out of our control. But interpersonal relationships are dependent on far more than passion, because of our children, homes, etc. So it’s better to make those decisions practically and not emotionally.

Shorter Shankar: Professional decisions? Heart. Personal decisions? Head.