The short and long haul
August 31, 2011 |  by Catherine Pierre

The life cycle of a quarterly magazine writer goes something like this: You spend a great amount of time consuming, on a fairly superficial level, as much news and information as possible. Then something, for whatever reason, grabs you by the throat (or the brain, or the heart) and you spend the next month or two fully devoted to the study of that topic—reading about it, dreaming about it, talking endlessly to your spouse at the dinner table about it. Then you write your story, turn it in, and put it behind you. On to the next great topic.

I was aware while editing this issue just how often those great topics revolve around people with a very different life cycle: academics. More specifically, academics who spend entire lifetimes devoted to their subjects. Take Writing Seminars professor John Irwin, subject of “Saving Hart Crane,” by David Dudley, A&S ’90. Irwin has spent the last 41 years working on a book about an American poet whose reputation is mixed at best. Even if Irwin did write other books and teach other classes during that time, that’s an amazing attention span.

Or what about the scientists in senior writer Michael Anft’s story, “The Great Unknowns”? Many of them devote their careers to chipping away at questions that may never be fully answered in their lifetimes. But they maintain the same level of intensity, interest, and passion that we bring to our two-month-long reporting projects.

Which is why we like to write about them so much. They are a fascinating—and admirable—species, and magazine writers are always on the lookout for the most compelling stories to tell. As Bret McCabe, A&S ’94, the newest member of the magazine staff, puts it: “I’m a sucker for the person behind the pursuit. I love that, say, there’s somebody out there who is dedicating his/her life to exploring the infectious diseases associated with one specific fly found only in Botswana. But I’m more fascinated by the human drive to choose those things. And through reporting/interviewing, I get to see what that is, up close and personal, multiple times a year.”

I’m happy to announce that such storytelling earned the magazine three medals in the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s annual Circle of Excellence awards: Individual honors went to Michael Anft for “The Disease Chaser” and Dale Keiger for “Immortal Cells, Enduring Issues” (both published Summer 2010). As a team, Mike and Dale also took a bronze medal in the staff writing category.

Congratulations, gentlemen!