As cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune for a dozen years, I was sometimes called upon to write the big, epic think pieces that necessarily follow in the wake of big, epic events. The dawn of the new millennium. Columbine. The White Sox winning the World Series.
Anyway, when the Big Thing happened, my editors beckoned. I was the go-to gal for the “What does it all mean?” piece. Because I was able to pull it off, some onlookers thought that I enjoyed it, and that it was easy.
I didn’t—and it wasn’t.
The panoramic view is the hardest job in journalism. That’s why I so admire Serge Schmemann’s eloquent, deeply informed summary of the fall of the Soviet Union in the Dec. 26, 1991, edition of The New York Times. In it, he wrote of a country “stripped of its ideology, dismembered, bankrupt and hungry—but awe-inspiring even in its fall.”
He was writing in real time, as the statues crumbled and the bells tolled. He didn’t have the luxury of pipe-and-slippers retrospect.
Such articles require both a wide-angle lens and an electron microscope, as one must capture not only the grand, historical sweep but also the small, telling nuances—and then knit them together to create a piece that tells us something we don’t already know (so many of these efforts end up stating the obvious), and does so with poetry and fire. Schmemann did that, and I’ve never forgotten his profound and illuminating account of a 20th-century milestone.