'Open Letters' Opens Up
OtP talks to open letters editor paul tough
Open Letters broke new ground as a magazine of first person writing in the form of personal correspondence published on the Internet. David Isay of Contentville described it as brilliant, with some letters that "just stop your heart" and in Mediaweek, David Handelman described Open Letters as a "novel hybrid between website and traditional magazine."
Correspondents came mostly from the United States and Canada, with a few scattered dispatches from around the globe; topics ranged from romance with a tattoo artist, to chemotherapy, to dishwashing. The readers were a loyal bunch, viewing online dispatches daily or downloading them for free in a PDF format or purchasing them at independent bookstores around the country; hundreds voluntarily made contributions to a writers fund in their unique PayPal system, and many wrote letters to the editor. Dormant since the first week of January, Open Letters plans to remain online in perpetuity and may emerge again in another incarnation.
Paul Tough, Open Letters Editor, has been a producer for National Public Radio's This American Life, an editor at Harper's, and the editor of Saturday Night, published in Canada. In an interview with our publisher, he addressed ways that Open Letters existed outside the boundaries of traditional journalism and magazine writing and developed a reader/writer community. He also talked a bit about music, moving, and bowling.
nada: Could you explain the philosophy of Open Letters to those unacquainted with the magazine?
paul: It isn't really a magazine with a philosophy. Maybe you could call it an esthetic. Our goal was (and is) to publish a certain kind of writing that the editors and I really like, which we felt we couldn't find enough of in other places: honest, immediate, intimate first-person writing about the world around us. The magazine is predicated on a belief that that kind of writing can reveal more about our life and times than conventional journalism can.
Beyond that, the only philosophical tenets we cling to are Truth and Beauty. As much as possible, we've tried to publish letters that contained big helpings of each.
nada: Initially you assumed most correspondents would be writers, "people who were employed primarily in the sale of words, for whom Open Letters could be a way to express ideas and stories that didn't fit within the confines of other magazines, newspapers, and journals." You also solicited work from nonprofessional writers whose work you had come across in zines, online, and in letters. Did you anticipate the degree to which your readers would also want to become correspondents?
paul: I knew from the start that I wanted readers to be correspondents. What surprised me was the degree to which readers wanted other readers to be correspondents. Readers responded especially enthusiastically to letters that came from writers without a pedigree.
For all my democraticness as an editor, I was still more elitist than most of my readers—they were always happiest when we'd publish a letter by someone they'd never heard of, living in the middle of nowhere.
nada: I am wondering if you know more about your readers. How did they find Open Letters? Could you create a composite portrait of your readers or at least the readers that wrote to you?
paul: One of the things I like about our readers is that they're hard to summarize into a composite. Because they found the magazine in all different ways—mostly by word of mouth—they're spread all over the demographic map. There's certainly a young urban indie hipster contingent, but then there's also a suburban mom contingent, and an Australian college-student contingent. They all like to read, though, and I think a lot of them like to write.
nada: Andrew Wilson, author of the DMV Letter, wrote "my day, and the days of many others, will be missing something with the end of Open Letters." Would you suggest that your successful experiment created a community? Did readers start to write to one another?
paul: I was never successful at setting up a way to get readers to communicate directly with one another—in fact, that's one of the main changes I'd like to try to make if we're able to relaunch in the future.
But I always passed on reader comments to authors, and many of the authors wrote back to the readers, so I know there were a lot of dialogues going on.
I do think there was a community created—that became clear to me in the email I received in the final week—but sometimes it seemed like I was the only one who got to see it. Which isn't the best way to run a community. So that's what I'd like to do better next time. I think readers would like that, too.
nada: A number of Open Letters correspondents seem to have lived many lives in many places. Within the six month span of Open Letters, you lived on both coasts and bounced between Northern and Southern California. You described your own moves in a letter:
Over the past nine months, gradually, incrementally, I've been putting all of my possessions into storage. . . . It's a deeply existential chore, even, I'd imagine, for someone less existential than I am: Are there any books I just can't live without? Am I the kind of guy who might need a tie now and then? How important are sunglasses, really?
Did seeing your own transient lifestyle reflected in letters fuel or mitigate this angst?
paul: It mitigated it. I think that's why I was drawn to all of those moving letters—those writers helped me process my own unsettledness.
That's not the only reason, though. Moving and letter-writing have always gone hand-in-hand. You're never more alert to your surroundings than when you've moved to a new place: that's when we all write our best letters, I think.
nada: Open Letters transcended national borders with correspondents writing from all over the U.S. and from Canada, as well as the Middle East and South America. I'm wondering if you think of Open Letters as having a base anywhere?
paul: I don't think Open Letters has a geographical locus, which is quite rare for magazines. It was edited in a dozen cities, in a couple dozen offices and apartments and coffee shops and motel rooms. That by necessity made it placeless, I think.
nada: You describe yourself as more elitist than your readers. Yet your letters strike me as very democratic and, in a professional way, intimate. You disclose your connection to the correspondents, share letters to the editor, and open the process of publishing Open Letters up to the readers. They're quite different from publisher's letters and introductions in traditional magazines. Was this a part of your original vision of Open Letters or did your style develop as the magazine grew?
paul: First I thought that that style developed over time, but then I went back and read the editor's letters from the first week, and they're pretty similar to the letters in the final week.
The one thing that did develop over time was that I was able to incorporate readers' letters into the editor's letter better and more frequently. In the first few weeks, I was struggling with how to work readers' comments into the Open Letters experience. What ended up making sense to me was to include them in my editor's letters. It felt pretty natural to me.
To clarify that democracy/elitism thing—when I say that I'm more elitist than my readers, that's not to say that I'm necessarily all that elitist, just that they tend to be radically democratic: not impressed at all by credentials and previous publications.
nada: Do you see yourself and your correspondents forming a new literary identity?
paul: Here's the way I think it relates to contemporary magazine writing: it combines honesty and modesty in a way that I think is pretty rare these days. Glossy magazines, especially men's magazines, publish a lot of first-person writing, but it often feels contrived or self-indulgent or somehow immodest. Our letters, for all their intimacy, rarely feel self-indulgent. They don't have that look-at-me quality.
I think that has something to do with their imagined audience. We asked our correspondents to address their letters to a single (real) person, and I think that trick let them work less self-consciously than they might have done otherwise.
nada: Music seems an embedded part of personal history for many correspondents. I love X's description of the value of her son's birthday gift to her:
He stayed up til two in the morning last night making me a mixed tape of songs he knew I liked, stuff like Randy Newman and Paul Westerberg and Tom Waits and the new Neil Young and even the Clash, and it's so sweet because he actually had to listen to all these old guys while he made it, which was a form of torture for him, so it means a lot.
In both the confessional tone and the way music plays a central role in conveying Rob's emotional state, Open Letters reminds me of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. Do you think music serves as a common denominator between your readers?
paul: That's a nice idea. I hadn't thought of that. Maybe we need to put together a mixed-tape soundtrack.
I was actually just corresponding with Miriam Toews (who was X.) about music and Open Letters. She wrote this to me:
In the writing world, the business, to write personal stuff is almost death. To write a memoir-ish thing is to throw yourself into a sea of self-righteous soul-dead viper stiffs who mock personal writing as juvenile. In music, however, it's the thing. The personal. And it's not mocked. Unless it's done badly. But if it's true and beautiful, and how can it not be one if it's the other, then it works.
and I wrote back,
I thought about music-writing a lot when I was doing Open Letters (especially when I was travelling around with that band, of course). I'd hear a song by like Liz Phair, say the one that goes "Don't worry mom, I met him in a restaurant and all this time I've been getting to know him. He's got an ex-wife in Pasadena and sometimes she's a mess to deal with but mostly we've been living here uninjured," and I'd think: If only we could get every open letter to be that true. There's something about the economy of prose that song-writers like Lyle Lovett or Bob Dylan feel free to use that most print-writers get anxious about. Just letting an image tell a big story. I think that's why I like Golda's letter. It was so spare.
So that's the connection I'd make. It's probably not coincidental that a lot of the letter-writers—Jonathan Lethem, Golda Fried, Kevin Walters—wrote about being affected by music. Maybe people who can write the way they do find something in music that they don't often find in prose.
nada: I like the idea of an Open Letters mixed tape soundtrack. I particularly like that you described it as a "mixed tape soundtrack" rather than a CD. Besides the Open Letters house band, The Hot Club of Cowtown, what might be on it?
paul: We'd have to have some Go-Betweens, for Jonathan Lethem. Something from Kid A, for Julie Shapiro. "Your Song," by Elton John, for Kevin Walters. Some Robbie Fulks. "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," in honor of my coincidence letter. That Pixies song, "Happening," about Las Vegas, that Jim Cox wrote about in an editor's letter in the first week. That "Don't Mess With Shady" song by Eminem, for Craig Taylor. "Don't Bring Me Down," by Marcia Griffiths, for Noah Cowan. "I Am Waiting," by the Rolling Stones, for Golda Fried. Some Bono or Tori Amos for Mairead Meade. "Can You Get to That," by Funkadelic, for Leanne Shapton. "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet," by BTO, for Michael Welch. "I, Jonathan," by Jonathan Richman, and "Wish You Were Here," by Pink Floyd, for X.
And if we could find any Mysophilia, Sam and Zak's band, we'd have to put one of their death-metal tunes on. And a song by Matt Salada's defunct band, The Hong Kong.
A pretty good tape, actually, now that it's all written down.
nada: Were you worried that the more playful work, like Cheryl Wagner's conversation "On what to smoke," might minimize the more poignant correspondence like Aliza Pollack's letters on her chemotherapy?
paul: Not at all. I think every good magazine is able to combine those elements. The New Yorker published both "Hiroshima" and Woody Allen. I like that sort of juxtaposition, in fact.
nada: People complain of the culture of exhibitionism and self-absorption, from the literary memoir craze to reality TV. You've described Open Letters as filling your own hunger for "immediate, direct, first-person writing about the present; reporting in the true sense of the word." Are you bored or still engaged by this style?
paul: I'm still completely engaged by it. I've started bowling recently, in this town where I'm living in Connecticut. And I want to know everything about the people in the other lanes—all of these complicated stories that they're living through. That's what I think journalism should do more of. True, there are occasional excesses (Blind Date, let's say), but they're more than outweighed by the great successes of this emerging kind of journalism—in This American Life, in K Composite, in the best documentary films. We need more of that, not less.
nada: What's next for you? Unpacking your boxes from storage? A book of open letters?
paul: I'm thinking about trying to put together an anthology that would be connected to Open Letters, but not limited to its contents. It would be a collection of first-person writing from the web: a fair amount of the material would come from Open Letters, but it would also come from personal sites and sites like diaryland.com, and maybe also from places like Nerve and Feed and Slate.
So that's one possibility.
My bowling game could use a lot of work, too.
nada: How does bowling in Connecticut compare to playing poker at Lucky Chances with Ethan Watters?
paul: Nothing can really compare to playing poker with Ethan. Everything else is just a casual pastime.