On Telling Stories
Do you know that E.B. White quote, “you have to be prepared to be lucky?” I think that writers have to be hypertuned to eventfulness, and notice it more, and make something of it. —Susan Orlean [#]
Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness—an empathy—was necessary if the attention was to matter. —Mary Oliver [#]
Somewhere in the tangle of the subject’s burden and the subject’s desire is your story. —Alex Tizon [#]
I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives. —Katherine Boo
I believe in being truthful, not neutral. —Christian Amanpour
This is what I thought: for the most banal even to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.
But you have to choose: live or tell. —Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.
Which was a writer.
By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind? —Joan Didion, “Why I Write” [#]
I didn't want to write about famous people simply because they were famous, and I didn't want to write about charming little things that were self-consciously charming and little; I wasn't interested in documenting or predicting trends, and I didn't have polemics to air or sociological theories to spin out. I just wanted to write what are usually called "features"—a term that I hate because it sounds so fluffy and lightweight, like pillow stuffing, but that is used to describe stories that move at their own pace, rather than the news stories that race to keep time with events. The subjects I was drawn to were often completely ordinary, but I was confident that I could find something extraordinary in their ordinariness. I really believed that anything at all was worth writing about if you cared about it enough, and that the best and only necessary justification for writing any particular story was that I cared about it. The challenge was to write these stories in a way that got other people as interested in them as I was. The piece that convinced me this was possible was Mark Singer's profile of three building superintendents that ran in The New Yorker when I was in college. The piece was eloquent and funny and full of wonder even though the subject was unabashedly mundane. After I read it, I had that rare, heady feeling that I now knew something about life I hadn't known before I read it. —Susan Orlean, The Bull Fighter Checks Her Makeup
I always quote that Gerald Stern bit: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking—then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Along with Einstein’s bit: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” —George Saunders
Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis. —Patty Jenkins [#]
There is, finally the risk I feel most grateful to a writer for taking: shame. As Arthur Miller once said, "The best work that anybody ever writes is on the verge of embarrassing him, always." The writer has to be like the firefighter, whose job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, is to run straight into them. Your material feels too hot, too shameful, to even think about? Therefore you must write about it.
Shame, in digital media, occurs most frequently as a transitive verb, an action you inflict on someone else. As a noun—a thing you might fear experiencing yourself—it tends to remain carefully hidden. Social media, in particular, are celebrated by their advocates for enabling the construction of personas through which the user can "safely" experiment with different aspects of his or her personality. But most of these personas are self-flattering in one way or another, cooler or cockier or handsomer than the real person behind them, and the Internet is structured to create communities of the intensely like-minded. Although the virtual world may look from a distance like a free-for-all of essayistic self-exposure, it actually functions more like a system of avoiding the potentially shameful self. [...]
To publish an honest essay is, always, to risk shame. But the rewards, if you're lucky enough to get it, is connection with a grateful stranger. The essay as a species may be verging on endangered, but a mediated world of buried shames has greater need of it than ever. —Jonathan Franzen, The Best American Essays 2016
Being a good interviewer takes skill, just not the skill most people assume: You don’t have to be able to ask or come up with great questions. You need patience and humility. The more focus you put on asking a great question, the more it’s about you, and that shows. An interviewee can tell, and it detracts from that gentle magic that focused curiosity can work. —Ana Marie Cox [#]
I think people have this picture of a journalist that’s this tough person asking really hard questions, but you can also be a gentle person and ask really hard questions that help people work through feelings and beliefs they may not even fully understand. I think that you can be strong and sensitive at the same time. You can do this job with humility and treat people with dignity—without being aggressive or demanding. —Corrine Chin [#]
There are so many other stories in this category: climate change … I’d argue almost anything about the environment for most people is like that … This is awful to say, but so many human rights stories - it’s so hard to get people interested no matter how important they are to document … so many social justice stories, so many criminal justice stories, so many of these issues that we cover and I think are so important to cover. It is very hard to get anybody to listen to. We still do those stories, and they require cunning. They require cunning. To get people to listen. And when you guys do them, that should be part of what you think about. I really believe that the more idealistic your mission, the more cunning you have to employ to get people to engage with what you have to say. [...]
But being cunning means, for starters, you have to get really hardcore about how you begin those stories. How you’re going to pull people in and get them listening.
And again, this is kind of terrible thing to say … but our goal is to get them pulled in and listening before they actually understand what the story’s about.
And before we went to Greece, a bunch of us sat around a table and brainstormed about what we could possibly do at the beginning of those shows.
And we thought, okay maybe a couple falling in love. [...]
You gotta be tricky. —Ira Glass [#]
Reporting is performance in the sense that you have to be able to read the room. You have to bridge the difference between you and the person you’re interviewing so they’re not overly distracted by the perception of you being a stranger, of being a reporter, of being the person with the power in the dynamic. You have to make yourself quiet and small, in a sense. And receptive. —Susan Orlean [#]
Everything is interesting. Potentially. Sometimes it may not seem so. [...] You have to poke at a thing, sometimes, and find out where it squeaks. Any seemingly dull thing is made up of subsidiary things. It’s a composite—of smaller events or decisions. Or of atoms and molecules and prejudices and hunches that are fireflying around in unexpected and impossible trajectories. Everything is interesting because everything is not what it is, but is something on the way to being something else. Everything has a history and a secret stash of fascination. —Nicholson Baker [#]
Nobody tells people who are beginners—and I really wish somebody had told this to me—is that all of us who do creative work… we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be—they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.
And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase—you gotta know it’s totally normal.
And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work—do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while—it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay? —Ira Glass [#]