Hank Stuever on story structure, really reporting Christmas and the problem with the “sacred space” approach to narrative
Washington Post reporter Hank Stuever writes in a variety of narrative forms, from books to punchy television reviews and features. His latest book, “Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present,” is based on time he spent in Frisco, Texas, beginning in 2006. Making good on the title’s evocations of both sweetness and Scrooge, Stuever explores the concept of Christmas in a big-box, Big Gulp suburb just hours from his hometown. A two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing, Stuever will keynote this year’s American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors conference. In these excerpts from two conversations, he talks about the joy and misery of Christmas, his struggles with story structure, and the two words that can make him stop reading.
I actually pitched this as a newspaper story a long time ago, when I was at the Albuquerque Tribune. I kept a private list of stories I should work on in addition to all the stories that I was assigned to do. I had written a line on my story list: “follow a family through Christmas,” because I had been the metro general assignment reporter who had to do different stories about Christmas every year.
It’s very hard to tell the truth about Christmas. People don’t mind being in online forums where they kvetch about their families and Christmas stresses, but that very rarely makes into newspaper stories about Christmas. Newspaper stories about Christmas need what I call “soft focus,” so they’ll be happier. Even back then, I thought it would be much better to follow a family and stay with them long enough to see the joy and the unavoidable misery that comes with Christmastime.
To deny the misery is to commit the same sort of malfeasance as saying, “The war is going OK,” “The economy is OK” or “Your houses will always be worth more than you paid for them.” There are a certain set of denial mechanisms. Christmas is one of them, journalistically, and it’s very hard to report. It’s hard to be a tough reporter and come back with a story and get an editor to say, “OK, great! Nobody’s happy at this toy distribution.” We just resist it.
I had thought, “Wouldn’t it would be interesting to tell the true story of Christmas in America?” But I never got around to it – I thought it would be too long to be in a newspaper. But then ultimately I thought maybe it was the book that I wanted to write, mostly because it intersected with everything: the suburbs, strip malls, box stores, families – families being good to one another, families not being good to one another – popular culture, music, television, crap, credit cards, debt, sweetness, grandmas, mawmaws, meemaws and neeners. It had all those things about it that I’ve always liked writing about.
You dive right into these things that we, as readers, suspect you loathe a little bit – obsessive decorating, buying expensive presents – and you explore why they’re important to the people who do them. But then you drop back to just one or two lines that change the pages that came before. A woman behind the mall makes herself throw up. A baby dies. It’s almost like you’re trying to see what’s wonderful in what you’re looking at, but you can’t help seeing these other things.
I can’t help it.
Can you talk about that a little?
I honestly didn’t know if I was going in to write a book against Christmas or for it, but I did know that I wanted a book – actually I want this from all pieces of nonfiction I read: if there’s not a clear point of view pro or con, I just want to feel that I’m in the hands of someone who is really conflicted and trying to think this through out loud or on the page. I really did want this to be about a man who grew up with perfectly nice Christmases who somehow found himself – not careening away from mainstream culture at all – but just having a series of heartbreaks about how we live now and what we’ve become, and yet work this material with heart. I really do like these people. I really did enjoy living in Frisco, Texas.
That comes across. You’re not just wanting to draw us in – it feels like you want to find something out yourself. There’s that moment with the make-a-wish guy, Frank, on the radio –
Yes. He fulfills their wishes. People submit these requests, and the station makes them happen. There’s an actual moment when you break out of your own storytelling, and you come up with all the questions that you as a journalist want to ask, because you don’t really buy what you’re hearing.
I don’t, and Christmas is larded with all of these hard-luck cases, and they show up on the radio and in the newspapers. It really does seem like people take off their reading glasses – again, it’s soft focus. They don’t ask questions of it, and when I ask, they say, “Why do you have to ruin it?” Really, my question about all that is why does it only happen this time of year? Why do the people who spend the rest of the year ticked off about welfare and taxes and literally being kind to others – at least fiscally – why does all that come off at Christmastime? Because of faith, because of religion, because of concepts I don’t really accept as good answers. I accept them as dear answers and important to a lot of people, but I don’t accept them as factual answers about why we do what we do at Christmas.
And I attempted to ask all those questions of Frank at Christmas Wish, and I was rerouted to the corporate office with a message that said, “We don’t think we can participate.”
In order for our Christmas to be good, we need to hear stories about houses that caught on fire, car wrecks that happened on Dec. 23, cancer diagnoses – the appetite for tragedy is very strong for tragedy at Christmastime, for things that were going on all along. There’s a very good book, Stephen Nissenbaum’s “The Battle for Christmas.” He writes from newspaper accounts in the 1880s, the 1890s, about how people used to buy tickets for Madison Square Garden to watch street urchins get fed at Christmas. The price of your ticket helped pay for the meal. People needed to observe the poor being fed at Christmastime.
It was performance art?
Yes. Something about that makes me deeply uncomfortable. And I would hope it would make others uncomfortable, too. But you know, we do a lot of the same thing – Angel Lists and Christmas Wish – it’s the same sort of imaginative idealizing of the poor that I think is just part of the experience.
I want to move back to your work at the Post for a moment, because these days, you’re writing some creative, voice-centered television reviews there.
I actually am willing to say after doing reviews for a year now that it’s much more of a challenge to me to make it work within the length and time allowed, and the subject matter, which is not terribly important, not important at all, or only kind of important. It’s a very difficult kind of writing.
There’s this middle part that I struggle with: what is the show? what is it about? what is it about to us? does this belong to any other conversation we might be having about ourselves right now, about life, grieving, laughter, disease, manners? Every TV show is about something in life anyway. In that regard, it totally feels like an extension of feature writing.
I really do interview these shows. I write down questions and quotes as I watch. Can I find out the answer to this or that, without launching an investigative story? It’s a very difficult way of watching TV. If you’re doing it right, you’re like, “Oh, God, it’s two hours long.” That’s going to be like a two-hour interview.
In addition to books and reviews, you’ve also done feature writing.
And spot news!
And spot news. When you sit down to write a story, do you have one way you start?
On the one hand, it feels like continuing a conversation we’ve been having, you and I – the reader and the writer. Really, early on, it kind of dawned on me that there was one massive epic story of people living in America, and that each piece was part of it. It just felt like the sensibility was first and foremost, as far as how to write a story, so I looked for whatever voice I would want to read it in. I followed that voice, that entity – not me and not the reader, but something inside that wanted to tell the story, that I usually trusted.
And so I feel like the reviews I’m doing now are part of that conversation. Now, I’m sort of interviewing a TV show, and I’m taking notes on it, and then I’m coming back and telling you what it felt like, which is sort of how I was doing stories about people’s weddings, stories about funeral homes, stories about one guitar shared by five different owners over time. It’s all the same voice to me.
I just wait for a good place to start – I listen for it. Boy, that’s not a very good explanation.
Do you start writing before you’re done reporting, or do you separate the two?
I’m one of those believers who says that if the writing is not happening at the usual clip, generally the problem is in the notes. You have not found the right person, you have not found enough of the right thing, you haven’t checked everything off the list. You’re trying to write too soon. For me, if there’s real serious stoppage in the writing, it usually is because of something that’s not in the notebook yet.
You comment a lot on stories at Gangrey.
I don’t know why I do that.
Whether it’s your own stories or other people’s stories, what do you see come up as the most common issues in stories you read? Actual ability to craft language? Structural issues?
I think there is a seriousness that gets in the way of a lot of stories that I read at Gangrey, here in the Post and everywhere. There just seems to be this – not overwriting – it’s almost like someone is telling you a great story on the way to church, and then we get to church and they shut up, or they kind of whisper it to you instead. Or it becomes an incantation. I feel like a lot of stories are written from that high point, not from the pulpit, but from the feeling that people are in sacred space and they’re too afraid of violating the space.
A lot of narrative stories have that hush of seriousness about them. That feels like capital “W” writing to me. They are honoring all the narrative or feature stories about serious or weighty or disturbing subject matter that came before, so therefore there’s going to be that mood. It’s too dramatic or liturgical.
Do you know about “they came”? Look out if the first two words of the story are “they came.” Usually you see it in vigils or people waiting for news about miners or plane crash victims. “They came” bearing objects. Who are they? We don’t know, because the writer has taken on that priestly seriousness. He’s just elevated his delivery in such a way that it’s getting in the way of what he wants to say. That, to me, is the first indication that I don’t want to read on.
What do you think the cost of that approach is, other than annoying Hank Stuever?
Isn’t that price enough?
What does it do to the story?
I think it just becomes too much reaching for art instead of being art. That’s the fine line in everything, that’s the fine line in cinema, that’s the fine line in making greeting cards, that’s the fine line in songs.
What’s the worst piece you ever wrote?
I will say that some of my worst stories have been about things that are very important to the gay community. Because I am gay, and a lot of times, the stories fall to the gay person. It’s the only time that journalistic red flags go up for me as far as representing. More than any other subject, I feel the need to explain. I keep telling, not showing.
What are the biggest challenges you have in writing your own stories?
My challenges have always been separating the good from the bad from the ugly as far as the material. I think in the decade or so that I wrote features for the Washington Post, I learned to get everything up higher, finally, which I still think is important. I wasn’t in this business very long before someone described the concept of throat-clearing to me. I was turning in stories with a lot of stuff up top. At some point, you learn that people don’t want to watch you build the set. They want to see the play.
What journalists have been the most instructive or interesting for you?
I would say Joan Didion, hands down. I know that she aggravates a lot of writers who don’t want to do that kind of thing at all. There are two things about her that I keep going back and rereading. One is the precise, meaningful detail that makes a sentence razor-sharp and completely right. And then the other thing is the sentences themselves. She over time really learned how to parallel park an 18-wheeler truck. Some of what she can do with a comma in a very long sentence is worth studying just for the craft.
I did an internship at The Washington Post in the summer of 1989, and there were some people going full guns at that time who I have paid attention to ever since: Henry Allen, who I think was and is really good at American character and meaning in the popular culture. I admired it early on and aped it. Martha Sherrill, who’s always worth looking up. She’s written four books. I think Paul Hendrickson is really good, but he was in the seminary, so he’s somebody who does the priestly voice, the prayerful, meditative opener, really well, and it’s worth going back to Paul Hendrickson’s stuff, and his books, because he does right what people do wrong. Well, sometimes he did it a little wrong, too, but he was willing to push it out there, that feeling of “bow your heads.”
In the ’90s, I really liked Susan Orlean. I really thought that she had just the right balance of the quirk and the heartbreaking. And presently, I go to Gangrey, just to keep abreast – anytime Ben (Montgomery) and Michael Kruse write, and it gets posted there, I like to read it.
Here at the paper now, I think Dan Zak is really starting to – well, he had a voice, he has always had a voice – but some of his features are turning into lovely pieces of work. And Monica Hesse. They’re the two people who are carrying the torch for the Style section now.
Any thoughts on the future of narrative?
I really hope that somehow, what we collectively think of as the hard bearing down on a story and sticking with it, and then writing it in a fantastic way so that people take time to read it – I hope that all survives the current mania. I hope people don’t lose heart in doing it. It’s so easy to talk yourself out of beauty right now in favor of speed. But that’s what you stand for; that’s what this whole project is about.