Robin Marantz Henig explores the biology of anxiety

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Robin Marantz Henig

New York Times Magazine contributing writer Robin Marantz Henig traveled to Harvard and the University of Maryland for a story on the biology of anxiety. Alongside top developmental psychologists, she watched research videos on infant temperament dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, then used the videos to set scenes that would bring to life the scientists’ quest to trace anxiety’s developmental course. [Understanding the Anxious Mind appeared in The New York Times Magazine on September 29, 2009.]

Here, Henig tells the story behind the story:

How did you find the story idea?

I’ve always wanted to write a book about the history of Valium, but I could never get my agent interested in it. The thing that most interested me about Valium is that the ordinary, everyday anxiety it treats did not exist before Valium came along as a way to treat it. So I thought if I wrote first about anxiety, I might find an original way to write about Valium – and maybe eventually convince my agent about a book.

How did you decide which angle to pursue?

I looked for stories about anxiety in the Times and other good publications. After a while, whenever you do that kind of preliminary research, you tend to see the same names coming up; this time, the name that kept coming up was [Harvard developmental psychologist] Jerome Kagan. He was a source for at least one other story idea of mine that went nowhere, and I didn’t know too much about him other than he was an eminent psychologist who is really good at giving me a lot of time. I called him because his studies of innate temperament as a risk factor for anxiety were so fascinating. What I especially liked was that he had studied inborn temperament longitudinally, from infancy to young adulthood.

Nathan Fox, one of Kagan’s former graduate students [who is now] at the University of Maryland, began his own longitudinal study in much the same way as Kagan did. He did things a little differently, but he was clearly inspired by what he had learned as a graduate student.

Then of course I had to figure out what makes this a magazine article as opposed to a Master’s thesis. I was excited to find [out about Kagan’s and Fox’s] longitudinal studies on infant temperament and how anxiety and fearfulness play out through development, which began in the 1970s and 1980s and haven’t really ended. That kind of study contains its own story. Also I liked that there were videotapes so it was possible to set up little scenes in the story. The videos helped because it was hard for a topic like this to come off the page and be interesting. I spent a couple of days in Boston, where I spent a day with Kagan going through videos of people like Baby 19. He actually didn’t want to tell me too much more about her and he didn’t want me to talk to her because she’s so fragile, which is too bad because she was my lede.

Was it difficult to get access to the infant videos that made up some of the scenes in your story?

I had to do a little convincing of Kagan so I could view them, but not too much. I had to promise not to identify anybody or to reveal details that would identify patients. I had built trust with him, but it wasn’t me he trusted so much as the New York Times. Same with Fox for the videos in Maryland—I had to promise anonymity, but Fox and his colleagues were really excited to have me around the lab.

How did you use the videos in the story?

Writing scenes is always really difficult for me, because when people are writing scenes and working hard at it you can see right through the tricks. I really try to do it in a way that’s not the expected way, but that makes the writing even harder. I want it to be something other than, “This is a guy with a messy desk”—that’s how journalists usually try to bring science and scientists to life. So I could add Kagan in the room jumping up and down being excited at the video.

How do you organize the material for long stories like this one?

I put a lot of effort into the lede and that changes a lot sometimes. I work on that first section and figure out where that lede is going and what the nut graf is going to be and that creates its own kind of organizational structure when I’m almost hearing myself say what it is about the article that’s interesting.

What were the most challenging aspects of this story?

For this story in particular my editor was very nervous—she told me later that she didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off. I think she was still worried about an article that I’d had killed a full year earlier after many, many attempts at fixing it. I think she wanted to head off another experience like that. In the interim I’d had an article published with very little problems that got a lot of good attention. I felt that she was still remembering the other one that hadn’t worked out. She was much more hands-on than usual. She called me a lot to see how it was going; she sent me emails the minute I got back from Boston asking what happened up there; she asked to see drafts and she wanted to talk about the structure. These are things she doesn’t usually do.

How did you respond to having an editor who didn’t think you could handle the story?

You mean to her or to my husband? (Laughter.) I didn’t complain but I did get worried. The result was that the anxiety article I handed in wasn’t all that good. I had had a lot more in it about the brain itself, and she and her superiors wanted more about what happens when you feel anxious.

What were the other challenges?

It was difficult to get the right kind of anxious people to interview. I wanted the anxious people from the study [like Baby 19, who is now a young woman] but most were hard to find. It was difficult to get people like Kagan to let me talk to them because they wanted to protect them. All the people I had interviewed were people who were taking meds and going to anxiety clinics and doing cognitive behavioral therapy and doing all of this heavy-duty stuff. They had major anxiety problems and didn’t fit in the story anymore. I spoke to many patients and doctors who never appeared in the article—this happens every time.

I wrote the story many, many times—probably 15 or 20 drafts before the story went to my editor…not 15 or 20 totally different versions, but a lot of different versions. I was going down different lines of research because I didn’t know what I was going to end up with. Most of the clinical anxiety ended up dropping out and I just focused more on day-to-day fretfulness.

How did the editing go?

The Times asks for lots of edits. They tell me what’s wrong and I have to go back and figure it out again. In that system I do probably three or four total rewrites. After I turned in the second draft, the deputy editor, Alex Star, who’s now at the Book Review, and I sat down and he imposed a structure. He decided on three different elements of what’s going on in the anxious mind: the innate way your mind works, the way you behave, and what’s going on inside your brain even though you’re behaving differently. He said, “Here’s theme 1, theme 2, and theme 3. Go home and work on it this weekend when you thought you were going to be doing something fun.”

Since you are a longtime contributing writer for the Times Magazine, how do you pitch them?

I still have to push and get lucky. There has to be something newsy or narrative, which is very hard to achieve. Even though I’m a contributing writer, I have to go through a lot of effort to hear, ”Oh, this is a good idea.” That’s just the way it works. My editor often says, “I just don’t see the article there.” I think the anxiety story was the third or fourth or fifth pitch I had before they took the next one. I finish an article for them, which takes about six months, and then I fall into what I call the “Valley of the Stupid,” and I’m in there clawing my way out for another couple of months. There’s a period when just anything seems like I should pursue it and it should be interesting—a few years ago I actually thought for a while that I should write about spontaneous human combustion. I put in a lot of flailing around when I’m in the Valley of the Stupid. I feel like I’m starting over every time, and nothing I come up with clicks. Somehow this anxiety thing finally did click.

A glimpse behind the scenes:

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16 Responses to “Robin Marantz Henig explores the biology of anxiety”

  1. Website says:

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  2. [...] with outstanding writers, such as Roberta Kwok, Doug Fox, Hillary Rosner, David Dobbs and Robin Marantz Henig. Oh, and yours [...]

  3. [...] the blog The OPEN Notebook, New York Times Magazine contributor Robin Marantz Henig spoke frankly with Jeanne Erdmann about [...]

  4. Amy Karon says:

    Thanks to Robin Henig, Siri Carpenter and Jeanne Erdmann for this terrific story. I’m an M.A. journalism student at the University of Wisconsin and am specializing in mental health journalism, so the topic of anxiety disorders is near and dear to me. As Siri noted, it’s comforting to know that even seasoned journalists who write for the New York Times Magazine still lose themselves at times in the Valley of the Stupid.

    The pitch letters and outlines are especially helpful. I’m rewriting and preparing to pitch my first long magazine piece. When I looked on the web for sample pitches, I didn’t find anything else pertaining to health or science features. This is a wonderful resource for novice science journalists. Thank you!

  5. When you’re working alone in your office day in and day out, it’s easy to feel isolated and to believe that others don’t agonize over their work the way that you do…that the Robin Henigs and David Dobbses (What the heck is the plural of Dobbs?) of the world don’t struggle. It’s immensely heartening to know that that’s not true, and so if you’re struggling, it doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong track.

    One thing I loved about Robin’s story was her discussion of the Valley of the Stupid…those periods when you could easily become convinced that any good idea you’ve ever had was a fluke, and it’s unlikely you’ll never again have a saleable idea, or be able to recognize one. If Robin spends time in the Valley of the Stupid, then I’m not going to worry about holding rental property there myself.

    • Working with Robin on this Q&A has been truly inspiring. I’ve admired her work for so long and was nervous about interviewing her. Then, she talked about 10 t0 15 rewrites, worried editors, failed pitches, and the Valley of the Stupid, and I felt OK about struggling for hours on a story that was only marginally better at the end of the day because amazing writers struggle, too. Well, actually, at first I was depressed because amazing writers struggle, too. As Christie says, you have to love the process and getting paid to learn is frankly luxurious no matter what the compensation.

      What’s been most rewarding about working on The Open Notebook has been the generosity and honesty of the writers brave enough to sign on for this. Every, single time Siri and I finish an interview we email the other and say, “wow, this is going to be great.” And it always is.

  6. David Dobbs says:

    Wonderful post — and a great illustration that, messy scientist desks aside, writing about science can be a messy, chaotic business. And writing for the Times Magazine, as Robin conveys, entails some great and rare opportunities and sometimes requires some great and rare efforts and accommodations and agonies. The truth is that writing for these very top markets is just like that. Some of my best and some of my most agonizing magazine-writing experiences have been for the Times Magazine, but I think that reflects how it is at most such places: Sometimes you fly to the moon. Other times you explode in flight or burn up on the pad.

    In return, though, you get the chance to write at length and research and work a story both deeply and broadly. But it can be a messy business.

    As to economics: I can’t speak for Robin, but I think that unless you’re extraordinarily fast and fluid, it’s challenging. Generally, the magazines that pay particularly well also expect more research and reporting and time spent on the story, as well they might — and you better do it, because their fact-checkers, God bless ‘em, are thorough, meticulous, and persistent. It’s both terrifying and immensely reassuring to know that single fact or assertion in every sentence will be challenged and verified and must be sourced. (This is a huge pleasure, actually, because it’s GOOD to have your errors caught — I always put one or two in there just so the fact-checkers have something to do — BEFORE the piece goes out.)

    But going that deep, so deep and wide you throw out 80% of what you gather, is part of the pleasure of these stories. And I frankly think that if you like doing these sorts of long deep stories, you tend to take as much time on the research as you can afford given both the story advance and whatever other means you have. Because it’s fun. As I’ve said before, I don’t write to make the money: I make the money so I can write. So when I get a high word fee, it doesn’t directly translate to a higher per-hour fee, because I’ll use more time to do the story particularly well, and because — the true deep pleasure of this job — I WANT to keep researching, because I’ve pitched a story that enthralls me. And then you go home and write the first of what you know will likely be 10 or 15 or 20 drafts, and you might have to do it again after you send the thing in. And sometimes they kill it, and you want to cry, or maybe you do. But you do it because when it works — and it works most of the time — it’s the greatest job in the world.

    But crowded and underpaid and too much work, so the rest of you should definitely NOT pitch the Times Magazine.

    • Robin Marantz Henig says:

      What he said.

      (Thanks, David, for describing the joys and heartbreaks of this gig so beautifully.)

  7. Julia Barrett says:

    I have a personal appreciation for Robin’s article. It appeared shortly before a young family member was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and treatment decisions were being debated. A friend directed me to the article, which helped frame the discussion. Could we work with the wiring at hand? Would that be a better path than trying to impose an artificial rewiring?

    It is amazing to me to read the behind the scenes story because the article flows so well. I imagine there must have been times when it was tempting to just say, oh, forget it, I’m done!

    • Robin Marantz Henig says:

      You’re right, Julia — there were MANY times with this article that I was ready to just hang it all up and say forget it, take it or leave it, this is the best I can do. But one thing I’ve learned in all these long years of freelancing is not to be a prima donna. Hearing that this piece needed yet another rewrite actually drove me to tears a couple of times, but I didn’t let my editor know I was crying. And then I stormed around the apartment for a couple of hours, or took a long walk, until I was ready to sait back down and do what they asked.

      • It took me a while, but the thing I’ve learned is that you have to embrace and accept the process. You have to love it, because that’s really all there is. It doesn’t matter how successful you become, you still have to endure the process and it doesn’t really get easier (success only brings new problems).

        You have to love the process more than the end result, because the end result is not what you have to live with day to day. A great finished product might make you feel good temporarily, but then you have to go back to the blinking cursor.

  8. I admire Robin’s honesty about the process. When I first started as a freelancer, I thought that once you became a “name” like Robin, the process became easy–you’d call your editor up, and s/he would listen to your story idea and immediately assign it (because it’s Robin Marantz Henig!)Then you’d turn it in and the editor would change a few commas into semicolons and you’d be done.

    I know understand that the process is always more complicated than that, even for writers as talented and accomplished as Robin.

    I think Paul’s question is a good one. I’ve found it impossible to support myself on long narrative work alone. I’d love to do nothing else, but you can spend months on such pieces, then wait months more for the story to go through the editorial process, so by the time you get paid, the five-figure paycheck that seemed like a nice deal when you signed on is now arriving 10 or 12 months after you began.

    My solution has been to mix short, quick turnaround pieces with the longer stuff. This keeps my cash flow going, but still gives me a chance to do the things I’m most passionate about. I’d be curious to know how other freelancers handle this problem.

    • Robin Marantz Henig says:

      A wise freelancer once told me that the way he juggled things was to decide that some articles he’d work really hard on and aim for them to be his A work, and others would be his good-enough articles and he’d aim for a B. He said that allowed him to decide up front how much effort to put into each, and not spend too much time working on articles that were for obscure publications that no one would see anyway.

      I tried to adopt this approach, but I ran into trouble — I didn’t like deciding beforehand to put less effort into a particular article. It was always hard for me to even scare up the enthusiasm to go back to it every day — I’d spend so much time procrastinating and avoiding it that it always took me much longer than it should. And occasionally I’d aim fo a B and end up with a C! So then the rewrite (or the kill fee) made my hourly rate even lower.

  9. This is a really great point, Paul — thanks for raising it. I agree that it’s hard to figure out the math on this, and would love to learn more from Robin (or anyone else) about how to make a living while writing long-form journalism for the NYT Magazine or any other very high-profile publication. Is it simply a matter of doing lots of shorter pieces while simultaneously working on one big piece for 6 months?

  10. Paul Raeburn says:

    Wow. Doesn’t sound like a pretty process. I’ve been thinking about pitching the Times mag, under the new leadership, but this doesn’t provide a whole lot of encouragement. One issue that wasn’t addressed in your remarks–which Siri and Jeanne might think is outside the scope of The Open Notebook–is how one makes a living if it takes six months to do one article. Unless the Times pays tens of thousands of dollars per story, most writers couldn’t afford to write for the magazine.

    We often see people fretting about writers working for websites for nothing, but it seems that working for The New York Times isn’t terribly lucrative either. A writer, like you, presumably has to want to do this for more reasons than the pay.

    Otherwise, I really appreciated the candor, Robin. Not many writers would be as honest as you about the agony, the rewrites, and the problems. And I thought it was a damn good piece. Had no idea, reading it, that all of this went on.

    • Robin Marantz Henig says:

      Aren’t all good articles the result of agony, rewrites, and problems? I mean, the process itself is difficult, even in the best of circumstances. And while the NYT Magazine editors drive me crazy with their endless rewrites, they are by no means unique in their demands.

      As for making a living at it, you’re right, Paul, spending 6 months on an article is kind of a losing proposition. The Magazine pays about $2 a word (which is considered decent pay these days, yet is approximately the same per-word rate I got when I was just starting out THIRTY YEARS AGO), a little more for people who have worked for them for a long time — and, I suspect, a lot more for writers who aren’t me. A cover story is about 8,000 words. I’ve never had the stomach to actually do the math and figure out what my hourly rate must be when I write round-the-clock in the weeks before my deadline, and then round-the-clock again when I suffer through the various rewrites for no additional pay.

      I try to take on some quick-and-dirty assignments to balance the long slog of these lengthy NYT Mag articles, but the truth is, there’s no such thing as quick-and-dirty — every magazine, it seems, comes with its own set of hassles. In my cheerier moments, I tell myself that all these hassles, while hugely annoying, are the price I pay for being able to live a life in which I spend my time thinking, learning, asking questions, and writing. I do worry, though, that things will only get worse if the web mentality of “content” for zero pay really takes hold. It’s hard enough to make a living when you DO get paid for your writing – what will happen when the Ariannas of the world decide that the exposure itself should be enough?

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