So. Home safe, head full of some pretty profound thoughts and a soul quite replenished. I learned more things this week than I could ever put in a blog or will probably ever be able to consciously incorporate in my work. And along the way I found some resolve, found my words again and found that everybody has that voice in their head telling them they suck, whether you work for the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, the Rifle Citizen Telegram or WE Vancouver.
And no matter where you work, the stories you tell matter. A lot. We live in a really crazy world in a really crazy time and the stories we tell help us make sense of it, help us relate to one another. Even — especially — through the lens of just one individual dealing with one situation that’s a stand-in for so many others. It’s really easy to lose sight of this. Often times we write for editors, for other reporters, for politicians and policy makers. But the bottom line is we’re really writing for everyone trying to get through their day. And that takes guts. You’ve gotta have guts to live in this world, and you’ve gotta have more guts to go out there and prod people about how they do what they do, no matter what they do, and put it out there for everyone else to read. You’ve gotta have guts to share your story with nosy reporters who really, seriously, wanna know what you ate for breakfast this morning.
The people in my class have guts in spades. Guts enough to recognize they wanted to be better reporters, to do this work better, to serve their readers and their communities more effectively. Guts enough to keep going with this work that’s not easy to do, especially right now, and guts enough to admit when they’re scared, when they’re insecure and when they’re playing the victim.
So my utmost thanks again to my classmates and instructors for spilling their guts. It was messy, and it was awesome, and it’s gonna stick with me for a long time. Anyone who wants to pick my brain is welcome to it, I’d love to spill my guts to you. Just let me get a little shut-eye first…
Peace out Poynter. It’s been a blast.
You’ll have to excuse my missing the post yesterday. As I’ve said before, we’re getting hit with so much information my head feels like it needs to be defragged at the end of the day. Or, rather, at the end of this week.
We wrapped it up today, following another intense day yesterday where we covered writing tools with Roy Peter Clark, setting the scene with Tom French and picked apart our work in Jacqui Banaszynski‘s literary forensics session. Ever looked at your work, like really looked at it, to decipher your patterns? How much you quote — which most of us do too much — how you use verbs, or whether you’re addicted to subordinate clauses, you know, the stuff you squeeze between commas or tag on at the end of a sentence? It’s a really useful exercise to go through some of your copy and take a look at what your habits are and then see if you can use some of them to further advantage, or ditch the ones that aren’t working.
One big issue for most of us is ending with the quote. I’d venture to say I do this on upwards of 90 per cent of my stories. In fact, the last third of a lot of my work tends to jump from quote to quote. It’s a very common practice a lot of us adopt because a) it’s easier to type out a quote than to boil it down to what needs to be said and b) endings are hard to write.
What a lot of reporters don’t realize, and I certainly didn’t, is that when you end with a quote you hand your story over to that subject. You’re literally giving them the last word which can reflect a bias and totally change the reader’s perception of importance. Endings are tricky things and too often we get there by surprise. It’s the “Oh look, I’m almost at my word count. I’ll just stick on a quote and I’m done,” school of journalism. I do it all the time.
But it’s useful to actually have an ending in mind when you go into the story, and before you start writing, know where you want to end up. All part of that whole have-a-plan-when-you-go-in idea that so rankled me earlier in the week. It’s daunting, but I think really worth the added effort, and of course if you’ve got a quote that just wraps the whole story up in a bow like it was meant to be, use it. But often we use throwaways.
So following this we were sent back out onto the streets of St. Pete to bother yet more innocent Floridians for scene stories, or mini-profiles, whatever struck our fancy to try out our new tool boxes, now full to the brim of advice.
We read them in class today and the difference was quite astounding. We’re all strong writers in the group but man, shows what a little forethought can do to bolster even mediocre material.
One of the tips I’ll take away from this week is to, as you’re reporting, start thinking of framing your story with one question: what do you want to know? What’s the engine driving your story? Then as you write, what’s the one word — ONE — that the story is REALLY about? It helps focus it without getting so carried away in multiple universal themes.
Again, I was walking back to the hotel from class and saw this guy in a park and set out to find out what made him tick. (St. Pete seems to be particularly full of characters.) My question was literally what everyone else was thinking: What’s with this guy?
Here’s what I found out:
He tries to get here twice a day. To the park where the thick Bahama grass clutches at the tires and makes it extra difficult to push the bicycle — up and down and side to side across the soccer pitch.
He’ll stay for nearly an hour, leaving tracks in the green with no rhyme or reason.
Dr. Stuart Lipman never served in the military. The dog tags on his neck were a gift in med school, and with his medic alert and Star of David they form the pendulum beating against his bare chest with each pedal stroke. Sweat runs from under his helmet and down spindly legs in hiked up athletic shorts. Name and address are affixed to the rear-view mirror jutting out from his head like an antenna.
The one 16 years ago took him out of hospitals where his patients remembered him for giving them roses. “I grow them,” he says.
It was just a silly stunt. Thought he’d try skating backwards and ended up with a herniated disk, a lame left leg and no one to diagnose but himself. “I discovered I have ADD,” he says, noting how, when he started taking Adderall, his mind went calm for the second time in his life. The first? Years ago on a Scandinavian cruise. “I did hashish — or marijuana — I can’t quite remember.”
He misses medicine. Making people laugh when they are scared. But who has the time? He’s a volunteer now, and likes to travel. Besides, there are more important things. He’s had to be there for his unhappy mother, for his son, and for the boy’s mother while she died. “I told her I wasn’t there for the marriage so I’d be there for the treatment.”
Six months ago the cancer finally killed her.
He met a woman in April, thought she might be the one and started coming to the park every day to get fit.
Things aren’t looking good.
“We speak different languages. I am open, she is closed and tight and afraid.”
No matter. He wants to write. Has a story in mind about a homeless doctor but can’t find the words. He’s waiting for them to appear to him as if God put them there, the way musical notes appeared to Bach. He is waiting for them, on the bike, going back and forth, across the field, down the sidewalk and back again.
My word: Searching.
This guy was all over the map, and having that word helped me focus HIS story so I could write. Amazing. It worked. Also, I didn’t end with a quote and decided again to pick up on the first image, really a metaphor for his directionless life.
It’s a little harder than I thought to summarize each day here as they are just so packed with really great information. My mind has been blown about four times today alone.
Yesterday, we had a good long session on interviewing. A really crucial skill that more often than not is executed in a kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants manner. We talked a lot about staying on track in interviews, being conversational without reducing it to a conversation. Because it’s not. It’s not enough to just turn on the recorder and see how long you can keep a person talking. In fact, it’s not always smart to keep them talking, you’ve got to allow for silence, awkward silence, if you’re going to get anywhere. People naturally want to fill it. You have to stay quiet so that your subject will be the one to do it, not you.
It’s also not a good idea to be broad with your questioning. A total an epiphany for me. I try to get them to touch on as many different topics (related to my topic) as possible, no wonder I’m often overwhelmed when I sit down at the keyboard. We played a game called “For every question, 5 more” meaning every question you ask you should follow up on the answer with five more related. Get to the point where you’re getting people to talk about what they had for breakfast. Go down the deep and narrow path, don’t go wide and far afield. This goes back, of course, to focus. Before you head out, know what you’re looking for. What’s the objective? What’s the question — the ONE question — motivating your story. Not everyone’s going to have three hours for a sit down, but I know a lot of us pick up the phone and just try to keep people talking. Not a good way to do it.
And while we’re on the subject of phones, the one piece of advice I’m hearing over and over and over again is GET OUT OF THE OFFICE. Interview people in their habitat. Where they live. Go do things with them. Walk around in the lemur pit. Pick up the baby. Report the feel, taste, smell, sounds of where they are and what they’re doing. You’ll learn so much more about a person, a situation, by how they relate to it than what they tell you.
Another hugely important point. I know we’ve all avoided asking questions because we assumed our subject wouldn’t want to answer them, or that they’re too personal, not polite, etc. An example: I just avoided asking a bunch of transgendered men if they’d had surgery on their genitals, which was actually directly related to the point of the story, which is going to be (ahem…) about trans men and acceptance of their bodies. I chickened out. It’s really personal, right? You think they’ll feel weird about it. But Jacqui pointed out when that happens it’s actually us project OUR discomfort onto our subjects. They’re adults, they can choose whether they want to answer the question, but not if we don’t give them the option. Not if we don’t ask it. Most of time, people actually want to tell their stories, they know what they’re going through. The grieving mother knows she’s grieving. The transgendered man knows people are curious about what decisions he’s made about his body.
Executing all of these techniques take more time, of course, which cuts into our time at the keyboard, a prospect that naturally causes panic. But if you organize your story from the get-g0, identify your central questions and ideas (a good way to do this is sum up in one word, yes ONE word, what the story is about, though it can change once you gather info) it will save you time down the road. Especially if you WORK WITH AN OUTLINE.
Whoa. Now I’ve never been a fan of outlines, nor story maps. But when Jacqui Banaszynski walked up in front of us today she asked three questions:
How of you are linear writers?
How many of you have to get your lead perfect before you can go on?
How many of you build your story around quotes?
Guilty on all charges. She used to do that too, and like me, often wound up overwhelmed and in tears with a deadline bearing down on her at full speed. Outlines and organization. We spent a lot of the afternoon on that, going over devices and techniques to organize your information before you’ve even sat down at the keyboard and I’m a total convert.
The actual devices are a bit complex to outline right here, but I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for three years without this information. In fact, I’m starting to wonder how I’ve ever conducted an interview, put together a feature story, or made a deadline in my life. I can’t wait to come home and try this out. And I never thought I’d say that.
Yesterday they turned us loose on St. Pete so our pack of 16 journalists could rove for several hours in the blistering heat pestering the locals for stories. The idea: working with description, character and theme to tell a story instead of facts and figures.
I was about to head to the Dalí Museum (did you know St. Pete is the home of the largest Dalí collection outside of Spain? — that’s it in the picture) but thought I’d walk back to the hotel first with a few of my classmates and drop off my gear. Along the way I caught out of the corner of my eye a man in an alleyway rummaging through a dumpster. Now, I do a lot of writing about poverty and homelessness at home, so walking up to a dude foraging isn’t anything new. Only most of the time — nay, all of the time — I go immediately to what Jacqui Banaszynski calls the BFP. The Big Fucking Picture.
It’s not enough just to write a narrative scene about a man going through the trash for stuff he can sell. Normally I’d see this man and then head back to the office to call the homelessness advocates, the municipal task force on homelessness, shelters, etc. Only it IS enough, sometimes, to just paint the scene. I gave myself permission to watch and chat with the man — he was a talker — and he did the work for me. I didn’t have to draw some big conclusion for the reader about the state of the economy in St. Pete and Florida and the U.S. and how it’s impacting individuals because well…here, I’ll show you:
John at the Dumpster
John always cleans up his mess.
He repeats this information three or four times with his fog-horn of a voice, loud and nasal, in the five or so minutes he spends rifling through the dumpster. He’s got this non-stop cadence that suggests he’s given the spiel before.
Right now you’ll find the whole of America digging through dumpsters searching for bits of scrap to sell but you won’t find anyone as clean as him.
“I never leave a mess. I never have a problem. I always clean up after myself.”
In the alley off of Third Street, there are two, mustard-coloured bins. One low and squat, the words Green Chile stenciled on the side, the other taller and deeper, called Coronet. John’s waist-deep in Coronet plucking tangles of insulated wire from the jumble of office equipment — computer monitors, a leather desk chair and what looks like part of a bed frame.
He’ll get about 100 bucks for the wire down at Iron Acres, he says, and coils it neatly before stuffing it into one of two buckets dangling from the handlebars of a blue bicycle. Someone else can take the bed frame, that’s another cool hundred right there.
It’s been about eight months since John lost his job as an electrician — that’s how he knows what to look for — after he punctured his hand on a rusty saw at work.
“I wasn’t looking in my tool belt and it went right through my hand. I just snatched it out. The next day it was all red. I spent 18 days down at Bayfront Medical Centre.”
Three surgeries later, the dark-skinned, dirty hand has a thin white line under the right index finger, and it doesn’t close properly anymore. His boss thought he might be a liability and let him go. John says he doesn’t have health insurance.
So now it’s dumpsters. It’s not bad, as long as you follow the rules. “I don’t steal and I don’t trespass,” he says pointing to a cordoned off section of the alley with a warning posted on the door. But anything in the bin is free reign. “It’s a weird person who’s gonna tell you to get out of a dumpster.”
And there are surprises. From the depths of Coronet, John pulls an immaculate poker set in an aluminum case. The green felt is untouched, the chips are in neat rows. Only the cards have made an escape. Through a split seam in the side of Coronet, aces and spades meander toward the sidewalk like a trail of breadcrumbs. John leaves them. He didn’t make that mess.
I read mine in class, they liked it. Had a lot to say. We get so wrapped up in the talking heads, thinking you need somebody with a title to say something to make it real. But at the end of the day nobody knows about homelessness and poverty better than the Johns out there, and his experience is a story (OK, yeah, you might need a talking head there in the end somewhere), but, really don’t we write this stuff for real people? We need to get out of the office and find them.
So today we were officially introduced to the gifted pedagog Jacqui Banaszynski.
The topic: The writing process.
Now, here was a morning full of more “ah-ha” moments than I could almost handle. The first being the moment Banaszynski, former editor at the Seattle Times and a fellow Pulitzer prize-winner (who along with Tom French makes up the duo of honest hair) stood up in front of us and confessed that, she too, loses her focus on stories, cries at the keyboard and will do anything in her power to avoid sitting down and knocking out that first draft. Turns out going for a run, doing your laundry or scrubbing the linoleum isn’t procrastination — it’s part of the writing process.
There was a collective sigh of relief in the room. The wave of “oh my god I’m not the only one” was palpable. Even from the Associated Press contingent.
So writing’s not magic. It’s not even luck. It’s work. And somewhere along the way those of us who choose to do it for a living seem to lose sight of that fact, while buying lifetime subscriptions to the wonderfully individualized radio stations You Suck FM of K-FKD (sound it out…). I cannot tell you how amazing it is to hear that, out loud.
Today, Banaszynski led us through some — gasp — tips, tricks and tools to come up with story ideas. She put mind-maps up on the board, pointing out that in any other creative form, dance, music, film, this kind of creative process wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But because we grow up with language, we relate to it so early on in our lives, we’re expected — correction: we expect ourselves — to just spill this profound collection of words and syllables out on the page.
It doesn’t happen. Period.
Every great story starts with an idea — a question. And you have to give yourself permission to come up with some zany ones, ones that might be impossible to pursue, ones that might make your editor have a heart attack. But in those early stages of story conception, that’s irrelevant. Let yourself play, have the zany idea, ask the silly question. Banaszynski put a thought bubble up on the board, the subject was cuts to medicare. Her spokes for story angles included the bumper sticker industry, Bill Gates and Pope Benedict. You’ve got to let yourself have fun. Ask the silly questions and then pick one. ONE. And go from there.
This little nugget of genius came after a seminar by French on storytelling where all our gripes about not having the space, the time, etc. to flush out character and narrative were blown out of the water by none other than Sir Paul McCartney. Eleanor Rigby, French rightly pointed out, is two minutes and five seconds of storytelling that’s subsisted for some 46 years. It has characters, narrative, resolution and hits on timeless, universal themes.
So there we go. Keep it simple, stupid. And stop calling yourself stupid.
Journalists love to complain. And a lot of the time we have reason. We work really hard in a constantly shifting industry where the tales of heartbreaking layoffs are a dime and dozen, the pay often sucks, and increasingly, the people in charge of our newsrooms — or maybe just those who own them — are chasing profit models at odds with our quest for truth and accountability.
News of the World hacking scandal notwithstanding, most of us believe that what we are doing is noble and necessary. We genuinely think our words, however trite, however bland, however laced with the minutiae of school boards, local government or even the annual Santa Clause Parade, are making a difference in our communities.
But first and foremost, we’re storytellers. Most of us wound up in this world, and most of us stay despite the dwindling job security and tiny salaries, for the chance to tell the truly compelling stories that unfold around us every day, and yes, craft a few literary gems while we do it. Doing it every day can really take the fun out of it though, and even make you forget why you started down this path in the first place.
So it was with great excitement that I started the Poynter Institute’s Great Storytelling Every Day workshop today. I’m here in St. Petersburg, Fla as a Jack Webster Fellow for one week to recharge my batteries and hopefully fall in love all over again with the world of words and characters and stories.
So far, so good.
I’ve already had some great dinner-time conversation with one of my (surprisingly not-intimidating) Pulitzer Prize-winning instructors, Tom French. And realized one of my classmates is Olga Rodriguez, the talented journalist behind this amazing story about the Mexican Pointy Boot phenomenon. “I wanted to write a story about something cheerful happening in a place where the story is the big drug war,” she said in class today. Wow. Perspective.
My goal for the week, among others, is to try to keep a lid on the whining (I’m an expert), and focus more on the wisdom here. The Poynter Institute only exists because one man thought it necessary to ensure his small slice of the big media pie stayed independent, starting an organization that’s valiantly soldiered on in the name of journalistic integrity since about 1978.
And because journalism training is, as French put it at our class dinner, increasingly becoming a luxury, and integrity sometimes seems to be a punishable offense in this field, I’m posting my thoughts and reflections here in the hopes of reigniting not just own verve for the Fourth Estate, but spreading it to others who might also need the pick-me-up. Wordsmiths, you know who you are. This is for you.