Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

“Why’s this (sentence) so good?” Jason Silverstein on Matt Taibbi on Goldman Sachs

Share Button

The sentence: The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. 

The writer: Matt Taibbi

The story: “The Great American Bubble Machine,” published July 9, 2009, in Rolling Stone

The setup: “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen,” Woody Guthrie sang in his 1939 ballad, “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

The song is about a Depression-era bank robber who didn’t just ride off with sacks of cash. He also burned mortgage papers, which freed many farmers from debt. That earned Floyd the nickname the Robin Hood of Cookson Hills. Goldman Sachs has a different reputation. “You won’t never see an outlaw / drive a family from their home,” Guthrie’s song ends. Goldman, on the other hand, drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. That, among other things, earned Goldman Sachs the nickname “the great vampire squid.”

The sentence drops two lines deep into a 10,000-word prosecution of the investment bank. Taibbi explains how Goldman Sachs robbed the country with a fountain pen over the 80 years between 1929 and 2009. Its M.O.: inflate a bubble, rake in salaries and bonuses, watch the bubble deflate, pay off some relatively small penalty, and repeat. Along the way, say hello to old employees in positions of power, such as the New York Fed or the treasury department. According to Taibbi, the bank ran this game via the Great Depression, tech stocks, the housing crisis, gas prices, and the bailout, and it was hungry to inflate another bubble in carbon credits. And this is possible, because, as Taibbi writes, “organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.”

Why it’s so good:

The vampire squid sentence is a hilarious and vivid start to an essay that eventually must wade into the dull and abstract world of leverage-based investments, IPOs, and CDOs. Taibbi knows he’s got his work cut out for him. Five months earlier, he wrote about the “strong temptation to not really give a shit” about the back-to-the-obscene Goldman bonuses in the wake of the financial crisis. The reason for this apathy, he guesses, is that “there’s still a widespread misunderstanding of how exactly Wall Street ‘earns’ its money.”

The sentence starts to clear things up. Even if you (like me) need more than one read for the parts that are “pretty easy even for the financially illiterate to grasp,” the metaphor brings to life the zombie-like (“relentlessly jamming”) hunt for tech stocks, taxpayer-funded bailout money, oil commodities, whatever (“anything that smells like money”).

Jason Silverstein

Jason Silverstein

Never mind that vampire squids do not actually have blood funnels (an error that nearly got the sentence axed by fact-checkers). The metaphor calls to mind the giant squids of Norse mythology, Moby-Dick, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Like any good sea beast, Goldman Sachs isn’t just any vampire squid. It is “a great vampire squid.” And it doesn’t kill its catch, at least not instantly. Instead, it torments and takes its time to slurp out and digest humanity.

This essay doesn’t pretend that there are two sides to the Goldman story that deserve equal weight. The vampire squid sentence lets you know that from the jump. There won’t be space for Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO, to claim he’s “doing God’s work,” or for Brian Griffiths, an international adviser, to insist we must “tolerate inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity.” Instead, Taibbi slaps a face (albeit a cephalopod’s face) on “the world’s most powerful investment bank.”

It stuck. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street protesters rallied around Goldman Sachs with “papier-mâché replicas of squids.” When word got out that the Danish government sold nearly 20 percent of its biggest utility to Goldman, protesters covered a statue of a former king with — what else? — a vampire squid flag.

Jason Silverstein is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Harvard. He is writing a book about the science of empathy for Simon & Schuster. Follow him at @Jason_Reads. For more installments of “Why’s this (sentence) so good?” go here.

The Best of ‘Draft’ — control the narrative, keep it short & other advice on writing

Share Button

Recommended reading from the New York Times’ Opinionator series “Draft,” on writing:

Keep It Short,” by columnist and author Danny Heitman:

To shorten my articles, I often worked through several versions, and with a merciless finger on the delete button I could surgically reduce my first draft by half.

The exercise taught me that successful economy of expression often depends on vigorous revision. Perhaps no one exemplifies this principle more vividly than E.B. White, the magazine essayist and children’s author celebrated for his deceptively simple style. White excelled in a number of forms, including “Talk of the Town” items for The New Yorker — graceful editorials that derived much of their charm from their compact scale. Although White’s gift for saying much in a few words looked effortless, he often achieved his pith by distilling one draft after another to its elegant essence. At the conclusion of his White biography, the author Scott Elledge lets readers look over White’s shoulders as he hones a New Yorker commentary on the first moon landing in 1969.

The Art of Vernacular Voice,” by professor and editor Amy D. Clark:

In an interview with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rick Bragg, John Sledge tells the story of Mr. Bragg’s encounter with the acclaimed author Willie Morris, who opened Mr. Bragg’s memoir “All Over But the Shoutin’,” and read several pages aloud. He slammed the book and leaned forward, telling Mr. Bragg, “You say it’s the story, and I say it’s the language.” Mr. Sledge is talking about the voices in Mr. Bragg’s books, which ring true down to the red Alabama grit on their shoes. Every voice on paper has a linguistic and social history that needs to be heard.

Controlling the Narrative,” by essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider:

final draft gifI’ve often thought, with some regret, that I would be a better writer if I were a worse person — basic human decency compels me to keep all the best details out of my work. Writing about someone with whom you’re still in a living relationship inevitably does some violence to that relationship. It may be survivable violence, no more than a scratch, but even a biopsy, whose purpose is benign, leaves a scar. For this reason most of the people I’ve chosen to write about were already gone from my life, estranged or deceased. But, as I discovered when I tried to write about people I still knew and loved, even if you have nothing but good things to say about someone they will still somehow come out the wrong way. It’s a freaking minefield. Dispassion is a double-edged instrument: As a writer you can find empathy and compassion for someone who, in real life, gets on your nerves, but you can also look with unsympathetic lucidity at someone whom, as a fellow human being, you respect and love.

The Joys of Trimming,” by author Pamela Erens:

Writers know all the good reasons for subjecting their work to a sharp trim. Early drafts are notorious for repetition, indirection and overdevelopment of the trivial. My own writing process is quite messy. I don’t always write my first drafts in full sentences, so it can take a few passes before things even gel enough for me to see what I’ve got. At that point I begin to notice scenes or explanations that have gone on too long, paragraphs that don’t allow readers a healthy pause, characters who say more than they ought to. In my experience, cutting back is the crucial act that allows the vitality, precision and emotional heart of a piece of writing to emerge.

Dangerous ‘Game’ for a Writer,” by author Thomas Chatterton Williams:

In “The Writing Life,” Annie Dillard points out that “[a writer] is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write.” I’ve encountered versions of this adage — along with the more extreme, don’t read anything while writing, lest you contaminate your voice — from a variety of sources and have often wondered how it could possibly be true. After all, I’ve spent my share of time with Dostoyevsky and Camus and I’m still waiting. Such admonishment always struck me as one more of those superstitions writers cultivate for the sake of it, like never discussing a work in progress or stopping only when you know what happens next.

Writing about a Life of Ideas,” by author and Brookings Institution fellow Richard V. Reeves:

“… The fear of creating inauthentic connections can lead biographers to treat the person as entirely distinct from the intellect, and simply narrate the events of their ordinary life. For one thing, this is often spine-crackingly dull; no sane person cares what John Locke ate for breakfast in Holland. More important, a “what-John-did-next” approach to intellectual biography misses the point. We care about the ideas, and so we care about the life to the extent that it bears upon, illuminates and revivifies them.”

Watch a story ‘come to life:’ The Big Roundtable’s new Open Rehearsal project

Share Button

Editor’s note: The Big Roundtable, a New York-based digital publisher of nonfiction, just launched the Open Rehearsal Project, which allows readers to “watch a story come to life.” The inaugural piece is “The Empire Strikes Back,” by Noah Sneider, who has been covering political events in Ukraine and Crimea for the New York Times and Slate. Observable writer-editor exchanges have started, and audio among collaborators joins the mix on Friday, via Medium. We asked Big Roundtable publisher Anna Hiatt to tell us a bit more about the project.

The Big Roundtable’s Open Rehearsal Project aims to be what dress rehearsals are for music: a chance for the audience to observe as the artist practices the craft of writing and aims for perfect. The hope is that, for a certain kind of dedicated reader, witnessing the process and its attendant caretakers will make the final piece more magical to behold.

At The Big Roundtable, those caretakers are Mike Hoyt, Cissi Falligant, and Michael Shapiro. All of them, but especially Shapiro, an author and a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, help writers see the arc of their stories and find a single framing question that acts as a guiding light when the reporting and writing get tough. Falligant, a former Chicago Tribune editor (she edited Shapiro when he was a cub), has a flair for making writers feel welcome and able. Hoyt, who spent 27 years at Columbia Journalism Review (10 as its editor), and whom we at The Big Roundtable like to call “The Closer,” is the Mariano Rivera of editing.

In February, Shapiro reached out to Sneider, whom he’d known for years, and asked what he was seeing on the ground in Ukraine. An email correspondence, which we’ve posted in the Open Rehearsal Project, ensued. Laden with notebooks and overwhelmed with questions, Sneider was trying to make sense of the bigger picture. Shapiro’s advice was simple: Keep a second notebook, in addition to your notepad for daily dispatches, and write me emails about what you’re seeing. The frame, Shapiro advised, would make itself clear as they wrote to each other.

photo by Noah Sneider

The goal for Noah, as it is for all our writers, was to free himself from the fear that everyone feels when he sits down to write. Near the beginning of the correspondence, Shapiro turned the conversation toward developing a question, which, he professes, illuminates the reporter’s path forward:

your memo is very smart and i am really delighted you want to work w/ us… the one thought that becomes ever clearer in reading the memo is that the story contains, and should therefore reflect a host of moving parts: what is taking place on the ground (in various places), what is taking place in the kremlin, and the long and multi-faceted shadows and historical precedents, grievances, struggles.

in other words, this is a mess. which makes it a) so much of a better story and b) why a clear and simple frame is essential. otherwise, readers will not see what is compelling here, and why they need to go along for the ride.



Noah began to search for that “clear and simple” frame in the chaos of what he was witnessing. His longform piece isn’t yet done, but we’re starting to publish chunks of it in formation, and, hopefully, to build an engaged audience along the way. At the end of four weeks, during which The Big Roundtable will host three webinars and publish dispatches, email exchanges, and notes from the field, the final piece will be completed and posted on Medium. (The platform has bought exclusive rights to the first month, after which The Big Roundtable will republish the piece.)

We strongly believe that neither youth nor inexperience disqualifies a writer from writing a substantial in-depth piece. Our writers, so far, include both new and seasoned ones. Our goals for the Open Rehearsal Project are simple: see if we can build an engaged audience around a story’s development, and provide a model that other writers might find useful. By no means do we intend to suggest that the Open Rehearsal Project is a template for future storytelling. This is not for every Roundtable story either. But Noah’s story—steeped in complicated history, tense geopolitical dynamics, and on-the-ground chaos—could benefit, we believed, from a more substantial introduction. This is a study in craft. We hope to show—transparently and one step at a time—how a complicated story is built.



The future of the craft is, as I see it, is not radically different from its past. The production tools may change—a pencil gives way to a typewriter gives way to a computer—but the purpose itself, the reason for telling an in-depth story, remains the same: to transport readers, to explain to them a world they might not already know, or not know well enough.

Anna Hiatt is a freelance journalist and the publisher of The Big Roundtable. Noah Sneider is a freelance journalist, artist and photographer based in Moscow. He shot all of the photos in this post.

Annotation Tuesday! Susan Orlean and the American man, age 10

Share Button

Susan Orlean likes to do something not many other journalists can get away with. In many of her articles Orlean tells us, right there on the page, what she’s thinking about her subjects. But it’s a trick. Orlean, a New Yorker staff writer, bestselling author, and 2004 Nieman Fellow, is often simply using her position in the narrative to give readers more information. Like the best reporters, Orlean brings readers into unfamiliar situations and then serves as enthusiastic guide, straightforward translator and gentle analyst all at once. When she applied that skill set to a celebrity cover story, in 1992, for Esquire, it evolved into a profile of an entirely un-famous subject: a 10-year-old boy named Colin Duffy. The resulting feature is funny and tense: a tightly paced volley of reportage that balances fact and fantasy, boy and man, man and woman, sex and violence, reporter and subject. In Colin Duffy, Orlean found an equally formidable guide — as the reporter tries to take readers inside his head, the subject does his best to induct her into the rituals of boyhood. This is “The American Man, Age 10” — smart, sobering, and rather fond of throwing things at girls. It’s classic Orlean, and she stepped me through it with her characteristic attention to details large and small. My annotation is in blue, hers in red, but first, some questions:

Storyboard: Here are some of Esquire’s cover subjects from 1992, the same year you wrote this story for the magazine: Howard Stern, Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee, George H.W. Bush and Winona Ryder. How does Colin Duffy fit into that lineup?

Susan Orlean: He doesn’t fit at all! He’s a kid and they are all adults; he’s unknown and “ordinary,” and they’re all very public figures.

Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean

Your editor at Esquire originally wanted you to write a profile of Macaulay Culkin, star of Home Alone. You said you’d only do the story if you could find a fitter subject than Culkin to illustrate the headline “The American Man, Age Ten.” Your editor agreed. Was it really that easy? How do you sell a cover story to a major magazine about a random un-famous kid?

It really was that easy. I sometimes think it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I was so naïve that I didn’t realize how crazy it was to take my first-ever assignment from Esquire and suggest such a radical redirection. I was so naïve that I didn’t realize it would have been much easier to profile Macaulay Culkin than an unknown suburban kid, just because readers come to a story about a celebrity already comfortable — they understand what a celebrity profile is all about. The writer doesn’t have to explain why the story is worthy of their attention. But a story about an ordinary 10-year-old forces the writer to justify why this seemingly unimportant subject deserves time and column inches. The only explanation I can offer is that the editor, Terry McConnell, was in the mood to be adventurous, and that I must have made a very passionate plea for why it was a good idea to do the story my way.

Tell me a bit about the mechanics of the reporting process with Colin. How long was the reporting phase? How much did you hang out with Colin and his family/friends? What was the adult involvement in the situation?

I had about two weeks to hang out with him, so I went to his house every day during that time, accompanying him to school and to play dates and home again for dinner. His parents had agreed to the story, and they basically let me come and go with Colin and didn’t interfere. His school, of course, knew why I was there and they were very accommodating, leaving me to do whatever I needed to do. Usually it meant just sitting in class with him, observing.

About how long was your first draft? And how has your drafting process changed or not changed over the decades since you wrote this?

I don’t remember the specifics — I know that I was on a very tight deadline, so there wasn’t a lot of time for multiple drafts and lots of revision. I just remember banging it out and having my fingers crossed that I had made it work. It’s not much different from the way I work now.

What was the most difficult part of writing this piece?

The most difficult part was keeping up my confidence. I knew I believed in the idea that profiling regular people was really important and more interesting, in many ways, than profiling celebrities. Even so, I would often come home from spending a day with Colin doing his usual 10-year-old things and think to myself, What am I doing? How on earth is this a story? I really had to fight that and assure myself that it really was a story.

It’s been 20 years since you wrote this profile. You now have a son who is almost Colin’s age. Have you considered revisiting the topic? Do you know if Colin Duffy ever made it to Wyoming?

Yes, I have considered revisiting it, and I exchanged emails with Colin last summer in anticipation of perhaps doing a 20-year look back at the piece. And as my son approaches that age, it is even more tempting to do it. I think I’m just reluctant to compete against myself — I feel like this piece had some magic to it, and I am not sure I could match it or better it. But maybe I’m just being too critical. It’s very tempting. By the way, Colin did make it to Wyoming. He’s had a very interesting life since I knew him – not following a predictable path at all, which would make an even more intriguing story, probably!


The American Man, Age 10
By Susan Orlean
Esquire, December 1992

If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks. <This whole lede is stunning for many reasons, but what most interests me is how you’re positioning yourself with the first sentence. When I read this, I immediately know several things: You are fond of your subject. You are very different from him, although you might wish you were less so. And you also know your readership — the presumed demographic of Esquire would have at one time been 10-year-old boys themselves. Are you flirting with the reader more than with the concept of being Colin’s partner?/mm Well put! This was about being in love with the idea of youth and innocence and memory of childhood; Colin was adorable, of course, but my ode is to that marvelous quality he embodied — that all kids embody — of possibility and imagination and freedom./so We would wear shorts, big sneakers, and long, baggy T-shirts depicting famous athletes every single day, even in the winter. We would sleep in our clothes. We would both be good at Nintendo Street Fighter II, but Colin would be better than me. We would have some homework, but it would not be too hard and we would always have just finished it. We would eat pizza and candy for all of our meals. We wouldn’t have sex, but we would have crushes on each other and, magically, babies would appear in our home. We would win the lottery and then buy land in Wyoming, where we would have one of every kind of cute animal. All the while, Colin would be working in law enforcement - probably the FBI. Our favorite movie star, Morgan Freeman, would visit us occasionally. We would listen to the same Eurythmics song (“Here Comes the Rain Again”) over and over again and watch two hours of television every Friday night. We would both be good at football, have best friends, and know how to drive; we would cure AIDS and the garbage problem and everything that hurts animals. <I appreciate how this lede, while being so imaginative, still does its job — here, you introduce or foreshadow a great deal of what we’ll learn about Colin later in the piece. How do you approach a lede and at what point does that come in your writing process? /mm I begin hearing the themes of the piece as I’m reporting, without yet having an idea of how I’ll begin. I write from the first sentence down to the last, so until I get that lede I don’t move on. With luck, it emerges as a culmination of all I’ve thought about and learned in the reporting, and opens the door to the rest of the writing./so We would hang out a lot with Colin’s dad. For fun, we would load a slingshot with dog food and shoot it at my butt. <This final image is a bit jarring after all the camaraderie that precedes it. I’m curious about this sentence’s function at the end of the lede — did you feel a need to start removing yourself from your subject’s perspective?/mm No, it was partly just a laugh line, but it was also a bit of reality: This actually occurred one night when I was hanging out with Colin, and I was reminded of how boisterous and silly (and occasionally rude) little boys can be — which is very much part of who they are. I liked the dreaminess of everything that leads up to this sentence, and then I liked the funny jolt of this to bring us back to reality./so We would have a very good life.


Here are the particulars about Colin Duffy: He is ten years old, on the nose. He is four feet eight inches high, weighs seventy-five pounds, and appears to be mostly leg and shoulder blade. He is a handsome kid. He has a broad forehead, dark eyes with dense lashes, and a sharp, dimply smile. I have rarely seen him without a baseball cap. He owns several, but favors a University of Michigan Wolverines model, on account of its pleasing colors. The hat styles his hair into wild disarray. If you ever managed to get the hat off his head, you would see a boy with a nimbus of golden-brown hair, dented in the back, where the hat hits him.

Colin lives with his mother, Elaine; his father, Jim; his older sister, Megan; and his little brother, Chris, in a pretty pale-blue Victorian house on a bosky street in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. <You just threw down “nimbus” and “bosky” in two subsequent sentences in a glossy men’s magazine. How do you eyeball the potential vocabulary level of your readership?/mm Ha! I feel like it’s okay to make people go to the dictionary once in a while, but these are also both words that sound so much like what they mean that I felt I could get away with it. I think my readers would have known what a nimbus was and would have been able to figure out what bosky means. I don’t like to find fancy words when simple ones can do, but I do like to dig out really marvelous words like those that don’t get used enough and deploy them when they’re appropriate./so Glen Ridge is a serene and civilized old town twenty miles west of New York City. It does not have much of a commercial district, but it is a town of amazing lawns. Most of the houses were built around the turn of the century and are set back a gracious, green distance from the street. The rest of the town seems to consist of parks and playing fields and sidewalks and backyards – in other words, it is a far cry from South-Central Los Angeles and from Bedford-Stuyvesant and other, grimmer parts of the country where a very different ten-year-old American man is growing up today. <By describing his environment and comparing it to others, you’re at once orienting us in Colin’s normalcy and taking pains to point out that he’s not like other boys. What does Colin’s story lose if the reader doesn’t have this wider-angle lens?/mm This was a reminder that there is no “typical” — that as much as Colin was a good representative of a lot of American boys, he was not going to represent ALL American kids, especially kids with very disadvantaged families. I simply wanted to acknowledge the obvious, that not every kid has a comfortable house and two parents with jobs./so

Manjula Martin headshot_photo by Ted Weinstein_800

Manjula Martin

There is a fine school system in Glen Ridge, but Elaine and Jim, who are both schoolteachers, choose to send their children to a parents’ cooperative elementary school in Montclair, a neighboring suburb. Currently, Colin is in fifth grade. He is a good student. He plans to go to college, to a place he says is called Oklahoma City State College University. OCSCU satisfies his desire to live out west, to attend a small college, and to study law enforcement, which OCSCU apparently offers as a major. <This is the first of many moments in which you take an inaccurate statement by Colin (the name of the university) and run with it. A duller writer would have written something like, “He probably meant Oklahoma State.” Instead, you use his error as an opportunity to play a bit, but without making fun of him. It’s a marvelous use of humor to relate a telling detail about character. How do you approach humor in your work?/mm I love humor, and I love encouraging the reader to see the humor that’s inherent, rather than layering on some joke for the sake of a joke. Since my aim was to try to step into Colin’s mind as much as possible, going along with these half-accuracies was essential. The very nature of the error was important to the theme of the piece, namely that he exists in that muddled place between childhood and adolescence, where he understands a lot about life but doesn’t yet quite have it fully grasped. I felt that his description of the university captured that perfectly — he kind of knew what he was talking about, but not quite. I knew readers would be able to decipher what he meant, without having me lay it out. What was more important was encouraging the reader to inhabit Colin’s reality as is, at least for a little while — to try to see what the world looks like to a 10-year-old, in all its slightly cracked glory./so After four years at Oklahoma City State College University, he plans to work for the FBI. He says that getting to be a police officer involves tons of hard work, but working for the FBI will be a cinch, because all you have to do is fill out one form, which he has already gotten from the head FBI office. Colin is quiet in class but loud on the playground. He has a great throwing arm, significant foot speed, and a lot of physical confidence. He is also brave. Huge wild cats with rabies and gross stuff dripping from their teeth, which he says run rampant throughout his neighborhood, do not scare him. Otherwise, he is slightly bashful. This combination of athletic grace and valor and personal reserve accounts for considerable popularity. He has a fluid relationship to many social groups, including the superbright nerds, the ultrajocks, the flashy kids who will someday become extremely popular and socially successful juvenile delinquents, and the kids who will be elected president of the student body. In his opinion, the most popular boy in his class is Christian, who happens to be black, and Colin’s favorite television character is Steve Urkel on Family Matters, who is black, too, but otherwise he seems uninterested in or oblivious to race. Until this year, he was a Boy Scout. Now he is planning to begin karate lessons. His favorite schoolyard game is football, followed closely by prison dodge ball, blob tag, and bombardo. He’s crazy about athletes, although sometimes it isn’t clear if he is absolutely sure of the difference between human athletes and Marvel Comics action figures. His current athletic hero is Dave Meggett. His current best friend is named Japeth. He used to have another best friend named Ozzie. According to Colin, Ozzie was found on a doorstep, then changed his name to Michael and moved to Massachusetts, and then Colin never saw him or heard from him again. <Breakneck pace. You throw so much information at the reader, so quickly. Within just four paragraphs you’ve hooked us, oriented us, and managed to ally yourself with both the subject and the reader. Here, with this capsule bio, are you beginning to establish a more reporterly stance than you took in the lede?/mm Yes, this is where I want to shift gears, to become more observational and analytical, and also to prepare for the minor key of the next section, which is about some of the poignancy and sadness that even 10-year-olds experience./so

He has had other losses in his life. He is old enough to know people who have died and to know things about the world that are worrisome. When he dreams, he dreams about moving to Wyoming, which he has visited with his family. <I’m curious about how you intermingle what may be info you’re directly reporting — stuff Colin told you — and your own observations. How do you toe that line when writing a profile, especially when dealing with a somewhat unreliable source when it comes to facts?/mm My rule is that the reader should be able to understand the difference between my reportorial statements and the statements I’m offering which are paraphrased from Colin. It’s a tonal shift from one to the other, which (I hope) is clear to the reader./so His plan is to buy land there and have some sort of ranch that would definitely include horses. Sometimes when he talks about this, it sounds as ordinary and hard-boiled as a real estate appraisal; other times it can sound fantastical and wifty and achingly naive, informed by the last inklings of childhood – the musings of a balmy real estate appraiser assaying a wonderful and magical landscape that erodes from memory a little bit every day. The collision in his mind of what he understands, what he hears, what he figures out, what popular culture pours into him, what he knows, what he pretends to know, and what he imagines, makes an interesting mess. The mess often has the form of what he will probably think like when he is a grown man, but the content of what he is like as a little boy. <Now the reporterly stance you’ve been building relaxes a bit, and you offer some of your own “adult” perspective. The story has progressed: Here’s the fantasy; here are the particular facts; and now, here’s what I think. How does including your perspective change how the readers perceive Colin at this point?/mm I assume that readers have more in common with me than with Colin, so this is a section in which I turn away from Colin and try to address the readers, adult to adult. It’s important to have the tone be distinctly grown-up, almost like a Greek chorus commenting on what we’ve observed./so

Notable narrative: “My Travels with the Curse of Maracaña”

Share Button

If Amy O’Leary describes a piece as “crazy fantastic digital storytelling” —

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 4.50.22 PM

— you can bet it’s true. And so it is, with “My Travels with the Curse of Maracaña,” a 2014 “World Cup Special” for the New York Times magazine, by visual storyteller Cristoph Niemann and Times graphics/multimedia editor Jon Huang. It’s a fantastic blend of narrative, animation, still photography, and data visualization on Brazil’s World Cup curse. Experience it here. A visual excerpt:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 5.00.40 PM



“Why’s this so good?” No. 93: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the case for reparations

Share Button

It’s hard to know where to begin when attempting to grapple with the sprawling legacy of racial discrimination and oppression in America. But Ta-Nehisi Coates knows there to start. “The Case For Reparations,” Coates’ latest tour de force in The Atlantic, spans more than 300 years of history, beginning with Clyde Ross, a black child of the Mississippi Delta.

In the 1920s, Ross saw his family’s land seized and his parents reduced to sharecroppers at the mercy of a system that was explicitly rigged against them. Ross served in World War II before joining the Great Migration, to Chicago. There, he got a steady job, married, and eventually bought a home in North Lawndale, a former Jewish neighborhood that was now welcoming middle-class African-Americans — a “pilot community” for integration.

headshot 1

Eva Holland

But Ross and his wife were unable to get a normal mortgage. A mixture of legislative remedies, intimidation and violence, and industry collusion ensured that black families were locked out of the housing market for decades. Instead, they were catered to by predatory lenders and isolated by redlining. The community of North Lawndale festered. Today, writes Coates, the area is “on the wrong end of virtually every socioeconomic indicator.”

Coates goes on to explore the history of the American discussion — to the extent that there has been one — around reparations. He outlines the enormous wealth generated by slavery. “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,” he quotes from historian David W. Blight, then adds:

The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America. In 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country.

He touches on the collapse of Reconstruction, and the rise of the lynch mob, and the ways in which government efforts like Social Security and the GI bill all too often excluded black Americans from their benefits. Then he returns to Chicago, and the discriminatory housing policy that dominated much of the 20th century, documenting its cost with painful precision:

To keep up with his payments and keep his heat on, Clyde Ross took a second job at the post office and then a third job delivering pizza. His wife took a job working at Marshall Field. He had to take some of his children out of private school. He was not able to be at home to supervise his children or help them with their homework. Money and time that Ross wanted to give his children went instead to enrich white speculators.

“The problem was the money,” Ross told me. “Without the money, you can’t move. You can’t educate your kids. You can’t give them the right kind of food. Can’t make the house look good. They think this neighborhood is where they supposed to be. It changes their outlook. My kids were going to the best schools in this neighborhood, and I couldn’t keep them in there.”

Later in the piece, Coates quotes another North Lawndale resident who managed to cling to her home in the same way, struggling to make the payments by cutting back on everything else: food, electricity. “You cut down on things for your child, that was the main thing,” she said.

Nieman narrative news: Please welcome Steve Almond and Louise Kiernan

Share Button

An exciting word from the mothership:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The Nieman Foundation for Journalism has hired Louise Kiernan to edit Nieman Storyboard, a website that showcases exceptional narrative journalism and explores the future of nonfiction storytelling, and Steve Almond to teach Nieman’s seminar in narrative writing, offered each year to Nieman Fellows.

Kiernan, a 2005 Nieman Fellow, is an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, focusing on narrative, investigative and social issues reporting. She joined the Medill faculty in September 2010 from the Chicago Tribune, where she worked for 18 years as a reporter and editor. She won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting as lead writer of a series on problems with air travel and was a Pulitzer finalist in the same category that year for an individual project. Kiernan holds a master’s in journalism from Northwestern and a bachelor’s in English from the University of Virginia.


Almond spent seven years as a journalist in El Paso and Miami, working jobs that ranged from restaurant critic to investigative reporter. He is the author of four books of nonfiction, including the New York Times bestseller Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America and the forthcoming Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, as well as four books of fiction. He also is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and has taught writing at Emerson, Wesleyan, Boston College, and Ohio State. Almond holds a MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a bachelor’s in English from Wesleyan University.

Storyboard’s current editor, Paige Williams, who for the past four years has also served as Nieman’s narrative writing instructor, has accepted a professorship at the Missouri School of Journalism, to begin in the fall. A 1997 Nieman Fellow, Williams writes for The New Yorker, has taught at universities including NYU, MIT, and Emory, and has won numerous awards for her work, including the National Magazine Award for feature writing in 2008. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

For more than a decade, the Nieman Foundation has recognized the importance of narrative journalism and explored the craft through a narrative writing seminar for fellows; special events at Harvard; and the Nieman Storyboard website, which features posts on narrative technique from veteran storytellers and showcases contemporary nonfiction narrative in all media. The Nieman Foundation also published Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers Guide, featuring more than 90 essays on the craft.

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard educates leaders in journalism and elevates the standards of the profession through special programs that convene scholars and experts in all fields. More than 1,400 journalists from 93 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since 1938. In addition to Nieman Storyboard, the foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, a website and quarterly print magazine that explores contemporary challenges and opportunities in journalism, and the Nieman Journalism Lab, a website that reports on the future of news, innovation and best practices in the digital media age.

Reporting and writing historical narrative: Author Adam Hochschild on accessible prose + scene/setting + character + plot

Share Button

Several years ago, Adam Hochschild, the acclaimed author of King Leopold’s Ghost and other nonfiction narratives, told a Vanderbilt University audience that academic writing doesn’t have to be boring. Scholars of history and science — theoretically any discipline — can use basic storytelling techniques without sacrificing gravitas. “I think that even people who don’t think of themselves as knowing (storytelling techniques) unconsciously do use them,” Hochschild said. “We use them in conversation every day. We use them often very skillfully when we tell stories to small children, because the only way you can get a child to pay attention is if you can make the character really colorful, if you can make the story really suspenseful, if you can make your listener wonder what’s going to happen next. I’m just saying that you have to apply these techniques in writing as well, and that you can do so in writing that meets the highest scholarly standards.” Watch Hochschild’s talk here or read the transcript, which we ran in four parts: accessibility; scene and setting; character; and plot.

Part 1, on accessibility:

Half a century ago, the novelist and physicist C.P. Snow wrote about how these days we live in two cultures, where scientists and humanists seem to have lost the ability to talk to each other. I think today writers and intellectuals live in a different world of two cultures – one that has to do with whether you are writing for your fellow specialists or for a wider audience. There’s almost an assumption that writing is either academically rigorous and directed at fellow scholars or that it’s less careful and directed at a wider audience.

I encounter this assumption in all kinds of strange ways. A number of times I’ve received letters or emails from people who’ve liked a book of mine and have written me to say “how much I enjoyed your novel.” I always bristle, because even though I wish I were capable of being a novelist, I’m not, and I immediately want to write back and say, “Wait a minute! That book had 850 footnotes! Didn’t you see them? I wasn’t making anything up.”

People seem to assume that if they find something readable or lively, it’s likely to be a piece of fiction. Similarly, I think there is sometimes an assumption among scholars that your work will not be taken seriously if it sounds too accessible. I’ll give you a curious example. Years ago, there was the famous Masters and Johnson study of human sexuality. I remember that, in an interview at the time, Masters and Johnson said that they had deliberately written their first book, “Human Sexual Response,” in a cumbersome style so that it would be taken seriously by health professionals.

Part 2, on scene and setting:

An essential ingredient of any writing that is going to reach out and grab the reader’s attention is evoking where the story that you’re talking about takes place. It’s something worth spending a lot of time figuring out how to do.

I’ll give you an example from my last book, Bury the Chains, which is the story of the antislavery movement in the British Empire. There’s a crucial meeting that takes place in that book, May 22, 1787, when the first interdenominational antislavery committee was formed in London. It marked a real landmark in the history of human rights, I think, and took place in a Quaker bookstore and printing shop in a little courtyard, which is still there today in London’s financial district – although unfortunately the printing shop is not – called George Yard.

I was trying to evoke this moment, time and place, and trying to describe what the scene was like. We know what happened at the meeting, because we have minutes that were taken, but we don’t have a description of the scene. However, there are building blocks that you can use to put together a scene like that. I spent a lot of time scanning newspapers of the time. I began to see advertisements for other businesses in George Yard. There was a pub there. I saw an ad from a fellow who gave dancing and fencing lessons. These were some of the things that took place right in this little courtyard where the printing shop was. I could not find a description of this particular printing shop, but there is a vast amount of material on what 18th-century British printing shops looked like – and also a great many paintings and drawings. I spent some time studying books on the history of printing.

Part 3, on character:

king-leopolds-ghostThe next key ingredient in the trio I mentioned is character. Telling history through a set of characters is by no means the only way to do it, but it’s certainly a powerful one. What works for me is finding a network of characters who, in one way or another, are connected to each other, and trying to evoke a period of history or a story of something such as the antislavery movement through that networked group of characters. I think that’s a powerful form of storytelling because, here again, life itself unfolds this way. Each of us is at the center of such a network. A variety of people have connections to each of us, and many of them have intricate connections with each other.

Of course, playwrights, novelists, and screenwriters tell their stories in the same way. It’s never a succession of characters who have no connection to each other that we meet in a movie or play or novel. They’re members of the same family, or they’re friends, or they fall in or out of love, or they’re rivals.

So I always go looking for such characters, for some way of finding a web of people through