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Storytelling tips from the creative minds behind ‘House of Cards,’ ‘The Newsroom,’ PBS, The Moth and more

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“The most important element in a good story is conflict. It’s seeing two opposing forces collide with one another.” That’s from Beau Willimon, the showrunner for House of Cards, and he said it at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, as part of The Atlantic’s “Big Question” series. The Atlantic also talked to former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, musician Yoni Bloch, The Moth artistic director Catherine Burns, PBS President Paula Kerger, The Newsroom producer (and former Obama speechwriter) Jon Lovett, and public radio’s Jay Allison, whose answer was, “Honesty. And grace.” Best two minutes and 46 seconds you’ll spend today, straight up:


Annotation Tuesday! Rebecca Skloot and the wild dogs of New York

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Before Rebecca Skloot published the bestselling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she wrote magazines stories about science and about animals. You may remember her New York Times magazine piece “Fixing Nemo,” about goldfish surgery, and her O, the Oprah Magazine story on the neuroscience of why it’s so hard to change. In one of her most memorable stories, “When Pets Attack,” Skloot wrote about the experience of nearly losing her pet Border collie mix, Bonny, to a pack of wild dogs—in Manhattan. The visceral, personal piece called out New York City on the loophole that allowed years’ worth of attacks. We’ll go ahead and tell you: the piece—the subject of today’s annotation—is tough reading, but with a happy ending.

Quick questions to start:

Storyboard: We know how you came to do this piece, because the story tells us, but how do you get most of your story ideas?

Rebecca Skloot: Pretty much every story idea I’ve come up with has come from what I call “what” moments—moments that make me stop and go, Wait … what?! One of my favorite examples of this was the story I wrote about goldfish surgery. There’s a whole world of veterinary medicine devoted to caring for people’s pet fish—you can get them MRIs, cat scans, tumor removals, you name it. I found that story while sitting in a vet clinic with my dog. A vet walked into the room and a woman asked how the surgery went, he said, “Great, patient’s up, swimming around.” Then he started to walk into the back. I was like, “Wait, what? You did surgery on a fish? What kind of surgery?” He said, “I removed a tumor from its nose,” and I was off, standing there with my dog, bombarding him with questions: How do you anesthetize a fish? Who pays for that? Why? I can trace most stories in my career back to those sorts of moments. Like: Wait, what do you mean there’s a woman with a seeing eye horse? And what’s an agoraphobia assistance monkey? I could go on, but the first and most meaningful example was when I was 16 and I said to my biology teacher, Wait, what do you mean there are cells that are still alive decades after the woman they came from died? For me, finding stories is all about taking the time to stop and follow your curiosity whenever something sparks it. That’s sometimes harder to do than it sounds (you’re busy, you’re tired, you’re doing something else, etc.), but it’s so essential.

How do you work? What are your most important tools?

When I’m writing, I work at a treadmill desk, which has become essential for me in terms of keeping both my mind and body going when I’m writing and when I’m not. When I’m reporting in the field: My audio recorder, which is always on when I’m out reporting. My camera, with which I take absurd numbers of photos while reporting (the rooms I’m in, the people I talk to, the weather, the scenery, you name it), because you never know what details a photo will catch that will be valuable to you later. Of course a good pile of pens and notebooks.

You’re working on a new book. What can you tell us?

It’s hard to explain at this point (I’m not being coy; it would take me probably an hour to explain, just as The Immortal Life did in the early stages), but it goes back to my lifelong passion for animals. When it comes to finding stories, in addition to following my curiosity, as I mention in the annotation, I’m a big believer in following unique passions — the things you’re obsessed with. My next book (as with my first) is one of those. In some ways, it started more than 20 years ago, in the freezer in the morgue of the vet school where I worked as a veterinary technician. The first story I wrote for my first creative writing class was about that freezer and the questions it raised for me about our relationships to animals. But really, this story is something I’ve been obsessed with since I was a small child.

The short summary, which doesn’t do the story justice, is that it’s about the role animals play in our lives and in science (two things that can’t actually be separated). It’s about humans and animals and ethics. In some ways, it’s also about how I became the person who wrote The Immortal Life. That isn’t the focus of the book — it’s not a memoir. But underlying the questions in this book are the questions that led me to become a writer and to notice the story of Henrietta Lacks in the first place: What is the value of one individual life? How do you draw the line between the progress and benefits of science and its cost? But it’s also about so much more. If you’re curious, you can hear me explain the book in a bit more narrative detail in this interview (below). (And talk about it in this Q-and-A.) The portion where I talk about the new book starts at about the 20-minute mark. At the 11-minute mark you can hear me talk about what a derelict kid I was.


“When Pets Attack”
by Rebecca Skloot
New York magazine
Oct. 11, 2004

Eight months ago, if you’d told me I’d be obsessed with a little old Greek guy and fantasizing about killing his dogs, I’d have said you were nuts. <One of the hallmarks of this story is its conversational, accessible, edgy voice. And your word choices – obsessed, fantasizing, nuts – ground us in the idea that we’re kind of in for a wild ride. How much did the opening line change from draft to draft, or was this always the way you began?/pw This opening line came out pretty much as-is the first time I wrote it, which is unheard of for me. I’m a compulsive rewriter, to the point where I usually rewrite every sentence many many times between the fist and final drafts.  But I’d written this opening line so many times in my head before starting the story, it just kinda poured out./rs

If you’d said a little old Greek guy’s<Nice repetition of “little old Greek guy” – how did you arrive at that choice?/pw I used “little old Greek guy” because that’s what people in the neighborhood called him … in part I think his little-old-Greek-guy persona was one of the reasons he’d been able to get away with neglecting his dogs for so long, and why he’d never gotten in trouble when they attacked other people’s dogs. He was just the cute little old Greek guy everyone in the neighborhood knew, the funny guy with the hot dog cart and, oh yeah, a bunch of dogs. That’s how he’d been described by the New York Times, the New York Post, etc. He was a colorful quintessential Manhattan figure and people loved that about him./rs pack of eight junkyard dogs had been roaming the streets of midtown for years attacking people and tearing apart their dogs while city officials said, “Sorry, that’s not our problem,” I’d have called you a conspiracy theorist. A pack of wild dogs? In Manhattan? Never happen. Boy, would I have been wrong.<The whole story is contained in this lede. It allows you to unpack from here. We know we’re getting a public-policy issue, an animal-versus-animal issue – obstacles, which are so important to narrative. Knowing you, this was your plan. Discuss./pw Indeed it was. I never write ledes like this one. I’m not a fan of nut graphs or telling the whole story up front. I’m a big show-don’t-tell person: I like to just put the reader in the action from the beginning, which is why most stories I write begin in the middle of a scene. But that wouldn’t have worked with this piece. Audience-wise, this was one of the most challenging stories I’ve ever written, because it was pretty much set up to alienate all readers from the start. For the animal lovers, the problem was Who wants to read a story about a poor innocent dog getting torn apart? For the non-animal lovers it was, So your dog got hurt, bummer for you, why should I care? For me, the job of this lede was saying: Trust me, keep reading. I needed to broadcast that this wasn’t just a sad story about a dog you may or may not care about; that I’m not a cop hater or an over-the-top bleeding-heart animal lover who’s just upset because her dog got hurt; that I wasn’t going to be melodramatic or gory—that in fact, I might even maintain a sense of humor while facing an awful thing. But really, the biggest messages of this lede was: You really want to keep reading, even if you don’t care about dogs, or you care about them so much you can’t stand knowing about bad things happening to them, because this story is about much more than my dog—it’s about humans and animals and public policy and your life and your safety and the safety of the city. Hence this first paragraph: a rollicking overview of everything that was coming in the story without mentioning my dog at all. That was my way of showing everyone how the story related to them before saying, oh, by the way, that guy’s dogs nearly killed my dog./rs

Here’s how I know:<Voice again. You have always written in a highly accessible style, which is part of what made The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—a complicated narrative about human cell culture, commercialism, medical ethics and race—an international bestseller, and it’s what helps distinguish your science writing. How did that develop over time, or did you always write this way?/pw I’ve always written like that. I think that comes in part from my background: I was a science major who started writing about science before studying literature or creative writing. I skipped all the high school classes where people read the classics (long story), then spent most of my college years studying things like biochemistry and neuroanatomy instead of English. So my literary education was pretty lacking. I didn’t even know that different writing styles like conversational vs. formal existed. I just knew there were science stories I wanted to tell, and when I sat down at my keyboard, they came out just like they would have if I’d been on a barstool telling the story aloud. I didn’t realize “conversational writing” was a thing until grad school, when I found Elmore Leonard’s famous rules for writers, which included this: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” I cut that out and taped it to my computer monitor where it stayed for many years. As I became a professional writer, my belief in the importance of conversational writing only grew stronger. Accessibility is so important when you write about science, ethics, and policy, and I want my work to be accessible to the broadest range of readers regardless of their backgrounds in science or literature. So for me, writing conversationally is about doing my best to let as many readers into the story as possible./rs


The Sunday before Christmas, I woke up to my friend Elizabeth pounding on my door. She was staying at my apartment, and had taken my dog, Bonny, out for a walk. When I opened the door, Elizabeth stood clutching Bonny’s empty, bloody collar, screaming, “Something happened!” I grabbed my coat, a blanket, my cell phone, and a credit card, and ran out the door, barefoot.<Walk us through these instincts, if possible. Plenty of people in this situation wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to be so precise with the go bag. Did a background in veterinary training come into play?/pw Oh yeah, my background in veterinary medicine helped in this situation (though it may be a chicken/egg situation—perhaps I ended up working in veterinary emergency rooms because this sort of reaction comes naturally to me … who knows). Having been through a lot of emergency veterinary situations, I definitely have the ability to shut down my own fear and emotions to focus on saving the animal. This has allowed me to help animals in some pretty crazy situations, but has also led to me nearly getting killed a few times (picking up injured animals on busy interstates, scaling a cliff to rescue a dog who’d gone over a long drop, that sort of thing; just recently, in fact, I nearly impaled myself while jumping the fence into my neighbor’s yard to do CPR on one of his dogs—she’d suffocated when her playmate got his jaw under her choke collar then twisted his head several times, creating a tourniquet around her neck). In terms of my instincts in the Bonny situation, clearly I wasn’t 100 percent coherent with them; if I had been, I probably would have grabbed shoes, given that it was snowing. Also, one thing I didn’t mention here, because I was trying to avoid seeming too crazy, was that I was wearing a rather short nightgown when Elizabeth knocked on the door. I put my down jacket over it and spent several hours going around NYC in and out of cabs and vet clinics wearing a nightie, a down jacket, and no shoes.  Eventually my dear friend Erik, who’s Elizabeth’s husband, went and got me some shoes and clothes./rs

Ralphie, my maintenance man, pointed toward a courtyard behind the building. “A pack of dogs,” he said. That’s when I saw the first puddle of blood and a fist-size chunk of Bonny’s muscle on the sidewalk. “They eat her,” Ralphie yelled. “Don’t look.”<How—and why—did you decide to write about what happened?/pw The moment I realized this was a real and broad story (dangerous dogs not being dealt with, legal loopholes, a city not enforcing laws, etc.) I knew it was an important one to tell on a local level, but also nationally, because things like this happen all over the country.  Also: I was pissed. Because of my veterinary experience, the vet let me do Bonny’s IVs and many other treatments at home instead of leaving her in the ER for weeks, so I was just there, cooped up in my 500-square-foot apartment, nursing Bonny (who was covered neck-to-hip in bandages and couldn’t be left alone), calling various city officials in a maddening loop trying to get them to do something about the dog pack (which had taken to pacing outside my apartment waiting for us to go outside). As city officials told me over and over that there was nothing to be done, it’s safe to say a significant amount of rage and determination built up inside me. Writing the story was definitely traumatic, because I had to live and re-live the attack and its aftermath, but it let me feel like I was doing something, anything, to fix the situation. In the end, it was cathartic./rs

I used to be a veterinary technician. In ten years, I went from general practice to performing daily autopsies in a veterinary morgue to being an adrenaline-pumped emergency-room tech who did CPR on dying dogs. I’d seen animals bigger than Bonny torn in half by packs, I’d seen missing limbs and decapitations, I’d done autopsies on dogs who’d eaten children, and I’d documented the contents of their stomachs for police reports. Which is to say, when I heard the phrase “pack of dogs,” I had clear visuals of what I was about to find.<I don’t know if you want to talk about it just yet but this reminds me of a conversation we had the other day about your new book project, on animals/pets. Note to readers: I’m not pimping out Skloot’s new book here. I’d like to think that what we’re doing here is exploring how writers come up with story and book ideas, and how we sometimes follow the better (or louder) angels of our nature into subject matter. What you told me may or may not make it into the new book but it involved having to bear witness to – and participate in – things that most pet owners and animal lovers could never bear to see. Why are you drawn to such stories and to animals in particular, and how has that made its way into your work? What’s narratively interesting to you about this material?/pw I’m going to invoke John McPhee here, as I like to do: He once looked at everything he’d written in his career, and he found that most of it could be traced back to something he was interested in (perhaps even obsessed with) before he turned 18. The same is true for me (and many other writers). Pretty much everything I’ve ever written has to do with animals, ethics, science, policy or some combination of all of them. I tell stories about the complex and often ethically sticky situations that arise when those things meet everyday life. The root of some of this is pretty clear to me: My father got very sick when I was 16 and ended up enrolling as a research subject in a drug study that didn’t go well. (I’ve written about that and its connection to my first book here under “What sparked your curiosity about Henrietta Lacks”).  So I’m sure that’s where my interest in science and research ethics and policy came from. I’ve also always been into animals and the ethics of our relationships with them. From the time I was 5 I was sure I was going to be a veterinarian; I later worked as a nurse for animals in general practices, research labs, shelters, even a veterinary morgue. There was a lot of beauty and humor in my work with animals. But I also found myself in some pretty shocking and ethically complicated situations, in part because I tended to work in places where animals ended up when they needed help but didn’t get it. Those stories are important ones that most people never hear; they’re the reason I started writing. (The first story I ever wrote was about the freezer in the morgue at the vet school where I worked, which was filled with pets who died at the hospital, but more so with dogs and other animals who were used in teaching and research). Those stories have never let me go. I’m a big believer in the importance of paying attention when a story grabs you. I’ve learned at this point that if I can’t shake a story, I have no choice but to tell it, even if telling it is the hardest path to take. That’s where The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came from, and it’s where all of my animal stories come from. My challenge is finding a way to tell those stories that works narratively, that allows the public to read stories that are sometimes upsetting while still enjoying them (because those stories are sometimes funny, uplifting, or inspiring, even in their sadness). My goal is for readers to get so caught up in the story that they get to the end and realize they learned quite a bit of challenging material, but getting there didn’t hurt too much. I have no idea if that answers your question. I guess the bottom line is that it’s less that I find these stories narratively interesting at the start and more that I simply have to tell them, so I look for the most narratively interesting way to do that./rs

Launched: Storyline, the Washington Post’s new narrative project intersecting policy and storytelling

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The Washington Post’s new narrative project, Storyline, launched today under the editorship of economics policy correspondent Jim Tankersley, with the tagline “People, policy, data.” As Tankersley explains in his introduction, Storyline is “dedicated to the power of stories to help us understand complicated, critical things. We’re focused on public policy, but not on Washington process. We care about policy as experienced by people across America.”

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 12.30.53 PMTankersley points to a series by The Oregonian’s Rich Read (Nieman Fellow ’97) as an example of what’s possible. In 1998, Read told a story of global economics and politics by following a single shipment of French fries from the Pacific Northwest to a McDonald’s in Singapore. (The series, “The French Fry Connection,” won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting.) “Those stories brought the crisis home in a way no textbook or straight news piece could, because at each step, they showed how global trends touched people’s lives and livelihoods,” Tankersley writes.

Some items from Storyline’s mission statement:

“We’ll tell those stories at Web speed and frequency.”

“We’ll ground them in data — insights from empirical research and our own deep-dive analysis — to add big-picture context to tightly focused human drama.”

“Some stories we will tell in chapters, across days and months, collected under themes that we call storylines. … Really, they’re big questions about our country: Who’s being lifted by this economic recovery, and who’s left waiting for recovery to kick in? How is the new federal health care law changing how we live and work? How are Americans adapting to life under Washington’s immigration deadlock? Is rural America being left behind in the new economy?”

“Sometimes we’ll let our visuals — our short documentary films and photo galleries and charts — do the talking. Sometimes we’ll push the boundaries of traditional narrative journalism, weaving those visuals together with text in fun new ways.”

A while back, we talked about Storyline with Tankersley, whom Post editor Marty Baron has called “one of the nation’s top writers and thinkers about economic policy.” He told us:


Jim Tankersley

“We’re going to try to do a bunch of different things, but they’re all unified around the idea that we want to help people understand the big important issues in America, and the policies that deal with those issues, and how those policies affect people. The way we’re putting it is that we’re going to tell stories on a very frequent basis, much faster than I think a lot of folks expect you can do with narrative, online. We’re going to frequently tell narrative stories with human drama, to help people understand things. We’re gonna tell stories with numbers and pictures, and really try to engage a different sort of person than the traditional in-one-chart kind of reader. And then we’re going to try to find ways to directly engage the audience and invent almost a new kind of storytelling. We don’t know exactly what it’s gonna look like, but we’ve got some pretty good ideas.”

You can read the full conversation here.

Related, in Nieman Reports:

—Rich Read on how he wrote the French fry project, Fall 2000.

—Former Oregonian writing coach Jack Hart and Rich Read on the writer-editor relationship, Spring 2002.

—Read on covering calamity by keeping a tight focus on people, Spring 2005.

It’s Mayborn Week! Recommended reading …

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The 2014 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference opens Friday at the University of North Texas. The Saturday and Sunday workshops are full but you can still register for the keynote events. This year’s speakers are authors David Quammen, Lawrence Wright, and Sheri Fink, and other featured speakers include Amy Dockser Marcus, Mimi Swartz, Rose George, and Annie Jacobsen. Recommended reading from our past coverage:

>Collected wisdom from Alfredo Corchado, Susan Orlean, Kevin Merida, Rick Atkinson, Paul Hendrickson and more (2013):

It was meant to be a personal story. The key was to make it a universal truth. — Corchado

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 9.54.14 AM>Texas Monthly‘s Skip Hollandsworth on storytelling, listening, Hollywood, respect, and the importance of getting out into the world (2013):

I’m not a writerly writer. There are a lot of writers in this room who can put together a beautiful sentence and you go, “Wow!” I can’t do that. I’m not being deliberately humble. My bread and butter lives on getting a good quote or getting a good fact. If I don’t have that fact, then I’m screwed. I can’t write around it. I don’t have quite the stylistic ability. So, I’ve always known that, and being at Texas Monthly I’ve been around a lot of great writers and I have tried my best to keep up with them and the way I do it is by getting good acts, getting good quotes. And I knew this was my kind of story. You just don’t get in the way of it.

>“You Will Always Have Work and It Will Be the Best Kind of Work,” by Richard Rhodes (2012):

The real poverty of the textbook school of writing is its apparent ignorance of the power of language to re-animate the world – the world of history, of technology, of science, of people, the natural world, whatever the subject might be. Stripping a text of its resonances, its rhetoric, of its performance of itself doesn’t make it clearer; it just makes it deader.

And, among our favorites, this talk by Vanity Fair’s Bryan Burrough, who brought the inspiration as well as the tips:

“… At the beginning of the first day, when I get the assignment, I start two files on my desktop. Let’s say the story is slugged Mayborn. I start Mayborn.reporting and Mayborn.writing. Everything I gather, obviously, goes in Mayborn.reporting, but unlike a lot of people I don’t wait to the end to start filling up Mayborn.writing. I start immediately. I write up every single thing I get in Mayborn.writing because I’ve found that I block, badly, badly, badly. And so, what I do is, let’s say I get a nice interview with George. I’ve got eight grafs, I write it up. It makes me feel good to be able to look and see that I’ve already got stuff written. Everybody knows that the worst part of any narrative project is the early stuff, when you don’t really have the confidence that you’re going to get enough to do it, and you panic, “I’ll never be able to do it.” We all have this. And I feel so [much] better about myself, when I can say, “Look. I have eight paragraphs.”

Writing the book: Beth Macy and ‘Factory Man’

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image001In the fall of 2011, I began reporting stories about the aftereffects of globalization on small factory towns in southern Virginia, for the Roanoke Times. For the next three years, I spent most of my waking moments turning that three-part series into a 120,000-word book, Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town. A month ago, the first hardback copy of the book landed in my mailbox. Factory Man lands in bookstores on July 15, published by Little, Brown.

Among the reporting challenges I faced were American CEOs who avoided the press, Chinese businessmen who claimed that speaking candidly to me could jeopardize their profits, and a painful early chapter on race that kept me awake at night struggling with The Big Questions: Does it matter? Is it fair? A decades-long family feud gave the story an undercurrent and a universal element, but it was also the single topic my brash main character didn’t want to discuss (in fact, he grew agitated every time I brought it up).

My goal had been to write a business book that did not read like a business book — something that my octogenarian mom could read in order to finally understand why so many of the once-thriving factory towns she grew up in, and near, now look like ghost towns, with soaring rates of disability, food insecurity and underemployment

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 12.51.30 AM

My mom worked for an airplane lighting factory when the economy was good and babysat when it wasn’t. My dad was a serially unemployed housepainter who suffered from alcoholism. My grandmother, who taught me to read when I was 4, kept a roof over our heads — that’s our home on the right — because she owned our house, and she lived next door. This photo was taken around 1969. We were poor, and I was the first in my family to go to college, thanks to Pell grants. That leap that likely wouldn’t have been possible had I been born two decades later, due to soaring college tuition rates and underemployment.

My book spans the course of 110 years. Part memoir (I’m the daughter of a displaced factory worker), part social history, part legal battle and part family feud, I wrestled a welter of content over 442 pages. To cover the other side of globalization, I followed the jobs that vanished from Virginia to their new perch in Indonesia, interviewing former rice paddy workers and subsistence farmers who’d joined the cash economy to make furniture — just as the sharecroppers and field hands had managed a century before, in Bassett, Virginia.

After interviewing hundreds of people — which included more than 300 phone calls with my prickly protagonist, who called me whenever he felt like it, night or day (he’s already called three times today, by the way, starting at 7:35 a.m.) — the most difficult part of the writing process also turned out to be the most boring (office supply nerd alert!): How to keep track of the roughly 1,000 amassed documents ranging from interview notes, e-mails and court case archives, to books and articles from newspapers and magazines.

I interviewed friends who’d written books, and my editor, John Parsley, suggested I pick the brain of one of his other authors. (Temporarily footnote every sentence you write, was my big takeaway from that journalist, Annie Jacobsen — so you can remember from whence a fact came when it’s time to write the end notes.)

John Bassett

John Bassett III took on China in a court of international trade and spent millions on high-powered Washington lawyers to keep his factory in Galax, Virginia, going. “I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and I had no intention of taking it out,” he said more than once during the course of 300-plus phone calls and many visits.

Annie also sang the praises of command-F search feature on the iMac desktop, though that was most effective when I could remember the title of a document. While some writers use database programs to index their notes, my method was part digital, part stacks of archival materials and part sticky notes. I kept clusters of my document names on a sheet of paper, and I created a timeline that took up an entire office wall with the help of a moveable white board product called Wizard Wall.

Friends suggested going digital-only, but that would have required days of scanning documents — time that, as an anxious first-time book-writer staring down an 11-month deadline, I didn’t feel I had. Besides, I like the tangible act of physically moving through space to locate facts, which can be like stumbling upon a word you didn’t know you were looking for an actual dictionary.

Every now and then, goodies emerge from the in-between spaces.

I was also frequently saved by the pain of having dealt with a cheerful but brutally thorough agent, Peter McGuigan, who’d spent months helping me fine-tune the proposal for Factory Man, including a 27-page chapter outline, before he shopped it in 2012. I followed that outline religiously, though some facts shifted as my reporting unearthed new twists in the story — which was so much more complicated (and juicy!) than I knew at the start.

On drawing paper (leftover from my Nieman year drawing class!), I taped an outline of the already written chapters beneath the year-by-year timeline, and when a new fact emerged for a chapter I’d already written, I did not

automatically pluck it back into the narrative — and risk blowing my momentum. I stuck a sticky note literally on the chapter outline, then for extra protection typed that same material up in an email to myself, filing it away in an “add later” folder.

Read more »

“Why’s this so good?” No. 95: Patrick Radden Keefe and the loaded gun

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It had been three months since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and stories probing the life and possible influences of the shooter Adam Lanza were still all over the news, so when I opened my New Yorker to a piece entitled “A Loaded Gun” last February, I assumed it would be about Lanza (who killed himself along with 26 others). Instead, the piece, by Patrick Radden Keefe, was about Amy Bishop, the Harvard Ph.D. who in February, 2010, opened fire at a biology department meeting after being refused tenure at the University of Alabama. Keefe must have been working on his article long before the Sandy Hook shooting, but the timing of its publication gave it an allegorical effect, adding another possible interpretation to a piece about the way people interpret and reinterpret stories in attempt to make sense of their lives—and their tragedies.

“After massacres involving gun violence … one of our national rituals is to search for some overlooked sign that the shooters were capable of such brutality,” Keefe writes near the beginning of his piece. We reinterpret the past, and after the Alabama shooting, Amy Bishop’s biography seemed ripe for such exegesis. In 1986, when Bishop was 21, she shot and killed her younger brother, Seth, in the kitchen of the Bishop home in Braintree, Massachusetts. At the time, law enforcement ruled that the shooting was accidental, but after the Alabama shooting, the case was reopened. Had Amy been “a loaded gun,” a person at risk of committing violence, whose danger her parents and the Braintree Police Department had overlooked at great cost?

“A Loaded Gun”—which won the National Magazine Award for feature writing—tells the story of Seth’s shooting three times, each from a different perspective, each cohesive, and each leaving us with a new answer to the question: What does this mean? Our expectations are constantly thwarted, which creates a kind of suspense. We read on to find out what really happened.

In the first iteration, we live the story from the perspective of the Bishop family. The day Seth was killed, Amy’s mother, Judy, was at the stables from around 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Her father, Sam, had also gone out after he and Amy had a “spat” (Amy’s words). Amy told the police that she had loaded the gun out of fear of robbers and had asked Seth to help her unload it before it went off.

Here, the shooting seems a tragic accident that befell a close family. What we know about Judy so far is that she is she was a member of the town’s governing body: a good citizen. After Seth’s death she sometimes spotted a kid on a bike and mistook him for her dead son. Sam, who is Greek, “ taciturn and burly, with an Old World reserve,” denied that his son had died at first, which makes him seem fragile: “They kept saying he was dead, but he didn’t seem dead to me….He looked at me,” Keefe quotes Sam as saying. A woman renting the cottage on the Bishop property noted that Amy had “climbed into her parents’ bed” by the time she got home that day. Young Amy seems to be a good student and avid violinist who had a tragic accident with a dangerous weapon and was distraught about it.


Ashley P. Taylor

Our views of these characters soon change. We learn that Amy only barely graduated Harvard; punched a woman at an IHOP for using a booster seat that she wanted for her child; bragged outrageously, claiming familial ties to novelist John Irving and referring, in one of her unpublished novels, to the University of Alabama, Huntsville, as “the M.I.T. of the South.” There were other examples of bizarre, troubling behavior.

The story also begins to explore another side of Judy. When Amy’s husband, Jim, called Judy to tell her about the Alabama shooting, she responded, “Jim, did you have a gun in the house?” This quotation sets the tone for a new way of interpreting events: Judy thought Amy was dangerous. Did she know something more about Seth’s shooting?

In the second iteration of the story, we learn that in old police reports it was not clear that the shooting was accidental. After Seth collapsed, Amy ran off and tried to steal a car by holding up a Ford dealership; she pointed her shotgun at some mechanics and at the police officer who apprehended her.

To show himself and the reader how it would feel to use the weapon with which Amy killed Seth, Keefe tried shooting a friend’s 12-gauge shotgun. He describes how to load and reload the gun and how to “rack the slide” between shots. While shooting, he remembered a detail from police reports: When police examined Amy’s gun, they found it loaded. “So at some point after shooting Seth and before being arrested, Amy must have racked the slide, jettisoning the shell that had killed her brother and loading a fresh one in its place.” This is one of the most affecting moments in Keefe’s piece, because it suggests that Amy had been prepared to shoot someone else after she “accidentally” killed her brother.

“Why’s this so good?” No. 94: Joe Rhodes and Aunt Marge and the deep (deep) freeze

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Joe Rhodes pulls off the nearly impossible in “How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze,” an edgy New York Times magazine piece. He takes a horrific event—the murder of a family member, an elderly aunt living in a tiny Texas town—and somehow makes it funny. Not just gently amusing, but the kind of thing that makes you spew coffee onto the keyboard and call out to your spouse, “Baby, you have GOT to read this.”

I know, because that’s just what I did the first (and second and third) times I read the well-timed surprises, the violence, the flat-out weirdness of it all. It’s a great, risk-taking story because it works on several levels at once—crime story, Southern gothic tall tale, my life with Shirley MacLaine—and because Rhodes walks a tightrope of good taste.

The trick that makes this pony work is tone. It’s not accomplished by words on the page, but by an overall approach to the subject. It’s the work you do before typing. This is farce, as Rhodes will eventually acknowledge, but let’s see how he does it.

Neely Tucker

Neely Tucker

First, he starts off with a straightforward, two-paragraph lede that gives away the entire plot. Bernie is a new film, he writes, a dark comedy about Bernie Tiede, a beloved church choir director and mortician in Carthage, Texas, who befriends a rich, ornery widow. Bernie (using the first-name basis to break down the journalistic formality) eventually shoots the widow in the back, stuffs the corpse in a freezer and then, for nine months, uses her millions to give people in town stuff they’ve always wanted. Planes. Jet skis. Cars.

By this point in the story, Rhodes has already undermined the way these tales usually are told. This is a horrible crime, but he describes Bernie, the killer, as “sweet-natured and gregarious, a lover of show tunes and Jesus.” People in town love the killer so much the prosecutor has to ask for a change of venue in order to find jurors who’ll vote to convict. Clearly, the world is off its axis, and the movie’s advertising bills it as “so unbelievable it must be true.”

Rhodes then establishes his credentials:

Which it is. I know this because the widow in the freezer was, in real life, my Aunt Marge, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, my mother’s sister and, depending on whom you ask, the meanest woman in East Texas.

In that last clause, Rhodes slipped in the required second note in the farce: If the killer isn’t bad, well, the victim isn’t all that good. You have to have both elements for this to work. Elmore Leonard pulled this trick for decades. It sets up a story line in which you’re not sure whose side you’re on.

Before we go any further, there’s another stereotype Rhodes is playing with here: that of the small-town Southern eccentric. This is a weary cliché. In 1960, Flannery O’Connor was already tired of it, writing in an influential essay, “I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” This is the same essay in which she observed, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Notice how Rhodes handles this. He’s from here, he writes, so we understand he’s not a big-city tourist taking cheap shots at the yokels. And then, before he makes a list of the local color, he writes “really did” or “really were.” In two words, he confronts the stereotype and gives the reader a wink that he’s aware of it—but, hey, Bernie really is a freak and Aunt Marge really was mean and this really is how it went down:

The trial lawyers really did wear Stetsons and cowboy boots and really were named Danny Buck Davidson and Scrappy Holmes. Daddy Sam’s barbecue and bail bonds, just a few blocks from the courthouse in Carthage (population: 6,700), really does have a sign that says, “You Kill It, I’ll Cook It!” And they really did find my Aunt Marge on top of the flounder and under the Marie Callender’s chicken potpies, wrapped in a Lands’ End sheet. They had to wait two days to do the autopsy. It took her that long to thaw. 

Like a lot of great writing, this is actually great reporting. Details are to writing what eroticism is to sex: the thing that can make it great. Daddy Sam’s barbeque (with that great sign), the Marie Callender’s pot pies, the Lands’ End sheet, the two days for the body to thaw.

Aunt Marge really was, Rhodes goes on to say, a pretty awful human being. It’s never nice to speak ill of the dead, but he does, flouting another social and journalistic rule. This is another surprise, but it’s necessary because it explains his tone, why he’s taking this approach to the story. Marge had alienated her entire family. She had a lifelong history of being pretentious and nasty, telling people “in no uncertain terms, why you weren’t good enough or smart enough or otherwise worthy of her time. She used it on salesclerks, on waiters, on farmhands, housekeepers and cooks. She used it on my parents. She used it on me.”

When he was 14, he writes,

she locked me in her house for two days and wouldn’t let me call home. Finally, when Aunt Marge went to the grocery store, the maid, sympathetic to my plight, unlocked the bedroom door so I could get to the phone and beg my mother to come rescue me. She did. That was the last time I went to Aunt Marge’s house.

Rhodes goes on to say that Aunt Marge made up lies about his parents in an attempt to get their daughter from them. His mother …

Upon Gary Smith’s retirement: The venerated Sports Illustrated writer on longform immersion and intimacy

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It isn’t often that a narrative journalist’s retirement makes the news, but when Sports Illustrated announced this spring that longtime writer Gary Smith would be leaving the business, the public eulogies — and the “Best of Gary” lists — began immediately. Smith, who spent 32 years at SI, wrote celebrated stories “that weren’t so much about sports as they were about life,” as S.L. Price writer put it. Four of Smith’s stories won a National Magazine Award, and 13 were anthologized in Best American Sports Writing. In honor of his retirement, here’s a Storyboard piece from August 2010. Smith appeared that year at the Mayborn Conference, a narrative nonfiction event in Texas, and talked about “Shadow of a Nation,” the story of a Crow basketball player named Jonathan Takes Enemy. Smith is “known for his ability to connect with his subjects,” former Storyboard editor Andrea Pitzer wrote in that post, “and so we were very interested in the answer he gave to a question about how he enters others’ worlds as an outsider and develops intimacy.”

Gary Smith

Gary Smith: To become a longform writer and to kind of immerse yourself in different worlds, it’s almost like a double-railed track. Not only do you grow as a writer, but that other rail of the track is huge. Part of it is something you’re developing – some sense of self, getting a little more at ease in your own flesh and bones. So much of what happens in the interactions between you as the writer and the subject hinges on their trust in you, their confidence in you. And so much of that hinges on how comfortable you are. Any uneasiness you bring is going to cost you dearly.

I’ve sensed that and felt it and seen it as the years go by. The more at ease I became, the more the trust grew in that interaction, the more goods, the more treasure came back. It’s almost like you need to be very aware of both sides of that railroad track. If one is lagging behind the other, you’re going to really shortchange yourself in everything you get as a writer. That’s not the reason to do it — there are a zillion other better reasons to go on that trip. But that’s one of the biggest benefits of it.

As you’re walking as an outsider into these worlds all the time, how comfortable are you in doing that? If they feel your uneasiness, how easy are they going to feel about handing you their most intimate stuff to write about?

There’s almost an equivalence to that interaction, so the more they sense that you’re really there just to understand rather than judge is huge in how much they’re going to start giving … When you’re more relaxed, you listen, and you’re ready to flow with what’s being said and to hear something that’s sparking off three or four other questions in your mind. It’s because your mind is more relaxed; it’s not tense and tight and worried about getting that next question on your checklist.

When it goes from an interview to a conversation, that’s when things really start to happen in that interaction … but it’s not there at the beginning, I can guarantee you. When I was 25 years old doing this, I was nervous as a cat and worried and sometimes in awe of the person I was interviewing. It’s all just time, putting in time, and also really, you wanting to grow as a person and to throw yourself into circumstances that aren’t always the most comfortable right off.

Pitzer: Smith’s ability to get inside his subjects’ lives and ways of seeing the world is legendary, and so I found myself curious if he’d ever encountered a subject with whom he felt unable to connect, and if so, how he had handled writing the story. I caught up with him the night before his talk and put the question to him. He mentioned that Tiger Woods had spent a good part of their interview time watching Sports Center, but seemed unable to recall anyone for whom he just hadn’t felt empathy. Here’s what he had to say about it:

If I can’t get there, I shouldn’t even start writing. There should be some feeling for the human condition, in a way, and so if I can’t get there at all, then it’s like trespassing to write. If I’m going to write about pretty intimate stuff, I shouldn’t go there unless I can treat it with that kind of feeling.

I’ve started into stories and done a lot of research and then pulled out. But once I meet the person, I’m pretty dogged about just thinking “I’m going to find some connection and find my way into this person’s world and understand it and try to grasp it and render it.” Even if there’s a lot of banging my head against the wall, I’ll just keep coming back at it and at it. That’s what I’ve found. Maybe it’s not smart, but that’s what I’ve done.

It’s funny, because that whole idea of crossing that abyss to the other, there’s something under it that’s compelling to me, I would have to guess. Why else would I be doing this so much, so long, and so feverishly for so many years?


The sense of an ending: Ben Yagoda on A.J. Liebling, Katherine Boo, Sonia Nazario, John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Foster Wallace, Joseph Mitchell and more

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Whether you spell them “ledes” or “leads,” opening lines get a lot of attention. And why wouldn’t they? Sitting at the keyboard, with all the tedious and sometimes annoying reporting done, a writer is spoiled for choice, a world of possibilities at his or her disposal. To be sure, that seemingly limitless choice can be daunting, but once you get down to it, the freedom is empowering and more often than not results in a fairly awesome opener.

Then you have to write the piece. With each word, sentence, and paragraph, the world of possibilities is constricted, until you find yourself with one more bit to write. Even if you haven’t painted yourself into an uncomfortable corner, you have to steer between being too obvious and too enigmatic.  At the same time you feel you need to leave readers with something that will move them and stick with them, preferably for a long time.

The time-honored strategy is closing on a quote, and even if you end up having to cannibalize one from earlier in the piece and patch the hole that’s left, this is a graceful and efficient exit strategy.

kickergifBut there are quotes and there are quotes. Joseph Mitchell’s 1940 New Yorker profile of a bearded circus performer, “Lady Olga,” starts off as a typical feature on an offbeat topic, with many odd and interesting facts about carnival life, but gradually changes into something more profound, with a subtle but insistent suggestion that we consider the circumstances under discussion insofar as they relate to the human condition — in this case, what it means to be a “freak.” By the time we get to Olga’s stunning last quotation (with its cascade of one-syllable words leading to a killer kicker), we have been prepared to accept it literally and unconditionally:

“If the truth was known, we’re all freaks together,” she says.

Where Mitchell fades in and out over the course of a piece, his friend and New Yorker colleague A.J. Liebling is a personable, voluble, and frequently boisterous companion from start to finish. One of his series of 1959 pieces about the colorful Louisiana politician Earl Long (collected in The Earl of Louisiana) ends with a simile that not many people other than Liebling could pull off. The reporter spies Long at the racetrack; the pol is happy because it appears that his election scheming has paid off, and because he has made a killing on the ponies. Liebling writes (and you need to know that Jimmie Noe was one of Long’s cronies, and Hasan and Husain were, in Wikipedia’s words, “the last descendants of Prophet Muhammad living during his lifetime and remaining after his death”):

As he stuffed the bundle of money in his pocket, another stout, jolly, ruddy man, also a winner, strolled up to his box and leaned over the edge, and they had a good laugh together. It was Jimmie Noe, and the two Companions of the Prophet looked as happy and well attuned as Hasan and Husain the Beatified, looking down from Paradise upon a world in which other Arabs sweated.

Mitchell and Liebling represent the two basic strategies: minimalist and maximalist. Those in the former camp usually close with a brief quote or a terse but telling detail or two, the latter with something lyrical. To pull that off, you need the courage of your conviction, plus chops.

W.C. Heinz had both. One of his most famous pieces was a 960-word column that appeared in the New York Sun in 1949. It was about, in the words of the title, “Death of a Racehorse” — the horse being Air Lift, who breaks his leg in the course of the sixth race at Jamaica. Heinz’s meticulous tick-tock shows us what happens after that, including, unflinchingly and respectfully, the killing of the horse. Only in the final sentence does he turn up the rhetorical heat, with Biblical cadences, the pathetic fallacy, and a searing final image:

Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.

A lot of good endings partake of what comedians refer to as a “callback”—an unexpected reference to a previous joke. In his 1957 New Yorker article about Marlon Brando, “The Duke in His Domain,” Truman Capote basically invented the modern celebrity profile — in particular the way the writer appears as “I” and the piece is structured around his encounter (often in a hotel room, as in “Duke”) with the celeb. But Capote’s leisurely pace and penchant for metaphor is anything but 21st century.

Somewhere in the middle of the piece, Brando describes his sudden fame after appearing in A Streetcar Named Desire: “It was like I’d been asleep, and I woke up here sitting on a pile of candy.” At the end of a long, rambling interview/conversation, Capote finds himself wandering the streets of Tokyo at two in the morning, trying to find his way home. Finally he sees a familiar sight: “Sixty feet tall, with a head as huge as the greatest Buddha’s, there he was, in comic-paper colors, on a sign above a theatre that advertised ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ [a Brando movie]. Rather Buddhalike, too, was his pose, for he was depicted in a squatting position, a serene smile on a face that glistened in the rain and the light of a street lamp.” And then the callback:

“A deity, yes; but, more than that, really, just a young man sitting on a pile of candy.”

Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1966, is an extremely badass piece of writing, what with its bow to the “hot dry Santa Ana wind that …

Investigative + narrative: Storytelling this week at IRE

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This year’s Investigative Reporters & Editors conference starts Wednesday in San Francisco, and there are no fewer than nine panels, workshops and master classes on storytelling. Registration is still open for IRE members ($100 for students; $260 for everyone else), but if you miss the conference you can find some materials — audio, video, tip sheets — online later at IRE’s website. For past Storyboard coverage of the conference, see the two-part Kiera Feldman series from 2012. This year’s storytelling speakers and the IRE abstracts:

The Art of Storytelling: Forensics

Speaker: Jacqui Banaszynski, Pulitzer winner and professor, Missouri School of Journalism
Description: Learn to investigate your own writing from the inside out. What are the habits and patterns that power your stories up — or drag them down? You’ll do a diagnostic of your own writing and discover ways to make your stories leaner, cleaner and more compelling.

The Art of Storytelling: Writing the data story

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 3.41.42 PMSpeakers: Sarah Cohen, David Donald, Ben Poston
Description: From the first public records request to the final fact-check, keeping the writing in mind will prevent your stories from becoming mind-numbing data dumps. We’ll walk through how to focus your early work on finding the best cases for in-depth reporting; how to keep your data analysis on track while finding your “compared to what?”; and how to draft the data-heavy sections of stories.

Presentation As a Storytelling Tool

Speakers: Anthony DeBarros, Brad Racino, Kate Marymont, Mark Nichols
Description: Design is key to attracting attention, keeping the public engaged and even getting people to do what you ask of them.
We’ll look at examples from top newsrooms and share tips and ideas on what you yourself can do to design and present brilliant stories.

The Art of Storytelling: Structure, organization and finding characters

Speakers: Joan McClane, Raquel Rutledge, James Neff, Michael Schiller
Description: You’ve found the facts and have hard-edged findings. Now what? This panel shows you how to best exploit your materials to craft engaging investigations through appropriate story structure, proper use of characters, clear writing, and effective use of sound and video.

The Art of Storytelling: Toxic pipeline

Speaker: master class with Walt Bogdanich, assistant editor for investigations, New York Times
Description: Three-time Pulitzer winner Walt Bogdanich dissects his classic 2007 toxic pipeline investigation. These special panels are designed to dig deep into narrative arc, structure and character development.

The Art of Storytelling: Blueprints

Speaker: Missouri School of Journalism professor Jacqui Banaszynski
Description: Where to start? How to nail that ending? What to put where? Story structure vexes even the most experienced writers. We’ll explore ways to approach your stories as literal but creative structures — story houses built on a solid foundation, with an elegant flow and the most effective use of your material. All the great buildings of the world started with a sound, creative blueprint; you can build cathedrals of information and meaning.

The Art of Storytelling: Deadly neglect

Speaker: Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Roe
Description: Sam Roe, a Pulitzer Prize winner and three-time Pulitzer finalist, shows how to identify the narrative in an investigation, how to flesh it out with reporting and writing, and how to organize it to maximize impact and suspense. He’ll focus on “Deadly Neglect,” a story that started out as a run-of-the-mill nursing home project but gained power when Roe zeroed in on the agonizing ordeal of a 9-year-old boy.

The Art of Storytelling: Danger from above

Speaker: Louise Kiernan, career newspaper reporter/editor, Medill School of Journalism associate professor, and incoming editor of Nieman Storyboard.
Description: Pulitzer winner Louise Kiernan will take the audience inside her two-part narrative project “Danger from Above” as part of our “master class” series.

The Art of Storytelling: Building chemistry

Speakers: John Hillkirk, Alison Young, Alexandra Zayas, Chris Davis
Description: When it comes to investigative projects, storytelling too often takes a back seat to reporting. In this session, two reporter-editor teams will discuss how they worked through the conceptualizing and writing of two recent investigations: “In God’s Name” and “Supplement Shell Game.” They’ll share tips for better collaborative storytelling, techniques for sharpening writing, approaches to storytelling on multiple platforms and building a positive reporter/editor relationship.