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May 10 2011

16:50

Life in the cave: highlights from Boston University’s “The Rebirth of Storytelling” conference

What does it take to make a great story? Boston University’s “The Power of Narrative” conference, held on campus April 29-30, aimed to offer some insights. The event included the kind of writing techniques and “show don’t tell” advice you’d expect (and hope for) at such a gathering. But beyond hearing about the mechanics of narrative nonfiction, the 200-plus attendees also got ideas and advice on other parts of living the storytelling life. How do you sift through topics and dig into a massive undertaking? How do you carve out time to see a project through? What does it take to get published?

The weekend intensive offered thoughts from an array of magazine and book veterans, from Susan Orlean to Gay Talese, with a side of Hampton Sides and Ken Auletta. Dayton Duncan, who worked on Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” spoke for visual storytelling, while New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson represented daily news. Harvard’s own John Stauffer, who has written several narrative histories, bridged the worlds of academia and popular nonfiction. Isabel Wilkerson spearheaded the event in her role as director of BU’s narrative nonfiction program.

Gay Talese discussed his December New Yorker piece, in which the (then) 78-year-old reported on opera singer Marina Poplavskaya from three continents – a 21st-century global recasting of his legendary feature on Frank Sinatra.

He also shared his reservations about a particular kind of narrative reporting. As an example, he brought up the work of Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone contributing editor whose narrative on Gen. Stanley McChrystal contributed to McChrystal resigning his leadership position in Afghanistan. While accepting the piece as accurate, Talese differentiated Hastings’ style from his own. Suggesting that Hastings may have caught McChrystal’s team off-guard, Talese described how, in a similar situation, he would return to his subjects before filing a story and ask exactly what they meant. “I want to reflect what people mean, not what they say,” he explained. “That kind of journalism isn’t worth it.”

For those hoping to follow in these veterans’ footsteps or to blaze new trails, here are some tips culled from the weekend’s presenters:

Date before you marry. Talking about the importance of finding a project that both moves you and offers enough material, Susan Orlean described committing to stories that she later regretted choosing, and admitted to switching book topics mid-stream more than once. (She advised that taking this tack with publishers might not be conducive to a writing career.)

Isabel Wilkerson, discussing her book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” described interviewing more than 1,200 people before choosing the three central characters for her narrative. (For more on Wilkerson’s book, read our March interview with her.)

Give voice to the invisible and the dead. Dayton Duncan, who has written nine books in addition to his work with Ken Burns, addressed the creation of suspense and forward motion in “Out West: A Journey Through Lewis & Clark’s America.” Describing Lewis and Clark’s first loss and burial of an expedition member, Duncan noted that the first man they lost would also be the last. But to recreate how the trip felt to those on it, he let his readers agonize along with the characters in the book over whether and when the explorers might meet up with death again.

While Duncan focused on bringing the dead to life, Talese described the idea he had early in his career of reporting on the private lives of ordinary people. Aiming to treat these invisible characters with the complexity and significance that fiction accords everyday people, he became a self-described “master of the minor character.”

Rock the intro and the finale. When it comes to a book manuscript, Kate Medina, executive editorial director at Random House, described what she wants to see: “Go for something big, and write it the best you can. Write it in your natural voice.” Writers should strive for clear writing, clear thinking and a big, bold statement that’s backed up – a story that makes readers think or feel something they haven’t thought or felt before. Start with something riveting to draw readers in, she suggested, and pay attention to the very end. When readers finish the last page and put the book down, Medina wants them to think, “That’s the best book I’ve ever read.”

Live dangerously. Wilkerson talked about re-enacting the long drive one of her characters made from the deep South to California. Her subject’s trip had taken place during an era when finding a motel or hotel willing to let African-Americans stay was difficult. Wilkerson’s parents rode with her in the car. As the trip dragged on, Wilkerson became exhausted, and her parents grew more and more fearful. At one point, her parents said they would be more than happy to tell her what those years were like, but as far as re-enacting the trip with her, they wanted her to let them drive or let them out: “You must stop the car.”

Get a cave of some kind. Wilkerson talked about how she “went into the cave” on starting her book, entering the world of people who had lived the migration. Hampton Sides, author of “Hellhound on His Trail,” invoked the “pain cave” that he descends into when he begins writing. (This cave is apparently metaphorical, as he does his work at a local eatery that lets him run a tab.)

Talese, it turns out, had a real-world cave dug underneath his Manhattan brownstone to create a place to write where he would not be disturbed. This hideout has apparently been finished and polished in the years since it was first excavated (he recently wrote a tale for New York magazine on how he came by the rest of his digs), but having a bunker mentality about creating the space and time to work seems to be a requirement.

December 16 2010

18:00

Gawker copycats, luxurious print, more robots, and a new blogging golden age: Predictions for 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Below are predictions from Susan Orlean, Joe Grimm, Matt Haughey, Adrian Holovaty, Megan McCarthy, Mark Potts, Jake Shapiro, and Cody Brown.

We also want to hear your predictions: take our Lab reader poll and tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results in a couple days.

We’ll be reading more on our phones, our iPads, and our Super Scout Decoder rings by the end of next year.

Several magazines — maybe Time or Newsweek or both — will go monthly and/or digital only. But there will be new magazine startups in print that will be luxurious and expensive and book-like. 2011 will be the year of those two forms making themselves distinct; things on line will become more webby, and print publications will become more “collectible” and classic.

Journalism schools will offer a “web producer” major.

The last typewriter living in the wild will be captured, its DNA sequenced; and then it will be humanely destroyed.

Joe Grimm, Poynter blogger and recruiter, Patch

In 2011, I expect to see some shakeout of traditional and innovative newsrooms. Some of the new ones will have hit the wall that tells them they don’t have the right model to go forward. Legacy newsrooms seem to gaining traction with digital advertising and are feeling some traditional advertisers come back, but they have been substantially weakened and devalued. With the amount of cash that is sitting idle, I expect we will see some acquisitions among traditional media companies. The prize in those deals will be the content parts of the operations, of course. I would not surprised if some traditional newsrooms are absorbed by digital companies looking to build credibly news-oriented footprints fast.

Watch Yahoo! and Facebook in 2011 to see how they try to grow their reputations as news sources.

Mobile and tablets will continue to boom, with some shakeout among devices and a real gold rush to build apps, backed up by original news and news aggregation. Individualized services or services curated by friends will grow.

Whether or not the Gawker suite of sites redesign is successful or not, the rest of the New York media blog world will follow suit and copy the new direction for layout, because big business blogging is basically a cargo cult where everyone does what Gawker is doing since that seems to be successful for them (in the hopes it is successful for them).

This is sort of a half-prediction and half-hope, but I’d love to see the self-publishing pendulum start to shift the other way, from centralized services (like Twitter and AOL before it) back to a beautiful diversity of decentralized/independent tools and services like we had in the “golden age” of blogging. We’ve seen some occasional banter about this over the last few years, but I think people are going to get more serious about it in 2011, and certainly by the end of 2012.

Oh, and Google is totally the new Microsoft. I can see that being a theme of 2011.

The convergence of the media and technology industries will continue. Consumer-facing technology companies will start to encroach onto traditional media territories, and media companies will realize that they need to invest more into technology in order to compete with the tech companies entering their space. There will be more tech/media partnerships like the one between Betaworks and the New York Times, but there will be a struggle to see which side — tech or media — comes out on top. The real winners will be developers, executives, and small sites that straddle both worlds.

Mobile access to the web will become more reliable, especially if the iPhone heads to another carrier (like Verizon) as has been predicted. A spike in smartphones will bring an obvious spike in mobile views. Apps will still be important, but, as mobile OSes multiply, the smarter move might be towards mobile-friendly websites that work across platforms (like http://mediagazer.com/m)

Traditional web advertising will still be a mess, yet there will be substantial resistance to changing the model. There will be too much emphasis put on metrics that no one actually knows how to measure. Pageviews will become more and more meaningless, but people will still chase them, like rainbows, hoping to find that pot of gold.

Oh, and there will be more robot/cyborg/machine involvement in media, and it will be a good thing. Algorithms are not the enemy!

A continuing explosion of blogs covering local communities and local interests, written by passionate community members whose coverage and audience engagement far outstrips what can be managed by corporately backed local interlopers like Patch. Key to these efforts, though, will be the bloggers and local site operators getting serious about tapping their share of the $130 billion local-advertising market. At the same time, the rise in location-aware mobile services will begin ushering in a new generation of targeted local coverage and information in the palm of readers’ hands. Mobile is local, and I suspect we’ll see the first breakthrough, wildly popular local mobile product in the next year or so.

Apple will change its tune on one-click donations to nonprofits and public media.

Public broadcasting will emerge from its existential crisis (Juan Williams fiasco and defunding threats) as a more focused, collaborative, and inclusive “public media” industry, reasserting a central role in sustaining journalism and leading innovation.

The Public Media Platform will launchand catalyze more collaboration and innovation, expanding beyond the borders of public radio and TV.

News orgs will start leveraging Mechanical Turk and other crowd-powered services to help manage overwhelming data needs.

“Private” social media websites like Path are going to boom. Sites that see privacy as a value as opposed to an antiquated social norm are going to go big. I don’t think Path is actually that great, but they are in the right space.

WikiLeaks will leak a government document that outlines strategies to assassinate Julian Assange.

Gawker will buy then break a story that starts a war.

September 29 2010

15:30

Margaret Atwood on Twitter-as-performance, and why you should keep your Kindle in a lead-lined box

Continuing our impromptu series Literary Figures Talk About Twitter: The terrific Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood did an interview with Big Think about (among other things) her usage of and thoughts about Twitter. Atwood’s long been an investigator of technology both in her fiction and in real life. (Who can forget the LongPen, her freakishly awesome tool for doing book signings via long-distance robot arm?)

Like New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, whom we interviewed earlier this month, Atwood has found a lot of connections between Twitter and other forms of human communication. (Atwood currently leads Orlean in Twitter followers, 88,000 to 81,000. That would make for a much classier version of Ashton Kutcher vs. CNN.) Here’s some of what Atwood had to say:

Well, it is just an extension of the diary. And there is a wonderful book called The Assassin’s Cloak, which takes diary entries from all centuries and arranges them according to day of the year. So you can turn to January the 1st and there will be an entry from Lord Byron, and there will be one from somebody during World War II, and there will be one from Brian Eno. And then on January 2, there will be somebody else.

People used to perform their lives this way to themselves in their diaries, and also through letters to other people. So for me, anything that happens in social media is an extension of stuff we were already doing in some other way. So, it’s all human communication. And the form that most closely resembles the “tweet” is the telegram of old, which also was limited because you paid by the letter. And so short communications very rapidly sent.

So all of these things, the postal service, et cetera, they’re all improvements, if you like, or modernizations of things that already existed earlier in some other form. Even African tribal drums, for instance, could send very complex messages over great distances. They were very rapid, they were very well-worked out and communications could just go like wildfire using that medium of communications.

So all of this stuff is what we do now, but it’s not different in nature from what we have always done, which is communicate with one another, send messages to one another, and perform our lives. We’ve been doing that for a long time.

Atwood also gets into the performative aspects of social media: “And if you think that what goes up on people’s blogs is really the full content of their lives, of course, you’re quite wrong. It’s what they’re doing in the spotlight. It’s their turn. And this spotlight they can shine it on themselves and they can go in there and sort of dance about and create a persona for themselves. Of course it’s not the whole story.”

She talks about Twitter in the videos above and immediately below; in the third video, she talks about the rise of ebooks and why you should keep your Kindle in a lead-lined box. You can find the entire interview (which covers topics like speculative fiction and “the neurology of reading”) here.

September 14 2010

14:00

Twitter queen Susan Orlean on the mini-medium, the interactive narrative, and the writing persona

Susan Orlean is proof that being the consummate narrative journalist doesn’t conflict with becoming the consummate Twitterer. In her feed, currently 78,000-plus followers strong, the author and longtime New Yorker writer inverts the Jay Rosenian “not lifecasting, but mindcasting” approach to the platform: Orlean’s Twitter feed is focused on her life, from her writing, to her chicken-raising, to even — meta-tweets! — her use of Twitter itself. Rather than curating the web worldwide, Orlean (a former Nieman Fellow) curates the web of her own experience and her own (enviable) life. The feed is, in all, personal and whimsical and delightful — a memoir unfolding in real time. But if it’s a memoir, it’s an interactive one: To follow Orlean’s feed is to follow countless conversations between the author and her readers.

I spoke with Orlean about the way she interacts with this most interactive of media; she explained how writers can use Twitter to connect with their readers, why using Twitter makes financial sense for narrative journalists — and why it took Tweetdeck to make her a convert. The transcript below is lightly edited.

Megan Garber: So, first things first: How did you get started on Twitter?

Susan Orlean: I had an assistant who is quite a bit younger than I am, and one day she said to me, “You know, you really ought to be on Twitter.” I think her feeling was just: “Writers should be on Twitter.” So I opened an account — and I really didn’t do anything with it at first. It took a while before I “got it,” and began using it, and appreciating it as a part of my writing life.

MG: Was there a particular event or exchange that made it click for you — or was that appreciation more of a gradual process?

SO: It was gradual. When I was following a particular narrative in my life (when I was talking about one of my chickens being sick, for example), and seeing people respond to it — that made me think, “Interesting. Maybe this is a different way of talking to readers.” But it took a while. Twitter was something I didn’t quite “get” until I was actively using it — and until I was looking at it in a different way, rather than just on Twitter.com. It’s hard to appreciate the way it works if you don’t look at it on other services.

MG: Which platform were you using when things clicked?

SO: Tweetdeck. I’ve urged people — anybody I know who’s been using Twitter, but not understanding it — to use Tweetdeck, or some other interface. Twitter makes so much more sense that way. It’s really hard to understand it until you look at it in a different way — literally.

MG: That’s true. There’s something powerful in having the flow of Twitter — the conversations and interactivity, in particular — visualized, and then centralized. Speaking of that, I love the description of Twitter you used in your “What I Read” feature on The Atlantic’s site: “a tendril of my writing persona.” Do you think of your feed as narrative in the classic sense?

SO: I do. For one thing, you’re creating and supporting and embellishing a persona. That fosters a narrative of who you are and what you feel is worth commenting on. And if you’re a person who already has a public presence, you’re enhancing people’s understanding of where that’s coming from. In many cases, you’re following stories; you’re telling stories that have an ongoing narrative. There have been a number of instances where I’ve told stories and followed them — mainly personal stories, since I’m not using Twitter as a reporting medium — and people reading my feed have seen those stories unfolding. They’re generally fairly short stories, but they’re stories nevertheless.

MG: I love it when snippets of those stories — little Twitter nuggets — make their way into your more traditionally structured pieces: the work published in the magazine and even on your blog. It feels almost subversive, in the sense that we’re getting peeks into the background of the author’s life, and the background of particular narratives, that we wouldn’t have been privy to before.

SO: It’s an enhancement. You’re in control of how much you do or don’t want to reveal, but, yes, there’s also the pleasure that a reader might find in watching a story being born, so to speak — or even in hearing me thinking out loud about a story as I go along.

When I first started writing, I was working for a small, alternative news weekly in a smallish city [Willamette Week in Portland], and I knew who was reading my stories. I would see them, I would talk with them, I would get reactions from them — and I had an ongoing sense of who was reading my work and how they were experiencing it. When I first started writing for national magazines, it felt very strange. Suddenly my readership seemed really removed. I did run into people who’d say, “I just read your story” — but it’s very different from writing for a paper that’s in a smaller city, where you just see the reaction, and you know exactly who’s reading your work and why, and they know you, and there’s an intimate relationship between the writer and the audience.

I feel like Twitter is bringing that back, a little bit. It’s intimate in a very different way, but I once again have a sense of who my readers are, for the first time in a long time. They know what I’m working on, and they know when I’m flailing. It just creates a different sort of connection between a writer and a readership.

MG: That’s true. And I like, too, that Twitter creates another size option, I guess, for narrative: small (Twitter feed), medium (blog), large (magazine) — all radiating from, and feeding back to, that one central story.

SO: Yeah. For me, it was particularly nice to get engaged with Twitter at a time when I was working on a book. You go for this long, long, long stretch of being in a rabbit hole with this piece of work that’s taken years to do, and it can feel like, “AARGH! Is anyone out there?” I’ve found it enormously encouraging to think that there are a lot of people out there who are an audience — whom I can encourage to listen up and be prepared for the project when it’s out and ready to be read. I like being connected to readers.

You can also use Twitter to feel your audience. As I’ve been working on stories, sometimes I’ll mention something I’m working on — and I’m very interested in the reaction. I love doing readings, and to me Twitter is actually very much like doing a reading — in the way that doing a reading in front of a live audience gives you a chance to see, “Gee, people didn’t respond to that line,” or “People seem puzzled by this part of what I’ve read.” Twitter hasn’t changed anything I’ve written as much as it’s been an interesting way to gauge an audience.

It’s also been useful for building up interest in a story. It’s a way to say to people, “I’m working on this now. Keep an eye out for it” — without being annoying or using the medium purely promotionally. It gives people a glimpse of a story in advance, and a chance to anticipate something — which is nice for readers, I think. There’s never any reason not to get people interested in a story ahead of time.

MG: Definitely. And that process also gives readers a sense, I think, of being more intimately involved in the story simply by familiarity with it. Even just a bit of background knowledge — that sense of being clued into the creation and the dynamism of a piece — invests you in it.

SO: I think so. I think Twitter’s really important in that sense, frankly. In a world where we’re worrying about people’s commitment to reading, the more engaged readers feel in your work, the more likely they are to follow it — and to pay for it. It’s marketing in the best sense, because it’s finding the people who are interested in work and keeping them involved in it in a way that they’ve never been able to be before. I think it’s all to the good.

MG: Have you found that being on Twitter has affected your writing, style-wise?

SO: Yeah, I think that’s inevitable. I think the economy of expression, if nothing else, reminds you that it is entirely possible to say something of substance in extremely few words. If nothing else, Twitter is just a very useful reminder that you don’t have to go on ad nauseam to make a point or even to say something of real emotion. I’m not sure that I’m writing my book in 140-character spurts, but I do think that I’ve been reminded of how efficiently you can really make points. And I think that it has an effect — as you sit down to write something considerably longer, you appreciate how well you can telegraph something.

I think, for a writer, any writing you do, whether it’s an email or anything else, exercises the same muscles that are going to be used when you sit down to write your magnum opus. You’re always learning, and you’re always trying things out, and you’re always practicing. Any form, with its limitations, gives you a new set of parameters to work within. And I think every writer can benefit from that. Because there are always limits; there are always parameters. Whether it’s that you’re a reporter, and the limits are the truth of the situation, or that you’re a fiction writer, and the limit is the length that your editor is going to permit you — there are always restrictions. So learning to write in yet another restricted form is just great practice. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you put into play the ways you write with Twitter. But I think that every time you write, you’re learning something. You should be learning.

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