NSNC Past President
The best storytellers are like keen-nosed truffle dogs, looking for riches below the surface. It’s what columnists do most days under deadline, usually in 750 words or less. Other writers have a lot more space. Recently, I went to see The New York Times best-selling author Ben Mezrich, with an ear to learning how to apply what he does to column writing. “It’s a process of getting inside the story. I ‘method write,’” said Mezrich at the Milton Public Library’s Literary Gala on Oct. 19 in Boston. He needs to experience – either vicariously or directly – the thrill of the tale.
Like us, Mezrich searches for unique stories. His latest book, Sex on the Moon, is about a would-be astronaut, Thad Roberts, who breaks into a high security area of NASA and steals moon rocks collected from every Apollo landing. He scatters them over his bed to impress his ladylove, thus the book’s title. When Roberts is caught trying to sell the moon rocks on the Internet, he serves seven-and-a-half years in prison. Afterwards Roberts contacted Mezrich about his story, and now, a movie will be made from the book.
Before that, Mezrich wrote The Accidental Billionaire, which is about the founding of Facebook. His bestseller was the basis for the Academy award-winning movie, The Social Network.
First bringing Mezrich to national attention was Bringing Down the House, the true story of the MIT student team that used a card counting and signaling system for making millions on blackjack in Las Vegas casinos, which led to the movie, 21, starring Kevin Spacey.
So Mezrich has the writing chops, but did this columnist learn from him?
First, it’s reassuring to know that even the best begin with flaws. In Mezrich’s words, “I’m neurotic and terrified of everything.” He’s a self-described “geek” with OCD. His first few books – sci-fi and thrillers – went nowhere.
This brings me to my second realization. To move forward, a writer’s curiosity must overcome ego or insecurities – a trait many columnists already possess. Mezrich was sitting in a Boston bar when he noticed a group of students flashing $100 bills, and needed to find out more. This was his first chance encounter with the MIT blackjack team. One of the students invited Mezrich to come to his house “to see something,” which turned out to be duffel bags full of $250,000 in cash. Eventually, Mezrich’s “in” allowed him to observe how the team “trained,” as well as to join them in action at the casinos.
Mezrich was not famous at the time. All he had going for him was an intense curiosity. No doubt it must have been daunting for a lone stranger to approach rich, MIT kids partying in a bar. Wouldn’t the odds be stacked against the intruder who had the chutzpah to ask, “Who are you guys and where’d you get all the money?” (I’m sure he wasn’t as blunt as that.) Yet a writer’s curiosity is the GPS that leads to surprising paths. When the writing well runs dry, I was reminded that staying curious is the best way to refill that big, dark hole.
Often readers will approach columnists with ideas. Mezrich is no different. The point of origin for his book, The Accidental Billionaire, is traced to a phone call from a Harvard student, who told him, “My friend co-founded Facebook, but nobody knows Eduardo Saverin. Mark Zuckerberg screwed him on Facebook.”
Be Able To Relate
How does he manage to get his subjects to reveal themselves? The same way the best columnists do.
In person he’s an average-looking guy wearing a checkered shirt over jeans and Converse tennis shoes. But what is clear is that he is whip-smart, insightful, and enjoys being in the same type of company, like the folks in his books. Perhaps they, too, sensed within him a kindred spirit. “Being able to relate” is in every good columnist’s toolbox.
The company of creative characters can lift one’s boat. Column writers have a built-in advantage. Our job requires conveying vital or entertaining messages to our readers regularly. Brilliant and quirky personalities drive Mezrich’s story selection from hundreds of ideas offered each week. But he shies away from stories that might involve physical danger. “A guy called me saying he had done the Gardner Museum art theft. He was on parole for a similar crime done in exactly the same way. I declined. I get offers to do stories in Egypt or Afghanistan, but I prefer Las Vegas.”
Instead Mezrich loves “crazy genius” and gravitates to stories that allow him to “live” the experience. He said, “I love the Robin Hood sensation of a story. I love writing about a brilliant person in that gray area of right and wrong.”
His writing life is intense. Months of research with the subject, and then three months of being locked away in a pitch-black room with loud music, as he pounds out pages. “I’m like an animal. I eat the same food every day. I ate turkey sandwiches three times a day for three months.” Listening to his story reminded me that for any one of us an exciting story or a strange encounter might unfold at the next turn. Columnists live daily in this mindset.
Mezrich, like us, is certain of his identity as a writer. “You do it because you love it. I do it because this is who I am. It’s totally enveloping.”
Discovering “crazy genius” is a writing tonic and each of us could stumble upon it at any moment.
Suzette Standring is the award-winning author of The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffingon, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists. She teaches writing workshops nationally. Visit www.readsuzette.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org