- "I don’t know a serious writer of any kind, fiction or nonfiction, who is not a deeply serious reader.” http://t.co/8FWBOsZUL3 about 7 hours ago from TweetDeck ReplyRetweetFavorite
- Tomorrow’s annotation, by the way, is with the incomparable Roger Angell. In the meantime, the archive: http://t.co/WSv4E1bNr7 about 11 hours ago from TweetDeck ReplyRetweetFavorite
- “There are two dangers in sportswriting: Toughness and sentimentality. Don’t be tough; don’t be sentimental.” - tmrw, Annotation Tuesday! about 11 hours ago from TweetDeck ReplyRetweetFavorite
Medium & Message
- #longreads (113)
- annotation tuesday! (19)
- audio narratives (36)
- comics narratives (1)
- editors' roundtable (28)
- essays on craft (26)
- featured fellow (27)
- how'd you find that story? (5)
- images (82)
- interactive narratives (36)
- liner notes (6)
- live chats (2)
- narrative news (83)
- narrative speaker series (11)
- notable narratives (455)
- pinned (13)
- social media narratives (3)
- Storyboard shortlist (2)
- tips (40)
- uncategorized (4)
- video journalism (5)
- what they're tweeting (1)
- what we're reading etc. (7)
- why's this so good? (93)
- words (262)
- work the problem (4)
- Adam Hochschild
- Adam Penenberg
- Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
- Adrienne LaFrance
- Alan Guettel
- Alan Huffman
- Alejandra Matus
- Alexandra Lange
- Alexis Madrigal
- Alix Felsing
- Alysia Abbott
- Andrea Pitzer
- Andrew Pantazi
- Ann Friedman
- Anna Griffin
- Barry Siegel
- Ben Montgomery
- Ben Yagoda
- Ben Yagoda and Dan DeLorenzo
- Benjamin Chesterton
- Benjamin Wallace
- Beth Macy
- Betsy O'Donovan
- Brendan I. Koerner
- Brent McDonald
- Bruce DeSilva
- Bruce Gillespie
- Carl Zimmer
- Casey N. Cep
- Charles Homans
- Chris Jones
- Christopher Scanlan
- Clark Boyd
- Constance Hale
- Cristian Lupsa
- Cynthia Gorney
- Dan Kois
- Dan Vergano
- David Dobbs
- David Hertz
- David Wolman
- Deborah Blum
- Dina Kraft
- Don Van Natta Jr.
- Douglas McGill
- Douglas McGray
- Eli Sanders
- Elon Green
- Ernesto Priego
- Eva Holland
- Francis Flaherty
- Gay Talese
- Geoff Van Dyke
- Gwendolyn Thompkins
- Jack El-Hai
- Jack Hart
- Jacqueline Marino
- Jacqui Banaszynski
- James Ross Gardner
- Janet Heard
- Jason Fagone
- Jason Schwartz
- Jay Caspian Kang
- Jeffrey R. Young
- Jenna Wortham
- Jennifer B. McDonald
- Jim Collins
- Joanna Kakissis
- Joe Keohane
- Jonathan Seitz
- Josh Roiland
- Joshua Prager
- Julia Barton
- Justin Ellis
- Laurie Hertzel
- Lee Hancock and Charlie Lewis
- MacGregor Campbell
- Margaret Ho
- Maria Carrillo
- Maria Henson
- Mark Johnson
- Mark Kramer
- Mary Rajkumar
- Maud Newton
- Megan Garber
- Megan Greenwell
- Micah Wimmer
- Michael Kruse
- Michael Pollan
- Michelle Legro
- Michelle Nijhuis
- Nell Lake
- Ole Soennichsen
- Pam Colloff
- Pat Walters
- Paul Kix
- Pedro Monteiro
- Peggy Nelson
- Peter Ginna
- Peter Manseau
- Peter Richmond
- Peter Trachtenberg
- Radhika Jones
- Rebecca Allen
- Rebecca Burns
- Rick Meyer
- Rob Nixon
- Roy Peter Clark
- Sarah Rich
- Sean Patrick Farrell
- Shona Sanzgiri
- Simina Mistreanu
- Stephanie Mitchell
- Steve Oney
- Susannah Breslin
- Thomas Curwen
- Thomas Lake
- Tim Carmody
- Tim Maly
- Tom Hallman
- Tom Huang
- Tom Junod
- Tommy Tomlinson
- Tony Rehagen
- Victoria Costello
- Walt Harrington
- Wesley Morris
- Win Bassett
- Yvonne Latty
“The Power of Storytelling,” Part 3: Starlee Kine on story forms, Mike Sager on suspending disbelief and Alex Tizon on writing your own story
In Part 2 of our recap of Romania’s “Power of Storytelling” conference on narrative journalism, Pulitzer winner Jacqui Banaszynski wrote a short essay about why she and eight other North American storytellers traveled to Bucharest to talk stories before a sold-out audience of journalists. She talked about the future of storytelling. And Evan Ratliff, founder of The Atavist, talked about moving from magazine writing to digital entrepreneurship. Today, This American Life’s Starlee Kine talks about story forms and themes; Esquire’s Mike Sager talks about listening, and about suspending disbelief; and Pulitzer winner Alex Tizon talks about writing one’s own story. We’ll wrap it up Friday with talks by Esquire’s Chris Jones (on why stories matter), Radiolab’s Pat Walters (on the beauty of ambiguous endings) and Intimate Journalism author Walt Harrington (on the importance of integrity in narrative nonfiction). Special thanks to conference founder and Decât o Revistă editor Cristian Lupsa for sharing this material with Storyboard.
Tackling Themes in Different Story Forms
No one has talked about this but I find it really hard – all of it. I find writing really hard. I find coming up with stories really hard. I find really hard forcing yourself to make the ideas you come up with into stories. I want to talk about (how) I get through it.
One is: If there’s an idea I really like and I don’t get around to doing it really quick, it tortures me because I feel that the idea starts in your head, it can’t leave your head, it’s stuck in there. I honestly picture them like orphans, the ideas that I don’t get to. They feel like orphans that are just getting older without being adopted and they never go outside and they’re like fighting over who sleeps where and, like, showing each other the chore wheels. Their little faces are pressed against the glass, and they’re never going to go outside.
So I try to get my ideas out. I also think it’s really important to get them out fast because if they’re stuck in there you begin to hate them, and that’s bad too. So acting fast is really important, and I was going to tell you some tools on how to do that, but first I wanted to tell you how I started doing stories.
You guys, all know This American Life, the show? I started working for This American Life really by accident. I was in college and I was hating my writing classes, so I stopped going to them. And I was working in a bookstore across the street from my school and I would just read a lot of books and not do any of the writing stuff for school.
I lived in this apartment in the East Village and there was an old Ukrainian woman who lived right next to me; we shared a wall. She could hear everything and she got into her head that I was a drug kingpin; she decided that I was the head of the drug runners. She thought everyone was working for me; she thought that the whole building was employed by me. I babysat this 5-year-old kid and she thought he was a mule that I would use to sneak drugs in and out. She would put these signs around the building saying my name; and they were on pieces of neon rave flyers that she would stick up with gum and on the back write “Kine is selling drugs in apartment 3.” She’d stick them all over the apartment in these strategic places like on the front door of the building, above my mail box and on my front door. You couldn’t catch her; it was impossible. She would put it on my door and I would open it, take it off and close it. And then open it again, it will be there again. She was really old and really fast.
In order to graduate, I took this video class and I made a documentary about her. At that point I was so bored with my particular program, but because I was really obsessed with her, I was able to do it. I was consumed with her and I became consumed with making this movie. I would stake out my neighbors across the hall, I would stake out their apartment, and film through the peephole. I would try to catch her on the act. And we got into a big fight on camera – we just started yelling at each other in the hall. I was really proud of this movie.
I used to have barbecues with the people who worked at the bookstore and I would have them come over. It was like an interactive thing where they would eat and then I would show them the movie. Then, I would take them all to the hall and show them her, and she would stand in the doorway with a flashlight shining on them. It was like an amusement park. It was really satisfying. And she deserved it because she was really mean.
This American Life was just starting out and someone told (them) about me and this lady. They called me up and said: “We want to come and talk to you.” There was this man named Paul Tough who appeared at my door one day and he basically came in and started interviewing me and I totally understood what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, immediately.
The way he was talking and the way he was asking me questions, he made me seem really interesting to myself – which I think a good interviewer does. It was just really so clarifying, and I ended up just trying to follow him. He then went to Canada. He was responsible for making the Readings section at Harper’s.
I became an intern at This American Life and then a producer. The reason I like journalism and telling stories so much is that I really do think it makes everything look more interesting. I don’t know what people do during the day, people who aren’t thinking about stories. Because if you’re bored or if you’re traveling and you don’t know what to do, you can just go out and at least you can tell yourself you’re looking for a story and everything automatically takes on this like extra, like kind of color to it.
At This American Life there are different kinds of story. We get a lot of pitches, a lot of people say, “This would make such a good This American Life story” (but) almost every time they are wrong, and I feel like it’s very confusing because I think people are really smart and they listen to it really carefully but usually the story they pitch is not the one that works and then I’ll be out to drinks or something with them and then they’ll tell me another story and that totally makes sense.
I feel sometimes people think too hard. They are trying so hard to compare it to a story they’ve already heard and it’s kind of off the mark.
I get really obsessed with certain writers and I read them over and over again. Usually I’m reading them because I’m enjoying it, but I get so intimidated by so many people. I feel like you have to stick with something until that awe falls off. You have to start off like a groupie and you have to become a critic. You have to know what is wrong about a story, too, and try to break it apart in order to understand how someone goes without doing it. I feel you can totally do that with This American Life stories, you can just listen to them, and make a list of every act and every part and it will start to make more sense.
There are different kinds of stories. We have the-giant-thing-that-happened story. It’s so obvious and you can’t really mess up the interview because there are all these different parts. Someone will pitch it and it will be like, “They started off…” We had this story where this girl was the pen pal to dictator Manuel Noriega. That is such an obvious no brainer kind of story – you just kind of go with it and put it together.
And then there are other ones that are the personality-driven stories. And then there’s the ones that we called the sheer-force-of-will stories. You have a concept and it didn’t exist anywhere and you have to make it exist. It came out of your head and you have to force it into existence. Those are kind of my favorite stories, because it’s so satisfying to create something completely out of scratch, and I’m going to play some tape from one of those stories.
That story came out because it all happened, it was very true.
I was sitting there and I was so sad but the whole time I was trying to think there has to be a way to make this into a story. I thought nobody would listen to it, I didn’t understand if it will be of any good or anything. It just felt like it’s such a good feeling when you do a story.
I don’t know if I believe that every single thing that happens in your life is worth talking about and writing about endlessly. That was just a breakup, a very ordinary breakup, not much happened in it, and I feel like if you can start at that point with something that is universal and very real to you, and then figure out a way to press it further and add the extra layers to it, that could be a less daunting way to figure out what you want to say sometimes.
And it’s always really good to have a question, too. I did another story, about my parents getting divorced. Again, my parents’ divorce was pretty ordinary but I wanted to find out why my dad stayed with my mom, who had done all these terrible things to him, and I feel I so sincerely needed to know the answer that it presses further than self-indulgence: “I need to talk about my messed-up childhood.” I think you have to be very clear about what you’re going into an interview doing. If it feels kind of small, figure out the ways to make it bigger.
Lawrence Weschler, who’s a great writer, said that whenever he gets stuck on writing something, he has all these blocks and he starts building houses out of these blocks. He did a story on a carpenter and he had the carpenter build him a custom set. I find when I’m stuck it’s always good to try to go to a different medium entirely because it kind of clears your head and then you can come back. So, I have this friend who’s an illustrator/animator and we’ve done a lot of collaborations together.
We did this thing – it was supposed to be narrative, or us telling stories, and he was going to animate them. The first night we got the offer we had 24 hours in order to make the pitch. He had to draw, we had to come up with tape and everything; and I wanted to play for you that weird 24-hours thing that we did because I feel it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Everything afterwards is really polished, but for me it’s just a pure creative process.
I guess the point is that you should just do lots of stuff because why not? It actually helps and you’ll feel so much better when you have a bunch of weird stuff instead of just sitting there wondering about the perfect story you’re supposed to be working on, or obsessing about if someone is going to call you back.
Even while you’re waiting for stuff you can just be constantly trying to apply all your other storytelling abilities into other strange things. And you can collaborate.
The other last collaboration I wanted to show you is this other weird thing.
This is a strange art project. People are asking about Internet versus print, but there are all different kinds of mediums that you can use if you want to express yourself in narrative form. This is a project called “The Thing” and you subscribe, and four times a year you get a mystery package designed by a writer or an artist. Dave Eggers did a shower curtain, which is hanging in my bathroom. And I did one.
If they choose you, the people who created the magazine will mass-produce any object that you want; they will make it for you. I was very excited because I find writing can be so intangible, and radio is also very intangible, so I was very excited by the idea of having a physical object. They made this cutting board; and it was supposed to be a heartbreak cutting board, because when you go through a breakup your kitchen feels very sad, very lonely and you think about the ghosts of the meals that you made.
You’re supposed to cut onions on it. You have crying instructions with a picture of McNulty from The Wire crying. On the back of the instructions it says you’re supposed to cut the onions to get the tears flowing and the more you use it and cut into the words like the pain is supposed to fade away.
I’m a big believer in the conceptual idea that makes sense. I don’t like random, meaningless stuff. I think there should be logic to these things. And for me, this has logic. Even McNulty has logic.
I’ve tried to think about what interests me, because you start to see themes in so many different writers. I think I like productive dwelling, stuff that makes me feel bad or upset or confused, and I try to turn it into a positive experience. The story doesn’t have to be positive. But I like to turn it into a product. This is why I’m writing a book about self-help, which I hate so much; so I’m trying to work my way through understanding it by this book.
The only other tip I have for you right now: I find that it always helps me, if I actually have an idea, to physically write it down instead of just keeping it up in my head.
I did a similar talk for a bunch of illustrators and they were all drawing and stuff, and I said that if they wanted they could mail me their ideas, so that I can kind of adopt them. It’s very cheesy, but I can keep them safe. So, if you guys want – this could be corny – you can mail me your idea, and I will keep it very safe on a display in my apartment, I will look at it all the time and wonder if you’re actually doing it. So, it’s up to you.
I wanted to talk today about suspending disbelief. It’s a very important aspect of my work. I’m just gonna read about it a little bit first and then we’ll talk about it some.
This story’s called “A Journey to the Heart of Whiteness.” It was written quite a long time ago, in 1995, when America was in the beginnings of a war on terrorism within its own country. There were all of these groups of white people who were threatening America and wanted to bring it down. I got sent to Idaho, which is in sort of the northwest part of the country. At the time, there were 1.1 million people in the entire state. There were 9,000 Asians and 3,000 black people. And we had this period of time where soon there will be a bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, in 1996, and prior to that was a big standoff in Idaho between government snipers and these people who didn’t believe in government, and they killed this woman holding a baby. Then there was a famous case – I’m sure you’ve heard of it – of O.J. Simpson killing his wife. The main detective, Mark Fuhrman, he was basically debunked as a witness because they found this tape where he was screaming, “Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger,” all the time, and he moved up to this area where I was visiting too. So my editor at GQ said, “Go up to Idaho and see what the white people are doing.”
The dog came charging out of the shadows of a little orchard by the barn, a dun-colored blur churning up leaves and sod, making a bee line for my SUV. He threw himself at the driver’s door, rocking the fancy suspension of the rented four-wheel drive, snarling and barking and fuming foamy spittle, raking the glass with his nails.
Thankfully they’d been considerate enough to mention Hans when I made my appointment. Wheeling into the driveway at the two tall white-washed pines that stood watch over the entrance to the compound, I rolled up my window. Juddering past the grove where a flock of turkeys pecked the grass beneath a hand painted swastika, I double checked the electric locks. ‘Hans don’t cotton much to strangers,’ the reverend’s assistant had said. He also said that the reverend was very, very, very busy and that before I could talk with him I should just come out and pick up a press kit. The kit cost a hundred and fifty dollars, ‘Cash only, please.’ If after doing the reading I still had questions I could request an audience with the reverend Richard Butler himself – the 78-year-old founder of the Church Jesus Christ-Christian and its political arm, The Aryan Nations.
The assistant, a guy named Jerry, had a childlike voice, reminiscent of Lennie’s in Of Mice and Men. He gave elaborate directions to the compound, two notepad pages full of turns and land-marks and descriptions to get me to a place that ended up being a right turn of a major highway and two more right turns onto a clearly marked road. Jerry concluded his directions with the warning about Hans, a little story about the time they’d tried to build a cage to hold the prize purebred German shepherd imported from the father land to sire a super race of guard dogs. First, they’d tried a cyclone fence with razor wire. Hans simply opened the latch. Then they secured the gate with a thick rope. Hans chewed through it in minutes. The final solution, proposed by one of the kinsmen – as their members are called – was an electrified fence surrounded by a mote. Hans tore the whole deal down, taking the full charge, shorting out the electrical system of the compound. Since then, whenever that kinsman comes to visit, Hans goes into a lather. ‘He remembers that guy. He knows his car and the smell and he don’t like him, he got his number,’ Jerry said.
I lit a cigarette, turned up the radio, tried to ignore all the barking and growling, the fur and gums and yellow teeth sliming the window, the nails scratching and screeching against the glass. It was a beautiful day in Hayden Lake, in Northern Idaho, an area that’s called a panhandle — a thin, majestic strip of fir trees, and mountains, and deep glacial lakes between Montana, Washington and Canada. The sky was a color I remembered from grade school, when we mixed our own paints from powder, a pure, royal blue, with thick cottony storybook clouds and long, transecting jet trails, glowing with the deep glowing light of the afternoon sun. A slice of heaven.
I was married at the time. I had a small kid and I was living in Washington, D.C. There were a bunch of different splinter groups in Northern Idaho; it wasn’t just one group. There were white supremacists, there were libertarians, there were Christian patriots, there were evangelicals. But they all agreed the world belonged to people with white skin. Everybody thought the world should be just white, basically. It was a very interesting sort of area to be in, and in that very moment, while I was gone from my home in the nation’s capital, there was a million-man march going on back there, called by the black civil rights leader Reverend Farrakhan. And so, as I was in the panhandle of Idaho, trying to find white people, there were a million black people coming to my neighborhood. It got me thinking. I’d been in the panhandle for a week and I hadn’t seen one black face. No Hispanics, no blacks, no Asians, there was no one. There was a sign that said, “Idaho is what America used to be:”
Over the past week I noticed that with my olive skin and deep nostrils, my shaved head and earing I was drawing stares. People on the streets had this way of circumnavigating me. Women in line at McDonald’s eyed me and hugged their purses. Kids giggled. I shrugged it off. I wore a hat. It didn’t matter what they thought of me, I was here to find out about them. Had my wife, my ex-wife, been with me, I know she would not have the same attitude. Her dad is a creole born in Louisiana, in a town named for its clan leader. His grandparents were a French woman, a jet black son of a slave, a half black half Cherokee woman and a full Cherokee man. My wife’s mom, who emigrated from England as a young girl, is the daughter of Russian Jews etc., etc. My parents are from the South, from Russia and Lithuania. They also grew up dodging rocks and epithets. My mother still bears the emotional scars of living in a town of blond pug-nosed 4H queens. My son is also olive, a beautiful testimony to genetic mixture with a halo of curly hair, his grandpa’s high forehead, his mom’s almond eyes, his dad’s full bottom lip and talent for craftiness.
So as I waited in the car, the office door finally opened and a big belly, pink-cheeked man came down the three stairs. He was in his 60s with white hair. He wore a blue uniform shirt with a leather sash hooked from the belt to the shoulder. He took Hans by the collar, stashed him into an old VW bus, and made his way to my car. I rolled down the window and waved. He scrutinized me with watery blue eyes through thick glasses.
‘Are you white?’ he asked – by his voice, by his generally befuddled mien. I guess this was Jerry, the reverend’s assistant.
According to Aryan Nations philosophy, white people are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites, in direct line from Adam and Eve. Jews, they believe, descended from Cain, who was born not of Adam and Eve but of Eve and a serpent. Cain’s children fled into the woods, mated with beasts and produced the nonwhite, mud races.
To Jerry then, I was a mud person. A miscegenator, married to a mongrel, father of a mongrel. And I was a hymietown-based liberal member of the “Jews media,” one of the conspiratorial arms of Zionist occupational government that was leading the country to ruin.
I smiled, held out my palms and inspected them and then turned my hands over and inspected them some more. ‘Looks white to me,’ I joked. ‘What do you think?’
‘Well, I don’t know,’ Jerry said quite seriously. ‘You look like a Jew to me.’
Thankfully, I’d done my research. I knew there were twelve Aryan Nations. Holland, Spain, Iceland, Great Britain, The United States, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany, France and Italy.
I smiled at Jerry. ‘I’m Italian,’ I said.
I haven’t read this in a million years, but I wanted a way to talk about this whole thing. Suspending disbelief has become over the years an important quality [in my writing]. My parents grew up being a minority in the South of the United States. They raised us in a sort of a Jewish ghetto in Maryland, a suburban place that you can imagine from any American movie. But what it was, was comfortable. A place where you knew where you belonged. Also because my parents weren’t really from there, I had the sense that I needed to see other things. And from an early age I started taking the bus downtown in Baltimore. Has anyone seen the show The Wire? That’s where I used to go for fun. It gave me this sense that there was something out there. And I think possibly because my wanderings might have coincided with me smoking pot back in 1969. Pot was like a great equalizer, so I could go to the ghetto, go to where all the hippies were. And we all passed a joint together and it was cool. I wasn’t afraid of them, they weren’t afraid of me. Before that, all we knew in my neighborhood about black people was that they came to clean your house. I mean my mother was raised in a small town in Virginia and she had, you know all those old movies where they had a black nanny for the child? She had this black woman who took care of her. But it was regarded as a person of a certain sort, not an equal, even though it was a lot of love there.
There is the First Amendment that causes journalism to be allowed but which has nothing to do with the things that we are trying to accomplish in our sort of journalism, where we want to scrape a person’s insides; we want to know what you’re thinking. I can look into your records, I can find out your finances, your taxes, whatever, your arrest warrants, but I have no right to ask you, “How did it feel when that girl turned you down?” Or any of the millions of questions that really make a story so perfect.
I came up as copy boy at the Washington Post and I kind of worked my own way into the paper by hook or by crook, but I really didn’t belong there. Everybody there had gone to Harvard. There was one woman who was the great-granddaughter of a president; there was another guy whose father was James Dickey, the poet laureate of the United States. There was Bob Woodward, who was my boss. It’s like there’s all these people. You know them all from American media and then here was I, who just lost all my hair the first year. The thing was that I was willing to do the things that these people who were from good families weren’t inclined to do, or maybe they were off that night.
It’s funny, when you go into waiting tables, they have a thing that’s called “shadowing.” You’re not even allowed to wait a table, you have to shadow someone, and they have to wait tables and you go around with them to learn how to wait tables. But journalism, I never knew what to ask, and I still don’t know what to ask. My reaction to that has just been to shut up, be quiet, be small, and if something drops, I pick it up. Just pick it up. I’m here to see what it’s like to be you.
My technique is to spend hours with the people I write about. It is really easy to explain now; it was harder in the old days. Today I just say, “I’m a reality show with no cameras, just me.” Or you can say I act like the anthropologist Margaret Mead. I pull up a log by the fire, sit there. I drop my prejudices and let people be themselves. I observe and try to understand. It doesn’t matter if I agree with them.
If you don’t yell back at the politician that you hate, if you don’t yell back at the TV while he speaks, you’re gonna be in a better position to hear what he or she is saying. If you go ahead and feel okay about letting a person act like a male chauvinist pig even though it hurts your better sensibilities, maybe you’ll be able to understand his motivation. It doesn’t make it right, but the world is full of people who have what I like to call the different constellations of reality. They put shit together, and they fucking believe it a certain way. Like, for instance, they believe they’re going to Heaven and once they get there they’ll be playing the harp. People believe that. People fight over that. They go to war over religion. We all think that we know the truth. But the real truth is that there are many versions of the truth. It is our job to try and understand.
Mike Sager is an Esquire writer at large and former Washington Post staff writer, Rolling Stone contributor and GQ writer at large. His story “The Man Who Never Was” won the National Magazine Award for profile writing. He and Walt Harrington have just published an e-anthology, The Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Literary Journalists.
Telling Your Own Story
I’m here to talk about personal history because I just wrote my first personal history, a memoir, and, of course, that makes me an authority on the subject, right? I’m going to talk about my process. I just finished the manuscript a week before this trip here, so I’m still actually still processing my own process.
I was in newspapers for 20-something years, for the Seattle Times, the L.A. Times, and newspapers tend to train first-person writing right out of you. It’s frowned upon. About five years ago I got this itch to write a book. I just wanted to try something longer than what I’d been doing, so I spent six months putting together a book proposal. I gave it to an agent, and he distributed it to all these publishers. It was a 100-page proposal, a little book in itself. It went nowhere. I tried not to get discouraged, and I rewrote it — the same topic, using a completely different approach and different characters. Now I had two book proposals in my house. Then an author friend of mine read the proposals and he said: “You know, the themes that you’re touching are so personal. Why don’t you just write it as a memoir?”
I wrote a third book proposal: same topic, except I wrote it in a way that it would be kind of a memoir. Agent sent it out, and three major publishing houses responded right away. Knopf, Norton, and Houghton Mifflin all wanted it and, of course I was delighted. I celebrated for three months. And when I got sober, finally, I sat down and I tried to begin, and over a period of three weeks it dawned on me that I really didn’t know how to write a memoir.
The proposal gave an idea of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t really know how to do it. I’m a typical writer and I’m always looking for ways to procrastinate. What’s more terrifying than that blank first page of a major project? So, I spent the next six months reading memoirs. I read every memoir that I had never read, and re-read them, and studied them. I studied them to see how they structured their narratives, how did went about telling their stories. I critiqued them.
My first tip, if you have never written a personal history or memoir, is to get your hands on the memoirs that moved you and to study them for a sense of what’s possible. And then my second tip is to forget them completely. Absorb what you can but then forget them. If you don’t, you might find yourself trying to emulate the writers you’ve been reading. That could prevent you from telling your story in your own way. One of the secrets of storytelling is finding your own way to tell the story. There’s a certain point when you have to say to yourself, “This is the story I have to tell, this is the way I tell it and come what may, come what may.”
The story that I ended up writing actually was very untraditional in its structure. It was only part memoir. It was also part history, part sociology, and even a little bit of science. It ended up that my own story was just the skeleton of the larger story that I wanted to write, which was about race and manhood.
One reason I chose to do it this way was that race and manhood were just too large, as topics. Race by itself is this incredible universe that you can spend your whole life studying, and then you add manhood on top of that? I don’t have a brain big enough to wrap around such large topics. My approach was to address them through my own experiences. My so-called memoir is really a series of interrelated and chronologically ordered essays or short stories that all touch on various aspects of race and manhood.
I was about two or three chapters into it before I even realized what the book was actually about. A writer friend kept asking me, “What’s your book about?” and I’d say “Well, it’s about race and manhood and my experiences with it.” That was my easy answer. But she kept asking, “But what is it really about?” Her asking kind of bothered me. She was asking a question that I hadn’t really grappled with. She was asking: “What is the universal theme of your book?”
The theme, I came to realize, was shame. That’s what drove the narrative. The topic was race and manhood, but the theme that gave it momentum, that gave it the narrative engine, was shame.
It was good for me to know that. I guess that would be another tip. If you are thinking about writing a personal history or a memoir, it would serve your process if you knew early on what was the theme you were working with. I try to make things simple in my own head, so I reduce themes to one word. Things like love, loss, betrayal. I love betrayal. Betrayal gets me going. Triumph. They don’t all have to be sad, right? I happen to like sad. I’m one of those people that actually wouldn’t be turned off by someone saying they’re writing a book about shame. Actually, I would think the conversation just got interesting. Talk about shame! Yeah! I want to hear your shame! I want to share my shame with you!
So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last three years. I’ve been working on this book, and being this introspective, grumpy creature in front of the typewriter. Have you guys seen The Lord of the Rings? You know the character Gollum? I became like that because I literally had to close myself off for a few years and go into a room, and write about all these things that maybe I have been kind of avoiding for most of my life. That’s why this book that I just finished was one of the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and one of the most gratifying.
It was hard because it went against all my training. All my training as a daily journalist was to move away from thinking about and talking about yourself, and using the I word. It’s a good point, really, because one of the potential pitfalls of writing about yourself is being self-indulgent without purpose. The other pitfall is the temptation to exaggerate or to fabricate, to make the story better. One of my favorites quotes from Mark Twain is: “When I was young I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.” It’s a useful thing to get acquainted with the limits of your own memory. All you can do, as a person writing a personal history, is do what Walt Harrington is going to tell you to do a little bit later on: You do your best; you want to be as honest to your own recollection as possible, acknowledging that there are different points that might disagree with yours. The risk is that you embarrass yourself or hurt yourself and, worse, you can embarrass other people, you can harm them in a way they didn’t deserve. It’s a serious thing to consider when you’re writing a personal history.
One of the potential rewards is that if I tell my story as honestly and vividly as possible, maybe I can give expression to an experience that other people have also experienced but haven’t had the words for.
Let me just end by telling one more little story. I bought a house, my first house, about 10 years ago. It was a cool old house, a cool house with lots of little spaces. It needed a lot of work. From the very first days I heard skittering up in the ceiling, and we knew animals were living there. We hoped they were mice. One day I was in the backyard and I saw this gigantic rat run from the middle of the yard to underneath our deck. My wife said, “Do something! I don’t want to be in the house with that thing running around in the ceiling.”
So, being a man, I went to Home Depot. I went and bought a box of rat poison. These were green cubes that felt like rubber, 20 of them in a box. I’m a journalist, so I didn’t read the instructions. We were about to go on vacation so I took these cubes and I just threw them under the deck, exactly where I saw this rat go in. Then we went away for two weeks.
Oh, man. We came back and we opened the door to our house and this horrible smell hit us like a hammer. I knew exactly what it was. I knew that there was a dead rat somewhere. We didn’t know where. We ended up calling some pest control people and they came and spent a few hours looking at our house and said, “You have underneath your deck an opening where rodents can go in and they can go right into the ceiling.” They said, “We believe that there’s a dead rat inside this thing, and the only way we could get in is for you to take out a part of your ceiling.” My wife said, “Do it! What are you waiting for?”
I used the sledgehammer and broke the ceiling open, and sure enough there was a dead rat, big giant rat, about 2 pounds laying there. And then I stuck my head into the hole, and I looked around, and I saw these silhouettes that looked suspiciously like other dead rats. I took out the rest of the ceiling and we found another 10 dead rats. It turned out the rats were also in our walls. I ended up demolishing our entire basement. We stopped counting after we found 30 dead rats, rotting.
Why am I telling you this story? There’s a metaphor here. Let me see if I can make it work. Shame was like a dead rat in my psyche. I spent most of my life knowing that there was something I had to deal with, but being a typical shallow TV-watching American, I ignored it and hoped it would find its own way out of my psyche. That didn’t happen. It kept bothering me. It made me uncomfortable, restless. I always felt a sense of exile, of being an outcast, and I carried that around with me. Writing this book allowed me – actually it forced me – to go into those never-visited corners in my basement, the basement of my soul. It allowed me to pick something up that I had never identified before and to bring it outside and look at it, for the first time, for what it was – which in my case was shame, a deep shame of who I was, a deep shame of the race of people that I was born into. That’s a hard thing to live with. I’m still not completely free of it. I still live with it. But at least I know what it is now. I know the dimensions of it, and I know what it is, and I can deal with that.
Alex Tizon is a former Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times staff writer and contributor to Newsweek, 60 Minutes and Sierra magazine. He shared a 1997 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. He is now on the University of Oregon faculty. His first book, Big Little Man, is scheduled for release this year.
this entry was written by Paige Williams, posted on October 31, 2012 at 8:41 am, filed under #longreads, narrative news and tagged Alex Tizon, Chris Jones, Cristian Lupsa, Decat o Revista, Esquire, Evan Ratliff, Harper's, Jacqui Banaszynski, Mike Sager, Pat Walters, Paul Tough, Radiolab, Starlee Kine, The Atavist, The Thing, This American Life, Walt Harrington. bookmark the permalink. follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. post a comment or leave a trackback: trackback URL.