"Aboard the Narrative Train"
Presented at the AEJMC Magazine Division Southeast Colloquium, New Orleans, LA
I got into this, the teaching of writing business starting out probably like a lot of us did in straight journalism and found that the daily story wasn't allowing me to tell enough of what I was learning. It seemed like so much was left out. So, I decided to get out of daily journalism, where I was covering Washington and the Kennedy-Johnson Administration and I decided to get out of daily journalism and go into longer form journalism: magazine and books. And I did find that one problem with free-lancing was that I was talking to my typewriter; my typewriter became my new best friend. And I said, "This is not a very good way to go."
And I started teaching at Boston University and discovered that for me, it was a nice synergy between having a real community and students who were interested and my own writing and my own work and because one fed on the other and it was really a neat thing to do. And as I was starting to teach magazine journalism, of course the whole debate about the new journalism was erupting and what was journalism and was there objectivity and how do you tell stories? And all this ferment and fervor was happening which I think was great because we were looking at a new way to tell stories and trying to get our students interested in new ways to tell stories. And I'm convinced that the narrative is going to be a form that's going to remain--it probably started with people drawing pictures on the cave walls to tell stories and now in the year of the Internet--and all this exploding technology, there's still magic in once upon a time.
And I do find that my students who are all, you know, they know how to do things that puzzle me, they go to make web-sites with all sorts of dazzling graphics and they know how to get anything they want on the Internet and yet they are drawn to, with the idea of once upon a time, telling a story.
My colleague, Mark Kramer, who I think is very thoughtful about this whole issue of literary journalism--he was writer-in-residence at Smith and now he's teaching at Boston University and has done a book which some of you probably know called Literary Journalism--he has a phrase which I like a lot and it's called a ³time sculpture.² Essentially, what a piece of long-form narrative journalism is, is a time sculpture where essentially, for a period of time, you occupy all of the reader's senses. You occupy their brain, their sense of smell, their memory--everything. And you create what is in a sense a sculpture and I think that I try to get my students to think about that that's they're doing. They're not sitting down to write a piece that I can grade them on. They're not trying only to do a piece because the Boston Phoenix will buy the book. But something that you have to create something, which is going to have an independent...it's going to have a narrative time and place and I think that if you can create something that will compel people and that will draw people in, it almost doesn't matter what you are writing about, as long as you can find a narrative which has enough tension, enough interest, enough character to sustain interest.
And I think really that this may be this may also be the salvation of the newspaper business because while everybody else is doing short bursts of information, it seems to me that both in the newspaper and magazine businesses, the idea of doing time sculptures, of being able to take people out of their everyday need for these short pieces of information which will allow to them to, you know, get thin ....or fight cancer or do whatever, eat the right stuff. I think that we journalists who are doing long-form narratives and we who are teaching that are really selling something very different which is an experience that's different from much that's happening in journalism today.
And I think that perhaps the traditional who, what, where, when, why could be changed. The who in the long-form narrative is the character. Who are the people that we're going to write about that are going to draw us in? The what is a narrative story line. It's not just a collection facts that will give people information but it is a narrative story that will carry people along. The why is essentially expositional analysis: putting something in context, making people understand why it is important. The where is still the setting. And the when is the Proscenium arch, which is the frame that contains the drama.
So that in the long-form narrative, our students are, in a very great sense, they're dramatists. They don't make it up! I used to say that a lot, ³You can't make it up.² And I think if you present it that way, the challenge of writing article becomes something different and something hopefully, that they'll throw themselves into with real energy. Certainly, when I was very young, the idea of anybody who wanted to write would be the novel, you know, every journalist had the Great American Novel in his debt (?) and I think now that what we're seeing about with books like Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm--we're seeing that non-fiction is carrying many of the narratives, the novels that are explaining our time to us--even more so than the novel.
So, I think when students discover that, and they discover that journalism is just not simply about ....fire stories or covering some piece of information but its really about telling a story that will explain our time. And our time may be--there can be very small stories and there can be very big stories. I know that for many students, they read somebody like John Hersey's Hiroshima or some of the other major works--Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and they think, "Oh my God, I can't do that. How could I possibly do that?" And then I say to them, you don't have to do that but there are pieces of the world that you can discover, well within your understanding and your access. But just as long you are there and you're around enough, enough will happen. So that you can do these kinds of stories.
One student, for example, went to Sutton's Down, which is basically a blue-collar race track in Boston and found a story every bit as compelling as some major event by dealing with the jockeys and the trainers and the horses that were about to fall down on their last legs and the veterinarians who tried to save them. That was a wonderfully compelling story. Another student went to a boys' school for dyslexic boys, many whom were juvenile delinquents and presented that world compellingly. And another one of our students went to a summer camp where it became very clear that the world she came from and the world that these city kids were going to, were so different and she tried to understand their experience and to understand what the experience meant to her. And I think, when I tell my students, find that world that you can get to and that you can find a place for yourself, in a story-telling place, then you'll be doing what John Hersey...was doing in Hiroshima or Joan Didion was doing in Salvador. You might not be doing it as well, but you will be doing it. And that's revved them up a little bit.
One of the first things I say to them, I'll use it on you the experiment--I give to them: I'd like to ask you all to close your eyes. Don't peek. And ask questions. How many chandeliers are there?
Audience Response: Two.
CR: What's the color of the rug?
CR: Now, there's a precise...How many fans are there in the room?
CR: How many trees are there in the room? Okay, open your eyes. There's three chandeliers, two fans, one tree and the rug is teal.
I think this really interests my students because they understand--almost nobody gets all the questions. They don't notice how many doors, they don't notice the color of the window, they don't notice all these things. And I say, It's because, of course, you don't have to. This is a functional way of seeing. And the functional way of seeing is what normal people do and it works. Because if you walked into a room and all the time you had to catalog everything, you would go crazy, you could never get anything done. But I say, as a writer, when you're in writing mode, think of yourself as switching into another way of looking and that way of looking is the first building block of really good writing and that's effective use of detail. And if you can use detail, you will find that your writing will get stronger, itself.
Because I find that a lot of students now, their idea of writing tends to be kind of vague and I don't know if this comes from the teaching of writing in schools but they want to say things like, "The girl was pretty. The day was fine." They tend to use sort of vague words, imprecise adjectives. So, one of the things I say to them is begin to look for the concrete detail and that's the first thing that's going to make your writing stronger--is that concrete use of detail. So, I tell them, look at people. If you want to describe people, there are a number of things that you can use in your description. Not just somebody was 5'2", eyes of blue or somebody was 6'8" and brown hair but there's a whole batch of things that you look at. The first is body language. What's the body language of the person? Because that tells you, I tell my students, a lot about who the person is.
And I remember some of my own encounters with people and their different body language. I remember particularly, Robert Kennedy. Back when he was Bad Bobby, before he became Good Bobby. And the interesting thing about his body language was the tension and the intensity and the way that he moved. It was very clear that this was a person that was on a wire almost, that was so strong. And I also remember a woman I interviewed who had been involved in a story and her boss had been kicked out and she was now, she'd been a career bureaucrat, was not the number one spot and was utterly unprepared for it. I did an interview and during the entire interview, she went over and she shredded a pack of cigarettes and they all went into the ashtray. So, at the end of the interview, this ashtray was filled with shredded pieces of tobacco. And I say to my students, I didn't have to say this woman was nervous, all I had to do was to describe these shredded pieces of tobacco. So, watching people's body language is one of the pieces of ammunition so I say look at that and try to observe that.
But you also have how people treat other people. And that's often fascinating because one thing you get from that is the gradation of power--who has power and who doesn't or who senses they have power and they don't. And going back to Bobby Kennedy again, I remembered one incident when he was testifying, he was attorney general, and ringed around behind him were about 5 or 6 assistant attorney generals of the United States. And that's a fairly august position, assistant attorney general of the United States, but when Bobby Kennedy wanted a paper, he would reach behind him and snap his hands, as if to snap for a dog and...and I said, that description of how this person who has power and who's exercising power and exercising it in a way that quite clearly, he's used to it and he's not used to, he didn't turn around and say, "Will you please give me the paper?" So this is somebody who exercises power fairly routinely. So, if you watch your person and see how they treat other people, you will get a real impression of who they are in many cases--at least who they are at that moment.
You also, I tell them, have to watch how people respond to the person that you are writing about because that will give you an indication. And I mentioned by a couple of people I had written about, one being Dustin Hoffman. And the fascinating thing about Dustin Hoffman and the maybe the reason he is such a wonderful actor is that as he came into the airport lounge where I was meeting him, he came in, and there was actually no electricity in the room when he walked in--I mean, it could have been Joe Schmiel who walked in. And as a result, everybody rushed up to him, crowded around him and started talking about their friends, their sisters, their cousins. And it was very interesting that he had a kind of inviting aura that he was everybody-who's-nothing-special and that fact made everybody approach and I think it says something about the person that he is. It's very interesting because if you watch his performances, he utterly transforms himself from one role to the other. Whether he's really lonely in one role or Tootsie. There's this ability to submerge himself and not to have any charisma and he didn't at all in person. And I said, that observation says something about him and that that's the kind of thing to look for.
On the other hand, there was another character who was quite the opposite end of the spectrum who I talked about--that was Marion Barry. Marion Barry was perhaps one the most charismatic people I had ever met. And I had met him when he was a young civil rights worker--he wasn't really anybody but he walked into the room and heads absolutely turned. He had the most incredible charisma. Even wearing a work shirt and a pair of jeans that ...and I said this person can be somebody and as it turned out, he was--not quite in the way I expected. So, it was astonishing, that sort of presence so I said, that's another thing to look for.
Another kind of person that had another kind of presence was Rene Richards, the transsexual tennis player and she was fascinating because she was quite beautiful, looked like a fashion model, very tall, but so wary and understandably wary because she felt so out of place on the tour she'd been I think...so much that there was a zone around her that you simply did not come near. It was such a way that said, "Stay away. Stay out of the way." And I was talking to a friend of mine and said, I said, "Is that possibly because she's a transsexual." And the person said, "No, I know a lot of people who are transsexuals and they walk in and sit down and have a beer and they're fine." It's just this particular person and probably Richard Resnick, the doctor, had that same zone of privacy. And getting a sex change maybe made that zone of privacy a little deeper but probably not different. So, I say to my students, try to do that and try to use those things when you are writing about someone.
I also, one of the things I try with my students, and I'd like to do some of this with you if I may, is to ask them what they think certain writers are doing when they are writing a piece. What is the equipment they bring to this particular piece of writing? Here's one which I particularly like and it's David Halberstam writing about Robert MacNamara in The Best and the Brightest, and this was when Robert MacNamara was president of Ford and this is how Halberstam describes him:If someone were to be driving with MacNamara during work hours, he would see it. Bob was driving but he was thinking of grills that day, only grills existed--cheap ones, expensive ones, flashy ones, simple ones. Other cars rushing by on their way to lunch, on their way home, and Bob running it through in his mind, oblivious to oncoming traffic, frightening his companion. 'Bob, watch the road,' one would say. And if he were in a good mind, good mood, he might apologize for his mental absence. MacNamara never stopped pushing. The night each year when we got a hold of the first Chevy, everybody gathered around in a special room and they broke it down piece by piece, hundreds of items, each one stapled to a place already laid out for it. And they concentrated. No brain surgeon ever concentrated more. Everyone muttering, wondering how Chevy had done this for ten percent less, cursing...so that's how they did it...And then when Halberstam describes MacNamara in a meeting, this is how he does it this way.If you did show a flash of irrationality or support for the wrong position, he would change, speaking faster than...machine gun, cutting into you, chop, chop, chop. You miscalculated here--chop. You left this out, chop. You neglected this, chop. Therefore, you're wrong, chop, chop, chop. Those who knew him well could tell when he was angry, when he was going to explode. He would become tense and if you looked under the table, you could see him to begin to hitch up his pants, a nervous habit, ...he knew he could not control his hands if they were on the table. The more restless he became, the more the antagonism assaulted his senses, the higher the pants would get, showing thick, hairy legs. On bad days, the pants might be to the knees and then suddenly he would talk--bang, bang, bang-" 'You're wrong for these reasons," putting his fingerrs out...One, two, three. He always ran out of fingers. And I ask my students, okay, what do you know about Robert MacNamara from that description? What do you know about him? (AR--inaudible). He's a ...he's a hard-driving guy. Tense, aggressive. Now, you could say in one sentence: Robert MacNamara is a son-of-a-bitch; he's a tense, hard-driving, aggressive guy. Same information that you get here but what makes the difference. You're showing instead of telling. (AR--inaudible). You're using the use of detail.
What details come out alone in that? (Audience responses--inaudible). What detail is it that lingers? (AR: pants). Even his clothes are subordinate. Isn't it wonderful when you see those pants going up? You see the hairy knees, you see the fingers. And I think that's the difference between categories of information. But here's one category where you just say he is A-B-C-D-E and there's no emotional content to that information, there's no visual content to that information. But in the description that Halberstam gives, there's all that stuff that gives you...and Halberstam says, "I want people to leap off the page and come off the page. And," he says, "I do it because I got ...do one interview and two interviews and five more to get the anecdote that makes the person jump off the page."
And I try to tell my students, this kind of piece, it just sounds so easy, it flows so easily but it's not easy to do because who knows? The sources of this information are hard to find. You got to go out and find them. And if you look for it and you work for it and you put it together, it's there and it works. Another one I like to read to them comes from Joan Didion. Didion, I think, is perhaps the master of mood. Nobody sets a mood better than Joan Didion. And it's fascinating and people have said and I think they're right, that if you read her slim book on Salvador, you probably understand more about that war than pages and volumes of all these atrocities. Oh, yes...One thing I read to my students and this is one of my favorite descriptions. She talks about the texture of life in El Salvador. I tried to describe to a friend in Los Angeles an incident that had occurred some days before I'd left El Salvador. I had gone with my husband and another American to the San Salvador war, which unlike most wars in the United States, was easily accessible, through an open door in the ground floor around the back of the court building. We'd been too late that morning to see the day's bodies. There's not much emphasis on bombing in El Salvador or for that matter on identification. And bodies dispatched fast were disposable. But the man in charge had opened his log to show the morning entries : seven bodies, all male, none identified, none believed older than 25. Six had been certified dead by ...Fuego firearms and the seventh had also been shot. The slab by which the bodies had been received , many had been washed down already, water still on the floor (?) There were many flies and an electric fan.
The other American with whom my husband and I had gone to the war that morning was a newspaper reporter and since only seven unidentified bodies bearing evident of Armand Fuego, not San Salvador in the summer of 1982, constituted a newspaper story worth pursuing. Outside in the parking lot there were a number of ...impounded cars, many of them shot off, upholstery chewed by bullets, windshields shattered, thick cakes of congealed blood on ...hoods. But this was also...and it was not until we walked back around the building to the reporter's rented car that each of us began to sense the tension of the ....Surrounding the car were three men in uniform, two on the sidewalk and the third, very young, sitting on his motorcycle in such a way to block our leaving. A second motorcycle had pulled up directly behind the car and the space in front was occupied. The three had been joking among themselves but the laughter stopped when we got into the car. The reporter turned the ignition on and waited. No one moved.
The two men on the sidewalk did not meet our eye. The boy on the motorcycle stared directly and caressed...caught between...The reporter asked in Spanish if one of the motorcycles could move so that we could get out. The men on the sidewalk said nothing but smiled at him amiably. The boy only continued staring and began twirling his....This was a kind of impasse. It seemed clear that if we tried to leave and face either motorcycle, the situation would deteriorate. It also seemed clear that if we did not try to leave, the situation would deteriorate. I studied my hands.
The reporter gunned the motor, forced the car up onto the curb far enough to provide a minimum space in which to maneuver and managed to back out clean. Nothing more happened and what did happen has been a common enough kind of incident in El Salvador., a pointless confrontation with aimless authority.Now, I ask my students: What was the writer doing? What was the point of what the writer was describing? There was a dead body near the car. You project yourself into that, that's what she was thinking about after she left the morgue. Because even though ...interesting, even though there were no bodies in the morgue. They've all gone. And yet, the description, the fan, the slab wiped down. They're gone. But in some ways, it's kind of more chilling than if this gory body was there. The last description in this sentence is almost more powerful than it would have been in describing it. And I think that's another thing that sometimes...in a sense, describing something that isn't there but describing something that has import, that can be just as effective as describing something...It's like the horror movies that you will go to, everybody getting, limbs are getting chopped off, heads are getting chopped off and everybody talking and nobody's listening and yet, remember the shower scene in Psycho? (AR) Exactly. I didn't take a shower for four weeks after I saw that movie and if you go back and look at it, you didn't see anything. You saw a shower, a knife, I think you heard a scream, and you saw blood twirling down the [drain] and thats all you saw. And yet, that image is far more chilling so that you can have just one suggestive image even better than a battery of images (AR--inaudible...about car). Exactly. She's building that scene. Because if you just had the scene of the motorcycle...you wouldn't have had the framework of having just come from this morgue and this ...and here's this scene which is just drenched in tension. And I think that says more about being in a country with that morgue than often the description of actual battles. It's that sense of anything can happen, that there is this unrelieved sort of sense of terror. You go by your ordinary day's work but in a moment, things can turn bad.
And she's, I think, a master of that kind of description and that kind of sense of sensing what's in the air and I say to my students is: You can also do this. Probably again not as well as Joan Didion but you can keep those antennae open for those situations in which certain kind of descriptions will be as powerful or more powerful then---Something that didn't happen can sometimes be more powerful than something that did happen.
There's, by the way, a wonderful video, I don't know if any of you know it, Madelyn Blaise, it's called "Writers Writing." Encyclopedia Britannica puts it out. And the one I particularly like is they follow Madelyn Blaise around--I think it's before she won the Pulitzer Prize, she was working for Miami Tropic, and she followed around, she's going to do a story and it's a community center in Miami run by a woman in her eighties who rehabilitates kids who have been in trouble. And the fascinating thing about this video is they follow Blaise by what the story is. And I find it very instructive for my students because she ...what she's looking for and she does say, " 'I want to find enough tension in this story--the story has to have tension.'" Which is an interesting word because I think people often blame journalists for looking for either conflict or aggression or something like that. And she says, "No, it's tension." And that tension can be, we're not talking...but that tension can be a person, an artist struggling against his or her own limitations. It can be lots of things . But without it, she says, it's not a story to me.
So, she goes in and the first story she's intending to do is a profile of the woman who runs the center. But the woman who runs the center is very guarded and it's quite clear that this woman is not going to open up, she's not going to let her guard down long enough to have anything more than a quick feature. And what Blaise finds is a 19-year old boxer who wants to go to the Olympics and who was arrested for assault and battery at one point and he's turning his life around. And she says, "Aha! That's the story I want to follow."
And what I try to say to my students is: Keep your eyes open when you go into a story because you never know what the story's going to be. If you go into a situation, if you go with blinkers on, if you're only going in that direction, you may miss something wonderful that's happening, you know, right next to you. So, if you keep your eyes open, you can switch and follow and find out what the story is and find a story that has enough tension, then you're going to find out that you probably haven't wasted a long, long time in getting the story. And Tony Lukas, the story I tell the students...when I tell it, when he was writing Common Ground, he spent something like six months with a family in Charlestown as his white family (?) regarding the bussing story in Boston. And after six months, he decided this family wasn't going to do it and threw out all his tapes and all his notes and went to cover another story. And then found a couple that really worked.
And I say to my students, if Tony Lukas could throw out six months of work and you've got a weekend of work that doesn't work out, it's not going to kill you. You know, don't attach to a story if you feel it isn't working. You know, if this isn't working, find another aspect of the story that is working. Be flexible. Keep on your toes. (AQ). It's called ³Writers Writing² and I think, Telling An Old Story is the name of that particular video....And I found that particularly....
Another video, by the way, David Halberstam did another one, quite old, but the Poynter Institute put it out and it's called ³David Halberstam: Reporter.² And it was done back when Carter was president so it's not a new video but it details about how he writes and how he got into the business. And there's so much of what he has to say that's really relevant to the students of today that I find it very useful, even though it was, you know, filmed some years ago.
Another writer which I, with some trepidation, introduced my students to, is Tom Wolfe. And I think you all understand, people in the magazine division, why this trepidation. Because the worst thing in the world is this ersatz Tom Wolfe. (AR). Yes, one Wolfe is enough we don't need more of them. But I do say that one of the things that Wolfe does is his ability to use detail and to create whole worlds of detail--even though sometimes he does do it to wretched (?) excess. But he is wonderful at that ability to sort of absorb and soak in everything around him.
So, I say to my students: If you copy Wolfe, what you want to do is to look at his ability to use effective detail, almost the way a painter would, you know, take a palette knife to put the paint on canvas and I say to them: Pile it on and then peel half of it off. But this is the one I use to illustrate this Tom Wolfe and it's from, it's called The Angels, and it's from his book on the astronauts, The Right Stuff, and he's writing about Pete Conrad--at the time he was test pilot, seeing his first crash. And he's got all the details. Even out in the middle of the swamp, in this rock...pine trunks, skunk flicks, dead dodder vine and mosquito eggs. Even in this great, over-ripe swamp, the smell of burned beyond recognition obliterated everything else. When airplane fuel exploded, it created a heat so intense that everything but the hardest not only burned, everything of rubber, plastic, celluloid, wood, leather, cloth, flesh, gristle, corn, hair, and protoplasm, it not only burned, gave up the ghost in the form of every stricken, putrid gas known to chemistry. One could smell the horror. It came in through the nostrils and burned the ....cavities raw and penetrated the liver , permeated the bowels like a black gas until there was nothing in the universe inside or out except the scent of the char. As the helicopter came down between the pine trees and settled onto the bog, the smell hit Pete Conrad even before the hatches could be opened and they were not even close enough to see the wreckage yet. The rest of way, Conrad and his crewmen had to travel on foot. After a few steps, the water was up to their knees and then it was up to their armpits and they kept wading through the ... and the scum and the vine and the pine trunk. Nothing compared to the smell. I'll skip a bit...When Conrad finally reached the airplane, which was an FMJ, he found the fusillade burned, blistered, dug into the swamp, with one wing sheared off and the cockpit canopy smashed. In the front the seat was all that was left of his friend, Bud Jennings. Bud Jennings, an amiable fellow, a promising young fighter pilot, was now a horrible roasted hulk with no head. His head was completely gone, apparently torn off his spinal column like a pineapple off a stalk except that it was nowhere to be found. Conrad stood there soaking wet in the swamp wondering what in the hell to do. It was a struggle to move 20 feet in this freaking swamp Every time he looked up, he was looking up into a delirium of limbs, vines, dappled shadows with a chopped-up white light that came in through the tree tops, the green in trees with a thousand...where the sun peeps through. Nevertheless, he thought of wading back through the ...and the scum and the others followed. He kept looking up. Gradually , he could make it out. Up in the tree tops was a pattern of wings where the FMJ had come crashing through. It was a light from the tree tops. Conrad and the others began slashing through the swamp, following the strange path 90 or 100 feet above them. It took a sharp turn. That must have been where the wing broke off. The trail veered to one side and started down. They kept looking up and wading through the mud. Then they stopped. There was a great green sack up there in the tree trunk. It was odd, ...a huge gash ...some sort of brownish sack up in...such as you would see in trees covered by bag worms. A yellowish curtain on the ...around it as if the disease had caused sap to move out and fester and congeal except it couldn't be sap because it streaked with blood. In that instant, Conrad didn't have to say a word. Each man could see it all. The lumpy sack was the cloth liner of a flight helmet with the earphones attached to it. The curds (?) were Bud Jennings brains. The tree trunk had smashed the cockpit canopy of the FMJ and knocked Bud Jennings head to piecesNone of my students are unmoved by that passage. What was the writer doing in that passage? What ammunition? (AR) ....piling it on. The details are there in great abundance. (AR) That's right. You discover a twist in the pilot. You're seeing it through, at that point, the eyes of the young pilot. And he's walking, and it gives you the clues...and even though you know what's coming, when it comes, it still has the shock. (AR) That was ...Exactly. They both come together at that point.
AR: ...pertinent in the scene where he describes the reporter and there's someone almost, by chance, like Joan Didion who happened to be at the morgue and these guys are hanging out at their cars and yet each one of them sounds as if it was an incredible fictive imagination, you know like a (snaps) tragedy came at that final moment. It's just chance.
CR: And it's chance that they're there but they use the information...it's quite clear that Wolfe recreated, that he wasn't there because this happened years ago. And it's quite clear that by careful interview and he has said," 'You have to get at it a different way.'" What did you see? What did you smell? What did you look at? And that's where the temptation is really, you know, at 3 o'clock in the morning and your scene isn't quite good enough and that's where Satan comes out and says, you know, "Who will know if you ..." And I say: You must resist Satan.
AR: I wish I could write as well as Tom Wolfe...everyone that you read, they were writing for the audience except Wolfe was writing for himself....I understand what he was doing but I thought he could have done it so much better with so much less. Joan Didion did so much more with so much less...I don't think it's really that. I'm a firm believer in literary approaches, I just think that more is not necessarily good...and I will say, I don't think I write that well, it's just that I don't want to read him.
CR: I think...we talked about all the two ends of the spectrum. When we talk about literary journalism, there's Didion on one end who is graceful and spare and on the other hand, there's Tom Wolfe who is quite the opposite and when Wolfe tumbles over into wretch success, he really falls. I remember one piece that he wrote, it's a piece on Las Vegas and it starts, "Hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia." He uses the word hernia like 375 times and he says, " 'That's what a roulette wheel sounds like.'" And at that point, I want to say, okay, no. Even artistic excess goes overboard. Which is why I would tell students to read Tom Wolfe with a bit of trepidation because it's so easy and I think he does it often, he falls over easy into excess at times.
But it was interesting, one of the things I think he was trying to do with this piece was, if you remember, when the astronauts were introduced, they were introduced as kind of all-American boys, Jack Armstrong. And I think the thing that he tries to do in this book is to talk about the psychological dimension in which these guys essentially deny death. Think about it. After you see something like this, I would immediately quit the Navy and go find some other job. (AR--inaudible) Exactly and ....the wives in fact suffer more because the men, as you just described, kind of like surgeons, after you've done enough, you have to look at the tissue and say this isn't a person, ...but it's some piece of tissue. And what they've decided is, if you've got the right stuff, nothing can happen to you. It's almost magical thinking and that protects them but it doesn't protect the wives which is why the wives are looked very strongly at.
AR: I think the third person on the voyage is the reader.
CR: That's right. It's interesting. The interesting thing about Wolfe is that when he goes into something it becomes a production. And the interesting thing that I found about Bonfire of the Vanities, was it was a novel I kept reading even though I hated all the characters. And the reason I kept reading it was that his descriptions of the world, whether it be the world of the Bronx or the world of Manhattan were so compelling, the descriptions were so compelling, that he made me read it even though I thought he was not a good novelist in terms of characterizing. I didn't give a wit about most of these characters.
So, essentially, he was doing in a novel exactly what he was doing in journalism: that sort of painting of a world-- even though I think, even when you close the book, the characters don't stay with you. They kind of stay where the images remain.
AR ...Maybe you can help me out here...thought about the story...for example, I teach at Michigan State ...a kid's going to go out and he's going to interview a...and you got a lot...but what advice can you give this kid?
CR: Buy some articulate crawfish. Literally, part of it, you know, finding the person, you've got a foot in their world but they can comprehend your world. Because clearly, if you are dealing with people who utterly inarticulate and unless there's some intense event happening that you could...if you wind up with someone who can't at all verbalize about their life and there's nothing happening that can show their life, then you haven't got a story. So, part of it, is looking for the right...and that's calculated. It isn't like you can just go anywhere and stuff will happen and a story will occur. Sometimes, you will go someplace and what will happen will be really dull and there won't be a story. (AR)...Some people can--people incredibly dull.
But when Tracy Kidder went to write about this...new machine, the thing that excited him, I mean, that could be really dull, someone trying to build a computer could have been really boring but what excited him was the passion of this man. This man was so excited about what he'd put inside a little box that there has to be a story there because this person's passion indicated that other people are going to be passionate if I stay around long enough with these folks. I'm going to find a story.
So, I think you have to tell them that to find the person, perhaps, the person that they care about. Madelyn Blaise has a good phrase and I think it's very interesting. She says, "'I want to psychologically re-create for the reader the process that made me want to be interested in this person, whether I like the person or loathe the person.'" If I'm interested enough in this person, if this person fascinates me enough and the person is articulate enough--and I don't mean articulate in the sense of being a university professor but can explain their lives enough, then if I can re-create for the reader what is my interest, then the reader will be interested. So, I think you have to choose a little bit. You can't just stand around and wait for something to happen. You have to be a little bit proactive in finding it.
(AR--inaudible) That's probably right that most stories just shape...Sometimes, you get lucky and you walk into a situation that just happens because there's enough dramatic going on that a story's going to happen. When you write, sometimes, you're going to have to look for it, you're going to have to find the tension, you're going to have to find the situation. But I also say: Sometimes stories will fail. I remember when I was in journalism school, they told me, " 'Any good reporter can a get a good story out of anything.'" And I found that that's not true. Sometimes, the story's not there and you have to shift and you have to change. And that's okay. Unless you're working on staff and you're assigned to go somewhere and you have to write. And we've all been in that situation where what we write, we're not really happy with but it's okay.
(AR--inaudible) Exactly. Or the story where the person should be wonderful and is awful. I do remember reading one profile of Jane Fonda and the whole story--it was a bit self-indulgent but it was amusing--where the writer went down worshipping Jane Fonda and ended up hating her. And the whole story was: Why do I love this woman? Why am I getting aggravated by this woman? And it wasn't such a great profile but it was kind of interesting that quite clearly, the story had changed and she had to write ...to say the person I idolized is not that person.
And I think we probably all come into this issue of how much of my voice goes into this? How is my story and how much is the story's story? And what I try to tell my students is clearly, if you're saying it's a story of how I beat cancer or how my family's dysfunctional, it's clearly your story. But there are other stories where it's not clearly either the third person story and written in the third person story but you are in effect, I use the idea, you are like Beatrice guides Dante, through these circles of the Inferno.
And there are times when you as guide may step in--and you may step in as first person or you--or you may step in other ways in which your voice is selecting. But I think that's the kind of thing you have to decide as you start to write. What perch are you going to be on? Are you going to be the omniscient observer in which everything is happening...like the novelist, just simply present everything from various points of view. Are you going to yourself, come into the narrative at some time? And how appropriate is that? Because I think we are taught often, you know, when I was in journalism school, if you press shift lock and hit the capital I on your typewriter, you know, you were going to get hit by a thunderbolt. Because the I is always self-indulgent. But the I is not necessarily. What I try to say to my students is: The material is king. Does it work for the story and why does it work? Does it work for you to be the guide? Does it work for you to be the explainer? If it works for you to be in there, don't be worried about putting yourself in there. If it doesn't work, then don't put yourself in there. Again, my colleague, Mark, I think he has a good...--- he talks about voice and I think he explains it well here. He is saying that: The personality of the writer defines the mark of literary journalism. It's the individual and intimate voice of a whole candid person, not representing, or speaking on behalf of any institution--not a newspaper corporation, government..., etc. It's the voice someone makes without bureaucratic shelter, speaking simply in his or her own right, someone who has illuminated experience with price reflections, who has not transcended crankiness, ..doubtfulness and who doesn't let go of emotional reality: sadness, glee, excitement...and love. The genre of power is the strength of the voice, it's an unqualified social force although it's practice has been...designed. One of the few places in the media where mass audiences may consume unmoderated individual excursion both on the behalf of no one but the adventurous author.And I think the hardest thing to get across to students is the difference between self-indulgence, you know, what I think about the universe and I¹m 22, and the ability to observe something and get across ((...tape side 1 ends...)) (Speaking about Wolfe) and he went and had absolute writer¹s block. And so he just sat down and wrote, he called his editor at Esquire and the editor said, ³Type up your notes and we will find a competent writer to rewrite it.¹² So, sadly he said he sat down and typed up ³Dear Byron¹² and then he wrote a letter to his editor about what he saw. And he got a call a few days later and they said we¹re knocking off the ³Dear Byron² and we¹re running it exactly as it had been written.
And I do think what happens to students, is when you sit down, students who will write a letter to their friends which will wonderful and zippy and full of voice and then you get in front of a typewriter and these thousands of eyes are sort of pressing down on their shoulders and they write the dullest prose. And you say, how can this wonderful and zippy and smart, intelligent kid produce such dull work? And I think it¹s clear that it¹s the idea that I am not allowed to have a voice. You know, I ..journalism school and I can¹t have this, I¹ve got to write like a 75-year-old tenured professor. And sometimes freeing up that voice is difficult.
One of the things I try to do is give them exercises which they...I say, write me, ...write it the way you¹d write a letter to your best friend and let¹s read it. And they start reading and it¹s very interesting because it¹s relaxed voice, it¹s so different from the first assignment they do which is often, you know, an op-ed kind of piece. It¹s really interesting and I sometimes will say, why is this voice in the op-ed piece you did, which is so leaden, so different from this other voice. And I think I try to say to my students: Take chances.
At our narrative conference, one of the participants told a story which I thought was a wonderful anecdote about reporters who get shot down by editors and how ...shot down and then you lose it. He talked about the movie Hud where they had to have a buzzard, the buzzard was supposed to fly off the land when Paul Newman fires his gun. So, they had to get the buzzard. They had to keep him on the limb for a while, so they wired him down. And when they wired him, the buzzard fell forward and passed out. So, they keep propping the buzzard up and it would fall forward. And they finally got the wire ...that wouldn¹t fall forward. And then when they finally, Paul Newman fired his gun and they pulled the wire, not one of the buzzards moved because the buzzards thought ³Uh-huh, I¹m not going to fall over and pass out again. I¹m going to stay here where it¹s safe.² And I think that was a wonderful story about what happens to writers that after a while you don¹t fly anymore, you just stand there because you know if you do anything you¹ll pass out and fall over.
So, I think sometimes we have to excite our students and tell them, ³Take chances.² Why not take chances here? In fact, I think I try to say, it¹s safer here to take chances. I can¹t fire you, you know, I probably wouldn¹t flunk you if you¹re taking chances because I like the fact that you¹re taking chances. And I think they do respond to that. Some, of course, with more success than others. But I do think, with some of these students, you have to give them permission to take a chance and permission to take a chance. And I think that¹s useful.
By the way, I must read you, I also try to give them ideas about bad writing because they can listen to all these wonderful writers and think, my God, I¹ll never write that way but I also want to show them that bad writing is also around and is also found in good places. This is from a recent Esquire and it¹s from a profile of Uma Thurman and what I say to my students, I say, ³Take chances.² But there is floating around, I think, some real self-indulgence in which professional writers, unfortunately , traps they fall into and it¹s sort of, I¹m so enchanted with my own images that I¹ll just go on with this...The writer, I think, on this one fell into this and this what she wrote:Uma Thurman was having lunch with a tall, dark man in the restaurant. Were the couple canoodling? No, they were not... The event has to have been distinguished by some detail or nuance, by something agreed...Perhaps the tall, dark man was African-American....and they ordered ...everything on the menu and they were canoodling right? And they stayed till four in the afternoon...²Don¹t say we were making out² said Uma. You can say we ordered a lot of food. Making out wouldn¹t be nice because I do have a boyfriend who wouldn¹t appreciate it if you said it was true and it wasn¹t. ...the part about the tall, dark man who stayed till four and ate a lot of food. Uma was indeed having lunch at a very nice restaurant in downtown Manhattan called Oreinter but the rest was just an act of imagination, the ...of alternate reality, or to put it in lay terms, a big sad lie.
It was a nasty, gray Saturday in December and the sidewalk outside the restaurant was crowded with young people and she goes on for a bit about the young people. But she said, Uma, who lived in Manhattan, had created another lunch in another world. She is friends with the restaurant owner, making up a story for his opponent...page six-- The New York Post...page, so we could exercise some publicity. Uma wasn¹t sure that exercising the power of being an icon in an alternate reality....She was also resisting the forces of my fascination with the word ³canoodling²--as pertains to a ...on page six. In fact, page six is athe only place in the world where people canoodle.Now, do you care about whether people canoodle or do not canoodle? Clearly, the writer is saying she is fascinated with the word canoodle and someone should say, ³Get over it.² So, I think that some of the risks in our business is the over-written, over-literary, over-done attempts to be called a literary journalist. And I was surprised to find it in Esquire because...one of the editors, you know, at least cut down, you know, sixty-percent.
AR: One of my favorite bad pieces was in Esquire...It was an interview with Ellen Barkin. It was so self-indulgent...put yourself in the story so much. It¹s the same kind of thing, just really self-indulgent.
CR: It¹s interesting because ...on the one hand, there¹s this.... ³No one else cares what you feel and what you think² and yet many stories, I think, the reader does care was ....thinks. And I think it¹s a matter of figuring out the material. In that case, it¹s about a movie star. Do we really want to think what the writer thinks about the movie star? Unless the writer has some wonderful thought or some reason to be sitting in judgment of the person. And if it¹s not brilliant or it¹s not wonderfully insightful, then I think we get annoyed ...there¹s no reason for this writer, in that case, to be there. Part of this, I think, is the competitive...of the business, I do see a lot of it--particularly, celebrity-writing. And part of it may be that how can you do a different celebrity story because there¹s eight million of them and, you know, what¹s the twenty-fifth profile of Tom Cruise going to be about. And so, I think, writers sometimes are driven by desperation to do this kind of thing.
...I talk a little bit about structure, since we have a few minutes. One of the things I find that even, I think, ...a very good text, like John Franklin¹s Writing for the Story, I don¹t believe that John Franklin really plans all that stuff out , you know, the way that he says he plans it out, you know. We have level three and fourteen levels and all is planned out in advance. I think that basically there are several structures for stories.
One of them is chronological. You start with the stack of....and you wind up four weeks later or something. And I think that works very, very well and even within the structure, you may have flashbacks, you may have all kinds of structures that are dancing inside the chronological structure of your basic structure. And I think you then have a thematic structure which essentially picks out the ideas--you know, I¹m writing about Tom Cruise--what are my five ideas about Tom Cruise? He¹s got a killer grin, he picks good movies sometimes, he makes $8 million, he¹s married to Nicole Kidman. You know, those are my five themes and I build my structure around those five themes. And within that I may have a chronological piece and I may have other structural pieces but basically, that¹s the structure.
And I think the third basic structure of the magazine piece is the parallel structure which indeed is the two stories or the two, almost running along on almost two tracks. And then you have the side tracks that go where one story meets the other and that you find out somewhere, usually right near the end, that those stories are running parallel to one another. I think one of the good examples of that was the piece that later became a book, was the piece about Ollie and Jim, which was about Ollie North and James Webb who started out as classmates together in the naval academy and then wound up as the secretary of the navy and as Ollie North.
And the story, I think, winds in a wonderfully interesting way through those two lives and the places at which they intersect. And I frankly think that almost some magazine piece you see is some variation on those three structures. And that while almost every writing text you see has 18 different structures with different names--there are structures by function and structures by form--everybody gives a different name, but to my way of thinking they¹re almost always spun off from these three structures. Basically, if somebody said to you these are the only three structures that you can ever use in your life, you¹d be fine because you can find ways in which, you know, you can weave these structures, weave the material into the structures and I think that works very well.
AR: ...long articles or narratives?
CR: Yes. The class I teach called Literary Journalism, in which they basically do two -- the basic pieces of writing they do is an op-ed, first-person--that kind of thing and then the big, long piece, their reporting piece...
AR: So, their first-person piece looks like a personal essay...experience. One piece beyond that...now these are not the kind of articles...because there¹s not an outlet...newspapers...I mean, I know that a lot of the stuff your students do they¹re offering to The Boston Globe, The Sunday Magazine but we don¹t really have that where I am. So, my...a lot of more functional...those kinds of things. I think that you really do teach your students about a kind of writing that I¹d like to teach my students about. I¹m curious about you go...you have them do the story and then you deal with the marketing after the fact.
CR: Absolutely. Well, I tell them all along --and what I do is I have them do the finished long piece about three-quarters of the way through the semester and then we do sort of a workshopping and then they produce a final piece. And all the way along, I tell them, ...might be published but I don¹t try to tailor it for publication. Because I think it¹s the kiss of death if you try to tailor it for publication, if you write the perfect Reader¹s Digest piece or the perfect Redbook piece and Redbook doesn¹t want it. So, I think, I try to tell them to write for a category of audiences and for a hierarchy. So, maybe first The Atlantic and then maybe wind up with the Boston Phoenix or a local newspaper. But I do say that one thing I also say is that sometimes, even this piece doesn¹t sell, it will be a piece of writing that will attract a piece of writing who will say, Hey, I can¹t do this piece...I had one student ...who once the prize in the ....contest because he won first prize on something that was called "The Youth Vote," which was about kids involved in trying to get out the vote in the last election....And he took it to a new start-up magazine which is called Point of View, a young men's magazine, and the editor said, "Well, I really want more experienced people, let me see your clips" and he never sold it, he just published it in our magazine. And he gave it to the editor and the editor said, "I like the way you write, you're hired." So, one of the things I say is: Sometimes, a piece that doesn't sell may be your ticket to a piece that you can sell. And then, of course, you go back and use that material and ...it and write it somewhere else.
I use the example of--my first book came from a piece which I had no idea where it would sell because it was a memoir of growing up Catholic and it was rejected 15 times. And editors would either say, ³Gee, this is funny but, of course, you made it up," which I didn't. Or others would say, "My God, we can't print this, Catholics would kill us." And so I sent it to the least likely place that would ever print it which was The New York Times Magazine and lo, and behold they printed it. I had 5 telegrams from publishers the next day saying, "Would you write a book?" and I said, "Yes!" I mean, I didn't ask myself, did I know how to write a book, I said, I'll figure it out, you know. So, I think that even when these pieces don't end up in publication, I think the process of learning to write this way, of learning to do this kind of level of good writing, is going to serve them in good stead, even if this particular piece doesn't get published. And I tend to think more could but sometimes students go onto other things or, you know, they try several places and it doesn't sell and they abandon it.
AR: That's an interesting approach because really you're teaching about free-lance writing...how important it is to gear a piece...now, of course,...saves you the trouble...that's a little bit of a backdoor approach...become a free-lance writer and how to be a success at that.
CR: I think that...I worry that about this, you know, never write anything unless you write for money, unless you write for a market because I think the breakthrough piece will be the piece that you're passionate about and the reason it's good is because you give a damn and you poured stuff into that, and so if you didn't do that, you'd never write that piece.
AR: That's your job--if you're doing it the right way. There's a difference between teaching your students and giving them what you're giving them and going out after they graduate and pursuing it along the lines you taught them. That's ....If you're doing it...this book....They have to pursue it in a pure way. They had the opportunity...You're plugged in right there. I know you know that, you didn't need that from me...
CR: Yes. And indeed, I tell them, in your career you're going to write crappy stuff--not crap--but you're going to write pieces that you're going to consider competent, workmanlike but they're not going to be the thing you want, you know, engraved on your tombstone. And that's okay too.
DA: We only have about seven or eight minutes left, if you have any other material you want to cover, I have a very mundane question.
CR: Oh no, go ahead.
DA: ...it might be interesting. What process do you use, if any, to select those pieces that you submit to student writing contests that seem to do so well?
CR: Well, my process is, basically, I pick my best pieces and I fluff them up and I polish them up a bit and I say, "Do this, this way," and I also go around to my colleagues and I say, "Get me your best pieces, the pieces where you think people are taking chances and it says something more than the ordinary piece." And I think that I do find, because we try to encourage our students to get out and I try to tell.. find a world, either find a world you love or want to do something about, that you know and you really want to explore because you're passionate about it. Well, find a world that you have never seen before and you want to try to get. And I always demand a re-write. So that all the pieces that come in, you know, ...are rewritten, because I think you learn to write most in a re-write. But I'm surprised at how many pieces were only adequate that came in on the re-write, come in at the end really, really good. Because they get...somewhere the have just gotten it, they're sort of got it on the edges and then on the re-write, bam! They really get it.
CR: I try to tell them to write...feature which would be 3,500 words--something like that for they're major piece.
AR So essentially, they're doing two pieces throughout the semester?
AR: One which comes pretty early, pretty easily .
AR: Then the rest of the semester--half of the semester--you're working with them on one piece. One on-going re-write.
CR: Not on-going but ...I'm also working with, for example, I'll say, "Today, today I want you to go out and, you know, find something to describe and come back with just 10 paragraphs of something that fascinates you. And we all get together and we read the ten pieces. And everybody dives in and says, "Hey, that's great but why did you do this? Or how does this work and how does this work?" So, they're getting the feedback from their peers which is very interesting. Sometimes, I find that students will come up with an idea that I haven't thought of and I think, that's terrific! That will work very well on that piece.
AR: So, they're writing even while they're not working on the major pieces?
AR: You're giving them a series of exercises that they're doing along the way. What about the process of preparing the piece...do they have to provide....proposal...show you where they are?
CR: First, they have to do the proposal. They have to give me what they're going to do and who they think they're sources are and what's it going to be. And sometimes, that often shifts. ...and then they'll have to go and do another one. And basically, what I want them to do is to come and keep in touch. Come into the office and say, "How's it goin'?" So they don't have to do anything formal as they go about...they have to keep in touch and tell me how it's going, how it's looking and usually I don't have to enforce that. They usually come in and say, hey, these are problems they've run into along the way. "Hey, this source wants to read the piece or this person is just really obnoxious and I hate them, how do I deal with them?" We also bring it to the class because we figure any problem going on will help us, you know, and we also try to problem-solve in the class with some ideas. Let's talk about this, how do we handle this?
And that's really, I think, is a lot of grist for the mill because what's best is when the students become a real workshop. What I don't want it to be is for a whole bunch of people listening to me lecture. But when they really get emotionally involved with each others' work, I find that brings something else because they all want to well, not just for me, but for their peers, they're reading for. And they start rooting for each other which is interesting. And they're very helpful. And I tell them that a gang edit is not quite bad as other events that the word "gang" is used with. And I find that's true--they do become a group. I haven't found people beaten down...you'll get the occasional slash and burn but you can usually contain that and I find it very effective when they get involved in each others' work and talking about it and it gives them a level of involvement, I think, makes their pieces, makes them want to make their pieces shine. And I find that comfortable in which they can get involved.
AR: I want to know do you know what audience would have a porno king, a feminist and a born-again Christian.
CR: Wow...a non-fiction piece?
AR: No, it's true, I tried the markets to the porno market, I mean, I can't figure out where it goes.
CR: You know, I think, with a piece like that, you kind of have to send it---that's the kind of piece that's going to find an editor that's either going to love it or hate it, you know. And I think, again, some of the marketing advice you get from the writing books which is: Only send it to places that are appropriate. I think...send a piece like that all over the map.
AR: That's what happened. I sent it to Quill and the editor accepted it, then a new editor said, "I hated it."
CR: That happened to me and I tell the students, It's going to happen to you. One thing I try to say is, you've got to get a very tough skin. The rejection is part of this business. They'll reject you for reasons that have nothing to do with your talent. It may have to do with what advertiser wants ....or what editor particularly, you know, what angle an editor has. And I said, you walk into an editor's office and you look just like the person with whom the editor¹s wife has just run off to Nassau, you're not going to sell that story, you know.
And what I say to them is, you simply have to learn how to reject the hurtful, bad, rotten criticism rejection and absorb that ...It's just a velvet of tough skin because it's a business. And I tell them, everybody gets rejected: from the Nobel Prize winner down to the neophyte, all of them get rejected. It's just part of the game.
Copyright 1998 Caryl Rivers. All rights reserved.