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Clippings: Learning writing from old magazines

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Posted on October 15, 2014 |
By Evan Johnson



Everyone has habits, here’s one of mine.

Every laundry day, I scrape every dirty sock and shirt off the floor and pile it in the back of my car, where it waits until the end of the workday, when I can drive the half-mile to Mountain Fresh Cleaning on Washington Street across from the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. Every laundry day — and it is usually a Monday — I select a beverage from the cooler by the deli counter and a bag of chips and head to the Laundromat, where I spend a Monday evening separating my lights and darks. It’s a quiet ritual that I indulge in every week and it’s usually the highlight of my Monday. 

In my mind’s eye, every Laundromat I’ve spent time in looks the same with plain white walls, rows of dryers, washing machines and a quarter machine that stubbornly refuses my dollar bill for the first four tries. Between the hours of five and seven I usually have the warm and noisy hum of the place to myself.

I spend my time reading the magazines that I dig out of the milk crate by the front door at the Co-op. For news and views, I read The Economist, The Week, Intelligence Report (from the Southern Poverty Law Center), Orion and Catalyst (a publication of the Union of Concerned Scientists). If I’m feeling particularly refined in my tastes, I’ll dig toward the bottom of the bin for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ and even back issues of the Times’ Style section. Some of my best finds have included Guns and Ammo, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Wired and New England Review.

It takes me about $4 and an hour and a half to go through a full cycle of laundry, so for my reading that means I have to move quickly — gleaning the most important facts that I can from every article. I don’t dwell on pictures, and infographics are usually lost on me. As for the text, if I’m not drawn in within the first two paragraphs, then I’m moving on.

For a writer and journalist — even one as “green” as myself — these worn volumes are invaluable opportunities to see how others develop and practice the craft of good, clear writing. I’m able to observe what styles and voices work for which publications and how writers structure and develop stories that draw people in and give them something to think about. I’m also able to note what kinds of pieces I’m drawn to, which help me imagine the stories that I might like to someday pursue. A piece in this fall’s issue of Intelligence Report about the rise of nativist groups around Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was taut and completely engrossing while another survey in Details about which male celebrities have undergone surgery for a more chiseled jaw line was as appealing as drinking bleach.

However, those willing to wade through endless ads for watches and reeking perfume samples can be rewarded. The same issue had profiles on Enrique Olvera, one of the world’s great chefs who helped make Mexico City an international food destination, and Dan Bilzerian, a Gatsby-esque character with an estimated net worth of $100 million made through online gambling who spends his time jetting around the world with beautiful women and documenting his lavish lifestyle on social media for the world to watch green with envy — all definitely worth a read.

It is possible for the news to be a little dated (and if I’ve missed a headline, sometimes it’s still news to me). In that case, more literary-oriented pieces endure for a little longer. The New Yorker and New England Review always have terrific works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and literary criticism that consistently show astounding depth and the ability to bend genre without breaking it.

Reading these kinds of pieces makes a young writer feel equally inspired and intimidated. While they set my aspirations high, they also force me to realize that I still have a lot to learn. It’s a long way to the top and thousands of other people just like myself are trying just as hard/if not harder than me to get there.    

It’s been an education from the comfort of a card table while my laundry spins.  This week, Esquire taught me how to pick out a great-fitting suit and make a halfway-decent Old Fashioned, Wired plied me with tips on creating more secure passwords for email and Orion pointed out the fall constellations that I can see from my back porch. 

There was something else there, too, but by then it was too late. The drier had stopped spinning and I was out of quarters.  

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