Telling Stories



On Telling Stories


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


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


It’s in this focus on the individual reporter’s feelings, I think, that the new busybody journalism distinguishes itself. The experiential journalism that precedes it may be formally similar, but it was almost always rendered in the context of larger institutions — magazines like McClure’s, or later Rolling Stone or Mother Jones or even Vice — that could provide editorial support. Busybody journalism of the kind performed by Pool and Southern positions itself entirely against journalistic institutions, which it regards as hopelessly corrupt, and in giving up on those institutions gives up on their backstops and strictures — processes, like, for example, fact-checking. There’s an appealing democratic character to the shift from well-capitalized magazines and newspapers to scrappy individual “citizen journalists,” but the value of an institution is that it can “see” in ways that individuals can’t — that is, with the input and involvement of multiple stakeholders, and bringing to bear the resources necessary to establish facts across large populations. Strip away that apparatus and all you’re left with is individual feeling. What matters in “see for myself” reporting isn’t the kinds of numbers that only institutions can count — rates or population statistics, say — but the kinds of sentiments that only individuals can feel — fear at the approach of a woman in a hijab, or anger at the sight of a Pakistani flag. As one approach, it can help paint a fuller picture of the world than dry statistical recitation would. But as the sole tactic of a journalist, it’s a rhetorical dead end. — Max Read [#]


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 [#]


What I really think good writing does: It enlivens that part of us that actually believes we are in this world, right now, and that being here somehow matters. It reawakens the reader to the fact and the value of her own existence. — George Saunders


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 [#]