When you’re a reporter, your whole life is a potential copy.
The sentiment from journalist Nora Ephron rang in Frank Bruni’s mind when he woke up one morning in 2017 and suddenly couldn’t see out of his right eye.
He’d suffered a rare stroke that caused permanent vision loss in the eye. And he soon learned from doctors the same disorder could ravage his other eye, too. He could lose his sight altogether.
Out of habit, the New York Times columnist began taking notes on his experiences. What started as a coping skill soon became the basis for his recently released book, “The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found.”
Bruni’s memoir captures the struggle of relearning how he sees the world. But more than that, the book is a testament to the neuroplasticity of humanity and an ode to our ability to overcome what may feel like insurmountable challenges.
Bruni, a UNC graduate and Chapel Hill resident, has been a prominent journalist for more than three decades; he’s worked more than 25 years at the New York Times, the last 10 of them as a columnist. He was also a White House correspondent, Rome bureau chief and chief restaurant critic. In July 2021, he became a professor at Duke University, teaching media-oriented classes in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write a weekly newsletter for the New York Times and write essays as one of the newspaper’s Contributing Opinion Writers.
“The Beauty of Dusk” has already seen widespread success, reaching fifth on the hardcover nonfiction and the combined print and e-book nonfiction New York Times bestsellers lists. To accompany the release of the paperback version, on Feb. 11 Bruni will visit McInyre’s Books in Fearrington Village to discuss his writing process and meet with readers.
The News + Record talked with Bruni ahead of the event about his writing process and what he learned through his memoir. The following has been edited for clarity and brevity:
When you go through something unusual enough, upsetting enough, challenging enough, you realize that’s a story. And as a storyteller, you don’t overlook that stuff.
I had something really dramatic happen to me, which is I woke up and couldn’t see clearly. Within a matter of days I was told I’d had this very rare stroke of my right optic nerve, and was told that I would live from that moment forward. I wouldn’t have vision in that eye, and still live in danger of the same thing happening in my other eye.
So as I went through this medical odyssey of that and its emotional challenges, I instinctively just started taking notes. Pretty soon I realized that this dramatic event was worth writing about because it’s also universal enough.
Almost all of us have these junctures where life deals us a physical setback or challenge that requires us to learn new things about ourselves. It can be an emotional or psychological thing, everybody has these forks in the road. I felt like hopefully I could write something that would have resonance for any number of challenges we face in our lives.
It’s about such intimate and personal journeys, which differs from most of what I write because I’m not normally the star. As a columnist I mostly focus on politicians or educators or society, but rarely-center myself in that narrative.
My previous memoir also differs from this because it dealt with my younger self and how that impacts me today.
(Note: the other memoir by Bruni, “Born Round,” discusses his struggles with eating disorders as a child and how he changed his relationship with food to eventually become a restaurant critic for the New York Times.)
This writing also felt different to me because I tried to talk with a lot of people throughout the process who had similar, yet definitively different struggles that at one time felt insurmountable. I talked with folks who experienced chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, hearing loss, any variety of things. All their struggles held lessons that resonated with me, and hopefully the readers. So it’s bifurcated in that way — it’s my story, but also other people’s, too.
The premise of the memoir feels very based in resilience, and it seems that’s a clear message you want people to gather. What other lessons do you hope people walk away with from this book?
I didn’t want to write something that felt too self-indulgent. I wanted to write something that I felt would be instructive. I want people to see that we, as humans, are much more elastic than we realize.
This physiological concept of neuroplasticity is hugely underestimated in our day to day lives, except when we are confronted with these curveballs, like losing our vision for example, that force that process to take shape. And of course, this concept is metaphorically true, too. You will find yourself more able to enjoy things and open up when you realize we have this astounding ability to adjust and adapt.
We can adjust in ways that maximize our joy. I think we fail to appreciate that until we are called to do it, but knowing it’s there should be a great source of comfort and reassurance.
As doors close you really have a choice: you can tally the slights, or you can realize there’s no joy in wallowing in that and there’s no joy in it either. You can instead focus on the serious, emotional work of focusing on what remains, and all the blessings you still have. The ability to “accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives,” as Johnny Mercer would say, exists in many of us and is a real key to contentment in life.
When I do events like this, especially when they’re near where I live, I really let them be guided by the participants. My expectation based on experience is that they’ll want to talk about the content of the book for about 20 minutes, but then the rest really dives anywhere and everywhere, which is the fun part for me.
People will want to talk about being a restaurant critic, some will want to talk about the media in the age of Donald Trump, others about the 2024 Presidential Election. It just varies widely and I look forward to seeing what the people of Fearrington and Chatham have on their minds.
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.
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