The Pivot: A brief prelude

On an early afternoon in early March in Upper Manhattan, a dozen graduate students in Columbia Journalism School’s Arts and Culture seminar gathered their notebooks and coffee mugs as class wrapped up for the week. Some lingered in the hallway to chat while others bolted for the elevator. Unknown to any at the time, it was the last time they’d ever share a classroom, likely the last time they’d all be physically together, and perhaps the last time many of them would ever meet each other in person. None realized they needed to say their goodbyes.

A few days earlier, on March 1, New York had reported its first case of Covid-19. But by month’s end, the city’s hospitals were overrun as the region swiftly became the epicenter of the nation’s pandemic. Columbia, like more and more places around the country and world, had emptied out — its approximately 31,000 students gone. When graduation rolled around in May, students in the J-school’s MS and MA programs logged onto their Zoom-mencement from six continents and several times zones.

I was one of them. I was already a few years into a journalism career that had been challenged by constant waves of  industry upheaval — but that I refused to give up on. Now I walked out of Columbia into yet another uptick in professional chaos and downturn in professional certainty.

I’m not wandering alone in this unmapped territory. Digital shifts, contracted or closed newsrooms, shrunken freelance budgets, COVID lockdowns, political assaults on the press — they force all in this profession to be poised at any moment to pivot.

That led me to propose an occasional series to Storyboard, interviewing journalists of all platforms, ages and positions about where they landed after their career plans were derailed, and what they learned along the way. If there’s someone’s journey you’re particularly interested in, let us know.

Chris Jones: Outrunning collapsing ground to keep the dream

Chris Jones was Esquire’s youngest “writer at large,” when he won two National Magazine Awards for best feature: In 2006 for “Home,” a 6,700-word feature about stranded astronauts; and again in 2009  for “The Things That Carried Him,” a haunting 17,000-word piece following the escort of a fallen American soldier as he brought home from war.

National Magazine Award winner Chris Jones

Chris Jones

Jones, known in the Twitterverse as @EnswellJones, chronicled his own journey from newspapers to near desperation to the big leagues of Esquire in a series of tweets he posted last month because, as he said in the micro-narrative, “It makes me happy.” (Spoiler: gumption, luck, a really nice janitor, and two boxes of donuts — Krispy Kremes — in that order.) Yet despite a pair of  Ellies and a position many writers covet, a decade later Jones was out of a job — one of the many star bylines left Esquire when their revered editor, David Granger, was let go. This time, instead of beating the pavement with pastries, he considered applying for work at a hardware store. A seasoned handyman, Jones loves manual labor because, at the end of the day, “you can stand back and say ‘I did that.’”

But now, after the debut of the Netflix original series “Away,”  Jones can sit back and say, “I wrote that.” Or at least part of that.

The series. which aired Sept. 4,  is loosely based on Jones’ last Esquire story, also called “Away.” It anticipates the struggles and discomforts U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly likely would face during his unprecedented year-long solo voyage in space —  the longest single stretch an American astronaut had spent in space. In addition to the physical toll — feet softening, blood loss, lack of sleep — Jones probed what’s known about the psychological strain of being beyond the reach and experience of loved ones.

The Netflix series it inspired stars Hilary Swank. Reviews since its release range from applauding it for moments of magic, to promoting it as a refreshing distraction from current real-world problems, to hailing it as a return of  the soaps and panning its emotional predictablility. You can make your own judgment, but what “Away” does do is celebrate human achievement, and the sacrifices they sometimes demand.

Until recently, the closest Jones had ever come to Hollywood was through his sensitive and unflinching profile of film critic Roger Ebert as Ebert, a passionate cook and foodie, he adjusted to life after a series of cancers that took out much of his jaw and mouth, including his ability to eat and taste solid food. That piece is anthologized in Walt Harrington and Mike Sager’s book “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.”  However, those in search of the best of Jones’ “aftermath” journalism should also to check out “The End of Mystery,” about reaping answers and meaning from helicopter crash debris, and “The Nation’s Leading Expert in Picking Up the Pieces,” which is a profile, an explainer, a museum of recent American tragedy from a (human but rational) distance, and weirdly, a treatise about hope — and which makes it the perfect prelude to our interview with Jones, which introduces our new occasional series, “The Pivot.”

What was the biggest challenge for you when you encountered the disruption?
Ha, well, you mean other than the disruption itself? Change is hard—it’s emotionally hard. I experienced a lot of so-called “change agents” in short order. I left Esquire in April 2016 after working there for 14 years. (Long story short: Our editor-in-chief (David Granger) got fired, and we all quit.) Three months later, my marriage ended. So two of my life’s anchors were yanked out of the seabed. I was totally adrift.

I don’t know how to describe that time, exactly. I was not at my mental best. It was scary, of course. Sometimes I behaved like a wounded animal. Sometimes I was excited about the possibilities. It wasn’t any one thing. Having both of those calamities happen at once was unexpectedly beneficial, looking back. Change is risky, so it can be hard to make the corrections you have to make, even if you know you need to make them, because you don’t want to gamble the ground you’ve conquered over the years. But suddenly I had nothing to lose. Other than my kids, everything was gone. Forget the ship analogy. It was more like rebuilding after a fire.

Magazine jobs like mine don’t really exist anymore, not the way I want to do them, at least. I like to write and read on paper. I thought for a while about getting a job at Home Depot — that’s not a joke — but truthfully, I needed to find another way to write. Luckily, one of my last Esquire stories, “Away,” about living for a long time in space, had been optioned for TV. It was the thinnest lifeline. Most writers will tell you that their options never amount to much. They’re a little gravy money, a nice thing to think about.

But “Away,” the show, actually became a show, right when I needed it most. (The first season went up on Netflix Sept. 4.) I can’t claim I have much to do with that; I just paced around my tiny post-breakup house and waited for my phone to ring, hoping for good news. A TV show is made by hundreds of people, and I am just one of its many writers. Of everyone involved, however, I could make the argument that it means the most to me. I don’t want to sound like a weirdo, but the timing sometimes feels almost divine to me.

What has surprised you the most?
I guess I’m surprised by how much I enjoy screenwriting. It’s pretty different from magazine writing, which I loved. At Esquire, my editor, Peter Griffin, and I wrote stories together, and they were ours. My name was on them, and together we were responsible for every word in them. TV writing isn’t like that. It’s much more collaborative, a team sport. Eight of us sat in a room together and mapped out the show, and then we broke off and each wrote episodes, which were then polished by our showrunners, Jessica Goldberg and Andrew Hinderaker. So my name is on one of our episodes — the eighth episode lists me as the writer — but I didn’t write every word of it. And some of my ideas show up in other episodes, but no one will ever know they’re mine.

I’m okay with that. I’m surprised by how easily I let go of the idea of ownership. I think the summer of 2016 forced me to let go of a lot of things. I’m just so happy to go to work with people I like, and we get to try to make something hopeful and beautiful together.

I also have to say — I had all sorts of preconceived notions of “Hollywood,” and none of them have proved true. I mean, they might one day, but my experience so far has been only lovely.

What elements of your journalistic craft and values have you been able to hold on to, and which did you find you could let go of?

Hilary Swank in the Netflix series "Away"

Hilary Swank plays Commander Emma Green, who leads an international crew on the first manned mission to Mars in the Netflix series "Away"

In a lot of ways, storytelling is storytelling. The same things matter, whether you’re writing a true magazine story or a fictional television script: You need compelling people to do something interesting, and you need to tell their story in a way that’s entertaining and, hopefully, moving to the audience of strangers who are reading or watching. Structure, pace, restraint — all of those things still count. Writing for as long as I have, I’d say that I’ve developed an ear for language that’s maybe even more important now that the words I’m writing are spoken out loud by actors. (I’ll tell you what: That first day on set, watching Hilary Swank delivering lines I wrote… I was in the dark trying not to blow a take with my sobs.)

It took me a while to let go of “the truth.” My work had been governed forever by fact — I took that seriously, and when I was younger I’d make idiotic pronouncements like, “Novelists are just professional liars.” I felt a kind of superiority making my trade in true stories. So while “Away,” the show, is based on true things, it’s a fictional journey, and sometimes I had a hard time pushing my knowledge out of the way in favor of my imagination.

One other craft note: When I did journalism, I’d write in discreet chunks. I’d write my ending first, and then some other scene I wanted to write, and some other scene, and then maybe my top, and then I’d cut and paste and blend it all together. I don’t think that method works as well for me for screenwriting. It’s so important that each scene builds on the last, that every moment has an almost manic propulsion engineered into it; I think screenwriting maybe demands more that you start at the start. I’m still learning, obviously, so I could be wrong, but that’s my sense of it at the moment.

Who or what helped you most during the transition?
I was fortunate that earlier in my career, I’d made another big leap, that time from newspapers to magazines. That was in 2001, 2002. The Internet was rising like a wave, and I just thought: This isn’t going to be good for us. Newspapers lose on speed. Magazines seemed like they’d be more resolute, because they offered a different service to their readers. I was sort of right, or at least I was right for a while. Now TV seems like the safer space to me. In some ways, my career feels like I’m constantly trying to outrun the ground collapsing under my feet. I know how important it is to keep your feet moving.

But the more honest answer: people. I asked people for help, and they helped me. My life now has a much larger collection of saints than it did four years ago. Principal among them is Andrew (Hinderaker). He wrote our pilot, and our relationship began with a four-hour-long phone call — he called and was mining me for facts, for story and character ideas. I learned so much watching him work, reading each draft of his script, asking him why he’d made the choices he’d made. He’s become one of my best friends in the world.

After the show got picked up, I flew to Los Angeles and interviewed with Jessica, Andrew, and Jason Katims, one of our executive producers, for a job in the room. Jessica said that she thought the room would be good for me — just being out in the universe, with other people, rather than home alone. She was totally right. I was given a shot I probably didn’t deserve — not for the first time, incidentally — and loved it. I’m pretty sure I was the oldest person on our writing staff (I’m 46), and I had the least experience screenwriting: zero. It was thrilling to be the mentee for the first time in a while. It was fun looking up again.

What plans or priorities do you have going forward?
I used to be a planner. I had my whole life mapped out. After 2016, I don’t plan anymore. I rarely think more than 20 minutes ahead. That’s not hyperbole. I am the shortest-term thinker I know. I wake up each day and try to make the best of it.

If I dream a little dream, I hope I get to write more TV, maybe see a film script or two produced, made into actual movies. I’m also working on a book about creativity I think will be good; I would enjoy reading it, at least, and I just have to hope I’m not a freak.

I love writing. The form doesn’t really matter to me so long as it involves the written word. I’ve never wondered whether I’m doing the thing I’m supposed to. When you find that object of singular affection, you don’t really think about doing anything else. So what’s to plan? I want to write. Today I’m going to write. Tomorrow I hope I get to write some more. That’s it. That’s the dream.

Julia Shipley is a freelance writer and frequent Storyboard contributor.

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