Malcolm Gladwell has written only one article that has never been printed. The article, which attempted to answer why women have breasts, ended up on his desk the morning it should have run in the Washington Post.
The editor had posted a note on the draft: “I don’t think the readers of the Washington Post are ready for this.”
Gladwell, a middle-aged, well-spoken writer for the New Yorker, visited Jonathan Edwards College yesterday to speak at a Master’s Tea, which drew a crowd of more than 50 students and professors. Author of “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” Gladwell talked about a wide variety of subjects: college, the Internet, terrorism, steroids, race and the writing profession.
“It amazes me how differently people’s minds work, how they process information,” Gladwell said in explaining why he loves writing. “In conversation, people are much more conservative [than in writing].”
He said that although he owes his career to auspicious circumstances, “there are opportunities everywhere.”
Gladwell said he has “multiple enthusiasms,” and told aspiring writers, “You can’t be a writer unless you’re interested in things.”
He also said interviewing is the hardest and most crucial part of journalism because one must be as a therapist, extracting information that often may not seem important to the person being interviewed.
“I’d like to think I’ve become a better interviewer,” Gladwell said, “but I’m not sure.”
Gladwell said the ambience at the New Yorker, a publication he had never read before working there, is “not intellectual — it’s just gossiping.”
But the editing process at the magazine is grueling.
Articles at the New Yorker are block edited and then workshopped by a roomful of savvy editors who are very concerned with language, Gladwell said. A fact-checker usually finishes off the writing process.
After 12 drafts, Gladwell said he is sick of looking at his own work.
“Writing is a hard process,” he said.
Gladwell added that for his articles, he imagines his mother — the “informed armature” — as the audience. “She’s a wonderful proxy for a reader,” Gladwell said.
At the end of his initial discourse, Gladwell entertained student questions.
One student posed two interesting questions.
The first was, “Where do you get your ideas?”
“I hang out with people who will lead me to different ideas,” Gladwell said. He added that he’s made it a point to “be friends with people of different worlds.”Ê
The second question — “Will you marry me?” — received hearty laughs from Gladwell and the audience.
Gladwell is currently working on an article about the ingenuity of diapers, which have resulted from complicated chemical engineering.
“If I gave you $10 million, you could start a computer company,” he said. “But you couldn’t begin to design and sell diapers.”
Gladwell also treated more serious subjects.
He said terrorism is possible on the ground as well as in the air, and, although security may be beefed up in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, we should “be prepared for this to happen again.”
Gladwell added the solution to terrorism might be worse than the problem.
“I would rather live in a world where every two, three years terrorists hit us than [in] a world where my freedoms are curtailed,” he said. “This is the price of a free society.”