The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers By Terry McDonell

It's like sitting down in a bar with the ultimate insider and listening to his stories about some of America's greatest (male) writers. 384 McDonell does what a good editor is supposed to do—let his writers shine. For fans of magazines' glory days and the writers that came with it—Hunter Thompson, George Plimpton, Jim Harrison, etc—or journalism nerds looking to learn a thing or two about the business, this is a must-read. 384 Terry McDonell’s The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers is insightful, interesting, blunt, witty and packed with a selection from the A List of fiction and non-fiction writers from the last handful of decades.

Scan the contents, there you go, and you’ll get an idea of the wordsmiths McDonell edited during a colorful career.

Do I have to list them? It might fill this whole review.  Jim Harrison. Ed Abbey. Peter Matthiessen. Tom McGuane. Richard Ford. James Salter. Jan Wenner. George Plimpton. Hunter Thompson. Richard Price. (I’m scratching the surface. Yes, diversity factor is low.) On and on.

McDonell’s credits? Try Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone. He was editor-in-chief of Esquire. There’s also a stint at Newsweek and a magazine he started called Smart. There’s the fact that he was founding editor of Outside and Rocky Mountain magazine. Is that enough? No. McDonell is a screenwriter and novelist, too.

The title alone—The Accidental Life—gives you the sense that despite the bright credits McDonell does not think of himself as anything special. Only a guy who cares about language. “Editing is about ideas, but it is mechanical, too. You have to get under the hood of the language, and editors use many tools.” One of those tools is word counts—knowing the length of something you’re about to read helps you understand its shape and pace, he argues. (Thus the title of every piece is followed by the word length to come.)

Most writers like to overshoot their assigned word length. “No writer I ever edited wanted to go short, anyway. Neither do I, but I also know that the best pieces seem to find their own length. That’s the alchemy.”

Reading The Accidental Life you hope some gold dust will fall on your keyboard, just by reading about what it is like to work with all these feisty, funky, mostly inscrutable bunch of truth tellers. You hope for some “how to” list of handy tips. How to edit. How to reject. How to know the right story to report—and when. How to cut.

Well, not quite. The editing nuggets are there. They are in the mix. But The Accidental Life is mostly stories about big time writers and McDonell’s relationship with them. (Just a hunch but I think those relationships is where the editing begins.) Along the way, McDonell riffs on photography, headlines, layout, the changing nature of the business, and what is like to be around Sports Illustrated during swimsuit season (February) and some of the jaw-dropping numbers for sales when there is so much female skin on the cover.

The Editing 101 stuff is there, but McDonell deals out those bits around stories (good ones) of his celebrity writer pals.

“Good editors, like doctors, develop a bedside manner. My editing was full of questions—all the same question, really. What is the story. What’s the point of it? What do these sentences mean? Do they mean what you want them to mean? What if I told you they read like walk-ons in a Pirandello play?”

This is from a brief entry, “Bibliomemoir.”

More: “To diagnose is an excellent verb for editors to keep in mind. But what are you trying to say? Is not always an easy question, and the story isn’t always what the writer says it is. I thought often about what it was like to read the writers I knew best, how direct their prose seemed and how the work spoke for itself, yet that made them even more mysterious. It was that way with all of the writers whose work I loved.”

McDonell celebrates certain passages—and quotes them. Whether fiction or non-fiction, he seemed to be on a quest for truth tellers, whether the prose is fiction or non. Sure there is a difference between what comes out of the imagination and the stories a reporter tells, but McDonnell seems interested, in both cases, in sharp observers who don’t flinch from hard truths. It’s a “commitment to revealing the shadings and complexities of the human condition,” he writes in the “Fiction, Nonfiction” entry.

I only hope The Accidental Life isn’t a reflection on what will be considered a golden age of journalism—the second half of the 20th century and maybe the first decade or so of the 21st century before The Internets gutted the budgets of big-city daily newspapers and magazines.

McDonell was there in the prime of magazine publishing—limos, fat expense accounts and fatter advances. These tidbits may be fantasy land for someone writing long-form today.

I'm writing this on the day that The Denver Post announced yet another wallop to its newsroom staff—another 30 staffers slashed from the newsroom, down to 70 total reporters and editors—it’s hard to not think back to the day when we took steady streams of good daily journalism for granted. And it's hard to imagine how many writers and reporters won't get a chance to develop their craft simply because the jobs aren't there.

Do you write? The Accidental Life is a must-read. Do you read? Ditto. Some suggest to read these entries at random. I started at the front and read straight through, glued the whole time and wanting to go back and pick up some old Jim Harrison stuff or early Hunter S. Thompson.

Great read.


Final note: I listened on audio. James Culp’s blunt, punchy narration was terrific. 384 An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers is the subtitle of Terry McDonell's memoir. He calls it The Accidental Life because he began his career as a photographer. Instead of following a straight path, though, as he describes it, he tried writing a novel, tried making a documentary film. Nothing was working until he became a combination reporter/editor at San Francisco Magazine. In the years since he's worked on and edited some of the biggest magazines in America, including Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Newsweek. For me the chapters on writers are the most interesting parts of the book. McDonell's accidental editing life has allowed him to become friends with and swim in the same currents as some of America's best writers. His material on them is richly anecdotal and honest. He has many wonderful stories about each, about what it's like to spend time with them, about how they approach writing, particularly for his magazines. Here are chapters about playing golf with Hunter S. Thompson and hunting with Richard Ford and fishing with Jim Harrison. But Peter Matthiessen is here, and so is James Salter, George Plimpton, and Thomas McGuane along with a generous broadcasting of others we're familiar with. I didn't know, for instance, that Jimmy Buffett can write, but McDonell likes his work very much. All these people are friends, too, and so they're fondly remembered and written about, even their warts. My sense is that this kind of remembering of writers he's known and worked with accounts for over half of the book. A good thing--I was less interested in how to put together a magazine's layout or how a submitted piece is cut in half over the writer's objections or even in how the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue is photographed. The writers and writing are the meat of it. 384 Ugh. Terry McDonell reminds me why I did not like so many people in literary circles in the 1970's. He is the original smart aleck and endlessly scores off the people who surround him in hopes that he will advance their writing career.

Double ugh. 384


Really excellent memoir, by a magazine editor who really, really loves good writing, and got to edit, and hang out with, some of the best writers of the late 20th/early 21st C. He writes well too. Not to be missed! Probably best to read it spread out over several days.

The first couple of high-rated reviews here, by Stewart Tame and ck, will give you a good idea of the book. Very high marks from me: I give out few 5-star ratings! Not to be missed, if it sounds even remotely like your kind of thing. 384 This is a pretty larky read, kind of like a compendium of yearbooks from a big drunk fraternity. It's very what-a-life-we-led-back-in-the-day, ho-ho-you-shoulda-seen-it, bet-ya-wish-you'd-been there, with a hint of do-you-think-this-is-shocking-well-I-can-tell-you-the-whole-story-but-then-I'd-have-to-kill-you and a strong note of what-a-chore-it-was-to-live-inside-the-golden-tower-of-the-mind-you-have-no-idea. That's fine. He obviously felt strong tender feelings for many of these fellows, and felt strongly in other ways about others. There's titillating little glimpses into Big Literary Lives. Also, it's pretty damn interesting to trace an arc in one man's life from getting Edward Albee's stories for Outside Magazine filed by pay-phone outside a bar in Whattheheck, Arizona to the multi-platform business model of a digital-age branded franchise experience that is the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue [Known to the insiders at Time, Inc as 'Swimsuit,' but we (the insiders at the inside of inside) just called it 'Swim,' of course]. Also interesting: no women! A wife here and there. Some lovelies in swimsuits. Elaine from Elaine's but mainly men doing the manliest stuff. That's the untold story right there. Could tell it to you but you really don't want to know. 384 I really wanted to like this book. The insider stories of writers and editors is a great idea, but instead of feeling excited to learn the inner workings of an industry I have embraced (on a much smaller scale), this book stirred my frustration. Why?

Over his long and varied career, the author worked with hundred of writers, but this book is a boy's club with story after story of boorish behavior -- drinking, drugs, and too much Hunter S. Thompson (hasn't the cult of Hunter run its course?).

A few women are highlighted (as beautiful wives who put up with their creative spouses) but scant chapters are devoted to the great work of women writers, while nearly every chapter is underscored with the literary contributions, and oversized escapades, of men. Over decades of magazine editing, the author has no words for great female writers?

Was this book written in 1950? No, it was published this month, with rave reviews from, you guessed it, male writers.
384 Full disclosure: this was a free ARC that arrived in the mail. The cover letter simply said that I had won it, and to be sure to add it to my shelf. I may have won it in a Goodreads giveaway, but I don't recall ever receiving an email from them stating this, though I vaguely recall entering the giveaway. In any case, I got it for free. Receiving unexpected free books in the mail isn't really a problem so much as a lifelong dream.

So, what about this book, Stewart? Well, the subtitle describes it fairly accurately. McDonell worked in the magazine industry for years, both as writer and editor, including stints at Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Outside, and Rolling Stone. There are numerous anecdotes about people like Hunter Thompson, Rick Reilly, Jann Wenner, George Plimpton, Edward Abbey and more. This book has been directly responsible for adding dozens of books to my already burgeoning reading list. McDonell has an ear for a great anecdote, and has been fortunate enough to know some highly interesting people. If it has a fault, it is that it runs a bit long. I found myself getting weary long before the end. Pacing, maybe? Perhaps, instead of reading straight through, I would have been better off dipping into it now and then, and then reading something else for a bit as a mental pallette cleanser. But it's hard to resist binging as the Wow! factor is high. All in all, an excellent book! Highly recommended. 384 [ARC courtesy Knopf via Amazon Vine program]

Pages of a Life

“I only had three rules,” Terry McDonell writes of his career as an editor. “Force nothing. Be clear. You can always go deeper.”

For all their brevity–nine words arrayed in three sentences–McDonell’s rules highlight the chasm between serviceable stories and riveting ones. In The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers, he shares stories about stories. There are moments of wryness and humor and self-deprecation, which may be what readers expect. You no doubt will recognize more than a few names, and will come away with some insights.

But the reason you need to read this book is to immerse yourself in McDonell’s ability to lay bare the essence of an editor’s life. The blurring between career and self, the certainty of change, and the redemption that comes from work well done.

McDonell describes the high that comes when writer and subject mesh and the words flow, and knowing you’ve put the two together. And sometimes, that you’ve coaxed the writer into piercing his soul, just a bit, for the additional details that make his words sing on the page. McDonell describes this process with empathy. “The best writers all knew how to do that,” he writes. “You didn’t edit into their pieces any more than you edited their sensibilities. What you did was ask for more detail.”

From the legendary editor, journalist, and publishing entrepreneur: a memoir about writers, writing, editing--and the fast-paced, high-stakes life in the publishing business.

Over the last four decades, Terry McDonell has been at the helm of some of the most influential beacons of American journalism: from his early days at Outside through tenures at Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and, most recently, as cofounder of LitHub. Now he tells us what really happens between editors and writers--behind the scenes and between the lines--with deadlines ticking. Here are intimate portraits of the most important (and most eccentric) journalists, novelists, and media personalities: from Hunter S. Thompson and George Plimpton to Richard Ford and James Salter; from David Carr and Steve Jobs to Jimmy Buffett and one remarkable Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. And here is an insider's unimpeachable advice on how to get, and keep, the best writers; what makes a great lede and headline; how to style a cover that flies off newsstands (whether or not there's a celebrity on it); how to build the online traffic that translates into dollars; and how--in whatever format--a good editor really works. From the storied past to today's tumultuous media landscape, this is an incisive, galvanizing account of the pressures, joys, and obsessions of a writing and editing life. The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers

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