Junod on the story that changed his writing

In 1995, Tom Junod wrote a compelling but disturbing story about a
serial rapist. Now, he says that “The Rapist Says He’s Sorry changed my writing, and then it changed my life.”

Junod wrote an afterword about the process of writing the story, the frustrations, and the ultimate impact on his writing, which was published at the end of his rapist story on a site called Gangrey.com. The site’s purpose is to collect and publish great writing, including a series called Stories that Should Never go Away that features Junod’s piece. (Gangrey’s about section calls the site “A writer’s approach to helping bail water out of a sinking ship.”)

Junod writes that, before writing the rapist story, he was “a first-draft writer.” A year earlier he’d written The Abortionist in a week, and GQ ran it as was without editing. But the rapist story was different. He says he knew his first draft was “awful” even as he wrote it. So was his second draft, which topped 20,000 words. His third attempt, he says, wasn’t great, but he thought it was at least publishable. He remembers his editor, David Granger (now editor of Esquire), calling him on a Saturday morning:

“Me: ‘And you’re asking me to spend my whole weekend writing a whole new fucking draft of a story I’ve already written three times.’ Granger: ‘That’s right. And you need to get me something by Monday morning to show Art.’ Fuuuuuuuccck”

This time, Junod used what he calls the oldest trick in the book, the “this is a story of” paragraph. He writes:

“The story came alive as I wrote it; I was able to say what I thought I couldn’t.”

He concludes:

“I always hear about the John McPhee way of writing, from index cards, or the writing workshop way of writing, from an outline. I do neither. My index cards are what I remember; my outlines are the ruins of what came before. For better and more likely for worse, I don’t know how to proceed any other way. I still try to write perfect first drafts; but in general “perfection” usually means drafts rendered lifeless by the presumption of perfection, and the constrictions of structure. So I wind up writing fast, in fear and desperation and mounting self-loathing, until the death of the story allows it to live in a form different than the form I imagined and tried to impose. This happened most recently in the story I wrote on the 11 men killed on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig; but it happened first in The Rapist Says He’s Sorry.”