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“Narrative Sweat & Flow,” Part 3: Amy Harmon and Anne Hull
by Simina Mistreanu | December 6, 2013
Editor’s note: The Oregonian’s Simina Mistreanu spoke to seven narrative journalists for her University of Missouri master’s project on longform. On Tuesday, we ran her setup, a piece on the challenges and importance of longform narrative. Thursday, we published her conversations with Pulitzer winners Lane DeGregory and David Finkel. The series ends next week with The Oregonian‘s Tom Hallman Jr. and Esquire‘s Chris Jones. Up today, lightly edited for clarity and length, the New York Times‘ Amy Harmon and the Washington Post‘s Anne Hull.
Amy Harmon won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting, for her “striking examination of the dilemmas and ethical issues that accompany DNA testing, using human stories to sharpen her reports.” She’s the author of Asperger Love, an ebook published by Byliner and the New York Times.
Mistreanu: How do you choose the stories you work on?
Harmon: It kind of depends. My first narrative story, really, was the story that I did that was part of the project at the Times, a big project called “How Race is Lived in America.” That was in 2000. So for that particular story, the editors had chosen a format. They were interested in the relationships between individuals of different races, kind of in everyday life, but in a variety of settings. At the time I was writing about the technology and the Internet. I was doing news and feature stories. I really hadn’t kind of discovered narrative form. For that one it was a little bit set. I did find my characters. So I mean, I had to find my characters and I needed to make sure I had a good setting, but that one was all of it preordained by the editors. The next set of stories that I did, that had more narrative, was the series called “The DNA Age,” which was the series that won the Pulitzer. In that, I really drew a little bit from my own experience. I got interested in the subject because I had just had a baby, and I had been offered genetic testing, and I didn’t know what genetic testing was, so I kept it in the back of my mind that when I came back from maternity leave I would look into what other kind of genetic testing was available. I try to do stories that illuminate some intersection of science and society. And within that, I try to find trends, like maybe something that’s new that’s affecting people’s lives, and then I try to find a narrative vehicle through which to tell the bigger story of the conflict that it’s causing in people’s lives, and in society. So all of those things need to kind of be satisfied, I guess.
Like, for example, the recent story that I did following the development of a genetically modified orange, which might be the first genetically modified fruit, mainstream fruit, that Americans will be able to consume or not consume. There’s sort of a big debate going on about GMO, genetically-modified organisms, are they good, are they bad, are they part of an evil attempt by Monsanto to take over the world, or will they help feed the world? It’s a scientific development, the ability to create genetically modified organisms, genetically modified crops, so I wanted to write about that. But I really only wanted to write about it in a narrative form because it’s been written a lot about already in terms of here’s what Monsanto does, here’s what the other side says. So I was thinking the way to shed light on this would be to find the right vehicle to tell it, and then I stumbled upon a mention of the possibility that orange growers might need to try to develop a genetically modified orange because of a disease that was affecting the orange crop, and I thought, wow, if I can get an orange grower who is trying to do this to talk to me and give me the access that I would need to make a narrative out of this, and follow his journey and the obstacles that he’s facing that would be a contribution to the broader conversation over the social and scientific conflict around it. So I did it. But had I not found that vehicle, I might have just chosen an entirely different subject to write about.
So how important is this, social issues, in your stories? Why is it important for your stories to cover social issues rather than be simple technology or science stories?
It is essential. The sort of social conflict is essential. That is what I’m drawn to write about. And I think because it’s life, science is important. It does affect people’s lives, and often I think science especially more so than issues of policy, or politics, or poverty, or war, which are sort of in our faces a little bit more. It’s hard to avoid them. I think science kind of gets generalized, and it’s in the science section, and we read about it and we write about it in terms of this new development. It’s a news story: This new development happened. We don’t really (look) into how it’s affecting our lives. I am interested in kind of the double-edged nature of what a scientific advance is. It can benefit us, and yet it often poses new problems for us.
What are your favorite parts in this whole process?
My favorite part is definitely the reporting. There are parts of the writing that I love, like at the end. The reporting, because I try to do these narratives that are really observed, they’re kind of like fly-on-the-wall. They’re a different kind of narrative, too, I guess we should say. They’re more explanatory. The narratives that I do really tend to be kind of immersion narratives, story narratives, where it’s all show and very little tell. So I like just being an observer in people’s lives, and getting them to trust me, and writing stuff that’s kind of intimate and trying to understand how these science issues are playing out in people’s lives, up close.
It’s basically the openness you get from people and being able to talk to them and be part of their lives.
Yeah, I guess, I should say over time. That’s a really crucial element in stories that I do, that they take place often over a year, sometimes over two years, or even sometimes I’m reconstructing things that happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago, but often I’m in their lives for at least a year. It’s not like the only thing I’m doing, but that aspect of it, the ability to follow them and kind of get to know them (out of) their lives is the kind of input and the kind of trust and intimacy that you can’t really get when you’re doing a one or two-week story just gathering anecdotes for a little more standard feature story.
Is that more rewarding to you than figuring out the science? You write stories that are narrative, but they also have a strong explanatory part, where you break science apart and then explain it.
Well, that’s true. And I love learning about the science, too. It’s a hard question; it would be hard to separate those two things. Yeah, because my stories do bring together these two different elements, I try to. It’s the people in whose lives the science is playing out. And I really like getting close to the people and getting the whole picture of their lives. But I also spend a lot of time talking to scientists that are not really necessarily involved in the particular story, life story that I’m writing about. Just to make sure that I understand the background. And that’s what I love, too. The parts that I don’t love, there’s always a pressure, a time pressure, and a feeling like editors are breathing down my neck. “What exactly are you spending all of this time on?” So as long as I can kind of block that out. I mean, I also love the reactions. I love when stories get a reaction. It’s very gratifying, especially given all the pressure.
Do you ever get absorbed by your work to the point where you feel like it’s important in itself, you experience time differently, you’re “in the zone”?
Well, yeah. I guess I would say that could happen in two different ways. One is because I’m really part of these other people’s lives for some time. To some extent I’m taken out of my own life. That can be good and bad. It goes with the reporting, and it is in a way enjoyable. It can be disruptive to my own family life because when you’re doing this type of story, you know, things happen on weekends, often families are involved, so you want to be like at a family event, but that means you’re not necessarily at your own family event. But yes, in that sense I do get hooked up in the reporting. I get deeply into the science reporting, too. I keep realizing how much more I need to understand. That happened with this genetically modified food story. I didn’t know anything at the beginning, and I didn’t totally understand what genetic engineering was, and then I had to understand genetic engineering in different contexts. I’m looking at genetic engineering in agriculture, but I wanted to make sure I understood it in medicine and so — yeah, I always have 10 more people I really want to call. So there’s that. That is very pleasurable. Except for the constant feeling like “uh-oh, this is taking way too long.” The writing can be a pleasure. You get to sit down with all of your notes and you try to figure out how to make a story out of them. And then certain parts of writing the story, when the writing is going well — it’s not exactly that I lose sense of time; it’s just that I want to be doing it all the time. I feel like I have something important to say; it’s very hard to figure out how to say it right and how to say it in a way that’s emotionally gripping and that will affect people, but I just want to be doing that all the time.
What do you think makes the difference between when that happens during writing and when it doesn’t happen?
I wish I knew. I wish I could always have the first kind.
Like does it happen when the reporting went particularly well? Is there usually a set of conditions that will make writing enjoyable?
I think 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. So much of this reporting, for me, is distilling huge amounts of information into a theme, into, not even like you come with an explanation, but preferably into some dialogue or some theme where it’s communicated through showing, not telling. You know, I’ve talked to all these scientists, I’ve witnessed all this stuff going on in my characters’ lives, and then I have to find a way to communicate important information both about science and about the plot of the story because I want you to keep reading the story. I have to find a way to distill that in a few lines. When I still don’t completely understand every element of either the science or what’s happening in my characters’ lives, it’s not (ideal). And that’s the tradeoff because I want to do more reporting until I really know. Sometimes I work with that, and I feel like I just have to write it because it’s taking too long, and I’m on deadline, and I’m going to be fired if I don’t write the story. And then, you know, when it’s hard I realize like, okay, despite all of these factors, I have to go back and ask more questions.
What are the most difficult parts of the process for you?
I guess the writing. The writing is harsh. I’ve tried different ways, I’ve tried doing outlines, I’ve — recently, I’ve adopted new technology — I started using this program called Scrivener, which was very helpful, actually, although it took a lot of time. I think it made me more efficient than I used to be when I was using Microsoft Word. But the writing is the most painful part. Just getting the pieces of the story, and the arc of the story, and making sure that the character, the conflict, is clear, and my character changes, and has an evolution, and it’s all kind of trying to illuminate a bigger theme of, you know, trying to communicate scientific information and illuminate the bigger theme of the conflict in society. These are three levels of the story that I’m trying to write in almost every line of the story: the science, the individual story of my character, and the bigger story of the social conflict. So that’s hard; it takes time. I guess the most difficult thing is this feeling of time passing and not doing my job well enough.
I read again and again the first part of the first story in the cancer series. It had a very interesting structure, where you start micro-narratively, and then you go to science, and then you go to the social aspect, and then you go back. Are there certain things you do in order to keep these three levels, to represent them well?
Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, I make outlines in which I note each of these levels to myself, and figure out how I want to work with them. But the most important element in the outline is how to successfully tell the story. And then I have thematic points, like a list of thematic points that are mostly points of information that I try to stick into the outline. Actually I think it’s Jacqui (Banaszynski) who calls it the spinach. You know, leave the spinach out. But I don’t want to leave it out; I want to put it in. So, yeah. That’s what I do. But it’s not a very thorough process that I can really recommend.
You can’t recommend to anyone because —
Well, it’s a little haphazard. I have one that I think is perfect, and then I start writing it and it completely changes, and I sometimes go back to change the outline. So I don’t know whether I’m wasting my time by making the outline and I should stick to writing. I think it really helps, actually, to work from an outline, even if you have to go back and change it. And the other thing I guess I always do is know what the ending is. That’s probably the most important thing to do because I’m writing to an ending. Because the ending is, in most stories, it’s going to kind of bring everything together and make it worth it for the reader to have read my beginning and the middle. So I want it to be a payoff.
You’ve been doing this for how much time now?
Well, I’ve been a reporter — I started right after I graduated from college, in 1990. So that’s like 22 years. But I wasn’t really doing narrative stuff. Is that what you mean?
Yeah, it’s been a long time.
So is it worth it to spend big chunks of your life doing it?
I would say it is. I can’t think of any other job — sometimes I’m a little jealous of my friends who are academics, who, like, have tenure, so you get to kind of breathe, and I have to worry about deadlines. It’s hard because there’s so much pressure. But I can’t advise a better job than my job because I realize I get to spend months learning about new things that are important to the world and then writing this out into a story that will hopefully make a difference to the world. I love the work. I do complain about it constantly. I should say that, too. If you asked my husband, I don’t know if he would say that I love it because, you know, he sees the other side. He sees how stressed out I get when I’m feeling like it’s going too slowly or it’s so hard.
What do you hope to achieve, ideally, through your work?
I hope to communicate a better understanding of the important science that is affecting our world with stories that are emotionally gripping. I don’t think people pay so much attention to science stories that are just telling it straight. I think it’s really important for a functioning society that the majority of the citizens understand climate change or genetic diseases, or cancer, things that I’ve written about, why it’s happening the way it is, why it’s unfolding the way it is or why it’s not unfolding the way it is. So I think that people don’t really understand it that well, or often are suspicious of scientists or are not sure what to believe. I think the best way to explain it is through stories that are emotionally gripping because everyone loves the story. They won’t mind that it’s about science if they are drawn into a sympathetic character facing a conflict that has to be resolved. You know, the classic narrative form. And that’s what I’m hoping to do, illuminate these scientific trends through classic narrative form.
I’ve been asking people about how they manage to strike a balance between their work and family lives. And the men I’ve talked to so far, I think all of them told me that while I was working on that book or that story, my wife could tell you that I was not a very good husband or father because I was so absorbed and dedicating so much time and attention to it that I was not so much involved in the family life. How does that work when you’re a woman?
Yeah, well. Honestly, I’m very lucky that my husband takes up a lot of slack for taking care of — we have one daughter, who’s 9. You know, she’s young and needs a lot of care. So you know, when I’m traveling or when I’m writing 24 hours a day, when I’m rolling out of bed and writing, you know, I really depend on him to help. And it’s not easy for him. I’m not as present of a partner, and it definitely has put strain on our relationship, as I say, to be candid, and you know, the only thing that kind of saves it is that it’s going to be over eventually. But of course, with these stories, people always ask, what’s your deadline? There’s not like a strict deadline. A lot of it depends on what I get and editing it, and if I can answer all my set of questions, so that’s part of it, too, is that you don’t know when it’s going to be over. It used to be that I would be putting her to bed and I would be writing by the side of her bed, waiting for her to fall asleep, but at least I would be keeping her company. And now she’s more able to tell me to stop working. So, you know, you could say that’s not being a good parent. On the other hand she sees me doing something that I love to do and that I think is important and that gets lot of reactions and hopefully makes a difference in the world, so I like to think that I am actually being a good parent that I’m modeling that for her.
Anne Hull won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, with colleagues Dana Priest and Michel du Cille, for “exposing mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, evoking a national outcry and producing reforms by federal officials.” She is a former Nieman Fellow, Class of 1995.
Ever since the 1990s, you’ve been writing stories about race and class and immigrants. What drew you toward that area?
I’ve just always been interested in people at the outer edges of society. The nonmajority class. I don’t want to use the word “minority,” but those who are outside the majority and who are sometimes marginalized, who are strivers but who are trying to get closer to that middle. It’s just naturally what I’ve always been interested in. Some journalists write about the powerful; I just tend to write about those without power. It’s partly because it’s the social justice mission, but I just also love hanging out and reporting in those kind of niche worlds. It’s a lot more raw experience trying to figure out how to get ahead. And that’s largely why I do it. It’s most intellectually satisfying, but it’s also most personally satisfying.
You said that reporting is more rewarding in those environments.
It is for me because I like it. If you were to take a congressional reporter, they would probably be bored out of their mind because it’s a different rhythm. In this sort of reporting, you’re really staying with people for a long time. And you’re watching hours and hours of nothing happen. And you just have to be prepared for when that moment happens. And that’s not like traditional reporting. Or, again, you take a more formal, official reporter, who might cover Congress. The off-camera detail, so to speak, how people think and feel and smell and the dialogue, that really has very little place in traditional reporting. So just as I wouldn’t be crazy about going to Congress and covering something, it’s a different skill set, really. It’s also how you talk to people. Sometimes there’s more formal, I say formal, I don’t mean it’s better, but when you deal in a more official realm you might not speak to people who, you know, are on the street, or in the shelter, or in a bad situation, locked up, whatever. I just have always felt more at ease in that world.
When did you discover that you liked these types of stories?
It’s all I’ve always done. I literally started doing this sort of stuff from the very get-go. I have kind of a different background. I didn’t go to college. I went to college for one year — I went to Florida State University — and prior to going off to college, I was hired at the St. Pete Times newsroom, St. Petersburg, Fla. And so I started working in a newsroom when I was 18. Went off to college for a year. I don’t know, for whatever reason I didn’t like it, I was homesick, I missed working in a newsroom, so I went back to the newsroom and learned everything there. You know, I went to the weather desk, and then I went to the city desk, really just doing — they’re not minimum-wage jobs, but around that area. But it was always in a newsroom. The features editor sent me to a Madonna concert to write about the phenomenon of Madonna. Opportunities such as that. And then just slowly from there I kind of worked my way up. Luckily, the St. Pete Times was, and is, a fantastic, not only newspaper, but learning environment. David Finkel worked there then, and Tom French. (Narrative) is a tradition that that paper encourages. And had it been today, I’m not sure it would have worked out that way, you know? So I was just allowed to sort of come up in a very unusual way. And I didn’t have to go through the normal channels of college, internships, and then trying to find a first job. I just stayed at the St. Pete Times. And then only when I was a reporter after, I don’t know, seven years, I could then go cover cops. And then I was put on the courts beat. So I did things all in reverse. But in terms of just wanting to cover people who are outliers financially or economically or socially, racially, ethnically, that’s just always been something I’ve been interested in. My mom was a middle school principal whose most fulfilling days were in scrappy schools in tough neighborhoods. Maybe we’re just the same.
What do you hope to accomplish with these stories?
Just in a very basic sense to get readers in touch with how other people live. And I never want to, you know, be scolding to readers or poke a stick in the eye of a certain social policy. I really want to just kind of peel the curtain back on a world that they don’t see. And if I can do that, that’s sort of the best I can hope for. You know, these sort of stories often don’t bring results like journalists are trained to bring. The best example of this sort of stuff is Katherine Boo from the Washington Post. For instance, she wrote a piece in The New Yorker called “The Marriage Cure” during the Bush White House years. Did you read the piece?
An easy route would have been to use the whole piece to talk about how bad the Bush policies were. Instead, she did just an incredible portrayal of poverty and how hard it is to get out of it. I’m not saying all we can hope for, but that’s a big step, to get people to engage and to think about these issues in a new way. The circumstances around the Walter Reed reporting were different. And that was just like, there were Senate hearings, and the world was turned upside down, and conditions for soldiers were improved, and I had never experienced something like that. Most reporters never do experience something like that. But for me it was especially new because I’m used to writing about issues people don’t care so much about. But for the soldiers they cared, right? And it was an investigative piece somewhat.
What are your favorite parts of your work?
It depends on the story, but usually it’s reporting. That’s my favorite time. Just because I’m a voyeur, and I love to be in someone else’s world. It’s just the best, you know? You’re living on their time schedule, you’re living where they live, you’re doing what they do, you’re eating what they do, you’re observing what they do. It’s anthropological in a way, but that’s my favorite time. The most difficult time is the beginning of the writing process, which is extremely hard for me. Take a writer like David Finkel. He is extremely structured. He knows where he is going to start and where he is going to end up in a story, whether it’s a short story or a book. I’m not at all like that. I kind of, you know, the analogy would be say there’s a big forest, and Finkel would take his machete, and he knows where he’s going to get to the middle. I’m sort of dropped off in the middle, and I start blindly hacking my way out. It’s just a different process. So for me the beginning stages of writing are the toughest, and the best stage of writing is redrafting. Once I have a draft, that’s really when I get started: Okay, now I know what it’s about, and now I can go. So I would say reporting is the best part of the process, and then redrafting second to that.
How do you write your first draft? Do you have a structure, or do you write?
I try to organize my notes very well. I always keep my notes, transcribe right away if it’s possible. If I’m on the road, in a hotel room, that’s what you try to do. You try to do it every day so you don’t get behind. And so it’s fresh. So I keep that good organization, the file; it’s a huge Word document. And it’s broken up into chronology of reporting and also subjects in the reporting, like characters if you will. But I call them subjects. And then you try to do an outline. Some editors say — David Maraniss, for instance — that in a piece of 3,000 words, you can probably get four, five themes across. And you think about themes, as opposed to the exact, you know, what you’re doing in the next step. But for me I think what works best is doing an outline and at least forcing myself to have a little bit of a map to start. Otherwise, you’re just kind of lost. For me, doing an outline is like sitting down and doing trigonometry. It’s not fun. Not fun at all, but you have to do it. My mind just doesn’t think linearly.
During reporting, like some of these places where you report are difficult. In the Walter Reed series, the people were going through all sorts of suffering and problems. How do you deal with situations like that?
You know, the first objective is to get the story. So you’re really thinking about how you can get the story. And with Walter Reed it was more complicated because we didn’t want to get discovered. So we had to do all this reporting without anyone finding out. There’s just a lot of logistics to that. And, of course, you’re seeing some terrible, heartbreaking things. I tend to see a lot of those in a lot of stories I do. This was just a little bit more extreme because you have physically and psychologically injured, demolished people. And it does wear on you, but every reporter has different coping mechanisms. While I’m in the moment, reporting, I don’t want to say it doesn’t bother me, but you’re so focused on getting exactly what you need that the feelings are deferred. And usually once the piece is published, maybe after the second day, that’s when you’re kind of like, “ah, holy cow!” Then you start feeling everything. When I have one of those big stories in, and it publishes, and there’s no problems with it — you know that by the second or third day — then it’s just an utter emotional collapse. You’re just exhausted. And sad, often.
Is this how it happens even when you have several weeks to work on a story?
Yeah. Usually. What’s a good example of a daily? Okay. I had to go cover Hurricane Katrina. And that was very difficult reporting logistically and also emotionally. But again, I was writing every day — not every day but very often — you don’t have time to really feel, although in Katrina for some reason it kind of got to me, and I had a couple of hard days even getting through my day. It was just really upsetting. Usually when you do those longer-term things, you’re with somebody so long you stop being surprised. When you see a soldier without legs, missing an arm or a head bastion, it’s terrifying at first, but then it becomes more normal because it’s all you’re seeing.
And you’re thinking about the story and what —
You’re thinking, “What do I need? What do I need to ask?” And that again, that was an extra layer of complication because we couldn’t get found out. So I’m basically doing all of my reporting in a place that I can’t be seen there. That was very difficult logistically. But think of what you’re trying to get at, is do you ever feel sad, and how do you deal with it? And, yes, of course I do, but I think most reporters would say that you couldn’t function if you just crumbled. You have to get through it. And you’re very focused on getting everything you need. Because your adrenaline is usually getting pretty high, and you’re very focused on getting what you need. The best thing you can do is get what you need. There was a situation in Katrina where people really needed help, and I was asked to help people get out of New Orleans, and that was really difficult for me. I had just written a story on someone, and she wanted a ride out, and I couldn’t give it to her. But before I said yes, I couldn’t do it, I called my editor. He says, “You know, you’re not a first-aid worker. Your job is to report what’s happening.” And that’s really hard. It’s easy for an editor in Washington to say continue with your reporting, but it’s hard for me to look that person in the eye, who has just given me three hours, and say, “I’m sorry; I can’t help you.”
How do you relate to people you write about? How do you see your role as it relates to them?
I’m just a reporter. I’m not a friend. I’m just a reporter, following them everywhere. Sometimes I’m quiet, and other times I ask questions, but it’s just basic reporting. I don’t really relate per se. I’m just with them all the time. It’s more a question of not relating, but when to ask your questions, when to watch and be quiet, and when to ask your questions. But you always want to remind them that you are not a friend, that you are a reporter. People tend to let down their guard after days or weeks go by, so it’s a fine line between always reminding them that you’re on the clock, and this is a job, and you’re working, but you also need them to open up as much as possible. It’s a double-edged sword. But I just always make sure they know I’m a reporter and I’m here to do a story; I’m not here to hang out and drink beer.
Do you get attached to people you spend more time with?
Sure. Some more than others. It’s just like normal life. You kind of click with some people better than others. It makes the job a little more difficult when you don’t click with somebody, or when you don’t like somebody, or when you see them doing bad things, so that’s when you just again have to reserve judgment almost like you reserve emotion when you’re upset.
You said your second-favorite part is rewriting, redrafting. Why is that more pleasant than the first draft?
Because once you have a first draft, you have something to work with. Think of it — an analogy would be sculpture. Is it easier to take a big block of ice and start there, or is it easier to me to take an ice block that’s already been kind of started, and then you can go in and do stuff. It’s just a temperamental preferential thing I like to do. It’s getting that first draft down and telling myself that first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. I’m just trying to get the building blocks down so that I can then really start to work. Everyone is different. Finkel, he’s mostly a one-draft guy. He writes 85 percent of what’s in the paper. I tend to in my first draft to write 50 or 60 percent, and I often do two or three write-throughs, which I love doing. A lot of reporters think it’s an insult to have to go back and write again, but I’m really, I pray that I’m asked that.
Writers who have described experiencing flow say they’re completely absorbed by what they’re doing and sometimes lose track of time. Do you ever experience that, and if yes, in what parts of the process?
What do you mean? Like I spend a lot of time watching subjects work. What do you mean in terms of me feeling that?
Does it ever happen that you get so absorbed by your work that it flows? Do you get into “the zone?” Or is it always completely conscious and rational?
Yes, sometimes time flies. Like two days pass, and you’re not really aware that two days have passed. Other times it’s more tedious. It just depends on the story. I did a story once on a group of Mexican women that come from the central highlands of Mexico and went to North Carolina to work in the crab houses. And basically I stood on concrete eight or nine hours a day watching them pick crabs, and the time does go slowly then. So I’m absorbed in it at first, but after a few weeks doing that, you have to find ways and little tricks to keep engaged because the minute you kind of go offline, you’re not going to be reporting, so it’s best just to walk away from the situation. But yes, in some situations reporting is tedious. In others it just flies by.
What is your favorite story that you’ve done so far?
One of the favorites is the crab-picking story, for the St. Petersburg Times, called “Una Vida Mejor.” That has a special place because I love journey stories, and that was ultimately a journey story. A journey across geography, and a journey across race, and a journey across class. And, you know, it was a bus ride. It was just great. It was a road trip in some ways. And I loved being with those women during that experience, watching everything. In total, that has a special place for me. But I did a story on second-generation immigrants in Atlanta, in the South, and that was awesome at the time, and I did a story on gay teenagers, which was great. So stories that I can really sink into are the ones that I’m closest to. And I keep in touch with half the people I write about, so I think that’s a sign of a connection that’s formed. I mean, now it’s a little different because you’re always nervous as a reporter to get the facts right, obviously, and to get the themes right, but now there’s this thing where social media and people comment, and readers comment, and it’s really a cruel experience for the subject. I have to balance sort of warning them of what it’s going to be like. Some people say, “Don’t read the comments.” Well, that’s kind of impossible. You’re going to read the comments if you’re written about. It’s just brutal, so mean and ugly, and I almost feel bad for the people I’m going to put through that. That’s the new angst, you know?
If you were to have a few like best-practice pieces of advice for when you’re working on stories like these, what would they be?
First of all, if you can make sure you’re interested in it, that’s kind of the first. Are you curious about it? You have to be curious about it or it’s not going to work. You’re just going to be kind of going through the motions. And the other best practices, it’s really the amount of time you can spend to get to know the individual and to get as close to the truth as possible, whatever the truth is. A lot of that investment in time, in reporting, is no longer available to journalists. I’ve always told journalists who, you know, want to know how to do it, how to get ahead, it’s like, “You know what? You have to do what you want, but you have to work for a place that’s going to support the kind of writing you do.” If it’s a little, tiny paper in North Dakota that will hire you, you need to go there and to get the experience. So many people want to start out at a big paper, and it’s not going to happen. You have to have the patience to go through those steps of a career. It’s the only way you learn stuff. The only way you learn journalism is to do it. It’s not like medical school, where you really have to learn something. You don’t have to go to journalism school to learn how to be a journalist.
When did you start journalism?
1985. Almost 30 years. Unbelievable.
Was it worth it?
Oh, yes. A million times over. I couldn’t do anything else. I can waitress, but there’s nothing else I know how to do. Yeah, it’s a great time to be a journalist. I feel like I lived in a golden age of journalism, whatever that was, and we’re probably entering a new age, and it’s neat to be able to straddle these two worlds. I mean with the Post just being purchased by Jeff Bezos — who knows how we’ll conceive of the possibilities? I’ve lived the best professional life I could ever want, and it’s giving me a real life, you know? You can’t break the two apart.
What do you feel that journalism has brought you?
A sense of — gosh — you can do something with your curiosity that’s productive. I’ve always been a curious person, always as a little kid. Like spying, you know, just very, very curious. Question-asking to the point of annoyance; so this is something that you can kind of do and reveal to others how a certain world works. It just fits naturally with my personality and what I like to do.
Does it get better with time?
It depends. You really have to keep mixing up what you do, or you will feel like it’s deja vu, Groundhog Day, though always wrestling with the same fundamentals. It’s a little harder for writers who don’t want to become editors. So we stay writers, but it’s a different sort of adrenaline feeling when you’re 50 years old than it was at 30, so you just have to keep picking stories that keep you interested, and keep working for a place that allows you to do that; that’s the other side of it.
Mixing it up means —
Mixing it up could mean doing a piece with another writer — you know, when Dana Priest and I teamed up on Walter Reed, that was mixing it up. I almost never wrote stories with anyone else. That was brand new. Maybe going back and doing dailies, which I’m not very good at; that’s one way to mix it up. You could take a break and edit for one year, or you could change beats. You just always have to be thinking, how am I going to stay interested? Because if you’re not interested, it really shows in the writing.
Have you ever thought about doing something else?
Never. I’ve had periods of extreme struggle, but never like I wanted to do something else. It’s hard to describe. You’re just like hitting the wrong chords, and everything you try doesn’t quite work out, and it’s really depressing. So you have to figure out ways to get through that. And for me it’s other writer friends. You just need your little tribe around you to kind of whine to or express your fears, all that stuff.
Was that like a writing block?
It’s kind of everything. It’s a confusion over what you want to say in a story, a difficulty with the writing; you might pick a subject who’s not easy to write about, and all these things combine to make it a really difficult experience. You know, writing is very tied to confidence, and if your confidence is shaken, it’s more difficult. No other way to put it.
But can you be not confident after you’ve had a successful career, after you’ve won a Pulitzer?
Oh, yeah. It can happen to any of us any time. So sure. There’s no way to say what brings it on. You just don’t know. But it’s very stressful because you’re used to having things — nothing’s ever easy, but you’re used to having things work out a little more.
When you choose your stories, do you ever wonder, what is a category of people who are having a really bad time now? Should I try to find someone and tell that story, or is it just — how do you choose your stories?
Well, first of all it’s how do you choose your topic, and then how do you choose the subjects is a separate matter. Say it’s immigration. Then your choosing of the subject, of the person, tells the story one way or another. I would never really choose to do a story about immigration, and then have the character or the subject be someone who’s just made it and they’re on top. You want to find those people who are struggling, who are ascending and on the way up. That’s the story of immigration. Everybody writes the story about a successful person. So I spend a lot of time trying to think, okay, what is my responsibility for the news? For instance, when I did that immigration series I had to study the census really hard to see where immigration was happening. And I also then had to drill down further and say, what kinds of jobs are those new immigrants having in the South? So that means I do have to get someone from the service class because that’s where the news is. So you select based on trends and facts, but then when it comes to a person, it comes down to two things: Will they talk to me? Will they let me get in their life for three weeks, or three months? And then the second criterion for me is can they articulate their thoughts? They don’t have to be Shakespeare, they don’t have to be great in English language, but they have to have that ability to kind of express their thoughts. Honestly.
So now do you have any issues that you really want to cover in the future?
I would love to cover the idea of suffering and deprivation in America; what our idea is of going without. It’s very difficult to write about the people at the high end. They’re just private. They don’t want any — the analogy is the gated community. That’s how they live their lives; they don’t want a reporter; they’re private people. Whereas lower-income people, people without a big stake in things, they let you come in and write everything. So one reason you see so many stories on people in the lower tiers is because they’re accessible. And it’s very difficult to get people at the higher end to let you do that. I like to think about ways to do that. There are certain writers who have done it successfully, so I see how they have done it and study that way.
Who are some writers that you like?
In this realm or in general? There is a reporter, Robert Frank, from the Wall Street Journal. He wrote a story, it was a collection of reportage, but maybe 10, looking at really rich people in America. It was called Richistan, and it was about this community of ultra-rich people and how they made it. But each one let the reporter, Frank, into his life or her life. And so that’s the kind of stuff I’m really interested in. Again, it’s more that anthropological stuff. But you have to convince people to let you in, and almost every reporter I talk to now, as social media gets bigger, as the web is more present in our lives, it is more and more difficult to get people to let you into their lives. And I’m talking from every strata. They’ll always say, “What’s in it for me? Why should I?” And often you don’t really have a good answer. So you always have to think about that before you even ask someone: Why should they? Why should they do it? What’s in it for them? You know, I’ve had the mother of a gay teenager in the Bible Belt in Oklahoma say — you know, if I was going to write about this kid, Michael; he was 17, 16 at the time, he was just coming out, very evangelical community — and his mother said to me, “Will this hurt Michael?” And I couldn’t answer. I said, “I don’t know.” All she had in her mind was Matthew Shepherd, of course. But I can’t say, “No, this won’t hurt Michael. Nothing will happen.” Because you really don’t know, and that’s what’s really hard, to look at someone and say, “I don’t know.”
Is that important in telling the story of poverty? Is that part of it, or is it just a completely different thing?
In terms of asking a more wealthy person to let me write about them? Oh, yeah. Really the bar is 20 times higher for people who are wealthy, and it’s almost impossible. You can see this with the crash of Wall Street and with the rich Wall Street guys, you’ve hardly seen any personal profiles on them. Either the ones who were presidents of these hedge fund houses, or even the ones who went to jail or the bankers who’ve been indicted. You don’t see any personal profiles on them, and there’s a reason: They don’t want it.
What would you tell someone who is starting out in journalism? Why is this profession worth it?
It’s nothing you can ever force. I think of medicine sometimes, parents want you to grow up to be a doctor, and you’re smart so you’re like, yeah, sure, I’ll be a doctor. But with journalism it’s not really like that; you have to want to do it, and you’re not going to make a lot of money, and you have to be comfortable with that. So why should you do it? If you like to do it, it’s the best job in the world. There’s nothing more satisfying than telling someone’s story and illuminating a problem. But it does take a lot of work, and I notice with a lot of the younger generation, they kind of want to stay at the desk all day and do stuff on the computer, but that’s not really reporting. They sometimes have difficulty even talking to people face to face. Students often email me questions. And I ask them to call me on the phone. At some point, you’re going to have to deal with humans, hear their voice or look them in the eye; that’s half the battle of reporting. It’s a matter of fairness. The rising generation is just — temperamentally, it’s more difficult for them to interact with humans. There has to be human contact in reporting.
Maybe there is more interaction via social media than anything else.
Absolutely. But you can see, as a reporter, you can see the limitations in that. It’s great if you want to meet someone in a bar or whatever, but in terms of getting information from them for a story, it’s not the best.
Why is it like a gift to be able to tell someone’s story?
I don’t know why it’s a gift. I just consider it a gift because I love doing it.
So it’s like a circle.
I consider it a privilege more than anything to be able to go into someone’s lives, enter their world and hang out and observe them. It would not be possible without them. So when I get to come into that other world, it’s a privilege to spend time reporting on them; that’s how I look at it.
Do you see yourself ever doing anything different?
No, not really. I enjoy teaching. I taught at Princeton a couple of years ago with a seminar of 16 students. We spent the entire semester on covering the marginalized, the outlaw, the in-between dweller. Many of the students come from a comfortable background, so it was interesting for all of us.
Coming Tuesday: Part 4, conversations with Tom Hallman Jr., of the Oregonian, and Chris Jones, of Esquire.
Simina Mistreanu just got her master’s 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 yearlong project writing stories about Roma. She loves Portland, especially for its zippy Argentine tango scene.
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