Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

The 2014 Pulitzers: A gap year for features

Share Button

The Pulitzer judges’ decision* not to award a prize in Features Writing on Monday was disappointing but not unprecedented.** The last (and only other) gap occurred 10 years ago, when stories by Robert Lee Hotz (Los Angeles Times), Anne Hull and Tamara Jones (the Washington Post) and Patricia Wen (the Boston Globe) stalled out as finalists. This year’s finalists wrote stories about a Los Angeles manhunt, a child abuse survivor and a year in the life of students of gross anatomy. The honorees:

1) Scott Farwell, the Dallas Morning News, for his story about “a young woman’s struggle to live a normal life after years of ghastly child abuse, an examination of human resilience in the face of depravity.” Of “The Girl in the Closet,” which ran as an eight-day series, Farwell has said, “(I) don’t think I’ve ever worked on a story that’s inspired this kind of emotion.”

—His opening sentence:

Lauren is alone in the dark.

Story coverage:

He recorded every interview and then listened to each one. Though time-consuming, the exercise helped him determine how to structure the story; he wanted the dialogue, character development and scenes to fit together seamlessly. Farwell equated the experience to carpentry.

“You cut all your pieces of wood, lay them all out, and have a plan,” he said. “It’s a creative journey for sure, but at the end you want it to be like a dresser, where it’s all square and the drawers slide like butter back and forth. No jiggling.” — from Poynter.org

Live chat: One reader said, “It’s not only the facts, it is the manner in which the facts are presented. Very, very well done.”

Narrative flashback: Kelly, Kirn, Guillermoprieto, Woo, Kaminer, Krulwich and Hart talk storytelling’s future and form

Share Button

Storyboard isn’t the only Nieman Foundation publication with a rich craft archive. Our venerable sister magazine Nieman Reports maintains a trove of material on narrative and storytelling, and we’ll be highlighting some of that work in the coming weeks. Today’s outtake is from the Fall 2000 issue, which featured writers and editors from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, GQ, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and network television. It’s fascinating to jump back 14 years and measure the arguments and predictions against what is happening today in narrative journalism:

Michael Kelly, then editor of The Atlantic, argued that the camera was having a deleterious effect on narrative:

When I wanted to go off and write dispatches on the Gulf War, I had a very simple model in mind. I wanted to write the classic correspondent’s dispatch: to simply go to wherever I could go, see what I could see, hear what I could hear, and write only that. I would not attempt any analysis of the war, not attempt any reporting beyond that which grew directly out of the events before me, and to file it in dispatch form for whomever would buy it.

When I went flogging this idea around to various agents and editors, it was pretty roundly rejected, and not only because I was an unknown writer and it was a perfectly reasonable idea to reject me, but because, as various people said to me, frankly, the whole idea was wrong. That this was a war that was going to be filled with cameras. The first night of bombing, there would be cameras there. There would be cameras throughout the war. Everything that could be described would be seen in many cases in real time, so the idea of filing a dispatch that a reader might read a week or even a month later was pointless, and sort of an anachronistic idea.

Fall2000CoverI see this also in the writing that comes to me as an editor. The thing that I most lament, and causes me most grief in manuscripts that come in from professional writers, from good writers, is the stunning lack of physical description. A writer will go to some interesting, fascinating and dangerous place, and will file a piece that will contain a great deal of terrific reporting on all sorts of levels—interviews, analysis and so on—and the story will simply be bereft of physical description, of the colorful, vivid scene painting that readers continue to love. It’s a myth that readers have turned away from this and that in the age of the picture and now the age of Internet, that readers don’t want it.

Alma Guillermoprieto, Walter Kirn, Robert Vare, Jack Hart, Wendy Kaminer and Mike Kelly had a conversation about the future of narrative. Here’s Kirn:

I’m always on the Internet. … I don’t think there is anybody extraordinary out there. It’s too new. But when the new narrative storytelling takes place and revives and gets its wings and gets its strength, it’s going to happen on the Internet, I think, not in newspapers. We’re all holding down the hatches. … I think there are fantastic stories out there, but we don’t know how to even begin covering them. We don’t know how to begin covering the reproductive revolution, the genetic revolution, and the information revolution. What do we know about political conventions? And there’s all this other stuff, and it’s changing the way the world is going to be. And how do we deal with those stories?

William Woo, the former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote about the critical need for clarity in journalism and about false structures in narrative. Not every story can be narrative, he said:

Even in the hands of the most assiduous and perceptive reporter, facts gathered are likely to be incomplete, unconnected and susceptible to many interpretations. The narrative strands necessary to reconcile all these things are not easily handled. This is why frequently the narrative approach is abandoned once the going gets heavy and why stories with anecdotal beginnings are so full of disposable people, characters thrown away as soon as their work of getting readers into the story is finished. You can think of them as the dusting maids who start a play. If Jack and Jill introduced a story about agricultural accidents, we might be left to wonder forever about them once she came tumbling after.

Pulitzer-winning features writer Rick Bragg wrote about weaving storytelling into breaking news:

The narrative actually made the writing faster, because it created a rhythm for the story. And it was powerful. The so-called nut graf was in the second graph, which should have pleased even the most narrative-hating editor. And sometimes, the narrative makes the difference between a story that is read and one that is merely glanced at.

Longtime television journalist Robert Krulwich (Nightline, Frontline, Prime Time Live, and now Radiolab) wrote about how to be a distinctive storyteller:

If most reporters are modeling themselves on Walter Cronkite and Jane Pauley, what I do is model myself on no one. Instead, implacably, incorrigibly, I try to sound like myself, like the ordinary me.

Carolyn Mungo, an Emmy-winning TV news reporter in Texas, wrote about deadline narrative:

I used to think that good storytelling in local television happened only if a reporter was given a lot of time to do the story and a lot of time to tell it, as was the case in the story about Angie. But I have learned since then that is not always the case. When I set out to tell the story of several nine-year-old boys in a juvenile detention facility, I was able to work on the story for five days and still tell it in a narrative form.

 

 

‘It’s not about the cameras, it’s about how you see the world’ — and 49 other tips and inspirations from the BU narrative conference

Share Button

Fifty takeouts from some of the speakers at last weekend’s Boston University conference on narrative, culled from the Twitter feeds of Lauren Alexander, Alletta Cooper, Cat Cowan, Jessica DuLong, John R. Gagain Jr., Sascha Garrey, Nate Goldman, Kate Hoagland, Robin Lubbock, Cristian Lupsa, Sophia Diogo Mateus, Simina Mistreanu, Lisa Mullins, Amy O’Leary, Greg Rienzi, Beth Schwartzapfel, Emily E. Smith, Sebastian Stockman, Eric Trickey, Ware Verhalen and Mark Zastrow. For the full speaker list go here, and for more tweets search #narrativeBU.


Caryn Bush Baird
, senior news researcher, Tampa Bay Times:

A newspaper is a city’s diary, and what we write never goes away.

Jacqui Banaszynski, professor and Knight Chair in Editing, Missouri School of Journalism:

“If you don’t live the world as it is, nothing you write will move the human heart.” — quoting Roger Rosenblatt, author of Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing.

Today, the world’s storytellers need to get better at craft. We can’t afford to be sloppy, do it badly, be lazy.

Your job is to be stupid. (to a young journalist afraid of looking stupid in an interview)

My cardinal rule for interviewing: It’s not about me.

When interviewing, use artifacts or photos, ask framed questions, dare to ask, use multiple curiosities.

Pay attention to smell, taste, details of the environment.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 9.21.13 PMDan Barry, “This Land” columnist, the New York Times:

Some surprises come off as cheap, and you have to be wary of it.

Read your copy aloud. You can hear when you get bored.

Writer’s block results often from not enough reporting. You’re trying to write around what you don’t know.

Screw [my colleagues]. I want [readers] to read my story.

In the first few paragraphs of a story I like to use strong verbs to create tension and keep the reader’s attention.

Dan Barry, Storified.

David Blum, editor, Kindle Singles:

In order for a memoir to work, it has to be about something larger than you. What the reader is looking for is common ground.

Jennifer Bogo, executive editor of Popular Science:

Figure out the tension, then shape your pitch around it.

Jennifer Brandel, founder and senior producer, WBEZ Chicago’s Curious City:

Time for reflection matters after projects. What went well? What didn’t? How do we measure success?

How can you use the fascinating stuff that you don’t include in the story? Tumblr, videos, etc.

David Carr, business columnist and cultural reporter, the New York Times, and the inaugural Andrew R. Lack Professor at Boston University’s College of Communication:

Being big on Twitter is like being big in Japan. You can’t use it as a metric of your actual reach.

Metrics driving journalism show what people want are big, glorious stories.

Twitter has something to do with headlines but nothing to do with narrative.

So many good things happen when you go. An old prof, Paul Hendrickson, had a maxim: “If you go, it’ll happen.”

Great stories happen alone in a room filled with fear and insecurity.

A gifted storyteller knows pace.

Remembering Anja Niedringhaus

Share Button
Anja Niedringhaus in April 2005 (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Anja Niedringhaus in April 2005 (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Anja Niedringhaus, the veteran AP photographer and 2007 Nieman Fellow who was shot and killed today in eastern Afghanistan while covering the run-up to the presidential election, had covered the region for more than 20 years. “For me, covering conflict and war is the essence of journalism,” she wrote in Nieman Reports, in 2012. “My assignment, regardless of the era, is about people — civilians and soldiers. The legacy of any photographer is her or his ability to capture the moment, to record history. For me it is about showing the struggle and survival of the individual.” Just days ago, the Washington Post writes, she made potatoes and sausage in Kabul for photographer Muhammed Muheisen and AP reporter Kathy Gannon, who was with Niedringhaus in the backseat of a car, in a guarded convoy, when an Afghan police officer opened fire with an AK-47. (Gannon was reportedly hit three times, in the wrist and shoulder, and is recovering.) Muheisen told the Post: “I was so concerned about her safety. And she was like, ‘Momo, this is what I’m meant to do. I’m happy to go.’” The AP is calling the shooting “the first known instance of an insider attack on journalists.”

In 2005, Niedringhaus shared a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography, for coverage of the war in Iraq. To see some of her extraordinary work, go here. To read her account of a Marine’s near-fatal battlefield injuries and recovery, go here. As her Nieman classmate Craig Welch put it today in a Facebook post: “For more than a decade, she made the war real for people who were unwilling to see it. Look at her images, please. They’ll change you.” Some of Niedringhaus’ most evocative visual storytelling focused on everyday moments and portraits of women and girls:

Writing the book: Neil Swidey on ‘Trapped Under the Sea’

Share Button

I love inspirational quotes from august authors as much as the next writer. But the quote I thought about the most during the long years when I was writing my new book, Trapped Under the Sea, didn’t come from an author. I stumbled across it in a New Yorker profile of the writer George R.R. Martin, which detailed the intense impatience of fans furious with his slow pace in producing the next installment in his Game of Thrones series. On science fiction and fantasy discussion boards, these fans had begun going public with their frustration. The post that refused to leave my head was this message to Martin from one of his longtime admirers:

“Pull your fucking typewriter out of your ass and start fucking typing.”

I didn’t hang it over my desk, since I didn’t want to have to field the hard questions from my young daughters who regularly traipse in and out of my home office. (“Um, Dad, what exactly is a typewriter?”) Still, I kept the quote accessible on the hard drive of my laptop, retrieving it whenever I hit a bout of writer’s block and needed a clarifying splash of cold water.

Trapped Under the Sea took me five years from start to finish. One of its real-life characters, a commercial diver who always keeps a wad of chew bulging under his bottom lip, summed it up best with the crack he made to me at the recent book launch party. “You sure don’t write real fast, do you?”

TRAPPED coverI began working on this story in early 2009. I’m a staff writer for the Boston Globe magazine, and the people running the New York Times Co., our mother ship at the time, had just coldly and rather clumsily threatened to shutter the paper. I decided to lose myself in a consuming project that would keep me away from the funereal newsroom.

Magazine writing fits the way my mind works. I like to sink down deep into a story. I often come to the subject cold, and use curiosity as my fuel to learn as much as I can through the people who know it best. But once I’ve figured out the terrain and have wrestled with how to tell the story, I’m almost always eager to move on. It may not be the most efficient use of labor, but it keeps things fresh for me and, I hope, for the readers. Sometimes, sources who witnessed the maturation of my questions, from clueless at the start of my reporting to informed at the end, ask if I plan to stay on that beat. Like the David Banner character in The Incredible Hulk when  townspeople would ask at the end of an episode if he’d be sticking around, I usually apologize and say, “I’ve got to move on.”

But here’s what happened after I finished my magazine work on the story at the center of Trapped Under the Sea. I couldn’t stop thinking about the people involved in it. Five divers had been sent to the end of a pitch-black, oxygen-starved, nearly 10-mile-long tunnel — the longest of its kind in the world — built hundreds of feet below the ocean floor, and they were asked to do the impossible. Even after I’d spent months getting to know the divers who had survived the ordeal, and the families of those who had been killed, I found myself wanting to know more about them and their heroic instincts. And I was equally motivated to understand the thinking of the best and the brightest minds, representing some of the country’s top engineering and construction firms, who had made so many good decisions for so many years on a stunning megaproject but who somehow made awful and incredibly costly ones just as it was nearing completion.

That megaproject had done something few would have dreamed a generation ago, transforming America’s filthiest urban harbor into its cleanest. Despite the depth of my magazine work on this story, I realized I had only scratched the surface.

The questions I get about the book from fellow writers are, probably not surprisingly, different from the ones regular readers tend to have. Writers most want to know how I knew there was a book in this story.  This is the best answer I can come up with: When you can’t stop thinking about a powerful story, and caring about the real-life characters at its center, there’s probably a book there.

“Why’s this so good?” No. 90: George Plimpton and Sidd Finch

Share Button

Twenty-nine years ago today, Sports Illustrated ran George Plimpton’s “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” about a mysterious, unknown major league pitching recruit who threw a fastball at jet speed. Published on April Fools’ Day 1985, the piece carried the following deck:

He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent lifestyle, Sidd’s deciding about yoga — and his future in baseball.

Plimpton, the fun-loving founding editor of The Paris Review and a known practical joker, had written, with the magazine’s complicity, what the New York Times later called “a 14-page exposé on a bizarre, out-of-nowhere Mets phenom who fired baseballs at a stupefying 168 miles an hour.” The Times went on:

“Crafted,” of course, is what Plimpton truly did — the story was pure fiction. It instantly became its generation’s “War of the Worlds,” leaving thousands of frenzied fans either delighted at the April Fools’ prank or furious at being duped.

(AP photo by Marty Lederhandler)

George Plimpton. (AP photo by Marty Lederhandler)

A 6-foot-4 Chicagoan named Joe Berton, a middle school teacher, posed as Finch for photos (and continued to be recognized on the street as late as 2005). Go here to read about him and to learn more about the story’s origin —

The hoax began at Sports Illustrated’s offices in early 1985. The managing editor, Mark Mulvoy, noticed that a cover date would fall on April 1, and asked Plimpton to write an article on April Fools’ jokes in sports. Most of them wound up being you-had-to-be-there shenanigans, leaving Plimpton discouraged.

“Mark said, ‘Why don’t you do your own?’ ” Plimpton, who died in September 2003, recalled in a 1995 interview. “He gave me license to do anything I wanted. What a fantastic feeling, to create something with your own mind.”

Plimpton’s creation became the most famous fictional ballplayer since Mighty Casey.

—  and how the magazine carried out the hoax:

Selected Mets officials were among the few people (including Sports Illustrated editors) even slightly aware of what the magazine was up to. They issued Berton a uniform and allowed him full access to their spring training complex, even letting him sit in the bullpen during exhibition games as Stewart clicked away. Fans would ask the weird-looking guy in the No. 21 jersey if he was trying out for the club, and he would reply: “Yeah. You’ll hear about it later.”

What’s fun about it:

Storytelling for the win: This year’s ASME finalists

Share Button

This year’s National Magazine Award nominations in the features, multimedia, reporting and essay/criticism categories cover conflict, immigration, violence, grief, the abortion wars and more, from a host of talented journalists representing a range of publications. The American Society of Magazine Editors will announce the winners on May 1, in New York. Read the full list of finalists here, and have a look below at the honorees in four key categories that honor exceptional reporting and storytelling.

Reporting

The Way of All Flesh,” by Ted ConoverHarper’s, about the cattle processing industry:

First the cattle are weighed. Then they are guided into narrow outdoor pens angled diagonally toward the entrance to the kill floor. A veterinarian arrives before our shift and begins to inspect them; she looks for open wounds, problems walking, signs of disease. When their time comes, the cattle will be urged by workers toward the curving ramp that leads up into the building. The ramp has a roof and no sharp turns. It was designed by the livestock expert Temple Grandin, and the curves and penumbral light are believed to soothe the animals in their final moments. But the soothing goes only so far.

Nineteen,” by Kyle DickmanOutside, about the death, on the job, of 19 elite firefighters in a single Arizona blaze:

Indeed, by midafternoon, the flames had reached the doorsteps of the outer line of houses in Peeples Valley. But none of them would burn. At approximately 3:50 P.M., the wind began to shift. The thunderstorm stopped sucking in air and started blowing it out. The vacuum was now a leaf blower. Truman compares the way the fire bellowed to a volcanic eruption—a storm within a storm that was suddenly pivoting and heading straight toward Yarnell.

Crimes Unpunished” and “The Horror Everyday,” a two-part series by Emily DePrang, the Texas Observer, on police brutality. From “The Horror:”

Sebastian Prevot watched helplessly as three police officers advanced on his wife. Prevot was handcuffed and bleeding in the back of a cop car. Half of his left ear dangled where it had been torn from his head. The Houston Police Department doesn’t deny that its officers gave Prevot these injuries during a late-night arrest in January 2012. The only dispute is whether he earned them.

UnknownJahar’s World,” by Janet ReitmanRolling Stone, about the Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev:

All of the Tsarnaev children went to Rindge, as the school is known, but it was Jahar who assimilated best. Though he’d arrived in America speaking virtually no English, by high school he was fluent, with only a trace of an accent, and he was also fluent in the local patois. (Among his favorite words, his friends say, was “sherm,” Cambridge slang for “slacker.”) Jahar, or “Jizz,” as his friends also called him, wore grungy Pumas, had a great three-point shot and became a dedicated pot smoker – something a number of Cambridge teens tell me is relatively standard in their permissive community, where you can score weed in the high school bathrooms and smoke on the street without much of a problem. A diligent student, he was nominated to the National Honor Society in his sophomore year, which was also when he joined the wrestling team. “He was one of those kids who’s just a natural,” says Payack, his coach, who recalls Jahar as a supportive teammate who endured grueling workouts and runs without a single complaint. In his junior year, the team made him a captain. By then, everyone knew him as ‘Jahar,’ which his teammates would scream at matches to ensure the refs would never mispronounce his name.

The River Martyrs,” by Luke MogelsonThe New Yorker, about Aleppo, and the bodies washing up in the River Queiq:

The corpse, a middle-aged man shot through the neck and head, lay on a plastic grain sack, still wet. Two young men grabbed the edges of the sack and lowered him to the ground. He gave off a sharp smell of sodden carrion; flies buzzed around his wounds. From the street, a child wearing the signature headband of the Free Syrian Army, the F.S.A., which encompasses the majority of rebel groups fighting the Syrian government, watched through the bars of the fence. Apathetic old men stopped, stared, pulled their sweaters up over their noses. When a lanky, bearded man wearing black boots, black nylon pants, and a black pleather jacket appeared, the crowd deferentially made way. The man, Hisham, buried the first victims here after the massacre in January, and had subsequently made it his job to attend to some of the war’s unidentified dead. Officially, he is the head of the Office of the River Martyrs, which consists of Hisham and one helper, a defector from the Syrian Army who goes by the name Derawi. They work out of an abandoned kindergarten a few blocks away.

“Why’s this so good?” No. 89: Matthew Power and ‘Mississippi Drift’

Share Button

My friend Matthew Power, wondrously excellent human and magazine journalist, died recently while on assignment in Uganda.

Like so many others, in recent days I have missed Matt, older-writing-brother Matt, in part by revisiting his work. I have been reading his old print stories, and discovering his radio archives. He had a slightly scratchy voice so irrepressibly warm it almost belongs on vinyl. His voice on the page is like that too.

I became friends with Matt and his wife, the brilliant journalist Jess Benko, during the year they lived in Ann Arbor, Mich.; we were introduced by mutual pals, including Donovan Hohn. Matt was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where I teach creative writing. I had moved to Ann Arbor from New York one year before they did. When they arrived, they were a powerful reminder of a world I still loved and had half left. I was no longer primarily a journalist; I was no longer exactly a New Yorker. I missed journalists, but I thought of myself as a guest in that conversation. Matt and Jess, however, were masterful and nonchalant flatteners of impostor syndrome; they simply paid it no mind. We talked about reporting and writing and politics and people and the news all year long. We stayed in touch after they returned to New York, and when I visited, I often saw one or both of them.

At the time that Matt died, he and I had (each unbeknownst to the other) promised Storyboard that we’d write for the “Why’s this so good?” series. Now I am writing about his 2008 Harper’s piece “Mississippi Drift,” which I love, and which I have never read without considering its author a friend.

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 11.54.00 AM

For V.V. Ganeshananthan’s hand-annotated copy of “Mississippi Drift,” published here with the permission of Harper’s, see the images at the end of this essay.

In recent years, much of my media criticism has been directed at travel stories, which are so often ludicrously devoid of other people. I think it’s unprincipled to write about places as though people don’t live in them — literary colonialism trying to cover up journalism’s need for advertising. The kind of travel writing Matt did, on the other hand, I adored and adore, because it was crammed not just with place or price or beautiful description, but with character. Travel with some writers is an escape from other people: With Matt, it was a search for them. And this, perhaps, is what “Mississippi Drift” is about, one of the main reasons it’s so good. The piece, a 10-page stunner, is canonical Matt for good reason. I’ll pick out just a few.

On personified/metaphorical river and structure:

This gorgeous and textured piece of writing is about Matt Power joining an old acquaintance, anarchist Matt Bullard, in his quest to travel the length of the Mississippi in a “jerry-built vessel.” Sometimes a piece jumps all over the place and does so beautifully — but this doesn’t need to. A trip has its own structure — starting point; terminus — and Matt is a canny dealer in detail. We can follow his voyage by charting its progress against the map and plan he lays out early on; we can watch crew members decide to leave; we can measure the ideas — how much did Bullard think something would cost? — against what Matt says it did, or could.

Many of the sections end with river imagery. There are some great descriptions of the natural world here — Matt isn’t afraid to reach for poetry. But there’s more going on than just simple description. If you watch these river images across the course of the piece, you can see how they chart the emotional progress of the trip. It’s subtle but effective.

The first water imagery in the story is, tellingly, in Matt’s head: “Catfish rose in my mind: ripples expanded outward and scattered any doubts. I wrote back straight away and asked to join up.” (That last sentence in particular seems utterly characteristic of his approach to things.)

On the long beginning and the other Matt:

Matt Power (photo by Amber Hunt)

Matt Power (photo by Amber Hunt)

Notably, the boat doesn’t budge from its launch point in Minneapolis until page three of 10. But the long beginning sets up an enormous amount, and invites us into Matt’s childhood fantasy of being a hobo. If the “plot” of the story is will they get from point A to point B together? the emotional arc of the story is about puncturing that fantasy. He sets up so much here that pays off later: the Mark Twain/Huck Finn references that become a refrain, and the descriptions of the river.

And he begins with himself. He builds a version of himself strong and clear enough to recede a little bit later on the boat, when Bullard takes center stage. Much has already been said about Matt’s love of travel, and his acknowledgment of his own presence in his stories. In this story, however, he accomplishes something even more interesting — he almost makes himself a character twice. In Matt Bullard, in part through the sheer coincidence of a shared name, Matt Power has a double for himself, someone who is “almost exactly my age,” and whom he admires. In fact, early on in the story, Matt Power basically cops to the fact that he aspires to be Matt Bullard:

He utterly refused to serve; he lived exactly as he desired. Matt’s was the kind of amoral genius that I had always longed to possess. He not only had quit society altogether but was gaming it for all it was worth, like some dirtbag P.T. Barnum. I, meanwhile, would soon be returning to a temp job in a

Pinned: A boxer, a triple murder, an art mystery, a writing conference and how to get organized

Share Button

Pinned this week for your storytelling pleasure: pieces on a jailhouse boxer, an old triple homicide in Texas, a billion dollars’ worth of recovered European art, a one-day writing conference and organizational tips.

From Recommended Reading:

The Paris Review’s Clifford Chase with a study in cadence. From “A Downward Glissando:”

The name of the medication printed in a half circle and the “100 mg” made a smiley face on my new, blue pills.

On the L train, a poem called “Hunger” spoke of walking home “through a forest that covers the world.”

I’d had the same part-time public-relations job since November 1985. It was now February 2001 and counting.

I was drawn to Neil Young not by the specific content of the lyrics (too hetero) but by the overall tone of longing, which I defined as a kind of sadness that had hope.

On the L platform, a diminutive Chinese man playing “Send in the Clowns” on a harmonica, with flowery recorded accompaniment.

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 10.32.40 PMFrom Brin-Jonathan Butler and Kurt Emhoff’s “Gold in the Mud” (SB Nation), on the prison boxer James Scott:

The late comedian George Carlin once said, “It’s called the American Dream because you need to be asleep to believe it.” But locked in a 5-by-9 cell, behind maximum-security walls, a 6’1, 175-pound living nightmare of a jailhouse fighter had his own American Dream and he wanted it televised nationwide. For a short time, that dream instilled enough fear that it gave the light heavyweight champion insomnia. Promoter Don King, sports’ most successfully rehabilitated ex-con, himself a man who newspaper columnist turned novelist and screenwriter Pete Dexter once described as “easiest to imagine as a disease,” someone who “for 15 cents will put boys in the ring and girls on the street,” wouldn’t go near this convict’s request to promote his next fight. Even King, Mr. “Only in America!” in all his devious genius, couldn’t believe any fighter, let alone the public, would want any role in the twisted saga of James O. Scott.

Michael Hall deepens the Texas Monthly franchise on narratives about old killings and wrongful convictions with “The Murders at the Lake,” about a triple homicide, in Waco, in 1982. Excerpt:

The criminal trials for the lake murders were the most anticipated in Waco’s history. Throughout the spring of 1984, an endless string of pretrial hearings dominated the local papers; in nightly broadcasts, Waco’s citizens were regaled with details of the defendants’ shady pasts, including the rumor that Spence was a Satan worshipper. In April district judge George Allen made a decision: Spence would be tried first, followed by Gilbert, Tony, and then Deeb. Each man was charged with three counts of capital murder, and each would stand first for the killing of Jill Montgomery.

Alex Shoumatoff, of Vanity Fair, tells the story of 1,280 art works, stolen by the Nazis, discovered in the apartment of a recluse. Shoumatoff writes:

Cornelius Gurlitt was a ghost. He had told the officer that he had an apartment in Munich, although his residence—where he pays taxes—was in Salzburg. But, according to newspaper reports, there was little record of his existence in Munich or anywhere in Germany. The customs and tax investigators, following up on the officer’s recommendation, discovered no state pension, no health insurance, no tax or employment records, no bank accounts—Gurlitt had apparently never had a job—and he wasn’t even listed in the Munich phone book. This was truly an invisible man.

From our Narrative News board:

The Columbia Journalism School and The Big Roundtable announced a one-day conference, “When Bad Things Happen to (Your) Good Stories,” for May 31. The lineup includes the New York TimesAndrea Elliott, a Pulitzer-winning narrative journalist; Nieman alum Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War; and Steve Kandell, the longform editor at BuzzFeed. Price, $295. J-school alums get a 10 percent discount.

From Gear:

ICYMI, The Open Notebook’s Christie Aschwanden hails the Planner Pad as an organizational must-have:

The brilliant thing about the daily to do list is that it has only ten lines, which means that you cannot commit yourself to doing more than ten things. At first, I thought ten lines weren’t enough, but over time, I’ve learned that ten things are often too many. The to-do lists I’d been making were way too long; I was setting myself up for failure. Now, I take a minimalist approach. I set myself up for success by aiming to create daily lists that I can finish, and I measure my success by whether or not I’ve crossed everything off the list by the end of the day. As a result, my daily to-do list has grown much shorter.

Audio Danger: Radio storytelling and the perils of digital permanence

Share Button

Back in the distant 1990s, This American Life host Ira Glass described a recurring dream of NPR’s Scott Simon: Simon would shoot a basketball over and over, but then it would disappear. The ball never landed. That, Glass said, was a perfect metaphor for broadcast: We tossed words and stories into the ether, but we never knew how or even whether they were received. The disconnect, while frustrating, made broadcast an incredibly forgiving medium. Everything we did, whether triumph or disastrous mistake, was basically forgotten, and we started every day with almost a clean slate.

Until about 10 years ago. That’s when bandwidth reached the point where national programs and larger stations started to archive most of our work, even live broadcasts. Meanwhile, smartphones allowed podcasting to come into its own. We now expect audio stories to be permanent, but we haven’t given a lot of thought to how that affects our work as audio storytellers.

Here’s my take as someone who works with many feature reporters as an editor: The specter of digital permanence is making too many of us uptight. Audio stories depend on the logical flow of information, of course, but the best of them also harness rhythm, sonic juxtapositions, spontaneous reactions, and the full range of the human voice.

Take, for example, the work of NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling: He does complex reporting, but it stays with us because his stories work on a musical as well as intellectual level, each level reinforcing the other. The skills to pull that off well are experiential. As with other performative arts — theater, music — real mastery comes through practice and bodily intuitions that work faster than the conscious mind. Until recently, broadcast was our perpetual rehearsal stage, a place to try something new, fail, get up and try again, safe in the knowledge that everything was low stakes.

But now digital permanence has turned broadcasting into publishing. And that’s a hugely different system, mentally speaking. Publishing emphasizes the creation of work that lasts — the eternal and perfect. Yet the demands of broadcast (or even the broadcast-like schedule of regular podcasting) still require us to steadily churn out work. I’ve seen these contradictory pressures drive people crazy.

Here’s how perfectionism short-circuits the storytelling process: While wrestling with our raw material, we cannot avoid a huge gap between what we think the story should be and what story actually makes sense to listeners encountering all our material for the first time. To locate, measure and close that gap we need to collaborate with someone else who’s fresh to the story. And we need to be willing to let go, quickly, of multiple story versions. This is also true of print, of course, but even with quick-turnaround audio, there’s no way of faking your way around this process, especially for a beginner. As an editor now in a digital world, however, I find more and more reporters unable to think of their early drafts as provisional. They want and expect perfection, and who can blame them? The world now has access to their perpetual Internet audition tape (not that the world really cares, but that’s a different matter).

Of course, we’re not getting the ephemeral days of broadcast back — and of course, that has the enormous side benefit of allowing the world to finally hear our audio stories more than once. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge the lost benefits of ephemerality and try to work some of it back into our process.

Here are some ways of doing that: