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June 28 2013


Radio storytelling: When is a story just a story, and when do listeners expect more?

Jay Allison, who produces The Moth Radio Hour and founded Transom.org, once said, ”In public radio, our signature is story.” 

He entered radio in the 1970s, from the theater. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute — it’s exactly the same, because it’s a medium in time.’ In order to hold attention (radio storytelling) must at least recognize theatrical values like rhythm and pace and climax and scene and character, and story,” he now says. “A lot of radio simply didn’t — it adhered to newspaper values, and as a result, I think not that many people listened. Bit by bit, the understanding was that theatrical values — by which I do not mean fiction — were incredibly important to holding attention, even to conveying information, to creating expectation and then to finally creating a memory. All of those scene-painting skills were the very heart of radio.”

And they still are. With so many storytelling shows on the air — The Moth, Radiolab, This American Life and, rising quickly, Snap Judgment — here’s a question that programs have been dealing with lately in the new “golden age” of public radio: What happens when a story turns out not to be true? Or true-ish? What level of accountability do listeners expect? How is the storyteller’s compact with the listener changing?

Allison remembers a radio story whose teller described passing through Customs at a certain Washington, D.C., airport, when in fact that airport had no Customs unit, as a skeptical listener pointed out. The storyteller “did get it wrong, and that mistake seemed to undermine her veracity in the mind of the listener for the entire story,” Allison says, “even though it was just something that happened in the flurry of extemporaneous storytelling.” An egregious example of listener betrayal is, of course, the This American Life excerpt of Mike Daisey’s stage show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, parts of which proved fabricated. Producer Ira Glass devoted an entire show to a retraction, and to understanding why and how the deception happened.

A lesser known example involves Snap Judgment, the Oakland-based NPR show with a stated mission of presenting “compelling personal stories — mixing tall tales with killer beats to produce cinematic, dramatic and kick-ass radio.” The show has taken off, especially among listeners age 33 to 42. Its founding producer is Glynn Washington, himself a riveting storyteller. He came to public radio with a University of Michigan law degree and a background in nonprofits, and last week The Atlantic wrote:

… Washington, a proud student of (Ira) Glass’s, is the next big thing. In its first three years, Snap Judgment, Washington’s fast-paced, music-heavy, ethnically variegated take on the public-radio story hour, has spread like left-end-of-the-dial kudzu. It is on 250 stations, reaching nine of the top 10 public-radio markets, and its podcast is downloaded more than half a million times a month. And while there has long been minority talent on public radio—a realm that includes National Public Radio and other producers of non-commercial radio, like American Public Media and Public Radio International—Washington is the first African American host to swing a big cultural stick, the first who seems likely to become a public-radio superstar on the order of Glass or Garrison Keillor.

A couple of years ago, Snap Judgment aired a segment by Jeff Greenwald, a San Francisco freelance journalist and travel writer who founded a nonprofit called Ethical Traveler. In “On the Road,” Greenwald told the following story: While hitchhiking once, at age 21, he and his girlfriend accepted a ride with a young couple who turned out to be mental-hospital escapees, and murderers. The story hinged emotionally on Greenwald’s incredulity at being left alive, and on his affection for the couple, whose names he believed to be Tony and Sue but that turned out, he said, to be Bella and Sam. (“We loved them,” he told listeners. “We loved those killers. And they loved us.”) You can hear the story here:

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 3.32.12 PM

A former Seattle newspaper reporter and blogger named David Quigg heard the story on the radio. As he later wrote in a blog post, the story, to him, did not ring true. Nor did the story feel quite right to another listener a few weeks ago, when a slightly different version aired on a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show called Definitely Not the Opera. A third version of the story lives in a 2003 Lonely Planet guide called The Kindness of Strangers. After some empty Googling in search of the details, Quigg tweeted at Snap Judgment, asking whether the show could vouch for the piece’s veracity. The show responded: “Vouched.”

“Big, big mistake,” Washington says now. The word ”vouched” implies that the producers had checked out the story and were good with it. They hadn’t. Should they have? When, and to what extent, should storytelling shows verify information, and to what extent do their disclaimers absolve them of such an obligation? Moth Radio Hour airs and stages stories “as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” This American Life describes itself as a teller of “mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. There’s lots more to the show, but it’s sort of hard to describe.”

We chatted with Washington the other day about some of this. He said an intern probably sent the “Vouched” tweet, back when Snap Judgment’s social media controls were looser, and that while the show makes no journalistic claims, the same kind of mistake wouldn’t happen today. Here’s part of the conversation, lightly edited for length:

Washington: The stories on the Snap Judgment show — we’re not reporters; we’re storytellers. We don’t check things the same way. In the course of putting stories together we have our own BS meter and if something doesn’t ring true we’ll put that in the context of the story itself, like, “I don’t know about this.” Our stories are constructed to be true to the person telling them. Like, someone will say their grandmother had magical powers and that she knew that her husband would be flying over her head at a certain time in a field 40 years ago — we’re not gonna fact-check that. We’re not. That’s a tale from that person and we’re gonna accept that as it is. It really is different. For us as a new program, what we don’t wanna do – I think the blogger is correct, because what we don’t want to do is mislead people. If we have dubious content we’ll — I really enjoy, let’s say, a protagonist who has, oh, a precarious relationship with the truth; I have to be sure that in that situation I’m acting as an everyman so that the audience understands to some degree that this is to be taken with a grain of salt. And that was probably the issue with the Jeff Greenwald piece. I think the blogger has a really good point. I mean I think it was a mistake.

Snap Judgment's Glynn Washington

Snap Judgment’s Glynn Washington

How did it happen?

When we were first starting … the controls weren’t in place to stop that sort of thing. And stupid things like this happened. You’re not gonna hear that piece ever again on Snap Judgment in the same context. If we do run that piece we’re gonna put some sort of disclaimer or something on it. I love the piece itself, as a piece of storytelling, but I think the blogger is right. We did not do enough due diligence to present that as straightforwardly as we did.

What would you do differently today?

I think, No. 1, we would ask some more questions. Jeff had been a regular contributor to the program and we probably dropped the ball in not asking the same types of questions as we do to every single person who comes through the door. The same Internet search that the blogger did? I did it too. I did it too late. I did it after the piece had aired. And that’s why we were like, Ugh. We were like, Okay, we’ve got to revise our policies enough to say not just new people but every story, every person, gets the same level of review. That was a change for us. That story was one of the fairly early stories in our program, when we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off. That’s the thing with our show. We want the stories to be true to the person telling them. That’s for sure. Are we gonna fact-check every single thing? No. But if you’re telling me that the killer picked you up on the side of the road, I want to know that the basis of that story happened, or we’ll present it as straight fiction. Whenever we do a story as fiction it’s generally a fantastical story, like, I shot Superman with a God bullet, or something like that.

Greenwald says his brush with killers definitely happened, and that if he had thought he was being held to journalistic standards he might’ve told the story differently, so as to avoid being confronted with listeners’ doubts. “That’s been really thorny,” he says. “And at this point I find myself a bit red-faced. Because I’ve gone through the police records, I’ve looked through the list of hitchhikings and murderers at that time; I have done as much due diligence as I can in my spare time … and I have not come up with a lot of proof for the story.” (On Monday, he began making inquiries to the FBI, for records.)

The hitchhiking happened in 1974, he says, five years before he became a journalist. The killers stole his backpack, which contained his journals recounting the episode, he says; his father, who knew the story, died in the ’80s; Greenwald lost touch with his girlfriend and didn’t track her down before telling the story. “So there’s no documentation,” he says. “People can do with it what they will. I never felt I presented it as a piece of authoritative investigative journalism. I presented it as a story that I remembered.”

He said, “At what point is a story simply allowed to be a story?” A possible answer: When it doesn’t involve real-world events or stakes. A story about a genie popping out of a bottle presumably has zero stakes for the listener, whereas a story about serial killers or a near plane crash does. In the hitchhiker story, a listener might reasonably expect to learn — at the very least — the suspects’ full names and, perhaps also, when the event happened and what became of Tony and Sue.

Greenwald calls this the difference between storytelling and journalism, but not all listeners make the distinction, even when a show signals its intentions:

Washington: There’s definitely a strict line between, say, This American Life and Snap Judgment. Ira Glass is a reporter. He’s the best features reporter in America. And I’m not. I’m not a reporter. Ira uses storytelling tools; I use certain tools of reportage. But we say, “This is not the news; this is storytelling with a beat” for a reason: to set the listener’s expectation of what these are. This is a story. It’s not reportage when you’re having a conversation with your friend or your mother or your spouse or your lover, whatever. It’s a different type of communication, and that’s where we are. But again, where the blogger’s right: We should have done more homework on that piece. Because it’s all about, for me, am I meeting the expectations that the listener has? Generally people get where we’re coming from on this thing, but some of the early episodes we’ve got stuff like genies popping out of things, and people telling that with a straight face. This happened to them; that’s true to them. No one has ever just related in a Vulcan world of straight facts; we relate through narratives, and narratives have beginnings and middles and ends. But like I say: The issue there is expectation. Especially as a newer show, we were in a new kind of dialogue with people as to what to expect from us. In fact it was a big question when we were first starting the show: What do we mean by “truth?” One early idea was to say we didn’t care about truth. But it wasn’t true. We do care about truth. We just think there’s a different way oftentimes at getting at it. That’s the whole basis of the show, is that there’s a different way to get at what happened.

Describe the typical Snap Judgment story.

That’s the whole thing! We can’t be typical! My Snap Judgment stories are generally based upon my own life experiences. Generally every episode or so I’ll tell a story about things that happened to me. It’s interesting, this whole aspect of memoir. I mean Oprah might James Frey me if I sat down on her couch but I’m telling stories of things that happened 30 years ago, and in those stories I’m telling, “She said this, this happened here, that’s the way it went down.” Now, I’m not trying to deceive anybody. Actually it’s kind of funny. I have a close crew of friends. We lived together in Japan — we started there in a program in 1989, so I’ve known these guys for a while. One of them used to say, “I’m gonna catch you in an exaggeration. I’m gonna catch you. I’m gonna do it. Because I know every one of your stories.” And it’s been a long time and he ain’t caught me yet. I mean did so-and-so say things in the order I’m putting them? Probably not. But did the essence of the event happen? Yeah. Absolutely. It’s kind of like an Angela’s Ashes situation, where (Frank) McCourt went in and started putting words in people’s mouths from 50 years ago, back in Ireland. Beautiful piece of work as a type of memoir, but not a piece of reporting.

So, audio memoir.

That’s one way to put it. My pieces are audio memoir. But there are other aspects that go into it. The whole thing about storytelling — this is what we don’t want to do; this is how we actually spend most of our time, as far as fairness is concerned: What I don’t want to do is have a person tell a story that in some way implicates another person in wrongdoing. We have a hard time with this. Fairness ends up being really difficult in storytelling because oftentimes you’re implicating somebody else in your situation. So because of that we will say, like, “the names have been changed,” or “this happened in such and such place.” I’ve started off a story by saying I’ve had to change the details of the story; the basic thing did in fact happen but I don’t want to implicate.

Transparency is often what’s missing in, for example, memoir.

Right, and it ends up being really difficult sometimes. Here’s the thing, too: Journalism 101, for audio journalism, is that you use the sound from the places where you’re doing the story, but you don’t go later on and start adding a bunch of made-up stuff. This is what we do all the time. It ends up being a clue, to some extent, that we’re not gonna be following regular journalistic prohibitions. We soundscape the heck out of pieces, and it’s certainly not sound sound.


Okay, so there’s a story that I told — I have a goddaughter who was born extremely prematurely. The mother of the baby, her partner was out of the country and she asked me to go to the (neonatal intensive care unit), to see the baby. The hospital had rules that only parents could go into this unit. So I told the hospital that I was the parent. And I went there. And when we were telling this piece we had hospital sounds come in the back. And I say that I saw her and she was hooked to various monitors. And you can hear the monitors. When I picked her up the monitors started going crazy, until they placed … her on my chest, because they said the thing that was good for preemies was skin-to-skin contact. So the whole time there were heartbeat sounds, there were monitor sounds — there was all kind of soundscaping that happened with that piece. It’s the first three minutes of an episode that we did called “Close Knit.” But that’s not reportage. Like, journalism students would be properly aghast if that was passed off as a reporting piece.

What kinds of staff conversations do you have about this kind of thing?

We had them a lot early on because we were defining the show. That sort of Jeff Greenwald issue, I don’t think that would happen today, because a lot of this stuff has been worked out. We ourselves understand our show better than we did when we were starting out. We’re not here to fool anybody. We are setting a different relationship than other NPR programs are setting with their audience. Garrison (Keillor) does the same thing. Not to be too critical, but it seems like there’s a big (David) Sedaris pass that happens. David’s not trying to fool anybody. What did he say — it was something to the effect of somebody asked, “Is this true?” and he said, “True enough.” I mean none of this is hard-and-fast stuff. Look, if David Sedaris were telling me the news on the ground in Baghdad, I’d be upset about it. But if he’s telling me, “This is what happened to me last week,” as a story, I don’t have any problems with that. The closer we get to news, and the closer that things actually matter in a real-world context apart from a personal story, the more careful we have to be. Like recently we were doing a story on a pollution triangle in Louisiana where there’s like a triangle of cancer happening in a certain community, and various chemical companies were suspected of elevating the cancer risks in this area. All of a sudden, yeah, we had to kind of put our reporter hat on and be really damn sure we’re getting our facts right.


No. 1, I can’t get sued by Dupont.

Yeah, that would be bad.

But in a broader sense, when we’re talking about the news, or newsy topics, we’re talking about something that has relevance beyond a personal story. A lot of our stories are aimed at the heart. A person can find different types of resonance. But when we’re taking a broader look at things we gotta check things out more. This is not the news, but if we’re telling certain stories that have real-world implications, we have to use certain journalistic tools to make sure the integrity of the piece is correct.

NPR, meanwhile, is grappling with these issues on a broader scale.

“All these shows get into a realm of audio storytelling that is fairly new territory for us,” says Eric Nuzum, NPR’s vice president for programming. “…There is no question that there is a rightful expectation of NPR programs that they be truthful. … How do we clearly identify the sourcing of the material, and in a way that doesn’t get in the listener’s way? That’s what these growing pains are addressing. Is Snap Judgment a work of journalism? No. Is it accountable to many NPR standards? Of course.”

In some ways, NPR is navigating its own legacy. “One of the issues is that these things are appearing within the context of public radio, which achieved its stripes in news and journalism,” as Allison puts it, “so that the audience starts to feel that everything they hear on public radio must be journalism. That’s a misapprehension.”

He says, “I mean, my big interest is this: You don’t want to inhibit the great art of storytelling with people just slavishly adhering to facts and details where they don’t matter and where they have no potential to create harm or even a misimpression. If it all becomes about that, then the focus on the remembering and the retelling may become inhibited by people becoming almost frightened that they’re gonna be taken to task. Now that’s different from, obviously, making up a story or changing major details, especially details that potentially affect the lives of others. That’s a whole different phenomenon. Everybody needs to guard against that.”

Check back soon for Part 2 of our conversation with Washington. Discussed: how growing up in a cult influenced his storytelling, the traits of great storytelling, aiming at the heart, and “seeing your own narrative.”    


June 21 2013


Pinned: Story trailers, a notable narrative, writers on rejection, writers on Twitter, Michael Hastings’ tips for young journalists

Pinned this week, for your storytelling pleasure:

Inspired: Story trailers. Esquire made not one but two (a 46- and 20-second version) for Chris Jones’ “Animals,” a taut narrative about the Zanesville, Ohio, zoo massacre. And Georgia’s Macon Telegraph just launched one for “Searching for Shorty: The murder of an unknown man,” a narrative coming this Sunday by enterprise reporters Amy Leigh Womack and Joe Kovac Jr.:

Kovac makes these himself. We asked him how he does it, and why, and here’s what he told us yesterday:

This was actually the third “trailer” I’ve done for stories in the past year and a half. They’re all fairly pedestrian, done with half-a-decade-old iMovie software on the Mac in my kitchen. (Not low-budget, but rather no-budget.) “Killing in the Country: The Death of Trevorius Thomas,” for instance, incorporates audio I recorded on my iPhone at the funeral; I used a photo I snapped at the scene as the backdrop. I made “Phantom on Emery Highway“ on a Sunday night. I filmed it through an open sunroof with a point-and-shoot camera. The idea was to follow the same route that police thought the hit-and-run driver took. Which I did. The clip ends at the spot where the man was killed. I had hoped to film it at 3:30 a.m. to capture an accurate depiction of what the traffic might have been like when the man was run over. But I figured late on a Sunday was good enough. I’ve tried to be as careful as I can on these not to go over the top with the effects and bells and whistles that iMovie offers. As a novice on video, I think sometimes there’s an urge to “use all the toys.” I’ve tried to keep the trailers simple. As we might say in a print newsroom, Write it straight.

Joe Kovac Jr.

Joe Kovac Jr.

I’m pretty much a shade-tree mechanic when it comes to video. At best. I can write “grabber” copy well enough and I think that’s why I use it instead of voiceovers. I’ve made most of these in my spare time, off the clock. But I’ve found that distilling a 5,000-word story into a minute or so of video really makes you focus as a writer. On “Killing in the Country,” about a drug deal gone bad, I made the trailer the weekend before I started writing. It was agonizing, tedious, making the text match the sound, learning the iMovie ropes trial and error. So much of it is timing. But bottom line, it forces you to find the heart of the story. But again, low-budget as it may look, it was painstaking. The “Killing in the Country” clip took … well, let’s just say longer than I’d have liked. Hours.

I wouldn’t want to do trailers on everyday features, but on a piece I’ve spent a few weeks or months reporting it can be worth it. The hope, of course, is that the videos will drive readers to our site for the stories. Hard to gauge whether it works. It’s still kind of cool.

Notable narrativesThe Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen wrote a remarkable piece recently about a mother, a son and schizophrenia. A passage:

It has been 10 years since he began thinking his classmates were whispering about him, four years since he started feeling angry all the time, and two years since he first told a doctor he was hearing imaginary voices. It has been 20 months since he was told he had a form of schizophrenia, and 15 months since he swallowed three bottles of Benadryl and laid down to die, after which he had gotten better, and worse and, for a while, better again, or so Naomi had thought until an hour ago, when they were in the therapist’s office and Spencer said that his head was feeling “cloudy.” 

“Wait —” she said, interrupting. “You described it as a cloudy feeling?”

Cloudy was the big, flying red flag that she had learned to dread. It might simply be a side effect of one of his five medications. But it could also be the quiet beginning of her firstborn son falling apart again, of hallucinations, or a dive into depression, or some other dimension of his illness that Naomi has yet to fathom.

“Yeah,” Spencer said. “Cloudy. It feels like these winds are blowing inside my head.”

Inspired, Part 2: Twelve famous writers on rejection, which in this fractious writing universe appears applicable across disciplines (“To ward off a feeling of failure, she joked that she could wallpaper her bathroom with rejection slips, which she chose not to see as messages to stop, but rather as tickets to the game.”—Anita Shreve) and Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a new book about the habits of 161 creative minds. From the website of the author, Mason Currey:

Here are: Anthony Trollope, who demanded of himself 3,000 words each morning (250 words every 15 minutes for three hours) before going off to his job at the postal service, which he kept for 33 years during the writing of more than two dozen books; George Balanchine, who liked to do his own laundry and who did most of his “work” while ironing; George Gershwin, who worked for 12 hours a day, from late morning to midnight, composing at the piano in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers.

Recommended: At NewYorker.com, Thomas Beller wrote about writers and Twitter:

Writing on Twitter brings the energy of a début to every phrase. You could say it imbues writing with a sense of performance, though writing has always involved performance in the sense of performance anxiety. The question for the writer who is leaving multiple pages crumpled on the floor—literally or figuratively—is for whom is that line, or paragraph, unsatisfactory? Who is the appraiser of one’s own unpublished, or even unwritten, work?

The editor Ted Solotaroff wrote an essay called “A Few Good Voices In My Head,” in which he talked about managing this feeling of having an audience. His prescription is summed up in his title: a couple of trusted voices with whom a writer will engage in a dialogue—sometimes literally, more often not. Twitter is messing with this equation: I have many more voices in my head than I ever had before.

Cartoontorials: It’s not that big a deal but really, people, isn’t it time to stop double-spacing after a period in your first drafts? The typewriter imperative is over.

GearThese notebooks, spotted by former Arizona Republic reporter Jamiee Rose. Not so great for reporting, maybe (we prefer the long narrow classic ones: easily tuckable or back-pocketable), but just fine for sketching out story notes and structures.

In memorium: Let’s just agree that this was one crappy week. Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings died at 33 in a Los Angeles car crash; the actor James Gandolfini died suddenly at 51, while vacationing in Italy; the Oregonian announced a publishing scale-back plus layoffs and the publisher referred to the newsroom as a “content organization.” (“Kill me,” tweeted Gene Weingarten.) Worth remembering as we shake off a tough one: Hastings’ 10 tips for young journalists, which in the hours after his death circulated widely beyond his year-old reddit AMA. They included:

By the second sentence of a pitch, the entirety of the story should be explained. (In other words, if you can’t come up with a rough headline for your story idea, it’s going to be a challenge to get it published.)


Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever. 

Join us on Pinterest for more good stuff, and find the burgeoning “Pinned” archives here.

June 18 2013


“Why’s this so good?” No. 79: Joan Didion, Hemingway, and mathematically musical writing

Joan Didion finds herself counting syllables.

If this is part of her brilliance, and it is, it’s largely because of who she is as an observer; meticulous but detached, intimate yet removed. These paradoxes are how she draws you in.

Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance

The penchant for counting reveals what may seem like another paradox, but is actually the lifting of a veil: Didion shows that her language is musical but also mathematical, that she engineers her writing to sing.

In her most recent book, Blue Nights, she describes the song of her prose as inextricable from its mechanics:

In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying. Many of the marks I set down on the page were no more than ‘xxx,’ or ‘xxxx,’ symbols that meant ‘copy tk,’ or ‘copy to come,’ but do notice: such symbols were arranged in specific groupings. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.

But long before Blue Nights, Didion was counting syllables in a New Yorker piece about how much control a writer has over his or her life’s work. The November 1998 essay, “Last Words: Those Hemingway wrote, and those he didn’t,” is vintage Didion; penetrating, deliberate down to the last comma, streaked with cynicism and flashes of earnestness — all qualities that echo Hemingway himself. The piece is so meta that it tugs the reader to the edge of the uncanny.

Didion writes about Hemingway but she is also writing about writing, and in turn writing about herself. In essence, this is three stories in one.

She sashays between the technical and lyrical. (The piece begins with her counting the syllables in Hemingway’s poetic first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. This pragmatism gives way to her own fluid and descriptive style.) At first she appears to seesaw from writing to writing about writing. But by the end of the piece it’s clear that she’s been doing both, concurrently, throughout.

The structural latticework of the essay both lays out Hemingway’s style and adopts aspects of it to drive the piece forward. For example, she writes about Hemingway’s omissions as narrative choices, and then uses omissions just as he did.

First she’s examining “four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words,” obsessing over Hemingway’s repetition of “the” and of “and” and about the rhythm he established by leaving out another “the” in his fourth sentence. (The power of such an absence, she says, is in the chill it casts. It’s a warning, a premonition, a “foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season.”)

Then she’s describing the snapshots in our “national memory stream” of Hemingway’s life — “the celebrated author fencing with the bulls at Pamplona, fishing for Marlin off Havana, boxing at Bimini, crossing the Ebro with Spanish loyalists, kneeling beside ‘his’ lion or ‘his’ buffalo or ‘his’ oryx on the Serengeti Plain.”

Implicit in this string of collective memories is the question of omission — what have we left out?

The close reader will notice that this question is itself the device she’s described, a foreshadowing of the story to come. Didion next goes on to describe in arresting detail Hemingway’s 1961 suicide: the double-barreled Boss shotgun he emptied into the center of his forehead, how he became a “crumpled heap of bathrobe and blood, the shotgun lying in the disintegrated flesh.”

For the rest of the piece, Didion brings Hemingway back to life, lacing her descriptions of him with hints of who she is.

Consider how she casts his way of “moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism,” his writing as dictating “a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching.”

Didion also writes of Hemingway as “a man to whom words mattered,” that “he got inside them.”

Hemingway, too, had a tendency to count. Didion presents this excerpt from a letter Hemingway wrote to his publisher in early 1961:

Have material arranged as chapters—they come to 18—and am working on the last one—No 19—also working on title. This is very difficult. (Have my usual long list—something wrong with all of them but am working toward it—Paris has been used so often it blights anything.) In pages typed they run 7, 14, 5, 6, 9 1/2, 6, 11, 9, 8, 9, 4 1/2, 3, 1/2, 8, 10 1/2, 14 1/2, 38 1/2, 10, 3, 3: 177 pages + 5 1/2 pages + 1 1/4 pages.”

Didion says she finds the excerpt alarming, though she never explicitly says why. Is she disquieted because his counting is impossible to understand? Or is it because Hemingway died before he finished the project he’s describing?

The project would be published posthumously as A Moveable Feast. But, as Didion points out, Hemingway never called it that. To him, it was just “the Paris stuff.” He never settled on a title. This paradox — what the writer called his work and what someone else called it for him — is ultimately an exploration of the writer’s solitude. The idea is that a writer’s intentions exist in one universe and everyone else’s expectations about the writer’s work exist in another. The only overlap is in the writing itself, an endeavor that Didion presents as potentially deadly in and of itself.

“The peculiarity of being a writer,” Didion says, “is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.” (Just by making this statement Didion clearly inserts herself, the writer, into the story.)

Yet even worse than publication, she says, is the risk that something unfinished will be published.

The manuscript that became True at First Light, was some 850 pages long when Hemingway died. That this sprawling “African novel,” as Hemingway called it, would be “reduced by half by someone other than their author” meant that the story “could go nowhere the author intended them to go,” Didion says.

She sees this publication as a fundamental “denial of the idea that the role of the writer in his or her work is to make it.” A writer’s notes, she declares, are “words set down but not yet written.” But by referencing a writer’s unfinished notes in her final published piece, Didion raises the question of her own process. This suggests yet another omission: The process behind her story that the reader will never see.

Didion, not surprisingly, comes across as empathetic to the writer’s need to have authority over his words, and his need to sort things out on his own. Hemingway once wrote to his attorney that he had “a diamond mine if people will let me alone and let me dig the stones out of the blue mud and then cut and polish them.” Hemingway’s mine was deep, heavy and full. Yet for all of that darkness and weight, his writing — and Didion’s, and Didion’s writing about Hemingway’s writing — rings with clarity. (Hemingway’s reference to his “diamond mine” calls to mind something Boris Kachka, the New York magazine writer, once wrote about Didion. Kachka said reading her work is “like tiptoeing across a just-frozen pond filled with beautiful sharks. You look down and pray the ice will hold.”)

At the crescendo of Didion’s piece, as she describes what we know as True at First Light, there are moments that read as though she is talking about Hemingway and herself at the same time, about her relationship with him as a writer from the time when she was a little girl clacking out his words on her typewriter just to see how it would feel to write like he did. She’s writing about Hemingway, writing about writing, writing about herself:

There are arresting glimpses here and there, fragments shored against what the writer must have seen as his ruin, and a sympathetic reader might well believe it possible that had the writer lived (which is to say had the writer found the will and energy and memory and concentration) he might have shaped the material, written it into being, made it work as the story the glimpses suggest, that a man returning to a place he loved and finding himself at three in the morning confronting the knowledge that he is no longer the person who loved it and will never now be the person he had meant to be.

And then, another layer emerges, as Didion acknowledges that Hemingway had written this very idea into being, through the writer character in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Didion quotes Hemingway: ”Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.” She goes on: “And then, this afterthought, the saddest story: ‘Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either.’” Such fear of failure must feel even more visceral for a writer like Didion, who has said that novels are “about things you’re afraid you can’t deal with.”

The afterthought from Hemingway’s “Snows” character becomes the bookend that mirrors the beginning of Didion’s piece, the counting of syllables in the first 126 words of A Farewell to Arms.

“Only one of the words has three syllables,” she had written. “Twenty-two have two. The other hundred and three have one.”

Though Didion leaves it to the reader to find that solitary three-syllable word or not, it’s no mistake she both singles it out and never identifies it at the same time. The omission is a clue, a chilling premonition:

Three syllables: Afterward.

Adrienne LaFrance (@AdrienneLaF) is a national reporter for Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, where she specializes in investigative reporting and breaking news. She was previously a staff reporter at Nieman Journalism Lab. Before that she opened the Washington bureau of Honolulu Civil Beat, where she covered Congress, federal elections and the intersection of money and politics. She has also reported and written for the Washington Post, worked as a news producer at WBUR, Boston’s NPR affiliate, and as a local news anchor for Hawaii’s NPR affiliate.

May 30 2013


Professor Hersey: one student, the iconic author of ‘Hiroshima,’ and 6 timeless takeaways

I would never presume to define “presence,” but I knew it when I saw it: the handsome, tall, man who’d just walked into the seminar room had it in…well, tweeds. With leather elbow patches. The face was tanned, a full head of carefully combed white hair looking, somehow, regal. He looked like a 62-year-old man at peace, the lines on his face speaking of a life that had not fallen into any of the predictable old writers’ traps of mania, abuse, depression. It was a portrait of inner peace, framed in high-WASP.

John Hersey

John Hersey

He’d entered the room only after we, his new students, had all taken seats around a huge wooden table whose scale seemed to reduce us to shrunken, through-the-looking-glass-size kids. Everything about his aura spoke of Serious. He wore an unreadable, impassive expression. No one dared speak; one doesn’t casually ask the visiting bishop how his day has been when he’s climbing up into the pulpit to deliver his sermon.

To gain entrance into John Hersey’s 12-student senior-year writing seminar at Yale you had to submit writing samples and something about “Why I should be in John Hersey’s seminar,” which, for writers, was the crowning class in school. I thought I’d have no chance in hell. I was not an English major; I had no interest in Yeats, Keats or ’eats of any kind. Yes, after many terms of creative writing instruction (including one with David Milch, who taught wildly, extemporaneously, in the same blue T-shirt, like a character from his cable series Deadwood, if Deadwood had been about academia), I’d written tons of stories, but like me, they’d always tended to be painfully self-indulgent.

John Hersey’s work was anything but. But there, somehow, I sat and, like everyone else in the room, watched him take his spot at the head of the table, which now seemed like the size of the deck of an aircraft carrier. His body language vibed that he cared less whether we thought him iconic, average, or a hack. Oddly, I sensed no ego. It would soon become apparent that the seminar was to be didactic in the purest Greek sense: He would teach because he was highly capable of it and qualified to do so; and because he had to, for the sake of the endurance of the literately written word.

I won’t presume to be exact in recalling the first thing he said to us (this was 37 years ago), but I remember it being very close to this: “If anyone in the room thinks of himself or herself as an artist, this is not a course for you. I teach a craft.” I remember his opening manifesto not only because its message shocked me — the artiste! — but also because of the measured intonation with which he’d presented it. Over the course of the next 12 weeks or so, I came to see how seriously Hersey took his spoken words — print was a medium in which he felt far more comfortable. Many of his words felt carefully considered: minimum verbiage for maximum effect, delivered in an even cadence, never rising high or dipping low; free of mellifluence or emotional emphasis.

Glancing around the room, I sensed that on a scale of Most Legitimate Yalie to Least, I was likely at the bottom of that scale, No. 12. At No. 11, I recall a spacey, cute girl across the table with unwashed hair (whom I immediately vowed to myself to seduce) and 10 other people, from our class of 1,500, none of whom I knew, and none of whom seemed like people I would know, and never did thereafter: probably a few Secret Society members; no doubt an editor of the Yale Daily News. Serious Yalies, some who probably subscribed to Granta, none who subscribed to boxing’s monthly bible, Ring Magazine, or kept an ounce of weed in his dorm drawer.

We were there because Hersey was iconic, of course, and had been so for 30 years because of Hiroshima, a feat of journalism so profound that it remains the only story to which The New Yorker ever committed an entire issue. The piece remains iconic simply because no one, in the ensuing seven decades, has threatened its perch as the finest piece of reportage ever. Once someone nails something, it stays nailed. It will endure as long as the written word (and the threat of nuclear annihilation).

Hiroshima’s subject matter was topical to my peers. We’d all been duck-and-cover grade-schoolers, obsessed with The Bomb. When I’d read, in 11th grade, his account of the effects of the first nuclear bomb used in warfare, as told through the accounts of six survivors, I’d been riveted on more levels than I could account for: The literary one. The reporting one. The human one. The horror one. The history one. To me, this was art, just as I’d thought Hersey’s novel A Bell for Adano, which I’d read in ninth grade, had been art.

That one had been fiction and one nonfiction mattered little; to Hersey they were both examples of a craft. He was going to teach us how to write. Period. And if that’s where we were starting, without art, then, what the hell, I might as well go all-in. I knew I’d never be a good novelist; even then I knew I would always be too egocentric ever to tell a universal tale. But I also thought that, at the very least, with my one tool (despite being the son of two people with the cultural curiosity of Pop Tarts, I’d been genetically endowed, somehow, to put together evocative sentences) maybe I could make a living as a journalist, and a living would be a very good thing to make.

Peter Richmond

Peter Richmond

I immediately felt, on that first day, as if I knew the man. We’d both been veterans of prepIvyworld. And even if my hair rested on my shoulders and I dressed like my hero Kerouac when he was taking his first hit of cheap tokay in the Tenderloin on a Saturday morning, I was a rebel with a cause: I was going to be a Writer. My Tom Wolfe wasn’t the Kandy-Colored “New Journalist.” It was Thomas Wolfe, looking homeward. I drank Dreiser’s prose; Melville is still my god. Whatever was going to happen to me in life, it was going to have to involve laying my words somewhere, for bucks, like a bricklayer laying his bricks.

And the man standing before me was the epitome of Writer, in his prime. He was not here for himself; this was man so private he had literally never given an interview. I was now granted a private audience. For three months. In a sanctum sanctorum. To this day, memory suggests that I seldom — if ever? — saw him smile. If I did, it was a very subtle slight upturning of the corners of his lips, not really enlisting the rest of his face. Eventually, I came to think that he figured if we didn’t perceive him as serious, we wouldn’t take the business of writing seriously enough to be writers.

What else did he say that first day? One thing stuck with me, and has never unstuck: “It’s not about what you choose to put in, it’s about what you choose to keep out.”

The textbooks? As I remember, one: The Writer’s Craft, edited by John Hersey. A lot of essays about writing by writers who’d likely been more than happy to earn a few bucks by laying down some truisms. I’m sure that many of them were instructive; I remember none. I do remember that some of them preached things that we 12 already knew instinctively, like using active verbs, and asking yourself, after writing a word, whether, with more thought, a better word might offer itself.

The first assignment? Write a story; same as every week. I spent the next few days writing the best short story of my life (not that I’ve written many, or published any) on a legal pad, in pencil, with lots of cross-outs and erasures, taking out a whole lot of stuff, before typing it. It was about a kid who was fascinated by the Chrysler Building’s Deco majesty before a distant aunt took him inside the place, to a board meeting in the Cloud Club on the 66th floor, where he spent two hours listening to masters of industry bore themselves to death. The yawning aunt begged an early exit, for she knew the lesson had been implanted in the kid as they rode down in the ebony-and-rosewood-inlaid elevator: Majestic monuments to power are simply temples to cruel illusion. It’s character that counts in the end.

It was just minor-league-Dos Passos-y stuff, but it was okay, probably because, as someone with barely an ounce of the stuff — character — I’d nailed the theme. Then the worst thing that could have ever happened happened, although in the end, it proved to be a blessing. The next week, Hersey came in and said he was going to read aloud the best story that had been submitted, and it was mine. And in the space of 39 seconds of hearing John Hersey read my story, I went from being stunned to fatally cocky.


Having been certified by an iconic writer, I wrote the next few stories in about an hour each. The fourth was about a kid who skipped his classes for a day, dropped LSD, drove to Aqueduct racetrack, lost a lot of his parents’ money, but had a conversation with Cab Calloway, who was handicapping from the Racing Form in a corner, and so the kid’s day was a success. This was based on an actual day, although a) it was only weed, and b) I broke even. But Calloway had been there, which was cool.

Hersey called me into his book-laden office for a private conference. Now, I knew the story sucked, and I was ready hear so. I sat down, across from his desk. He was no less imposing for being seated; he sat straight. His desk’s contents had ordered themselves. As usual, he wore coat and tie. Memory suggests a lit pipe, but maybe I’m just making that up. My story was in front of him, with the typical finely penciled notes in the margin. I expected him to say, in his own language, “What happened to the guy who wrote that great story last month?”

Instead, looking me in the eye — and again, in my language, not his — he said, “Are you okay? Are things okay? I hope you’re not getting yourself in any sort of trouble.” I’d like to say now that this time the face was a tad less impassive, but perhaps I’d be transferring false affect onto distant memories. If it were fatherly in any way, in no way did it express overt concern. Put it this way: He didn’t faux-earnestly look me in the eye, with fingers entwined, and lean across the desk or anything. The words, his precious words, had said it all.

I said something like, “Oh, that’s not me, that character,” although, of course, it was, and, obviously, he knew it. Then I stammered something like, “I’m fine, sir, thanks, I really enjoy the course, and I will try and do better,” and tried to leave his office with a shred of dignity intact.

I was devastated. I had desperately wanted his approval from the day I’d learned I’d made his cut, but I hadn’t been willing to do the work to earn it. Given a chance to study at the feet of a man who’d won a Pulitzer, had written for a TIME  magazine staff that included the likes of James Agee, I’d taken him no more seriously than my freshman fall-term teacher, a guy whose claim to fame had been organizing a retro do-wop band called Sha Na Na.

Or David Milch. Who now writes killer, like, fuckin’ dialogue … for series that get cancelled after three weeks.


That was the bottoming out. I had let The Master down, and, very subtly, he’d let me know it, without having to say so. He was now finally teaching me. And, thankfully, would continue to.

Less than two months remained. I had started at the highest high, plummeted to the lowest low. Now the only sane option left, since I’d decided not to squander my limited time on a hallowed campus, would be to osmose the man’s wisdom by listening and watching and taking accurate notes. The classes were instructive enough, since by now, most of my colleagues had gained enough confidence to add their own insights (and these were pretty damned astute kids).

The conversation became more free-flowing each week, as Hersey said less and less. He knew how to prime our pumps. The student stories got better, too. More and more, I looked forward to the class for all the right reasons; ego, indeed, gradually sapped itself out of the way. Hersey was no longer The Voice; he was now the editor of an oral, ongoing, 12-voice story.

I’d stopped reading the essays entirely because I had come to understand, and have understood ever since, that the only things worth reading if you want to learn how to write are well-written stories — like “Into the Valley,” Hersey’s account of being on patrol with a company of First Division marines on Guadalcanal.

My father had been a company commander in the same division, on the same island. He’d died when I was 7, so I had no idea what had happened over there. And so I read Hersey’s account halfway through the seminar. It was so vivid that I could smell the jungle undergrowth, and hear the whistle of the sniper’s bullet from the top of the banyan tree.

Of course, I lost the notes from those last half-dozen classes, as (thankfully) I have lost all of my stories. But here’s a handful of thoughts that are directly traceable to what I learned from John Hersey the rest of the way (during which time none of my stories, rightfully, were ever again read aloud):

1) In good fiction, the reader absorbing a compelling narrative never notices the writer as intermediary. In nonfiction, that translator’s presence is inevitable. Since the former is the ideal relationship with the reader, the more you can bring that non-point of view to nonfiction narrative, the better. In other words, as a writer, no matter what the hell you’re writing, do your best to kill your ego, even if those are mutually exclusive ideals. (i.e.: He could have told the story of the effect of that atomic bomb on an innocent city by telling us what he found when he went over there, and it would have been a good piece. Instead he gave the story over to the six survivors, and it earned a place in immortality.)

2) Let the story, invented fictitiously or real-world, speak for itself. Do it honor and justice by re-presenting it. If you have to writerly-ly enhance it, hammer its meaning home, it is not worth telling.

3) Editors are there for a reason: not because they aren’t good writers, but because they are very good at what they do. It is their craft. Get to know them, and always respect them. (In one of the countless drafts of Hiroshima, Hersey described an atom-bombed bicycle as “lopsided.” One day Wallace Shawn questioned whether the word “lopsided” was the best possible word. Hersey lay awake that night, and then scrolled the word “crumpled” on a piece of paper. The next day, arriving at the magazine’s offices to resume editing, he found the pages from the day before, and found the page in question. The night before, in the margin, Shawn had written, in the margin, “crumpled?”)

4) If what you leave out is essential, then the details you choose to leave in must be essential. (i.e.: The dank, decaying, ominous scent of a jungle is relevant if the man smelling it might be about to die from an unseen bullet, but maybe not if your story is of the prison road gang laying a highway through it).

5) Storytelling is so universal that, for the several centuries when writing disappeared in the Aegean, The Odyssey survived orally until it could be written down. Never veer far from the story.

6) As the possessor of a craft, having now served something of an apprenticeship, we owed it to the world to practice that craft.

The coda to this tale is very weird, and Hersey would appreciate it. In 1988, he was accused of plagiarism. In the 76th time of the 63-year history of the magazine, The New Yorker ran a “Department of Amplification” — a fancy name for a correction. He’d written a piece about Agee, and an Agee biographer claimed very publicly in various interviews, and through his lawyer, that Hersey had ripped off several sections of his book — if not word for word, then certainly beyond accepted decorum, since Hersey had not credited the biographer for many anecdotes. I was hugely disappointed.

Three years later, I was hired on staff by GQ and, as had been the case in Hersey’s seminar, my first major piece was good enough to eventually be included in Best American Sportswriting of the Twentieth Century, edited by David Halberstam. Part of me wanted to send that story to Hersey, on the Vineyard, to prove that he’d made me a writer. But I didn’t, because the “Amplification” had colored my lens. A year later, he died.

In the ensuing years, very good writers I knew and very good writers I didn’t know were also accused of plagiarism. A fellow staffer at GQ even wrote a book on the matter, wherein I came to be something of a student of what a strange swamp we were mucking about in. The likes of H.G. Wells, Alex Haley and Doris Kearns Goodwin had been wading in it. In the Agee piece, Hersey had not lifted more than a few words; he had certainly not lifted the other writer’s ideas. He simply had not said, in his magazine piece, where he’d gotten some of the information. In his piece, it’s clear that he hadn’t pretended to have gotten much of the stuff firsthand; he just didn’t give attribution, when he should have.

Now: As I write this, what I’m supposed to be writing are the final chapters of the biography of a man who has written several autobiographies and has already been the subject of a biography. He is not talking to me. I have used several anecdotes from those several books. And I am going to give everyone I drew from all the credit they deserve. Which means that Hersey is still teaching me. And more importantly, I can finally see him as what he was: not just a scarily imposing teacher and frighteningly talented and ambitious writer, but a human being possessed of frailties, flaws — and incredible, estimable, enviable talent at a craft. Pressured by a Hotchkiss-Yale-Luce pedigree to excel at the highest.

Craftsmen — writers, bricklayers — make mistakes. “Artists” need not worry about such scrutiny, such vigilance, such oversight. They can indulge their whims. And I think Hersey would agree when I say: More’s the pity for them.

Peter Richmond holds a B.A. in philosophy from Yale and has been awarded Moravian College’s first annual fellowship to pursue a Masters of Arts in Teaching, beginning this fall. His work has appeared in periodicals including The New Yorker, the New York Times magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Parade, GQ, Details, Architecture, Parade, ESPN the Magazine, TV Guide and Grantland. His journalism has been included in more than a dozen anthologies, including Best American Sportswriting of the Twentieth Century. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class of ’89. He has published five books and is working on two others, each for an imprint of Penguin. He lives in Dutchess County, N.Y., with his wife, wine purveyor Melissa Davis, three chickens and a cat.




May 23 2013


Writing a tornado narrative, with Esquire’s Luke Dittrich

The news out of Moore, Okla., couldn’t help remind us of the historic tornado in Joplin, Mo., and of one narrative in particular: Luke Dittrich’s National Magazine Award-winning Esquire piece on how a group of strangers survived by crowding into a convenience store cooler. The scenario, which happened two years ago yesterday, was echoed this week at Plaza Towers Elementary, where 70 to 80 children survived by taking cover with their teachers in a bathroom. Dittrich visited the Nieman Foundation last year to talk about his piece, “Heavenly Father!…,” as part of the Nieman Narrative speaker series. Dittrich’s story was so strong partly because he recognized the opportunity for narrative. From a gargantuan topic (tornado), he extracted Story (what happened to a specific set of people caught in a specific shared circumstance). The piece works because it contains the key narrative elements, including:

Arc. The story has a natural beginning, middle, and end. The people went into the cooler, helped each other survive, and then returned to their lives. Dittrich, in his Nieman talk: 


courtesy Esquire

I was drawn to the cooler because it’s so tightly focused – it’s a very tight space with a bunch of people crammed inside, in the dark. I liked the idea of simplifying it as much as possible. The thing that made it easier was the fact that there weren’t two dozen disconnected individuals in there; there were maybe six or seven smaller units. My biggest fear was that (readers) were gonna lose track of who’s who. Approaching it as family units or as friend units, or as people who were helping each other, helped me try to keep it as comprehensible as possible.

Characters. Strong narratives usually depend on a strong leading character or characters—someone who faces a challenge and then either surmounts it or fails. Dittrich tracked down every person from the cooler and then:

I first tell them to just give me a little backstory – who are ya and what do you do? How long have you been around here? Where do you come from? In this case I had them start with what happened as best they could remember from the moment they woke up that morning to the end of the day, and to just walk me through every single thing they could remember about that day.



Detail/description. Dittrich went so far as to have the people from the Fastrip cooler sketch out everyone’s places as best they could recollect, to better “see” the scene and to make sure the details lined up:

I got anybody that could to sketch out who was around them. When I got them finally together at the site of the Fastrip I got them to arrange themselves as they were, as they were crouched down and draped over each other, so I could picture it in my head.

To read the whole conversation with Dittrich, about the tornado and other stories, go here.


May 14 2013


Notable Narrative: “The Prophets of Oak Ridge”

Our latest Notable Narrative: “The Prophets of Oak Ridge,” Dan Zak’s 9,448-word Washington Post project—and, as of this morning, e-book—about a house painter, a drifter and an 82-year-old nun who breached the perimeter at the Y-12 National Security Complex, which produces nuclear weapons in East Tennessee. We’ll be hosting a live chat with Zak about the multimedia project this Thursday at 11 a.m., so please join us. David Beard, the Post‘s director of digital content, will also be with us, to talk about what the staff learned from producing two big digital projects back to back.

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 12.07.58 PM

Photo by Linda Davidson, courtesy Washington Post

The story: The activists wanted to make their point with fence cutters, graffiti, protest songs, and the thawed blood of a colleague who died in 2008 but hoped to “join” one last mission. Zak tells their story but also that of Oak Ridge, Tenn., built by the federal government as a bomb-making town. “Though you haven’t needed a badge to get into the town since 1949, Oak Ridge’s soul hasn’t changed,” he writes. “It’s still a company town, and the company is the government, and the business is bombs.” The facility housed “enough radioactive material to fuel over 10,000 nuclear bombs, which would end civilization many times over,” material used in warheads renovation programs that could take 25 years and cost $20 billion. The activists, who were convicted last week of injuring the national defense and damaging government property, each took different paths into custody. There’s riveting writing in Zak’s tale—

The lights of the Antichrist flickered through the trees.

The drifter prayed.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. For all the glory is yours, and on the last day Jesus will come like this, like a thief in the night, and the warmongering United States will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy by beating its swords into plowshares.

He had duct-taped the head of his flashlight to reduce the beam to a sliver. On the downward slope of Pine Ridge, he moved in front of the nun, clearing branches and stones from her path. He was just a frail earthen vessel, he believed, but she was a daughter of God. He was her bodyguard.

On his head was a construction hat painted light blue, with “UN” marked on the front. On his breath was the stink of Top brand tobacco. In their backpacks, he and the nun carried twine, matches, candles, a Bible, three hammers, six cans of spray paint, three protest banners, copies of a letter they wished to deliver to Y-12 employees and two emblems of sustenance — a packet of cucumber seeds and a fresh-baked loaf of bread with a cross molded into the top.

And six baby bottles of human blood.

—and the presentation is beautiful, clean and striking. The Post ran the story on its website magazine style. Illustrations depicted the break-in, and still photos and a slideshow worked as secondary art. The 14 chapter titles alone tell a story: “Mission,” “‘…and the Earth Will Shake’” and “Sabotage.” Have a read, and join us back here on Thursday, to talk about how this project came together.


April 04 2013


August 24 2012


“Mrs. Kelly’s Monster” — line by line, how Jon Franklin wrote a classic

Jon Franklin’s “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” which in 1979 won the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, ran 33 years ago but never loses its power to captivate or instruct. Franklin followed a brain surgeon through a tense operation on a woman named Edna Kelly and wrote a tight, timeless narrative that stands as a model of precision reporting and evocative writing.

Whenever I teach this story, students argue about how Franklin reported it: where he was during the surgery, for instance, and how he went about the writing. The speculation was fun but eventually I asked* Franklin to settle the mystery. During our nearly two hours on the phone, he gave the following great answers and graciously agreed to let me reprint the 91-point annotation that he distributed to his students many years ago.

First, a fairly long conversation (contains spoilers!), and then the hybridized annotation.

So, were you in the operating room during the surgery or some sort of viewing gallery? My classes always argue about this – some think you were in the room, others don’t.

Jon Franklin: I was in the O.R. They show viewing galleries on television, but they don’t really have viewing galleries anymore.

How did you know that this was the surgery you wanted to write about? And how many brain surgeries had you observed before this one?

I had done a book earlier on shock trauma, about the first civilian trauma unit in the country. I spent a lot of time there and could walk into an O.R. and know what to touch, what not to touch, and be able to converse with people. So I was very familiar with that stuff. (For Mrs. Kelly’s surgery) I could see what was happening and I thought I had a hell of a story. And then (Dr. Ducker) failed. And I thought, “Well shit, I lost my story.” It wasn’t until four or five hours passed that I thought, “Well, wait a minute, it’s a better story because she died.”


Because it wasn’t expected.


The story is a classic of white knight and maiden, and in this case the white knight failed. But the final thing is, he had to get up after that and go in and work on somebody else.

Some readers expect her to live because they assume the newspaper wouldn’t have run a story about a failed brain surgery. You knew this was an interesting surgery because of the double aneurysm and the tumor, but you couldn’t have known this would happen.

There’s a certain amount of chance to this. Sometimes what you get is wonderful and sometimes it’s not so wonderful. I had told Ducker that I’d like to see him do several (surgeries), and that I wanted to be there for the ones that he didn’t really know how they would turn out. He agreed. Which he regrets to this day, I think.


Well, the thing people will most remember about him is his failure. I mean we’re friends, but he said to me once, “You know, Jon, people don’t want Not Quite a Miracle – they want a miracle.” As a matter of fact I’m putting that book back into circulation on Kindle and I’m gonna rename it Something Attached to the Soul. The title comes from a quote out of the book; it’s kind of an old bromide among brain surgeons that you don’t want to pull too much on something because it might be something attached to the soul.

You’re putting your books out on Kindle? So you’re into the digital progression?

I’m fundamentally an optimist. The model that’s going to work is going to be Kindle. They give the writer a big cut and they’re gonna be giving them an even bigger cut, so the writer won’t have to sell a million copies in order to make a living. It’s a game changer. Kindle allows you to go directly to your reader. Now, I don’t hate editors – I’ve had one or two that have done me good – I’m just sad that I haven’t had more good ones.

Which of your books are out on Kindle?

Wolf in the Parlor.

And you’re converting the others?

Yeah. A friend of my wife is doing this. Molecules is all but ready to go. Writing for Story is also gonna be on there. At the time I sold it, 30 years ago, nobody was doing (digital) but I kept the electronic rights.

That book’s always been a seller, hasn’t it?

It sells 400 to 500 copies a quarter, though last quarter I think I got a check for a dollar and 74 cents. Maybe the thing is finally gonna die. The only way I got it published was, the publisher really wanted Molecules. I said, “I’ll sell you Molecules but you gotta publish this other one too.”

Had you written Writing for Story on spec?

Yeah, it was my syllabus.

So do you actually own a Kindle?

I bought one about three months ago. That is the future. I love it.


What’s wonderful about it is that it’s very light. I like to read in bed. My arms get tired, and a year and a half ago I got in an accident and tore off my thumb. Holding a heavy book – I start to get sore very quickly.

You tore off your thumb?

It was a freak thing. I jumped out of a car – my wife was driving – to look at a bus schedule and … I didn’t know there was a curb there. I tripped over the curb and was going to hit a concrete post with my head. I went through a lot of contortions and managed not to hit that thing with my head, but instead my right hand – I’m right-handed –  got under me somehow. As I slid along the concrete the thumb got pushed back and pulled off. It starts to hurt after I type a long time.

Hang on, I’m stuck on your thumb – you really tore it off?

It was actually kind of neat. I could see inside my hand. Those pictures you see, of the ropes and pulleys down inside the human hand? It really is like that.

Gross! There’s a line in “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster” that kind of makes me sick every time I read it.

Which one is it?

“Dead ahead the field is crossed by many huge, distended, ropelike veins.”

It’s usually the blood dripping on the floor that gets people.

What happened to the thumb?

They sewed it back on. It was just dangling there. I put it back where it belonged and put pressure on it, to stop the bleeding.

Your wife must’ve been freaking out.

It helped that I wasn’t. By the time the ambulance got there and offered me morphine I said, “I don’t need it, I’m still in shock.” A few minutes later I changed my mind.

So back to the reporting. Did you review videotape of the surgery afterward or do all your reporting in the moment, in the O.R.?

All of it ended up in my notebook that day. I don’t even think I had to call (Ducker) back and ask him anything. When I finished the final draft I realized my heart was beating real fast. I was very innocent of that kind of power. John Steinbeck once said, “I’ve held fire in my hands.” I always thought that was sort of pure – I mean, you know, writer bullshit. But it wasn’t.

How do you mean?

That story scared me so much. It was either so good or so bad, and I couldn’t tell which. I called Ducker and read him everything, every word. I’d never done that before and I haven’t done it since. I’ll never forget it: I’m done and there’s this long silence and he says, “Well Jon, that’s pretty much the way it was.”

How long did the writing take?

The answer is either four days or 20 years. Because what you do is, you use everything you know. That’s one of the reasons why there are very few good young writers. Unlike with poetry, which favors young artists, or science, which favors younger people, writing is just the opposite. I was 35 before I could do that. And writing is something you’ll never get too old to do. You could certainly get too senile.

But literally four days then?

Three days maybe, not counting the day in surgery and the time with Mrs. Kelly and her husband.

Did you start writing that night?

I don’t remember whether I started writing that night or thinking it through. I used to do things quite a bit differently than I do now, because now I can be more efficient. I try not to put anything on paper until I’ve crystalized the story. But in that case, the story – I mean it was just there, you know? Somebody, I forget who, recorded people’s heartbeats as they read various things, and they said (readers’) heartbeats matched the story as they read Mrs. Kelly. You can do that in music too, control heartbeats.

Why do you think the story scared you so much?

I’m trying to think how to phrase this answer. When you’re really doing it, when you’re what I like to call in contact, which means you’re living in the story just like the reader’s going to, it’s very frightening. Because it takes an awful lot of chutzpah. I’m as insecure as everybody else. And the paper had never run anything like this before. And they didn’t actually want to run this but they knew damn good and well they had to.

What do you mean?

Well, they buried it. It was on the bottom of the feature page.

No way.

They also – because there had been an edict about no long stories, they insisted on cutting it in half and running one part on one day and the second part on the other day. I was resisting all this, but it was their paper, not mine.

I’ve never heard that it ran as a two-parter.

I cut it for them and gave them the lede for the second part. And then the editor came back and said, “Jon, you’re not gonna like this but since we don’t find out what happens till the second day, we can’t do that to the reader; we have to tell them on the first day that she dies.”

Oh my God.

So I hit the roof. At that point, out of desperation, I think, I got one of my finest moments of insight and said, Okay, what we’ll do is I’ll write a precede saying she dies. I’m a writer, which means that by definition I’m a sneaky sonofabitch. I know how to make rhythms and I also know how to break them. I wrote that precede so that the mind simply could not absorb it.

Couldn’t absorb the fact that she died?


Do you have that copy? I’d love to see that.

A lot of people have wanted to see that. You can probably find it at the Pratt Library. It’s one of the best pieces of writing I ever did. I used totally unemotional words – it was flat. And the interesting thing was that I could get away with it, because the editor – and this illustrates what’s wrong with journalism – to the editor this was fine.

And what happened?

The thing was published on the first day and that night the switchboard was totally jammed with “What happened to Mrs. Kelly?”

How many story drafts did you do?

I wrote this on a computer. When you write on a computer, you write something that I call a road map, which is a sequence of events, how you’re gonna tell the story. Then you go back and expand that. Then you go back and polish it. In theory you can do it in those three steps. I damn near did that with Mrs. Kelly. But Mrs. Kelly was a special story, for me. I do experiments with stories, or I did when I was on the paper: Will this work, will that work? I did it very quickly. I don’t usually do things that quickly. I mean the current book took me almost 20 years, but that was for a lot of other reasons, and there were a couple of other books in there that were stillborn. I’m slow.

And nobody likes it when we’re slow.

This kind of work is slow. I’ve never been able to support myself solely with my writing. As a personality, I’m an inventor. I try to invent things when I’m writing – forms and things like that. I can’t help myself, but it’s not a good thing, because I can’t do production. I got out of the newspaper business right at my peak because it became very clear to me that I could spend the rest of my life writing Mrs. Kelly’s Monsters. That, in fact, was what they wanted me to do. And I mean I like to write stories like that now and then. If I could’ve been happy just doing what I knew how to do, then my life would’ve been a lot different. But then I’d have had to have been in newspapers for the last 25 years, while they were going down the tubes.

It’s hard to have an entrepreneurial mind and follow formats.

I can’t write when I’m bored. I cannot do it.

Mrs. Kelly is 3,539 words long, but it reads short.

What makes it read fast like that – of course you’ve got pacing on your side, although the pacing was not an obvious thing. The idea is to say things just before they pop into the reader’s mind. You get your reader going 100 miles an hour, and how fast it reads is what governs, not how long. For a while when I was teaching, I got a beautiful film off YouTube – it was some sort of a contest about how many dominos can you line up and knock over. He’s on a pool table and three or four other pool tables, and they’re all full of dominos. We used to watch them all get knocked over, and there’s ways he gets them from one table to another – it’s a very harmonic kind of thing. That’s the way things have to read. And also, setting up the dominos is a very tedious task– it’s very nit-picking and you don’t go fast and it’s not capital-S fun. Knocking them over is fun. Now what the writer does is, he sets them up. And almost everyone who wants to be a writer, including myself, wanted to be a writer because they were a reader and they thought, Oh wow that’ll be fun. And it is fun in some ways, but it’s not like reading at all. You’re writing a program that will play in the reader’s brain.

What do most students and writers want to know about this story?

What they’re basically interested in is how to do it. Often we’ll get into: Hey, I didn’t have to be there, I reconstructed things that worked just as well. Tom Wolfe convinced me you could do that.

What was reconstructed? For instance, you have an early morning scene where Ducker’s wife hands him his lunch. Were you there for that?

That’s the one thing that I didn’t see.

Well, that and Mr. Kelly telling his wife goodbye.

Yes. I confirmed that with the family later, and probably with Ducker.

So about the breakfast, you asked him – or his wife – what he ate?

I wanted to end the piece with the food, the universal. So I called his wife and asked her what she fixed him, which is when I learned about the coffee thing. So then I had the magic bookends, which are always wonderful when you can get them. She told me later that she always fixed him a nice lunch and why did I have to watch him on the only day when she was in a big hurry and fixed him a peanut butter sandwich.

So you put everything down, you were saying.

I put everything down. I put down the times because when you’re doing a drama it’s this happened and the next thing happened. I didn’t expect to use the time (element) the way I did. There’s another story that I did, called “A Death in the Family,” which is another story that I had no idea what I had until I was on my way home. You go in and you just observe. You teach yourself – see, I think you can teach vision. I have yet to find anybody who will agree with me on this, and I don’t know that I’ve ever actually taught anybody this, but there are techniques for getting outside of yourself and turning yourself into a kind of recorder. [ed note: Here we got into a conversation about Freud and brain development.]

About that time I got interested in going to shrinks. I started going to a Freudian shrink. I was thinking, The brain’s a tool and I want to know how to use it better. As a matter of fact I think the second Pulitzer came as a direct result of seeing the shrink.

How so?

It helped me recognize how my mind worked and what part of my mind was mine and what part was universal. Jung was right – at some level our brains are all alike and at some level they’re all different. The part that’s interesting is how they’re all alike. That tells you what story is.

How do you mean?

Story is what you feel. Story is emotional. It’s not your eyes you see with; it’s your mind.


“Mrs. Kelly’s Monster”
by Jon Franklin
Baltimore Evening Sun

December 1978

My questions are in orange.
Franklin’s responses are in green.
The blue bits are Franklin’s annotation, reprinted with his permission.

In the cold hours of a winter You must set the mood early in the story. Dr. Ducker also rose to a warm house and a bright future, but those facts are not relevant to the story being told./jf morning Dr. Thomas Barbee Ducker, chief brain surgeon at the University of Maryland Hospital, rises It is no accident that the first verb in this story is an action verb. The use of present tense tends to make the story more immediate, but it increases the pressure on the writer, who must supply an endless stream of detail to make the immediate nature of the story seem real. Because of the increased technical problems with present tense, the technique must never be used lightly. Also, present tense is usually unsuitable for long pieces./jf before dawn. This provides sense of time. Sense of place is implied here: It’s in Dr. Ducker’s house, in Baltimore./jf His wife serves him waffles Be specific with symbolism. Also note how the food imagery here dovetails with the food imagery in the ending. Food is a life process. In the morning the food is warm, and served lovingly. In the end, the food is dry, cold and packed in an anonymous paper bag./jf but no coffee. Coffee makes his hands shake. Straight news technique requires the writer to sum up the story in the first paragraph. Feature style often requires that it be implied. The implication here is that it is very important that Dr. Ducker’s hands don’t shake./jf

In downtown Baltimore, Place transition/jf on the 12th floor Be specific…but only when it doesn’t interfere with the story you’re telling. You need a good literary reason for the inclusion of each fact. In this case, it was rhythm/jf of University Hospital, Edna Kelly’s husband tells her goodbye. This implies danger, building on the implications of the “shaking hands” line above/jf For 57 years Mrs. Kelly shared her skull Note the perception that Mrs. Kelly is her brain. Such a unity, once established, must be carried out throughout the piece/jf with the monster: This perception was Mrs. Kelly’s, not the author’s nor the surgeon’s. Your subject will do much of your head work for you, if you’ll be observant/jf No more. Today she is frightened but determined.

 It is 6:30 a.m. Pacing. Pacing must begin before the need for it becomes apparent. This story picks up a definite beat later. It begins here, with the stipulation of an exact time. To make it an odd number, such as 6:32, would have been enameling the lily, and would have lost the effect when the story shifts to specific time later, as the pace increases/jf

“I’m not afraid to die,” she said Flashback to material gleaned in an early interview/jf as this day approached. This sentence marks the transition from the opening, or lead, into the complication/jf “I’ve lost part of my eyesight. I’ve gone through all the hemorrhages. A couple of years ago I lost my sense of smell, my taste. I started having seizures. I smell a strange odor and then I start strangling. It started affecting my legs, and I’m partially paralyzed. How much time did you spend with Mrs. Kelly before the surgery? I like that you don’t quote her on the day of the surgery./pw The idea was not to capture her words. As time went on in the story I used fewer and fewer quotes. There’s nothing magic about quotes. Dialogue is a whole different matter. I spent maybe 40 minutes with them/jf Ever?/pw Uh huh. I used a tape recorder on that. I didn’t take a tape recorder into the O.R./jf Why?/pw Well, I’d had some bad experiences with them. I use them today. They’re a lot more reliable than they used to be./jf Sounds like you’ve got some horror stories./pw Yeah I’ve got one that’ll make you cry./jf

“Three years ago a doctor told me all I had to look forward to was blindness, paralysis and a remote chance of death. Now I have aneurysms; this monster is causing that. I’m scared And we’re back to present tense/jf to death … but there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not in pain, and I’m tired of it. I can’t bear the pain. I wouldn’t want to live like this much longer.” The reader must clearly understand the motivations of your characters. In this case, Mrs. Kelly has decided to go for broke because the disease had made her life not worth living/jf

As Dr. Ducker leaves for work, Mrs. Ducker hands him a paper bag containing a peanut butter sandwich, a banana and two fig newtons. Foreshadowing is the magic of the dramatic feature writer. In this part of the story, the lunch helps get Dr. Ducker out of the house and shifts the reader’s attention toward his work. (The information does double duty, another hallmark of good dramatic writing.)/jf

Downtown, in Mrs. Kelly’s brain, a sedative takes effect.

Mrs. Kelly was Flashbacks provide supportive, background and character information/jf born with a tangled knot of abnormal blood vessels in the back of her brain. The malformation began small, but in time the vessels ballooned inside the confines of the skull, crowding the healthy brain tissue. This story becomes a portrait of the tumor and the surgeon; how much did you intend to anthropomorphize the growth?/pw Anthropomorphizing things—we do it. It’s a human trait. It’s not necessarily a super idea, but we believe in agencies. If there’s a lightning bolt, somebody must have thrown it, which is where you get Thor. When a tree falls, the tree god knocked it down. It’s very deep in our mind. I don’t think you can really write without some of that, but when you get into a life-and-death situation—I mean I’ve been in an operating room and heard people say things like, “I can’t get to this sonofabitch.” You know? Or, “Look at this bastard.” The fact is, we take life personally. You might as well not deny it. And when you deny it, I think we get a skewed picture of what the world was like. And in that respect journalism is guilty as charged—the definition of news is what happens in front of the reporter./jf Some people have a hard time embracing narrative./pw Man, it’s a high-tension business. Everybody stands around and they don’t look like they’re fighting tigers, but they’re fighting tigers. You’re constantly having to make decisions based on too little information and understanding, and when you have to do that you have to come up with rules of thumb. And since you depend on these rules of thumb to survive, over the years they metamorphose into the stations of the cross. And that’s why newspapers are gonna die, even without the Internet./jf

Finally, in 1942, the malformation announced its presence This personifies the malformation. Personification of objects is a tricky, tricky business and should be done only with the greatest care—and only with the principal forces in the story. It would not do, for instance, to personify the peanut-butter sandwich/jf when one of the abnormal arteries, stretched beyond capacity, burst. Mrs. Kelly grabbed her head and collapsed. The story does not say how Mrs. Kelly felt. Rather it implies and shows it. Action (grabbing one’s head and falling) tells much more than attempts to describe her feelings. The first rule of feature writing is ‘Show, don’t tell.’/jf After that the agony never stopped.

Mrs. Kelly, at the time of her first intracranial bleed, was carrying her second child. Despite the pain, she raised her children and cared for her husband. She is never said, specifically, to be courageous. Rather, by her actions, she is shown to be/jf The malformation continued to grow.

She began Today I would hesitate to use “began.” I would say, instead, “She called it ‘the monster.’ Words like begin, began, commenced and started are usually unnecessary and tend to give the sentence in which they reside a distant and passive cast/jf calling it “the monster.”

Now, at 7:15 Fifteen minutes past the hour is more specific than thirty minutes past. A minor point, but the tempo is building/jf a.m. in operating room eleven, a technician checks the brain surgery microscope and the circulating nurse lays out bandages and instruments. Always use action. If you want to tell the reader that the operating room is ready, then show the crew getting it ready/jf Mrs. Kelly lies still on a stainless steel table.

A small sensor has been threaded through her veins and now hangs in the antechamber of her heart. The anesthesiologist connects the sensor to a 7-foot-high bank of electronic instruments. Oscilloscope waveforms begin This word is unnecessary/jf to build and break. Dials swing. Lights flash. With each heartbeat a loudspeaker produces an audible popping sound. The steady pop, pop, popping The value of sound as a pacing and descriptive device is widely overlooked. Clocks tick. Babies cry in the background. Pencils tap restively on tables. Rain clatters on a tin roof. Notice these things, and use them/jf isn’t loud, but it dominates the operating room.

Dr. Ducker enters the O.R. and pauses before the X-ray films that hang on a lighted panel. He carried those brain images to Europe, Canada and Florida in search of advice, and he knows them by heart. This serves to emphasize the danger/jf Still, he studies them again, eyes focused By using the eyes, what’s going on in the brain can be illustrated/jf on the two fragile aneurysms that swell above the major arteries. Either may burst on contact.

The one directly behind Mrs. Kelly’s eyes is the most likely to burst, but also the easiest to reach. If you’re taking your reader into unfamiliar territory, it’s necessary to step back periodically and tell the reader, in brief and nontechnical terms, what’s going on. Otherwise, certain readers will become disoriented and quit reading/jf That’s first.

The surgeon-in-training who will assist Dr. Ducker places Mrs. Kelly’s head in a clamp and shaves her hair. Dr. Ducker checks to make certain the three steel pins of the vice have pierced the skin and press directly against Mrs. Kelly’s skull. “We can’t have a millimeter The word “millimeter” is rather unfamiliar to the reader. It is necessary to run it through the reader’s mind once, in a relatively slow-paced situation, so that it will seem more familiar later when it’s used under more dramatic tension. The rule is never to use an unfamiliar word for the first time in a fast-paced part of your story, because it’ll slow the narrative down. (It is, incidentally, not relevant here exactly how large a millimeter is. It is sufficient that the reader know it’s small.)/jf slip,” he says.

Mrs. Kelly, except for a six-inch crescent of scalp, is draped Here, you’ll note, she’s draped. Later, the image is “shrouded.”/jf with green sheets. A rubber-gloved palm goes out and Doris Schwabland, the scrub nurse, lays a scalpel in it. Hemostats snap over the arteries of the scalp. Blood spatters onto Dr. Ducker’s sterile paper booties. Gore, like sex, is sometimes more effective when it occurs off camera/jf

It is 8:25 a.m. The heartbeat goes pop, pop, pop, 70 beats a minute, steady.

Today Dr. Ducker intends to remove the two aneurysms, which comprise the most immediate threat to Mrs. Kelly’s life. Later, he will move directly on the monster. This is another orientation paragraph. Note that it is used also as a pacing device, to keep the action from getting too fast here. We want the action to build/jf

It’s a risky operation, designed to take him to the hazardous frontiers of neurosurgery. Several experts told him he shouldn’t do it at all, that he should let Mrs. Kelly die. But the consensus was that he had no choice. The choice was Mrs. Kelly’s.

“There’s one chance out of three that we’ll end up with a hell of a mess or a dead patient,” Dr. Ducker says. Says to whom? The reporter, of course. But imagine how awful it’d sound to say, “said to this reporter.” Keep yourself out of the copy and let your subject talk directly through you to the reader. Remember, as a feature writer who puts himself into the action, you are a surrogate for your reader, and your existence on the scene is totally unimportant/jf “I reviewed it in my own heart and with other people, and I thought about the patient. You weigh what happens if you do it against what happens if you don’t do it. I convinced myself it should be done.”

Mrs. Kelly said yes. Now Dr. Ducker pulls back Mrs. Kelly’s scalp to reveal the dull ivory of living bone. The chatter of the half-inch drill fills the room, drowning the rhythmic pop, pop, pop Pacing devices must be heavily foreshadowed. The pops are going to be critical later, so they have to be firmly embedded in the front of the story/jf of the heart monitor. It is 9 o’clock when Dr. Ducker hands the two-by-four-inch triangle of skull to the scrub nurse.

The tough, rubbery covering of the brain is cut free, revealing the soft gray convolutions of the forebrain.

“There it is,” says the circulating nurse in a hushed voice. “That’s what keeps you working.” Greek choruses are very useful. Watch for the opportunity to use them/jf

It is 9:20. The times are getting more specific/jf

Eventually Dr. Ducker steps back, holding his gloved hands high to avoid contamination. While others move the microscope into place over the glistening brain the neurosurgeon communes The difference between the right word and the almost-right word, Mark Twain said, is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug/jf once more with the X-ray films. The heart beats strong, 70 beats a minute, 70 beats a minute. Repetition can add dramatic tension and emphasize building tensions in the story. Most professional writers understand that events and ideas must be foreshadowed, but few apply the principle to gimmicks, like repetition, as well/jf “We’re going to have a hard time today,” the surgeon says to the X-rays. Actually, of course, he doesn’t expect the x-rays to hear him. The words are directed to the occupants of the operating room—or to the readers, in the persona of a reporter, who is standing beside him. Here is another example of physical action (his voice is aimed at the x-rays) being used to keep the story concrete while implying moods and tensions/jf

Dr. Ducker presses his face against the microscope. His hands go out for an electrified, tweezer-like instrument. The assistant moves in close, taking his position above the secondary eyepieces. This is the pause before the battle. A romantic novel uses the same technique when the writer describes the knights settling into their stirrups just before the heroic charge. Some things never change/jf

Dr. Ducker’s view is shared by a video camera. Across the room a color television crackles, Sounds, like smells, are extremely effective in putting the reader into your story. The senses of hearing and smell are ancient, and are most closely connected to the emotional brain than is the sense of sight. That’s a good anatomical fact for a professional writer to know/jf displaying a highly magnified landscape This is the hardest-won word in the piece. I wanted something that implied a bigness. The word “landscape” is commonly applied to continents and planets, and so carries an aura of great spaces. Few people realize how big a drop of water becomes under a microscope, and how the viewer can actually get lost and disoriented in it. Getting disoriented and lost is one of the most important dangers in neurosurgery/jf of the brain. The polished tips of the tweezers move into view.

It is Dr. Ducker’s intent Anytime you start talking about something that happens in the subject’s head, you almost automatically slow the narrative and move into background discussion. So, when you do that, make sure you’re doing it at a place you can afford to slow down. Also, this does double duty as another orientation paragraph/jf to place tiny, spring-loaded alligator clips across the base of each aneurysm. But first he must navigate “Navigate” is something you do over a landscape or seascape. See the footnote on landscape, above/jf a tortured path from his incision, above Mrs. Kelly’s right eye, to the deeply buried Circle of Willis.

The journey will be immense. Under magnification, the landscape of the mind Now, the perception of “landscape” fully established, we can make the story’s most important metaphysical leap, from the brain to the mind. When I wrote this piece I was beginning an unusually technical series on the brain, focusing on the brain-mind connection. I decided to do this story as the lead piece because I thought it would embed that point firmly in the reader’s brain/mind/jf expands to the size of a room. Dr. Ducker’s tiny, blunt-tipped instrument As the instrument and its movement become the focus of the reader’s attention, it becomes a surrogate for Dr. Ducker. Thus the instruments get a very specific personification/jf travels in millimeter leaps.

His strategy is to push between the forebrain, where conscious thought occurs, and the thumb-like projection of the brain, called the temporal lobe, that extends beneath the temples. More orientation. Note the regularity of orientation paragraphs, and how they fall off as the pace picks up/jf

Carefully, Dr. Ducker pulls these two structures apart to form a deep channel. The journey begins at the bottom of this crevasse. This paragraph should have read, “…Dr. Ducker pulls these two structures apart to form a deep crevasse. The journey begins at the bottom. The time is 9:36 a.m.” Some heat-of-the-moment awkwardness is, sigh, unavoidable in the newspaper feature writing business/jf The time is 9:36 a.m.

The grey convolutions of the brain, wet with secretions, sparkle beneath the powerful operating theater spotlights. The microscopic landscape heaves and subsides in time to the pop, pop, pop of the heart monitor.

Gently, gently, the blunt probe teases apart the minute structures of gray matter, spreading a tiny tunnel, millimeter Never use an awkward word for the first time in a poetic passage. It takes the reader’s brain longer to process it the first time, and that will throw off the rhythm you’re trying so hard to establish. Foreshadow!/jf by gentle millimeter, into the glistening gray. Count the number of “m” sounds in this paragraph. Then count the number of “g” sounds. That is a very, very tricky gimmick and can be used only with care. Very much of it, and an otherwise elegant piece turns saccharine/jf

We’re having trouble just getting in,” Dr. Ducker tells the operating room team. Here, action is used to foreshadow/jf

As the neurosurgeon works, he refers to Mrs. Kelly’s monster as “the A.V.M.,” or arterio-venous malformation. Shift here to background/jf Normally, he says, This attribution is unnecessary and slows down the flow/jf arteries force high-pressure blood into muscle or organ tissue. After the living cells suck out the oxygen and nourishment the blood drains into low-pressure veins, which carry it back to the heart and lungs.

But in the back of Mrs. Kelly’s brain one set of arteries pumps directly into veins, bypassing the tissue. The unnatural junction was not designed for such a rapid flow of blood and in 57 years it slowly swelled to the size of a fist. Periodically it leaked drops of blood and torrents of agony. Parallel construction tugs compellingly at the mind. It makes things seem related that aren’t, and makes for slick stream-of-consciousness transitions. The concepts “drops of blood” and “torrents of agony” come from separate universes, or do they? This piece was written specifically to make the reader ask that question/jf Now the structures of the brain are welded together by scar tissue and, to make his tunnel, Dr. Ducker must tease them apart again. This statement brings us back to story action/jf But the brain is delicate.

The screen of the television monitor fills with red.

Dr. Ducker responds quickly, snatching the broken end of the tiny artery with the tweezers. There is an electrical bzzzzzt A good feature writer learns to observe noises and, when possible, bring them to his reader. Sometimes this can be tricky. I’ve got an hour invested in “ka-Glup, ka-Glup, ka-Glup,” used to describe a heart-sounds amplifier in a recent book/jf as he burns the bleeder closed. Progress stops while the blood is suctioned out.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” he says. “It’s not much, but when you’re looking at one square centimeter, two ounces is a damned lake.” Driving home the idea, again, that the microscope magnifies everything, including the problems/jf

Carefully, gently, Dr. Ducker continues to make his way into the brain. Far down the tiny tunnel the white trunk of the optic nerve can be seen. It is 9:54.

Slowly, using the optic nerve as a guidepost, Dr. Ducker probes deeper and deeper into the gray. The heart monitor continues to pop, pop, pop, 70 beats a minute, 70 beats a minute.

The neurosurgeon guides the tweezers directly to the pulsing carotid artery, one of the three main blood channels into the brain. The carotid twists and dances Verbs are everything/jf to the electronic pop, pop, popping. Gently, ever gently, nudging aside the scarred brain tissue, Dr. Ducker moves along the carotid toward the Circle of Willis, near the floor of the skull.

This loop of vessels is the staging area from which blood is distributed throughout the brain. Three major arteries feed it from below, one in the rear and the two carotids in the front.

The first aneurysm lies ahead, still buried in grey matter, where the carotid meets the Circle. The second aneurysm is deeper yet in the brain, where the hindmost artery rises along the spine and joins the circle.

Eyes pressed against the microscope, Dr. Ducker makes his tedious way along the carotid.

“She’s so scarred I can’t identify anything,” he complains through the mask.

It is 10:01 a.m. The heart monitor pop, pop, pops with reassuring regularity. This implies that irregularity is not reassuring, and foreshadows trouble ahead. When the heart slows, the reader will know instantly something is wrong. He won’t have to have an explanation, which would slow him down/jf

The probing tweezers are gentle, firm, deliberate, probing, probing, probing, slower than the hands of the clock. Repeatedly, vessels bleed and Dr. Ducker cauterizes them. The blood loss is mounting, and now the anesthesiologist hangs a transfusion bag above Mrs. Kelly’s shrouded Note the switch from “covered” to “shrouded.” This kind of foreshadowing operates on the reader’s mind at a subconscious level. With such subliminal devices the reader never knows what hits him. But hit him it does/jf form.

Ten minutes pass. Twenty. Blood flows, the tweezers buzz, the suction hose hisses. The tunnel is small, almost filled by the shank of the instrument.

The aneurysm finally appears at the end of the tunnel, throbbing, visibly thin, a lumpy, overstretched bag, the color of rich cream, When you’ve taken the reader to an alien and frightening place, it’s necessary to use as many familiar images as possible. But they have to be very apt. If it’s the almost-right word, you end up looking like an idiot/jf swelling out from the once-strong arterial wall, a tire about to blow out, a balloon ready to burst, a time-bomb the size of a pea. Relate sizes to something the reader knows/jf

The aneurysm isn’t the monster itself, only the work of the monster, which, growing malevolently, has disrupted the pressures and weakened arterial walls throughout the brain. But the monster itself, the X-rays say, lies far away. This should have been foreshadowed, first, very early in the piece. Another example of deadline-related awkwardness/jf

The probe nudges the aneurysm, hesitantly, gently.

“Sometimes you touch one,” a nurse says, “and blooey, the wolf’s at the door.”

Patiently, Dr. Ducker separates the aneurysm from the surrounding brain tissue. The tension is electric.

No surgeon would dare go after the monster itself until this swelling killer is defused.

Now. A paragraph is, most of all, a unit of thought. If the thought is elegant, the paragraph is short/jf

A nurse hands Dr. Ducker a long, delicate pair of pliers. A little stainless steel clip, its jaws open wide, is positioned on the pliers’ end. Presently the magnified clip moves into the field of view, light glinting from its polished surface.

It is 10:40.

For eleven minutes When you’ve got rapid action, keep writing down times in your notebook. Later, you can select what you need for pacing/jf Dr. Ducker repeatedly attempts to work the clip over the neck of the balloon, but the device is too small. He calls for one with longer jaws. Soon that clip moves into the microscopic tunnel. With infinite slowness, Dr. Ducker maneuvers it over the neck of the aneurysm.

Then, in an instant, the jaws close and the balloon collapses.

“That’s clipped,” Dr. Ducker calls out. Smile wrinkles appear above his mask. Action can sometimes be heightened by hinting at it. The alternative would have been, “He smiled behind his mask.” That’s a more direct statement of fact, but has less dramatic impact. Both statements are accurate/jf The heart monitor goes pop, pop, pop, steady. It is 10:58.

Dr. Ducker now begins following the Circle of Willis back into the brain, toward the second, and more difficult, aneurysm that swells Word choice can be used to bolster imagery. In this case, the word tends to remind the reader of the nature of the aneurysm/jf at the very rear of the Circle, tight against the most sensitive and primitive structure in the head, the brainstem. The brainstem controls vital processes, including breathing and heartbeat.

The going becomes steadily more difficult and bloody. Millimeter, millimeter after treacherous millimeter the tweezers burrow a tunnel through Mrs. Kelly’s mind. Blood flows, the tweezers buzz, the suction slurps. Push and probe. Cauterize. Suction. Push and probe. More blood. Then the tweezers lie quiet.

“I don’t recognize anything,” the surgeon says. He pushes further and quickly finds a landmark.

Then, exhausted, Dr. Ducker disengages himself, backs away, sits down on a stool and stares straight ahead for a long moment. The brainstem is close, close. Again, repetition emphasizes. If you’re interested in rhythmic techniques, by the way, read Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. Bells bells bells bells bells bells bells. And not one single bell more./jf

“This is a frightening place to be,” whispers “Whispers” is a word that amplifies the nature of the frightening place in which Dr. Ducker finds himself. Reserve this category of attribution trick for dramatic passages only. Usually, the word “said” will suffice. Repetition of the word “said” is rarely a serious problem/jf the doctor.

In the background the heart monitor goes pop, pop, pop, 70 beats a minute, steady. The smell of ozone and burnt flesh hangs thick in the air. Pacing images are used to put the reader into the scene while also serving to slow the story action down. This implies that you’ve got to have enough action that you can afford some slow passages. If you don’t have enough action to withstand the imagery slowdowns, you’ve probably got a boring story/jf It is 11:05 a.m., the day of the monster.

The operating room door opens and Dr. Michael Salcman, Minor characters do not have to be introduced at the top of a story but, if not, they must be foreshadowed. In this case that was easy, since Dr. Salcman came in and hung around for a while before he started taking important (structural) action./jf the assistant chief neurosurgeon, enters. He confers with Dr. Ducker, who then returns to the microscope. Dr. Salcman moves to the front of the television monitor.

As he watches Dr. Ducker work, Dr. Salcman compares an aneurysm to a bump on a tire. The weakened wall of the artery balloons outward under the relentless pressure of the heartbeat and, eventually, it bursts. That’s death.

So the fragile aneurysms must be removed before Dr. Ducker can tackle the AVM itself. Dr. Salcman crosses his arms and fixes his eyes on the television screen, preparing himself to relieve Dr. Ducker if he tires. One aneurysm down, one to go.

The second, however, is the toughest. It pulses dangerously deep, hard against the bulb of nerves that sits atop the spinal cord.

“Technically, the brainstem,” says Dr. Salcman. “I call it the ‘pilot light.’ That’s because if it goes out … that’s it.”

On the television screen the tweezer instrument presses on, following the artery toward the brainstem. Gently, gently, gently, gently it pushes aside the gray coils. For a moment the optic nerve appears in the background, then vanishes. A glance at something he’s met before, in this case the optic nerve, gives the reader the sense that he understands where he is. That is strictly smoke and mirrors, of course, but it puts his mind at rest and he can read on. After all, the reader isn’t here to learn brain anatomy. He’s here to find out what happens, and how the story comes out. The moral of the story is don’t explain any more than the reader needs to understand the story. Explanations beyond that are flab/jf

The going is even slower now. Dr. Ducker is reaching all the way into the center of the brain and his instruments are the length of chopsticks. The danger mounts because, here, many of the vessels feed the pilot light.

The heartbeat goes pop, pop, pop, 70 beats a minute. And the beat, now in a separate paragraph, begins to take on a life of its own/jf

The instrument moves across a topography of torture, scars everywhere, remnants of pain past, of agonies Mrs. Kelly would rather die than further endure. And a tip of the hat to Abe Lincoln. Immature poets, some guru said, create. Mature poets steal. When possible, steal from the masters. Steal from romance novels and other trash at your peril./jf Dr. Ducker is lost again.

Dr. Salcman joins him at the microscope, peering through the assistant’s eyepieces. They debate the options in low tones and technical terms. Going too deeply into the technical would only confuse the reader, and is not necessary to the action. Deciding what to leave out is one of the writer’s most important functions. The iron rule is that if you don’t need it to make the climax work, then you don’t need it at all. Some of the best stories are written backwards. This one was, sort of, and at times/jf A decision is made and again the polished tweezers probe along the vessel.

Back on course, Dr. Ducker works his tunnel ever deeper, gentle, gentle, gentle as the touch of sterile cotton. Finally the grey matter parts.

The neurosurgeon freezes. When your action is being carried along by active, fine-scale description, then action is defined not as motion but as change. Thus freezing in the face of danger is, in this story, a very active thing for Dr. Ducker to do/jf

Dead ahead Symbolism can be layered on top of symbolism. The word “dead” is symbolic in its own right, and the phrase “dead ahead” is a term used for navigating across topography/jf the field is crossed by many huge, distended, ropelike veins.

The neurosurgeon stares intently at the veins, surprised, chagrined, betrayed by the X-rays.

The monster.

The monster, by microscopic standards, lies far away, above and back, in the rear of the head. Dr. Ducker was to face the monster itself on another day, not now. Not here.

But clearly these tangled veins, absent on the X-ray films but very real in Mrs. Kelly’s brain, are tentacles of the monster.

Gingerly, the tweezers attempt to push around them.

Pop, pop, pop . . pop … pop … . pop … . pop. Consider the foreshadowing that led up to this/jf

“It’s slowing!” warns the anesthesiologist, alarmed.

The tweezers pull away like fingers touching fire.

… . pop … pop . . pop . pop, pop, pop.

“It’s coming back” says the anesthesiologist.

The vessels control bloodflow to the brain stem, the pilot light.

Dr. Ducker tries to go around them a different way.

Pop, pop, pop . pop . . pop … pop … .

And withdraws.

Dr. Salcman stands before the television monitor, arms crossed, frowning.

“She can’t take much of that,” the anesthesiologist says. Note the absence of the phrase “told this reporter.” Unless you’re writing about yourself, stay out of your story/jf “The heart will go into arrhythmia and that’ll lead to a … call it a heart attack.”

Dr. Ducker tries a still different route, pulling clear of the area and returning at a new angle. Eventually, at the end of a long, throbbing tunnel of brain tissue, the sought-after aneurysm appears.

Pop, pop, pop . pop . . pop … pop … .

The instruments retract.

“Damn,” says the neurosurgeon. “I can only work here for a few minutes without the bottom falling out.”

The clock says 12:29.

Already the gray tissue swells visibly from the repeated attempts to burrow past the tentacles.

Again the tweezers move forward in a different approach and the aneurysm reappears. Dr. Ducker tries to reach it by inserting the aneurysm clip through a long, narrow tunnel. But the pliers that hold the clip obscure the view.

Pop, pop . pop . . pop … pop … .

The pliers retract.

“We’re on it and we know where we are,” complains the neurosurgeon, frustration adding a metallic edge to his voice. “But we’re going to have an awful time getting a clip in there. We’re so close, but …”

A resident who has been assisting Dr. Ducker collapses on a stool. He stares straight ahead, eyes unfocused, glazed. This makes Dr. Ducker’s fatigue more real/jf

“Michael, scrub,” Dr. Ducker says to Dr. Salcman. “See what you can do. I’m too cramped.”

While the circulating nurse massages Dr. Ducker’s shoulders, Dr. Salcman attempts to reach the aneurysm with the clip.

Pop, pop, pop . pop . . pop …pop … .

The clip withdraws.

“That should be the aneurysm right there,// endquotes here?/Alix says Dr. Ducker, taking his place at the microscope again. “Why the hell can’t we get to it? We’ve tried, ten times.”

At 12:53, another approach.

Pop, pop, pop . pop . . pop … pop … .


It is 1:06.

And again, and again, and again.

Pop … pop … pop, pop, pop … pop … pop-pop-pop …

The anesthesiologist’s hands move rapidly across a panel of switches. A nurse catches her breath and holds it.

“Damn, damn, damn.”

Dr. Ducker backs away from the microscope, his gloved hands held before him. For a full minute, he’s silent.

“There’s an old dictum in medicine,” he finally says. “If you can’t help, don’t do any harm. Let nature take its course. We may have already hurt her. We’ve slowed down her heart. Too many times.” The words carry defeat, exhaustion, anger. It is better to let action carry emotion, even if the action is no more than inflection on words/jf

Dr. Ducker stands again before the X-rays. His eyes focus on the rear aneurysm, the second one, the one that thwarted him. He examines the film for signs, unseen before, of the monster’s descending tentacles. He finds no such indications.

Pop, pop, pop, goes the monitor, steady now, 70 beats a minute.

“Mother nature,” a resident growls, “is a mother.”

The retreat begins. Under Dr. Salcman’s command, the team prepares to wire the chunk of skull back into place and close the incision.

It ends quickly, without ceremony. Dr. Ducker’s gloves snap sharply as a nurse pulls them off. This punctuates the end of the action. It is a specific, active, concrete, sensual (sound is used) symbol/jf It is 1:30.

Dr. Ducker walks, alone, down the hall, brown paper bag in his hand. In the lounge he sits on the edge of a hard orange couch and unwraps the peanut butter sandwich. His eyes focus on the opposite wall.

Back in the operating room the anesthesiologist shines a light into each of Mrs. Kelly’s eyes. The right pupil, the one under the incision, is dilated and does not respond to the probing beam. It is a grim omen.

If Mrs. Kelly recovers, This paragraph and the two short paragraphs that follow are worse than unnecessary. They bring up images that are irrelevant (Mrs. Kelly is going to die and Dr. Ducker knows it), and distract the reader. Some readers were left uncertain as to whether or not Mrs. Kelly died. These paragraphs are the culprit. Together they constitute the worst structural failing of the story, and if the rest of it hadn’t worked well enough to offset the problems the piece as a whole would have failed/jf says Dr. Ducker, he’ll go ahead and try to deal with the monster itself, despite the remaining aneurysm. He’ll try to block the arteries to it, maybe even take it out. That would be a tough operation, he says without enthusiasm.

“And it’s providing that she’s in good shape after this.”

If she survives. If. If.

“I’m not afraid to die,” Mrs. Kelly had said. “I’m scared to death … but … I can’t bear the pain. I wouldn’t want to live like this much longer.” Flashbacks late in the story provide dramatic perspective. It is time that the reader remembers that Mrs. Kelly went into this with her eyes open. Otherwise, our hero becomes tarnished by failure. One of the points of the piece is that he is not tarnished, because he tried/jf

Her brain was too scarred. The operation, tolerable in a younger person, was too much. Already, where the monster’s tentacles hang before the brainstem, the tissue swells, pinching off the source of oxygen.

Mrs. Kelly is dying.

The clock on the wall, near where Dr. Ducker sits, says 1:40.

“It’s hard to tell what to do. We’ve been thinking about it for six weeks. But, you know, there are certain things … that’s just as far as you can go. I just don’t know …”

He lays the sandwich, the banana and the fig newtons on the table before him, neatly, the way the scrub nurse laid out the instruments. Foreshadowed, this becomes a very dramatic, human action/jf

“It was triple jeopardy,” he says finally, staring at his peanut butter sandwich the same way he stared at the x-rays.//cap the X?/Alix “It was triple jeopardy.”

It is 1:43, and it’s over.

Dr. Ducker bites, grimly, into the sandwich. He must go on. Food symbolizes life/jf The monster won.


Jon Franklin won the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1979, for this story. He won again six years later, in Explanatory Reporting, for a series on brain science. His “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster” annotation also can be found in the appendix of his classic Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner. His latest book is The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection between Humans and Dogs, and he is also the author of books including Molecules of the Mind and Not Quite a Miracle: Brain Surgeons and Their Patients on the Frontier of Medicine. 

Franklin is a University of Maryland writing professor emeritus and is at work on a novel.

*This piece is a reprint of a Sept. 26, 2011, post from the Tumblr feed The Story of A Story.

August 23 2012


August 21 2012


“Why’s this so good?” No. 55: Dave Gardetta, inside the Hollywood scene

Around the turn of the millennium, big changes swept Hollywood. Suddenly and as never before, screens were clotted with the teen-fodder likes of Scream and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Titanic and Dawson’s Creek. Where other journalists saw the business story in the pop-culture youthquake – an audience demographic shift, a celebrity trend – Dave Gardetta homed in on its civilian fallout, the influx of young women chasing their dreams of fame, often by dating Hollywood’s new generation of actors. And to portray that collision, aka “the L.A. Scene,” he told the story of two of those young women, in a Los Angeles magazine story called “Valley Girl, Interrupted.”


Rohini Reiss and Jessica Stonich met in a bar, we learn in the first sentence, “a long time ago for both of them – last year.” Boom: We’re in their world. From then on, Gardetta calls them exclusively by their first names, and that feels right, both because of their youth and because that’s how everyone in their milieu – the bar manager, the bouncer, the arm candy – knows each other. This is the Hollywood populated by kids from the wrong side of the Hills, extending high school indefinitely. The bouncers are “football players in suits.” Rohini and Jessica “don’t club in their spare time; they lead the rest of their lives in their spare time.”

Then Gardetta zooms out. The Scene may never have existed at this pitch, but it has always existed. This isn’t just the story of L.A. in 2001; it’s also the story of an older L.A., the promised land for Bonnie Lee Bakley, who had recently been murdered, and for an enduring template: “the women who date James Woods, marry Larry King, divorce Kelsey Grammer, or carry Jack Nicholson’s babies to term.”

Right there, Gardetta had me. This wasn’t going to be just a subculture story. It was more conceptual. Instead of the usual starting point – a famous person, a newsmaker, a dramatic incident – this one proceeds from the observation of a type of person, the young woman from nowhere who gets chewed up by Hollywood.

Gardetta aces the reporting basics: He chooses a pair of exemplary main characters who are individually compelling, true innocents at large but also precociously shrewd about the strange scene they inhabit, and positioned to infiltrate Gardetta, and readers, into some of Hollywood’s toughest rooms. He logs the hours. We see a hidden world from a rare vantage point. This is the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern view of Hollywood.

Part of the payload of this story, published years before Entourage debuted, is that it takes fame, almost always viewed either remotely through a paparazzo’s telephoto lens or with contrived intimacy in a glossy magazine’s coffee-at-Marmont blatherthon, and exposes the grim mechanics of how it really works. Here are the young actors masturbating in front of the girls while promising them stardom; “the packs in snakeskin and leather whose reptile brains are hardwired into the sex circuitry of the room, whose necks swivel simultaneously as if locked into the same reflex action, whose response controls are set on ‘stalk’”; cameos by the likes of Bill Maher, Kirsten Dunst, “Leo & Gisele,” Ashley Hamilton, Coolio. (This was 2001.) Here is Leonardo Dicaprio, described from feet away at a friendly weekend softball game hosted by Toby McGuire, as a “bearish boy figure” who “is beginning to look these days like our own Ernest Hemingway – with a ballooning chest and stomach and sweeping Mephisto chin beard.” You’ll never read that in InTouch or on Gawker or in a wrangled “exclusive” cover story.

Gardetta cuts seamlessly between glitzy Sunset Boulevard clubs and lonely single-mom Sherman Oaks condos, and one of the merits of the story is how it toggles between inside and outside, between close-up and wide shot. One minute we’re at street level, watching Rohini deflect a suitor by “acknowledging only the oxygen beside his ears.” The next we’re in outer space, looking at the big blue marble. “These were the children of apartments, kids who want to blow up big in rock, kids who wanted to blow up on TV, kids who wanted to blow up in heroin.”

That’s a great sentence. Here are some others I wish I’d written:

On the Standard club:

The arcing walls of the lounge are hung with purple glass rods that shimmer, giving the effect that one has been set down inside a bar that has been set down inside Neil Diamond’s shirt. 

On the people within:

Men and women seemed to conserve acknowledgement of others, expressions, and emotion as if stuck in a seven-year personality drought. 

On Jessica:

She was the shiny penny of a little exurb whose favorite adverb was like.

But let’s hear straight from her, as Jessica describes a blind date:

“And like we were just talking about everything and suddenly he comes in at 60 miles per hour and kisses me. And I’m like. And I just, like, froze up and I was just like and then he like backs up and he’s like, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I’m like, ‘You should know.’ It was just like. Nasty guy.”

Somehow the punctuation, those periods instead of ellipses or commas or em dashes, rescues the quote from the potential cruelty of verbatim reproduction and makes it instead an empathic depiction of the processes of her mind. If it reads mean out of context, it doesn’t in the piece, where Gardetta recounts it in the tone of a befuddled adult, a dork anthropologist; one of the secondary pleasures of the piece is its thread of light comedy, of this older outsider guy trying to understand an adolescent girl’s world:

“Right – got it,” I said. I had no idea what I was talking about.

Elsewhere, Gardetta tries to muddle through the many conflicting, overlapping, confusing definitions of “hooking up.” His own awkward relationship with his subject subtly echoes the story’s theme of inside-outside.

This is a story that threatens an unhappy ending. Rohini and Jessica are ultimately, among other things, “elements of a financial strategy,” the young and beautiful bait used by promoters to bestow ephemeral hotness on their clubs of the moment. They are on a road, Gardetta notes, that ultimately leads to “L.A.’s more sordid stations of the cross: the May-November pickup scenes at the Peninsula Bar of the Four Seasons, the trophy-wife luncheons at the Polo Lounge, the Beverly Hills escort services.” But his sympathy is always with the girls, and he ends with Rohini’s sunny expectation of “one day leaving the scene,” and finding a nice boy like the ones she used to hang out with when she was a tomboy teenager. “I just love innocence. I do,” she says.

I couldn’t resist Googling to see what became of Rohini and Jessica. Jessica seemed to have vanished into the ether, perhaps into a life of such hoped-for normalcy. Rohini had changed her last name and was turning up on Page Six, ten years later, as a “friend” of Sumner Redstone, who had given her Viacom stock and installed her in a P.R. job at Showtime.

Benjamin Wallace (@benjwallace) is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine.

For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each week for a new shot of inspiration and insight.

August 17 2012


Jeneen Interlandi on “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind”

We’ve chosen Jeneen Interlandi’s recent New York Times magazine cover story about her father’s mental illness as our latest Notable Narrative. “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind” follows a sobering episode in the bipolar history of Joseph Interlandi, revealing flaws in the nation’s mental health and criminal justice system. We caught up with Interlandi by email as she was preparing to transition from her native New Jersey to Cambridge, to begin her fellowship year at our mother ship, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

How did you decide to write this story?


Very impulsively! When the Arizona shooting happened, and the news broke that people who knew the gunman Jared Loughner had suspected he was seriously mentally ill, my family was in the middle of navigating our own situation. I remember being so frustrated by all the conversations taking place about how somebody should have taken the initiative and gotten (Loughner) committed to a psychiatric hospital, etc. One day, as both these stories were unfolding, I sent my editor a pitch memo, out of sheer indignation. Then when it came time to actually do the story, I panicked – like “Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?”

How did you report it? You used at least one court transcript from one of your father’s court hearings, and what else?

I tried to be as methodical as possible. I’d never written a first-person piece before and was very concerned about relying too much on my own memories, or letting my emotions overwhelm the larger points that I wanted to make.

So I started with the documents: several court transcripts – from the commitment hearing, the restraining order hearing, and the sentencing hearing; a dozen or so police reports, from all the various incidents; hundreds of pages of medical records; my own email exchanges with various social workers, etc.; and last but not least, both of my parents’ journals. From all of those I constructed a detailed timeline of what happened when, and what the doctors, police officers, psychiatrists, etc. were saying at each point along the way. Then I tracked down the other families. I talked to about 30 families in all. Some I found through this one nonprofit that advocates for stronger involuntary commitment statutes across the country. Others I found from newspaper archives and from congressional hearings where families like mine had testified in support of, or opposition to, various involuntary commitment laws that were being proposed in one state or another.

One of Joe's sketches. (courtesy Jeneen Interlandi)

After I had all of that, I looked into the research on involuntary commitment: talked to the academics and public health folks who were focused on the issues surrounding community mental health, mental illness and violence, etc. I saved the folks who worked directly with my father – the representatives of the specific agencies that we came into contact with – for last. I wanted to make sure I had all my ducks in a row before confronting them with anything. I also didn’t want the story to be overly focused on my parents’ hometown. I wanted it to be clear that these problems are national in scope. Also, I interviewed my parents, several times, throughout the reporting. And checked in with my siblings and with one childhood friend, to verify certain details against my own memory.

Hold on. How did you get your parents to let you read their journals?

I asked them, or rather told them, when they first agreed to do the story: “Hey, I will need all of your journals, both of you. Also, pop has to sign all these forms granting me access to all of his medical records.” (Also, “You won’t get to see what I write about you until the story is out in print. So you’ll just have to trust me until then.”) They didn’t even flinch. Of course, it helped that I am their daughter. It also helped that I had done this story on minimal consciousness a few months earlier that they both read. That piece had also come out of a personal experience with someone very close to me, and to my parents (not the person I focused on in the story). My parents knew from that piece what kind of story I was looking to write, and understood how it could maybe help other people to know about what we went through. So they were pretty fearless.

How did you choose not to include material from the journals, particularly your father’s?

I thought at first that I would. There is this big huge stack of them and even just looking at the writing, without reading the words, you can tell that it’s manic. But as I read through them, I found that they didn’t add any essential details. I wanted the reader to understand that my father was very sick at the time that the story takes place. But I didn’t want to, like, beat them over the head with it, or add a ton of gratuitous details just because I had access to them. Because ultimately this story is about the mental health system more than it’s about any one person’s particular psychosis. (I also admit to being protective of my father here. I think it’s enough to say that he was paranoid and delusional—that he hit my mother, and tried to jump out of a moving car, and threatened to kill himself. To include more than that felt exploitative).

How did your family ultimately feel about the piece and your decision to write it?

They were incredibly supportive. My mother especially, felt very strongly that other people should know what families like ours are going through. She said over and over that the story would help other families feel less alone, and that maybe it would trigger some changes in the way things are done (she’s an optimist!).  My father and siblings just trusted me implicitly to do right by them. I think I asked my parents every week, for like six months straight, “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” and every time they said, “Yes. We’re sure. Stop asking.” I didn’t show it to any of them before it closed, so I was super nervous when it finally went live. But they all had the same reaction: They laughed, they cried, they were proud. My father said, “You hit the nail on the nail!” Which is about as good as it gets.

What didn’t make it into the story?

The journals, for the reasons I just mentioned; and all but a small handful of the many families I spoke with whose experiences were so eerily similar to mine and to one another’s; and a whole article’s worth of anecdotes and descriptive details about my parents as characters (which I will resist the urge to include here).

Maybe just one?

We were teenagers, playing ball in the street in front of the house. And the ball goes into the neighbor’s yard. And the neighbor, who is like totally obsessed with his lawn, comes out and starts screaming at my brother,  calls him a racial epithet (remember we are Colombian, and my brother is pretty dark). My dad is standing nearby, and doesn’t really say anything. Just tells us to go inside or go play somewhere else, and lets it go. (Which is not like him at all). Late that night − like 2 a.m. − I happen to look out my bedroom window, and I see my dad sitting at the edge of our yard, in a lawn chair, facing the neighbor’s house. He’s drinking a beer, got a cigarette dangling from his lip, and a Super Soaker (one of those high-powered water guns that were so popular in the ’90s) sitting in his lap. And every couple minutes he pumps the thing up and sprays it all over the neighbor’s yard, and just sniggers to himself like a kid. It turned out he’d put bleach in the thing, and he was like destroying this guy’s precious lawn. The next morning it was all streaks of brown and yellow. I still can’t tell if that’s only funny to people that know my dad, but it cracks me up to think about, even to this day.

What was the writing process like? How do you organize? How do you work?

The overall workflow was the same as it usually is for me. I organize all my interviews and notes in an order that vaguely reflects the structure I’ve envisioned, then have them bound into a spiral book at the print shop (this one was something like 75 pages, which is about average). Then I read through it like a book and highlight what I am going to transfer into the outline (that will eventually become the first draft). By the time I’m done with that, I usually know how I want the story to start, and what the key contextual sections need to consist of. I did have many more throat-clearing drafts for this piece than I’ve had with any previous pieces. By that I mean, I wrote pages and pages – that my editor never even saw – describing my parents as parents, and going through all the anecdotes and incidents that have loomed so large in my mind for so many years. Then I walked away from it for like a week. And then came back and forced myself to whittle that section down from 2,000 words to like 500. I was very worried about being gratuitous in my descriptions; obviously I know these people so well that I could really weigh the piece down with all the details in my head. I was also worried about being too defensive, i.e., I tell you some unpleasant things about my dad, and to compensate, I want to tell you like 10 times as many good things. It took some time to get over that.

I admired the sectional cliffhangers, like this one:

We considered our options. We could lift the restraining order and bring him home. But if he spun out of control, we would have no way to protect our mother. Friends and relatives suggested that we offer no assistance and let him “hit rock bottom.” But it was now early January, and we could not bring ourselves to leave him with nothing in the biting cold. So we fashioned something of a compromise. We kept the restraining order but dropped off some money and a suitcase full of clean clothes at the front desk of the short-term facility. We crossed our fingers and waited. 

How did you arrive at the story’s structure?

I think this is the only piece I’ve done so far where the structure wasn’t a huge challenge and didn’t change much from first draft to last. It really came straight out of the timeline that I constructed from the documents. On one hand, there was all this monotony of, “He went to the hospital. Then he went to jail. Then he went to the hospital again,” and on and on. But on the other hand, there were a couple of really dramatic moments, like the commitment hearing, and when he called my mother threatening to kill himself. It was clear just from the timeline that those elements needed to balance each other out. And that if you wrote it any other way than chronologically, it would be unnecessarily confusing, because there was just so much to-ing and fro-ing.

How did you choose this particular episode to write about?

This particular episode happened to coincide with this horrible incident – the shooting in Arizona by Jared Loughner, who was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia – that had sparked a wave of national interest in the issues surrounding involuntary commitment. It also happened when I was in the process of leaving my staff writer job at Newsweek to freelance and to pursue longer-form narratives. More importantly, though, it was the first episode that I really saw up close (that we recognized as an episode, anyway). When my father was first diagnosed as bipolar, back in 2005, he went through a very similar cycle of repeated hospitalizations. But I was in the Arctic Circle, on Alaska’s North Slope, at the time, and so didn’t really grasp the forces that were shaping those events. I remember thinking that if only I had been there and had been proactive – made phone calls, sent out emails, confronted doctors and judges – things would have gone more smoothly. As it turns out, I was totally wrong.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered about the mental health system?

That my family’s experience was not even remotely exceptional. Before I started digging around, I really thought that we were somehow missing something (by) not contacting the right agencies, or not providing the right information to the right people. But after not very much time, it became clear that this was the norm, not just in New Jersey where my parents live but all across the country.

I found the ending to be exactly right for the subject matter, and full of tension. Did others agree? Did you or your editor worry that it was too open-ended?

That ending took a bit of work. Originally it was much more discreet. I just said, basically, “My dad is all better, we played cards, we forgave each other and that’s the end of it.” But fortunately, my editor, Vera Titunik, pushed me to rethink it. She kept saying, “You’re missing something here.” And she was right. Because bipolar disorder is obviously a lifelong condition, I think we actually wanted it to be more ope- ended. That’s the reality of it: You don’t know when or where another episode might occur, and beyond medication and therapy there is nothing to do with that uncertainty but live with it. For my parents, that means putting their characteristic spin on things: “Here is one more wacky misadventure for our personal archives. Now let’s eat some lasagna.”

How’s your dad?

He is great! Really back to himself right now, which means that my parents are back to themselves – growing old together and enjoying their grandkids and counting their blessings.

Jeneen Interlandi is a New Jersey-based health and science journalist who writes about biomedical research, public health and environmental science. She has written for the New York Times magazine and Scientific American, and spent four years as a staff writer at Newsweek. In 2009, she received a Kaiser Foundation Fellowship for global health reporting and traveled to Europe and Asia to cover outbreaks of drug-resistant tuberculosis. She has worked as a research assistant at Harvard Medical School and studied climate change in Alaska. She holds master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, both from Columbia University, and is an incoming Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

August 16 2012


Notable Narrative: “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind,” by Jeneen Interlandi

Our latest Notable Narrative, “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind,” is Jeneen Interlandi’s New York Times magazine story about an episode in her father’s debilitating bipolar disorder, and about deficiencies in the mental health system set up to help people like him. We admire the piece because it effectively uses the personal to illustrate a national crisis, and because it doesn’t flinch in the face of uncomfortable truths. Interlandi writes:

During the three months in which my father cycled through the system, he racked up five emergency room visits, four arrests, four court appearances, three trips to PESS and too many police confrontations to remember. He spent 25 (nonconsecutive) days in a psychiatric hospital and 40 in a county jail. The medical expenses alone — not including the police hours, jail time or court costs — ran upward of $250,000. These were costly months indeed — to the institutions forced to deal with him and, in more ways than one, to our family.

Interlandi alternates between her family’s history and that of a dangerously overburdened, underfunded mental health and criminal justice system. The personal narrative informs and balances out the public-sector story. You might think such a piece would be sorrowful through and through, but even in the midst of chaos Interlandi manages moments of levity, like one about Duke Ellington, and like this one, in which her father appears in court alone (his family is too afraid to join him) to defend himself:

Without his doctor or immediate family present, there was no one to describe the events leading up to his hospitalization or to explain the nature of his diagnosis. Instead, the argument hinged on a single line in a letter that my father wrote my mother from the hospital: “I will haunt you for all the rest of your life.”

“ ‘Haunt’ is a bad word?” my father asked. “It’s on the television every day.”

Interlandi does what the best explanatory-narrative writers do: lend human dimension and dramatic arc to large, complicated issues. You’ll need digital access to the Times in order to read this narrative (our links route through the log-in page), but it’s worth it. Check back tomorrow for our chat with Interlandi about this story.

August 14 2012


“Why’s This So Good?” No. 54: John Jeremiah Sullivan and partisan politics

Politics should, in theory, be the subject of some of the most compelling narrative journalism. There’s built-in drama! There are winners and losers! The stakes are high! That’s why it’s so depressing that most politics stories, even those of the narrative variety, are painfully boring. They tend to fall into one of two traps – and I don’t mean right or left. Sometimes they’re “objective” to a fault, stripped of all perspective and written as a description of an ideological Pingpong match in which the reporter, if she gets too close to the action, reduces herself to an awkward ghost. (“A visitor was offered a glass of water.”) Then there are pieces with the opposite problem: The writer, seemingly by design, uses every quote and detail to confirm her assumptions about the people on both ends of the American political spectrum, and does little more than recite familiar arguments and retrace caricatures that were first doodled decades ago.


The exceptions tend to be stories written by journalists who don’t usually cover politics. Recently, when the Supreme Court ruling that upheld Obama’s health care bill eclipsed the election as the dominant political story, I reread John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “American Grotesque,” a reported but essayistic GQ piece on the political ramifications of Obamacare. From a major tea party rally in D.C. to a quieter controversy in rural America to an even quieter familial fight over taxes, Sullivan manages to capture the political moment. It’s because he doesn’t just describe the debate; he engages with it on a personal level.

At first you think it’s going to fall into the second category of political narrative – one that is designed to confirm stereotype. Indeed, this piece has several details we’ve all read a million times, like this description of an offensive tea party sign:

A guy behind me is holding an ingenious sign he’s made. He’s cut out the mouth from a giant cardboard poster of Nancy Pelosi’s face, creating a hole, a gaping maw, and attached a bag to the back of it, like a corn hole at the fair. He’s handing out Lipton tea bags to people and urging them to “tea-bag Nancy Pelosi.” People are doing it and laughing, even ladies. Pelosi, with her giant crazy eyes, gulps the tea bags eagerly.

But the entire rally scene is written in the first-person plural. From there he continues:

It’s only fair. Liberals made fun of us because, at first, some of us didn’t know what “tea-bagging” meant—that it meant dipping your testicles into a woman’s or, if you lean that way, another fella’s open mouth—and a few of us, the older ones, may have referred to ourselves for a brief span as “tea-baggers,” in ignorance and in innocence. Now we’re turning the joke back on them. No one who has any sense of humor gets hurt.

It’s not just that we’re there. We’re marching. Sullivan identifies himself – and the reader – with these people who, let’s face it, are probably not GQ subscribers. It’s …  jarring. I was at that tea party rally. I did not feel like one of them.

But where this piece really begins to diverge from the template is when Sullivan starts writing about his family. Sure, we all know that where politics gets interesting is where it intersects with the personal. But rarely does such an intersection make its way out of the personal essay and into a reported piece of journalism. When Sullivan is hanging out with his much-more-conservative cousin, perched high above the National Mall, that’s when, finding it tough to suppress his own ideological leanings, he chooses to break reporter-character:

My cousin told me a casual story about a breakfast three months earlier with a leading Republican senator, by the end of which this senator had vowed to “make the public option radioactive.”

Suppressing screams, I said something about recognizing people from home on TV, and we laughed.

People from home. The other great thing about this piece is that he manages to say unexpected things about not only the ideological divide in America, but the geographical divide as well. Our next stop is Kentucky, a stand-in for the far-flung places from whence many of these ralliers came. And yeah, it’s far from Washington, but subject to the same fights, the same assumptions. A census worker has been found dead, and reporters have descended on this rural county. Sullivan runs into a sheriff on a near-deserted county road near where the body was found:

When I pulled away, I saw he hadn’t moved far. It was a sheriff’s deputy, parked in the middle of the road. His finding me here in all of Clay County, unless he’d been watching the graveyard day and night, seemed Stephen Hawking-size, oddswise. Was I supposed to stop and get out? I sat behind him with the engine on awkwardly.

I decided to pass him. As I went by, we waved. A smiling gray-mustached man with glasses. “Come on back,” he said, and just let me go by.

And most journalists would leave it at that. End on the quote. But Sullivan overthinks it. What really sets him apart as a writer is his ability to take details that appear minor and explore them, turn them over and over and inside out, in a way that doesn’t feel overwrought. These three words – “Come on back” – are the prompt for a great paragraph on how Americans don’t really bother to get past stereotype, political or otherwise. About how most of us are just visitors in other people’s comfort zones, about how we don’t attempt to really get to know what it’s like there. It’s an insight into the nature of American politics, but it’s also instructive for political journalists.

Ann Friedman is an editor and writer. Formerly the executive editor of GOOD, she’s now hard at work on a crowd-funded magazine called Tomorrow. She curates the work of female journalists at LadyJournos!, makes hand-drawn pie charts for The Hairpin, and dispenses advice about journalism using GIFs. In July 2012, the Columbia Journalism Review named her one of 20 women to watch.

For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each week for a new shot of inspiration and insight.


August 02 2012


“You will always have work, and it will be the best kind of work” — Richard Rhodes on writing (Mayborn 2012, vol. 2)

Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and of 23 other books, delivered one of the keynotes at this year’s Mayborn Conference for Literary Journalism. Here are five top takeaways from that address, followed by an edited transcript of his talk and a snippet from the Q-and-A session that followed.

Verity is the new workhorse. It carries all the freight of fiction but adds the density of fact. Robert Frost, the poet, once famously described writing free verse, cadenced voice with rhyme, as playing tennis with the net down. Verity raises the net and draws it taut, adding a challenge to the game that the game is better for.

The real poverty of the textbook school of writing is its apparent ignorance of the power of language to re-animate the world – the world of history, of technology, of science, of people, the natural world, whatever the subject might be. Stripping a text of its resonances, its rhetoric, of its performance of itself doesn’t make it clearer; it just makes it deader.

The book in your head may be the platonically ideal book you could write, while the book you do write may seem a poor beast indeed, Caliban to your ideal book’s Prospero. But the book you write is real. And when you finish, you can hold it in your hands. And when you’re ready, you can share it with others. The world will be a little warmer place as a result.

The work of writing is fundamental to all the many other forms that follow from it, whether printed books, digital books, theater, or television documentary and drama, and film and all their digital elaborations.

If you learn to write, learn to write well, learn to make people and events come alive in words whether fictionally or veritably. You will always have work, and it will be the best kind of work, work that uses, work that demands everything you’ve got. Who could ask for more? 

And the full talk:

So verity: Let’s begin with that.

In Standard English, verity means “truth,” of the Latin veritas.

Veritas was a Roman goddess. A pure, young thing. She was considered so elusive; she was believed to reside in the bottom of a sacred well.

I borrow the word ‘verity’ as a term of art to replace the term “nonfiction.” I think “nonfiction” as a designation of a whole broad field of writing is dismissive, which may be why this conference qualifies itself as concerning “literary nonfiction.”

Nonfiction as a term has no long heritage, which surprised me when I looked it up. In its first published reference, hyphenated, it appears in the annual reports of the Boston Public Library in 1867. I imagine a librarian trying to decide the other books besides fiction, in order to put them in another place in the library, came up with the term “nonfiction.”


I dislike the word because it designates the kind of writing we do with a negative: non-fiction, not fiction, (reminding) us that we nonfiction writers dwell in the swampy depths beneath poetry and fiction. Well, poetry’s a special case. I’ve written fiction and I’ve written verity, and I can say with confidence that verity is in no way fiction’s foe. It’s actually more challenging to write than fiction, because it adds to all the challenges of writing fiction a further challenge of building the elements of the real world. Elements with external reference. Fiction you can just make up. Verity you have to verify.

The joke is on the Olympians, however. Verity is coming to its kingdom, leaving poetry and fiction behind. Poetry, like firewood, once heated and lighted the world so that Darwin’s grandfather, for example, had Erasmus lay out his theory of evolution in the form of a book-length poem. But poetry became niche material a century or more ago. Fiction is bifurcating into popular and literary, and if the popular kind is coal, pungent and sulfurous, the literary kind is charcoal: relevant and clean but rather a Sunday recreation.

Now, verity is the new workhorse. It carries all the freight of fiction but adds the density of fact. Robert Frost, the poet, once famously described writing free verse, cadenced voice with rhyme, as playing tennis with the net down. Verity raises the net and draws it taut, adding a challenge to the game that the game is better for. To extract meaning from the real takes imagination. It takes wit to find, as the art of finding similarities in seemingly dissimilar things.

If verity is craft, fiction is witchcraft.

If verity is science, fiction is magic.

Nothing wrong with a little magic now and then, a little witchcraft. We all like to feel the hair rise on the back of our necks sometimes. But with change accelerating and the future spilling into the present like a flood, there is value and there is joy in weighing and testing and making sense. It’s not as if anything is lost writing verity. You still have to think and feel deeply. You still have to read between the lines. The best work, like the best love, should use everything you have. Verity, if you do it well, not only uses everything, it depends on it.

The sad, ugly change that followed when nonfiction was divided off from fiction was that verity was somehow devalued. Or maybe the delineation happened in school when history was condensed to textbooks but fiction was left beneath its covers to be read intact.

As a thought experiment, imagine if fiction were treated in the schoolbooks like verity, simplified, paraphrased, burglarized, stupefied. If I were a librarian, I would dump it off as non-verity, too. The assumption apparently was that verity is a sort of pudding, studded with raisins called facts, and that the facts could be extracted from the pudding and contextualized much more tidily and literally by the textbook authors. Who needs Gibbon to go on for six volumes about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Who needs the journals of Lewis and Clark when a filling-station road map will do? Who needs Jefferson’s notes on Virginia when he doesn’t have all the facts straight? Who needs Ulysses S. Grant on the Civil War?

Narrative, the historians of the academy announced, was inherently flawed. How was it flawed?

Oh my God, it introduced into history the methods of fiction.

Narrative filled the gaps between facts, facts being defined as bits of information anchored in documents; narrative filled the gaps with structure, opinion, even speculation. It made history a conversation, a humanistic enterprise.

Writing is writing.

As a craft, it’s highly abstract. You’re not throwing clay. You’re not carving wood. You’re organizing verbal symbols into sequences that convey meaning. Considering how elusive meaning can be, considering how far down in the holy well sweet little veritas crouches, hidden. It’s a wonder readers make any sense of it at all. Truth be told, they often don’t.

By actual measure, the language level of most New York Times best sellers is that of an eighth-grade reader. That’s one way best sellers sort themselves out from other books.

We don’t have an obligation to write at the eighth-grade level, but given the long, narrowing channel that stretches from our experiences to prose, and from our prose to the reader’s brain, we are obliged to help readers understand in every way we can. We do that by controlling the variables as well as we know how. By variables, I don’t only mean dictionary definitions. Ninety-nine percent of all the words in the language are metaphors. They have natural histories and they accumulate meanings as they evolve. Some of those meanings drop off along the way but most of them remain intact. If you’re oblivious to that, you’re not likely to communicate what you think you mean to say. That’s the negative.

The positive is that controlling as much as you have the gifts and the skill to control adds power, resonance, depth. The real poverty of the textbook school of writing is its apparent ignorance of the power of language to re-animate the world – the world of history, of technology, of science, of people, the natural world, whatever the subject might be. Stripping a text of its resonances, its rhetoric, of its performance of itself doesn’t make it clearer; it just makes it deader.

That’s what I mean when I said the historians of the academy put on their rubber aprons when they espoused a pseudoscientific historiography. They turned from restoring life to dead texts to autopsying them. Which means they turned from talking to the rest of us, to talking among themselves.

From time to time, I teach a two-hour master class at Stanford for students preparing to write their senior dissertations in international relations. In the advance of class, I tell them to send me several pages of their writing to review. I pencil-edit their samples to the standard to which I hold my own writing, and then we talk about them. I’m continually amazed at how few students, even at the senior level of a first-rate university, are aware that they use a fictional voice when they’re writing. They think, evidently, the voice in which they narrate their dissertations is their own voice, the voice of the self-talk that goes on inside their heads, the voice of their consciousness. But anyone who has ever gone through the exercise of actually transcribing his self-talk directly knows that it’s a mishmash full of half-thoughts, isolated words, sentence fragments, all the shorthand and code and private references we use to save time and energy when we’re mentally processing something.

Students I work with don’t seem to make that connection. They imagine they’re thinking directly onto the page, like the brainwave systems under development that will allow fighter pilots to operate their planes hand-free just with their thoughts. In consequence of this misapprehension, my students think style, point of view, rhetorical level and so on are basically decorative issues, issues that for some unknown reason seem to engage their instructors passionately but issues that have nothing to do with the serious business of putting their sure, unalloyed thoughts onto paper. Needless to say, my editing of their writing samples is usually quite a shock.

The truth is: Writing is translation, among other things. It’s translation because the rather alien, multi-dimensional, multi-sensorial, associative, only-partly-conscious mental processes that precede it are far too scattered and fugitive to make sense to anyone but yourself, and even yourself only listens by fits and starts. You have to wade into that glorious slough, start pulling up all the tangles of green underwater goodness, discard the dross, sort and shape and select and, yes, stupefy, to turn some of what’s in your head into those verbal symbols on the page that replicate something in the mind of the average passing stranger.

What’s in your head is seemingly infinitely richer than what you finally get down on the page. I think that’s why some people never actually get the writing done. They have a dream of a book in their head, and every attempt to write it down feels impoverished. The difference used to bother me until I thought about what the tradeoff was. The book in your head may be the platonically ideal book you could write, while the book you do write may seem a poor beast indeed, Caliban to your ideal book’s Prospero. But the book you write is real. And when you finish, you can hold it in your hands. And when you’re ready, you can share it with others. The world will be a little warmer place as a result. You’ll have added an invaluable bit of organized intelligence to the dissolving world. That’s the trade-off. It’s worth it, believe me, I’ve done it now for more than 40 years, across 26 books and several hundred magazine articles and book reviews. The real, you can hold in your arms. The real trumps the ideal, any day of the week.

It’s hard work, the best kind. Writing takes everything you can bring to it. Doing it well requires everything you’ve got – every gift, every skill, every sudden insight, every experiment, guess, throw of the dice, flight of fancy, and every trick of the trade.

Of course, I don’t mean making up the facts. I’m not of the school that believes embroidering your life history to spice up your memoir is virtuous. God knows memory is unreliable enough. Verity differs from fiction in that its facts can be checked with external reference. But that’s the only way, I would argue, that the two forms differed where the process of making them are concerned.

The opening of a book is an important moment when you hope to engage the reader’s passing attention long enough to draw her in. You have to set the scene and bring it alive and to some extent; you have to establish the level of rhetoric you intend to use throughout the book. If you write from beginning to end as I do, you may also be experimenting with the rhetorical level, and behind it with the voice you need to find to tell the story.

We will need all the skill we can muster in the years ahead. The practical world of publishing is changing with the advent of visual technologies, change that will be as revolutionary as the change that came to the world when Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type and all this minutiae devising that made books small enough to carry.

It isn’t at all clear to me how the research and writing of long-form texts will be supported. So far, print publishers have responded to the competition to visual by reducing advances to authors, making it increasingly difficult for independent writers without private means to find the time to write. In its panic of declining book sales, the publishing industry seems to be going the way of the film industry, which I have heard recently described as, and I quote, “now actually destroying itself” – this observer goes on – “because it’s harder to get financing and audience, companies are competing to make bigger, costlier films while eliminating risk, which is why ever more movies are based on intellectual properties.” In other words, they’re sequels.

The book counterpart to this observation is the increasing flow of advances to established best-selling writers and celebrity books, while advances to midlist writers have been cut by half or more. If a book proposal is even funded in the first place, as a midlist author my own work would hardly have been possible across these past 40 years without foundation grants, often usually from the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation in New York, bless its name, in my writing about science and technology. Not many foundations make book grants, however. And those that do necessarily limit themselves to books in specific subject areas. I might’ve written about many other book subjects in my career. One reason I’ve written so much about science and technology is that foundation grants have supported that work.

I don’t know the answer to this new fundamental, economic challenge. I bring it up in part to bond us together because the test of true journalism in a writer, I’ve observed across the years, is that when you get together with other writers, you don’t discuss actual literary matters. You bitch about your publisher.

This much I do know: The work of writing is fundamental to all the many other forms that follow from it, whether printed books, digital books, theatre, or television documentary and drama, and film and all their digital elaborations.

If you learn to write, learn to write well, learn to make people and events come alive in words whether fictionally or veritably. You will always have work, and it will be the best kind of work, work that uses, work that demands everything you’ve got. Who could ask for more? 

Q-and-A with audience:

Q: What writers have you found valuable? What has fed you?

Rhodes: I always have to think back to the particular best that other writers have sourced from me. Once you get into writing books based on documentary research, you spend 99.9 percent of your time reading those documents and previous books. I like to joke that books are made up of pulped-up previous books, and in a certain sense, they are. But as an impact over the years, the books that move me most deeply and really engage me and got me started in writing were, in particular, early on the works of Faulkner. Faulkner, Moby Dick and Herman Melville’s work; I was really amazed at Ralph Waldo Emerson, of all people. One of the jobs I had along the way to becoming a full-time writer was doing public relations for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, where I grew up and lived until I was 50 years old. We we developed a line of little gift books and they were all exactly 64 pages long, which made for some interesting editing. Most of all: Whitman. I still am just dazzled when I read his work. I keep saying to myself, as I’m sure every writer in this room does when they encounter work of a certain level, “How the hell do you do that?” And with Whitman especially because it sounds so conversational, seems so, so easy to do, and obviously, would still be with us and still resonating for us.

Q: One of the hallmarks in your work in science has been nuclear annihilation. One of our writers, Beth Langton, went out and spent some time with you, and she came away, after talking with you for several days, (with the idea) that you were trying to make your own sense of annihilation, that that was part of your motivation. I was wondering if you could talk about that: You grew up with this cruel stepmother who constantly inflicted terror in your life.

Rhodes: My wife is a clinical psychologist, and she likes to point out that her and her colleagues became psychologists by accident. They had issues, y’know? They were interested in exploring. I’ve only written one book-length biography, the book Audubon. Within the histories I’ve written are many biographies, are people, particularly scientists given what I’ve written about. It seems to me almost universal that they have their characteristic life preoccupations in place by the time they’re 12 years old, or maybe 16. Certainly that was true for the scientists I wrote about, and of course it was true for me. My mother committed suicide in the heart of the depression when I was a 13-month-old infant. And my father tried to raise my older brother and I in boarding houses in Kansas City, Mo.; he did a pretty good job until he married, eventually, a woman who decided that we were a good source of day labor and night labor. We didn’t get enough to eat, and we went through the usual kinds of mistreatment that children often go through in the world. We were lucky, I was lucky; my brother, a brave 13-year-old, went to the police when she was threatening him with a baseball bat one day. And even though it was 1949, when there was little social support in place in the United States to deal with children under those circumstances, we lucked out. We met a social worker later who handled our case, and she said, “We really didn’t know what to do with you boys. You had two parents. Which was definitely the standard at the time. But you were both so obviously starved.” Which we were. So we went, by luck, to one of those old farm schools, a private home for boys, and lived there for the next six years, until I finished high school. It was not a psychologically oriented institution, quite the opposite really; it was a farm. I lived in the natural world and planted things and saw them grow up, saw the cycle of life, learned to do rural things like butchering animals, which is a pretty shocking thing to learn. But even that had context for us, so it was a very healing institution to be a part of. Then I got a nice college scholarship and went off to my life.

So of course my preoccupations are with human violence and where it comes from and most of all what can we do about it and how do we survive it? And I suppose the most large-scale violence we as a species have ever been able to learn to inflict on ourselves is nuclear weapons, but I’ve also written a book about what makes individuals violent, based on the work of a criminologist I wrote about in the book, whose model of violence developments seemed so robust and well-supported by evidence. He interviewed about 200 violent criminals for an average of 10 hours each in prisons in California, where he was doing graduate work at Berkeley. I decided to see if it would fit another context and then wrote a book about the SS-Einsatzgruppen group, who were a group of men who shot Jewish victims into bits all over Eastern Europe; about 1 1/2 million people were killed that way.

So I looked into violence. All of this, I say somewhere in my book: You think you’re choosing a different subject. You think you’re writing something totally disconnected from the last book you wrote, but it all somehow bubbles up anyway. We really cannot escape our characteristic childhood preoccupations.

Einstein at the age of 5 was both fascinated and terrified by the question, “Where does the light go?” Later in life he said: “It’s really because I didn’t grow up.” I sort of remained a child, asking questions about these deep fundamental questions.

I’ve just turned 75, and I feel like I’m way beyond those years. But right now, I’m feeling like it’s time to get that big book on human violence done.

I used to try to write everything in this sort of 19th-century English historian style. Not everything of course, but the history I was working on. I deliberately chose that style for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, because I felt like it was a very large theme and deserved to be treated with that scale of language, if you will, to be embedded in that tradition so that the reader would feel she was reading something on the scale of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or whatever. But when I got to Audubon for example, writing a biography, I didn’t want it to be ponderous. Audubon was a wonderful, charming, light-footed man who could sing and used to teach dancing on the plantations of the Mississippi River and New Orleans. He could play the flute and the guitar, he could braid hair; he was just the most remarkable guy. To inflict on him ponderous periodic sentences didn’t seem appropriate, so what I did was, whenever my impulse was to hit the semicolon, I hit the period, and it worked very well.

In fact, I would almost go so far as to say you could style a narrative with something that simple. I also decided with The Making of the Atomic Bomb I would not use any contractions, so there are no don’ts or can’ts or ain’ts or whatever. I let everything go in its full range of language. But that’s not true with other books. Other books are written in different ways. The language in your book needs to be appropriate to the book you’re writing.

Don’t miss our other Mayborn coverage, including the talk, on voice, between GQ’s Jeanne Marie Laskas and Sports Illustrated’s Thomas Lake, moderated by Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery. Tomorrow: a final recap, featuring Pulitzer-winning author Isabel Wilkerson.

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