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« “The Power of Storytelling,” Part 3: Starlee Kine on story forms, Mike Sager on suspending disbelief and Alex Tizon on writing your own story
“The Power of Storytelling,” Part 4: Chris Jones on why stories matter, Pat Walters on endings, Walt Harrington on integrity
In Part 3 of our recap of Romania’s “Power of Storytelling” conference on narrative journalism, radio producer Starlee Kine talked about story forms and themes; Esquire‘s Mike Sager talked about listening, and about suspending disbelief; and Pulitzer winner Alex Tizon talked about writing one’s own story. In Part 2, 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 European journalists. She talked about the future of storytelling, and Evan Ratliff, founder of The Atavist, described his experiences moving from magazine writing to digital entrepreneurship. Today, we wrap it up with talks by Esquire‘s Chris Jones (on why stories matter), Radiolab‘s Pat Walters (on ambiguous endings) and Intimate Journalism author Walt Harrington (on integrity in narrative nonfiction).
We’d like to send one final shout-out of thanks to conference founder and Decât o Revistă editor Cristian Lupsa for partnering with Storyboard on this package and for his commitment to narrative journalism.
Why We Write
My subject today is why we write. I don’t know what I was thinking exactly when I said yes to that subject, because if you’ve heard me over the last couple of days you might have figured out that I’ve been a bit in a state of personal crisis about this very question. It’s a hard question to sometimes answer, “Why (do) we do this?” I would be lying to you if I told you that this job will always love you back, or that it will always give back what you put into it. It’s a very nice sentiment; unfortunately (it) is not very true. Sometimes this business will really hurt your feelings. And sometimes, when I’m at my lowest, I feel like it’s expressly designed to break your heart. Like someone has made this weird torture device and somehow I volunteered to use it.
One of my worst times about this situation – I did a story where I spent several weeks working as a paramedic. That is a crazy job, that’s a crazy thing to do for a living and I kind of went into it expecting all the terrible things. Before they let me go into the ambulance they showed me lots of pictures and videos of things that have happened to make sure that I didn’t puke all over the place. And so I saw these pictures and I had my heavy breath and then I went out into the truck and I realized that paramedics are actually really happy people. I thought that they would be really depressed and drug users and all this kind of stuff to get through to what they were doing. But they’re super-happy. They’re really optimistic because you see lots of horrible things being a paramedic, but you also see some really beautiful things. And I can remember one day especially: It was the first time I was part of saving a life.
In the paramedic system in Canada there’s codes: code 1, code 2, code 3, code 4. Code 4 is the worst. Code 1 is like someone skinned their knee and they really shouldn’t be calling the ambulance. Code 4 is like serious trouble. And Code 4 VSA is Code 4 Vital Signs Absent, which is a nice technical way to say someone’s dead. And then you still would try to save people and very often you can’t. Dead is often dead.
And we got a Code 4 VSA, very early in the morning. Code 4 VSA early in the morning is almost always very bad. That usually means that something happened in the night and someone wasn’t discovered until the morning, and is usually too late. But we still go. We go to this house. It was the dead of the Canadian winter, freezing, and we go into the home. There’s like an adult son and his dad is laid out on the living-room floor. He’s in his pajamas bottoms, no shirt on. There was a broken glass beside him, so obviously he got up in the night to have a glass of water, and then his heart stopped and he was flat on his floor.
And there’s a myth, there’s a myth from TV that you use those paddles, you know. That’s a lie. You use those paddles when someone’s heart is beating too fast. When someone’s heart is completely stopped, the only way to start it again is to put really serious medicine in them. And then you do some sorts of other things to replace what his body should be doing. My job that day, as my partner was pouring in the medicine, was to be this man’s lungs. And what you do is put a tube in someone throat and you have a big plastic thing that looks like a football and you just squeeze it every four seconds. And you’re that person’s breath. And we worked on this man, we worked on this man and nothing was happening. And then we put him in the back of the ambulance and we’re driving to the hospital, and I’m doing my lungs – squeezing this thing, squeezing this thing – and all of a sudden, he woke up.
And that’s a very, very strange feeling. I can’t really explain that moment, because his eyes just popped open and he was totally fine. And he’d been dead. I mean dead. Stiff, gray on the floor, and now he’s breathing and fine. And then I’m gonna go back and write.
I was like – I think I should try to be someone’s lungs; I think maybe this is a better thing to be doing with my life.
I remember going home that day and my wife was like, “Oh, honey, what did you do today?” and I was like, “Oh, you know, I saved a life.”
And I was: “Why am I writing? Why am I not being a paramedic?” And the problem I had with myself is that I was wrestling with the idea that writing doesn’t save anybody. Once you save lives, there’s nothing that could eclipse that, so why would I do this anymore? And I went through all the reasons.
There’s these selfish reasons to be a writer. You get invitations to come to weird conferences in Bucharest, which is totally awesome. I get to spend my days mostly at home, or I go out on the road and talk with interesting people about interesting things. One of my favorite things to do is I write a lot about sports, and I love sitting in a stadium watching the World Series or the Super Bowl, looking at the 90,000 people who paid lots of money to be there, and I count the money that I’m getting paid to be there. It’s a really hard habit to break.
These are great things. But they’re selfish things. I love for instance that I rarely wake up to an alarm. When you’re good-looking, as I am, you like to spend your day in your underwear, and I just like sitting around like that. I like watching daytime television, soap operas – really good.
But is that a really good enough reason to do this? And then I went into this whole thing about you’re doing it for the readers: I sacrifice to do this very hard and difficult job to serve you. It’s to make sure that readers have a story they can enjoy. I can provide distraction for a few minutes, maybe I can make someone laugh. Maybe, if the story is really good you can get someone to think about their own life, or who they love, or what they should do, or what’s important.
The problem with being a writer is you don’t often see your readers. You rarely have an audience, which is why I’m not good at this at all. When I write, in my house, in my underwear, at night, and my stories just kinda disappear, I don’t actually think of people reading them. Those of us who are your guests here we’re talking about how crazy it is when you tell somebody here, “Oh, you know, I worked on this story once,” and then they quote it back to you. And it’s really strange for me to understand that people are actually reading these stories, ’cause I never think about it. It’s a very sort of selfish, selfish idea, writing.
The third way I thought about was that maybe I was doing something for the subjects of my stories. And this is something that is very important to me, because I think a lot of writers have been taught by traditional journalists or journalism schools that you’re supposed to be objective. That there’s supposed to be a distance between you and what you’re writing about, so that you cover it like you’re neutral, like you’re a star in the sky, looking down on the world. I’ve always thought that is a really strange, crazy idea. It’s like asking someone to be a robot. It’s like asking me in the back of that ambulance not to feel anything when that guy woke up.
If you’re writing a story about someone’s life it’s really important that you get that right. And the only way to get that right is to really get to know that person. And when you get to know somebody, you have an opinion about him. You have a way you feel about him. And I think it is really important to close that distance. The stories that I like the most, that I’ve written – and I don’t like that much of what I’ve written – are the ones where I still have a connection with people who I wrote about years ago.
Gabi mentioned the story about the soldier, the soldier whose body comes back to the U.S. I still talk to Joey’s mom, Gail, all the time. She’s a very important person in my life. I did a story about Roger Ebert, the American movie critic who had cancer and lost his voice. Roger and I still e-mail a lot. I like Roger very much. Gabi talked about my magic story with Teller, from Penn and Teller. Love is not too strong a word there. I love Teller.
And if you read my story about him, you would see that I loved him. You wouldn’t get the idea that I hated him, and you wouldn’t get the idea that I didn’t feel anything. If you’re pitching an idea and you say to someone – I really wanna do this story, but I don’t feel anything about it – that is a terrible idea. If you don’t feel anything, your readers aren’t gonna feel anything. And so I think it is important to have that sort of moment where you connect with your subject, with your reader, and you’re together; you’re not apart.
But is this still enough for me? I keep going through, “Yes – Roger likes me, Gail likes me; is this enough to keep me with my job?” This is when I go back to Dave Eggers, because if we had a church here – the church of writers, crazy writers – our patron saint should be a man named Dave Eggers. I was going to say, “Do you know Dave Eggers?” but of course you know everything about Dave Eggers, you read all his books and you have them memorized. But if you don’t, Dave Eggers is an American writer who started in magazines and then went on to do books. A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was his first really big book, and he did novels and nonfiction and he does McSweeney’s, which is a crazy awesome thing. He has a store that sells pirate paraphernalia. He’s an awesome dude. And it’s funny when I look at Evan Ratliff ’cause the other night I was talking with Evan and Starlee, who you’ll meet later and who are both way cooler than me, and I said, you know, “Is it okay that I like Dave Eggers?” And I think they were thinking that I was being sweet. In fact is a test of mine. If they had said, “No,” I would’ve murdered them on the spot and hid their bodies behind the hotel. But they both said, “Yes, it’s okay to like Dave Eggers,” which is great because I love him very much, too.
I’m gonna read something that Dave Eggers wrote. Dave Eggers wrote this in the year 2000. It is probably my favorite piece of writing ever. Is definitely the piece of writing that sort of meant the most to me. It’s a response. He was doing an interview with the Harvard Advocate, which is a student (literary magazine) at Harvard. A student had e-mailed him a question that was, “Can you tell what steps you’re taking to keep shit real?” I like to picture (Eggers) sort of (frenzied), and stuff frothing out of his mouth, when he wrote this. It might have taken him three minutes (or) he might have crafted this over days, I don’t know, but I’m gonna read a part of it. Basically he starts by explaining how he likes to say “yes.” And how cool people think you have to say “no.” And there’s another American expression called “selling out” – I don’t know if there’s a translation for this either – but “selling out” means that you’ve sold your soul to the devil, like the corporation. Because I work for Esquire and ESPN, my checks come from the Hearst Corporation and the Disney Corporation. What’s awesome about Disney checks is that they literally have Mickey Mouse on them. I’m totally not joking. I’ve kinda cleaned myself up for this conference. I normally have a very big beard and long hair, and I convinced the people from the bank that I am the voice of Pluto the dog, which is why I’m getting these checks from Disney, even though Pluto does not actually talk.
But I told them that it’s really important they had someone that looks like Pluto so they can draw. I believe they still believe this to be true. Which is awesome. Anyway – this is part of what Dave Eggers wrote to this kid:
The thing is, I really like saying yes. I like new things, projects, plans, getting people together and doing something, trying something, even when it’s corny or stupid. I am not good at saying no. And I do not get along with people who say no. When you die, and it really could be this afternoon, under the same bus wheels I’ll stick my head if need be, you will not be happy about having said no. You will be kicking your ass about all the no’s you’ve said. No to that opportunity, or no to that trip to Nova Scotia or no to that night out, or no to that project or no to that person who wants to be naked with you but you worry about what your friends will say. No is for wimps. No is for pussies. No is to live small and embittered, cherishing the opportunities you missed because they might have sent the wrong message.
There is a point in one’s life when one cares about selling out and not selling out. One worries whether or not wearing a certain shirt means that they are behind the curve or ahead of it, or that having certain music in one’s collection means that they are impressive, or unimpressive. Thankfully, for some, this all passes. I am here to tell you that I have, a few years ago, found my way out of that thicket of comparison and relentless suspicion and judgment. And it is a nice feeling. Because, in the end, no one will ever give a shit about who has kept shit “real” except the two or three people, sitting in their apartments, bitter and self-devouring, who take it upon themselves to wonder about such things. The keeping real of shit matters to some people, but it does not matter to me. It’s fashion, and I don’t like fashion, because fashion does not matter. What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand. What matters is that the Flaming Lips’ new album is ravishing and I’ve listened to it a thousand times already, sometimes for days on end, and it enriches me and makes me want to save people. What matters is that it will stand forever, long after any narrow-hearted curmudgeons have forgotten their appearance on goddamn 90210. What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who’s up and who’s down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say.
Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters.
What matters is saying yes. I say yes, and Wayne Coyne says yes, and if that makes us the enemy, then good, good, good. We are evil people because we want to live and do things. We are on the wrong side because we should be home, calculating which move would be the least damaging to our downtown reputations. But I say yes because I am curious. I want to see things. I say yes when my high school friend tells me to come out because he’s hanging with Puff Daddy. I say yes when Hollywood says they’ll give me enough money to publish a hundred different books, or send 20 kids through college. Saying no is so fucking boring. And if anyone wants to hurt me for that, or dismiss me for that, for saying yes, I say, “Oh do it, do it, you motherfuckers, finally, finally, finally.”
If there’s a prayer for our church – it should probably not be that profane – but if there was one, this for me would be it. I love this so much. And every time I’m feeling a little bit lousy about what I do for a living, I read this, and I feel good again. Because is totally right.
As long as you are making good things, this is the best way to live your life. If you are producing something that matters, that’s beautiful, even if it’s for a small number of people. Teller the magician did this trick. I won’t go into the long explanation for it, but he spent years working on this trick that was seen by exactly 12 people. And for him it’s the most beautiful thing that he’s ever done. It doesn’t matter that thousands of people haven’t seen it, it doesn’t matter that it didn’t make him any money. What matters is that those 12 people saw the most amazing trick ever.
Now, I understand that these are beautiful and poetic words and it is very easy to get riled up about them when you read them, and that the reality of life is often harder. One thing I found, especially since I’m thin-skinned and the Internet is a very scary and terrible place for me, is that it’s really hard to stay doubtless. It’s really hard to stay certain. You’re always having someone tell you you’re wrong, or that this is incorrect, or that this story sucked, or that this is how you do it. And for me it’s always been kind of a bothersome thing, the idea of how do I stay true to myself, or true to what I believe in, when all these people are talking about me. And every now and then you need a moment that restores that faith the same way religious people need that moment that restores faith. You need that moment that makes you believe again.
Last night we were all hanging out at the office of this lovely magazine – a journal of Romanian nonfiction, which for me is a beautiful set of words – and we were all in the offices of Decât o Revistă. The offices were very cool. There’s fun, young, smiling people working there. It reminded me very much about when I was in university and I was manager of a radio station called CJMQ. And we worked very hard to get an FM license to broadcast and after two years we got a 50-watt license. Now, I don’t know anything about radio technology, but I know that 50-watt license is basically the same like shouting out the window. I didn’t want to say anything last night because I was already feeling like a dad, and I didn’t want to be the dad to all these Romanians that were hanging out with me, but I was sitting there thinking that 10, 20 years from now you will look back on this room, this magazine, as one of great times of your lives. And I was talking especially to two people on the balcony, and I’m gonna embarrass them. Georgiana wrote a story in this magazine. Is this Georgiana here? Hey! She wrote a great story in this magazine about the first firefighter to die in Romania in 45 years. And it’s the kind of story that Dave Eggers was talking about. Is the kind of story that you’ll hear about over the next day, you’ll hear about writing stories that mean something to people. I don’t know the man who died, I don’t know his family, I know shamefully little about Romania, but I felt this story.
And the other person I was talking to was Andrea, who is sitting down in the front, who last night was looking at her shoes. Andrea wrote a story about how the body of a Romanian soldier got back from Afghanistan. That’s a very good idea for a story, by the way. And she was being all shy about it, and she was talking about how she was young, and maybe she could do it better when she was older and she had more experience and she was sort of toeing the ground, and I could tell from how other people were talking about that story that it was a beautiful, important story. And Andrea talked about how a year later (she) went to the memorial service for the soldier and all his manly soldier friends and his father were there, and there was a copy of the magazine out. That’s because she did something great.
Now, neither Georgiana nor Andrea brought that person back from the dead. Unfortunately those guys are still gone, but they did make lives better for the living. So they didn’t save a life in the way we might have saved a life in the back of the ambulance, but they saved lives in that they made living people feel better about a terrible situation.
And that is magic, right? That’s an amazing thing to be able to do to people.
Another amazing thing I’ve found over the last couple of days is how that transmits thousands of miles – it crosses ocean. It’s amazing! It’s an amazing thing we can do.
I get asked all the time about what makes a great writer. What makes a good writer. And it’s such a hard question to answer. There’s things like curiosity, determination and honesty, and all these things are important, but the thing that for me – it’s my test – if I was to hire one person out of this room, who would I take? It would be the person who cared the most. It would be the person with the biggest heart in this room.
I think a lot of people think that journalists are supposed to be cynics. That they’re supposed to be mean. That they’re supposed to be narrow-eyed and wry; they’ve got their bubble pipe, and they’re criticizing people. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t believe that for one second.
I think Jacqui sort of touched on this, and we might disagree here. I think that to do your best work, you have to be a true believer. You have to believe that what you do is important, and you have to believe that what you’re doing matters. And you have to believe that what you write will be read and edited with the same care that you put into it. You have to believe in this stuff. Otherwise it will come across in your story that you didn’t think that what you were doing counted.
If you don’t think it counts, then no one’s gonna think it counts. Jacqui was talking about why we write stories. Because it counts. Because it matters. Because Andrea made the father of that dead soldier feel better. Because Georgiana made the family of that firefighter feel better. That’s really important. That really matters. And that’s what I believe in.
There’s an American TV show called Friday Night Lights. It actually started as a great book and then become a great movie and then become a great TV show, which just shows that great stories last and transcend. And in the locker room of this high school football team in Texas is a sign on the wall, and it says, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
And for me that’s it. I believe that 100 percent. If there was something that I hope you come away from this conference is that you leave here feeling clear and feeling fuller about what you do or what you want to do. And I was thinking this morning even, you know, about these life crises that I sometimes have. When will I quit? When is the time to stop? And I realized this morning that it’s when I become a cynic. I quit when I become a cynic. I quit when I don’t feel it, when I could talk with someone and not feel it. I quit when I see the bad things instead of the beautiful things. Like those paramedics, I quit when I don’t see those miracles.
Chris Jones is the back-page columnist for ESPN The Magazine and a two-time National Magazine Award-winning writer for Esquire.
I was asked to talk about endings because in the past years I made some endings at this radio show that I work for that the (conference) organizers told me are interesting and my bosses told me are confusing and a little weird. I’ve been thinking about endings a lot, but I have like mixed feelings when it comes to talk about endings because it’s by far the hardest part in any story.
If you’re in my workshop we get to talk about my favorite part, which is finding stories, which is this fun, social activity. You get to go out in the world, to call people on the phone. You just follow your curiosity and if something doesn’t work it doesn’t really matter because you haven’t really made it yet.
With endings it’s the complete opposite. It’s this lonesome slog where you’re sitting, looking at all the stuff that you collected and you’re trying to figure out what the hell any of it means. Because whether you’re trying to or not, the ending is where the point of your story happens. It’s the last thing you get to say, it’s the thing you leave your reader with, it’s the thing that makes them decide, in a big way, what they thought about what they just went through with the narrative that you told them. So, I think we don’t talk about endings enough. We talk about beginnings, we talk about scenes, we talk about structure, but we really don’t talk about endings.
I want to talk about three endings: two that I read, and one that I’ve made. I came to the conclusion that one reason I like them is that they’re deeply ambiguous. I like endings that question the story.
First story: This is the story of a guy and a catfish. I wasn’t sure if you have catfish (in Romania) so I looked it up, and you do and some of them are enormous. This is a story of a guy who lives in New York, but he’s from Oklahoma, which is in the middle of America, and he decides to do this story about noodling for catfish, which is this way of fishing for catfish where you get into this river, you find like a sunken log and you go to the sunken log and you put your hand under the log and you wiggle your hands around hopping there’s a catfish under there. And if the catfish sees you wiggling you fingers, it will think that’s something to eat and it will bite your fingers. When you feel it bite your fingers, you jam your arm up inside the catfish, grab onto it from its insides and pull it up. And then you caught the catfish. And meanwhile the catfish is like squirming, twisting its teeth around your arm and mind you, if you haven’t seen a catfish, they can get really big. They are, like, men-size catfish.
So this guy from New York, who is this bookish, nerdy writer named Burkhard Bilger, who’s one of my favorite writers ever, he’s going back to his hometown and he’s looking into this noodling thing. He meets up with this guy named Lee, who he describes like his polar opposite in high school. Burkhard Bilger is sitting in his room reading novels and Lee is out there noodling for catfish, and hunting and driving his pickup truck around. So Burk teams up with Lee to go on this day of noodling, so if we’re talking about how this story is framed, this is a day with Lee, trying to catch a fish. But Burk is terrified. He’s really scared of this fish. Partly because of the thing I just describe to you; it’s crazy, people drown, they get their fingers bitten off by snapping turtles. Also, Burk has an overactive imagination. He’s a writer and he thinks in grand romantic terms. I’m just going to read a part of his essay where he describes the fish, not just as a fish, but as kind of a monster:
They are North America’s forgotten monsters: ooze-born, wall-eyed, grotesquely barbeled. Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, canoeing down the Mississippi in 1673, were warned of a demon “who would engulf them in the abyss where he dwelt.” Mark Twain, two centuries later, claimed to have seen one more than six feet long and weighing 250 pounds. “If Marquette’s fish was the fellow to that one,” he wrote in Life on the Mississippi, “he had a fair right to think the river’s roaring demon was come.” When pioneer mothers did their wash by a stream, another story goes, they sometimes heard a splash and a muffled yelp. Where a little boy had been playing, only a few bubbles were left.
So when Burk gets into this river with his friend Lee, you have all of these images of this monster in his head, and it makes you feel scared for him. So, fast forward. Bilger catches one of these fish. It tries to bite his arm, tries to get away, but once he wrestles it into the boat there’s this shift. The turn in the story happens:
Later, coasting toward our dock in the dying light, Lee guesses that our catch weighs twenty-five pounds. Out of its element, though, it looks sadly diminished: prostrate on the deck, mouth working to get air, skin as soft and pale as dough. At first the kids scream when the boat hits a wave and the fish slides toward them, mouth agape. Then the shock wears off, and their voices turn mocking, exaggerated. Finally one of them gives it a kick: just another monster done in by daylight.
And that could have been the end. It feels like a pretty good ending, right? We talk about how stories look – you have to have characters, stuff has to happen and we talk about the story arc – rising action, some kind of a climax, the main character encounters a challenge, and they’re changed by it, they overcome it, and there’s a resolution. This has that. This is story. And if you get the book in which this story appears, you turn the page and there’s one more paragraph that takes this story from what I think it’s a pretty good story to – for me, at least – the story I’ll remember and reread and talk to you about:
But not entirely. That night, when I come home from the lake, my son pads down the hall to greet me. He’s been hearing bedtime stories about catfish all week — stories not so different, I’ll admit, from my mom’s macabre tales. Now he looks up with anxious eyes as I tell him about my day. And I feel a twinge of recognition, watching his face contort with the effort of imagining. The troll, I think, has found a new haunt.
And I love that. I love that because of a few simple reasons that are good to keep in mind when you make endings.
First of all, it’s kind of surprising. You don’t really expect it. The story feels like it’s over, and then it’s got this little twist. It’s concrete, so it’s a scene. It’s a little moment with his son. But it’s a scene that says something. I think a lot of times when I get disappointed by endings that are concrete, that are a scene, it’s because I don’t really feel like they’re telling me something about the story that I was just with for an hour or 15 minutes or whatever.
I read a quote recently from an American novelist named Colson Whitehead who was talking about this mantra that happens especially in creative writing classes in America, maybe here too. Writers and teachers always talk about show, don’t tell. You want to show people in scenes when you’re writing narrative. But Whitehead pointed out that he likes stories that show and tell. Because sometimes showing can be a crutch. Because you can show a scene and maybe you haven’t figured out yet what it means to you. And so I think this is one of the great scenes that shows you – you can see it, the whole moment happens in the son’s face – but it’s telling you something.
Bilger’s ending is also honest. This is like a personal essay/journalistic thing, and I really feel that he’s reacting to something and I think, whether there’s the personal pronoun “I” or not, channeling your personal feelings at the ends of the stories is really important for me. Figure out what the story means to you.
But the last thing, and the most important, is that this ending undermines the easy conclusion. This moment where it seems like this myth that Bilger has set up in his imagination as he’s looking for this fish is dead, completely gone, and in a lot of ways it is. It’s the realization he has that it’s ridiculous. It’s not a monster, it’s just a fish, and he sees that.
But, and I’m not sure how he came up with this ending, but there’s a way, when you come to these conclusions to stop yourself and stare at it, and really think: Is that the whole story? Is that what it really means? Is there a way for me to turn that around and complicate it somehow? To make it more interesting, to make it deeper? To make it more ambiguous?
I think about this ending a lot because this story isn’t just ambiguous all the way through. He’s moving you. When I read it, I feel him moving me to feel that this fish is a monster. And there’s a turn and he’s moving me to think, “No, it’s not.” And then pushes me in the end to feel something in the middle. To not really be sure.
Example No. 2. This is a story that I made with a friend of mine, Ben Montgomery, who is a great reporter for Tampa Bay Times in Florida. This is a story that Ben brought to me, and he told me about this guy he had written about a couple of years before, named Chris Gay. Chris Gay comes to Ben’s attention, when Ben gets a phone call from the Florida Highway Patrol saying that this guy escaped from jail and has stolen first a Wal-Mart semi truck, and then a famous country music singer’s tour bus, and driven across five states with dozen of police cars chasing him, all in an effort to visit his mother, who was dying of cancer. And in the end he doesn’t even get there – police chase him into the woods, he disappears, they catch him again. So Ben is talking to the cops about this guy and discovers this guy has escaped from jail 13 times. Ben did some research and he was pretty sure this guy escaped more times from prison than anyone else who is alive now. He’s become kind of famous in the region for his crazy harrowing escapes. It’s this beautiful romantic tale, which is obviously bullshit. I mean it’s true, all of these things happened. So Ben says, “I want to go and find out what this guy really is really about.”
So Ben and I go down to Tennessee to visit him in jail, and we interview him, we interview his family and we discover a very sad story. Chris grew up in abject poverty in a little farm town in Tennessee, his parents were never around. He and his brother, by the time he was 4 they had to fend for themselves. Sometimes they would steal food from their neighbors, sometimes, if they would go to their grandparents’ down the street – their grandfather hated them – he would make them fight over a piece of bread. And he would say, “Whichever one wins the fight gets to eat today.” It got so bad that he and his brother made a suicide pact. They decided when they were 10 and 11 years old that they were finished. They didn’t go through with it, but after that, you see them start to steal for food, steal the things that they need, and then they’re stealing things to get the hell away from this shitty childhood. They start stealing bikes and motorcycles and cars and trucks. And you can see Chris is running. Then we meet his wife, and we meet his daughter and we find out about all of these horrible stories, about what a terrible father Chris has been. He’s always running away. He’ll come back for three months and then he’ll run away again and steal something and then get caught and gets back in jail. And so this folk tale just completely falls apart.
Basically, if we look at the arc of the story, there’s something beautiful and romantic about this story that we want to believe about this guy, which isn’t true, and then we get very sad as we realize he is running away. He’s not running away to anything, he’s just running away. Chris expressed remorse, said he felt awful about the way he treated the people in his life, but you did get the sense, talking to him, that he was broken somehow. That he couldn’t help it. The story became about whether a person like Chris, who grew up the way he did, could change.
Chris told us that he was finished running, that he was supposed to be up for parole and that instead of leaving, he would stay in prison and finish some rehabilitation classes that he was in. And for me, that gave me a little bit of hope. I wanted to believe. He becomes this heroic character when he talks about his escapes; you can’t help liking him. He’s just a likable guy and I wanted to believe that there’s something of that left in him.
And when he tells me he’s gonna stay, I believed him.
When we got back from that trip we had this awesome excitement. We sat for a long time thinking, “What is this about?” I wanted to say, “I hope Chris can change,” but why am I saying that? Just because I’m an optimistic person? And I sat down in the studio with Ben and I told him that and he said, “I don’t think he can change.” I was like, “What? You’re supposed to be the liberal journalist; you’re supposed to believe in people.” And he was like, “I don’t. My dad left and he never came back and he’s not going to change.”
That moment in the studio made the whole story much more interesting for me because if I get to the end of the story and if I’m not arguing with myself about how I feel about it or arguing with someone else, then it’s not interesting to me. It’s going to be flat, and it’s not going to be interesting for the people that are listening.
As I was thinking about endings I was reading something my former teacher, Roy Peter Clark, wrote several years ago. He wrote something saying he believes that the greatest ending in all American literature is the end of The Grapes of Wrath, which is probably an exaggeration, but it’s a really good ending and I think it’s doing a little bit of this questioning-the-story-that-came-before-it thing.
Just to recap, it’s about the Joad family and they’re from Oklahoma and they get kicked of their farm. It’s the great depression, 1930s, very sad. Immediately, they found out about this place called California. California, they’re told, is this beautiful, fantastic land full of jobs and riches; it’s warm and sunny all the time and everything is going to be great in California. So the story begins with the family on this hopeful quest to the beautiful place called California. And then spends 270 pages crushing that hope in every way you can imagine. The truck breaks down, there’s no water, there’s no food, the road is crowded with all these other families trying to get to the same place. Grandpa dies. Grandma holds on for a while but she dies just before getting to California. A family friend named Casey, who was making the trip with them, gets thrown in jail, gets out of jail, but then he gets murdered. The family’s oldest son, Tom, kills the murderer and then he is a fugitive. There’s more. The family’s eldest son runs away, the husband of the family’s youngest daughter – who’s pregnant at this time – runs away too, and so what’s left of the family when they get to California is stuck in this barn, there are no jobs, no place for them to live, it’s raining, there’s no good weather. Everything is just shit. And it sucks. I went back and I re-read the end of this book and it’s horrible. It’s just really depressing. And as if this wasn’t already one of the saddest stories ever written, Rose of Sharon, who’s been pregnant this whole trip – her baby dies. She has a stillbirth. And this is the moment I did remember – Steinbeck describes this little blue shriveled mummy on a piece of newspaper, lying there in the barn and it’s still raining. And then he writes this ending, which I’ll just read to you. You have to know that they’re in the barn, and there’s this little boy who comes over to them and tell them that his father, who’s also sheltered in the barn, is starving. He has no food, and he’s basically dying:
“Hush,” said Ma. She looked at Pa and Uncle John standing helplessly gazing at the sick man. She looked at Rose of Sharon huddled in the comforter. Ma’s eyes passed Rose of Sharon’s eyes, and then came back to them. And the two women looked deep into each other. The girl’s breath came short and gasping.
She said, “Yes.”
Ma smiled. “I knew you would. I knew!” She looked down at her hands, tight-locked in her lap.
Rose of Sharon whispered, “Will — will you all — go out?” The rain whisked lightly on the roof.
Ma leaned forward and with her palm she brushed the tousled hair back from her daughter’s forehead, and she kissed her on the forehead. Ma got up quickly. “Come on, you fellas,” she called. “You come out in the tool shed.”
Ruthie opened her mouth to speak. “Hush,” Ma said. “Hush and git.” She herded them through the door, drew the boy with her; and she closed the squeaking door.
For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comforter about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.
I don’t really have anything to say about that, but I read that and that is not a happy ending. But you can’t say it’s a sad ending. It’s on the tail end of this story, when you’re at the depths of hopelessness and yet, there’s this moment of hope. And I think the reason that I like endings like this is that they feel real to me. And it’s easy for stories to start to feel like they mean something.
We want stories to mean something. This is the thing we tell over and over again. We tell stories to make a sense of this world, we tell our stories to help find meaning in stuff that’s confusing to us. It’s easy for us to start to feel like the story meant something – like the catfish isn’t a monster; it’s just a fish. To start to feel like Chris Gay is doomed, or that the Joad family and by extension all of us are also doomed.
When you’re writing keep in mind the end of your story; look back and think. Stare at the scenes and the dialogue and the images that you’ve collected and push back against the conclusions that you’ve come to. Find the ambiguity. Find a moment that questions what you think your story is about.
There’s one last thing that I want to say that occurred to me when Chris Jones was talking. I think that it’s part of our job to hope, to believe in people, to believe in the possibility of myths and magic and beautiful things. And Chris was saying that if you get cynical, if you stop wondering about the world, if you stop falling in love with the people you’re making stories about, you should probably stop doing this. So even when things look really dark, like they do at the end of that Steinbeck story, try to find a way to believe.
Pat Walters is a writer and staff producer for NPR’s Radiolab. His print writing has appeared in Popular Science and Discover, among others, and he is a contributor to Pop Up Magazine, a live event. He lives in New York.
Keeping the “Non” in Nonfiction
Decades ago, I knew a young woman who was smart and beautiful, talented and hardworking. She reported well and wrote gracefully. She was, like everybody I knew in those years, ragingly ambitious. On the day that this promising and engaging woman – Janet Cooke – would be forever banished from the Washington Post and American journalism for having made up her Pulitzer Prize-winning story about an 8-year-old heroin addict, I came to the Post newsroom early in the morning. The place was nearly empty when I sat down at Janet’s desk to do what any aspiring literary journalist should do: report. I took out a pad and began jotting notes on what was before me:
*A bottle of pink Maalox.
*A snippet from a Jackson Browne song: “Nobody rides for free, nobody gives you any sympathy, nobody gets it like they want it to be, nobody, baby.”
*These words: “There is no therapy for whatever ails a good reporter like the challenge of an impossible assignment – with “impossible assignment” underlined.
*And this aphorism: “Some people know what they want long before they can have it.”
At 12:24 p.m. on April 16, 1981 – I know the time and the day because I also jotted them in my notes – two burly men arrived at Janet Cooke’s desk, cleaned its top and its contents into cardboard boxes, and rolled them away on a dolly. The infamous Janet Cooke was gone.
Well, not exactly.
We are living with her ghost – and her descendants and ancestors in fakery. Jayson Blair of the New York Times, a most astonishingly brazen faker whose 2003 downfall for making up stories also led to the sad downfall of the Nos. 1 and 2 editors at the Times. Stephen Glass of The New Republic in 1998 was caught making up not only quotes and scenic details but also entire human beings, businesses, legislation, even products – a Monica Lewinsky inflatable doll that recited Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” That took fakery and creativity.
Just recently, we have the New Yorker journalist Jonah Lehrer resigning in disgrace after it was revealed he fabricated quotes from singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. And closer to the home of those of you today, the storied career and journalism of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinksi that has been tainted by the revelations from his sympathetic biographer that the revered journalist likely played fast and loose with the facts as he tried to purse his artist’s goal of the “essence of the matter.”
Faking it for art’s sake has a long tradition. Famous U.S. novelist Truman Capote’s made-up scenes in his “faction” classic In Cold Blood. The legendary George Orwell recreating multiple events as a single scene in The Road to Wigan Pier. And, let’s be honest, U.S. newspapers of the 19th and early 20th centuries were famous for never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Finally, perhaps most frightening: The rise of the personal so-called nonfiction memoir as a profitable book form in recent decades has fostered some of the most bizarre through-the-looking-glass logic about what is and isn’t truth in what’s loosely called nonfiction.
Vivian Gornick acknowledging that scenes with her mother that she describes with realism in her much-praised memoir Fierce Attachments didn’t take place and that a conversation her mother had with a street person in New York didn’t happen – but that’s okay because Gornick knew what her mother would have said to that street person if she had run into him.
I’m not making this up!
I have been talking about these matters to U.S. journalists for nearly a decade. Yet Cristian Lupsa, your conference organizer, asked me to share my thoughts with you, telling me that journalists in your region often do not share the U.S. idea of literal accuracy as a cornerstone value. To quote a reviewer of the Kapuscinski biography, “This type of literary reportage, Kapuscinski’s defenders have always noted, is rooted in an Eastern European tradition that used allegory to navigate around the culture of censorship prevalent behind the Iron Curtain.” Yet the biography notes that his use of imagination went beyond this purpose and that the author perhaps grossly exaggerated his friendships with famous world figures and that it is unlikely he ever faced death by firing squads in Africa or South America.
Unlike many of you, I am not a student of the famous Polish journalist. I cannot balance his contributions against any claims of distortion. Yet I know that such revelation must tarnish his reputation and his contribution – and they must make readers wonder what other stories they are being told by journalists that are not quite right.
The battle against the careerist fakers – the Janet Cookes, Stephen Glasses, and Jayson Blairs – is easy. They are liars. Liars who lie to get ahead. Out of weakness and fear. We can understand such people. They are old-fashioned people. They lack character.
Truth is, people are weak and flawed, and some percentage of us will cheat. Look to your left and to your right. Nope, you can’t tell which of you are cheaters. Not by the cut of your suit, or the width of your smile, or the style of your hair. But cheaters live among us. If you are one of them, stop it. Perhaps you have only a small chance of getting caught. But when you are caught, it will be 100 percent. And you will not have your dealings turned into a Hollywood moved titled Shattered Glass, as did Stephen Glass; you will just be gone from our profession, as was Janet Cooke, who ended up selling department store clothing for $6 an hour.
The lesson for editors? Interrogate even your most trusted reporters. Anyone who resents that interrogation has something to hide or is too immature to realize what’s at stake. And what’s at stake is your credibility, your publication’s credibility, and journalism’s credibility in your society. When you make up a quote, fake a source, fabricate a scene, you aren’t committing an individual act. You are committing a social act. You are ripping a small tear in the contract of trust that the public must have with journalists and, in your country, fledgling journalistic institutions.
Yet, as I said, that’s the easy stuff. Because we can attack the liars with diligence. You know how to toughen your standards. But the sweeping societal drift of our thinking about what is and is not a fact is a tougher nut. In the West, we have reality TV shows that are not reality at all. We have teachers of what’s called “creative nonfiction” arguing that fine nonfiction writers don’t seek a shabby thing called “literal truth” but the higher-minded “essence of truth.” So combining disparate scenes isn’t lying but “composing” literature.
I think of the respected, brilliant book editor who says that if something happened recently in a person’s life better fits the story by happening 20 years earlier, it’s fine to change it because the alteration is in service to the narrative’s – what else? – essence of the truth. I think of the respected, brilliant book editor who tells a writer he should never fabricate anything but instead trust the accuracy of his memory – a thinly veiled excuse, I believe, to make up whatever you want because who will know?
The respected publishing lawyer who says you can pretty much make up what you want as long as you put a disclaimer in the front of your book saying that some facts and details have been changed for dramatic purposes. The U.S. memoir writer Augusten Burroughs included this note in his book Dry: “Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.” To which the Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley responded, “There is a word for that: fiction.”
Compare Burroughs’ view of veracity with that of the revered U.S. historian John Hope Franklin, who once told the Washington Post’s Linton Weeks that he had been at the Library of Congress checking his memories against documentary facts as research for his autobiography. Franklin told Weeks he had remembered hearing George Gershwin’s orchestra play “Rhapsody in Blue” at a concert in 1928 but that old newspaper accounts had proved his memory wrong – the actual work was “Concerto in F.” Weeks asked Franklin what he thought about books written solely on memory. Franklin’s answer was simple: “I couldn’t do that.”
In a crowd of dedicated journalists, this debate over accuracy is comical. Most journalists are shabby literalists – and proud of it!
Yet we can’t let it go at that. Because the people who believe facts are trivial things are not dumb. They are not all self-serving and greedy. They have been born and bred in a time when we have come to question everything that we think we know. In a time when we understand that, as Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa made us see in his 1950 movie, Rashomon, that where a person stands while observing an event deeply shapes what he or she sees. What assumptions and biases we bring to bear matter.
We have rightly been made thoughtful and sensitive about the multiplicity of perspectives and the watery quality of memory. We are better off for thinking this way, better knowing that much of what we believe we believe, what we believe we have seen and heard and experienced, is not shared even by others who lived the same experiences.
Yet when we extend that insight to say that “facts” do not matter because all is perception, we enter dangerous territory. I think of a time a group of journalism students I knew were being lectured by a philosopher arguing many of these points.
“But what about the truth?” a student asked.
“Truth,” the philosopher said confidently. “After all, what is truth?”
That pseudo profundity cowed the students into silence.
Well, truth was at least that the table at which they sat – the very same table at which your colleague Luiza Ilie sat with me and other students at the University of Illinois a few years ago – could be rapped with your knuckles, making sound waves shoot through the room and sensation rocket through your hand. Truth was at least that the elliptical-sided table distributed the students in a defined manner. Truth was at least that the table was made of a certain kind of wood that came from a certain kind of tree in the forest. Truth was at least that a craftsman had taken that rough chunk of wood and through the creativity of his mind and the mastery of his hand, sawed and shaved and sanded and finished it into a table. Truth was at least that beneath its solid existence lived millions of dancing molecules.
Truth may be many things, but it is not nothing at all.
When a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, it still makes noise. This kind of real, objective truth exists – despite the philosopher’s ponderings. Words spoken were spoken whether or not we can reconstruct them correctly. Events occurred in a certain sequence whether or not we can discern it. Sisters can remember differently just how big was the old oak tree in their backyard. But there must at least have been a tree! Otherwise, as Jonathan Yardley said, it’s fiction.
Of course, the writers of memoir can use any standard they wish. And the standard in the book publishing industry is this: Will it sell? Yet we in narrative journalism cannot let that standard insinuate itself into our work.
I love the novels of Cormac McCarthy, who writes: “This world, which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. All is telling. Do not doubt it.” Well, if we are interested in human meaning, then what objects mean to us always matters. But life as people live it is not only a “tale.” A thousand people killed in a mudslide is not only a “tale.” It is mud-clogged lungs choking for air, bone and skull crushed, unimaginable pain. It is mothers encased in muck, clinging dead to their children. That mudslide – and the world of stone and flower and blood – is a thing. Do not doubt it. Truth is a documentary, physical reality, as well as the meaning we make of that reality, the perceptions we have of it. It’s not one or the other. It’s both, entwined. We cannot know the “essence of truth” if we are cavalier about “literal truth.”
That belief must be what defines us as journalists.
Our credo: When accuracy and art conflict, accuracy wins.
All this debate is deeply relevant to those of us who champion what has come to be called narrative journalism, and what has been variously called New Journalism, literary journalism and intimate journalism: stories rooted in immersion reporting, that move through time, develop character, use real-life action, scene, dialogue and detail to bring them to life, that have a narrative story arc and that aim to feel like short fiction, what two-time U.S. Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Franklin has called the “true short story.” An approach that for half a century has consciously borrowed the devices of the novel to make our true stories more compelling and, I believe, more true. We can’t pretend away that some of our craft’s most famous liars were reaching for this form of journalism. After all, Janet Cooke was, in newspaper parlance, a “feature writer.”
It’s not a discussion we should duck. Because being clear about the place and purpose of literary device versus the place and purpose of documentary reality in our work needs serious conversation. More than a decade ago, at nonfiction writing conferences in the U.S., I began asking speakers and participants if they had ever felt under pressure to make their reporting conform to the needs of dramatic storytelling. Many of them did. H.G. (“Buzz”) Bissinger, the author of the scrupulously nonfiction books Friday Night Lights and A Prayer for the City and the author of a magazine article that the movie “Shattered Glass” is based upon, a few years ago wrote:
More and more, the public expects nonfiction books to have that perfect, seamless storytelling quality. That’s an impossibly high bar. If you’re trying to get it right, you really do suffer with the facts you have. Believe me, I went through a lot of days of depression and self-doubt, but one thing I was not going to do is make it up.
But the pressure to have the perfect story, facts be damned, is real.
In other words, the needs of the storytelling form – not a story’s social significance – were dominating the stories they chose to tell. I fear that as long as literary or narrative journalism is seen primarily as an outgrowth of fictional literary devices we can too easily forget that we are not only “storytellers” but the “tellers of stories:” real stories with real tables and gut and bone and pain. We cannot allow literary device and story framing to become ends in themselves — not if we are to be called journalists.
Because the power inherent in novelistic storytelling is not only the power of plot and character and scene. Certainly, it’s true that drama, intrigue, and tension hold readers. That’s good in itself. But the elements of story are not only tricks but tools of inquiry, devices that direct our vision to the many nuances of real life. There’s a reason we in the U.S. still read Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All the King’s Men, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. The novel captures the depth and breadth of human experience: passion, greed, decency, selfishness. It portrays Depression-era politics in the American South in ways that capture, yes, the essence of truth. It does so by evoking the richness of lives and culture through not only intellect but through emotion and sensory experience, through the full array of human experience. Yet it is not literally true. It is fiction!
The takeaway for us as journalists is not that literal truth is unimportant to capturing the more profound essence of truth. It is that the novelist’s eye for telling detail and attention to moral complexity is not just a bag of techniques. It is a way of seeing, a kind of theory of human behavior. When we inquire with what we think of as the needs of storytelling embedded in our search we are actually attuning ourselves beforehand to that human richness so often missing in our journalism. When used properly, the novelist’s eye opens our eyes and heads and hearts to the breadth of what we can and should be looking for in our reporting. It doesn’t take us away from the truth, as some traditional journalists fear. It helps us better see and hear and touch and feel the truth before us. It makes our stories more true than those created through more traditional journalistic forms.
But that powerful lens must be coupled with journalism’s twin commitment to documentary reality: A table is a table. The early New Journalists of 50 years ago who came out of journalism as opposed to fiction shared this commitment: Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, Lillian Ross, John McPhee, Susan Sheehan, Tracy Kidder. None has ever been accused of playing loose with the facts. Nor have the younger generation of journalistically bred literary journalists – the Washington Post’s David Finkel, Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith, the New Yorker’s Susan Orlean, book authors such as Bissinger, Richard Ben Cramer, David Maraniss, Katherine Boo, and so many others. And I certainly believe it is true of the stories Mike Sager and I have included in Next Wave, our collection of work being produced by America’s new generation of young literary journalists. These men and women are artists not because they make stuff up but because, when unraveling the lives of others, they imbue their inquiries and stories with their own constellation of experiences, values, intelligence, and commanding philosophical questions to unlock the stories within the people they are writing about. What makes you a literary journalist-artist is that when you go out to tell a story that is being pursued by one or a thousand other journalists, you come back with a true story that only you can tell.
True to the facts yet uniquely your own creation.
Most of the masters of our form think of what they do not only as art but also as popular ethnography. They borrow the mindset of the ethnographer who wants to understand, describe and explain worlds foreign to him or her in their own terms while evoking, as U.S. documentary writers said as far back as the 1930s, the “feeling of a living experience.”
That, too, is part of our tradition.
As U.S. journalist Pete Hamill once said, “Writers are rememberers or nothing. That’s why the tribe gives us that job.” You see, we aren’t trying only to tell a good story. We’re trying to chronicle and illuminate the world, take readers into the lives of people they would never meet, write stories that are mirrors in which readers can glimpse a piece of unexpected humanity in others, and perhaps even in themselves. If you are not committed to documentary accuracy for its own sake – as its own value – it will be far easier for you to fall prey to making it up.
This is hard work. It’s not a fluke that old U.S. newspaper union requirements once defined a journeyman reporter as someone with seven years of experience. That’s because you learn something in those years of covering fires, murders, airplane crashes, town carnivals. You learn first that although philosophers can argue that all reality is socially constructed, in the flesh-and-blood world people have a real clear idea of truth and accuracy. John Smyth, with a Y, doesn’t spell his name the same way as John Smith, with an I, and he actually cares about the difference. You learn that getting his name wrong reveals a dangerous tendency in you: You are assuming you know what you don’t know. Reporting to the standards of the traditional, growling news desk editor teaches you how many unconscious assumptions you make about everything, how difficult it is simply to describe what we believe to be in front of us, and how little we know with confidence about anything: the spelling of a name, the genus of a plant, the type of clouds billowing overhead, the exact make and model of a certain car, the difference between royal blue and delft blue.
And those are the easy challenges. The hard challenge is knowing what people mean when they say things, what their gestures and expressions mean, what the objects arrayed in their homes mean to them.
So much to learn: How to spell names, yes. But we also learn to take nothing at face value, to check and recheck everything. As the old Chicago journalism adage goes: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
We learn that there is often a difference between what people remember and what actually happened, and we believe, true to our documentary heritage, that the difference matters, that it is often revelatory. We learn that the complicated worlds we enter are next to impossible to re-create in words. It is humbling and exhilarating to realize this. It sets off a lifelong journey to figure out how to turn those thousands of pieces of life and shards of perception into stories that are true to the documentary facts, as they also evoke people’s subjective experiences in ways that are accurate to them, that make perfect strangers want to read on, and that, ideally, teach those strangers something important about themselves.
We ask strange questions others would never think to ask because we know the answers are necessary to create the flow, sensory texture, and physical atmospherics of our stories: What did the dying woman’s room smell like? What does the icy wind feel like on the priest’s face? What color was the old Chevy you used to drive? What was the taste of your mother’s spaghetti sauce? What did the gunshot that killed your son sound like in the small room? And this is before you even begin to write – rendering scenes, selecting telling details, avoiding melodrama, shaping material without distorting it, aptly balancing the particular and the universal, imposing themes rightfully rooted in your reporting, structuring stories so insight emerges, action concludes, characters change, and tension is relieved.
It is hard work!
I teach literary journalism to college students. Once, I was going through passages in my book The Everlasting Stream, a chronicle of my years of rabbit hunting with my father-in-law and his back country friends. I was trying to help my students understand how paragraphs that read omnisciently were sourced. I said that when I write that the wind was gusting at 30 miles an hour, I had gotten the National Weather Service reports for that day. When I write that there was a waxing crescent moon in the sky, I had had an astronomer calculate what kind of moon was in the sky on that date. When I write that the green briar bushes had been munched by deer, I had taken a naturalist into the field to confirm this for me. Rain really was falling because I noted it on my pad or into my tape recorder. When I say the men and I lit up and smoked Arturo Fuente Curly Head Deluxe Maduro cigars, we really smoked that brand of cigar, at that moment, in that place. When I write that the men stood in the woods and talked about chicken hawks, one man’s old .22 rifle, and beagle pups lost to marauding coyotes, they actually talked about these things then – not later, not before. When I say the sky was stacked with cloud plateaus on the eastern horizon, it was; I know because I carried a compass on my watch band. When I describe what the innards of a rabbit look like as I am cleaning the dead animal with my knife, I have been through a necropsy of a rabbit with two veterinarian students who annotated a rabbit’s plumbing for me. When I write that the spring water is 51 degrees, I have measured it with a thermometer. When I write that once on a visit to the White House, I sipped La Crema Reserve Chardonnay and ate smoked salmon mousse, I have checked old White House records through the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library. When I write that a series of mountains in the Kentucky countryside rise 700, 800, and 900 feet, I have checked those elevations on soil conservation maps. When I write that I remember my father and I, as a boy, riding in the car one night singing “The Red River Valley” as we drove through the dip in Ashland Road just past Virgil Gray’s house, I have relied on my memory of that night and the song but checked with my father to learn that it was Virgil Gray who lived in the house; then I drove two hours to visit Ashland Road to make sure there really was a dip in the road just past Virgil’s home. There was.
My students were quiet when I stopped giving examples. Then one young woman asked incredulously, “Do other journalists do that, too?”
Yes. If they want to be called journalists, they do that too.
Walt Harrington was a Washington Post reporter for 15 years and now heads the journalism department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His books include Intimate Journalism: The Art and Craft of Reporting Everyday Life. These remarks are based on presentations made at previous conferences and a subsequent article in River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.
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