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“Narrative Sweat & Flow:” Seven writers, one inquiring student
by Simina Mistreanu | December 3, 2013
Editor’s note: First, an introduction, by Jacqui Banaszynski, the Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism, and winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing:
Whenever aspiring young journalists ask how to learn to write, I tell them I know of only two ways: by writing, and writing, and writing some more; and by reading good writing, with a writer’s eye. My friend and student Simina Mistreanu went one better, going straight to the authors of the work she most admires, and interviewing them about technique, struggle, persistence and purpose. The project was the capstone of Simina’s graduate study at the Missouri School of Journalism. The result is “Narrative Sweat and Flow,” a deep dive into the minds of seven* of today’s top narrative journalists. I first met Simina four years ago in her native Romania. She was among a pioneering band of young journalists committed to independent reporting and literary grace in a culture accustomed to propaganda, fluff and managed facts. Without existing quality publications to write for, they pooled their pennies and passion and created their own, with Decat o Revista, a magazine that survives edition to edition yet has held on for five years. Simina came to Missouri two years ago as a Fulbright scholar. She successfully defended her master’s last month, and now has a one-year reporting residency at The Oregonian. I asked her recently what she found most surprising and most inspiring in her interviews with the narrative masters. Her answer was the same for both: “They’re all insecure.”
Now, here’s Mistreanu’s “Narrative Sweat and Flow:”
They have written powerful stories about life and death, illnesses, cures, poverty, discrimination, trauma and hope.
To do that, they embedded with soldiers in Iraq, rode buses across the Mexico border, tracked a corpse over continents, delved into conflicts in Africa, and lingered around Boston hospitals and Florida orchards.
They gave their subjects time and their full attention for months in a row.
They put everything into narrative form, strewn with emotion, so that readers would want to follow the characters’ journey toward a resolution. Along the way, they intended to illuminate social dramas and build empathy.
Narrative writers covering social issues have produced some amazing work in the past two to three decades. Their stories, published in newspapers and magazines, revealed truths and gained appreciation from readers and the industry.
The best of their stories read as easily as page-turning fiction where the reader gets caught up in the characters, is moved through a compelling plot and is drawn into vivid, intimate scenes. To produce these stories takes months of immersive reporting, in-depth interviewing, context gathering and then often painful writing and rewriting.
This work often takes a toll on their lives and relationships, ranging from depression to a perceived imbalance in their personal lives.
“To some extent, I’m taken out of my own life,” says writer Amy Harmon of The New York Times.
Yet for many of them, reporting and being part of other people’s lives triggers what psychologists refer to as “flow” — a state of being “in the zone,” completely absorbed in the activity, when work comes along easily and time seems to expand. Some of the best creative work is done while people are in the zone, psychologists say; people from different professions and backgrounds have said such experiences were among the most meaningful of their lives.
Moreover, these journalists find purpose in shedding light onto difficult, often heart-wrenching issues. Telling true stories is a privilege, they say, and a basic instinct.
“When you got one on the line, there’s an adrenaline rush,” says Chris Jones, of Esquire. “It becomes primal almost when you got a good story. … I’ve spent my life trying to have those moments, pursuing those moments. When you get them, you kind of become blind to anything else.”
Seven* writers, all of whom are either Pulitzer Prize or National Magazine Award winners, talk about the sweat, tears and joy of writing narratively about social issues such as poverty, race, illness and trauma. They talk about flow, stalemates, the power of stories and how, in the end, they care about the story so much that they just find a way to get it done.
In seven years of doing journalism in Romania and the United States, and working on stories ranging from breaking news and business briefs to deep-dive narratives, I realized the stories that mattered most to me and my readers had three things in common: First, I had allowed myself time to do extensive reporting and to get to know the people and the issues I was writing about. Second, I tried to use narrative writing techniques to engage the readers and tell a good story. And third, the stories happened to be about people who were disadvantaged or struggling to overcome a burden, and about the system that put that burden there in the first place.
Whenever I felt like the readers could empathize with the characters and learn something useful about the system, I felt that my work was worth it. The work was enjoyable and rewarding, if painful at times, and I felt like I was offering something meaningful to the world.
I wanted to explore the question of motivation, satisfaction and meaning with the masters themselves and get a glimpse into what might await me down the road if I follow their path. I took a final master’s project at the University of Missouri as an opportunity to explore that question.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, now at Claremont Graduate University, has spent the past half a century studying “flow” — the state in which a person is so absorbed in what he or she is doing that nothing else seems to matter. Csikszentmihalyi grew up in Transylvania during World War II noticing how most of the adults around him were overwhelmed by the war’s tragedies and unable to live happy, satisfied lives. He became interested in understanding what contributes to a life worth living, and that led him to psychology.
Csikszentmihalyi believes people achieve happiness by being fully involved with every detail of their lives, whether good or bad. The best moments occur, he says, “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur — the swimmer’s muscles might ache during the race, or his lungs might feel like exploding — but people end up describing them as some of the best moments of their lives.
There are two main prerequisites for flow: One’s attention must be invested in realistic goals, and skills need to match the opportunities for action. Thus, the person concentrates his or her attention on the task at hand and momentarily forgets everything else.
A mountaineer cited in Csikszentmihalyi’s research described it like this: “When you’re [climbing] you’re not aware of other problematic life situations. It becomes a world unto its own, significant only to itself. It’s a concentration thing. Once you’re into the situation, it’s incredibly real, and you’re very much in charge of it. It becomes your total world.”
Flow is experienced in similar ways by people of different occupations and backgrounds. Csikszentmihalyi’s studies have included surgeons, physics Nobel Prize winners, farmers in the Italian Alps, teenagers in Tokyo, and factory workers in Chicago.
Innovators and people who work in creative fields have also described doing some of their best work in “flow” conditions. In the long run, these optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery, or as Csikszentmihalyi puts it, “a sense of participation in determining the content of life,” which he posits comes as close to happiness as anything else.
Moreover, people use these experiences to reinforce a meaningful pattern, a life theme. “When that is accomplished, and a person feels in control of life and feels that it makes sense, there is nothing left to desire,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book Flow.
Journalists have been studied in a context somewhat related to flow, for the book Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, written by Csikszentmihalyi, Howard Gardner and William Damon. The authors described good work as something that is both of excellent quality and socially responsible, and found that journalists tend to produce good work when they pursue a moral mission such as informing the public, supporting democracy and creating social change.
That connection — between mission and joy — was echoed by seven accomplished writers who use longform narratives to cover sensitive social issues. They described situations in which they experience flow, where they encounter difficulties and how they overcome them, and ultimately, how journalism has led them to live fulfilled lives.
When talking about flow, journalists sometimes even used the word itself or the expression “being in the zone.” Often, it comes in the form of intense concentration.
Lane DeGregory is a long-time feature writer who started writing daily news stories in the Virginian-Pilot. Now at the Tampa Bay Times, her series “The Girl in the Window,” about a feral child who had been raised in a closet, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Her subjects are often people living on the fringes of society. DeGregory says her work occupies her mind even when she’s not literally working. “It’s a blessing and a curse that I can’t turn it off,” she says.
For example, in the middle of a reporting project, she might take time to see a baseball game with her husband. But all she can think about is how to end her story and whether she needs to call one of her sources for one more interview. Or her teenage sons might talk to her about a football game or a band concert, and she realizes that she hasn’t been listening to them but instead has been thinking about a story. She says she shuts people around her off sometimes, without meaning to.
Harmon, a New York Times reporter who uses longform narratives to illuminate how technology affects people’s lives, also talks about being absorbed by stories. She says she doesn’t necessarily lose track of time when work is going well, but rather she wants “to be doing it all the time. I feel like I have something important to say.”
Reporting +/- writing = joy
Most writers in this study take delight in one or both of two separate parts of their work: reporting and writing.
Longform narrative writing often requires the journalist to spend long stretches of time with his or her subjects. So it’s not surprising that most writers said they love being able to inhabit other people’s worlds in order to tell their stories.
Anne Hull of the Washington Post points out that narrative is a very specific type of reporting that might seem boring to journalists who are used to a different rhythm — for example, reporters churning out the grind of daily news. Her reporting method is both more luxurious and more demanding than dailies require. “You’re watching hours and hours of nothing happen. And you just have to be prepared for when that moment happens,” she says.
In 1998, Hull spent several months documenting the journey of a group of Mexican women employed as crab pickers in North Carolina. Part of her reporting involved hours of just watching them pick crabs. Hull, who writes about the “non-majority class” — she’s written extensively about immigrants, gay youth in the Bible Belt, and war veterans recovering in substandard medical facilities — chooses these subjects because she loves reporting in these “niche” environments.
“I just have always felt at home in that world,” she says.
Harmon, who writes science-heavy stories, says that though she likes the challenge of deciphering the science, she gets most enjoyment from being part of other people’s lives and acting as a “fly on the wall.”
Jones talks specifically about a certain part of reporting: discovering “nuggets,” special moments or details that will play an important part in the story. One of them happened when he was reporting “The Things that Carried Him,” the story of a dead soldier’s journey from Iraq back to the United States: The soldier’s mother told him how her other son tried to put a ring on the soldier’s finger, only to discover that the glove was stuffed with cotton because the finger was missing.
And when Jones was reporting a story about a zoo-animal massacre, in Zanesville, Ohio, a local sheriff described how a piece of fur on a tiger’s back fell off as it was shot, revealing its spine. Jones gets excited about such moments because he believes they’ll make the story memorable to readers. Such discoveries, horrible as they are, also are pleasurable, he says. “I think a great story has to have those scenes or those moments that really catch in people,” he says.
When the journalists move beyond the reporting to talk about writing, their experiences with flow become more fickle: Sometimes, words seem to flow; everything just pours out and falls into place. Other times, it’s a struggle.
The nights when it goes well are like being on drugs, Jones says. “I live for those.” He tries to summon that mood by listening to music; he’ll choose a track for every story and play it on repeat (a technique GQ’s Michael Paterniti has also described). When he was writing the Zanesville massacre story, he was listening to “East Hastings,” by Godspeed You Black Emperor; while writing a profile of the late movie critic Roger Ebert, he listened to “Little Motel,” by Modest Mouse.
Other writers have other rituals to help them get “in the zone.” DeGregory starts writing only after she has taken a shower, done laundry, washed the dishes and put her house in order. All this time, she’s thinking about the story, but she’s doing all these little tasks instead of staring at a blank screen. It helps her clear her mind and be more focused when she actually starts working.
Another prerequisite of flow goes back to thorough reporting. Jones says he tries to report a story to the point when he can just tell it, when he knows it “back to front.” Harmon says: “The fun writing comes from when you finally reach the point where you feel like you are authoritative. You can answer any question, you’ve done all the research.”
Purpose as a condition of flow
Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi and Damon, who wrote the book on good work, discovered that journalists tend to produce quality work when they are pursuing a moral mission.
All seven award-winning journalists reinforced that finding. They believe they are serving readers by helping them connect emotionally to characters in their stories, and thus become aware of larger social issues or human conditions.
Harmon sees it as a matter of public service to inform people about the science that impacts their lives in a way that is emotionally gripping. Earlier in her career, she was doing straightforward news and features about science developments for the Times. In 2000, she was part of the paper’s wide-ranging project “How Race is Lived in America,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, and wrote her first longform narrative story, about two business partners of different races in the dot-com boom era. She discovered the power of narrative, and now she tries to address three levels in every story she writes: the science, the individual story of a character, and the bigger story of the social conflict.
Hull has always been interested in people at the outer edges of society. The daughter of an inner-city schoolteacher, she followed an unusual career path, dropping out of college after her freshman year and working various jobs at the St. Petersburg Times (now The Tampa Bay Times) before becoming a reporter. She says her purpose is simply to peel back the curtain on a world readers don’t usually see, without scolding them or pointing a finger at flawed social policies. She just wants to get readers in touch with how other people live.
For Tom Hallman Jr., of The Oregonian, stories of trauma, illness and race came naturally from a decade of covering the police beat as a young reporter. He carved a role for longform narrative at the newspaper and ultimately won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his series “The Boy Behind the Mask,” which described a disfigured teenager’s quest to undergo surgery to improve his appearance.
“The police beat had such a drama, such characters, such a lingo, and the way we were writing it was sterile,” he says. When he started incorporating scenes into his stories, he got positive reactions from readers, so he kept at it. He realized this type of writing got readers more involved with the story and the characters.
DeGregory, who likes writing about “people in the shadows,” especially women, says she sometimes hopes her stories will bring positive changes to the people in them. Other times, she hopes policymakers will regard an issue differently. But with many stories, she just wants people to reflect on their own lives or slightly change their perspective on something.
She gives the example of a story about a 99-year-old man who still goes to work at a fish factory every day. “Nothing happened in that story. There was nothing at stake, there was no movement, but everybody was talking about that story,” she says. She posits that people reacted because they could relate to this man and found meaning in his story.
Stories that have emotion make people stop, think and feel, Hallman says. “In that moment, I take this stranger and this stranger, and I bring them together,” he says. “And that’s the goal, to make them connect and feel something, or read something and be changed, even if it’s for a minute.”
He gives the example of a story he wrote, about a black maid who moved to Portland from a sharecropping farm in the South. She cleaned homes for 55 years and raised five children. They became accomplished professionals, including an attorney, a teacher, a businessman and a nurse. A story like that can change someone who has never gotten to know a black person and might be a “borderline racist,” he says.
“When they start (reading the story) they think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to read another story about an African-American. I’ll bet they’ll be complaining about something,’ ” Hallman says. “And by the time they get to the end of the story they’re weeping. And they have been in the presence of grace, and courage, and wisdom. And it changes their life.”
Sometimes, the writer’s aim is to help people see beyond the headlines they read in newspapers or see on TV and understand how major events impact people’s lives.
David Finkel, now an editor at the Washington Post, has pursued longform narrative journalism since he started his career at the St. Petersburg Times. In 2006, he won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for a piece about American efforts to expand democracy in Yemen. In 2012, he won a MacArthur “genius” grant, becoming one of 16 journalists to have had that distinction.
He considers “the crucial work of (his) writing time” to be the book The Good Soldiers, which he wrote after spending eight months embedded with a U.S. battalion in Iraq. He says he wanted readers to have specific people in mind whenever they heard something about Iraq or any other war or read a headline about another roadside bomb exploding in Afghanistan. “I wanted them to walk away with a fuller understanding of what was going on,” he says. “And I don’t mean just in terms of a war, but in terms of the transformation of these young, eager men into the men they became by the time this was over with.”
In each writer’s life, flow, joy, satisfaction and other positives have alternated with periods of struggle, which varied from deadline stress to deep depression. Like marathon runners in training, the writers have learned to put their feet down step after step: when it feels great, and when it feels awful.
Harmon constantly feels a time pressure, “like editors are breathing down my neck: ‘What exactly are you spending all of this time on?’”
Hull refers to the “new angst” reporters have about exposing the people they write about to merciless online comments. “It’s so mean and ugly, and I almost feel bad for the people I’m going to put through that,” she says.
DeGregory still feels a concern she had when she entered this profession: that she’s not worthy to tell people’s stories. That makes her nervous, sometimes to the point of being sick to her stomach, whenever she embarks on reporting a story. “That’s a huge responsibility, to get someone to open up to you and trust you to tell a story about them to thousands of strangers,” she says. “Am I good enough to do this? Gosh, they gave me this amazing access or insight. I don’t know if I’m magician enough to pull off this trick.”
DeGregory overcomes the concerns by trying to be empathetic with her subjects. When she was younger, she used to build her stories around what other people would say about them. Now she tries to know her subjects well, and “inhabit their minds,” before she lets others weigh in.
Hull says she’s had periods of “extreme struggle,” the most recent last year. “It’s hard to describe. You’re just hitting the wrong chords, and everything you try doesn’t quite work out, and it’s really depressing.” She worked through and beyond those feelings by talking to other journalist friends, whom she calls her “little tribe.”
But Hull says she has never wanted to quit journalism, no matter how difficult the roadblock. “I never not wanted to work. I just wanted to beat it.”
Jones suffered from depression after he finished the story about the soldier killed in Iraq. He suspects that it happened, in part, because he had ended a long-term project and didn’t know what was next. Another reason, he says, was that he had been immersed for months, mind and heart, in a tragic subject.
Getting fully involved is a “deal” you need to make to be able to tell powerful stories, he says. He doesn’t believe in objectivity. “I don’t try to maintain distance; I think that’s a shitty way to treat people,” he says. “If you’re asking them to open up to you, I don’t see how you return that favor by being a wall.”
While all the journalists believe in the value of the work they do, they also talk about the price they pay to do it: long hours, brutal deadlines, the emotional toll of witnessing grief and tragedy, and the impact on their personal lives.
The married writers say they are grateful to spouses for picking up the slack in raising children. Both Jones and Finkel said they weren’t very present as husbands and fathers while they were working on their soldier stories. They feel bad about it and see it as a sacrifice that came with the process.
The women, especially, expressed mixed feelings about their work’s impact on their family life. DeGregory said that while her editor, a man, brings his lunch that his wife had packed with him to work every day, she usually has “a carrot” in her fridge. She doesn’t get to cook for her teenage boys as she would want, and ends up writing late at night, after she drives them to after-school activities.
Harmon, who says she hasn’t been as present of a mother for her 9-year-old daughter as she would have wanted, recalls instances when she would tuck her daughter in and write by her bedside while waiting for her to fall asleep. She says her husband has picked up the slack in raising the child.
“On the other hand, she sees me doing something that I love to do and that I think is important, and that gets a lot of reactions and hopefully makes a difference in the world,” Harmon says. “So I like to think that I am actually being a good parent (in) that I’m modeling that for her.”
Similarly, DeGregory believes her sons are more aware of the world because they’ve had the opportunity to travel with her on stories and be exposed to people and situations ranging from a group of sex offenders living under a bridge in Miami to an art gallery dedicated to foster children.
Hallman was an exception in this regard. He says he’s always put his job in perspective. He usually starts work at 7:30 a.m. and tries to leave the newsroom at 4 p.m. He spends the rest of the time with his family and doing things that “renew (his) spirit,” such as dancing, riding his motorcycle or listening to music. He found that allowing himself that space was essential for his writing. “If you don’t have the balance, you start to become jaded with the world, and you can’t see stories in the world if you look at it as jaded,” he says. “If you’re sitting in the newsroom 12 hours a day, you have nothing left to give the world.”
What journalism has offered them
Of all the journalists included in this analysis, Finkel has probably risked the most, physically and emotionally. In the eight months he spent in Iraq, he was exposed to many of the dangers the soldiers faced, including mortars, rockets and roadside bombs.
He says he doesn’t know if he would have embarked on the assignment had he known what was waiting for him. But once he was there, he focused on his responsibilities as a reporter.
“I wasn’t prepared for it, and it was hard. It was physically frightening,” he says. “But at the same time I was guided by the thought that this is a consequential war in my lifetime and for whatever reason, I’ve been given a good seat to observe it and to write about it, to add to the archives of the war. So don’t complain, don’t screw it up. Just go do the work.”
He felt an immense responsibility to tell the story of how a group of young men were changed after being sent to war. While doing that, he wanted to make sure he wasn’t telling his own story but rather accurately capturing the soldiers’ experiences and emotions. To achieve that, he did a lot of “staying and staying and staying.” He says, “Underneath everything I felt fortunate to be there. If I’m going to be a journalist and I’m going to be a storyteller, well, this is the great story, so shut up and tell it.”
The same kind of gratitude for being able to tell stories was expressed by all seven journalists.
This is ultimately why they go through the difficult parts, and what gives them the sense of purpose necessary to experience flow. The stories they’ve told and the experiences they’ve had along the way added up to fulfilled lives.
At its best, journalism doesn’t feel like work—to Jones, it feels like stealing money, because you’re paid to go meet interesting people and watch amazing things. Finkel feels very lucky to have traveled to five continents, to have seen people “at their very best and their very worst and their very middling, trying to figure life out,” and to have lived a life that’s engaged. “It’s pretty damn luxurious to be able to live a life that feels full of being able to consider things, think through things, see things, ask questions, see life unfolding, … go pretty much where I’ve wanted to go and stay as long as I can and figure stories out and then tell stories,” he says. “I mean, that seems like a pretty good deal.”
Or, as Csikszentmihalyi would say, a sense of participation in determining the content of life, which comes as close to happiness as anything else.
Simina Mistreanu just got her masters in journalism from the University of Missouri. She grew up in Romania and worked as a journalist there for five years before coming to the United States, in August 2011, on a Fulbright scholarship. She is now a resident at The Oregonian and is working on a year-long project writing stories about Roma. She loves Portland, especially for its zippy Argentine tango scene.
Coming Thursday, Part 2: interviews with DeGregory and Finkel; Friday, Part 3: interviews with Hallman and Jones; Tuesday, Part 4: interviews with Harmon and Hull.
*Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times; David Finkel, of the Washington Post; Tom Hallman Jr., of The Oregonian; Amy Harmon, of the New York Times; Anne Hull, of the Washington Post; Chris Jones, of Esquire; Paige Williams, who most recently has written for The New Yorker (Disclosure: Williams edits Storyboard. She spoke with the author before Banaszynski, Mistreanu’s adviser, offered the material for publication, and doesn’t appear in the edited version of this text.)
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