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“Why’s this so good?” — The Spring Break edition

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In our “Why’s this so good?” series, contributors break down a favorite piece of journalistic storytelling. In honor of this, the season of Spring Break, three great reads in first-person major, on excursions tinged with existentialism. Megan Garber, Paul Kix and Brent McDonald revisit an ocean voyage, a music festival and a county fair.

Megan Garber, a Nieman Lab alum who now writes for The Atlantic, chose the David Foster Wallace piece “Shipping Out,” in which Wallace, on behalf of Harper’s, famously applies his acute observational powers to the experience of taking a cruise. Garber writes:

Megan Garber

Megan Garber

The brochure, like the Luxury Cruise itself, is not an invitation so much as an exhortation. It requires things of you, the carefree vacationer, the primary among them being that YOU WILL HAVE FUN. It’s persuasion that takes the persuading for granted.

This is advertising (i.e., fantasy-enablement), but with a queerly authoritarian twist. Note the imperative use of the second person and a specificity out of detail that extends even to what you will say (you will say “I couldn’t agree more” and “Let’s do it all!”). You are, here, excused from even the work of constructing the fantasy, because the ads do it for you.

You are excused, in other words, from choice – and thus, finally, from yourself. “The promise is not that you can experience great pleasure but that you will,” Wallace says.

They’ll make certain of it. They’ll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun. Your troublesome capacities for choice, error, regret, dissatisfaction, and despair will be removed from the equation. You will be able – finally, for once – to relax, the ads promise, because you will have no choice.

Again, the lack of subtlety here is powerful. “You will have no choice” ranks among the most chilling sentences in the English language; Wallace plunges us into it. The advertisement, the embodiment of the Nadir’s ethic of cheery indenture, literally surrounds Wallace’s discussion of the ship’s constraints. The mandatory fun is inescapable.

Brent McDonald

Brent McDonald

Brent McDonald, the Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times’ video unit, also chose a Wallace piece, “A Ticket to the Fair,” in which Wallace went home to Central Illinois to cover a county fair for a 1994 issue of Harper’s. McDonald writes:

The “fun” here is not so much what happens on the press tour or on carnie rides or at livestock shows, but rather how our narrator internalizes each situation. His downstate subjects accept a certain amount of discomfort for the sake of genuine excitement. They recover, ignore, laugh, brush off. Our narrator, on the other hand, has a harder time. Wallace flees, he frets, his stomach turns. Episode after dramatic episode — it’s a bit like channel surfing, the way he flits from one scene to another — causes him distress and alarm. Call it pandering to readers’ hunger for suffering, but his fragility adds a certain white-knuckled element to an otherwise ho-hum affair.

Paul Kix, an editor at ESPN The Magazine, went with John Jeremiah Sullivan‘s celebrated “Upon This Rock,” in which Sullivan, on assignment for GQ, rents an RV and camps out at the nation’s largest Christian-rock concert. Here’s Kix:

The employee who rings up the 29-footer is a woman named Debbie. “She was a lot to love,” Sullivan writes, “with a face as sweet as birthday cake beneath spray-hardened bangs.” (Do you not immediately know this woman?) Meanwhile, the inside of the RV, “smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun.” Outside, a man named Jack helps Sullivan inspect everything else:

Paul Kix

Paul Kix

We toured the outskirts of my soon-to-be mausoleum. It took time. Every single thing Jack said, somehow, was the only thing I’d need to remember. White water, gray water, black water (drinking, showering, le devoir). Here’s your this, never ever that. Grumbling about “weekend warriors.” I couldn’t listen, because listening would mean accepting it as real, though his casual mention of the vast blind spot in the passenger-side mirror squeaked through, as did his description of the “extra two feet on each side”—the bulge of my living quarters—which I wouldn’t be able to see but would want to “be conscious of” out there. Debbie followed us with a video camera, for insurance purposes. I saw my loved ones gathered in a mahogany-paneled room to watch this footage; them being forced to hear me say, “What if I never use the toilet—do I still have to switch on the water?”

It is so much fun to read a John Jeremiah Sullivan story.

For our full “Why’s this so good?” archive, go here.

Want to write great narrative? Study screenwriting.

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“That’s all fine,’’ the L.A. film executive said briskly, “but who’s the antagonist?’’

Cut to: Me, author of a soon-to-be published biography of the 1940s/’50s wrestler and pop culture figure who called himself Gorgeous George. I’m on the phone with the woman in charge of selling HarperCollins books to the movies. Time: 2008 or so.

Back story: I’d called her up, excited about my book’s cinematic prospects. George found his flamboyant fame by bleaching his hair blond and putting it up in women’s hairdos; dressing in elaborate, effeminate gowns; adopting arrogant airs — and then wrestling like a maniac in the ring. So it’s inherently a visual story, I told my L.A. contact, and a very kinetic one — a moving picture. Plus, the outrageous George is a great role for some male actor who wants to go completely over the top onscreen, as G.G. did in real life.

Cut back to: Her, not convinced.

Her first doubt had to do with that antagonist, or lack of one. Who was the bad guy — the Doctor No or the Sauron — the hero has to vanquish in this story? “The antagonist could be a person, or even Nature, like in The Perfect Storm,’’ she explained. “But there’s got to be a powerful negative force that acts to keep the hero from achieving his goals.’’

Me: “Well, George drank himself to death at age 48, so I think he was his own worst enemy.’’

Her, instantly shooting back: “Not in the movie he isn’t.’’

***

That was my first exposure to movie-think, the Hollywood conventional wisdom on how and why stories work on screen. Since she was only interested in big-budget, big-studio movies, her take was extremely conventional.

I didn’t buy it; I’d seen movies with antiheroes, and flawed or self-destructive protagonists. Often, those were the movies I admired. So I thought no more of it until I hit a narrative wall, trying to structure the longest story I’d ever told and bring George, my most complex character, to life. Rick Marin, a friend of mine who writes for TV and film, as well as print, told me the same thing the L.A. woman eventually had told me: “Read some screenplay books. Those people are all about story and structure — and they definitely know how to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell.”’

So I read screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s opus, Story; Blake Snyder’s ultra-accessible Save the Cat!; and Syd Field’s Screenplay, among others, and they helped tremendously. As I suspected, screenplay writing — the way these books explain it — is extremely formulaic. A script must be 110 to 115 pages long or it goes in the wastebasket. If the inciting incident (more on that later) doesn’t happen by Page 15, every producer in Hollywood will stop reading. And yes, most mainstream movies are crass and commercial. Mind you, this is what working screenwriters tell me; it’s not my snobbery talking.

Yet, screenwriting is still a uniquely creative art as well as a fiendishly difficult craft. And as anyone who’s ever been moved by a movie knows, screenwriters work in a very powerful storytelling medium. That puts those of us who aren’t writing screenplays at an advantage: Unlike script scribes, we don’t have to adhere to mainstream movie formulae. Instead, we can borrow the elements that best serve our stories, and dump the rest. (Makers of smaller, independent movies are also freer to avoid these cliché’s, or to turn them on their heads.) To use a big-screen term, we can adapt screenwriting techniques to other forms of narrative, including nonfiction.

gorgeous george book cover capouyaIn what was perhaps a sign that these cinematic lessons took hold, I sold the movie rights to Gorgeous George (for many times what I got paid for the book). Since then, I’ve worked a bit with the man charged with turning Gorgeous George into a feature (as yet unproduced), and I’ve talked to other successful screenwriters as well. Here are some techniques we can appropriately appropriate to help us craft stories, render characters and structure narratives.


Story: The logline

You may be familiar with the “elevator pitch,” a 30-second distillation of a proposed movie, delivered to someone in Hollywood power. Screenwriter and author Blake Snyder stresses a version he calls the logline. This, he writes, is  “a one- or two-sentence grabber that tells us everything.” Ideally, the logline reveals who the protagonist is; the challenge he faces; the antagonist; and the stakes on this quest (the higher the better). So, for one very successful mainstream movie, a logline could read: “A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.” (Note: a logline is not a tagline, which is a marketing slogan, such as this one from Alien: “In deep space, no one can hear you scream.”)

For narrative journalists, your elevator is the newsroom. Keeping your pitches as pithy as possible will get better responses from assigning editors. Pitching aside, the logline can help focus the reporting and writing for both shortform and longform narratives. Creating — and, crucially, hewing to — a logline can help you better understand what you really have to offer in a given story, and to stay focused on that essential idea throughout the work.

Ben Montgomery, the terrific reporter/writer for the Tampa Bay Times, uses loglines for his long narratives. “Early in the reporting,” he told me, “I think: ‘If I had to pitch this story in two sentences, what would I say? What is the central idea, or driving question, that would pull readers through the story?’ It helps bring my stories into sharper focus. Then, when it comes to writing, I take that logline and try to wrap every fact around it, like stripes on a barber pole.”

For his 2011 story on an infamous Florida lynching, for example, the logline was:

“A lynch mob brutally killed a man in 1934 and got away with it. Why, to this day, is a small Florida town still protecting the killers?”

I love his analogy, “like stripes on a barber pole.” That’s what creating a logline allows you to do: stay on or close to the one true path, the line that runs through your story in its best, strongest form. That also means that if some great scene or quirky character just won’t wrap around the pole, it’s got to go.

Remembering Matthew Power

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The magazine world suffered a deep loss Monday with the death of writer Matthew Power. An adventure-loving contributor to Harper’sVQR, Outside, GQ and The Atavist, among others, Power died, reportedly of heat stroke, while on assignment for Men’s Journal, in Uganda. He was following the British explorer Levinson Wood, who is attempting to hike the length of the Nile. MJ reports that Power, 39, “fell ill, lost consciousness and died a few hours later.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 5.28.10 PM

Power reported in 60 countries and all 50 states. His work took him to jungles, deserts, mountains, rivers. “He covered conflict, climbed mountains, and followed in the exploratory footsteps of so many unfortunate travelers of yore in order to write his own account of what such trips felt like today, to a modern consciousness,” wrote his friend Tom Bissell. “This last piece was his specialty. They were why we read him, why people sent him places. He did those pieces better than anyone. Matt was living testimony to a core belief of mine, a belief shaped by my many conversations on the subject with Matt: If you travel, you must trust. Openness is not gullibility. A willingness to be vulnerable does not endanger you.”

Power’s fans and friends were legion, Storyboard among them. (He thrilled us, most recently, by agreeing to write a piece for our “Why’s this so good?” series.) The New York Daily News‘ Harry Siegel spent a year with Power as a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, and as he put it: “Matt was every wonderful storyteller you meet at a bar or a party — except his stories were true, he put in the hard work to set them on the page, not just talk them dead, and his company didn’t disappoint when you sobered up.”

Friends and colleagues have spent much of the day sending comfort to Power’s wife, the journalist Jessica Benko, and filing Facebook and Twitter remembrances. (We Storified some here.) The Men’s Journal editors compiled a must-read list of Power’s pieces, as have Harper’s, VQR and Outside“The kind of stories I’ve gotten to do have involved fulfilling my childhood fantasies of having an adventurous life,” he recently told Longform.org. Some of our favorites:

Mississippi Drift,” for Harper’s, published six years ago this month:

For several years, beginning when I was six or seven, I played a hobo for Halloween. It was easy enough to put together. Oversized boots, a moth-eaten tweed jacket, and my dad’s busted felt hunting hat, which smelled of deer lure; finish it up with a beard scuffed on with a charcoal briquette, a handkerchief bindle tied to a hockey stick, an old empty bottle. I imagined a hobo’s life would be a fine thing. I would sleep in haystacks and do exactly what I wanted all the time.

The Lost Buddhas of Bamiyan,” also Harper’s, March 2005:

Up toward a high pass, we scramble through unrepaired washouts from the spring rains. The difficulty of the road drives home the primary fact preventing Afghanistan from being truly unified or modernized. The geography is mind-bogglingly severe, the easiest way between two points scarcely ever a straight line. The road from Kabul to Herat requires a thousand-mile detour through Kandahar. For all its illustrious history as a crossroads of civilization and artery of the Silk Road, today’s Afghanistan has scarcely any sealed roads tying it together, which only serves to compound the regionalism, tribalism, and warlordism that dominate the country. The driver, clearly irked that his new van is being pounded to pieces on the road, curses loudly in Dari every time the chassis bottoms out on a rock, and stops frequently to inspect the damage. Finally, after eleven hours of driving, a red sandstone precipice rises hundreds of feet above the road, topped by the ruined ramparts and citadels of the ancient fortress of Shahr-i-Zohak, which has guarded the entrance of the Bamiyan Valley for 800 years.

Lost in the Amazon,” Men’s Journal, June 2009, on one man’s quest to walk the length of the Amazon River:

If all goes according to plan, somewhere on the banks of the mile-wide river I will rendezvous with a 33-year-old former British Army captain named Ed Stafford. But Stafford has warned me that in the Amazon things rarely go according to plan. He should know: Since April 2008 he has been on an expedition to be the first person in history to travel the entire 4,000-mile length of the Amazon River on foot, through the heart of the largest jungle on Earth. He’s attempting to walk every step of the river’s route from source to sea, wherever it is possible to walk. There are also several hundred tributaries he will need to cross using an inflatable raft he carries with him, and he must traverse three countries and the territories of dozens of indigenous tribes. In his expedition blog, Stafford writes: “Walking from the source to the sea is one of the last great feats of exploration.”

We live in an age of diminishing firsts, so those wishing to find fame or notoriety through adventure are forced into increasingly baroque categories: summiting Everest on prosthetic legs, or climbing Kilimanjaro on rollerblades. The Amazon has been run several times by kayaking expeditions, and a Slovenian named Martin Strel has even swum most

Annotation Tuesday! Roger Angell and the pitcher with a major-league case of the yips

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Roger Angell has been writing stories about baseball since the year before John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He’s been a contributor to The New Yorker since 1944 and became fiction editor in 1956. His June 1975 profile of Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass — who suffered, legendarily, from the yips — is among his favorites. “Down The Drain” is an unusual sports story. It’s basically 10,000-plus words about a man suffering from a condition he can’t, despite his best efforts, cure. (Blass, reached in Florida, recalled Angell as an unusually candid reporter and said he’d accurately captured “the descent.”) Angell and I talked in his office at The New Yorker, a couple of weeks after the publication of “This Old Man,” an extraordinary essay about life in his 90s. Asked what he is working on now, he showed me several haiku about his dog. My comments and questions are in red; his are in green. A few questions to start:

Storyboard: Did you pitch this story to William Shawn?

Roger Angell in his office at The New Yorker (photo by Elon Green)

Roger Angell in his office (photo by Elon Green)

Roger Angell: No. He trusted me, by this time. (The story ran in 1975.) He was not a baseball fan. I said, “There’s this guy who can’t pitch at all and I want to go down and see him and talk to him about why.” He said, “Sounds good.” The only doubt that Shawn ever had about the thrust of a story was just momentary, and it says a lot. I did a story about woman reporters in the clubhouse. This was a new thing — woman newspaper reporters were coming in and reporting on sports. They were running into a lot of prejudice and a lot of trouble. A really fascinating story. I went to Shawn and he said, “Really? I hope it’s going to be funny.” And then he read the piece and came back to me and apologized. He said, “I’m sorry about what I said. That’s so terrible.”

How does being a writer of fiction — a beautiful one — affect your journalism?

Not much. I wrote fiction for a while, and it was okay. I’d always been a salaried employee because I didn’t want to make my family live on my earnings as a fiction writer.

What’s the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?

One thing I’ve tried to pick up from (John) McPhee is, “As a reporter, try to be stupid.” Be a stupid interviewer. Don’t be conversational, don’t understand too quickly. You say, What? And then the person you’re talking to wants to help you out.

How do you come up with ideas?

I don’t know. A lot of ideas that I had were pretty obvious. I mean, I did a piece about Bob Gibson because he was the best pitcher in baseball and also the scariest and most unapproachable. I was terrified during that piece, till I got to know him. After a while, I began doing stories about how the game is played — how you pitch, how you catch, how you play the infield, how you hit. Those were good ideas. Nobody had never done that before, and everybody was dying to talk as soon as I got to them. How do you do this? If you get someone to talk about why they do what they do, they’re going to talk. You can’t shut them up.


“Down The Drain”
By Roger Angell
The New Yorker
June 1975

The photograph shows a perfectly arrested moment of joy. On one side—the left, as you look at the picture—the catcher is running toward the camera at full speed, with his up-raised arms spread wide. His body is tilting toward the center of the picture, his mask is held in his right hand, his big glove is still on his left hand, and his mouth is open in a gigantic shout of pleasure. Over on the right, another player, the pitcher, is just past the apex of an astonishing leap that has brought his knees up to his chest and his feet well up off the ground. Both of his arms are flung wide, and he, too, is shouting. His hunched, airborne posture makes him look like a man who has just made a running jump over a sizable object–a kitchen table, say. By luck, two of the outreaching hands have overlapped exactly in the middle of the photograph, so that the pitcher’s bare right palm and fingers are silhouetted against the catcher’s glove, and as a result the two men are linked and seem to be executing a figure in a manic and difficult dance. There is a further marvel–a touch of pure fortune–in the background, where a spectator in dark glasses, wearing a dark suit, has risen from his seat in the grandstand and is lifting his arms in triumph. This, the third and central Y in the picture, is immobile. It is directly behind the overlapping hand and glove of the dancers, and it binds and recapitulates the lines of force and the movements and the theme of the work, creating a composition as serene and well ordered as a Giotto. The subject of the picture, of course, is classical–the celebration of the last out of the seventh game of the World Series. <What a gorgeous, methodical description of a frozen moment. What possessed you to begin the story on a photograph?/eg <Well, I had to start somewhere and I had to introduce Steve, and it’s a perfect way to do it. There he is, in the middle of the photo, leaping in the air. It’s lighthearted and he’s lighthearted. He’s just won a World Series, which says a lot in itself. This is a way to engage the reader. What’s going on? Well, these people are doing extraordinary things./ra <Was it your idea to begin it this way?/eg <Sure! Nobody tells me how to write. It isn’t common, anyway./ra

This famous photograph (by Rusty Kennedy, of the Associated Press) does not require captioning for most baseball fans or for almost anyone within the Greater Pittsburgh area, where it is still prominently featured in the art collections of several hundred taverns. It may be seen, in a much enlarged version, on one wall of the office of Joe L. Brown, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, in Three Rivers Stadium. The date of the photograph is October 17, 1971; the city is Memorial Stadium, in Baltimore. The catcher is Manny Sanguillen, of the Pirates, and his leaping teammate is pitcher Steve Blass, who has just defeated the defending (and suddenly former) World Champion Baltimore Orioles by a score of 2-1, giving up four hits.

I am not a Pittsburgher, but looking at this photograph never fails to give me pleasure, not just because of its aesthetic qualities because its high-bounding happiness so perfectly brings back that eventful World Series and that particular gray autumn afternoon in Baltimore and the wonderful and inexpungible expression of joy that remained on Steve Blass’s face after the game ended. His was, to be sure, a famous victory–a close and bitterly fought pitchers’ battle against the Orioles’ Mike Cuellar, in which the only score for seven innings had been a solo home run by the celebrated Pirate outfielder Roberto Clemente. The Pirates had scored again in the eighth, but the Orioles had responded with a run of their own and had brought the tying run around to third base before Blass shut them off once and for all. The win was the culmination of a stirring uphill fight by the Pirates, who had fallen into difficulties by losing the first two games to the Orioles; Steve Blass had begun their comeback with a wonderfully pitched three-hit, 5-1 victory in the third game. It was an outstanding Series, made memorable above all by the play of Roberto Clemente, who batted .414 over the seven games and fielded his position with extraordinary zeal. He was awarded the sports car as the most valuable player of the Series, but Steve Blass was not far out of the running for the prize. After that last game, Baltimore manager Earl Weaver said, “Clemente was great, all right, but if it hadn’t been for Mr. Blass, we might he popping the corks right now.” <A general question: Why baseball? What’s the pull for you?/eg <Well, it was a good fit for me. I was always a baseball fan of good standing. I never planned to write this length; it was a huge surprise, an accumulating surprise. Shawn came to me in ’62, or something like that, and asked if I wanted to go down to spring training, because we hadn’t done enough sports. The only advice he gave me was, “There are two dangers in sportswriting: Toughness and sentimentality. Don’t be tough, and don’t be sentimental.” And I said okay. The model for me going down there was John Updike’s Ted Williams piece, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” which had run a couple of years before. He put himself and his grownup sensibility into the stands. He was also a fan and an adulator of Ted Williams. It was probably Ted Williams’s last game. So he was writing about himself in the stands watching what happens, which is what I began doing in spring training. I was too nervous to sit in the press box, or to talk to any of the players — I didn’t dare do that. Spring training in those days was in Florida; a lot of very old, old people watching very young players. It was a nice mix. It was the first year the Mets were alive. They had not yet played a major league game. I saw them play the Yankees. That first year I wrote about the Mets a lot, because they were certainly a phenomenon. They were a terrible team that was loved by everyone in New York — antimatter to the Yankees. They were a terrible team but they were adorable. So I went back and wrote a little piece, which cranked me up and suggested I could do this./ra

I remember the vivid contrast in styles between the two stars in the noisy, floodlit, champagne-drenched Pirate clubhouse that afternoon. Clemente, at last the recipient of the kind of national attention he had always deserved but had rarely been given for his years of brilliant play, remained erect and removed, regarding the swarming photographers with a haughty, incandescent pride. Blass was a less obvious hero– <It’s interesting that you come right out and identify the archetypal hero. Why did you do that?/eg <I was just saying he was going to be the hero of this piece. Clemente was an established hero. Most people didn’t know about Blass. And the thing about him is, if you look at his record, he was not known as a great pitcher, and he didn’t think of himself as a great pitcher. That’s really one of the keys to this whole thing./ra <I guess it’s hard to think of yourself as great if you’re a contemporary of Bob Gibson./eg <If you’re a contemporary of Clemente — there’s a guy right on the team. Clemente was a true hero to everybody on that team. He was a player for the ages, and looked the part. And suddenly he’s taken away./ra a competent but far from overpowering right-hander who had won fifteen games for the Pirates that year, with a most respectable 2.85 earned-run average, but who had absorbed a terrible pounding by the San Francisco Giants in the two games he pitched in the National League playoffs, just before the Series. His two Series victories, by contrast, were momentous by any standard–and, indeed, were among the very best pitching performances of his entire seven years in the majors. Blass, in any case, celebrated the Pirates’ championship more exuberantly than Clemente, exchanging hugs and shouts with his teammates, alternately smoking a cigar and swigging from a champagne bottle. Later, I saw him in front of his locker with his arm around his father, Bob Blass, a plumber from Falls Village, Connecticut, who had once been a semi-pro pitcher; the two Blasses, I saw, were wearing identical delighted, non-stop smiles.

Near the end of an article I wrote about that 1971 World Series, I mentioned watching Steve Blass in batting practice just before the all-important seventh game and suddenly noticing that, in spite of his impending responsibilities, he was amusing himself with a comical parody of Clemente at the plate: “Blass…then arched his back, cricked his neck oddly, rolled his head a few times, took up a stance in the back corner of the batter’s box, with his bat held high, and glared out at the pitcher imperiously–Clemente, to the life.” <Most reporters don’t have the luxury to draw on their own previous writing in their stories. In a way, this makes you your own best source. Do you worry that your expertise — well-earned, of course — can be a hinderance? That perhaps it makes you less inclined to seek the input of other baseball scholars?/eg <Well, I sure try not to be the expert. Every thought in my writing — every line, every moment — I’m thinking about my own suffering as a writer, but I’m also thinking basically about the reader. That is the focus of my attention, all the time: Think of the reader, think of the reader, think of the reader. I don’t want to put the reader off by seeming to know more than he does. If I’m going to tell him some stuff that I know, or that he needs to know, I’m helping him out. It’s not that I know more than he does — that would be a terrible thing to do./ra <Sure, but you’d been writing about the game for years./eg <But I didn’t know nearly as much as I did later on. I was still learning. But I’m not trying to be an expert; I’m trying to help the reader. If I’ve described Blass before, it’s easier for me to say, “As I once wrote….” Certainly, this is a luxury, because this is The New Yorker. We have all this space and we have all this time. There’s no hurry. And there’s no editor sitting over us, watching. No one’s looking at our copy. I don’t have to discuss what I have in mind before I start to write, and I don’t have to show the copy as it’s flowing along, and I don’t have to justify the copy to anybody./ra <That’s a luxury./eg <It is the ultimate luxury for a writer. That’s why this is a great place to be./ra I had never seen such a spirited gesture in a serious baseball setting, and since then I have come to realize that Steve Blass’s informality and boyish play constituted an essential private style, as original and as significant as Clemente’s eagle-like pride, and that each of them was merely responding in his own way to the challenges of an extremely difficult public profession. Which of the two, I keep wondering, was happier that afternoon about the Pirates’ championship and his part in it? <Why is this such an important question?/eg <Because one of these guys is about to die and the other is going to be involved in a terrible tragedy, so I want them to be happy. I’m telling the reader, Let’s enjoy these guys. These are extraordinary young men. They are tragic figures. Now, I’m not going to say that. But let’s look at the greatest moment of happiness that either of them has known up till now. They’ve just won a World Series. I’m not looking ahead and saying this will be a gloomy story. This occurs to me, at the moment, so I put it down there. Things often that look planned are just ideas while you’re writing and if they work, if you’re writing well, you’re always writing better than you expect. Some part of you — some unconscious part of you — is doing this, or luck is putting stuff there. And then the editor in you takes over and you look at what you’ve done and say, “Hey this isn’t bad. Let’s leave it here.” I’m constantly taking things out and moving them around. The big illusion for writers, I think, is once you publish something — once it’s in type, and in the magazine or in a book — you’re tempted to think it was always meant to be that way. There’s something just right about it. It’s just the last version, the last galley. You’re changing things all the time, right up to the last second./ra <Are you reluctant to let your stories go?/eg <No. I love to let them go. I’m so sick of them by the time I finish writing them. I’m flooded with relief./ra Roberto Clemente, of course, is dead; he was killed on December 31, 1972, in Puerto Rico, in the crash of a plane he had chartered to carry emergency relief supplies to the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. Steve Blass, who is now thirty-three, is out of baseball, having been recently driven into retirement by two years of pitching wildness–a sudden, near-total inability to throw strikes. No one, including Blass himself, can cure or explain it.

***

The summer of 1972–the year after his splendid World Series–was in most respects the best season that Steve Blass ever had. He won nineteen games for the Pirates and lost only eight, posting an earned-run average of 2.48–sixth-best in the National League–and being selected for the N.L. All-Star team. What pleased him most that year was his consistency. <One expects this sentence to be followed by a quote from Blass. As it happens, there are not very many of them in the first half of the story. Why? I’m wondering if you share Gay Talese’s belief. He said he avoids direct quotes because “what you do, with a direct quote, is surrender your voice. If you know what you’re talking about, and think you can be declarative in terms of sentences and attitude, then go with it. That’s your voice.”/eg <That’s an astounding statement. Astounding statement. I never heard a writer say he didn’t want the quotes. It’s not about the writer, it’s about the person! That’s the story! We’re trying to convey something about a human being. We’re not trying to be the writer. Jesus Christ! You’ve got to let the person speak! You have to listen, and pay attention, and see what they’re going to say next. You’re trying to open them up and get them to talk to you, and show themselves and get some idea of who they are. And if you’re thinking about your voice, you’re distracted from your mission. I have a very different view of that. Blass was not a great talker. He was, in the sense that he spoke for himself and revealed constantly who he was — a lighthearted person who disliked complexity, or distrusted complexity in himself. He had a deep distrust of his own complexity. He was always moving away from it, and this terrible dilemma that he found himself in — this inability to pitch — eventually took him to a place where every fan, his teammates, his coaches, and his friends would say, What’s going on? What’s happening here? And he really didn’t want to hear their conjectures. He kept saying, Well, it’s probably nothing very complicated. That’s the way he is. And that’s why the story is, in a way, sad. Because it is a complicated story. I don’t know the answer./ra <It’s a tragic stubbornness./eg <It’s a stubbornness, or an evasion. It’s who he is. And that’s fine with me. Blass didn’t like this piece. I was told he hated the piece when it came out./ra <I spoke to him recently. He likes the piece./eg <I guess he changed his mind. Good, I’m glad. But I know for a fact that he didn’t like it, at first, and I think it’s because everybody he knows is talking about what’s going on and trying to help him. They all care for him. They all really like him. He’s a wonderful, wonderful young man. It’s full of love, this piece, and they’re trying to help him out. They’re really saying, Come on, Steve. Give us a break. Let us hear from you, too. And he doesn’t do it. And some of them are quite impatient with him. Karen is impatient with him in a very loving way. Dave Giusti is really impatient with him, as I recall. And I think, reading this over later, that you would be annoyed with the writer for bringing up what he doesn’t want brought up, which is that there’s something complicated in him, in life, that’s he’s not looking at. This wasn’t my purpose. I didn’t have an ultimate view of what I was trying to expose here. I wasn’t trying to expose Blass as a person who needs to look into the complexity that exists within his soul. I wasn’t looking for an ultimate truth. This is a very important point, to me: When you’re dealing with human beings, as a writer, you cannot be after the ultimate truth. That’s an invasion. You cannot press and prod and push at somebody and try to get them to try to reveal something they don’t know. I have no inclination to do this. I want them to tell me as much as they want to give me. I don’t want to push beyond that./ra <Isn’t it the height of hubris to even think you can get to the ultimate truth?/eg <Well, if you’re a political reporter and something has happened that’s important in a larger sense, you have to try to do all these things. Trick them and urge them and prod them and make them uncomfortable to get them to talk. But if you’re dealing just with a human situation — with a ballplayer who’s had a terrible few years — this is their story. It’s not my story. It’s a human story. And I’m going to put down as much as they’ll tell me. But I don’t want to get a whole lot more than that. I really don’t. I believe in Janet Malcolm’s admonishment to reporters, that we are all using our subjects. Anyway, I try not to do it. The thing about the Blasses and this piece, which is so extraordinary, is I didn’t know Steve Blass. I may have met him at the World Series. I probably called him up and said, “This is Roger Angell,” and told him he was going through something unique in the history of baseball. “I’d like to write a story about it.” And he said, “Come on over.” So I come over and he takes me to a Little League game. He’s just left baseball forever. He takes me to meet his family, and then he takes me home and we eat pizzas together. This is a great break for me, as a writer, but I’m not going to try to take advantage of it and sneak in some extra stuff. I’m just gonna let it flow./ra <Blass says he admired that you stayed away from certain sensitive areas./eg <Well, I was in their house! Goodness! I’m a guest with a notebook and a tape recorder./ra <He seemed grateful./eg <Well, I’m glad. One thing he didn’t like was the original title, which is “Down The Drain.” He said, “I hate that title.” He said, “My dad was plumber. Think about what goes down the drain.” I said if I printed it again I’d change the title. And I changed it to “Gone For Good.”/ra He went the full distance in eleven of the thirty-two games he started, and averaged better than seven and a half innings per start–not dazzling figures (Steve Carlton, of the Phillies, had thirty complete games that year, and Bob Gibson, of the Cards, had twenty-three) but satisfying ones for a man who had once had inordinate difficulty in finishing games. Blass, it should be understood, was not the same kind of pitcher as a Carlton or a Gibson. He was never a blazer. When standing on the mound, he somehow looked more like a journeyman pitcher left over from the nineteen-thirties or forties than like one of the hulking, hairy young flingers of today. <“Hulking, hairy young flingers” is such a wonderful phrase. Where did that come from?/eg <I don’t know! They’re big and they’re hairy. That’s what writers do: They try to make it concise and funny or something. I try to keep my prose lighthearted./ra <Do you labor over your sentences?/eg <I don’t. I labor to get them easy to read. I’m thinking of the reader./ra (He is six feet tall, and weighs about one hundred and eighty pounds.) Watching him work, you sometimes wondered how he was getting all those batters out. The word on him among the other clubs in his league was something like: Good but not overpowering stuff, excellent slider, good curve, good change-up curve. A pattern pitcher, whose slider works because of its location. No control problems. Intelligent, knows how to win. <This reads like you got your hands on a scouting report. Did you?/eg <No, I don’t think so. But I’ve seen scouting reports so I turned this into one./ra

I’m not certain that I saw Blass work in the regular season of 1972, but I did see him pitch the opening game of the National League playoffs that fall against the Cincinnati Reds, in Pittsburgh. <What’s your note-taking style?/eg <I take a lot of notes. I’m famous for it. For years, the daily writers would laugh at me because I wrote down so much. I write down a lot because I don’t know what I’m going to be looking for later on./ra <Has your note-taking style changed over the years?/eg <Not really, not really. I like to draw what players look like sometimes./ra <Do you — and did you — record your interviews?/eg <Sure, I use a recorder. There are long quotes and I would not make that stuff up./ra <What percentage of what you take notes on ends up in the piece?/eg <I have no idea. A very small percentage, obviously./ra <So you don’t mind taking notes in front of subjects?/eg <No, no. In fact, I mistrust reporters who come in and don’t take any notes./ra <Some reporters, like Talese, prefer to take notes at the end of the day./eg <Well, if you have perfect recollection, which I think somebody like McPhee probably does, I think it’s okay, but…/ra <Any idea how many people you interviewed for the story?/eg <Quite a few, but I have no idea. I always interview more people than I think I have. I think of myself as being shy. It’s hard for me to go up and ask people to talk — it always has been. But I do it because I get engrossed in the story./ra <Any problems getting people to talk?/eg <Getting people to talk, of course, is the main thing. And I didn’t have any problem with this story. Everybody wanted to talk about Steve. Nobody held back. Maybe people had private thoughts that they held back. But everybody loved Steve and said he was the heart of the team. He’s the main guy. He keeps us loose. Everybody was heartbroken by what happened. This is very unusual. Because when people go bad in baseball, they are forgotten by other players. It’s almost a superstition. That can happen to me. I wrote a whole book about David Cone and the year I was with him was the worst year he ever had in his life. It was a big break for me. Losing is a lot more interesting than winning, as I kept telling him. He’d say, “If you say so.” But people didn’t want to talk about him after a while because he was dying and they knew this could happen to them. It’s a real superstition. It’s like the Middle Ages and leprosy. Even in this piece, the managers I talked to later in a sense dismissed Steve. They said he was great but he was gone. They’d lost interest in him. Because players are always coming up, playing and, in many cases, disappearing. You have to let them go./ra After giving up a home run to the Reds’ second batter of the day, Joe Morgan, which was hit off a first-pitch fastball, Blass readjusted his plans and went mostly to a big, slow curve, causing the Reds to hit innumerable rainmaking outfield flies, and won 5-1. I can still recall how Blass looked that afternoon–his characteristic, feet-together stance at the outermost, first-base edge of the pitching rubber, and then the pitch, delivered with a swastika-like scattering of arms and legs and a final lurch to the left–and I also remember how I kept thinking that at any moment the sluggers of the Big Red Machine would stop overstriding and overswinging against such unintimidating deliveries and drive Blass to cover. <I love this sentence. I’m also amazed — and impressed — by the swastika analogy./eg <What’s wrong with that?/ra <Nothing. It’s a startling description./eg <It’s a good description! Because it’s like this–[makes illustrative arm motion]/ra <There was no pushback?/eg <Oh, no. My goodness./ra But it never happened–Blass saw to it that it didn’t. Then, in the fifth and deciding game, he returned and threw seven and one-third more innings of thoughtful and precise patterns, allowing only four hits, and departed with his team ahead by 3-2–a pennant-winning outing, except for the fact that the Pirate bullpen gave up the ghost in the bottom of the ninth, when a homer, two singles, and a wild pitch entitled the Reds to meet the Oakland A’s in the 1972 World Series. It was a horrendous disappointment for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans, for which no blame at all could be attached to Blass.

My next view of Steve Blass on a baseball diamond came on a cool afternoon at the end of April this year. The game–the White Sox vs. the Orioles–was a close, 3-1 affair, in which the winning White Sox pitcher, John McKenzie, struck out seventeen batters, in six innings. A lot of the Sox struck out, too, and a lot of players on both teams walked–more than I could count, in fact. The big hit of the game was a triple to left center by the White Sox catcher, David Blass, who is ten years old. His eight-year-old brother, Chris, played second, and their father, Steve Blass, in old green slacks and a green T-shirt, coached at third. This was a late-afternoon date in the Upper St. Clair (Pennsylvania) Recreation League schedule, played between the White Sox and the Orioles on a field behind the Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School–Little League baseball, but at a junior and highly informal level. The low, low minors. Most of the action, or inaction, took place around home plate, since there was not much bat-on-ball contact, but there was a shrill non-stop piping of encouragement from the fielders, and disappointed batters were complimented on their overswings by a small, chilly assemblage of mothers, coaches, and dads. When Chris Blass went down swinging in the fourth, his father came over and said, “The sinker down and away is tough.” Steve Blass has a longish, lightly freckled face, a tilted nose, and an alert and engaging expression. At this ballgame, he looked like any young suburban father who had caught an early train home from the office in order to see his kids in action. He looked much more like a commuter than like a professional athlete. <This is my favorite scene in the story…/eg <I’m enjoying myself because, for a minute or two, the reader doesn’t know where he is./ra <Did you know, at the time, it would end up in the story? Do you have an instinct about these things?/eg <Well, sure! I’m watching a major league player who can’t play anymore and now I’m watching his kid play Little League ball — I mean, this is a gift from heaven. I was so lucky!/ra

Pinned: Elizabeth Kolbert, Gillian Blake, Todd C. Frankel, John Jeremiah Sullivan, storytellers in trouble, a healing cruise and two schools of cliches

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For your weekend reading pleasure, items from our Pinterest boards

Recommended Reading:

A news photographer, a layoff, a death, and then things got even worse. From the John Woodrow Cox’s short “Dispatches from Next Door: The pale glow of a brighter day:”

Determined to return, he spent his severance on camera gear instead of his mortgage. Friends implored him to at least shoot weddings. “I’m a newspaper guy,” he said. Things would work out. Then his father died, and Fred inherited responsibility for his younger sister, who has lupus and schizophrenia. He cashed in his 401(k). Zeke became his therapy dog. In October, the bank auctioned Fred’s house. Neighbors offered him the tent.

On that recent morning, Fred heated water in the coffeemaker and dipped in a razor. Leftover grounds swirled like flakes in a snow globe.

Not to belabor news about journalists in trouble, but the story of Scott Moyers, a Missouri crime reporter turned meth addict, is one worth reading. From Todd C. Frankel’s “He Lost It All to Meth,” in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

He was a reporter covering crime, which meant he really covered meth. He knew the cops. He knew the judges. He wrote about addicts getting in trouble. He covered the desperate towns limiting sales of sinus cold pills. He was part of an in-depth project for the newspaper called “Life or Meth.”

He knew from his own family. His two brothers were meth addicts. The youngest was in prison right now on a drug charge. The other brother, Pat Moyers, was three years clean. It was Scott who dragged Pat to rehab that first time almost 20 years earlier. Scott was always the good brother, Pat said. A bit nerdy.

“I just don’t get it,” Pat said. “He was writing about the things he’s doing.”

In “The Way Back,” Dave Wedge and Casey Sherman wrote a long piece, for Esquire, about an unlikely cruise: 114 survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing and the families of the dead. Excerpt:

The trip ends in Tarascon, but before everyone parts, one of the French tour guides addresses the group. “This has been the most memorable cruise we’ve ever been a part of,” she says. “It has been such a sobering experience for our staff. We look at each of you and we see tremendous strength. Your strength has lifted each other, and it has lifted us as well.”

Interviewland:

In a conversation with Wag’s Revue, John Jeremiah Sullivan talks about interviewing, notebooks, editing, fact checking, the influence on his journalism of idiomatic American English and more. Excerpt:

RM: One of your great gifts is your ability to walk that tightrope. How do you manage to avoid going too far in one direction or another?

JJS: I don’t know where this thought is headed, but I know it’s true, so I’ll just start with it: I would have never thought of doing that if I weren’t also looking at that narrator as a kind of classic journalistic character himself. I mean, it’s the whole Lost Illusions story, by Balzac. Provincial scribbler with a little bit of talent goes to the city and then uses his déclassé background as material. So there’s already a trope going on there. That’s when things start to get interesting for me. It seemed to me like a way to talk about class, which is something I was always looking to do.

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, chats with her editor, Gillian Blake, for Slate:

1402_SBR_SIXTHEXTINCTION_COVER.jpg.CROP.original-originalBlake: The process around The Sixth Extinction was a little different.  When you sent us the proposal, the concept for the book seemed pretty clear, and you had all the chapters tentatively mapped out. But when you started writing, the structure became something of a moving target. We had a bunch of phone calls and meetings in the first year or so of the writing process; in one, you admitted to me, “More pages than you want to know” had ended up in the trash.

Kolbert: I was trying to figure out the vantage point to write it from. I’m not a scientist, so I couldn’t write from the perspective of an expert. But nor could I write from the perspective of a naïf, who just sort of wandered into what’s arguably the biggest story of our time. So I had a hard time coming up with a way to get the book going and to explain—implicitly, of course—why I, as a journalist, was writing it. It was as if I’d planned out a 10-city tour through Europe, but couldn’t find my way to the airport.

Tip sheets:

“150 journalism clichés — and counting,” from the Washington Post, lists — with a bit of edge and charm — the words and terms banned by the paper’s Sunday Outlook section:

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Boston University journalism students Kyle Clauss and Alex Reimer amused and irked a lot of journalists recently with “Journalist Guest Speaker Cliché Bingo,” a faux game board, first published on Romenesko.com, suggesting that speakers please stop dropping as wisdom the rewards of life as a journalist (“You get to see the world.”) and the overstated and obvious (“How many of you are on Twitter?”). Ungracious or on point, or both? You decide:

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What we’re reading: Narratives on the Boston Marathon bombing and a tunnel tragedy + essays on empathy and religion + smartphone photos as a reporting tool + the future of digital longform

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What we’re reading, in the world of narrative journalism, essays and academia:

Long Mile Home: Boston Under Attack, the City’s Courageous Recovery, and the Epic Hunt for Justice, by Scott Helman and Jenna Russell. Helman and Russell, Boston Globe reporters, tell the narrative of the Boston Marathon bombing and the week that followed, through the experiences of a police officer, a lost daughter, a determined survivor, a trauma surgeon and the marathon’s director. Excerpt:

9780525954484HShana Cottone reached for her gun when the first bomb exploded. Something had gone wrong and she didn’t know what it was. Twelve seconds passed, the second bomb went off, and then, like so many others, Shana understood. They were being attacked and she was going to die. Fighting off the overwhelming urge to run away, she started ripping down the barricades along the sidewalk, moving into the drifting smoke in front of the Forum. She picked up strollers, the babies still strapped inside, and carried them into the middle of the street, where it seemed like they might be safer, as stunned parents followed her blindly. She put one stroller down on the open pavement and saw a woman lying nearby, on the pavement in the middle of the street. She was covered with abrasions, her blonde hair singed to black around her face. Shana knelt and looked into her eyes. The woman was awake. Shana took her hand and started talking.

“Talk to me,” she told the woman in the street. “Who did you come to watch? Where do you live?”

“I can’t feel my leg,” the woman said. She was bleeding heavily, one of her legs nearly severed. Shana looked down the street. Where were the ambulances? Why weren’t they coming?

“Your leg is there,” Shana said.

“I can’t feel it,” the woman insisted.

Shana wanted to call her by name, to reach her through the fog of shock and pain and hold her there. She searched for one of the woman’s ID cards and found it: “I swear on my life, Roseann, your leg is there.”


Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions & Other Essays on American Belief,
an anthology edited by Jeff Sharlet.
Sharlet is the bestselling author of The Family and C Street, a contributor to Rolling Stone and Harper’s, and a professor at Dartmouth. You can find him elsewhere on Storyboard in livechat conversation with essayist Leslie Jamison, about literary nonfiction, and annotating, with Elon Green, “Inside the Iron Closet,” his recent GQ story about what it’s like to be gay in Putin’s Russia. Radiant Truths collects pieces on religion and faith, and finds a thread from Walt Whitman to Mark Twain, James Baldwin, Francine Prose, Anne Fadiman, Zora Neale Hurston and more. From W.T. Stead’s “Maggie Darling,” an 1894 piece in which Stead, a “Bible-thumper” who was accused of practicing “New Journalism” long, long before the likes of Tom Wolfe, tells the story of a Chicago prostitute:

9780300169218He came again, and yet again, always treating her in the same brotherly fashion, giving her five dollars every time, and never asking anything in return. After she had saved up sufficient store to pay off that debt to the landlady, which hangs like a millstone round the neck of the unfortunate, her young friend told her that he had talked to his mother and his sister, and that as soon as she was ready they would be delighted to take her into their home until such time as they could find her a situation. Full of delight at the unexpected deliverance, Maggie made haste to leave. The young man’s mother was as good as her word. In that home she found a warm welcome, and a safe retreat. Maggie made great efforts to break off the habit of swearing, and although she every now and then would make a bad break, she made such progress that at length it was deemed safe and prudent to let her take a place as a general servant. The short stay in that Christian home had been to her as a glimpse into an opening paradise. Hope sprang up once more in the girl’s breast. She would be an honest woman once again. Thus, as we have seen her reproduce the Fall, so we see the blessed work of the Redeemer. Now we have to see the way in which his people, “the other ones,” as she called them, shuddering, fulfilled their trust.

 

Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles into the Darkness, by Neil Swidey. Published in February, Trapped tells the story of a deadly accident in the summer of 1999, during the building of the 10-mile-long Deer Island sewer tunnel. Swidey is a longtime writer for the Boston Globe magazine and the author of acclaimed books that include The Assist and Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Teddy Kennedy. Excerpt:

9780307886729To disentangle their hoses, DJ walked back into the five-foot-diameter section, heading toward the very end of the tunnel. At the same time, Riggs walked several paces behind him, coiling up the hose trailing behind DJ like some sort of oversize kite string. After several minutes of this, Riggs found himself feeling weird. This is a simple task, he told himself, and I’m confused. He looked to the tunnel wall, checking for spots. If he saw them, he’d know he was about to black out. But he didn’t see any spots. So he kept walking, kept coiling. Then, without any warning, DJ just stopped walking. Riggs caught up to him so quickly that he nearly bumped into him, like they were in a Keystone Cops skit. Suddenly Riggs could sense his hearing start to change, as if somebody had placed cones over his ears. His vision grew blurry. He wondered: Is this what people mean when they talk about tunnel vision?

He looked over to see DJ helplessly slide down onto

Writing the book: Ben Montgomery on Grandma Gatewood’s Walk

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One night in January 2013, deep into the writing of Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, I found myself alone at the keyboard, crying. Weeping, really.

Thinking back, the storm of depression and anxiety that made me bawl that night was brought on by a mess of psychological pinpricks I’m just not used to: the remorse of a blown manuscript deadline; the regret of missing a big bunch of time with my three little kids in the past 13 months; the lack of, um, quality time with my wife; the stress of a second deadline, this one firm; the fear of turning in something awful.

All that was swirling, but what I believe now is that doing a book you care about is a powerful, emotional thing. That part surprised me.

9781613747186I’ve never made myself cry writing a newspaper story. This was different. The reporting was so much deeper. The thinking was so much more intense. You spend so much time alone with words trying to make readers like your characters that you wind up caring for them in unexpected ways. I did, anyhow.

That night, I felt like I was at a funeral. Or maybe I felt like I knew a funeral was coming, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. I was at the section of the book where the outline I’d hacked out months before called for the death of my main character.

It sounds stupid, but I never saw it coming. I’ve heard that writing is sort of like playing God, and maybe that’s right.

On the screen, I had given birth to Emma Gatewood in 1887 in southeastern Ohio. I grew her into a woman and made her rear children. I put her in all sorts of situations, saw her get beaten by her husband, saw her fight back, saw her in a jail cell, saw her get her walking legs late in life and do incredible things.

Now she was walking into her twilight. Now she was catching a cold.

She died humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1973, five years before I was even born, but writing about it 40 years later was almost so real that I could hear it myself. I realized I was actually mourning the death of a woman I’d never met.

Two years before, I had only the vaguest idea who Emma “Grandma” Gatewood was and no ambition to do a book about her. My mother, an Ohio native, told me stories about Emma when I was a kid. Emma was my mother’s great-aunt, and my mother had inherited the stories from her own mother. I knew Emma was eccentric, that she’d become the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail alone, that she’d scared off a black bear with her umbrella, that people often mistook her for a tramp on her long-distance hikes.

That was about it.

But late in 2011, I wrote a story about an unsolved Florida lynching that got a lot of attention, including an offer to do a book on it for a university press. I’ve always wanted to do a book, and this was the first sniff I’d had, so I took the offer seriously and talked to some friends who had written for both the university press and the trades. The pros — It’s a BOOK, and it’ll be in the LIBRARY — didn’t outweigh the cons — You won’t make much money, if any, and a book is a lot of work. Then, a stroke of luck: I got an agent without shopping for an agent.

I’ve known people who had agents and it always sounded so cool when they mentioned it that I never had the nerve to ask: How did you get an agent? I still don’t know the answer to that; I just know mine came in an email.

Jane Dystel has represented friends of mine at the Tampa Bay Times and the Poynter Institute, and she read my story. Her first email said she didn’t think the lynching was a book, but she liked what she read and wondered if I had any other ideas. In my excitement, I commenced a frantic, hilarious search that fell just short of throwing the question out there on Facebook and Twitter, thank God.

Emma Gatewood (photo courtesy Ben Montgomery)

Emma Gatewood (photo courtesy of  Ben Montgomery)

Jane wanted a couple sentences on each idea. I took that as the sign she knew what she was doing. I had the first idea within a few days. I’d done a story for the Times and Radiolab on the outlaw Christopher “Little Houdini” Gay, the South’s most unfortunate escape artist. He’d broken out of jail 14 times, which meant he’d been caught 13.

I was killing myself for another idea when Emma Gatewood came to mind. I talked to my mother and was surprised by how little I had known about our distant relative. She was not only the first woman to solo thru-hike the AT but also the first person, male or female, to hike it twice and three times. And she walked the Oregon Trail at 71. But the public story sort of petered out there. And there was no information at all about why she had done what she’d done, all starting at the age of 67.

I found Emma’s youngest daughter, Lucy, in her 80s and living not far away, in Jacksonville, Fla. We talked, and she confirmed that no one had done a book on her mother. Then she teased me: She had kept boxes of her mother’s memorabilia, letters, journals and photographs. It had all been preserved and was waiting for the right person. A filmmaker had expressed some interest a few years before, but abandoned the project.

She also said that there was a side of the story nobody really knew: that her father was abusive and oppressive and had beaten Emma for 30 years. Three of Lucy’s 11 siblings were still alive and could testify to the bloodshed.

I wrote to Jane, two paragraphs.

Watch Kurt Vonnegut demystify story structure with a fairy tale and a piece of chalk

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A couple of years ago, in a Storyboard piece on John McPhee‘s gorgeously built Encounters with the Archdruid, the acclaimed author Adam Hochschild wrote about narrative structure:

A few years ago I was with a young cousin, a college student who told me she was majoring in civil engineering. “I’ve never really understood,” I asked her. “What’s the difference between an architect and an engineer?”

“Ah,” she said. “An architect is the person who plans what the skyscraper is going to look like from the outside. An engineer is the person who makes sure it doesn’t fall down.”

I’ve always felt that when we think about writing, we pay too much attention, in these terms, to the architecture, and not enough to the engineering. We focus on the outside of the skyscraper – the sparkle of someone’s prose, images, metaphors, bits of description – and not enough on the innards: the structure, the plot (a word that applies to nonfiction as much as to fiction), the careful doling out or withholding of information to create suspense, all of which, in the long run, ultimately determines whether or not we keep on reading. A piece of writing can sparkle aplenty from one paragraph to the next, but if the inner engineering isn’t there, our attention wanders. This is all the more important when someone writes, as McPhee usually does, of relatively unknown people, in whom we have no interest to begin with. For the writer, this sets the bar higher.

The question of structure is fundamental to narrative and yet it bedevils. Kurt Vonnegut once tried to make it simple. As a student, he dedicated his master’s thesis, at the University of Chicago, to the question of story shape. The thesis was rejected, but the theory has proliferated online — it survives in various forms as an instant tutorial on storytelling. Here is Vonnegut’s original presentation, via YouTube:

 

Graphic designer Maya Eilam re-rendered the lesson with an infographic:

Kurt Vonnegut - The Shapes of Stories

Visual.ly user David Yang re-rendered Vonnegut’s ideas this way:
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Austin Kleon
, a Texas writer and artist, was among those who reimagined the data with Google Correlate:
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The lesson got the Prezi treatment from one AP English class, with relevant notes about about fiction writing (point of view, character, etc.) that cross over into narrative —
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— and it made the cut for the Pinterest board Story Structure Charts:
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“Why is this important?” wrote PolicyMic’s Zak Cheney-Rice:

In the course of this work, Vonnegut uncovered something fascinating: the striking similarities between seemingly unrelated narratives. “Cinderella,” for example, follows an arc identical to the New Testament, with protagonists receiving incremental gifts from on high before the rug is yanked from beneath them, culminating in a final climb to redemptive salvation.

These similarities grant insight into how we preserve culture and effectively share ideas. The ability to recognize such shapes can make us all better rhetoricians, critical thinkers, and interpersonal communicators. And thanks to Vonnegut, we now have visual evidence of how it all breaks down.

 
Meanwhile, Maria Popova‘s delivery, on Brainpickings, is pretty fresh:

He then moves on to Hamlet, delivering his signature blend of literary brilliance and existential philosophy:

Vonnegut1-thumb-250x189-1098The question is, does this system I’ve devised help us in the evaluation of literature? Perhaps a real masterpiece cannot be crucified on a cross of this design. How about Hamlet? It’s a pretty good piece of work I’d say. Is anybody going to argue that it isn’t? I don’t have to draw a new line, because Hamlet’s situation is the same as Cinderella’s, except that the sexes are reversed.

His father has just died. He’s despondent. And right away his mother went and married his uncle, who’s a bastard. So Hamlet is going along on the same level as Cinderella when his friend Horatio comes up to him and says, ‘Hamlet, listen, there’s this thing up in the parapet, I think maybe you’d better talk to it. It’s your dad.’ So Hamlet goes up and talks to this, you know, fairly substantial apparition there. And this thing says, ‘I’m your father, I was murdered, you gotta avenge me, it was your uncle did it, here’s how.’

The variations go on, from Lapham’s Quarterly‘s transcript of Vonnegut’s talk, to Reddit discussions (“The plot diagrams we all know so well are simply tools. Vonnegut appears to be generalizing the application of this tool in order to further a structuralist approach to understanding humanity. Without such a simplifying heuristic, structuralism is a very tedious way to explore culture.”)
 
Finally, here is something extra-wonderful that comes up when you’re digging around for evidence that a narrative tool has achieved icon status: Vonnegut in conversation with Robert Caro. The chat happened in Vonnegut’s 19th century house in Sagaponack. Vonnegut answered the door barefoot. Before long, Caro was barefoot, too. Excerpts:

CARO
Well, I learned that what I like to do is, I mean, the big difference between journalism and writing books for me is that in journalism you never had enough time to try to get it just right, and you always had questions that you didn’t have enough time to examine fully. It was a big deal if they gave you a month for an investigative series. At the end of the month you just had more questions. The more you learned, the more questions you had. So when I set

The Bread Loaf files: Ted Conover, Cheryl Strayed, Richard Bausch and Robert Frost on craft, dedication, discipline, poetry and what to ban from your bookshelf

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This week’s theme: semi-obscure archives that might prove valuable to your narrative storytelling. On Tuesday, we highlighted Mark Berkey-Gerard‘s posts on multimedia narrative, which he warehouses at his classroom-based website, Campfire Journalism. Today, we call to your attention the archived lectures and readings — available for free, through iTunes — from Bread Loaf, the venerable writers’ conference at Middlebury College. Some of the lectures are audio, others are transcripts. Highlights :

1) In “DIY Immersion as Research,” Ted Conover, NYU journalism professor and bestselling author of narrative nonfiction books that include Coyotes, Newjack, and The Routes of Man, talks about reporting, and the New Journalism, and says:

“My proposition today is that research can be a creative act.”

George Saunders, Mary Karr, Cheryl Strayed

George Saunders, Mary Karr, Cheryl Strayed (photo by Charles Sykes /AP Images for Syracuse University)

2) In “Rules to Write By,” Wild author Cheryl Strayed on the “journey of consciousness as a writer” and on the importance of having “a deep respect for the importance of craft. Those technical things on the page that we all have to master if we intend to master the art of writing. How to make a character, or the self, on the page credible; how to have two people talking to each other, and move them in and out of a room, or describe a landscape in evocative terms.” (The photo pictures Strayed, far right, with fellow authors George Saunders and Mary Karr, at the 50th celebration of Syracuse University’s creative writing program.) Highlights:

—If the reader is asking why she is reading this piece of nonfiction, “you as a writer haven’t done the job that is literature’s mission, which is to so profoundly transcend that small story and make it big and universal” and “build a bridge” between author and reader.

—The goal is writing that is revelatory. “Narrative certainly is built on the back of that. … There is, ‘What is the story about?’ and then ‘What does it mean?’” The straight narrative is hiking the Pacific Coast trail solo; the transcendent meaning is bearing the unbearable.

—The invisible last line of everything she writes is “And nothing was ever the same again,” because it helps bring into focus what’s at stake in the story. “What’s at stake in the story” may sound like so much writing-workshop babble, but it is the question that hangs over every solid piece of narrative journalism.

3) In “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons,” Richard Bausch, a two-time National Magazine Award winner who has been called a “master of the short story,” focuses on fiction. But there are plenty of takeaways for the narrative journalist, including:

—“Put the manuals and the how-to books away.” If you really want to learn how to write, read. Read the great writers and don’t spend a lot of time trying to analyze them. “Digest them. Swallow them all.”

—“Learn to be as faithful to the art and craft as (the great writers) were, and to follow their example. Now when I say follow their example, by the way, I mean follow their example by working, by being a good citizen and … doing the work. I don’t mean copying the way they sound. You imitate the way they sound to learn how to sound like yourself. That’s the way you learn how to sing, it’s the way you learn how to paint, it’s the way you learn how to walk. There is nothing wrong with imitating writing if it’s teaching you to write your own way.” So, “wide reading and hard work.” (Editor’s note: One might start the reading with Bausch himself. Here’s a short story and interview from The Atlantic.)

—A defense of writing programs, at the 8:30 mark. (Editor’s note: Had to throw that in as a shoutout to AWP 2014, unfolding this weekend in Seattle.)

4) And then there’s Bread Loaf’s audio and transcript archive of Robert Frost readings and lectures, with reading recommendations from Frost, a self-described “natural teacher,” himself. (For more on the intersection on narrative journalism and poetry, see “Better writing through poetry + metaphor,”  ”Ted Genoways on journalism and documentary poetry,” and “Poetry as journalism? You’d be surprised,” from our archive. From the archive of our sister publication, Nieman Reports, check out “Staggering Drunks and Fiscal Cliffs,” in which Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Peter Coy argues that journalists should master metaphor; and “Poetry: The News That Stays News,” by Stephen Burt, an English professor at Harvard.) From Frost’s “On Being Insubordinate,” from July 3, 1957:

I talked down at Smith College once not so long ago on how you can tell when you’re thinking. And that’s got a lot to do with it. How can you tell when you’re thinking? Do you think you’re thinking when you’re just nicking or catching on? And that’s in it too but if you haven’t taken all that as just an example of daring to use, to dare, you know, that’s what it’s about. The best thoughts you’ve ever had from anybody are just a challenge to you to have one too. Come on and have one. Let’s see you have one. Let’s see you wreck something. It may save you. All right!

 

Multimedia narrative and how to interview, structure, choose your medium, edit for sound, identify the story arc and more

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The new student of multimedia narrative may want to bookmark an archive on digital storytelling by Mark Berkey-Gerard, who teaches online journalism at Rowan University, in New Jersey. A Columbia Graduate School of Journalism alum who has won awards for innovative teaching, Berkey-Gerard logged resources and learning tools on a site called Campfire Journalism: Notes on Digital Storytelling. He wrote:

The title comes from the writings of educator James Carey, who thought of journalism as a kind of collective campfire storytelling that begins in conversation. “Conversation not only forms opinions, it forms memory,” Carey wrote. “We remember best the things that we say, the things the we say in response to someone else with whom we are engaged. Talk is the surest guide to remembering and knowing what we think.”

We of course like that Berkey-Gerard’s required reading included our sister publication, Nieman Journalism Lab. But there are other reasons to check out the archive: field-gear checklists, a tutorials clearinghouse, breakdowns of multimedia structure. “I don’t know what the future of journalism holds,” Berkey-Gerard once said, “but I think that versatility is key.”

Five posts worth your time:

The Building Blocks of a Multimedia Story.” Excerpt:

You have pages of notes, hundreds of photos, and hours of audio and video. Now what?

Turning raw material into a cohesive and compelling story is the main challenge for a multimedia journalist. Often we have a sense that there is a story buried in there somewhere if we can just locate the essential elements and fashion them in narrative. …

Here is some simple, yet effective, advice on how to structure a story from three storytellers and educators:

Ira Glass, the producer of the radio and television documentary show This American Life, says that every great audio or video story has two elements: an anecdote and a moment of reflection.

An anecdote is the sequence of actions that builds the momentum and raises questions to be answered. Stringing together a series of actions (this happens, and then this happens) makes the audience feel that they are moving toward a destination.

moment of reflection is the point when someone clearly says, “here is the point of the story.”

Often a reporter will have one of the two elements, Glass says, but both are needed:

Your job to be ruthless and to understand that either you don’t have a sequence of actions that works or you don’t have a moment of reflection. And you are going to need both. In a good story you are going to flip back between the two… and that is the trick of the whole thing is to have the perseverance that if you have an interesting anecdote that you also can end up with an interesting moment of reflection that can support it…and that together it will add up to something that is more than the sum of its parts.

Editor’s note: If you’ve never seen Glass’s how-to-tell-a-story video, treat yourself to his four-part tutorial. Here’s Part 1:

And from a passage on finding the narrative arc of a story: