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Telling true stories: Is it worth it? (Yes.)

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Editor’s note: This is the second installment covering this year’s “Power of Storytelling,” an annual conference in Bucharest. For the setup, and to watch the first installment, in which Esquire‘s Chris Jones talk about the intersection of storytelling and magic, go here. To watch and read other conference presenters, check back next week. (Follow us at @niemanstory for updates.) Today’s piece comes from Esquire‘s Tom Junod, the magazine’s longtime writer at large. From the promo of his talk: “It is hard to write a great longform story. It requires a lot of time, a lot of reporting, a lot of thinking, a lot of immersion into a subject, and, generally, a lot of drafts. … And yet, even as journalism itself is under siege in the digital age, longform journalism continues to draw an audience, and has inspired a whole new generation of practitioners. So what makes it so attractive? What makes it important? Most importantly, what makes it worth doing?” You can watch the full video of the talk, courtesy of Romania’s Decât o Revistă magazine, or read the lightly edited transcript that follows. 

 

So I want to tell you a story about magazine writing. It was quite a while ago now. I went to Sydney, Australia, to interview Nicole Kidman. And nobody believes it, except me. Anyway, so I met Nicole Kidman, saw Nicole Kidman; she was filming, with her then-husband, Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut. So the theme of infidelity was in the air.

And I met her, we got along fine, but I was hanging around in a hotel room in Sydney, Australia, for about a week. Really what that week entailed was an accumulation of reading materials and underwear. I just was hanging around and hanging around, waiting for things to happen, as you often do on stories. Anyway so then there was time for me to leave. I talked to Nicole Kidman on the phone, and she said, “Well, I guess we should say goodbye.” And I said, “Okay.” And she said, “Well, I guess I’ll come by the hotel.” And I said, “Okay.” I just was kind of waiting for her in my hotel room, thinking that for sure I’d get a call from the bellman saying, “Nicole Kidman is in the lobby and you can come down now.”

So I took a shower, and I’m in my underwear, as I often am in hotel rooms — this is a theme here. And I get a call saying that Nicole Kidman is on her way upstairs. Of course, in a panic, all my reading materials were done away with, all my underwear is under the bed, and Nicole Kidman comes in, and she immediately takes off her shoes and lays on the bed. Immediately. Have you seen National Lampoon’s Animal House, the movie where the Playboy Bunny comes into the little kid’s window, and he goes, “Thank you, God!” That’s sort of what I felt it was like: Thank you, God!

Anyway, so I had to decide what to do. It was actually a journalistic, ethical quandary; and so I hopped in. I laid right down, next to her. We’re pillow to pillow, face to face, and I’m asking her questions, but I have to tell you that a million years of guy downloaded or hardwired into my brain. I’m struggling with that right now.

And then the phone rings. I pick it up, and I say, “Who is this?” and he goes, “It’s Tom Cruise. Let me speak to my wife.” And I said, “Well, that would be great, Tom, but she happens to be right here, in my bed.” And he said – it was just one of the great lines of all time – “In your dreams, pal.” And that was it. Whatever could’ve happened, in my dreams of course, I’m not Mister Kidman, but you know, something like that.

Anyway I’m saying all this as a preamble to the real message of this speech, which is that writing is really, really hard. I say that not ironically, exactly, but it is hard. It’s certainly not as hard as (shows picture of miners). Those are coal miners, if you can’t see. It’s not as hard as that, certainly (shows war photo), and it’s definitely not as hard as that (shows photo with mother and child). So I’m not being ironic and my correction is that writing might not be hard, this life that I lead as a writer for Esquire magazine might not be hard, but it is hard to do well.

There are kinds of writing that are easier to do than magazine feature writing. One of them is Twitter. (shows slide) That’s Chris Jones’s Twitter feed: 21,000 tweets from Chris Jones, that’s not that hard. There’s Cristian’s Facebook page, so Facebook writing isn’t that hard. And even blog posting is apparently not that hard, ’cause there’s Chris again with a recent post that he dashed off while he was here. And writing op-eds is a wordy thing, but I don’t think that it is quite as difficult as writing a wordier good feature for a magazine. But anyway, it’s a difficult thing, even though when I go upstairs – and I am on deadline while I am here – I have to do a piece on George Clooney.

So why is magazine writing a challenge? And why is it difficult? One of the reasons is that you spend tremendous resources with people, trying to get their trust, and they do trust you if you’re doing your job correctly. Also, if you’ll just be human with them, they do trust you, but then you get to the point where you have to write the piece and – I’m not saying that you have to betray their trust, I’m not that cynical and I’m not that cold-blooded — but the process of writing, you try to honor their trust, and yet you almost inevitably write something that is in conflict with it. There’s a lot of different theories as to why that is, but it is to me, in practice, a truth, and it’s, to me, one of the most difficult things to deal with. And I think that one of the reasons that it happens is that writing is something of a tug-of-war of souls. Most people talk to me because they want to tell their story, they entrust me with telling their story, and they want their story told. I want to tell their story, but I am there because at some level I’m telling my own. I am of the belief that much of what we do as writers, even if we mask it from ourselves, is personal and personally driven. In fact, if you look at all the stories that I’ve written and put them together, if you read the subtext, you could probably get a pretty good idea of what my life has been, what my biography is. Whether the story is first person or third person, they are indelibly personal testaments of your time that you spend with the person, or the people, or the place that you’re writing about. To me, the best stories are conflicted in that way. The stories that I love have that kind of conflict. And I think that that’s what makes magazine feature writing the challenge that it is.

Tom Junod (photo by Catalin Georgescu)

Tom Junod (photo by Catalin Georgescu)

OK, so we’ve established that it’s very, very, very hard. The question that I’m addressing right here is, “Is it worth it?” That’s a big question.

The other day I interviewed Glenn Greenwald for an Esquire feature. He is the guy who broke the story of NSA surveillance, through Edward Snowden. His partner was detained in Britain about it. Snowden obviously lives in fear of going to jail for 30 to 35 years; he’s been accused of espionage in the United States. Glenn Greenwald lives in Brazil, and does not come back to the States, ’cause he’s also in fear of being put in jail, and in fact, one of the TV newscasters in the United States who interviewed him basically came out and asked him the question, “Why shouldn’t you be in jail?”

I interviewed Glenn Greenwald with the rather humbling knowledge that I am not — I don’t do what he does. I am not breaking news, I am often not even living up to the journalistic credo of afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted. And there’s this question, and I think that all magazine feature writers deal with – or all feature writers, narrative storytellers deal with – which is basically: What am I doing here? What good am I doing? How is this not just an indulgence?

I’ve come to Romania quite aware that your journalistic traditions are mixed, to say the least, and I went the other day to that building which I’m sure that you all know [The Palace of the Parliament]. And it seemed the symbol of that mixed tradition, and I’m amazed that when I talk to people who are here, who are trying to start a narrative storytelling tradition, what I’ve heard again and again is this question of people thinking that you guys, because you are not writing op-eds, because you are not doing investigative journalism, because you’re often not writing about political subjects, are not quite journalists. I think I deal with that as well, especially when half the time I’m writing about George Clooney and Nicole Kidman.

This is from a Times article the other day that I read – it was about Romania – where it said that not that long ago people of Romania needed permits to get typewriters. I don’t know if that’s true, it’s just something in the Times, but I was floored by it, and I’m floored to be standing here right now, ’cause this wasn’t all that long ago. But the one thing I believe that we have in common, with Romania and the United States, is that there’s this incredible flourishing of long-form journalism and storytelling right now. And yet we are being constantly told that we are at the end of that time when people are going to bother with it, when it’s going to matter and people are going to read it. You are at a time here where you are beginning this narrative storytelling tradition, and outlets are drying up. It’s not that dissimilar; this feeling of flourishing during collapse, I think is common across the board for journalists all over the world.

I don’t want to say that I do all celebrity work. I don’t. Last year I started addressing the question – and it was one of the things I was pretty obsessed about – the question of how the president of the United States has taken upon himself the power to kill anyone in the world he wants. Or anyone in the world that they designate a combatant. And so I decided to answer that in a piece, but I think that the story of that piece tells you a little bit about the difference between what I do as a magazine journalist and as a somewhat narrative storyteller, and what newspapers do and breaking news people do.

The story of President [Barack] Obama’s drone policy was a story that I worked on for probably four months, in the spring of 2012. Probably interviewed at least 50 people to do it, wrote one draft that was not quite acceptable ’cause it was a little bit too early, I hadn’t done enough work on it, and then I wrote a second draft that sort of implicated – not implicated, but basically to me was breaking the news – that President Obama was actually involved in hands-on level with deciding who was going to be killed by drone by the United States. I wrote that draft, and then one morning I was sitting on the couch and my wife handed me that day’s edition of the New York Times. And she handed it to me silently, and she never does that. I knew it was bad before anything happened. So the New York Times had a front-page story about how President Obama was personally involved in the selection of targets for targeted killing. I don’t know if I called my editor, David Granger, first, or whether he called me, or whether it was one of those technological tricks – simultaneous phone calls. But we had to decide at Esquire whether we were going to go on with the story or not. And how we were gonna do it. And they had a vote at the magazine with the three top editors, and they decided that I could still do the story, but I would have to do it differently, I would have to sort of incorporate the Times story and write something that was different than the Times story.

So I did that, and, I wound up writing a story as a direct letter to the president. And it began with the words, “You are a good man.” And it basically spent the rest of the, I don’t know, 8,000 words that I was given, sort of complicating that notion in the light of the fact that if he was a good man, he was a good man who was sitting in a room and deciding who was gonna live and who was gonna die. And the story had a lot of force, and it captured a lot of people. And I think it changed people’s ideas of what the president and what the United States was doing, and what we were capable of.

I sort of thought at the time that that was going to be my life, that I was gonna, like, shift into writing national security pieces, and doing super-serious work. Then I get a call from Granger. These are the next three stories that I did: Leo di Caprio, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. Not that that’s a bad thing. In fact, I had a pretty good time doing it. I’m trying to get at this question of what connects all of these different things that I do, and that we do at the magazine, and really it goes back to that question of what makes it worth it. The question of what makes it worth it is to me — I don’t know the answer to it, I really don’t. It’s certainly not clear-cut.

But let me just go back into a little bit of personal history. My dad was an extraordinarily dapper, handsome, charismatic dude, he really was. I watch Mad Men and I am hypnotized by it, because my dad really was Don Draper. My dad really is, to some degree, the story that I was given. When you are a writer, if you have a well from which to write, keep drawing the water from it. I have definitely done that with my dad. I’ve written at least a dozen times about my father. You know, I love my dad and think about him every day. He was sort of the Chairman Mao of high fashion. He came up with all these maxims, and precepts, and rules, and laws about how to dress and all these kinds of things, but he was also sort of an absolute dictator who definitely demanded that the family listen and not speak too much. And definitely the kind of guy who, if my mother would speak at the dinner table, would look at her and say, “Shut up!” Which is pretty rough to hear when you’re a kid.

And that legacy, my dad speaking and everybody else listening and me in the back of my head saying, “You can tell me what to say, but you’ll never tell me what to think” — there is no doubt that that is the root of what I do as a writer. I’ve subjected myself to enough amateur psychoanalysis to know that much. I basically have become a person who is determined to have my say, and my stories are sort of just installments in this sort of, you know, ongoing filibuster of my life.

And I think that this question of having one’s say and of doing a story about even other people in a way that you are having your say about them, and you are saying what you think needs to be said, is to me the narrative essence of what I do. The narrative essence of what I do comes out of conflict, it comes out of a sense of being somewhat personally conflicted. And that’s why it doesn’t really matter to me whether I’m sort of breaking some sort of thing about drones, or if I’m writing about Leonardo di Caprio blowing smoke rings, and why that was really an annoying habit.

The journalist I admire more than anybody else is another guy who wears suits, Tom Wolfe. Because Tom Wolfe, by God, he has his say. If you look at the stuff that he did in the ’60s, it was shocking in its seizure of narrative freedom — freedom of voice, freedom of expression. There’s still nobody who has topped him in that regard. And yet during the 1960s he never wrote a story about Vietnam, he never wrote a story about civil rights, he never wrote a story about Lyndon Johnson, he never wrote a story about crime. He didn’t write anything that was considered serious journalism. But because he exercised freedom to a degree that no other journalist ever had, his work remains indelible.

Basically the reason I do journalism is I still have this little-kid’s reaction to stories that I see out in the world, and it’s either one of two things: It’s either “no, it’s simpler than that,” or “Yes, it’s more complicated than that.” So I try either to simplify or to complicate, and often try to do both.

Which brings us to this picture: the Falling Man. On Sept. 11, 2001, America was attacked by al-Qaeda, and on Sept. 12, 2001, I opened the New York Times to Page 7, to see this picture. And I knew immediately that we were in a completely different territory as a country that we had ever been, that the world had literally been turned upside down. The thing that affected me with that picture was the seeming repose and the seeming peace with which he accepted his fate. And I was haunted, and haunted, and haunted by that. And I decided right then and there that I had to know who this guy was, and I was going to write that story.

I mean, I knew that as certainly as I knew my name. But my great fear was that somebody was going to do it ahead of me, somebody surely had to do that story ahead of me. Why not? Well, someone did, and it turns out they got the story wrong, and they misidentified the person and caused incredible heartache and torment to the family that was misidentified. And then the other thing that happened is that picture went away. It did not appear in any major publication in the United States for the next two years. And so the question was not only what happened to him, the question was what happened to the picture. So I went and — really, in a lot of the same ways as that I wrote about any of the people that I write about, which is coming out of that desire that it’s simpler than that and it’s more complicated than that, I wound up writing this piece, “The Falling Man,” which probably has become the story that I’m most associated with.

I think that because people’s feelings in the United States are still so unresolved about what happened on 9/11 that they still go to this story, because they still want somebody and something to tell them how to feel. Every year they post it on the Esquire website on 9/11. This year it got a million page views, 10 years after it was written. And I think that if there’s anything that tells you about the inner yearning and the inner need for somebody to tell a story in a way that honors the complexity, honors the simplicities, and honors really something even larger than that …

So. Years ago, about 10 years ago, 12 years ago, Tom Wolfe, my idol, wrote a story. It was called “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died.” And it was basically how modern neuroscience and modern science has basically proved without a doubt that people don’t have souls. To me, what we do as magazine writers — I keep on saying magazine writers — but as narrative nonfiction writers, what we do is honor the soul. If it is a fiction, it is and has been, throughout history, the one useful, necessary and indispensable fiction. It’s what we trade in, whether we’re doing tricks, or wearing suits or learning languages or doing sort of extensive travel, it’s what we trade in, and the idea that people are unique and somehow important and that their stories are somehow important is what made the wellspring that feeds this work inexhaustible.

When “The Falling Man” first came out, I was interviewed on National Public Radio in the United States, and she asked me a question that has really, really stuck with me, because what she asked, the interviewer, was, “What would you say to the people who say that what you did with ‘The Falling Man’ represented the absolute worst of what journalism can do?” At the time, the story was taboo-breaking. At the time, nobody in the United States wanted to talk about the fact that of the 3,000 people who died on 9/11, perhaps at least 600 of them jumped from the upper floors of the World Trade Center. This was something that was not only a secret; the fact that they died in that way was regarded almost like leering death pornography. So she asked, “What do you say to people who say this is the worst of what a journalist can do?’ And I basically said, ‘Can I read the end of the story to you?’ And the end of the story is an interesting piece of just craft, because it’s not really the end of the story, at least not the end of the story as I wrote it. This was a story that was sent out at the very, very end of the publishing cycle. I had been writing it and reporting it to the absolute last possible minute before it was shipped out to the printer. I had written it, and it was going through one final round with the editors, and Chris’s editor, Peter Griffin, read the piece and he knocked off the last two paragraphs. He said, “It doesn’t end there, it ends here.” So I’m gonna read the end of the story as it appeared in the magazine, and this was my answer to Melissa Block of National Public Radio:

Is Jonathan Briley the Falling Man? He might be. But maybe he didn’t jump from the window as a betrayal of love or because he lost hope. Maybe he jumped to fulfill the terms of a miracle. Maybe he jumped to come home to his family. Maybe he didn’t jump at all, because no one can jump into the arms of God.

Oh, no. You have to fall.

Yes, Jonathan Briley might be the Falling Man. But the only certainty we have is the certainty we had at the start: At fifteen seconds after 9:41 a.m., on September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky — falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame — the Falling Man — became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew’s photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves. The picture is his cenotaph, and like the monuments dedicated to the memory of unknown soldiers everywhere, it asks that we look at it, and make one simple acknowledgment.

That we have known who the Falling Man is all along.

That’s how the story ended and that’s how I ended my interview on NPR, and I have to say that that’s how she ended it as well. She didn’t have another question after that. And that’s how I’d like to end here, except to say that I have to go upstairs now and write about George Clooney.




5 trackbacks

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  2. [...] go here. To watch and read Tom Junod‘s talk, on the price of telling true stories, go here. To watch National Geographic contributor Cynthia Gorney talk about moving from Topic to Story, [...]

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  4. [...] Junod recently gave a gave a talk at the "Power of Storytelling" conference. (That's an annual conference in Bucharest where some of [...]

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