Scribbler-in-Chief: Searching for the Meaning of Life With Author Lee Eisenberg

Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger

Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger

By Daniel Ford

Lee Eisenberg’s new book The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything in Between tackles big honking life questions such as, “Why are we so afraid of death,” “Do mid-life crises exist,” and, of course, “What’s the point?”

You’d think the book would be a heavy springtime read, however, Eisenberg’s crackling, engaging writing style, which naturally weaves quotes from philosophers and other brainy humans of all sorts, makes it seem like he’s telling you all this over a spiked iced tea on the front porch. 

Writers will also be happy to note that Eisenberg’s answers to these questions are based on the idea that we have an internal writer-in-residence, which he names “the scribbler,” that’s hard at work crafting our life story. At this point, I imagine my own scribbler as a scruffy, Hawaiian shirt-wearing, beach bum who has been tinkering with a novel at the same time as trying to keep up with my shenanigans (with varying success at both).   

Naturally, while reading The Point Is, I tweeted the author in the most Millennial way possible:

Eisenberg, best-selling author and former editor-in-chief of Esquire, recently answered some of my much less brow-furrowing questions about his writing career, his research process, and how his scribbler helped him write The Point Is.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Lee Eisenberg: There was no particular moment. My parents didn’t think much of my plan to be a cowboy or a fireman, and I didn’t think much of their plan that I be a doctor or a lawyer. In college, I started writing movie and theater reviews for a weekly underground paper (it got me in free), and sketches for a satirical revue that ran on campus (it brought minor celebrity). Thus motivated by noble principles, I began to take myself seriously as a writer —maybe good enough to write the great American novel but more likely (I was a realist) to wind up on Madison Avenue, where I’d write jingles and drink myself to death. 

DF: You spent a considerable amount of time at Esquire and Time, so I have to ask why you jumped into journalism in the first place? How has it changed from when you first started out and what do you think the future holds for the craft?

LE: I didn’t jump in, exactly. I won a contest. Esquire’s great editor Harold Hayes decided the magazine needed a "junior editor" who could make sense of the counterculture. So he wrote a column that offered a job to anyone who was (a) under 25 and (b) thought he/she had a sense of humor. The assignment was to rewrite the titles and subtitles in that particular issue of the magazine. To make a long story short, I won the contest. Luckily, I got to work in magazines at a time when you didn’t have to put a celebrity on the cover every issue and there was still a firm wall between advertising and editorial. Not to mention that you could commission and publish nonfiction pieces that ran, on average, 4,000-words—or in the case of writers like Tom Wolfe or Richard Ben Cramer, two or three times longer than that.  Inspired long-form journalism isn’t dead. But its future lies between the covers of books, not magazines.

DF: What’s your writing process like? Do you outline, listen to music, etc.?

LE: I’m a classic “How can I know that I think until I see what I say?” kind of guy. The quote’s been attributed to E.M. Forster but a great many other writers have said the same thing. Work from an outline? I lecture myself on how important it is to know for sure where you're going—in my new book, I talk about the perilous mid-section of a story. But until I hear the sound of my own voice, I’m not confident that I can know where I’m going, or whether it’s worth going there. As a result, even in the early research stage I find myself writing and rewriting the beginning of the book— to assure myself that what I’m doing plays well on the page.

DF: Your first book, Shoptimism, came out while America was still grappling with the Great Recession. The Point Is arrives in yet another compelling time, one in which we’re having this national discussion about health, death, and the like. What inspired the book and where can we shop for your sense of timing?

LE: Thank you for the compliment. But we’ve been having a "discussion” about health, death, and the like since the dawn of human history. If it seems particularly intense at the moment, it’s probably because 78-million baby boomers are contemplating the abyss and asking themselves what their life stories were all about. Myself included. Four or five years ago, having worked for so long and lived all over the place, I decided it was time to take stock. 

DF: What was your research process like for The Point Is? How did you go about using your findings to illuminate the themes you were exploring?

LE: There were three parallel paths. 

First, I started talking to people—men and women, from twenty-somethings to those who were even older than I am. I asked everyone to tell me their life stories: the best and worst chapters, the turning points, describe the major and minor characters, etc. Eventually, I dropped the $64,000 bomb: Do you know what the point is? 

Second, I read books by ancient and modern philosophers, finding inspiration in the work of Victor Frankl, among others, who argued that we are all born with a drive to find meaning in our lives. Failing that, we face years of frustration and boredom. 

Finally, I went back and thought hard about my own life, which got me thinking about why certain memories endure and others don't. And how memories are rewritten as the years go by. The death of my father, for example, and the birth of my children. An aha-moment came when I realized that every one of us walks around with a tiny little writer in our brain, whose assignment is to write and rewrite a private life story that can make sense of life and ultimately explains ourselves to ourselves.

DF: If you were a fiction author I’d ask how you develop your characters, however, the major players in your book are actual people! What did you discover about great thinkers, such as Tolstoy, Freud, Joseph Campbell, and Virginia Woolf, and how did they influence your own thinking as you wrote the book?

LE: They have all taken whacks at what constitutes a meaningful life. The writing challenge was to draw on these insights yet not turn the book into Bartlett’s Quotations. The trick was to reference philosophers and great writers in a non-academic or overly pompous way. The solution was to use their insights to illuminate events and relationships in my own past, which allowed me to keep a narrative going.  

DF: You employ a rather charming writing style that makes these heavy topics infinitely approachable. First of all, how did you develop your voice over the course of your career? Secondly, are you able to slip into it during the writing process or is it something you find while you’re editing?

LE: My voice is my voice. It pretty much comes out the way it sounds on the page. I then go back and hunt down and ruthlessly remove a lot of unnecessary words. 

DF: Now that all the research and writing is done for this project, what do you answer when someone asks you, “Who are we?” or “Why are we?” 

LE: I think I make it clear in the book that the aim isn't to tell every man, woman, and child as yet unborn what the meaning of life is. The aim is to give readers a fresh way to think about the story they're carrying around inside. And to keep open the possibility that your life may be a lot more meaningful than you're giving it credit for.

DF: What’s your advice for up-and-coming writers of all kinds?

LE: Read like crazy. And write as much as you can. Keep a diary, which is useful for a great many reasons that I outline in the book. The two most important: daily writing keeps the wheels greased, as P.D. James, the great mystery novelist, put it. But it's also a way to preserve insights for later use. Joan Didion compared keeping a journal to putting loose change into a savings account, where it accumulates interest. Keeping a journal is a "thrifty virtue," she said.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

LE: I have a tattoo. I got it decades before tattoos became fashionable. All I’ll say is that it’s on my left shoulder, it’s small and discreet, and it has something to do with a course I took in graduate school. But the precise why it's there, and the details of the night in question, and what it had to do with my personal myth at the time, well, that's between me and the little writer living upstairs.

To learn more about Lee Eisenberg, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @Lee_Eisenberg.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive