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Five ways to develop your eye — and heart — as a storyteller

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Tom Huang, the Sunday and enterprise editor at the Dallas Morning News, offered some good ideas for sharpening storytelling skills during a writing panel at last week’s Asian American Journalists Convention in Washington, D.C.

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Tom Huang

Here are Tom’s five tips for developing a storyteller’s eye – and heart:

  1. Immerse yourself in other story forms – movies, comic books, songs, short stories, poems, plays, operas. Pay attention to the choices the storytellers make.
  2. Shadow a photojournalist and watch how they capture pivotal moments.
  3. Visit a day care center and a nursing home. The young and the elderly can be difficult to write about, and you’ll need to adapt your interviewing skills and know that quiet observation is key.
  4. Travel abroad. Venturing into an unfamiliar place opens the storyteller’s eyes.
  5. Stay away from your phone (or any screen) for a little while. You will begin to see stories all around you.

What would you add to his list?

Annotation: John Jeremiah Sullivan and “Upon This Rock”

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[Editor's note: John Jeremiah Sullivan's "Upon This Rock" is by now a modern classic of literary journalism: writer rents an RV, experiences a Christian rock festival (and certain revelations) with a bunch of guys from West Virginia. In a "Why's this so good?" piece for Storyboard, ESPN The Magazine's Paul Kix wrote, "What I love about any of Sullivan's stories, but especially this one, is his command of the language. The man can flat-out craft a sentence. He can do pathos, he can echo (without mimicking) the flourishes of other writers, and he can do humor. ... To feel this piece evolve as you read it is the true miracle of it."]

Storyboard: How do you come up with your story ideas?

John Jeremiah Sullivan: I don’t know. Let me pass on that one.

How long was the writing process?

That’s a question I’d like to know the answer to. I have no memory of it. I know that I wrote it in this old house we lived in, in downtown Wilmington, on Dock Street. An old antebellum house. We lived on the first floor and we were there for a year. I guess I spent maybe a month from the first sentence to handing it over. But it could have just felt that way.

How did Darius and the rest react to this story?

I only talked to Darius and Ritter, but they forwarded the feelings of the other guys. They told me that they really enjoyed it as a story. And I was honored by that. In other words, they knew that I had been trying to do something as a writer. They kind of said, “Hey, we see what you did there.” They didn’t try to evade that I had sort of come out as a non-believer in the piece in a way that I maybe didn’t to them. I never lied to them about my faith, but I probably said as little about it as I could.

So they didn’t feel betrayed?

On the contrary, I think they were excited to get a lot of attention in Braxton County, on account of this piece. They’d relate to me in great detail how much their stock had gone up with girls from having been in GQ.

John Jeremiah Sullivan

John Jeremiah Sullivan

Ten years later, what’s your opinion of “Upon This Rock?” How does it stack up to the rest of your work?

I’m always trying so hard not to think about my work at all. My hierarchies don’t tend to be very detailed that way. You’ve made me like it more with your questions. And not because of flattery, or anything like that, but in answering you I realize I still don’t know what was going on there. That tells me that what I wrote was not cynical.

Upon This Rock

by John Jeremiah Sullivan

GQ

February 2004

It is wrong to boast, but in the beginning, my plan was perfect. <Why did you begin the story like this? It’s rather wonderful; the nod to Genesis, the acknowledgement of one sin, even as you — in your boastfulness — are guilty of another…/eg <It was one of those sentences that came before I’d given it any thought, if that makes any sense. I have no memory of wondering what the first sentence would be. It just seemed obvious, at the time, as part of the mania of these reporting assignments. I read it now and it sounds like it’s beaming in from another planet. At the time, it seemed like the most transparent way to begin the piece./jjs <Did you decide on it early in the drafting process?/eg <Yeah, it was a rare case of the first sentence of the piece being the first sentence that came to me. Sometimes it’s fun, when you can get away with it, to fossilize the actual circumstances of these assignments in the writing of them. I always got a kick out of that with New Journalism, the way the texture of that world, of the actual milieu—not of the subject, but of the reporting itself; the magazines; the newsroom—gets trapped in the writing of the piece and recorded. I had this anecdote about having wanted to go to another festival and the whole thing falling apart. It happened to be true, you know, that I ended up at the Creation Fest, not just by accident, but I wasn’t even meant to be there. That little story gave me that./jjs <You mention New Journalism. Was that a big influence on you?/eg <Oh, yeah, massively. I mean, this piece is talking to Terry Southern’s “Twirling at Ole Miss.” That’s one of the pieces people point to as the Big Bang of New Journalism./jjs <Interesting. I wouldn’t have put two and two together./eg <Well, I shouldn’t make too strong a case for that reading. Sometimes a writer’s take on your own stuff is so excessively idiosyncratic. I was very much inside that mindset, you know, living in New York and writing for magazines and trying to learn from the people who’d done it in the most interesting way. People like Gay Talese./jjs

I was assigned to cover the Cross-Over Festival in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, three days of the top Christian bands and their backers at an isolated midwestern fairground or something. I’d stand at the edge of the crowd and take notes on the scene, chat up the occasional audience member (“What’s harder—homeschooling or regular schooling?”), then flash my pass to get backstage, where I’d rap with the artists themselves: “This Christian music—it’s a phenomenon. What do you tell your fans when they ask you why God let Creed break up?” The singer could feed me his bit about how all music glorifies Him, when it’s performed with a loving spirit, and I’d jot down every tenth word, inwardly …

Got 19 bucks? Take an online storytelling class with Susan Orlean.

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Bestselling author and New Yorker writer Susan Orlean breaks down a semester’s worth of storytelling instruction in a two-hour online video course for Skillshare.com. For $19, you get tips and insight on 14 topics, from finding a story idea to collaborating with editors. Plus, a writing assignment: “Write a short piece of creative nonfiction on the most mysterious person you know.” One discussion board has already launched with the question “What’s your favorite piece of creative nonfiction?” (One answer so far: Sasha Frere-Jones’ 2010 New Yorker profile of James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. “Its dialogue and description create an energy that seems to match the music, and Frere-Jones masterfully balances details and bigger ideas about trends and culture,” writes Alyssa Demirjian.)

Here’s some of what you’ll get:

Susan Orlean's Skillshare.com course on creative nonfiction

Susan Orlean’s Skillshare.com course on creative nonfiction

1: Introduction (6 minutes, 43 seconds)

“You may ask why nonfiction. And I will make a very powerful argument for why learning to write effective nonfiction is valuable even if your interest as a writer is fiction, poetry, whatever genre. First of all, writing well is writing well. … I happen to think nonfiction is a great basic primer on writing because you’re working with the craft of fact, and using techniques to make that effective, elegant, creative.”

2: Subject: Finding Your Topic (9:35)

“How do you find a good story idea? … How do you figure out if it’s an idea that will work? … In practical terms, is this subject too narrow or too broad?”

3: Subject: Finding “The American Male at Age Ten” (7:15)

“He could have been any kid, so his individual story wasn’t the motivation as much as the idea that it explored the very universal larger theme of childhood.”

4: Research: Preparing for Reporting (9:10)

“I think the best reporting often can feel kind of uncomfortable.”

5: Research: Reporting (9:16)

“The writer should know much, much, much more than what they offer the reader. The reader without even being aware of it is going to be affected by the depth of knowledge that the writer has.”

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

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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