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May 03 2012

13:35

April 20 2012

14:44

Harding in the house: a Pulitzer-winning novelist on rhythm, revision, rejection and a hundred other things

We promote narrative nonfiction here at Storyboard but occasionally look outside the genre for storytelling inspiration. Paul Harding, who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel “Tinkers,” visited our Nieman Foundation headquarters the other day in collaboration with the Harvard Writers at Work lecture series. He spent an hour and a half talking creativity with a standing-room-only audience of Nieman fellows and Harvard undergraduates, graduate students and faculty.

Nieman fellow Anna Griffin moderated the discussion. In keeping with this week’s Pulitzer theme, here’s the conversation, along with an excerpted transcript, edited for clarity and brevity, followed by an interactive index for the entire event. Enjoy! 

Griffin: It is a distinct pleasure to moderate this conversation with Paul Harding. Paul is an author, a teacher, a rock star. He grew up on the North Shore, graduated from U-Mass, has an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and, according to the Internet, which is never wrong, is a first cousin of figure skater Tonya Harding.

(laughter)

Griffin: Is that not – is that not –

(laughter)

Harding: No, that’s not true.

(laughter)

Griffin: He has redeemed the Harding name twice, first as a drummer with the 1990s (band) Cold Water Flat, which if you went to college in the ’90s, which a few of us in the room did, you probably heard play quite a bit on campus radio; and then as the author of a little Cinderella story of a book, “Tinkers,” which is kind of a tone poem, almost, about life in New England. It sat in a drawer for three years, was bought by a boutique publisher affiliated with NYU medical school, had a first run of 3,500 copies, and then won the Pulitzer Prize, which is the way it works for everybody.

(laughter)

Griffin: He is now finishing up on his second novel, (“Enon”), which, shockingly, did not spend time in a drawer for any length of time and will be published next spring by Random House. Paul’s gonna read a few things and then we’re gonna talk about writing, and then we’re gonna throw it open to the room for questions.

Harding: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here. You know I’ve read from “Tinkers” about seven million thousand times by now, so I figured I’d read a little bit from “Tinkers” and then give you a little bit from the novel that’s gonna be coming out next spring, and then just a little two-page self-contained piece, so it’s gonna be a buffet today. And then I’ll be delighted to have a conversation.

So “Tinkers” is about a guy who was a sort of peddler; he’s the tinker of the title, and he abandons his family. “Tinkers” is set in northern Maine in the ’20s and the protagonist abandons his family when he finds out that his wife is gonna have him committed to an asylum because he has epilepsy. His epilepsy is so disruptive to the family that the best thing (his wife) can think of to do is to have him committed. So he leaves the family. So this is just a brief passage, a couple of days after he’s had a grand mal seizure.

(Harding reads.)

Harding's readings copy (see "marginalia," in index below). Photo courtesy Harding.

Griffin: “Tinkers” began as a family story and became a short story that was part of your grad school application –

Harding: Mm hmm, yeah.

Griffin: – and then was turned into the novel. Talk about the writing process, to take something that’s like family lore and turn it into a short story. What was the short story and how did you expand that into the novel?

Harding: First of all, the basic premises of “Tinkers” are all based on stories that my maternal grandfather told me and my cousins and my brother about his life growing up in northern Maine. But I wasn’t interested in family history. I wasn’t interested in autobiography. It would be difficult for me to be less interested in autobiography. I’m not interested in myself; I’m interested in the fact that I am a self. So I just started writing about these family legends. The original short story version of “Tinkers” was 15 or 16 pages long, and it had actually what, if you look at the novel, is the beginning, the middle and the end of the novel. The whole story was there. And if you’ve looked at “Tinkers” it’s pretty elliptical and nonlinear, so if you can imagine 15 pages – it was impossibly dense and impossibly elliptical and obscure.

So enough people gave me encouragement to expand it. After I left the Iowa Writers Workshop I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which is a seven-month fellowship, to work on the book. So I spent seven months toiling and worrying that I was making a perfectly decent short story into a terrible novel. And so it was just a matter of expanding.

Griffin: So the original short story, it was George, Howard – it was both –

Harding: Yeah, yeah, the whole thing was there.

Griffin: Was it tiny font? How’d you get that into 16 pages?

Harding: I don’t know. I write in such a haphazard manner. It’s totally intuitive and fortuitous. It’s improvisational. It is sort of circumstantial, in a way, but in a way I write the way I used to drum. If I’m playing drums I just start to do whatever comes over the wire. Same with writing, you know? And I just kind of bop around the story. In some ways, I’m impatient – I wanted to know what the end of the story was and to move around the boundaries of it.

Griffin: You don’t outline.

Harding: No, no.

Griffin: On the Internet are scenes of you with index cards and napkins –

Harding: Catastrophe. Just absolute panic the whole time.

Griffin: You’re kind of a crazy man aren’t you?

(laughter)

Griffin: And then you tape them together, staple them together.

Harding: Yeah with “Tinkers” I literally did that. It’s funny, because I just finished the first draft of “Enon” and booked a couple of weeks at the Fine Arts Work Center, so I went back down to Provincetown and damned if I didn’t end up on the floor again with the whole novel, thinking, “How’s this gonna work? How’s this gonna come together?” And I think it did, but who knows. It’s such a strange thing. Being a fiction writer is not efficiency. I have to go through these incredible difficulties in order to fully realize the book, at least these first two. I hope that I’ll get better at it. Though it doesn’t seem to be a matter of getting better at it. It just seems to be this integral part of the process.

Griffin: How do you guard against getting so far into the story and looking up and going, “Oh, I’m trying so many different things I’m losing my reader?”

Harding: I never ever think about a reader. Ever.

Griffin: The readers love that.

(laughter)

Harding: No, no, no, no! Because on the deepest level it’s the deepest way to be solicitous of the reader. You just trust yourself that you’re writing something that you’d like to read. The problem with – this is not true for journalism or for genre-based fiction, but the worst thing you can do is try to write a novel in anticipation of people, first of all, who won’t like it. Don’t ever write your fiction for people who won’t like it. Just give yourself wholeheartedly to it and trust that the reader will like what you like. Because otherwise you don’t pay attention to the story; you pay attention to these voices behind your shoulder saying, “Oh well she didn’t have blue eyes in the first chapter.” And it’s like, a copyeditor will get that. That sort of thing. So it’s improvisational. So you just give yourself over wholeheartedly to the story. With “Tinkers” it’s 192 pages, it’s like 40,000 words. I cut 25,000 words, cut like a quarter of it.

Griffin: What did you cut?

Harding: The mother of the family, who’s gonna have her husband sent away, there’s a whole section of the book that was just all about her life before she was married, and I just couldn’t get it to work.

Griffin: How do you feel now about that?

Harding: Sad. I feel very loyal to her.

Griffin: Because one of the things that strikes me is that she’s not an overwhelmingly sympathetic character.

Harding: Yeah you know it’s funny. It’s one of these things – this is another reason why you don’t think about the reader, as it were, because the reader that you imagine – you don’t know who’s gonna look at your book. You have to trust your subject; you have to trust your characters and let them elaborate themselves, who they really are. A lot of the stuff that I wrote for this woman, Kathleen, that ended up on the cutting room floor, was trying to make her a sympathetic character, quote unquote, but for one thing if you ever met the woman on whom she’s based you’d think she’s an angel. The woman she’s based on is much worse than (Kathleen) is. You know, I had this strange experience – I was in Cape Town for a book festival and talking to a South African writer, and Kathleen was their favorite character in the book because she was like a strong African mother raising children in the township. They thought she was wonderful. So it was this sort of: Be loyal to your characters, be loyal to the story, be loyal to the subject – it possesses its own integrity.

Griffin: One of the things we talk about in journalism is that when you’re writing about something complicated you want to get simple – simple language, simple sentences. I’ve seen in interviews you talk about how because a lot of “Tinkers” is fairly abstract and it’s very sort of modernist – a lot of things happening in George and Howard’s heads – you talk about writing in concrete nouns and verbs.

Harding: When you’re writing fiction, one of the main virtues of fiction is that it be imminent. It’s about imminent things, it’s about action, it’s about things happening in this world. And one of the practical problems with “Tinkers” is that most of the book is about a guy who’s just lying on a bed like this. I realized I was going to have to find a way to embody a lot of things just to keep the book anchored in the real world, just so it wouldn’t lapse into rhetorical or theoretical language. But that specificity and precision and concrete writing is – that’s different than complexity. I do want to write with maximum complexity. I want to write books that accommodate the complexity of the human mind. I want to light up people’s brains.

Griffin: Talk about how you use language when you’re doing that, and ensure that you don’t lose your readers.

Harding: Again, I’m not thinking about the poor reader. To me, again, it’s all mutually reinforcing. To me the greatest style is precision. The way you don’t lose the reader is, you use language as precisely as possible. I taught writing a lot, and it was one of these counterintuitive things where writers would make things shorter and they would make them more simple because, “Oh, I don’t want to take up too much of the reader’s mind,” but that’s your job as a writer. You’re supposed to take up the reader’s time. So you presume somebody who wants complicated, beautiful, intricate, thoughtful, precise writing. You presume that readers are reading your book.

Griffin: As we heard in some of those excerpts you have a marvelous brain for detail and you write these lyrical paragraphs that are jam-packed with precise details. I have a friend who loves “Tinkers” who says, “This guy has more ways to describe how wind moves through the trees than a botanist.”

Harding: That’s a nice compliment.

Griffin: Are you out there writing down details as you see them? Are you walking through the woods taking notes? Or is that all just imagination at play?

Harding: I guess I kind of am. Like the landscape, the New England landscape particularly, I’ve spent tons of time up on the North Shore, just wandering around the Audubon sanctuary. I actually just bought a house that’s smack dab near the Ipswitch River Sanctuary so that I could be closer to the birch bark and the creek water with the sunlight in it. You know. Part of being a good writer, too, is just developing the muscles that have to do with being able to pay attention, and to sustain attention. The quality of attention – the closest possible attention for the longest amount of time so that when you climb down into your world you just sort of sit there very quietly and you watch and you listen and you smell and you just take down all the details. It’s imagining things as elaborately as you possibly can.

In my case, I’m interested in the people, the experience of being conscious. So I don’t write about far-flung places usually; I don’t write about remote times. I write about things that are right at my fingertips because I think of it as sort of the medium through which and into which I can precipitate the characters. So whenever I write about landscape, and if I can write about wind in 15 million different ways, it’s not because I’m writing about wind per se, it’s always because I’m writing about how a character experiences the wind. Character is always being refracted through description. What was the question?

(laughter)

Griffin: No, it’s very much like “Tinkers.” We went this way and we got there. A lot of beginning fiction instruction, like a lot of long-form narrative instruction that we talk about here, is all about scene – scenes upon scenes upon scenes.

Harding: Yeah.

Griffin: What would you say to a student who says, “So I want to write this novel, and it’s sort of this family story and I’m gonna change point of view most of the time, and I’m gonna change tense multiple times, and I’m gonna play with chronology, and I’m not gonna outline, and I’m gonna take all these pieces of paper and staple them together” – what would you –

Harding: God help you.

(laughter)

Harding: There’s all sorts of different very, very germane issues to writing, but one of them is that when you’re teaching writing, particularly fiction writing, one of the great temptations that as a teacher you have to resist, and that as a student you have to resist the influence of, is to present your process as normative. So much of grad school is: You just learn to be like your professor. You feel like there’s no independent thinking; you just inherit this datum. For example, one of my mentors was Marilyn Robinson. She has to write her books from the very first sentence of the very first chapter, and she has to write the book from start to finish, and if she screws up anywhere along the way she throws out the whole novel and starts again. And if I had taken that as the way that you have to write a novel, I’d be a plumber right now. The best writing comes from you consulting your own experience, not consulting an outside authority.

A lot of what I tried to do, as a teacher, was to get students to cultivate their own intellectual and aesthetic autonomy so that nobody could tell them what they were doing was right or wrong. I mean within reason – you have to edit, you have to have logic; you have to get them to be consistent with themselves. It also has to do with reading as widely and deeply as possible. Your writing can only be as good as the best stuff you’ve read. The other temptations with teaching writing – writing is tough and it’s wild and it’s feral and it’s dangerous, all these dramatic things, and the temptation is always to tame it and domesticate it so that it will be easy to teach. So you chop it all up and you’re like, “Today we’re gonna talk about character,” and “Today we’re gonna talk about point of view,” and “Here’s the third person.” And really those are just tools, you know?

Griffin: And some of (it) is knowing the rules so that you can break the rules.

Harding: Absolutely. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, it was as I was leaving the last conference I had with Marilyn Robinson after my two years at Iowa. You know, I felt like I had the tiara, the roses – like, “Ah, now I’ve graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop.” I was leaving her office and she called out, she said, “Oh Paul, one more thing.” I said, “Yes, Marilyn.” She said, “You really should learn how to write grammatically correct English.”

(laughter)

Harding: I was like, “Grammar-schmammer.” But precisely. Because you need to know how to modulate and move around that way. Another reason that “Tinkers” does that is because it’s largely interior, you know. I’m not interested in plot. God bless plot, but I’m not interested in it. I’m interested in character, and plot emerges out of character. I’m just interested in consciousness. And so – I don’t know how far this metaphor works but you have these personal metaphors and analogies that you use to get you through your day – I think of plot as Newtonian physics. It’s mechanical. But I think of the mind, once you get into a character’s mind and it’s interior, I think of the mind as quantum. It’s supra-luminary. It just moves instantly. It’s instantaneous influence or whatever it’s called in quantum physics. Because that’s how consciousness works. So a book like “Tinkers” can be tougher to sort of catch the wave on, as it were, because it doesn’t work mechanically, it doesn’t work plot wise. But there’s a character-logical logic to it.

Griffin: I might argue – it’s your book so feel free to disagree – but the plot of “Tinkers” is pretty simple and straightforward. It’s everything else that informs the plot that’s important.

Harding: Yeah. Well, I just started with a very simple – what I find compelling are just those circumstances in which people find themselves that are actually impossible. Suddenly what you find is impossible is the case in your life. And so the very first thing I wrote in “Tinkers” – there’s a scene where Howard, the tinker, suddenly becomes conscious of the fact that instead of turning into his driveway or wherever his house is, he’s actually gone past his house. And he realizes that that means he is leaving his family. And I just remember the first day of writing it just thinking: “If he’d allowed himself to be conscious of it, (the act) would’ve been impossible, because it would just be too terrible to leave your family.” So I built that kind of double consciousness for him. And the reason I wrote about in the second book – it’s about a father losing his only child – is because that seems to me impossible. And I know people who have suffered losses like that, and I see them survive and stay beautiful, kind, generous, merciful, loving people, and I just do not know how they could do it. I don’t want to write about anything in which anything less than everything is at stake. Why bother making art?

Griffin: One more question and we’ll throw it to the crowd. Was the process on “Enon” any different from the process on “Tinkers?”

Harding: It was very fascinating because with all the stuff that happened with “Tinkers” – you know, I had this perfect record of non-publication and perfect obscurity with “Tinkers,” so I was able to work on it for 10 years. And so now I have written a novel that is a little bit more than twice as long as “Tinkers” in a little bit less than a third of the time it took to write “Tinkers.” So in that way it was interesting to see if I could compress all that work into three years. Turns out I can, but that’s why I’m ready to jump out of my socks right now, because it’s just been so intense.

And it’s been fascinating to see in retrospect what I did in “Tinkers” that was real process and what was sort of sheer ineptitude. One of the strangest things about writing the second (novel): Just because of the things that happened with “Tinkers,” the Pulitzer and stuff, I went from zero to 1,000 miles an hour in an instant, so I wrote most of “Enon” in hotel rooms and on airplanes. So that was really weird. I had to learn how to put the blinders on. Luckily, though, when “Tinkers” won the Pulitzer I had already sold “Enon” to Random House based on the first 50 pages of it. So I knew that Random House didn’t just love me for my Pulitzer. And it turns out the editor who bought “Enon” bought it without having read “Tinkers.” So that was just what I’d been holding onto: This book has its own integrity. Because “Tinkers,” first novel – everybody’s just like, “Oh, God, the second book by definition has to suck, right?” No pressure.

(laughter)

Griffin: But it doesn’t suck, right?

Harding: I hope not. Who knows. Fortunately what I’m learning, too, is that it’s not my job to like my own books. It’s my job to be like: You’ve gotta be better. But because of this worldly phenomenon that occurred with “Tinkers,” “Tinkers” exerts a huge gravitational pull, and so what I had to keep doing, whenever I was stuck with “Enon” I had to resist the temptation to drift over to “Tinkers” and use what worked and import it back into “Enon.” “Enon” had to have its own critical mass, its own center of gravity, its own integrity. Sometimes what came out on the page looked to me radically different than “Tinkers,” so I second-guessed myself. For example, people talk in “Enon.” There’s dialogue in “Enon.” And there’s quotation marks, you know? I thought, “I don’t have dialogue. I don’t use quotation marks.” But it was one of those things where you have to submit yourself to the work.

Griffin: Part of what’s unique about “Tinkers” is that so much of it feels experimental, almost like a jazz riff, and I can see that being a benefit of 10 years to work on something. Does the truncated time frame and the fact that you’re writing it for Random House change any of it? Does it put any additional pressure on you to not worry about readers?

Harding: No, the editor I’ve been working with at Random House has been absolutely wonderful. She bought the book two or three years ago – like I went and had lunch with her and we sort of convinced each other that we were right for each other, that sort of thing, sort of the editor coming a’ courtin’, and once we decided to do the book together I didn’t hear from her for three years. She just sort of left me alone. My agent would once in a while say, “How’s it going?” and I’d say, “Fine.” But she just laid off. And I presented her the book two or three weeks ago and she said, “Great. There’s maybe 10 or 15 pages of stuff I want to do.” “Enon” is written in first person, as opposed to “Tinkers,” which goes all over the place and there are just some inherent difficulties with first person, like the rest of the real world can go away when there’s just one character in mind, so it’s a little bit of – I just have to do some objective world stuff, 10 or 15 pages of that.

Griffin then opened the floor to questions. Discussed:

Associated Press, the, time stamp 01:23:29
Car chase, unlikelihood of, 00:50:29
Chamber music, pleasantness of, 01:01:15
Characters, whininess of, 00:53:51; writing from, 00:53:30
Colonial Mexico, 01:11:02
Coltrane, John, 01:01:23
Conroy, Frank, life-altering vision of, 01:09:10
Consciousness, fascination with, 00:58:05
Cutlass Ciera station wagon, 01:20:57
Delta Delta Delta sorority, 01:21:30
Drumming, as metaphor for controlling plot, 01:05:12
Duct tape, 01:20:57
Electron microscope, 1:00:10
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, influence of, 01:03:19
Flatness, handling of, 00:53:10;
Fuentes, Carlos, 01:07:25
Fundamental principle of composition, secret of, 00:54:24
Harvard Extension School, teaching background in, 00:55:53
History, grasp of, 00:58:05
Imagination, 1:00:10
Influences, 01:03:02
Iowa Writers Conference, 01:06:50
Irving, John, 01:02:52
James, Henry, influence of, 01:09:29
Jones, Elvin, sick drumming skills of, 01:05:10
Kant, 00:58:22
Kitteridge, Olive, 01:22:10
Language, blissful imperfection of, 01:20:06
Life, ideal description of, 00:57:00
Magical realism, influence of, 01:07:25
Mann, Thomas, influence of, 01:09:29
Marginalia, tendency to commit, 00:57:08
McCracken, Elizabeth, “mind-bogglingly wonderful” teaching skills of, 01:10:03
Mozart, 01:01:19
Muse, necessary rejection of, 00:56:10
Naps, dreams of, 00:57:19
Perception, writerly use of, 00:58:05
Philosophy, interest in, 00:58:17
Plot, disinterest in, 00:51:12
Potter, Harry, 01:18:32
Reading, importance of, 01:09:22
Regatta Bar, 01:05:17
Rejection, dealing with, 00:50:00; William Faulkner handling of, 00:51:27
Revision, dangers of, 01:19:18; endless application of, 01:15:20
Rituals, 00:55:31
Robinson, Marilyn, influence of, 01:07:48
“Sound and the Fury, The” stubborn creation of, 00:51:27
Stevens, Wallace, influence of, 01:03:24
Time, fluidity of, 00:58:29; obsession with, 01:04:43
Unemployment, pre-Pulitzer experience with, 01:20:48
Unsworth, Barry, influence of, 01:10:03
Wharton, Edith, influence of, 01:09:29
Woolf, Virginia, influence of, 01:09:29
Writing, difficulty of, 01:11:53; learnable nature of, 01:11:48

*The Nieman Foundation’s co-sponsor for this event, the Harvard Writers at Work lecture series, is supported by the Harvard College Writing Program, the Harvard Extension School’s master’s degree program in journalism, the Harvard Review and the Harvard College Program in General Education.

April 19 2012

14:26

Narrative gold: Eli Sanders and his Pulitzer-winning crime saga

“The prosecutor wanted to know about window coverings. He asked: Which windows in the house on South Rose Street, the house where you woke up to him standing over you with a knife that night – which windows had curtains that blocked out the rest of the world and which did not?”

So begins Eli Sanders’ story “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” which this week won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The category usually offers up an unforgettable narrative and this year gave us a story – and an exciting writer – that we otherwise might have missed.

Sanders’ elegantly tense portrayal of a home invasion, double rape and murder appeared last June in The Stranger, a Seattle weekly, but Sanders’ coverage of suspect Isaiah Kalebu started long before that. In “The Mind of Kalebu,” which ran in the fall of 2009, Sanders examined loopholes in the criminal justice system’s treatment of mentally unstable suspects. His reporting ultimately led us into the courtroom, as murder victim Teresa Butz’s partner testified:

The attacks became more sadistic. Things began to happen that were beyond the worst imagining of Butz’s partner. She felt like she was going to be ripped in half. She thought: “He’s not going to kill me with a knife, but he’s going to kill me this way.”

Then she heard Butz say: “Why are you cutting me? Why are you cutting me?”

The man said to Butz: “Shut up, or I’m going to kill your girlfriend.”

He took the women into another room in the house, where he pulled another knife out of a pair of jeans he’d left on a guest bed.

The story he had been telling them, the story Butz’s partner had been telling her- self, the story that he just wanted sex and was not going to hurt them, now completely shattered. “In that moment I just knew he was going to kill us,” Butz’s partner told the court. “I just knew. There was something different in his gaze. There was this kind of looking. I didn’t feel fear from him, I didn’t feel anger from him, I just felt this nothing.”

We asked four Pulitzer winners, a Pulitzer judge and a legendary contributor to the craft of narrative journalism what they thought made the story special. Here’s what they said:

I’ve never read a court story like “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” – never in 28 years of journalism. I don’t know that anyone has read a trial story containing such painstaking detail and emotion; containing so many elements of the human instinct to survive in the face of the near inevitability of death.

“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” has all the elements of a work of fiction until the reader quickly reaches the chilling realization that this case was real. This was not some made-up crime novel. The people who were the subjects of this story, the heroes of it, too, were human beings, though savagely treated.

The power of this story is in the incredible writing, which made me care deeply for two women who were strangers to me, who were living normal lives before a knife-wielding man sexually assaulted and tormented them. “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” leaves readers clinging to hope that all ends well. The readers pray for the victims’ survival and that the bad guy gets caught. It is a challenge of human will to stay with this story. There is the temptation to leave for fear it will rip at your own emotions. Once the mind wraps itself around the facts in the case (although it is impossible to comprehend how one human could be so cruel to another), the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about whether the convicted man got what he deserved.

Ronnie Agnew is a four-time Pulitzer Prize judge and sat on this year’s feature writing jury. He is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting and the former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss. He has worked as a reporter and editor in Ohio, Alabama and Mississippi.

***

As the Pulitzer board noted this week, Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is “a haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner.” It is also the story of the woman telling that story: The citation commends Sanders’ use of her courtroom testimony to “construct a moving narrative.”

But it is also the story of Sanders, a reporter, responding to the woman’s telling of that haunting story. And that extra level of narrative, I think, is the source of the story’s riveting power.

Sanders calls the survivor “the bravest woman in Seattle.’’ Maybe that is true. But what matters is that we feel the rawness of his admiration for her courage, and of his rage on her behalf. It takes journalistic bravery to expose yourself, as well as your subject, to the reader. And it takes a rare skill to do it, as Sanders does, almost entirely with telling details, structure and intensity of tone. Seeking to transport us into the head of the woman whose story he is telling, Sanders places us at the same time into his own. He quotes her as well as her thoughts, channeling her with an authority born of his observation, of his participation as a reporter covering the emotionally charged event: “I am not scared,’’ he imagines her thinking. “I have nothing to hide here. Not anymore. Not for something as important as this, the opportunity to put him away.’’

You risk credibility when you do this, even in a story where no one can fault you for sympathizing with the woman on the stand. Maybe especially in a story like this, reporters bend over backward to be fair, to maintain a safe distance. But Sanders’ understated honesty makes us trust him. The reporter next to him cried, he says. “I cried.’’

How much of the graphic information about the rapes and murder, we hear Sanders wondering, about his role in this drama, is right to include? “Some of her testimony from this day is not going to be recounted in this story,’’ he decides.

One of my favorite passages comes when Sanders observes the mother of Teresa Butz, the partner who was murdered:

She is a small woman, just like her daughter. If this woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before a jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter – can view the bloody crime scene photographs, can listen to the 911 call from a neighbor leaning over her blood-soaked daughter and screaming, “Ma’am, please wake up! Please wake up!” (while, to the 911 operator pleading, “Please hurry, please hurry”), can hear the testimony about DNA evidence and what orifices it was recovered from – then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.

Here, Sanders transports us to all three levels of the story at once. We are in the moment of the attack, we are listening to the horrifying details unfold in the courtroom, and we are in Sanders’ own head, flinching from those details yet increasingly convinced that there is a moral imperative in relaying them.

Amy Harmon is a two-time Pulitzer winner and a New York Times national correspondent who covers the impact of science and technology on American life. Her series “The DNA Age” won the 2008 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting, and in 2001 she shared the prize for national reporting, for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.”

***

“Maybe he could use that love against them.”

In Eli Sanders’ searing narrative about the rapes of two women and the murder of one of them, that single sentence reveals the writer’s mastery of his subject. In the midst of all the horror, we are reminded of the victims’ love for one another and experience an excruciating clash of emotions.

With his command of pace, rhythm, vivid description and multiple perspectives, Sanders switches between courtroom and crime, and from the victims’ point of view to the narrator’s, always taking care to be honest without being sensational.

The tension in the story comes as much from what is not said as what is. Instead of detailing every grim act, we get the reactions to the survivor’s descriptions of those acts – from the bailiff, the court reporter, the prosecutor, even another reporter. By the end, we are reminded that violence is not ordinary, nor are the victims of violence.

If ever a story was three-dimensional, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is it. The story lives not only in time and space, but in consciousness. A testament to its power and truthfulness is that the survivor, who asked not to be named by Sanders, was moved to identify herself after the story’s publication.

Amy Ellis Nutt won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2011 for “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” and was a finalist in 2008 for “The Accidental Artist.” A reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger, she’s also an adjunct professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

The writing is rhythmic, concise. Every sentence does what it should in narrative: reveals more about character or moves the action forward. And while the details are beyond grisly, Sanders frames them in a way that forces – obligates – readers to withstand them.

Raquel Rutledge won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2010 for her Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series “Cashing in on Kids.” An investigative reporter on the Watchdog Team, she is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

Sometimes details are nitroglycerin. As a kid, I knew about nitroglycerin only from Road Runner cartoons – this stuff is incredibly explosive yet there was always plenty of it, and the characters always seemed destined to drop it. Back then, I didn’t know that in tiny doses, in heart medication, it can save a life. As reporters entrusted with powerful details, we sometimes wind up like the coyote trying desperately to cradle them before the ground falls away.

Not here. I was continually impressed with the way Sanders blended the horrific details with a strong instinct for story and, most importantly, care. It’s a crucial combination, as I think he sets this up as more of a campfire story than a courtroom story. He starts off with a scene, then tells us that he’s going to tell us a story. He actually allows us a chance to smile. He lets Teresa Butz’s partner lay the foundation for how honest this story is going to be. He foreshadows some of it, knowing that won’t make it easier when we get there, but at least we know to prepare. Then he tells us we’ve seen enough. Then he immerses us again.

The scenes in this story will join so many others in the feature writing category that haunt and teach through searing detail and restraint, among them one particular child in a car in Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction,” a little girl’s room/closet in Lane DeGregory’s “The Girl in the Window,” and the description of the dead boy in the snow in Barry Siegel’s “A Father’s Pain….”

In “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” Sanders also finds that balance between the explicit and delicate, guaranteeing that though readers may pause, brace themselves or close their eyes they’ll keep going. We have to continue, because Sanders has allowed Butz’s partner to take us by the hand and show us why we must. By building elements of the story’s framework on the details that make us cringe, Sanders demands that we read until the last word – actually the last nine words – so that by the time we reach that scream, it has been transformed into pure strength.

Jim Sheeler won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2006, for a Rocky Mountain News story that chronicled nearly a year in the life of a U.S. Marine casualty notification officer and the families he touched. His subsequent book, “Final Salute,” was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.  He holds the Shirley Wormser Professorship in Journalism and Media Writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

***

The story is admirable in a similar (though of course less profound and courageous) way as its subject is admirable. Throughout, Sanders stresses the survivor’s reasons for going through the ordeal of testifying, writing early on:

This happened to me. You must listen. This happened to us. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did. You must hear how Teresa fought him. You must hear what I loved about her. You must know what he took from us. This happened.

Later, he says that the mother of the murder victim, Teresa Butz, was in court and observes: “If a woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter…. then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.”

The accumulation of such comments begins to suggest, in a subtle way, that Sanders and we (the readers) are also participating in the very painful but also brave and important act of taking in this testimony. Later in the story he writes that in the aftermath of the crime, “civilization, which did not stop this from happening, which did not even know this was happening, slowly returned.” The persuasive suggestion is that this article is a part of that slow return: listening to the woman bear witness, without turning away, is the least we can do.

I’ll add, in passing, something I might have asked Sanders if I had been his editor. It strikes me that the bravest woman in Seattle, maybe the bravest woman in the history of Seattle, may have been Teresa Butz, whose actions, as described in the story, ultimately saved her partner’s life even as she was losing her own. Do you think it might make sense to put a little more emphasis on Butz? Just asking.

Ben Yagoda has written about language, writing and other topics for Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times magazine, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and many others. He’s a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” His “The Art of Fact,” coauthored with Kevin Kerrane, is a staple of narrative journalism classrooms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”

 ***

This year’s two features finalists were also rivetingly memorable, and each ran with compelling multimedia components. In “A Chance in Hell,” Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot told the story of two weeks in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan. A glimpse:

A few minutes later the soldier is in the operating room. He’s writhing now more than shaking. Through the moans, he’s mumbling three words over and over.

“This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.”

He keeps lifting his head, trying to get a look.

On the end of the bed, the last right boot he ever put on is lying at an angle that’s all wrong, a sweaty foot still inside. The calf above it is a shredded mess of uniform, flesh, dirt and grass. Nothing about it looks real.

Above that there is no discernible knee, just a thin stretch of filthy skin barely hanging onto what’s left of a thigh, which looks a lot like the mangled calf, except for one thing: Among the blood and mud, there is a little white inchworm, scrunching and straightening, slowly making its way across a bit of dying muscle.

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

Around him, a dozen people are preparing for surgery. The room smells like damp earth, rubbing alcohol and blood.

“Hang in there one more minute, bud,” the anesthesiologist says, trying uselessly to soothe his patient. “Everything’s gonna be OK in just a minute.”

A nurse walks in. Next to the boot, she sets down a medical form.

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

And in “Punched Out,” John Branch of The New York Times told the story of the life and death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard:

Boogaard, with a backlog of frustrations, wanted to quit during training camp in 2000. He was 18. He called his father to tell him. He told his teammates he had a plane ticket home. Tobin ultimately persuaded him to stay.

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

“His first year in the W.H.L., I think, it was mostly adjusting to his frame, not knowing how to use his reach,” Ryan Boogaard said. “I think he felt more comfortable with that frame in his second year in the W.H.L., and he did a lot better.”

He quickly  avenged his broken-jaw loss to Mike Lee.  He beat Mat Sommerfeld, a rival who had torn Boogaard’s name from the back of his uniform and  held it over his head after an earlier conquest. One Web site put Boogaard’s record at 18-4-4 in fights that season. One poll named him the toughest player in the W.H.L.’s Western Conference.

When Boogaard took the ice, a buzz rippled through Prince George’s arena, which routinely had capacity crowds of 5,995. One side of the arena would shout “Boo!” and the other would shout “Gaard!”

He scored only once in 61 games for Prince George in 2000-1. He recorded 245 penalty minutes, ranking eighth in the W.H.L. He was, finally, an enforcer, appreciated by one team, feared by all others.

This continues Pulitzer Week on Storyboard. On Tuesday, Anna Griffin looked at Walt Harrington’s story about Pulitzer-winning poet Rita Dove’s writing process in our “Why’s this so good?” series. On Friday, we’ll post a video, transcript and interactive index of Pulitzer-winning novelist Paul Harding’s recent standing-room-only appearance at the Nieman Foundation.

In the meantime, you’ll find the citations, works and biographies for all of this year’s Pulitzer winners here.

April 17 2012

15:01

“Why’s this so good?” No. 38: Walt Harrington deconstructs Rita Dove

Writing about the writing process isn’t easy, for good reason. Turning words into sentences and sentences into scenes is at heart a craft, yet there’s still a certain amount of magic involved. Synapses fire. Muses play.

That magic, which manifests itself in unique ways for each of us, is what makes Walt Harrington’s Washington Post Magazine profile of Rita Dove, “The Shape of Her Dreaming,” one of those stories I reach for whenever I need inspiration. Harrington captures one poet’s creative process in such detail that it’s often hard to tell whose voice you’re hearing − his or hers.

Harrington initially set out to write something less ambitious. In 1995, the Post magazine was in the midst of a series of short front-of-the-book pieces about how to do various odd tasks. Harrington wanted to explain how to write a poem. Dove, then the U.S. poet laureate, promised to contact him the next time she had a finished work to share.

Three months later, Harrington reported to Dove’s backyard writing cabin in Charlottesville, Va. He discovered that, in addition to writing the poem “Sic Itur ad Astra,” she had taken meticulous notes for him − pages and pages detailing the changes she made with each version. Dove recently had begun using a computer, so each version carried a time stamp. She also handed over her journal of the six-week creative period, then spent six hours answering questions about every decision she’d made in her writing.

“She basically gave me a master class,” Harrington, now a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said recently when I called to talk about the story. “I don’t like to say a story writes itself, but she gave me a huge head start.”

Dove’s notes gave Harrington his structure: a chronological narrative starting at 5:35 p.m. on Feb. 5, when she printed out the first draft, and ending on March 26 at 1:43 a.m., when she finished the final version. That overarching simplicity − beginning, middle and end with a few quick digressions for background − allowed Harrington to get complicated elsewhere. That basic structure let him take his time talking about the meaning of poetry, the reason certain words and lines didn’t work and why something as seemingly concrete as written language can prove so tricky and abstract when put to creative use.

The lines make Rita shiver in the way she once shivered when she wrote, “He used to sleep like a glass of water/held up in the hand of a very young girl.” That feeling. So much of writing a poem is less like saying a prayer than it is putting together the weekly shopping list. Then comes a sacred moment … For Rita, these lines are a fish to keep − a rare poet’s epiphany in the muck of craft: “I don’t know where it came from. It just came.”

Harrington’s paragraphs are dense − skim, and you’ll miss something important. His prose is light on florid touches but does mimic a poet in the use of cadence. His tone is exactly right for the subject matter − conversational and slightly awed − yet he’s also ready to acknowledge that there’s something slightly wacky about the whole endeavor. He worked hard on that voice. He’d recently read Alan Lightman’s novel “Einstein’s Dreams,” an account of Einstein’s struggles to complete the theory of relativity. Harrington appreciated the novel’s light but reverent touch, and sought something similar:

It is 6:20 now, sundown out the cabin window. Rita takes up a new pen and writes: “Now we’ll see how this pen works. Sungown. Dundown. The light quenched. Oh, fennel bloom. Another ladybug − perennially cute, ladybug, body and name. Too many make a plague of luck. Ah shame on you, duckie: You’ve lost your quack. For an ounce of your prattle I’d hang up my traveling shoes.”

What does it mean? Who knows.

Gone fishing.

Narrative requires dialogue. But what happens when your major scenes consist of a woman sitting alone in a cabin, staring out the window or humming along to the classical music she plays as she works? Once again, Harrington turned elsewhere for inspiration. He’d recently read Madeleine Blais’ book “In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle,” an account of a high school basketball team that includes almost no “‘Blah, blah, blah,’ said so-and-so.” Newspaper-style attribution establishes an institutional voice and pulls readers away from the subject. Harrington wanted his audience as close to Dove as possible. So he stole Blais’ use of colons to mark off quotes, those that Dove gave directly and those he took from her journals. The result is internal dialogue that places the reader inside Dove’s cabin, and often all the way inside her head as she argues with and edits herself. This passage is like a miniature writing workshop:

“I’m a child again.” Too explanatory. The poem should have the feeling of childhood without needing to announce it.

“Catching my death of cold.” It goes on too long. This poem must be a collage of fleeting images, as in a dream. But Rita likes the line and would like to find a way to keep it.

“Moonlight cool as peaches.” She likes that line, too, may use it someday in another poem, but to mention food while in flight is too corporeal, too earthly. Still, she’ll leave it for now.

“In a nightshirt I’ve never seen before.” The image is too surreal, gives the sensation that the poem is a real dream rather than the sensation that it is like a dream.

“I won’t look below.” Not believable. Her poem’s character wouldn’t need to remind herself not to look below at the world. She’s yearning to leave it behind − for a ride to the stars.

“Come here bed, I need you!” Wait, the poem is talking to Rita again: Its traveler is ambivalent about her journey. She craves the stars but, like a child, also the comfort of her bed.

“I don’t know my way back.” The word “back” is too narrow, too referential to the world. This traveler isn’t worried about the way “back,” but the way to the stars, the future, immorality.

“Garden of dreams, “purple petals,” “Happy landings.” “Yech!” “Awful!” “Disgusting!” But Rita doesn’t stop to change them. They are place holders for the poem’s cadence. New words will come.

Dove trusted that a combination of her own creativity and hard work − that line-by-line evisceration, performed again and again − would yield results, in this case 23 lines or 96 words of quiet beauty.

Harrington showed the same trust in his own process. He leaves Dove sitting in her cabin. She hears a dog bark, feels a breeze through the cabin window and enjoys another burst of inspiration, in this case the memory of a wisecrack her father once made to a gas station attendant.

Young Rita never forgot the baffled look on the attendant’s face.

Where are those few words she jotted? Ah, here they are:

Meek, this fallen leaf

reminds me of a word

my father used to say −

zephyr, tilting back to

gaze up under his brimmed fedora

as if to coax the air along

his brow: “What a lovely zephyr

today.” And the gas station

attendant scratched himself,

instantly ashamed

And once again, Rita steps out onto the lines …

You don’t have to love poetry to appreciate that.

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