Recently The New York Times reviewed “Stories I Tell Myself”, a memoir by Juan Thompson, son of the manic and mythic Hunter S. Thompson. As an avid Thompson fan (particularly in the early years of my journalistic life), I approach this particular tome with care: Thompson the younger was harmed greatly by the presence (and absence) of Hunter, and his scars from a childhood under duress demonstrate that creative energy —unbound— can leave splinters in lives lived close to such explosions. Thinking through my own relationship —albeit literary— with HST, I found an earlier post (written nearly five years ago) citing some valuable lessons Hunter offered to the next generation of journalists.
For a man often loathed by purists for his latitude with facts and their fictions, Hunter recognized the strictures and responsibilities of journalism-as-craft. You just had to look for the evidence. I’ve reposted that original article (in full) below.
Whittling away the travel hours this week, I found – and subsequently devoured (again) – Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary. For those that haven’t read it, the novel tells the ‘fictional’ story of Paul Kemp; a vagabond journalist who, after covering beats in New York and Rome, sets upon Puerto Rico in search of profits and the exotic. The novel is quite short and interestingly it borders on the autobiographical. Indeed, both Paul Kemp and Hunter Thompson hail from ‘small-town’ America, express a propensity for embracing escapism and the drink; and each hold an unsettled view of their own place in the world.
Importantly, this short book contains a critical lesson for aspiring journalists or writers alike. While discussing satisfaction in life with a nubile and naïve lover (companion to his ‘man of the times’ newspaper colleague), Kemp mutters that, “Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception – especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong.” For Kemp, and by extension Thompson, a journalist should foremost be concerned with the clarity of their message. For Kemp, these billowy words are not deft enough.
While authenticity and accuracy are surely comparable pillars of any journalistic code, the ability to convey facts, stories and events in a manner clear to all readers, should not be overlooked. For Kemp, the issue with Happy or Love is not that they are vacant of meaning, but merely that they are imprecise (in fact they mean too many things). These words are the layperson’s vernacular of the everyday which, while intentioned enough for random conversation, fails to impart the specifics needed when written. The critique hinges on this relativity (that happy must have an antithesis, yes (sadness) but that it is also a function of degree (happier today than yesterday etc…). According to Kemp, it is the “priest or the fool [who] use them (these words) with any confidence.”
In the end, if these relative descriptors are not made viciously clear, the value of theses words is diminished and the accuracy of the story is reduced. If we consider that the journalist–reader relationship is one of trust, earned through the cagey application of razor sharp nouns and verbs, then any sacrifice relating to the language used will leave the reader with doubt – potentially one that will linger.
For aspiring writers the world over (and I count myself within this group) our lives will always be an expedition to find the perfect collection of letters, lest our own language take away from the power of our thought.