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From the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University
Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Plume/Penguin Books, 2007. 317 pp.

Review by: Steve Weinberg

The IRE Journal
Copyright Investigative Reporters & Editors Jul/Aug 2007
Steve Weinberg is senior contributing editor to The IRE Journal and a former executive director of IRE.

"Telling True Stories" probably will be classified as a "writing" book on the store shelves, but it is actually something more. Any book about high-quality nonfiction writing must also include in-depth discussions about two other elements: information gathering (sometimes known by the less precise term "reporting") and thinking.

Specifically, it's about how reporters and editors consider the appropriateness of the story concept; where to gather information along the documents trail and the people trail; how to organize the most relevant information into a compelling narrative with a beginning, middle and end; the arc that builds tension; and the resolution of that tension.

Tips spill from every chapter of the book, the result of an annual meeting of journalists at Harvard University. Those gathered discuss the process of producing compelling narrative nonfiction in magazines, newspapers, radio, cinema and books.

Putting all that wonderful information into book form is Mark Kramer, a practitioner of narrative nonfiction and organizer of the Harvard conference. Kramer, assisted by Wendy Call, a Seattle writer, distilled the wisdom from 5 1 conference speakers into a coherent primer (after reducing 600,000 transcribed words by about 80 percent).

Every page - and I mean every page - contains important wisdom for every journalist. "Telling True Stories" is the relatively rare guide that offers value to veteran journalists, to novices, to investigative journalists and to beat reporters.

Some of the contributors are famous journalists by any measure: Gay Talese, Susan Orlean, Nora Ephron, Tom Wolfe, Tracy Kidder, Malcolm Gladwell and the recently deceased David Halberstam.

Many other contributors are mostly well known within the journalism realm or within a geographic section of the nation, if not by the general public. They include Katherine Boo, Roy Peter Clark, Jack Hart, Jacqui Banaszynski, Jon Franklin, Walt Harrington, Isabel Wilkerson, Jan Winburn, Adam Hochschild, Ted Conover, Anne Hull, Louise Kiernan, Cynthia Gorney, Melissa Fay Greene, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Debra Dickerson, Nick Lemann, Bruce DeSilva, Tom French, Alma Guillermoprieto, Sonia Nazario, Lisa Pollak, Tom Hallman and Samantha Power.

The book is divided into nine parts. One of those parts features narrative writing within specific genres - investigative, historical, first-person accounts, essays, columns, travel and profiles. For the most part, though, the techniques included are generic and can be adapted to any genre.

The section of the book devoted to further reading yields a first-rate bibliography, divided into already published titles on basic skills; the craft of writing; the art of writing; narrative nonfiction anthologies; full-length narrative nonfiction books; memoirs; personal essays; fiction and poetry.

Highlights of the book include:

* Katherine Boo, former Washington Post staff writer who now freelances, offering ways to improve what she calls "narrative investigative writing."

First, she says, "Remember that your story's villains are your guides as much as the story's victims." Boo's advice to cultivate the apparent villains early, rather than doing only a "closeout interview six hours before your story runs," goes against the grain of traditional investigative reporting, but is extremely important. The villains need to be presented in the same skillful, three-dimensional manner as the victims.

Second, Boo says, "Admit when you don't know. Admit the troubling things you do know." She elaborates: "Acknowledge that the heroic mother of your story is goldbricking at work. Don't omit that the grieving mother of the retarded man who died hadn't visited her son in 10 years. If you give your readers characters who are as complex and flawed as they truly are, your readers are more likely to trust you on matters more important than character - the true policy issue that your narrative elucidates."

* Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, freelance writer, discussing persistence in relation to her book "Random Family."

After reading a clip in Newsday about a young heroin dealer going to trial, LeBlanc obtained an assignment from Rolling Stone magazine to write about the case. She spent about three months at the courthouse during the trial, which ended in a conviction. LeBlanc wanted to know more information than the trial yielded, but the defendant would not consider talking until after a ruling on his appeal. Rolling Stone s editors would not wait, but LeBlanc remained in contact with the defendant and those around him.

"During my reporting, I had gotten to know the mothers and girlfriends of some of the co-defendants. I followed them. It was the beginning of a very long journey that culminated in my book," she says.

In that context, LeBlanc offers an anecdote worth remembering. As LeBlanc interviewed one of the drug dealer's girlfriends, the young woman said she had accepted that she was one of many, but fancied herself the main one. The girlfriend said that she would take care of her guy's needs even when her man was out with another woman. LeBlanc listened as the girlfriend described ironing his T-shirts and polishing his sneakers.

"Oh, my God," LeBlanc said. "That must have been so difficult for you." She spoke those words, she said, because "I had interpreted it as a moment of subjugation."

Later, while interviewing another girlfriend of the same guy, LeBlanc mentioned the tennis shoe polisher. Girlfriend number two replied, "Oh, yes, I bet she told you she used to take care of him. I was the one who washed his clothes and took care of his food."

LeBlanc realized her mistake, too late. "It dawned on me that by polishing his sneakers, that first young woman had been asserting her territory. I had read the situation completely wrong. Only through fact-checking did I come to understand that the two girls were in competition. By responding as I had in that long-ago conversation, I had shut up the first girl. How could she explain it to me, given how far off-track I was? That experience taught me to stay quiet. . .1 had to learn to listen, to surrender my place in the moment."

* Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg (FIa.) Times looking for unfolding action to drive a narrative. If she finds it, then she starts negotiating access with sources and subjects. When the access looks promising, DeGregory then asks herself seven questions:

- Can I go along for a ride or take a walk or be at a meeting, a trial or a funeral? DeGregory understands that if she is present at important junctures, she will be able to draw sharper word pictures for her readers.

- Is something going to happen?

- Is the place important, the action important, or is the person important?

- Will there be interaction between my character [the subject of the story] and others?

- Do I want to tell the story around one scene or five minutes or a whole day, or perhaps follow someone over a period of time?

- Do the characters experience an epiphany?

-What's the big idea?

* Nora Ephron contributes a chapter titled "What Narrative Writers Can Learn From Screenwriters."

While not a typical topic for a journalism textbook, every sentence is worth absorbing. In order to keep a narrative moving, Ephron offers her advice in the context of the screenplay she wrote for a movie about Karen Silkwood, a whistleblower.

Specifically, Silkwood was slowly becoming a politicized woman, something potentially boring to convey because of its incremental nature. "How could we show this process without turning off the audience?" Ephron wondered.

"The answer was to make the movie very domestic, about three people in a house. Martin Scorsese says the dream movie scene is three people in a room. We had that -Karen, her roommate and her boyfriend. . .These three people, all going in different directions, gave us a huge amount of material to play against the story we wanted to tell, a young woman becomes political."

Screenwriters, and journalists, Ephron says wisely, "create stories by imposing narrative on the events that happen around us."

Copyright © Investigative Reporters & Editors Jul/Aug 2007

Read another review on pages 116–120.