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May 03 2012

13:35

March 29 2012

14:47

Keeping you up to date on Storyboard

You might notice editors switching seats in the days ahead. In the interest of keeping readers in the loop, we want to let you know that Storyboard editor Andrea Pitzer is working on a narrative nonfiction project about Vladimir Nabokov and will be taking a few months to concentrate solely on her book.

In the meantime, Paige Williams will be acting editor of Storyboard beginning April 1. A National Magazine Award winner, Williams also teaches narrative nonfiction writing to the fellows and affiliates of the Nieman Foundation. She has been a Storyboard contributor since 2010 and served on the Editors’ Roundtable in 2011.

We’ll continue to look at nonfiction storytelling in every medium and explore the future of narrative journalism. And you can still reach us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org with information on narrative projects or events you’d like to see covered on Storyboard.

December 30 2011

16:11

Nieman Storyboard’s top 10 posts for 2011

During the last days of December, we’ve been tweeting down Storyboard’s top 10 posts for the year. In case you haven’t been following along, here they are, all in one place (in reverse order):

10. Internet phenom Maud Newton’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Raymond Chandler sticks it to Hollywood.”

9. Chris Jones, Esquire writer at large, talks with Nieman narrative instructor Paige Williams:

On reporting for detail, the case against outlining and the power of donuts.”

8. Storyboard editor Andrea Pitzer’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Gene Weingarten peels the Great Zucchini.”

7. Peter Ginna, publisher and editorial director of Bloomsbury Press, with

When journalists become authors: a few cautionary tips.”

6. Science and culture writer David Dobbs’ “Why’s this so good?”:

Michael Lewis’ Greek odyssey.”

5. Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Truman Capote keeps time with Marlon Brando.”

4. Science writer Carl Zimmer’s “Why’s this so good?”:

McPhee takes on the Mississippi.”

3. Two celebrated Esquire writers visit Harvard:

Gay Talese has a Coke: reflections of a narrative legend in conversation with Chris Jones.”

2. Nieman Lab assistant editor Megan Garber’s “Why’s this so good?”:

David Foster Wallace on the vagaries of cruising.”

1. Pedro Monteiro’s look at storytelling in the tablet and app future:

Story, interrupted: why we need new approaches to digital narrative.”

Thanks for your support in 2011. We’ve had a banner year here, with a lot of new contributors and record numbers of visitors. We look forward to bringing you even better coverage of new narrative projects and ideas in 2012. Happy New Year!

December 01 2011

15:11

Chris Jones on reporting for detail, the case against outlining and the power of donuts

Esquire feature writer Chris Jones came to the Nieman Foundation in November as part of the Narrative Writing speakers series I started at the foundation last year, and spent a couple of hours talking about craft. Jones began his career as a sportswriter for the National Post in Toronto, where he covered boxing, which became the subject of his first book, “Falling Hard: A Rookie’s Year in Boxing.” Without a single magazine byline, and with a whole lot of hubris and a box of donuts, he famously talked his way into Esquire, a legendary home for narrative journalism.

Williams & Jones (photo: Jonathan Seitz)

Now Esquire’s writer at large (as well as ESPN The Magazine’s new back-page columnist), Jones has written about presidential candidates, astronauts, soldiers, movie stars and game shows, and has won two National Magazine Awards, the highest honor in magazine writing. One ASME award was for “The Things That Carried Him,” about the return of a soldier’s body from Iraq, and the other was for “Home,” which became the basis for his nonfiction book “Out of Orbit: The Incredible True Story of Three Astronauts Who Were Hundreds of Miles Above Earth When They Lost Their Ride Home.”

“When you read one of his stories, you’re putting on the Chris Jones suit of clothes and walking through this world, and you’re seeing and feeling things the way he does,” his Esquire editor, Peter Griffin, told me the other day. [Read our 2009 interview with Griffin here, for Jones’ “The End of Mystery.”] “But it’s frictionless. Part of the reason is, he’s obsessive. He works a story until he gets it right.”

On his second day visiting Harvard, Jones appeared with Gay Talese (we’ll post that talk soon). But his first day on campus he sat down with this year’s Nieman fellows to share details about his career and thoughts on writing. What follows are some excerpts from my conversation with him and the discussion with fellows that followed.

You’ve worked in both newspapers and magazines. What adjustments did you have to make in order to move from newspapers to magazines, from the daily news beat?

When I started at the paper I was a beat guy, so I did the 600-word sports stories, mostly about baseball and boxing. Then I started working in features. The paper I worked at was a paper called the National Post, which at the time Conrad Black had sunk a bajillion dollars into, and [it] had exactly no ads, so you could write a 3,000-word feature, and you could pitch anything. I remember we sent one reporter to Mongolia to watch a meteor shower, and it was cloudy so she got no story. And that was my impression of newspapers; that was my first job ever, so I was like, This is how it is. I just didn’t know any better. So I was a feature writer. But then when I started at Esquire my very first sit-down with my new editor was – and this is no insult to anyone who works in newspapers – he said, I don’t want to read a single sentence in your stories that I could have read in a newspaper.

What did he mean by that?

I think sometimes in newspapers you sort of fall into that, you write a paragraph you put in a quote, you write a paragraph, you put in a quote –

Formula.

– formula kind of template-y stuff, and you also write thinking they might cut the last four inches off the story. With a magazine you probably don’t put that many quotes in, the story has more of a full-circle feeling to it. At Esquire if you get assigned 5,000 words you’re gonna have 5,000 words of space. There’s no cutting for space. So it wasn’t so much a language change, it was more a structural change, how the piece fits together.

And I think what you also get in magazine stories that you don’t always have time to do in newspapers is, the story might be about something on the surface but a great magazine story is also about something beyond that – an idea; there’s a theme to it. The story about Joey Montgomery was about his body coming back, but really that was a story about war, and he was one guy representing everybody who died there. In newspapers you maybe don’t get the time to craft that kind of narrative.

Newspaper writers sometimes think, “Oh if I could only write for a magazine I’d have all this freedom,” but then you get into magazines and –

It’s a different kind of hard.

Yeah.

Newspapers weren’t a great fit for me because I always wanted to spend more time on a story. I hated writing on deadline. I always lay awake at night worried that I’d made a terrible mistake, that I got the score wrong. The nice thing about working at newspapers is the immediacy of it; if you don’t like a story you’re working on you’re done the next day, and you do something else. The other nice thing about newspapers is, if you write five stories a week and one is really good and three are fine and one is kind of crappy, that’s not a bad average. With Esquire my contract is six stories a year; I can’t have a dud.

Six features a year. What sort of average length are we talking about?

Our minimum would be something like 3,000 words. I’d say average real feature is around six. Celebrity profiles are around three, and those count as features.

The longest you’ve written was the war piece, wasn’t it? Like 12,000 words?

It actually ran at 17,000, and was assigned at six. I delivered 22,000.

Did you let them know they were getting 22,000?

Yeah, it was an awkward conversation with Peter, actually, because – that story’s in sections; there’s like 13 sections. I wrote it in the order that I had the material, I didn’t leave it all till the end. So I wrote the first section, which was the section where they fly Joey back from Dover, they fly to Seymour. I wrote that section and it came out at like 2,000 words, and I thought, That math is not good. So I called Peter and said it might be more like 10. I blew past 10 and said, It’s gonna be more than that. He said, Listen, just write it and we’ll figure it out. To Esquire’s credit they just burned that whole issue.

Like Hersey and Hiroshima in The New Yorker.

We had a Jessica Simpson story, [it] was the other story in that issue.

Well, the world thanks you for burning –

Oh no, it got in. It was the cover.

So you cut 5,000 words. Did you cut it or did they?

We cut it together. One of the great things about working there, my editor Peter, we’ve been together for eight years now; you only write for one editor. Like that’s your relationship and no one else touches the story.

It doesn’t go up to [Editor in Chief David] Granger?

Well he’ll read it, but there’s no changes.

[At some other magazines] everybody gets their fingerprints on it.

And stories inevitably suffer. I think that’s a bad process. Peter and I just have this – we know what each other is looking for. If I bumped from editor to editor I’d have a hard time. You just develop a trust that I think is important to doing the best work you can.

What, then, for people who don’t get the pleasure –

Totally screwed.

[laughter]

Newspaper reporters – sometimes you’re working for different sections –

No, it’s hard. I like being edited. In newspapers I was writing sports stories at 11 o’clock at night, it just went in. I never got edited. And I didn’t like it. I know some people think of editors as evil and they’re messing with your art, but for me Peter is – I mean he’s a fantastic editor. I tell students all the time: You’ll never do your best work until you find that editor who is your perfect match. By a series of flukes I got Peter and we work perfectly together. My stuff would not be nearly as good without Peter.

How long did you spend on that [war] piece?

I spent maybe eight months on that story.

Exclusively?

In the middle I did a Scarlett Johansson feature. I flew from the mortuary at Dover to sit with her at a diner [in California]. It was a surreal juxtaposition.

A lot of what makes that story work so well is the detail. Every passage is so tight, every sentence almost seems to be built with a specific mission in mind. How’d you wind it up so much without ruining it?

Once I realized how long it was going to be, my standard for a sentence was it had to have a fact. And the way I structured it in the end – I thought, It’s so long and the material’s so difficult that people wouldn’t read it in one sitting, so every section starts with a different person. It goes from person to person to person, and the last section is Joey. Then I tried to find little details that would help guide you, because it was backward and I was worried about losing people. So there’s things like the girl in the flowered dress, little cues that I hoped would sort of ground people.

But then Peter, when we took those 5,000 words out, really tightened it – I mean we cut a feature. A simple line edit with a story that length, you can lose a thousand or two words. We lost some whole scenes, which at the time was like – there was one scene that I spent months reporting; it was the funeral they held in Iraq. The soldiers have their own memorial service in Iraq. Soldiers are tough interviews and it was a tough scene, you know? It was hard all the way around. It was probably about 1,500 words, and I spent a long time writing it, and we just cut it.

How do you report your scenes? That’s something we talk about in class – when you’re reconstructing scenes and when you’re at the mercy of people’s memories and at the mercy, in this case, of soldiers who are sort of programmed to talk like athletes, who say a lot without saying anything –

Any interview I do for a narrative story, particularly with people who don’t speak to reporters normally, I usually have a preamble where I talk about the questions I’m going to ask. I tell them, A story like this relies on details, I’m going to ask you what might seem like some really strange questions. If you don’t remember, that’s okay, don’t force yourself to remember things; don’t think anything’s stupid, if I ask a question you don’t like, tell me you don’t like it. Like with Joey’s story people were worried that I was gonna do it dirty on him, that I was going to somehow sully his memory. All you can do there is try to convince them you’re a good person. It’s a lot easier if you actually are a good person. I like to think that I’m a good person. So I told them: You can trust me. And when I said it I meant it: I’m not here to mess with Joey. And if you spend enough time with people they get comfortable. And two very important things with that story: I had the time, and I did every interview in person.

Oh wow.

Which I think makes a huge difference.

So do I.

And every interview was often somewhere very awkward. Like Aunt Vicki, I talked to her over lunch at a Cracker Barrel, and so we’re both sitting in this Cracker Barrel, and I was bawling, she was bawling, and everybody in the room going, What the hell? But it was not sitting in a house. It was almost like a date. We met at the restaurant; it was the first time we met. It was just easier that way.

I think the key to reporting a story like that – and I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant – you gotta see when people are giving you little windows. There’s a scene in that story – the girl in the flowered dress, the National Guard people who carried the casket from the plane to the family. There, I interviewed them in a group; there were six of us sitting around a table. My starting question was How do you keep your game face? That’s what they call it when you don’t show emotion. It was a general question, so they gave a general answer, which was, You don’t look at the family, you look at something else. I said, Do any of you happen to remember what you were looking at that day? The first guy, Schnieders, said, I was looking at the logo on the sheriff’s car. Then these two female soldiers started whispering together, and I said, What are you guys talking about? And that was the girl in the flowered dress, where one of them had said, Look at the girl, look at the dress, pick out a flower on the dress.

For me the girl in the flowered dress is my favorite detail. And this started with How do you keep your emotions? and gradually whittled down to this moment. So you’ve got to be aware of when somebody is giving you an opening. And then you winnow it down.

In narrative you have to be on, all the time, because every moment might matter. It’s almost like being hyper-vigilant. You just can’t be asleep.

Yeah and you have to really listen. You know, when I started that story I was worried that I’d be doing so many interviews that I’d forget stuff. But when you’re doing stuff like that, you don’t forget stuff.

But you’re thinking long term too – it’s almost like you can see the story in the making, and how certain details will serve the narrative.

Yeah. You gradually develop an instinct – this is gonna sound crass as hell, but literally I have a cash-register sound that goes off in my head. Like, cha-ching. It’s annoying. Like, the girl in the flowered dress was cha-ching. I knew that was going in. You know, it’s a spidey sense. When I first sit down to write even a story of that length, I figure if I can remember it, then it’s an important detail.

When you’re talking about details [writers] sort of over – “he was wearing a gray sweater” and there were these pants and – those don’t really matter. At Esquire our goal is always to report the story so well we can sit down at a bar and I can just tell you the story. I did 101 interviews for that story and I could go through that story right now and tell you everyone who’s in it. You just remember. You remember the stuff that counts. So a lot of [writers] are like, I’m worried I’m gonna miss something great; well if you’ve forgotten it, it probably wasn’t great. And that’s how you know the details that are great and the details that aren’t. Then you go back to your notes and tapes and make sure you’re right.

The idea of detail that doesn’t move the action forward, that doesn’t advance any ideas – gratuitous detail –

It’s just clutter. The detail has to have some purpose to it, it has to mean something. Even if it doesn’t mean anything right away, it gradually builds some picture in your head gets you where you’re going.

And nothing’s a throwaway, because you might need it. It might come back in some way.

Yeah. This is a very hard thing to explain but – I’m gonna backtrack. I don’t outline. And I know this is a great debate in narrative. Like, Gay Talese, if you come tomorrow, Gay Talese outlines in ridiculous ways, for me. He will have 17 shirt boards with the story mapped out, and for me the risk of outlining is you miss those little connections that you maybe wouldn’t see if you were sitting there thinking, How am I gonna tell this story? I love when you’re writing and you see this little connection that you wouldn’t have seen [otherwise] – little echoes that count again later when you come back to it. Sometimes I’m asked, How did you know – I didn’t know that. It was only once I started writing that I saw it. Sometimes I see Gay Talese’s outlines and I think I’m doing it wrong, but I think what you might lose then is that sort of spontaneous connection.

And you can’t teach that. You can teach people to be aware always, and to look for opportunities, but it’s like teaching an ear – do you think that’s true? You can teach writing, absolutely, but the music, and those ghostly things that happen in Story –

I don’t think you can take a bad writer and make them great. I think you can make a bad writer passable and a passable writer good and a good writer great, but you can’t make massive jumps. It sounds harsh, but, excluding me from the conversation, there’s kind of an “it,” or whatever, that [good writers] just have. Like music. I’m tone deaf. You can never make me a great pianist. It would never happen. Writing is a similar kind of thing.

Okay.

It’s a terrible thing to say.

No it isn’t.

I mean you guys know: This is a tough business and there are a lot of effing good people at it, and there are lots of good people who can’t work. If you’re not good you’ve got no shot. I mean maybe you want this, you want it so bad, but if you’re not good at it, it’s not gonna happen. And you just have to be honest. It sounds brutal as it’s coming out of my mouth.

No it doesn’t.

But I don’t believe in false hope. Or there’s a sweet spot for different [types of writing] – you gotta find that spot. If you want to be a journalist, which is such a huge field, you’ve got to find your sweet spot.

Let’s talk about the origin of stories. You see Story in places where other people don’t see it.

[In magazine writing] you gotta find those stories that don’t change, and yet that no one else has written about. You’re always on the lookout for the stuff that fell through the cracks. If you’re pitching magazines, you can’t pitch a story that’s happened and that everyone’s writing about, or that’s happening in two months. For me, I get most of my ideas from newspapers, where the reporter I used to be – some poor dude only had three hours and 400 words to tell a story and you can see –

The bigger story.

The bigger story. So “Home” was a 400-word story about [the astronauts’] return. The soldier story was a 600-word piece on CNN.com. The Price Is Right was my own obsession. Roger Ebert was, like, his blog, which was just out there. No one had asked Roger Ebert to do a story – it was just sitting there. Those are the things you gotta find when you’re doing magazine stuff.

Yeah.

The great magazine stories you’re like, How the hell did no one else write this story?

That hardly ever happens though.

That hardly ever happens. I’ve been at Esquire for nine years and probably have done five or six stories that I think were good, just because it’s so hard to find that perfect mix of idea, material, your writing was good, everything worked.

It takes a massive amount of organization to keep track of the material for stories like “The Things That Carried Him” because you’re dealing with different characters, different points of view, different time periods, different countries. How do you organize everything and at what point do you write?

Because that story was so big, I wrote it in chunks, and that’s why it almost reads like a collection of little stories. With a regular story I often don’t write it front to back. Usually I know my ending, and often I’ll write my ending first. That’s from school. I had a professor telling me, How do you know how to get there if you don’t know where you’re going? That stuck with me for some reason. I also think endings are the most important part of the story. From my newspaper days I got scarred because all my endings got cut off. But with magazines, for me, it’s your finishing note; it’s how you’re leaving company with people. Ideally your story has built to this sort of crescendo and it’s like, here’s your moment. So I usually know what my ending is, and then I’ll start writing wherever I feel like writing.

But the sheer reporting. What are your tools? I didn’t realize you don’t record anything.

I record sit-down interviews. And in the soldier story I recorded – [at Esquire] it’s the only time they let you use the interns, to transcribe your tapes, but I never do it because I don’t want them to hear me stumbling and bumbling through my crap. The humiliation factor is just like – I don’t want anyone listening to this. It’s like what I do in the bathroom, you know?

Great.

So what I work toward in the reporting – I mean I sort of have two rules. For me writing is pretty hard, so my attitude has always been – my great fear is sitting down to write a 5,000-word story with 3,000 words of material. Like that’s my death. I’m not a very flowery writer. There are a lot of writers who could get away with that but I have no imagination. I think everyone would see this is where he ran out of shit and now he’s lying. I report as hard as I do so I can avoid that oh-crap feeling where you sit down and go I don’t have it. The other thing I sort of work for – Esquire’s fact checkers are beautiful, beautiful people; they are insane. My favorite fact checker story: I was writing about a fight, and I had a little joke, Shaquille O’Neal tripped over some lighting cables. The [fact checker] spent days trying to make sure they were lighting cables and not sound cables. And I was like, Dude, we can just call them cables. And he was like, Well, shit.

[laughter]

Fact checkers also make you feel like the least funny person on earth. Because you have to explain jokes. I had this basketball player who had like 17 different devices on his waistband so I was like: The Motorola fax/pager/copier on his waist – and the fact-checker was like, Well I called Motorola, and they don’t have a fax/copier/pager that goes on the waist – and I’m like Shit, dude, that’s not a real thing.

[laughter]

I love fact checkers; they allow me to sleep at night. But fact checking is torturous, and on a 17,000-word story it is hell. So that story in particular I kept ridiculous notes. I kept every phone number, every name, so they could verify everything easily – you just have to do it –

Well not all writers do it, though. You’re probably beloved for that –

I always warn them when I’m coming: Sorry guys, I’ve got another one coming down the pipe.

Annotating is your friend.

Again, going back to my newspaper days I’d have killed for that. I like that part of the process. So as long as I can get through those two things I’ve done my job and then I can write.

Dina Kraft: I have a question about structure on “The Things That Carried Him.” Were you working with a spokesperson for the Army? Did you think, This is a good possible [story subject] for me, I’ll jump over to Indiana?

Well I saw the story on CNN and that was Joey. Really it was about life at the forward operating base and it included a vignette on carrying the body back, and it turned out to be Joey. I spent probably a couple of weeks – this sounds ghoulish – but looking at other possibilities. And I kept going back to Joey. I liked that he was from a small town in Indiana; I just thought it was better than New York or L.A. And I felt sort of a weird connection – we had similar sort of adolescences. I felt like I kind of understood him. The very first thing I did was call his mom. No matter who we did, I wanted the family’s permission. So I called his mom, and it was terrible. I thought I was calling her at home. I thought, I’ll call her in the middle of the day, I’ll leave a message on her home machine and she’ll call me back if she wants. But the number I’d been given was her work, and she answered.

This is something that’s really hard to explain but, what do you say? So I was like, Hi I’m Chris, I write for Esquire magazine and I really want to write a story about how a soldier is returned from Iraq and I’d really like that soldier to be Joey. And she just started bawling. I felt so bad that I’d ruined her day, but we ended up talking for probably an hour and a half. At the end she said, You can do it, but I want to be [interviewed] last; if this story falls apart anywhere along the way I don’t want to have gone through it for nothing.

At that time there were a lot of stories about how hard it was – you couldn’t take a photo of a flag-draped casket. I thought, This is gonna be really hard. So I called the mortuary in Dover and they said, You need Pentagon approval. I said, Well who is the Pentagon? They gave me a name. I called him up and did the same schpiel. He said okay. I was like, Okay what? He said, You’ve got Pentagon approval. I said, You sure? And that was it. And I never once had a roadblock. Everything just fell into place. It was one of those spooky – I have countless examples of moments where I was like, That’s nuts. When I went to Dover – they pray over every planeload. Chaplain Sparks had done 700 planes and he said, I do a different prayer for every plane. And I said, You have no idea what you’d have said [at Joey’s]? And then he went back to his desk – and this was months later – and sitting on top of his pile was the prayer he said on Joey’s plane. He had the manifest and on the back was the prayer. He came back and looked like he’d been hit by a board. And there was countless moments of stuff like that.

The last thing I did was go to Scottsburg. The other nice thing about doing it that way was, I could tell [Joey’s family] what I knew.

Did they ask?

They asked. And one of the lessons about that story for me was, I was really worried about Gail reading it. She’d lost two husbands, her son, just this litany of tragedy, and I didn’t really want to add to it. And when I wrote the scene in the mortuary the first time I wrote it Peter called and said, You’re hedging, you’re holding back; every other part of the story is so detailed and here you’re kind of skimming it. I was like, Yeah it was really gory and I didn’t know how much detail to go into. He said, You’ve gotta go all the way with it. I was like, Okay.

Gail didn’t know Joey had lost his legs. I called her before the story came out and said, Gail, you might not want to read this, there’s stuff in there you might not want to know. She was like, Give me an example. I said, Joey didn’t have any legs. That was sort of the big – and she was okay. You know? And it’s true about writing about yourself: If you write about yourself you’ve gotta be 100 percent honest; people know if you’re holding back. And with this, Peter picked it out right away: You’re not telling me everything you know. And if you’re gonna write a story like that, you’ve got to go 100 percent.

Carlotta Gall: That’s interesting because that’s the one passage I would have cut if I was your editor.

It’s definitely the most technical. And it’s the least detailed. There you can’t say to the mortician, Do you remember that particular – there’s four morticians who’ve done thousands of bodies. It’s definitely the weakest section, it always was. You just couldn’t get the girl in the flowered dress in the mortuary. It just didn’t exist.

Claudia Mendez Arriaza: What makes Peter a great editor?

I’ll call Peter a lot when I’m reporting, and I’ll tell him I had a cash register moment, or if I’m having a problem. We’ll sort of talk it out. I think a great editor is almost part therapist in some ways. You know, writers spend a lot of time by themselves, and I’m on the road by myself a lot, so he’s just a good guy for me to talk to me about stories. I think my favorite thing that Peter does is his cuts, his actual removal of things. Like Paige was talking about with “The Things That Carried Him,” the tightness of it, that there’s no sentiment in it, that’s because of Peter. The very first section of that story, now it ends with something like, “They spend a lot of time like that.” I talk about Chaz walking out, holding hands, and they’re not talking, they spend a lot of time like that. I had, “They spend a lot of time like that, talking only with their hands.” And just that little cut makes that story better. So he’s like that 10 percent restraint, like a reining in. If I go too far with the sentimentality or the emotion he pulls it back. It’s very nice when people talk about the restraint in my stories, but that’s Peter, that’s not me. Because it’s really hard to know where the line is for the emotional.

Rema Nagarajan: Is there a time when you don’t agree with him and then what happens?

Yeah, you know that old cliché about you read your story and find your favorite line, and that’s the line you should cut? It’s kind of true. Peter has a way of [lots of sound effects here meant to represent Peter cutting, and also the sound Jones likens to being waxed].

You get waxed often then?

Yeah, all the time. It’s better not to be super-hairy.

[laughter]

It goes back to the trust thing. If Peter does it I’m like, well Peter is my swami, and he is totally correct. But yeah, he’s part therapist, part cheerleader and a hard-core ass-kicking editor.

You don’t call in wringing your hands.

I don’t often call him with a problem. I usually call Peter when I’m excited. I usually call Peter when I have that moment where I’m like, Oh this is actually gonna work, especially when it’s a story that I’ve pitched hard and I’m nervous about. The Price Is Right story, I called him after the Drew Carey interview, which was one of the great interviews of my life. We’re backstage and he just went off, like F F F F F. There was this publicist who’d been a pain in my ass – CBS was worse than the Pentagon. She was sitting there and she wouldn’t leave, and she said, You cannot ask about Terry rolling The Price Is Right. So I’m sitting there with Drew, and he kind of brought it up. He says, There’s this guy – I’m like, Yeah, Terry. And I hear behind me like a thunk, and I turn around and her head’s on the table. As soon as I was in the parking lot I called Peter and said, I got it I got it I got it. I don’t call him saying, It’s not working.

He also told me you sometimes call and say, I’m gonna go another way but I can’t tell you what it is. He trusts you to just go do it.

See I’m a writer because I can’t really talk. Like I can’t explain – so something will come up but I can’t –

Articulate it.

So it’s like, Let me try it in words. It’s like instead of me trying to explain this let me just write it. If you don’t like it, fine. Like the Price Is Right we went into it not knowing the twist about Ted, the guy in the audience who was yelling out the numbers. Instead of telling all that to Peter, I just said, Listen there’s a thing, there’s this guy Ted, I’m just gonna write it and you’ll see. That’s how we dealt with that.

No surprises.

I feel like if I’ve sold it as something I’ve gotta – it sounds like I’m bragging about the length of “The Things That Carried Him,” but I felt bad. Usually I’m within 100 words of my assigned length. I try very hard to hit that. People get offside about this, but journalism is a business. You’re expecting people to buy a product. You’re being paid for your work. Your editor is a customer; your readers are customers. So I feel this responsibility – I don’t think of it as I’m conducting my orchestra, and I’m doing my art and blah blah. For me it’s a contract. You’re paying me to do a job. I’m gonna deliver on time, I’m gonna deliver at the length you’re asking for, I’m not gonna be a pain in your ass, if you don’t like something I’ll fix it. I try to be –

Professional.

Is that the word?

I don’t know.

I try to do the job. So the soldier story was a weird – I just can’t see how you’d do it in 6,000 words.

Tyler Bridges: You said earlier that you don’t see yourself as a lyrical writer, and I’m certainly not a lyrical writer either, and if I do something that’s okay, it’s because of the reporting. But you take reporting to an extra level and I’m wondering if you have to constantly remind yourself what the person’s wearing, what the weather’s like – whether you have little tricks or it’s so natural now that you are able to get all these details –

I think it’s gotten more natural. One thing I still do is ask the people, Can I call you back? Like, If I go home and start writing and I need a little spackle can we talk about it? Because sometimes you don’t know until you’re writing it that you need this little bit that gets you from this paragraph to this paragraph. I think it’s okay not to get it all on the first run.

Bridges: Do you have little tricks to make sure you’re attendant to everything that’s going on or is it just natural to do that?

I don’t really know how to talk about this stuff without sounding like a jerk.

Just say it.

Well, I’m mildly autistic. It was a hindrance as a child, but as a reporter it’s kind of helpful because I find myself noticing things. And I think I have a good memory. So things will just sort of jump out sometimes, things I’m maybe not supposed to be looking at.

Bridges: I have trouble describing what someone looks like.

That is hard. That was one of my early lessons, that you always have to include a paragraph of description of the person because you can’t pretend that people know what people look like. In the Scarlett Johansson story I have a paragraph describing her face and it’s easily the most overwritten thing I’ve ever written. Because I mean how the hell do you describe a face? I mean you start with the forehead – I don’t know, big? Nose? It’s nose-like. So you kind of come up with all this language, and that’s when it gets fussy for me. Probably every other writer at Esquire is a much better writer than I am. Tom Junod could write 3,000 words about Scarlet Johansson’s face, but I can’t, so I try to get by with other stuff.

John Diedrich: I covered the military, great job on this piece. I’m curious about when you survey what’s been done on a subject area, and when you detect –

Jim Sheeler.

Diedrich: Jim Sheeler. He was covering it from a different angle. But how far will you read something – do you read everything that’s out there?

No I don’t read everything. I read Sheeler’s piece, and it’s a great piece. I mean it won a Pulitzer, right? It’s the definitive piece about the messengers. For me, it’s not good for me to read other stuff, not so much because I worry I’m gonna steal something but because I’m pretty naturally insecure. Like reading Sheeler’s piece was like, Shit, but it was good because it was a boot in my butt. I was like, Well, if that’s the bar. But no, I won’t sit there and survey the landscape because I don’t know what good could come from it.

Diedrich: So would you stay away from that aspect?

I didn’t purposely stay away from it. It was just different from the start. I mean I included the moment of notification. What was strange in this case is after reading Sheeler’s story I thought, Oh this is what this scene is gonna be like, but it wasn’t like that, because she found out from her sister. So that’s the one part of the process I thought I knew, and it was totally different. I mean if you’re doing certain stories you have to read to get the knowledge. If you’re doing a geology story you have to read about geology.

Samiha Shafy: I would like to hear the story about how you talked your way into Esquire with a box of donuts. The second is, you said you’re writing six stories a year, which doesn’t sound like a big number but considering the effort you put into each story how do you make sure you pick the right stories, and is it like two months per story or four months for one or?

Yeah, it can be six weeks – a celebrity story you might spend three weeks on and another story you might spend six months on. I’ll answer your second question first. So the hardest part of the job is the idea. You can take the best writer in the world and give them a crap idea and they’ll come out with a crap story, and you can take an awesome idea and give it to a not very good writer and they’ll probably come out with a pretty good story. Again this is part of the editorial process – pitching and pitching and pitching. So many stories I really like I had to pitch for a long time. Ebert I pitched for eight or 10 months. The space story I pitched for close to a year. The Price Is Right, I had to make that bet. [[The editors weren’t interested in the Price Is Right story at first. Convinced it was a good story, Jones bet Granger: He’d pay his own expenses and eat them if it turned out to be a non-story, but if Esquire ran the piece the editors had to pay him double his expenses. Which they did./pw]]

I think one of the tests at Esquire is if you can’t let it go, that’s when they’ll finally say yes. Like Ebert happened – I was supposed to write about Taylor Swift. At Esquire – I’m 37, I’m the young guy, so I get Taylor Swift. I’m still 37 trying to write about some 17-year-old girl, so I’m gonna be the pervert in the corner of the room. Luckily she canceled at the last minute. I was like, How about Roger? And that’s when I finally got to do it.

The donut story: So this is because I’m an idiot. I’m not very socially aware. When I was still at the National Post I really wanted to work for Esquire –

Having never written for a magazine before.

Having never written for a magazine. I got my job at the National Post having never written a published story before, so for me this was how it works. Actually I’m gonna tell my National Post story. So when I got my paper job there was a magazine in Canada called Saturday Night. I got my degree in urban planning. I thought it was gonna be like Lego. It’s not. It’s super-bureaucratic and terrible. So I had this headmaster who was a journalist and who set me up with a job interview with this guy named Ken White, who was the editor in chief of Saturday Night, which is like I guess our New Yorker. So I went for a job with Ken White and he kept saying newspaper, and I kept correcting him, saying, This is a magazine. It was like the worst job interview ever. Afterward I called my parents and said, I don’t know what that was but I’m not gonna be a writer.

And then they offered me a job at the paper. The paper was brand new. They stuck anyone with no experience, like me, in this bureau in Toronto, and if you were good enough you got pulled up. I started getting phone calls from the news editor and the sports editor, and in my head I’m like, They’re fighting over me. Meanwhile up at the paper Ken White was going, One of you has to take him. Years later I found this out. Finally I went to Sports because I wouldn’t count against their hiring quota. And I literally sat there for three months doing nothing, just sitting at my table, like ballast.

But the magazine – I walked into the Esquire building –

Wait, you flew to New York?

I was already there anyway, doing a Mets/Blue Jays series. And I walked in the building because I assumed that David Granger, the editor in chief, would want to meet with me. I was like, Clearly he’ll say yes. So the security guard was sitting there at the desk. I said, I’m here to see David Granger. He said, Do you have an appointment? I said, Nope. He said, Well, no. I was like, Can I make an appointment? He said, No, no, I don’t think you can.

So I was leaving and there was a janitor sweeping the lobby and he said, Do you want a job at Esquire? I said, Not as a janitor.

[laughter]

He said, No, no, no, there’s an editor, Andy Ward, young guy, really good guy, loves sports, you need to talk to Andy. So I went back to the security guard and said, Can I call Andy Ward? So I called up Andy, and he answers and I say, Hey I’m Chris, I write for a newspaper, I really want to work for you one day, I wonder if we could meet. He was like, Oh, when are you coming to town? I said, I’m in your lobby, the janitor said to call you.

[laughter]

And Andy said, Well, I’ve got this meeting to go to but come back at two.

And Andy’s the nicest dude on earth.

The janitor was totally right – he knew the guy I needed to talk to. So I got two boxes of donuts. I got one for the janitor, [and] was like, Thank you. I took a box of donuts to Andy, and some clips. [[I later asked Andy about this, and what kind of donuts Jones brought. Andy said Krispy Kreme, because Jones wanted to make a point that Krispy Kremes are better than Dunkin’ Donuts. Which, sorry Boston, they are./pw]] And again going back to the socially awkward thing I’m sitting there with Andy, we’re talking, he’s very nice, and I said, Can you read some of my stuff? He said, Yeah, I’ll read it. And I said, Can you read it now? He was like, While you’re sitting here? I was like, Yeah, I just kind of want to know is this even possible. So he’s reading and he’s like, Yeah, we wouldn’t use so many one-sentence paragraphs but it’s not bad. I said, Okay, great.

So, I kind of forgot about it. I quit my job at the paper, was traveling around. I ran out of money in Arizona, I was in Flagstaff. Got an email from Andy saying, We’ve got a job, 10 guys are gonna write a story, best story gets it. And this is the job I want more than anything. And I was flat broke. I mean I was busted. I had left the paper in a hissy fit, which was a terrible mistake  – and I wanted that job so bad, so I wrote my story

What was the story?

I wrote about Barry Zito, the baseball player –

You could choose any story?

I had to pitch 10 stories – this was specifically to be the sports columnist. That’s how I started at Esquire. And it was only years later that I found out the competition was bullshit. It had never happened. I spent years trying to find out – because the business isn’t that big – who are these other nine people? I was asking around, Are you one of the people? So whenever students ask how to get a job in journalism: Well, you act like an idiot, you go places you’re not supposed to go, you bring donuts, you run out of money and get super lucky.

Jonathan Blakley: With Roger Ebert – I love that story – one of the reasons I really loved it is, I’m a little older than you but I think we both grew up watching him. Suddenly you’re there. Was that one day with him?

No, parts of four days. And Roger was also awesome in the sense that, when I first emailed about doing the story he said, You know, I can’t talk, so we should probably do this by email, and I said, Well it would be better if we actually met. Roger actually started his career as a feature writer, including stuff for Esquire, so once he got past the idea of me coming, which did take some convincing –

Gosh – sorry to interrupt but that surprises me that he wouldn’t get that you needed to be in the room –

He hadn’t really been out at that point. He didn’t want people seeing his face.

Still –

Yeah. Once he got on board he was like, Oh he’s gonna need scenes – we’ll go out for dinner. All I said was, I want to go to the movies with you. Everything else was him. He knew what I needed. It’s funny – we talked afterward, and he had written the story. He was like, I’m surprised you didn’t put this in.

[laughter]

And there was a great moment that I didn’t put in, because in order for it to work I had to be in there, and I didn’t want to be in the story.

What was it?

They were cleaning the house before I got there and Chaz, his wife, had their wedding album out and Roger was like, Why the hell do you have the wedding pictures out? And she put it away. And after I’d been there maybe 15 minutes he was like, Chaz, bring out the wedding pictures! Anyway, he was like, I would’ve led with that, and …

[laughter]

I tell you the hot-sweat moment – he was mad about the picture. He was like, I’m kind of surprised you did the full face, like a whole page –

Bridges: Oh, but it’s such an amazing photo, though.

But all he sees is the damage, right? And it was a full page in the magazine. And he said, I’m surprised you spent so much time on my sickness.

Really?

And I was like, Oh shit. I said, Listen, if we don’t have the photo people are gonna spend the whole story wondering what you look like and they’re not gonna read the story. So you get that right out of the way. And with your sickness, nobody knows about this stuff. It’s important to establish why you can’t talk.

Bridges: Do you read stuff to Roger Ebert or whoever?

Oh no, no. This is always a tricky situation. I wanted Roger to love the story. I really like Roger. For me that was – I’ll never be able to relate what it was like to be sitting there pulling Post-It notes off his fingers. Like, I went there – I’d had this waffly kind of bad-head period where I was depressed or whatever, and I left there and thought, What the hell. I’m gonna leave here and I’m gonna have a root beer, and that moment on its own – it was a transformative experience, doing that story. I wanted him to like it, but you have to play this game where, I hope he likes it but I can’t be writing it for him.

And the fact checking – oh God I had this awful moment where I described the hole in his face. Originally I had it as the size of a small fist. And the fact checker called him and said, Roger do you have a hole the size of a small fist? And he immediately emailed me going, What are you talking about, this hole? I said, You have this hole, it’s there. I made it a plum, I think, in the end. But he was upset, and that kind of stuff bothered me. The reaction to the story was so positive he got on board.

Diedrich: The headline for “The Things That Carried Him” is clearly a nod to “The Things They Carried” – how aware are you when you’re writing that you’re in this legacy of people who’ve written about soldiers?

The title is a funny – I always put a headline on my stories because I find it helps me –

Focus.

If I find myself drifting I can go back to the headline. If it’s hard to write a headline for your story your story is probably unfocused. My headline was “The 3,431st.” I thought it sounded vaguely military, I thought it got across the idea of one of these thousands. Then Peter put that headline on it and I was like, Argh. Like “The Things They Carried” is one of the great pieces of war literature of all time, and when he put that headline on it I thought it sounded like hubris. But again, it was that 75th anniversary year, the original “The Things They Carried,” the short story, was in Esquire. I still never quite loved the headline. I really like headlines like “The Body.” There’s a story in the current issue that’s just called “Hood.” I like headlines like that. Very rarely is the headline that I put on my story the headline. Like this one, Roger Ebert, was [ultimately] called “The Essential Man,” or something. I like having a headline as my compass point.

July 21 2011

16:57

July Editors’ Roundtable No. 2: The New York Times probes a murder in South Africa

For the second Roundtable of July, our editors looked at “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man” by Barry Bearak of the New York Times. Bearak has spent the last three years as co-bureau chief of the Times’ Johannesburg bureau, and his June 5 story investigates the death of a young man at the hands of a mob in the beleaguered settlement of Diepsloot.

Our editors didn’t read each other’s comments as they wrote or see the email conversation between Storyboard and Bearak about his narrative. (We’ll publish that Q&A tomorrow.)

For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

On using the first person:

Journalists tend to have strong opinions about whether we should put ourselves in stories. Some support first-person reportage depending on the circumstances; others suggest they’d rather dine on dung than appear anywhere in a piece of work, despite the fact that first-person presence has a solid history and an important place within the craft. Whenever I give a little quiz asking students to match short first-person passages to the author, even practiced journalists are surprised to find the writers are Dickens, Orwell, Gellhorn, Didion…

In the right situation, readers connect powerfully to story via the personal pronoun “I.” A writer should deploy the “I” as carefully as a surgeon chooses a scalpel. The device itself lends nothing without legitimate intent. To me, first person works in Barry’s piece for three reasons:

It isn’t gratuitous. The narrative/personal quest depends upon use of the first person and especially upon the author’s relationship with Golden, a trusted source and keeper of the pivotal crime-scene video.

It allows for authoritative class contrast. By revealing details about his own lifestyle Bearak puts less fortunate residents’ economic circumstances – and the larger societal issues of law and order/mob justice – into a more intimate context than readers would’ve read in a depersonalized account.

He keeps the spotlight on others by remaining a minor character and keeping a respectful distance. While the author’s journalistic quest clearly drives the narrative, being present in the story allows him to bear witness in a quiet but powerful way and to authenticate what otherwise would have been a secondhand account of a horrific event.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

On structure:

Structure is one of the peskiest challenges facing writers. Once you move past the basic (and backwards) logic of the inverted pyramid, questions of order and placement plague rookie and veteran alike. What stays in? What comes out? What goes where? Constructing a complex story can be like building a jigsaw puzzle of multiple dimensions, with images on all sides, ill-fitting tabs, no edge pieces and no box cover picture to follow.

In “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man,” Barry Bearak does the most sophisticated thing a writer can do when confronted with that complex puzzle: He gets simple. Not that his story is simple. Far from it. Bearak leads us through more than 7,500 words, takes us deep into several distinct and difficult subcultures, introduces us to more than a dozen characters, weaves between present and past, and includes both intimately detailed narrative and sweeping social context.

It would be instructive (and fun, in a word-nerdy way) to diagram Bearak’s entire piece.  Lacking time and space for that, I’ll note these points:

Chronology is the core. That’s what I mean when I say Bearak gets simple. He starts in a searing moment that puts us in the scene and sets the stage for everything to come. After two paragraphs of narrative he pulls out into some establishing context. Then he quickly returns to the narrative through the first long scene, ending with a cliffhanger. But after that, the piece builds along a fairly straight chronology. We are pulled into the story in the same way Bearak was ­– through the video of the murder – and then follow him step by step as he tries to untangle the thicket of questions and characters he confronts. Pay attention to the places where Bearak uses a fairly direct time stamp to hold the story together: “… each day, widening the arc of our meander.“ “Within a week, Golden and I had become a marked pair.” “One recent Sunday afternoon…”

A quest drives the story forward. That’s true of any gripping narrative: The writer sets up a core question, then spends the rest of the story answering that question. (This is different than a story’s core meaning, or theme.) What makes Bearak’s story a bit different is that the quest is his. We are taken along on his search for answers. (A literary friend once told me there are only two storylines in all of human history: A stranger comes to town, and a man takes a journey. Bearak’s story encompasses both, and he is both the stranger and the man on the journey.)

Narrative is woven rather than broken. In complex pieces such as this, one successful approach can be a “broken narrative”– a structure that goes back and forth between narrative or action scenes and contextual or expository scenes. Bearak takes that foundation and makes it more elegant by weaving context directly into the narrative.  He slips a line or two of geography or history into the running story. As I read, I imagined a French braid with strands constantly being worked over, under and through. If you re-read the piece just to see how characters and their backstories are introduced, you’ll see that braid. Bearak is able to pull off that intricate weave because the core chronology is straightfoward and strong.

Characters are clearly identified. It’s tough for readers to follow this many characters in a piece. Yet we never lose track here because Bearak remembers to provide some brief reminder of who each person is. That’s just one of the ways Bearak answers the readers’ question when the reader needs the answer.

The story comes full circle. The chronology drives relentlessly forward, following Bearak’s quest. It ties together – is made whole – by ending where it began, with the boy who fingered the murder victim. This is also a tried-and-true structural device. But what makes Bearak’s use of it so stunning is that he comes back to Siphiwe not where the story started, but where the story took Sipihwe – to a place of defiant and inevitable despair. As such, Siphiwe was able to speak for the much larger defiance and despair of a country and a culture.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

On a sense of place:

Barry Bearak knows that evoking a sense of place isn’t just a matter of presenting a background landscape. He uses carefully selected sensory details – sights, sounds, smells – and movement to transport readers to South Africa.

“Put me there,” is a simple way an editor can encourage writers to think about the sense of place. The writer can provide context to the story by showing, rather than telling. She can also create a mood that permeates the story – anger, joy, sadness.

Bearak does this sparingly in his murder story. That’s important, because, at least in this story, we don’t want the plot to slow down and linger too long. Let’s pay attention to Bearak’s sketch of the South African township. We hear music; we watch women pinning laundry and storekeepers brushing away flies; we smell garbage and sewage; we learn that some of these areas have bureaucratic names like Extension 1 and Extension 2.

The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia. In a few blocks, the pavement of Thubelihle gave way to hard-packed dirt and stones. A busted pipe had gone unrepaired for months, and the escaping water cut a trough in the ground that now carried a stream of garbage and sewage. The odor was bracing, but there was open air ahead, a large, marshy field that separated Extension 1 from the squatter camp in Extension 2…

What we see is that life goes on under some outrageous conditions. And we get a hint about why these conditions are a factor in the violence. People are curious. They don’t see things getting any better. They start to follow a mob. Who knows how ordinary people will act as the mob grows violent?

Bearak uses a second sketch to show the economic disparity in South Africa, the wide gap between the townships and the gated communities with beautiful names.

I live in much different circumstances, renting a house in the Dainfern Golf and Residential Estate, one of dozens of gated communities built in a city overwrought about crime. The perimeter is fortified with high walls topped by electrified wire; guards patrol the landscaped roadways and roundabouts. Houses are large, and many front entranceways are ornamented with waterfalls and fish ponds…

He’s also showing us this place because he wants to be honest about his comparatively (and understandably) sheltered life in South Africa. He may not be able to fully understand what life is like in the townships, and he’s being straight with us about that. He uses a sense of place not just to set a scene but to help define and explain the dynamics of his story.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

On keeping the reader engaged in a depressing story:

Everything about the subject of this piece – a mob in a crime-ridden squatter’s village randomly settling on an innocent man to vent their rage – screamed “Don’t go there,” and yet, go I did. Why?

Or to rephrase the question: When a writer wants to explore unremittingly depressing material, how can he keep the reader’s attention and deliver something that feels like enlightenment rather than a fist to the face?

Bearak accomplishes that here, through what I would call “elevation.”

I mean this almost literally. The reader is raised to a great, almost godlike height and allowed to view these hideous events as if from a mountaintop. Every piece can be seen in its relation to other pieces. What seems nasty and brutish on ground level is still nasty and brutish, but from the mountaintop it plays out on a scale so grand that the meaningless becomes meaningful, and the horrific becomes tragic. It’s the difference between watching a slasher film and Macbeth.

A word of caution for those of you who may want to try this at home: It is impossible to make a reader feel as if she is getting the Big Picture unless the writer has gotten there first, with full focus and resolution. It requires a mastery of the subject so complete that every detail, every factoid and quote, snaps into place.

But even that’s not enough. The writer has to find the right voice, the voice that communicates a buffering distance without sacrificing any of the intense reality. This is what Bearak does superbly here.

From the very start, he speaks in sweeping statements that never stray into overgeneralization. The central antagonist is “a bad boy wanting to become a worse boy,” and “an unlikely guide to lead [the growing mob] into their dark work.” These sentences are simultaneously simple and mythic, like those in a fable.

That same calm certainty continues throughout the piece, making the tale unfolding seem like the most natural course of events in the world, instead of a living nightmare. That works because, seen from the mountaintop, evil IS a natural part of our world; it has prime causes and immediate causes, and it flows downhill like a creek becoming a river. Consider this introducing paragraph that stays focused on the flow, even as it elevates to get the longer view:

A few men lifted him onto their shoulders so that the crowd, already in the hundreds, could see him better. Then an older man, wiser about these things, said to put the boy down. More than likely, they were about to kill someone. No one in the mob ought to be too conspicuous.

Elevation is again expressed by the impressionist dabs of paint with which the context is painted:

The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia.

“Good music playing over bad radios” is classic, an observation wrapped in a description, and like any precise yet poetic observation, it becomes a metaphor for the larger reality. The elevated distance in the perspective is expressed time and again in word choice. When the mob emerges into a field with a busted sewer pipe, the odor is described as “bracing,” an obvious understatement that communicates the idea that living with filth is simply something to be endured.

Bearak is constantly choosing precise understatement over hyperbole. Notice the low temperature of the language when he places the immediate in the context of the general:

Mob justice is not uncommon in Diepsloot, and most often it involves the swift capture of a supposed criminal, the villain there to beat up, to stone, perhaps even to wrap in a petrol-soaked shroud. But this undertaking was something entirely different. The vigilantes had walked a long distance on a hot day in the uncertain pursuit of unspecified thugs — all on the word of this talkative boy.

The elevated view allows us to watch these horrors unfold and see for ourselves how a quest for vengeance and some kind of justice so effortlessly turns into simple thuggery. Note how Bearak refrains from labeling this transition point, but lets our Olympian ability to see inside the perspective of the participants do the work. Pay attention especially to his use of the word “despicable” in the following:

Siphiwe led the way, back along the dusty paths between the shacks to the edge of the marshy field. The spaza shop was locked, and though empty of people, it was actually well supplied with soft drinks, biscuits, beer, toiletries and paraffin. The mob nevertheless busted through the walls, and Siphiwe rooted around in a back room, collecting for himself two pairs of sneakers, a Nike track suit and a nylon jacket. The shop was set ablaze, again to the noisy approval of the crowd, though this, too, seemed scant retaliation against murderous thugs. Where were those despicable people?

“Elevation” does not mean glossing anything over. To the contrary, it means being able to look at things with the unflinching, unblinking acuity of an eagle’s eye. Note the calm tone, the accumulation of simple words and sentences that seduce us into watching, instead of turning away, as a very uncomfortable truth about the nature of human beings plays out before our eyes:

The video shows Farai already on the ground, using his left leg to try to block the blows of a man swinging a heavy piece of wood. Others are pelting him with rocks from behind and hitting him with sticks. At this point, it is still possible to imagine the young man’s escape. He can speak; his movements are spry; there is barely a smudge on the lilac of the shirt. But by the next scene, he is sapped of strength and badly injured. His frantic efforts to get away have failed, and he has landed in a filthy, water-filled ditch. As he crawls out, his hands groping at the dirt, a man in blue pants kicks him in the chest, and Farai flops backward with a splash. Some in the crowd, including children, scoot around to get a better look.

The video then jumps ahead. Farai is again on dry ground, lying on his back, seemingly near death but still breathing. Blood is leaking from his head. He barely raises his left hand, and this trivial movement somehow becomes a cue for the beating to resume. A man wearing a white cap wallops him seven times in the face and neck with a plank, the assailant’s arms reaching high to amplify the force of his swing.

—-

Check back tomorrow to read our interview with Barry Bearak. Or take a look at some of our previous Editors’ Roundtables.

Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? If so, you can send a link to us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.

May 04 2011

15:02

May Editors’ Roundtable: St. Petersburg Times dives into missing man mystery

This month, the Editors’ Roundtable looks at “When a diver goes missing, a deep cave is scene of a deeper mystery” by Ben Montgomery of the St. Petersburg Times. The story, our first newspaper narrative for the Roundtable, tells the tale of Ben McDaniel, who disappeared at Vortex Spring in August of last year.

Each month, we talk to the reporter who wrote the story while the editors pass around their comment sheet. The editors write about the piece without hearing from the reporter; the reporter talks about the piece without knowing what the editors will say. Tomorrow, we’ll post our interview with Montgomery, but here, we offer our editors’ take. Comments appear in the order in which they were made. For full bios on our editors, see our January post announcing the Roundtable.

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

There are so many things to like about this story. For starters, it’s nice to see a piece that is essentially straight chronology, from beginning to end. You watch it play out as it happened, and you know what the people in the story knew at the time, so you’re trying to figure out the mystery as they did.

I love how patient Montgomery was with this story. (Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Montgomery’s, and he works with a close friend of mine.) He introduces the situation, you meet all the important characters, and he keeps probing. Montgomery never rushes. He helps the reader to understand what the divers are looking for and what they see or don’t see (strong reporting there), and he builds up the frustration – for the parents and the sheriff and the girlfriend. He walks through every possibility – accident, foul play, escape, suicide. You start to want answers as much as the people who are looking for the diver.

I do think there are a few places where Montgomery reaches and didn’t need to. For instance, he says that at 6-feet-2 and 220 pounds, the diver was hard to miss. That doesn’t sound like a particularly large man to me. And boy, he went too deep – no pun intended – when he waxed about what exists at the end of the line.

Maybe it narrows to nothing, or maybe it opens to another chamber, another world, a far away place that few believe Ben could go.

Narnia?

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

About two-thirds of the way through this piece, I thought, “Uh oh  he’s not going to tell me what happened.” And while this is brilliantly reported, and beautifully written, I wonder if a slightly different focus would have helped the reader feel less dismayed when they realized the answer to the mystery was not forthcoming.

Montgomery is very strong at building tension and momentum. He is great with details – the chat board messages, the crisp list of dangers of cave diving (“the silt can blind”), the 10-inch hole (though that should have been mentioned only once, not twice). He can turn lovely phrases. (Such as, maybe Ben “ascended into a new life” And the strong last line.) And he has the mechanics of pacing, and pivoting, down very well, ending each section with drama and at a point where I absolutely must read on.

But since the mystery remains a mystery, it seems to me that it would have helped to have a stronger driving question than “what happened?,” since that question is not answered. One suggestion: Perhaps focusing on Emily Greer would have worked – since she ends the piece, and she sort of represents hope and the future and the possibility of eventual resolution, she might have been cast as a stronger character throughout the piece, which could document her journey from happy girlfriend to bereft girlfriend to determined girlfriend.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

Ben Montgomery is a top-notch writer because he is a top-notch reporter. His precision with details brings authority to his storytelling. To see that, read the first section closely. You learn about the temperature and weak breeze the day Ben McDaniel disappeared; the temperature of the spring; what McDaniel was wearing; the fact that he was testing his equipment and jotting in his dive log before he went for the dive; the words on the warning signs at the mouth of the cave.

I also admired the reporting Montgomery must have done to understand the history and dangers of cave-diving – and to be able to describe the mouth of the cave, the narrowing tunnel, the gate and the tight spots.

I agree with Laurie: Montgomery’s challenge here is that the diver’s disappearance remains unsolved. I’m not saying we should avoid telling stories with unsolved mysteries. But, in order to approach a satisfying end, the storyteller needs to discover some other resolution, large or small. Maybe Montgomery’s point is that, when we lose loved ones (especially those who disappear without a trace), we’re left with holes that we can’t fill.

I would have encouraged Montgomery to frame the story even more so from McDaniel’s parents’ or girlfriend’s vantage point, and then figure out what epiphany they might have experienced. Perhaps it’s enough to say that, living with that terrible loss, they committed themselves to making sure the diver would not be forgotten.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

What I like most about this piece is the simplicity, the almost “Dragnet” accumulation of short, clear sentences that patiently lay out the forking maze of a conundrum, pursuing one possible line of explanation after the next, only to reach a blank wall every time. I disagree that the failure to come up with a solution, to answer the mystery, is a failing. In fact, I think it is the whole point of this piece, and I think Montgomery realized that and then set out to write precisely about that – the lack of a reasonable explanation, no matter which way you turn; the way there are things in the world that defy logic and refuse explanation.

There were a few times when he got too enamored with the poetry of his writing. He pulls off a great moment and gets at something real:

Every time you challenge yourself, every time you overcome your fear of the dark and tight spaces and death, you resurface more alive, born into a new world. The air smells cleaner. Food tastes better. Sex is sweeter.

Then he follows it with a line that’s pure pose:

Who knows what exists at the end of the line? Maybe it narrows to nothing, or maybe it opens to another chamber, another world, a far away place that few believe Ben could go.

Unfortunately, he steps off a cliff at the end when he says of the girlfriend:

She’s been thinking lately about what it might look like down there in the dark. She may never get over this without knowing what’s past the last restriction. She dives, not in caves, not yet. But she could. She’s much smaller than Ben. She could fit.

This is either really her thought, that she wants to go past the last obstacle, in which case he erred badly by not saying so explicitly. Or, she has no intention of doing that, in which case he was being dishonest.

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

My own full disclosure: I once participated in a three-day writers’ conference in the wilds of southeast Georgia with Ben, who’s a mensch and a fine musician in addition to being a fine writer. Like Maria, I’m a fan of his.

The story is deeply reported and beautifully written, but I agree with Laurie and Tom that it didn’t overcome the problem posed by the unresolved mystery. Ben might have attacked the problem head-on, foreshadowing it early and then writing more about the agonies of unexplained disappearances, perhaps in place of the purple passage Maria cited. As it is, the what-happened-next approach builds our anticipation and can’t help but leave us disappointed when we realize we won’t find out what ultimately happened.

Couple of quibbles: The chronology in Memphis was a little fuzzy to me – when did Ben’s business and marriage go kablooey, and when did he reconnect with Emily? – and I missed a general description of Vortex Spring, which I couldn’t quite picture: What does it all look like, where is the dive shop, etc.? Still, the story grabbed me. The writing is spare and vivid, the pacing just right, and I cared about the characters. Great work.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

Montgomery weaves a tale that lures you ever forward to learn what happened next? That is craft, not trickery. Pay special attention to foreshadowing and cliffhangers.  Montgomery plots this as a movie, setting up the core character and suspense, then hopscotching from scene to scene, leaving bread crumbs along the trail: warning signs at the cave, jimmied gate lock, abandoned air tanks.

Study the reporting for depth (broad cast of characters), detail (dollars in the wallet, name of the dog), precision (size and shape of the cave and the bodies worming through it) and creativity (gin-clear water). Great writing is born of great reporting. Montgomery reports.

Flaws:

The story is unduly long. Basic redundancies could have been excised with a squeegee edit.

Too many confusions. What triggered call to cops? Did Ben go through the keyed gate when the other divers saw him disappear? When did the girlfriend enter his life?

Ending. Casts story in a new light with a late-appearing and underdeveloped character.

This is a good yarn about an unsolved local mystery and the people caught up in it. That should be enough (though, alas, that might be a hard sell to editors these days).  But it overreaches, forcing the mystery into a morality tale. Dial back the gothic (especially a lot of the soul-searching lines, which tip from show over to tell) and let it be what it is: a mosaic of people connected by and unable to shake this mystery.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

Love the topic and the possibilities the writer had with this piece. It contained some nice reporting and writing. I think it could’ve been stronger with, as Laurie said, a recasting. The writer takes the expected path by focusing on Ben; had I been his editor I might’ve drawn him out on Emily’s story in hopes of locating the piece, and Ben’s life, around her. Because as it is, I come away feeling like I never knew Ben at all. By focusing on Emily (assuming she agreed to it) you’d have opportunity for actual action – and you’d know the end of the story, even when you didn’t know the end of the story.

As I read the piece the second time, I wanted to get my editing claws on it, which is a weird sort of compliment. So I did a line edit, which I’m offering to the writer. But to summarize: I admire the idea and the attempt and love the writer’s clear dedication to reporting and to the storytelling craft. I look forward to seeing what else he’ll do.

Check back tomorrow to read our Q-and-A with Ben Montgomery, who talks about how and why he chose his ending and the importance of having a group of readers you trust. And if there’s a particular piece you’d like to see dissected by the Roundtable, send a link for the story to contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org. Stories must be already published, available online and strong enough to stand some tough love.

March 03 2011

20:25

March Editors’ Roundtable: Mother Jones looks at rape in Haiti

The narrative for discussion in the second installment of our Editors’  Roundtable is “Welcome to Haiti’s Reconstruction Hell” by Mac McClelland. Appearing in Mother Jones earlier this year, the story was written after a visit in 2010 to survey the island’s post-quake recovery efforts. Clara Jeffery, one of two editors-in-chief at Mother Jones, edited the piece.

The narrative for the prior Roundtable was one in which several reporters fed material to the writer, who had to synthesize it at a distance. This time, we thought it would be interesting to give our editors a piece in which the writer doing her own reporting was an intergral part of the story.

We’ve also done a Q-and-A with McClelland about how the article came together, but here, we offer our editors’ responses to the story. Comments appear in the order in which they were made. We asked judges to note what they thought did and didn’t work in the piece, and to explain why. At the end are some of their suggestions for additional reading. (For full bios on the editors, see our January post announcing the Roundtable.)

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

What works for me:

The descriptions – of rapes, of tent cities, of snatches of conversation. The details inspire a visceral reaction. At times, it’s hard to keep reading, and yet, it should be, given the subject matter. I can conjure up sights and sounds and smells. It feels foreign, like much of the Third World, but also familiar, like the Gulf Coast after Katrina. What a horrible combination.

The writer’s voice – I’m not always a fan of a writer becoming a character in her own story, but here, it’s quite effective. I can relate better to her personal experiences than to what’s happening in Port-au-Prince. She is the outsider looking in, feeling fear and revulsion, as most Americans would. As a woman, too, she is particularly vulnerable, and that draws you closer to what life is like for Haitian girls.

What I would have approached differently:

Story needs a stronger narrative thread. Essentially, the author is the central character, and we follow her from place to place. She introduces us to individuals along the way who are surviving in hell. But the story feels patched together, not woven. A scene here, an anecdote there, some personal moments. It should have felt more like a journey, obviously to underscore the despair in Haiti, but also to build toward a call to action. The story should compel the reader to want to keep that 10-year-old from being raped.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

What worked for me:

The power of McClelland’s piece lies in the detailed, ground-level interactions she has with people in Haiti. We come face to face with the hell of reconstruction not through abstract policy arguments, but through action and dialogue. McClelland describes this scene: One woman “gets frustrated at some point while I’m asking questions and says, ‘We meet white people, and white people, and white people.’ She starts raising her voice, and two of the other four put their hands out to calm her, literally holding her back, but smiling knowingly. White people make promises but nothing ever ever happens, she says.”

As I read this piece, I couldn’t help but think of the sexual assault of CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, and the ensuing media coverage. It takes courage to venture into dangerous territory and write from first-hand experience. So I admire McClelland for that. And I admire her instinct to put herself in the story – to show not only her vulnerability and fear, but her realization that while she can escape the chaos, many of the women she writes about cannot.

What I would have approached differently:

I agree with Maria that the story needs a stronger narrative thread. I think what would help in this area is a stronger set-up – a stronger first section. I’m led to believe that the story is going to be focused on rape in the Haiti camps – and I want to learn more about that. But the story begins to lose its focus, moving away from the rapes, toward other reconstruction problems.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

Three strengths to learn from:

Effective use of first-person. McClelland didn’t make the story about her but used herself to force me – the safe American who can’t really grasp the enormity of horror in Haiti – to experience a sliver of it by sharing her own: puking in her mouth, spitting out the taste and smell of shit, getting blind drunk at night, being too afraid to open her hotel window despite the heat. First-person can be incredibly powerful when it doesn’t turn the light on the reporter, but uses the reporter as a brighter light with which to see.

End-of-section gut-punch lines after long, dense passages. How people sleep standing up so they won’t “wake up drowning.” That “there are no trees” in Cesselesse and “when it rains, the gravel floods.” That the 10-year-old would not be the youngest rape victim – by eight years.

Authority that allows compression and depth. McClelland’s knowledge is obvious and lets her dense-pack backstory and context so readers get an immersion into the issue rather than just into description and emotion.

Editor’s tweak:

Even stronger and more varied pacing. The overall style of long, dense, multi-clause sentences made for a harder-than-necessary read. More important, it allowed some essential information to get lost in the thicket.

A less-abrupt ending. It was powerful as hell as a metaphor, but came on too suddenly.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

The best thing about this piece: the raw, shocking, powerful honesty of this phrase in the opening: “they kept her on the ground and forced themselves inside her until she felt something tear, as they saw that she was bleeding and decided to go on, and on, and on.” Note that it is made up of 32 words, 26 of which are one syllable, five of two syllables and just one of three syllables. That such horror can come from such simplicity just about says it all.

(The lead isn’t perfect. The gang rape is prompted because she “tried to intervene” in another attack, but the writer fails to give any detail about what had to be a very dramatic moment that revealed an enormous amount – the nature of the attempted intervention itself.)

Unfortunately, the spare power and drive of the narrative begins to waver, and then the writer falls into a trap that has snared many a young foreign correspondent: getting caught up in the drama of her own reportage. There are multiple instances of this, but the most egregious is when she says of a man she meets, “he’s not the kind of rich Haitian man who … tells me at the bar I should have sex with him because he’s the nice sort of guy who loses an erection when a woman starts to fight him off.”

She means it as a reference to general attitudes about rape, but I doubt the writer’s encounters in hotel bars have much to do with the barbarism of rape in the refugee camps.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

Yes:

1. McClelland reveals a problem I didn’t even know existed on such a horrific scale.

2. Reporting the reality of desensitization adds an important contextual layer: “…I really can’t imagine someone not getting raped under those circumstances, no.”

3. Lovely nuggets (“The tarps are being torn from their tethers by the gusts” and the entire graf that begins “But ‘tent’ isn’t accurate either.”) plus smart authorial restraint. “At 10, she wouldn’t be the youngest reported rape victim from the camps. Not by eight years.” is powerful for the way she backed into the information, for the inclusion of the word “reported,” and for punctuation after “camps.” The “Not by eight years” made me shut my eyes in sickness.

Hmm:

1. Technically, this piece isn’t a narrative; it’s a news feature. I’d be interested to know whether the writer envisioned a narrative. Because to write narrative one must report for narrative. A bit of planning, even mid-reporting, could have generated the focus the piece needed.

2. Closer line editing could’ve moved the language closer to precision. “It only rains for 10 minutes” should be “It rains for only 10 minutes.” Cliché radar could’ve helped too. I flinch at a “sea of” anything (in this case tarps) but also “reduced to rubble,” etc. Small edits can charge even the simplest sentence, such as the one ending the amputees section:

As written: “Yeah, that’s a problem,” he says.

Arguably more powerful, for the beat it contains: “Yeah,” he says, “that’s a problem.”

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

I agree with the comments about the story’s many powerful scenes – the gang rape, the squalor of the camps, the skinny guy frantically searching for a cop to help him fend off thugs – and about the courage of the author in going to Haiti to report under such trying and dangerous circumstances. Much of the piece is vivid and shocking and will stay with me for a long time.

I also agree that the story needs a stronger narrative structure. I was never quite sure where the author was leading me; the article has an unfocused, anecdotal quality. Beyond that, I felt that the author’s intrusions in the narrative sometimes undercut its strength. Speculating about Alina’s motives for trying to stop the rape (“Maybe it was because she has three daughters of her own; maybe it was some altruistic instinct”) interrupts a scene of harrowing power; the comment “easy as pie” is jarring after “gangs of rapists slice through the sides of tents all over the city to steal a woman”; and the joke about “My Heart Will Go On” undermines the paragraph on water-related health problems.

In general, I think the first person should be used sparingly in journalism. There are compelling reasons to use it in this story, but some of the author’s experiences are digressive – the opening to the cocktails scene with Mike (“He likes me because … I like him because …”) serves no discernible purpose – and occasionally they give the impression that the article is less about conditions in Haiti than about the author’s reactions to them and about her adventures in the country. I think a stronger hand in editing could have helped her avoid that.

The ending is very effective: the mud oozing between the tiles, the distressing “not by eight years,” people shaking like the earth during the earthquake. Strong stuff.

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

I like:  The way she writes with great confidence and authority. Her almost novelistic approach to the lede, especially the way she gets inside Alina’s head. (“Too many to count.” “Until she felt something tear.”) Her lovely way of tucking facts into sentences, deftly, and explaining acronyms without bogging things down. First person and present tense, which make the story unfold for me in real time; I feel like I’m learning things at the same time the writer is. I love some of her tidy, wise sentences. (“Tension is the only thing being built.”)

I’m going to disagree with those who say the story needs a stronger narrative thread. I thought it worked well, leading me, confused, increasingly more and more horrified, from place to place, seeing Haiti through McClelland’s eyes, smelling it and tasting it. The story was about what is going on in Haiti, but it also has the secondary theme of the cluelessness of America, even the do-gooders (like Sean Penn) who send money and think they’re helping. And so McClelland’s reactions stood, for me, as the reaction of America.

I also love the tight passion that fills this story. (“And if you, white girl, think you’re going to be useful…”)

Tweaks: I admit to getting a little lost in the Mike section, not clearly understanding who he was, exactly, and I think the ending could have been stitched in more deftly. It has a great closing quote, and I was glad to bring the story back to Alina and the rapes, but it felt tacked on in haste. With massaging, she would have gotten there.

Kelley Benham
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times

The strength of this piece lies in the scenes. In its strongest moments, there is a precision to the placement of elements, a logic to the order of things. The opening draws power as it follows one character along a clear simple line, chronologically, never crossing into hyperbole.

As a whole, the story loses that precision. There is a narrative thread – the writer’s journey – but that thread feels circumstantial. In a narrative, keeping the reader focused takes planning. The reporting here led to multiple cities, multiple characters, and multiple issues. The writer has to think hard about how to introduce those elements, how to move smoothly from one to the next, and which to leave out.

In a grueling grad school narrative class, Jon Franklin drilled us on the 5 orienting threads that keep readers from getting lost. I failed the class, but I remember the threads, sometimes in the panic of a flashback. Time. Place. Character. Subject. Mood. The more frequently you shift these elements, and the more of them you shift at one time, the more confusion you create. This story loses its way when it jumps from character to character, place to place, acronym to acronym too abruptly or without reason. It becomes particularly jarring when it loops through time, instead of sticking to the simple chronology that tells us where we came from and where we are going.

Like many long narratives, this one does it right in the tight spaces, but loses control as the frame expands.

Additional reading suggestions from the group:

Tom Huang recommends Tracy Kidder’s book on Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” as well as Kelly McBride’s Poynter column about the Logan story and the media’s coverage of sexual assault.

Tom Shroder recommends David Finkel’s “Exodus: One Woman’s Choice.”

Stay tuned for the next installment in early April. In the meantime, if you have a piece you’d like to see our editors dissect, please send it along to contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org. The story has to be already published, available online and strong enough to stand up to tough love.

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