An opportunistic pathogen takes advantage of your body’s weakened state to launch its attack. This type of disease only affects a host with a compromised immune system. If you’re healthy, you’ll be left alone.
Opportunistic infections are egged on by things like fatigue, malnutrition, skin damage and recurrent infections. They spring up at the worst moments to kick us while we’re down. In other words, they’re much like journalists.
Journalists–and writers in general–are opportunists. Or, the good ones are. They know a good story when they hear one, whether it’s a snatch of conversation in a shadowy cocktail bar or a loud altercation on the subway or a bit of gossip passed on by a friend. They’re not opportunistic to the point that they damage the host, but they recognize moments of weakness or novelty and use them to their advantage.
Here’s the trouble: My opportunistic instincts are crap.
When Clay Felker launched New York magazine in 1968, he did it with almost zero support. The main reason he succeeded was because he was his own best reporter. He got himself invited to important high-society events, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to spend every evening out. At those events and during those evening excursions he found his inspiration; he carried a notepad around with him and scribbled down, even mid-conversation, anything that sounded promising.
He got the hot gossip, the weird scoops, and commissioned people like Tom Wolfe to write madcap things like “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” about Leonard Bernstein hosting a party for the Black Panthers in his home. Seriously, no one else thought to cover these things before Felker rolled around.
Other writers tout the benefits to keeping a notebook all the time. Joan Didion wrote a whole, beautiful essay on the merits of keeping a notebook. It’s called, fittingly, “On Keeping a Notebook.”
“See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there.”
I do keep a notebook, but it isn’t passage to anywhere. I carry it around and fill it up, sure, with little snatches of limericks that bore into my brain during class or grocery lists or doodles of Onion Girl. “You’re so wrapped up in layers, Onion Girl, you’re afraid of your own feelings,” reads the Shrek-inspired caption, but Onion Girl won’t give me my next pitch. My notebook is a garbage dump for my mental overflow, not a genius-level idea goldmine.
In my longform essay class (because yes I am still in school, much as it doesn’t feel that way sometimes), we are charged with writing a single, 3,500-word essay by the end of term. The subtext of this prompt, at least for me, is that the essay should be the single most glorious and life-affirming thing I have ever written, should be picked up eagerly by the New Yorker, should put my name on the map as a writer, and should perhaps win me a pulitzer, but maybe that’s a stretch we’ll see.
Giving birth to that essay topic was akin to giving birth to a human child. I paced and agonized. I sweated and moaned and strained. I couldn’t get comfortable, couldn’t settle to anything, couldn’t feel at ease until the idea had popped fully-formed out of my head. In other words, for a few days I was very unpleasant to be around.
The Idea came eventually, though were I to write it here it would seem anticlimactic. But the whole ordeal was a jarring reminder of Onion Girl, of my pretty, useless notebook full of brain garbage.
This is the part where I tell you about how I’ll improve–how I’ll get a new notebook and record brilliant scenes and tidbits and tips to use later in the production of brilliant work for brilliant magazines. But the truth is, it’ll probably take time. Sure, I can treat myself to my first molskine from the store down the street, but becoming an opportunist is about practice. It’s about honing in on things and remembering them. It’s about knowing, Clay Felker style, what makes a good story.
It’s about recognizing in the moment that something is intriguing, that you want to know more, and that others will, too.