Neil Shea

writer | photographer | story consultant

This essay was originally published at The American Scholar.

Remembering Michael Herr

On Dispatches, mentors, and writing about war


Herr’s account of his years covering the war in Vietnam was one of several I’d assigned for the workshop that summer. I had been so thrilled to reread it and discuss it with my students that I’d written to Herr, who died last month at the age of 76, to see if he might speak with me. I knew it was a long shot. In the years following the 1977 publication of Dispatches, Herr rarely granted interviews, making clear again and again that Vietnam no longer interested him. He did not distance himself from the work so much as he refused to revisit its territory, declining to be pulled into the life, separate and surreal, that the book had achieved on its own. And yet the best piece of writing advice I ever received, and that I often recycle, is to Just do it, whatever it is, and so with Herr I had. Herr’s publisher agreed to forward the short note I’d written, while warning me that “Michael says no to everything.”

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