‘The Accidental Life’ Is Both a Time Capsule and a Guide

Like a good editor, Terry McDonell may be invisible, but the insights into writing and editing make up for the author's elusiveness, here.

Cracking open The Accidental Life, I was expecting something along the lines of a biography mixed with Strunk and White: tips on being a better editor mixed with asides on the editing life.

Instead, The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers is precisely what its title implies: brief chapters (notes) that shift between process and its product. There’s a greater resonance within this work, however, than my stripped-down description implies. The Accidental Life offers an insider’s view of the magazine industry, from the ’70s to the present — that is, from its apex to the rise of the Internet and online content and decline of print journalism — by a man who was present to witness these titanic shifts. Indeed, it’s more about mapping the terrain of the past and present of publishing, writing, and editing than the editor himself.

McDonell, who started out as a founding editor at Outside magazine, with tenures at Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Men’s Journal, and Sports Illustrated (to name a very few), offers stories of some of the luminaries of various stripes from the ’70s to the present, including George Plimpton, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, a cigar-smoking and mostly silent Arnold Schwarznegger, and Margot Kidder. A large portion of the first part of the book is dedicated to the Western (mostly Montana)-based group of writers, such as Tom McGuane, that seemed closest to McDonell’s writerly / editorial heart. McDonell, after all, is the man that Art Cooper, the editor at GQ, dubbed “cowboy-hippie-poet weird”, a sobriquet that McDonell seems to enjoy.

I say “seems” because, as with many editors, McDonell effaces a large part of himself within The Accidental Life. In one of the earliest chapters, McDonell offers two definitions for editors, one from New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who defined it as “quarreling with writers”, and one from Brendan Gill indicating that good editors’ work “does not reveal itself directly; it is reflected in the accomplishments of others”. The rest of the book is dedicated to both of these central premises: McDonell’s interactions (and occasional quarrels) with writers, subjects, friends, and bosses, and the editor’s particular invisibility within the process.

On a deeper level, however, McDonell’s invisibility allows these writers, subjects, friends, and bosses to shine more brightly. There’s no malicious gossip or “gotcha” revelations about people such as Plimpton or Margot Kidder or even Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner — a man who McDonell acknowledges was more likely that anyone he knew to “bring out as much bad feeling and envy” as is humanly possible — unless you consider Hunter S. Thompson offering cigarettes to McDonell’s children a huge surprise. Rather, like a good editor, he offers nuance and depth to these distant, and in some cases forgotten, individuals. There’s an expected elegiac quality to some of these ruminations, less for the time period and more for the individuals lost to cancer, bad habits, or that bane of artists: suicide.

Many of McDonell’s recollections are threaded with this sense of loss, even for the labor-intensive processes of print journalism in the days of Kodachrome and light boxes, when a desktop was actually the top of the desk rather than the computer on which you created the layout and design, and snorting coke, having three martinis at lunch, and large expense accounts were part of doing business. Yet, he does so by avoiding the nostalgia often inherent in those who are at ground zero for massive shifts in their chosen profession, offering a joke that indicates his own flexibility:

Q. How many staffers does it take to change a light bulb at Time Inc.?

A. Twenty-five. One to screw in the new bulb, and twenty-four to stand around talking about how great the old bulb used to be.

(Indeed, during his tenure at Sports Illustrated, McDonell was actually responsible for a huge jump in digital revenue, according to Folio Magazine, proving that even old-school veterans — of both the human and print varieties — can shift with the times.)

While I would have liked for McDonell to offer the same treatment to his own life, interspersed with these profiles and nuggets of writerly and editorial advice (in the vein, perhaps, of Stephen King’s On Writing), perhaps McDonell believes that’s a job best left to others. In the same vein of the advice I was given once to never be the sole editor of your own work, perhaps a deeper look at McDonell’s life, with all the facets and nuances he brings to other authors’ works, is best left to an eventual biographer.

RATING 7 / 10