Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What Would Sir Harold Do?

"You want to be a journalist? Or you are a journalist?" Sir Harold Evans looks at me with his glassy, cornflower blue eyes before he signs the interior of the book I just purchased. I imagine he asks because the book, My Paper Chase, chronicles his life as a writer and editor in print media.

"I am a journalist," I say, though the assumption that I want to be is a fair one. We are in a lecture space at a local university, Hunter College, and on nights like tonight when I am not wearing makeup I easily look 18. Hearing myself say the words, having just been made aware of the breadth and depth of his career in his lecture, sounds not so much like a lie, but an inadequacy. But then again, at this stage in my career, it is by no means fair to compare myself to the man.

Sir Harold Evans has been working in media for about 70 years. He is the author of twelve books; he is one of the International Press Institute's 50 World Press Freedom Heroes of the past 50 years; he was "knighted by the British Crown for his services to journalism,"; he is the founder of Conde Nast Traveler, a former editor-in-chief at the Atlantic Monthly, a former editorial director of the U.S. News and World Report, a former president and publisher of Random House, and the list goes on and on. Though I like to think I walk around New York with a certain swagger at times (I mean, you have to or you won't survive, right?), I am floored and humbled, as I should be, by the man's presence.

Surprisingly, I was one of the few people in the audience under the age of 30. I would have thought people in the beginning stages of their careers would be quite literally tripping over themselves to hear such a man speak about his life and his work. I have been on a "revisiting academia" kick these days to be fair, but my goodness, being in his presence alone is an education. I felt like I was soaking up inspiration and knowledge just sitting there.

Throughout his lecture, a part of the "Great Thinkers of Our Time" Series held by Hunter's Writing Center, he offers several stories of a bewilderingly amazing life in publishing, including but not limited to stories in which Marlon Brando asked Evans to get on his knees and beg for rights to the actor's book (he of course refused), exposing the lives of the people affected by the now-infamous, disfiguring Thalidomide drug, and publishing Obama's Dreams From My Father. He also shared a few bits of wisdom about writing in general, which at this particular moment I think were things I needed to hear.

"When you struggle as a writer, you learn really good writing."
"Anyone who tells you writing is easy isn't a very good writer."

And most importantly: "The only advice I can give about writing is: write!"

It is that last one that I've been needing to hear more than not these past few weeks. In a city like New York, it is so easy to get "busy." As in, "I can't, I'm too busy," or "I didn't have time, I was too busy." I learned a long time ago that "busy" is an excuse we New Yorkers, and people everywhere really, use to cover up their lack of willingness to make time for any activity at all. The fact of the matter is people will only make time for something or someone they want to make time for. If they don't want to make time, they won't, and that's the end of the story. It's one of the few situations I've found that's purely black and white.

I have not been making enough time for my writing. The essays I aspire to work on, the articles I dream to write. And I will fully admit here that the delay comes from fear. Fear of not living up to my potential, fear of not producing something I'm proud of, fear of becoming one more nameless writer who fades away into nothing in the city that tests any creator on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Sir Harold Evans looks up at me and asks me how to spell my name. In his British accent he jokes, "It's quite difficult, you know!" I laugh. But underneath my name he writes, "Good luck!" A warm yet fairly trivial greeting, usually, but to me it really means something. While Sir Evans may not directly "believe in me," as it were, I do think he believes in the idea of me: a writer working hard in what may be the hardest of all cities to become..something.

I can do more. I must do more. Harold Evans didn't become Sir Harold Evans by being scared, after all.  And I don't know if I ever will be Sir Harold Evans, but I can absolutely be the best Miss Manhattan possible.