Spring 2002

Conference Diary

Ideas and insights, opinions and suggestions—all of these surfaced again and again in the swirl of presentations. What follows are snippets from these sessions that didn’t find a home on the previous pages but merit consideration

Ideas and insights, opinions and suggestions—all of these surfaced again and again in the swirl of presentations. What follows are snippets from these sessions that didn’t find a home on the previous pages but merit consideration.

‘So what is a narrative? It’s a story, but someone’s telling it.’


Nora Ephron
One of the things I was thinking about is where did this word “narrative” come into our lives from? It has really become the “mot du jour” and that is a little like the word pasta. For many years we had spaghetti and macaroni and linguini, and suddenly we have pasta, a fancy word for spaghetti, macaroni, and linguini. Narrative is sort of a fancy word for story. But that’s not all it is. It’s more interesting than just story, it’s more powerful than story.

On some level the words “narrative journalism” are an oxymoron. It’s a kind of unholy alliance, if you have a kind of pure view of journalism, not that I do. But I certainly did when I started out. I thought that I was writing the truth when I wrote an article in the newspaper. And, of course, when you have something called “narrative journalism,” both those things are being violated slightly by the other because the narrative, the story you’re telling, would always be better if you didn’t always have to think of what had actually happened. For a long time I thought, “Oh, God, I could never make things up better than this.” But that’s just because I hadn’t learned how to make things up. Now I really do know that a lot of the time that you get to a certain point in a true story and think, oh, too bad we have to do this because this is really boring. How am I going to get through this? By the same token, whatever the truth is is going to be slightly violated if you’re writing it as a narrative because it is going to have to bend somewhat to get into your story, whatever the story is you’re telling.

So what is a narrative? It’s a story, but someone’s telling it. You. So a narrative is imposed. You don’t have to have a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end to write a piece of narrative journalism, but it helps. And where the beginning, the middle, and the end are is entirely up to you. The key to narrative is structure. The key to telling any story is where does it begin, where does the beginning start to end and the middle begin, and where does the middle start to end, and the end begin. I think the understanding of a three-act structure is absolutely instinctive with journalists. —Nora Ephron

‘We’re rendering the scene in three dimensions.’

I want to give you one very quick example of thinking cinematically. It’s from a story I did, “Angels and Demons.” I was trying to describe a scene, a story, a serial about a mother and her two daughters, two teenage daughters who visited Florida and were murdered. And I was trying to write a scene where I describe their funeral. And I wasn’t there. I wasn’t covering the story yet. And even if I had been there, in Ohio, I wouldn’t have been allowed inside the church, because reporters were barred.

So afterwards, I had to try to understand so I could help the reader and myself get inside that church and be there for the service. And I interviewed all these farmers and other people who were at the service. And I’m from the Midwest. Actually I grew up, part of the time, about 50 miles away from this church. So I’m going to feel okay in generalizing about Midwesterners, whom I love. Midwesterners tend to be, compared to, say, Southerners, not as good at producing the kinds of detail and emotion, at articulating the kinds of things to help bring a scene alive. We’re trained as Midwesterners to sort of push everything down and keep going and be stolid, whereas in the south, you’re trained to just let it all hang out and go for it.

And I wasn’t getting anywhere with these farmers. I wasn’t getting any details. I went to the church and I walked inside of it and I found out that the floorboards creaked. Good. That helps. Then I got a copy of the sermon the minister gave that day on audiotape. And I got very excited that I could hear this audiotape. I thought, “Oh, God, maybe there’ll be something good there.” And I listened to it, and Hal Rogers, the husband and father of the victims, had told me that the sermon was terrible. That there was nothing comforting or profound inside the sermon.

And I remember thinking, “Well, what can anyone say that’s going to comfort you?” I was hoping that he was wrong, that it was a good sermon. And I’m listening to it at my desk in St. Petersburg and, by God, he was right. This is the worst damn sermon I’ve ever heard. The minister is saying nothing of any value whatsoever. It’s the most empty-headed, dumb sermon I’ve ever heard. Well, not the most, but close.

And so I got it turned up really loud and I’m listening and I’m getting more and more frustrated. And all of a sudden, the minister pauses. And during the pause I hear this bird chirp, and I got very excited. And I called up the woman who lent me the tape up in Ohio, because I don’t know birds. And I said, “Would you listen to that part of the tape and tell me what kind of a bird that is?” She says, “Sure.” She takes her copy, she puts it on, she listens to it. She says, “Ah, that’s a sparrow.” A sparrow. I got very excited. A sparrow. I said, “Oh, that’s a sparrow singing.” She said, “Phht. Sparrows don’t sing. They’re rats with wings.” She did not have a very poetic or lyrical notion about sparrows. I did.

The moment you say sparrow, it conjures up so many images, and I didn’t have to say any of those images aloud. You just have to put the word sparrow on the page. And so I put it in there, the sparrows chirping. And what happens is that’s just one little detail, but it really helped because in that moment, we’re rendering the scene in three dimensions. In stereo, essentially. The reader is on the bench; the minister’s up here talking. He or she is listening to the minister. And then from over here, or over here, comes this bird. It’s in three dimensions now. They’re there that much more vividly. So little tiny details can really make that difference. You don’t have to have necessarily a lot of details. —Tom French

‘I’m giving you sort of an equivalent in narrative to the five W’s.’

What I’m doing is I’m creating an experience. I’m giving you an equivalent in narrative to the five W’s. And it’s five threads that at any point in a piece of narrative you know: time, place, subject, character and mood. And as soon as you create those things in any kind of efficient way, that doesn’t call attention to itself so it’s too self-conscious, any time you create those things a reader will just get sucked in. —Jon Franklin

‘What I espouse is patience in listening.’

I’m not interested in the technology of the time. I do not use a tape recorder, one thing I didn’t get into because it’s too technical and maybe boring. I believe that what I espouse is patience in listening and trying to capture what the other person is thinking and trying to see the world from their view. I don’t necessarily want word for word from their mouth. Especially when you have a tape recorder working, you tend to get what I called first draft, sort of a talk radio on paper.

The tape recorder was not in popularity when I was at The New York Times, between the mid-50’s and early 60’s. But what I think has happened to journalism today, it’s become too much Q & A. The damn machine is there, and important people are talking to some reporter, and they are getting that first-draft mentality out of the mind of the important person. It’s all verifiable, yes it is, and the lawyers are happy about that because you don’t have to worry about some lawsuit in this litigious time.

However, I do think that it took the interview out of the outdoors, where I was walking around exploring, hanging out, whether it’s Frank Sinatra, whoever it was, and it brought the interview, too often because it’s convenient and it gets to be easy, to an indoor situation, or a tape recorder on a desk, or a coffee table in a hotel suite. I hate to see Q & A magazine reporting. I’m talking about getting to know people, hanging out with them, listening to them, developing the art of hearing and understanding and trying to make them into characters that are verifiable characters, but they’re like fictional characters. I’m always looking for scenes, I’m looking for scenes in reporting, because it’s story. It’s story. Story. Tell it through people. It has to be visual. You have to have a visual sense. —Gay Talese


A conference participant

An Oregonian editor and writer talk about overcoming resistance to narrative.

Jack Hart: Overcoming resistance. My God, I well remember when Tom Hallman first wrote a narrative that we nominated for the front page, as opposed to some specialized feature section like the magazine. And the news editor said, “Well, for Christ’s sakes, this isn’t news! Why would you want to put this on the front page? Who’s going to read that anyway? They expect news on the front page.”

Now, two or three Sundays ago, 18 years later, a Pulitzer Prize, three-time Pulitzer finalist, he’s got a 135-inch narrative that we’re trying to get on the front page, and the same people are saying “135 inches? There’s a war on. Don’t you know there’s no room for this kind of thing in the paper?”

So it’s a constant battle to overcome that sort of resistance. If you are enthusiastic about promoting narrative in your newsroom, the reporters have to help educate the editors, and for a lot of us it’s been a mutual learning experience all along. I don’t know. How do you persuade an editor who might not be amenable to doing a narrative that it’s a good idea?

Richard Read: The number one way to do it is just become an expert on what it is that you want to write the narrative about. And if it comes out of a beat, that means becoming an expert on your beat so that you’re first rate at turning out the daily stories. So the editor, I mean, has trust in you when you come and you say, you know, “This is a wonderful way to tell a story that we couldn’t do in the conventional daily format.”

And they’re going to be a lot more receptive and believe you than if you come in and say, “You know, I was riding the train. I got this great idea about something. I don’t know anything about it, but….” It’s just a harder sell.

And by the way, on Jack’s point about this news editor who’s a skeptic, I think some of that dialogue is really healthy. Because these narratives do have to carry their own weight, and you should be able to defend them, and they should be worth the 135 inches. And if they’re not, then you know, please, let’s just run the good stuff that we’re generating every day in the newsroom.

Jack Hart: Yeah. And there are people in this business who have been successful at narrative who argue that everything in a newspaper ought to be narrative. And I don’t think either Rich or I would ever make that argument. I mean, the delivery of basic, essential information that people in the audience need to be good citizens of a democracy is the fundamental purpose of a newspaper. And if we can expand that franchise in a way that helps them understand their world a little better and be emotionally moved by it and care more about their fellow human beings and have some insights that will help them live more successful lives, more power to us. But that’s not our basic mission in life.

‘Tell them a story and they will follow you anywhere.’

You can bring sheer joy by telling a good story with imagery and detail and color. And it doesn’t have to be sad, and it doesn’t have to be serious. It can be just as effective to make you laugh as it does to make you cry, if you do it right. And the way I try to do it is just to paint a picture. Fill it up with metaphors and similes. Now, I don’t know the difference between a metaphor and a simile. I’m not kidding, any more than I really know what narrative journalism is. But if you fill it up with color, if you tell them a story. That oldest cliché in the book: Tell them a story and they will follow you anywhere. —Rick Bragg

‘I’m the reason it’s a story. I saw it. It’s my vision. But you don’t see me.’

I work very hard as an invisible writer because I want my reader to live in the head of the person, live in the experience and the day and the space of the person that I’m writing about. And if you look at one of my stories, you’re going to have a lot of trouble finding me, but I’m there. I’m all over that sucker. I’m the reason it’s a story. I saw it. It’s my vision. But you don’t see me. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a voice, and it doesn’t mean you don’t have one either. —Bruce DeSilva

‘I would project myself, physically, into these other worlds.’

When I was 10, I would climb the sycamore tree on the edge of our property and climb as high as I could to my favorite place near the top, and I would wedge myself at the top of the tree and I would look out over this subdivision that bordered this lane right behind our house. The back yards came right up to this lane. And I would watch these families. I was watching people’s outer lives. I was watching moms hanging up the clothes in the back yards, dads in the driveways working underneath the cars. And I would watch the kids tearing up and down the street on their bikes and doing wheelies. And I can still hear girls on the sidewalk playing double dutch.

I would just be entranced with all these little details of other people’s lives. I was 10 and wouldn’t have been able to articulate it this way then, but I had this very definite sense that every house I looked at was an entire world unto itself, that it was the same as my house in some ways but was completely different, and that every house had its own language and its own maps with familiar safe territory and forbidden territory and its own rules, and its own laws, and its own secret history.

And I really wanted to understand what it would be like to be inside each of these other worlds, and I would do this thing that I think is very useful for reporters to learn how to do: I would project myself, physically, into these other worlds. I would be physically still in the tree, but I would literally just project myself in and try to understand what this world right here, in that house, was like, and what the one next door was like, and I would form my little impressions.

And when I was up in this tree it never ever occurred to me to turn around a little bit and look back at my own house and to think about my own family. It never occurred to me that my family might have a secret history of its own.

And I grew up and became a journalist working for a newspaper, writing these narratives about other people’s lives, and I really loved exploring other people’s lives. I really enjoy the ability to now go inside those other worlds and wander in them and explore them and map them and then try to share some of what you find with readers. —Tom French

‘A big part of the writing life is taking the risk, getting in the game.’

I think the hardest thing for newspaper journalists is we come from a first-draft culture. We come from a culture that basically has deluded us into thinking that the stuff we write on deadline can be published. And the only reason it can be published is because it has to be published. Newspaper writers who go to do magazine work quickly find out, hey, the first draft just isn’t good enough.

There’s two ways to do this. One is writing, writing a lot and then rewriting it and rewriting it. And then the thinking about it, getting it down, and it’s pretty good at that stage. A big part of the writing life is taking the risk, getting in the game. And I would argue that when you’re writing, you’re not able to judge whether it’s garbage or not. When you’re writing, you are creating, and that is completely different than criticizing. —Chip Scanlan

‘There’s something here that goes beyond what we can convey in a one shot, daily spot news.’

Traditionally we defined journalism in the 1950’s and ’60’s, when us old-timers were coming into the business, as being very much oriented to the individual event—usually a very confined, cramped view of individual events, political conflict of various kinds.

And so this whole wealth of understanding of meaning about the world and how it operates that emerges only when you track action through a series of scenes and see how all of these things tie together in a complex and sophisticated way was beyond the view of newspaper journalists or any journalists, for that matter.

So when you see something happen and have developed a capacity in your newsroom for saying “This is story and there’s something here that goes beyond what we can convey in a one shot, daily spot news approach to the subject,” then it’s time to mobilize the resources and to jump on it and to organize a team to go after the pattern and try to find the larger picture. —Jack Hart

‘Where do ideas come from?’

We’re trained observers, and we can find stories anywhere. I’m coming out of the Barking Crab in Boston. It’s a restaurant down by the Fort Point Channel and it’s late at night and I’m going to my car and I hear Jimi Hendrix. We know he’s dead, but we hear this music coming, and I look around and there’s no cars, no people, no nothing. I go up on top of the bridge and I look. No people. I go under the bridge, no people. So where’s this Hendrix coming from? And I look and, inside the bridge, not visible to anyone, are some entrance holes that go inside the girders. And above the corrugated steel is a homeless guy living there, and he’s got an apartment in there, and I just waited for him.

I got to be friends with the guy, and he didn’t want anything to do with me. He said, “If you do a story about me, then I’ll get kicked out of here and that will be bad. I don’t want to go to a shelter, because they’re dangerous, people are violent in there, I have AIDS, they’ll look at me like a leper.” And I honored that, and I said, “Listen, I understand, and I’m not going to rat you out, I’m not going to do a story. Here’s my card. Someday you might need me, keep my card.”

So a year goes by, and I get a call from the guy on my cell phone and he says, “The people from the Big Dig are trying to kill me because I’m stealing electricity.” What is this, a $20 billion program and he’s stealing like 12 cents of electricity. Some asshole from the Big Dig says they’re going to kill him, and he’d better get out of there. So he invites me in and he’s got pictures of Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix posters, he’s got carpeting, he’s got a color TV—he’s got almost as nice a place as I’ve got, rent-free. So we do a story about him, and we called the construction company and, of course, the president’s posturing and says, “We don’t care if he lives here, it’s okay.” And poor guy lives there with AIDS and his dog.

And that’s why I love being in this business, but of course this doesn’t have a happy ending because I got about 20 or 30 calls after I did this story. Nobody wanted to help the guy with AIDS; they all wanted to adopt the dog.

So the main thing, I guess, is the idea, and where do ideas come from? Well, there’s no textbook answer to that. Sometimes they come from your friend, sometimes they come from what you see. So where the story comes from is important, but more important is how you meet the people and how you deal with the people. You have to show them respect. I look them in the eye, I don’t pull out my notebook. I leave my cameras in the car. —Stan Grossfeld

‘They’ve been living with these people until they absolutely accept them and accept them in their lives.’

David Sutherland set out to make a film with a farm family. He took almost three years, in the company of a couple. This is narrative journalism at its finest. We called it “an investigation of the human heart.” What makes his film work is Sutherland’s ability to use the mundane and to take the small events and to order them, without the narrator’s voice, but to add and to build a narrative using a kind of narrative on its own.

What’s so brilliant about this is that this is the hardest kind of filmmaking. Too many people go out and try to do it, especially with video cameras and small cameras. This is a highly wrought piece of work. I mean David Sutherland is hiding in a cabinet in their kitchen or there is a camera crew in there. They’ve been living with these people until they absolutely accept them and accept them in their lives.

He came back with these thousands of hours of material. And we watched him, over a year and a half of editing, meticulously placing this. The one technical thing above anything else was that the sound was brilliant. David had 24 tracks of sound when we were finally mixing it. But he was obsessed with the sound, because the sound is everything. And using the small details of their lives, then weaving through it the drama of a farm family, the whole story of what was happening to the family farm, and that was what was so brilliant about it.

David spent a lot of time in the FmHA [Farmers Home Administration] looking for families until he found this family. And he met them, and liked them, and they let him sleep on their couch that night, and he never left. —David Fanning


Bob and Nancy Giles

‘Narrative makes ideas come alive.’

When I was a journalist, my duty was to talk about the movement of people, the domestic life. I found that challenge very constraining and almost suffocating. I always felt that others were able to do it better than I did and that often novelists were far more successful by inventing the patterns of this or that character in this or that community or nation.

And it was only after reading three or four former journalists—in the sense of writers that deal with mundane, earthly life but that have graduated into the other category—that I fell in love with what I would consider the journalist of dreams. I’m thinking particularly of somebody like Edmund Wilson, who would be after an idea and thus spend his months talking to people to see how that idea came to be and how it is transforming people and what the past, present and future of it is.

I am no longer a journalist, but perhaps I am that type of journalist that deals with the life of dreams or the life of ideas. As a journalist of dreams I’m interested not so much in what is happening at the level of how people are moving from one side to the other of the border, but what are they thinking and what are they speaking? And how are they communicating those dreams and those thoughts to one another? And I’m interested in how ideas in these people, in all of us, can become facts for journalists, facts that are about the life of the mind. If we could see the mind as a kind of territory that could be mapped, and the journalist is the surveyor of that map that will tell you where the caves are and where the rivers are, I think that other side of journalism would make us all richer.

If I understand what narrative journalism is, as it pertains to life of dreams and not to life of acts, of people, it has to have this Virgil of sorts that takes you into where ideas sit and live. I think an op-ed piece that will be quickly forgotten is a piece where the ideas are presented as a skeleton and they don’t have life. Narrative makes ideas come alive through anecdotes, through storytelling. The object is to enliven those ideas by making them rooted in daily life, in my personal life, in yours. But it’s the ideas that will carry the piece. But ideas are housed in minds, and minds are what interests us, the minds of people and how those ideas are expressed by those people. The same idea could be expressed by five people in five different ways. And you will remember, of the five, the two or three that were able to bring passion to those ideas. —Ilan Stevens

‘You can’t just rush into this stuff without setting yourself on a course for learning it.’

Richard Preston, the McPhee student who wrote “First Light” and “The Hot Zone,” tells a story about a conversation with an editor. Preston said God was in the details. And the editor said, “No, God is in the structure.” When it comes to doing narrative, God is in the structure. And you have to learn an awful lot of very specific, highly applicable information about the complication/resolution form of storytelling, about the kinds of structures that have been worked out over hundreds of years by various kinds of writers.

One of the things we do worst in this business are the techniques of characterization—the whole technique of scenic construction and the difference between summary narrative and dramatic narrative. Newspaper people have a terrible time grasping that fundamental distinction that’s absolutely essential to succeeding with this kind of work.

Point of view: We are just absolute kindergartners when it comes to working with point of view and stance. Lots of big projects at big papers have just been screwed because people didn’t understand the importance of point of view and how it could be shifted successfully and how to avoid the pitfalls that you want to avoid.

Rhythm, pacing—all of these techniques that have been written about for 200 years by fiction writers and have been written about very specifically in a wonderfully illuminating way by people who are exploring the frontiers of nonfiction now. It’s out there. You can learn it. But you can’t just rush into this stuff without setting yourself on a course for learning it. —Jack Hart

‘Let’s face it. You’d never get Harvard to sponsor a seminar on feature writing.’

I’m not real sure what narrative writing is, which makes me very qualified to stand up here and talk to you all. We call it narrative writing because you would never get 800 people to come to a seminar on features. Let’s face it. You’d never get Harvard to sponsor a seminar on feature writing. But you call it narrative journalism and you can get people from all over the world. —Rick Bragg


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