Nieman Storyboard » Storyboard Posts Exploring the art and craft of story Fri, 27 Feb 2015 20:28:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Billy Collins on defying convention, the reader’s indifference and making other writers jealous Wed, 18 Feb 2015 22:05:51 +0000 Billy Collins, who served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, spoke today at the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley. Tough gig, right?

He may describe himself as “an amateur, a tyro” at wine, but Collins, often called the nation’s most popular poet, is obviously no slouch at writing, having produced 10 collections of poetry and won a Guggenheim fellowship, among many other honors, as well as being named New York State Poet from 2004 to 2006.

Here are a handful of our favorite insights, jokes and writing tips from his talk, titled “There Stands the Glass: Description and Story:”

  1. On audience: “We can always assume the indifference of the reader.”
  2. On revision: “You have to pretend you’re a stranger to your own writing.”
  3. On why we write: “Isn’t the purpose of writing to make other writers jealous?” (This, in case it’s not obvious, was a joke.)
  4.  On finding your own path: “If you detect that other writers are following a set of conventions, see if you can turn them around.”
  5. And what he does when he’s stuck writing a poem: “I try to picture the poem set in the typeface of The New Yorker.”

Collins also read several of his works, including “Osso Bucco,” and a favorite with the wine writers: “Hangover.”

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Jessica Stern on Memoir, Denial and Terror Mon, 09 Feb 2015 14:26:47 +0000 Jessica Stern

Jessica Stern

Jessica Stern, a Harvard lecturer and fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, is known as an expert on terrorism. She has written three books on the topic, serves on the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, is a Fulbright Scholar and won a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship for her work on trauma and violence.

But she is also the author of a powerful memoir about her own experience with terror, when she and her sister were raped at gunpoint as teenagers, a crime that went unsolved and was largely dismissed by police and her family. That book, “Denial: A Memoir of Terror,” was named one of the Washington Post’s best non-fiction books of 2010.  (Author Alex Kotlowitz also cited “Denial” on Storyboard last fall as “what memoir ought to be about.”)

Before a recent discussion with the current class of Nieman fellows, Stern sat down with Storyboard to talk about the process of reporting and writing a memoir and how it has affected her life and work. An edited conversation follows:

The book is really, really intense. I remember at one point you talk about wanting to smash a doctor’s skull. Why did you feel it was important to document those emotions? Did you ever consider excising those sections? Why or why not?

I strongly considered excising them. In fact, I read out loud that particular section that you’re referring to, to my sister, and she said, “You have to cut that out.” I decided not to cut it out because I was writing a memoir of a disorder and of feelings that I know that other people have but that we don’t talk about. I wanted the book to be healing for people who have had similar experiences.

In order to write that book, I had to be in a kind of trance to find feelings that I’m normally too embarrassed to feel, or to, certainly to articulate. But not even just articulate. To actually notice that I’m feeling, because they’re impolite feelings, they’re ugly, they’re violent. I think some of those feelings are the sequelae of violence. I decided it was important to put them out there.

You brought up your sister’s reaction, and it seems that many times when people write memoirs, there’s a price to pay in terms of how members of the family react. How present, if at all, was that in your mind when you were doing the writing?

It was present in my mind all the time. Maybe not in the moment of writing, but it was certainly very much on my mind for years while I was…I overshared with my sister.

My sister was also a victim, and every time I learned something new, I felt I had to tell her. It was very traumatizing for me to learn that the next girl who was raped killed herself, for example.

Since the book came out, I learned that it was a real gun. I’ve heard from many other victims of the same guy. Of course, I want to tell my sister, but just as it’s traumatizing for me, it’s very traumatizing for her. I was writing a book and I was in therapy and I had all kinds of support. It wasn’t really fair.

Then my dad went back and forth between feeling really excited that I was writing about his science, his accomplishments as a scientist, and as a mountain climber and feeling really, really angry. Mainly about the reviews. Many people, I’ve discovered, review books without reading them. That book is not a book that should be reviewed if the person doesn’t read the whole thing.

There have been all these stories and some poor reporting about rape and sexual crimes.Where does your story fit in and what do you see as some of the challenges in doing this kind of reporting that perhaps journalists could learn how to do better?

I think the denial of the victim is the most difficult kind of denial.

When you say that, what do you mean denial of the victim?

The victim does not want to believe what happened. I think we all are not…Maybe not we all, but many people, when something bad happens, we prefer to deny that it happened. Just go on and hope for the best. With something as extreme as rape at gunpoint, that is very dangerous.

I was living with the bad parts of what I did to myself, through my own denial. It wasn’t just the denial of the community and the police, which is very common, to blame the victim. My father. But the worst denial was my own.

Do you have ideas about what’s really needed to do a good job of reporting on those kinds of crimes and telling those stories?

I think that it’s often very hard to remember what happened. I would not have been able to write that book. No way could I write that book if I didn’t have hundreds of pages of documents. Police documents, documents from the time the rapist was in the hospital. I was able to get those. A prison hospital. I just wouldn’t remember. It’s very hard to be accurate about sexual assault for, I imagine for either party.

Do you think that you would do anything differently if you were writing that book today?

I don’t think I could do it. I was ready to do it in that moment. Right now, I wouldn’t want to upset myself that much. It was really unhinging. I wanted to capture that craziness. I had to do it slowly. I wanted to get it down on the page and then take a break. I don’t want to do that anymore. I wouldn’t want to do it again.

Having really gone so deeply in, explored, and relived that situation, does that now in turn inform your work on terrorism and talking to terrorists?

It’s very difficult, the work I do talking to perpetrators. It’s very difficult spiritually, because I am trying to connect with the human being that they are. Because they’re not just a perpetrator. Yet, I know they are a perpetrator and they know I know. It’s manipulative.

I’m also going to tell a story about the human being they are, but at the same time I’m not going to become their best friend, and I’m not going to deny what the court says about their actions. Terrorists I’ve talked to have said, “We’re not terrorists. You need to write that we’re not terrorists.” I say, “No, I’m not going to do that. By my definition, you’re a terrorist.”

But there are moments when we have that conversation, and there are moments when I’m trying to connect with them. I think I’m also more aware of the aggression of reporting. That the reporter, there is a certain amount of almost stealing someone’s character, and hopefully for a good purpose. But I’m aware of my role. I’m much more aware of that. Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure I’m saying it right.

Is there anything in a discussion of your memoir that you want to emphasize or include?

I wanted to tell a story that would help other victims. Therefore, I wanted to go to the edge, essentially, of insanity. The edge of insanity that I must have been at when I was age 15, but I could do much more safely at a different point in my life. So that people could see that even if you get to that edge of insanity, there is a way to get back. There’s a way to become whole.

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Checking out the National Magazine Award Winners Tue, 03 Feb 2015 19:13:15 +0000 The 2015 National Magazine Awards, announced last night in New York, featured a number of first-time winners and surprise picks, as well as some expected stalwarts, giving readers some new material to check out — and a good reason to finally catch up on those stories they never got around to reading last year.

The winner in the reporting category was Jeff Sharlet’s examination of gay life in Russia for GQ, annotated by Nieman Storyboard shortly after its publication. In his discussion with Storyboard, Sharlet described the challenge of structuring the piece:

“I knew there wasn’t going to be a resolution to the story. I also knew that I didn’t want to do some kind of policy story with anecdotal illustration. What felt right to me was a story about a mood, or moods. Increasingly, I think this is something that literary journalism can do in a way most fiction — either dependent on plot or defying plot, but always in relation to plot — can’t. Poems can, of course, but there are other things poems aren’t as good at, like information. Literary journalism can give you information and mood at the same time.”

For essays and criticism, Roger Angell was recognized for his New Yorker article about the challenges and joys of being 93, beating out competitors who included Monica Lewinsky, who wrote in Vanity Fair about the fallout from her past, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose Atlantic essay, “The Case for Reparations,” was one of the most talked-about stories of the year.

Angell, of course, is best known for his writing on baseball and in a Storyboard annotation last year of his famed New Yorker “Down the Drain” profile of a pitcher with the yips, he talked about his approach to writing, saying, “That’s what writers do: They try to make it concise and funny or something. I try to keep my prose lighthearted.”

This excerpt from his winning essay captures that sharp mix of insight and humor:

“It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. ‘How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!’ they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, ‘Holy shit—he’s still vertical!’”

The feature writing prize went to The Atavist — its first Ellie, as the awards are known, and the first feature writing award for a digital-only publication. The winning article, “Love and Ruin” by James Verini, recounts the lives of an American archaeologist, Louis Dupree, and his wife, Nancy, in Afghanistan. Here, Verini describes “Daddy’s Head,” an artifact Dupree found:

“One photograph of the couple shows them sitting at a table, gazing at the artifact as Louis holds it in his fingers (gingerly, but on equal terms). They appear mesmerized, as though Daddy’s Head is almost physically drawing them back in time. The photo was taken in 1971, as they were falling more deeply in love with one another, and, together, with Afghanistan. They peered into the country’s wondrous, terrible, unknowable past. Daddy’s Head, they liked to think, was opening its vault of secrets.”

Other award winners included The Texas Observer, in partnership with Guardian US, which took the multimedia category for its four-part series on the deaths of undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States, and Amanda Hess, whose article about online harassment of women for Pacific Standard, won the public interest award.

For a full list of winners, with links to the articles, go here.

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Annotation Tuesday: Justin Heckert and “Lost in the Waves” Tue, 27 Jan 2015 14:19:25 +0000 Justin Heckert has taken to his adopted home of Indianapolis, where his wife, Amanda, is the editor of Indianapolis Monthly. Heckert, who started making a name for himself as a magazine writer to be reckoned with at Atlanta Magazine, is now working as a freelancer out of the Midwest.

Justin Heckert

Justin Heckert

Heckert has written for The New York Times MagazineESPN: The MagazineSports IllustratedAtlanta Magazine and Indianapolis Monthly, among other publications, and most recently profiled comedian Kyle Kinane for Grantland. He’s twice been named the City and Regional Magazine Association’s writer of the year.

We met at the Red Key Tavern near downtown Indy, a bar with a jukebox that plays Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby, and has been written about in Esquire. It was a fitting place, given that Esquire was where he first pitched the idea for “Lost in the Waves.” The story, which ultimately ran in Men’s Journal, has been anthologized in “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.”

My comments are in red; Heckert’s responses are in blue.  If you’d like to read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button to the right. Let’s start with a few questions: 

Can you talk about how you first heard about this story?

Amanda, my wife, is always sort of looking for stuff that I can do. This was back in 2008, so she would have been my fiancée, and I was working at ESPN: The Magazine and she was looking for story ideas for me both for them and because I was trying to freelance too, and she sent me a link on, a blurb, and it was about how this guy and his autistic son survived for an extraordinary length of time in the ocean. I Googled it and I started reading some newspaper stories about it and I don’t think there was a story in a big newspaper about it, and I thought that’s a great story. I would love to do that.

How did you pitch it? To who? What was the initial reaction?

I spent a while, a couple days on Nexis. Some little papers in Florida had stories about this, and I believe he had been on “Good Morning America.” These articles made Walt out to be a hero, this heroic dad jumping in the ocean to go find his kid, and I thought, what an amazing story. I wondered, what’s it like to be a dad to this kid and what their relationship is like. And so I pitched it to Esquire. At that point in time, I had only ever written for a couple other national magazines. I had a contact at Esquire, so I pitched it to an editor there and he really liked the idea, but it never gained any traction. So then a guy named Terry Noland reached out to me out of the blue. I didn’t pitch it to Men’s Journal, but he emailed me and asked if I had any ideas,  and I thought this is like an outdoor story. This is how that started.

I think I remember hearing or reading that this was originally supposed to be just 2,000 words. It ended up just a shade over 6,000. What was the reaction at Men’s Journal?

I turned it in at 10,000 words. And honestly, the story I pitched was, ‘Look at this amazing event and I wonder what their relationship is like,’ and in the course of my reporting it turned into something much more interesting to me, so I just tried to write it for all it was worth. To Terry’s credit, I turned it in at 10,000 words and he trimmed the fat into what it is now. He didn’t ever scold me or chastise me and they paid me a lot more than they said they were going to. I knew from having been working professionally for five years that this was an amazing story.

“Lost in the Waves”
By Justin Heckert
Men’s Journal
November 2009

The ocean at night is a terrible dream. This is like a line from Hemingway. How did you arrive at this single sentence being the one that kicked the whole story off?   Plenty of people have written about the ocean and in beautiful ways, and I wanted to try to throw my penny in and add something to that. I spent a lot of time on the beginning. I think the beginning is the most important part of the story. Do you honestly expect someone to read all the way to the end? You have to get them to read. I wanted it to be memorable. I sat there for a long time, and I had some time. I didn’t have a deadline at that point. And I just sat there and took what I had and thought about it for a long time and tried to come up with phrasing and words. I knew where I wanted to start, and I was thinking about how I could incorporate the idea of it being scary and ominous.   Is that the first sentence of the draft that you turned in to the magazine?   Yes. And I will say that Terry Noland saved the beginning of the story because the editorial director of Men’s Journal and Rolling Stone wanted to start with me having Walt Marino floating in the ocean. I told Terry ‘I’m going to take the story back. Those two sentences, this is me, I created that.’ And he was like settle down and fought for those first sentences. There is nothing beyond the water except the profound discouragement of the sky, every black wave another singular misfortune. Walt Marino has been floating on his back for hours, the ocean on his skin, his mouth, soaking the curls of his graying hair. The water has cracked his lips, has formed a slippery glaze on his shoulders and arms. The salt has stuck to his contact lenses, burning the edges of his eyes. A small silver pendant of the Virgin Mary sticks to his collarbone on a link chain. He can no longer see the car key floating below his stomach, tied to the string of his floral swim trunks. The water licks against his ears. Every familiar sound is gone.  There are some great details in that first paragraph, how did you get all of these minute details?   I interviewed Walt. That was the first thing I did. I went up to Vancouver, Washington, and I stayed with him for a week. He had a contract job and was living out of a hotel so I got a room in the hotel. The first night I took him out for a steak dinner. I didn’t record, but I asked him about life. We got to know each other a little bit, and the entire week all I talked about with him was that one night in the ocean. The first couple of days we talked very broadly. But then I went back into that broad sort of question and I was like details, what were you wearing? What did it smell like? What did it feel like? Oh, you were wearing a necklace? What did it feel like? When you were in the water, what was happening to the key? Could you see it if you looked down in the water? That is where I got those details. Were you confident they were all 100 percent accurate? He turns out to be a decently unreliable narrator, but he is the only person who this happened to who can communicate. Eventually, I used documents from the Coast Guard, witnesses, people, his daughter. You have to sort of do your best to try and check everything that he says with other sources. I didn’t just take him at everything, face value. I did my damnedest to not just completely take his word for everything.   When you are interviewing somebody, and you’re asking those specific questions, did he ever wonder, that is a really weird question. Why would you ask that? Not so much. I think that I told him, I just want to know what it was like. I just want to know what this felt like, so can you tell me? This was a very exhausting process for him. We would get a sandwich and go back to his suite, and I would ask questions, questions, questions, and two or three hours later, he would be like, ‘Man I’ve got to stop.’ When he would get tired, I would just leave him be. But he was never, ‘This is strange.’

He arches his neck, contemplates again how far of a swim it might be to shore. He can’t know how many miles. He tries to convince himself he might be able to make it back to the beach, to the rock jetty from which he was swept out to sea. This is the first instance where we really, truly know something bad has happened, although we don’t yet know exactly how bad. There are so many moments of tension in this story. How did you choose to start here?   I think my goal was that you already know something bad has happened by that point, because of word choice. The first sentence, terrible. I wanted, before I let you know what happened, I wanted you to know something ominous happened through my word choices. I’m trying to write for how I would read a story, and I don’t need for someone to treat me like I’m dumb. I don’t know where that comes from, if it’s a newspaper thing, but I hear people, even at conferences who are good at this, say I have to spell it out. Well fuck that. That is what I was going for.  He starts dog-paddling, but after about 30 minutes his arms give out, his back tires, and he decides that he’ll die if he tries.

In the dark, he can make out only the outline of his hands. He can see a faint glow in the distance, orange and premonitory, like a small fire, what he guesses to be the hotels and condos of Florida’s northern coast. He wonders if someone in a living room watching TV could look out far past the shore and see him floating here.

No, he decides. That’s crazy. Even if they were looking through binoculars, they could probably see only the water, and maybe the ripples beneath the stars. Even the rescue helicopter hadn’t been able to spot his head sticking above the surface, as it traced a search grid just beyond where the tide of Ponce de Leon Inlet empties into the Atlantic. Below the helicopter, patrol boats and Jet Skis had gone back and forth like sharks in the distance. He had waved his arms and screamed until his throat cracked, until the blue search signal and the light of the beam had thinned and disappeared. He now wonders if he’ll ever need his voice again.

That was hours ago. When Christopher was floating beside him. Christopher, his little boy. When the two of them, father and son, were still together in the waves.  This is the first we know of Christopher. Why here?   The main play was to build up what happens to him. I introduced him at the end of the first section. Something bad has happened, and now you introduce him and it ups the ante. What the hell happened to him? That is the way to set the whole other thing up. Honestly, I knew that the entire story, I didn’t want people to know that he had lived. That is a device. Cinematic thing. I can purposely make you not know that he is alive even to the minute that he is discovered.

The ocean was always one of Christopher’s favorite places. The shallow water near the jetty rocks of Ponce Inlet, pale and green at the curve of the beach – Walt took him there as much as he could. Like a lot of autistic children, Christopher was drawn to water. Did you have to do a lot of research into autism for this piece?   I did some. There is whole section of the story that didn’t run that is about autism and more about something called the ‘dignity of risk.’ One of my best friends in the entire world was working at a home in St. Louis where he was a mentor, a father-figure who oversaw this house full of autistic men. I learned a lot from him because he had been doing that job for a while. I was telling him how Walt did things and how Robyn and Ed did things. I could see both sides. He told me about the ‘dignity of risk,’ and it was about how an autistic person should be able to experience the world and have a chance to make a mistake, and there is a dignity in letting them go outside, go into the ocean, take a walk, so I tried to incorporate that into the piece. It just didn’t make it in. I talked to his teachers, read the DSM IV. I did enough to write about it in this piece.
By the sensation of it, by its sounds, its placidity – Walt could only guess. Christopher could never explain the ocean’s hold on him, could only put on his swim trunks and stand barefoot on the wooden floor of the house, or find the car keys from the table and try to place them in Walt’s hand, or just wait impatiently at the door of his convertible. As his son grew up, his main communication turned out to be the sounds of his laughter, his hands slapping at the tide foam, his giddy squeal as he climbed onto his father’s back, swimming for hours until it was time for them to go home.

On September 6, 2008, a Saturday, Walt took him to Ponce Inlet late in the afternoon. It was his weekend with the kids. As he did every two weeks, he picked up Christopher from the group home where he lived, then picked up Angela, his 14-year-old daughter, at her mom’s house in Oviedo. Christopher sat next to Dad in the front seat of Walt’s red Celica, the top folded back, wind running through Christopher’s short dark-brown hair. Angela sat squished along with two of her friends in the back. It was a perfect day to go to the beach. They stopped at McDonald’s, Christopher’s favorite, on the way.

Christopher ate his double cheeseburgers slowly, maddeningly, the exact same way he did every time. Since you’ve already said that Christopher lives, I’m going to go ahead and ask if you got a chance to spend time with Christopher for this story?   I spent a week with Walt or maybe even more in Washington state, and then I went to Florida and I spent another week with him and Christopher, so I went to the Y and I went to the beach with them. I spent a lot of time with them.  He took off the top bun, held it in his hand, and ate the pickles. Then he ate the lettuce. Then the top bun. Then he ate the meat. Then the bottom bun, then each french fry, one at a time.  Did you ever get to watch him eat a double cheeseburger this way?   I saw him eat other things. I did not see him eat that. But I saw him eat Doritos, and stuff. I asked Walt to describe it to me. It was very frustrating for Walt. He is a dad, and he is sitting there getting frustrated at his son. We may have gone to McDonald’s. It’s been five and a half years, but I did see him do a lot of stuff. I didn’t specifically see him eat that, but it was just me asking Walt about that day. He chewed vigorously, with his mouth open, loud enough for Walt to ask him to stop. Occasionally, when he became anxious or upset, he might stand beneath the spout of the soda fountain and press the button, and try to catch the spill in his mouth. Did you try to ask Christopher questions? Was that even an option?   I was just there. I let Walt and Angela communicate with him. We sat down and they put on “Aristocats” for him, and “Toy Story,” and I saw that actually happen, so aside from giving Christopher a hug or being around him, I didn’t really try to communicate with him because I didn’t want to demean what was reality and that is that he doesn’t really communicate. I mostly just was there while they were interacting with family and stuff.

As Walt watched Christopher eat, he tried not to think about the meeting he’d had earlier in the day with his ex-wife Robyn and her husband Ed.  Can you talk about how you got this insight? How you were able to get what Walt was trying not to think about?   When I asked him about what happened that day, he was like, “I had to meet with my ex-wife and that sucked.” And he told me not to talk to his ex-wife. And so that was a key event. But going into this piece, I didn’t know about Robyn or Ed. It’s like, when I talked to Robyn and Ed, everything changed. There is another side to the story, and I’ll never forget when I went into Robyn and Ed’s house. They help raise Christopher.   What did you say to him when he said not to talk to them?   I mean, she helped raise Christopher. She knows, from her perspective what happened that night. He was not happy that I wanted to talk to her. I said I’m just trying to do my best. I’m not trying to hurt you but I have to talk to somebody who birthed Christopher and is helping raise him. When somebody says don’t talk to somebody, you can’t obey them.

Walt had lost his accounting job a few months before and asked if he could cut back on child-support payments. He’d split with Robyn eight years earlier, and whenever they spoke anymore it was briefly, tensely, and only in regard to the kids. During this meeting, in which Robyn and Ed agreed to reduce but not eliminate payments, they asked Walt what he planned to do with the kids that day. “I don’t know,” Walt replied, though he did know.  This is the first hint of a second source of tension in this story. What was your thinking behind introducing it here?   I mapped this out, scribbled it down so I knew where I was going. I knew this was going to happen in the second section. This happened, something that happened earlier in the day, met with Robyn and Ed, and by the way, that is going to factor in.

They arrived at New Smyrna Beach around 6:30 pm. The five of them walked the long wooden boardwalk, Christopher plodding behind, sometimes staring down. Walt followed him. The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse was the one thing, long and orange, that rose above the sparse landscape in the distance. How did you get these details?   I went there and I had him take me on the exact route and we walked the exact spot that he did, and that is what I did. The boardwalk ended at stairs that went down to the sand; by the time Walt and Christopher caught up to them, the girls had ignored the signs posted and were sliding down the backs of the white dunes as if on a playground. Walt and Christopher watched them for a while, then put their bags and towels down on the hard sand close to the water.

Christopher, in floral trunks like his dad, took off ahead of Walt, toward the south jetty, and splashed in, wading along the rocks. The tide on the protected side of the jetty looked serene. A group of people, their dark fishing poles like long weeds sticking up between the jetty rocks, watched them. Walt waded in to get Christopher, unaware that the tide had begun to go out, or of how strong it was, or that he was actually disobeying a county ordinance; no one was supposed to swim within 300 feet of a pier or jetty. Robyn and Ed had repeatedly asked Walt not to put Christopher in any situation that could be dangerous, and they asked him in particular not to take Christopher to the beach.  Did you interview Robyn and Ed? If so, how did it go?   That is a part where a lot of things change. I told them I was doing this piece and I wanted to talk to them. I talked to them about that night, how they raised Christopher. I had no judgments. They have their own way of doing it, and their way of doing it is not to let him go outside on his own. They have locks on doors, whatever, they didn’t want him to hurt himself. This is an amazing family story because this is a story about raising somebody, and I was not a parent. They loved Christopher, Walt loved Christopher, but here was my initiation into something completely different, here is what really happened that night. From their perspective, this was a disaster. Walt was not a hero. Why did he have Christopher at the beach in the first place? They’re telling me that they dealt with the Coast Guard. Can you imagine what this was like for them? They won’t even let him out of the house and Walt takes him to the beach. It completely changed the story. I came out of there, and my heart was pounding. The pitch of the story is moot. This changed everything. But Walt didn’t listen to them. He was certain that it made Christopher happy to be here.   Did you contact Terry Noland right away?   Oh yeah. I was like, can you believe this?

The current grabbed father and son almost immediately. They floated past the glistening rocks, and then it pulled them faster, the sand disappearing beneath their toes. Within a minute, Walt and Christopher were 50 feet out, the ocean in their faces and ears.
“Do you need help?” one of the fishermen yelled at Walt as he watched him being pulled away. Does this come from Walt’s memory?   I interviewed the fishermen. I got their names, I got their names from the Coast Guard. I called them and said, ‘Do you remember this?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, we were out there fishing.’ They’re never named in the piece but they saw this happen, so I talked to the guys who were standing on the jetty watching this happen.

“We’re okay!” Walt shouted back, giving a thumbs-up. He still thought he had things under control, that they could make it back. They had waded into this water a thousand times, he and Christopher.

But this time the current was much stronger. Another two minutes, 200 yards farther out to sea. Walt knew they were in trouble now. His heart thumped in his ears. “Don’t come in!” he screamed to Angela, who was now staring out at them in fright from the jetty. “Call 911! 9-1-1! 9-1-1!” He repeated this instruction, hands cupping his mouth, over and over, trying to keep his head above water as the waves grew, but Angela was now out of earshot.

One second Walt could see the beach, and the next he was below the horizon.  What was Walt like to interview? He seems like he has a very clear memory of this moment.   Going in, you don’t expect someone to have a perfect memory. I liked him in that he was just a normal guy who loved his son and a regular guy who was trying to make a living for himself; he was flying back every other weekend to see his kids,. This is real life. I found him to be a caring, sometimes aloof kind of guy, but I got along with him really well. His memory is probably just like my memory. I kept asking him over and over again, ‘Can you talk about this?’ In the window of the night that this story takes place, where it’s only him and Christopher, you are just putting a trust in what you would call maybe an unfaithful narrator. Nobody can remember everything.

He tried to focus on Christopher’s head, the dark-brown hair wet and matted, the only part of him above water. Christopher was about 20 feet ahead of Walt now, bobbing and laughing hysterically. Walt yelled at Christopher to swim back to the jetty with him – “Come on, let’s go, let’s swim!” – but they had been raked into the middle of the inlet, where the current’s pull was even stronger.

After 20 minutes, they were about a mile out, at the mouth of the open sea. A green navigational buoy bobbed there, tall and round, with a rusted bell clanging back and forth.  Did you ever get to see this buoy?   I had the men who discovered him take me out on the boat they discovered him in on the path they took and where they found him. These are guys who plied this water often. I did my damnedest describing what it was like, not just picturing it, the only thing is that Walt wasn’t there. I could see (the buoy) from the jetty. I went on the boat and on the jetty. I went to the end of the jetty. I just remember the hunger of wanting every detail. There was no detail too small.   What did they say on the boat?   I told them what I was doing. The story changes because as soon as he is discovered, I don’t go from his perspective anymore. There are other people who now keep him in check. The story changes when he is discovered. Here is what was happening in other people’s lives. He was crying. Walt didn’t tell me that. He was babbling. He didn’t know what was going on. That was important. That changes when other people come into it.

Walt reached out to try and grab onto the buoy but struggled against the current. Christopher just kept laughing, unaware of the danger, of the situation, of the fading shore and the strength of the current, of the ocean ahead. As they floated past the buoy, there was nothing else to stop them from drifting into the sea.

Walt studied Christopher as the sun went down. It was a game to his son, he decided – floating there without a care in the world. Farther out from shore, the light dwindling, the land itself was less visible. The current seemed to relax, and it was hard to tell how fast they were moving anymore.  Did you ever worry that Walt’s memory wasn’t accurate? How did you confirm his account of events?   I talked to a lot of people you wouldn’t think I did. There were people who saw him get swept out into the ocean. I had all of this stuff, details firsthand, and then also other people were talking about what it looked like there. There were a lot of things I did to try and keep him honest in the story.

Staying afloat was all there really was to do. Walt told himself to keep his eye on Christopher, to make sure his head stayed above the four-foot waves. But his mind wandered to his own mom and dad waiting for them back at the house, to the girls left on the beach, to nothing at all. He forced himself not to consider what could be swimming below them. The only sounds to keep them company were the lap of the waves and the slap of the fins of the small fish that jumped onto the surface. Walt could see the white point revolving at the top of the lighthouse, counted the seconds of its revolution. He decided the coast guard would probably be coming for them soon. They had been in the water for two hours, he guessed. They were beginning to tire.  Can you talk about the structure of the story? Why did you set it up the way you did?   I’ve started a lot of stories I’ve written in the middle, the dramatic moment of the piece. As much as writing has influenced me, throughout the waking minutes of my life – my mother was a teacher, I’ve been reading since I can remember and I’ve been inspired by various types of writing – movies do equally. This is the ‘Goodfellas’ trick. I love that movie. He starts it, they’re in a car, they hear thumping and they stop the car and get out and open the trunk and Billy Batts is still alive and they shoot him and it’s hitting you and something is happening, and then it fades to black and goes back to the beginning. It just works almost every time that I do it. I start in most dramatic part, so you know something bad has happened. Walt is already out in the ocean. How did this happen? Then you come all the way back to this moment, and then the rest of the piece, which is my favorite part of the story, is what happened to them after. My favorite part of the story does not take part in the ocean.   It seems to me, that this works well in narrative journalism because you’re giving the conflict right at the very beginning. This is what’s happened, so now the reader wants to know how it happened. If you go chronologically, you run the risk of losing the reader.   One of my first magazine stories at Atlanta Magazine was about the spelling bee. I love the spelling bee. It’s full of dramatic moments. That story starts with her spelling the word that she loses on, but you don’t know that, and then boom, you’re all the way back at the beginning. Some stories allow you to do that, but you can’t do it on every story, I want someone to experience this like a movie, that style and that vision have influenced me just as much as writing. I want people to be captivated by this, and that is why the beginning is so important to me.

Christopher was no longer laughing, so Walt decided it was time to give him a break. He dog-paddled to his son, grabbed his arm, and let Christopher climb on his back. Walt, who’d become a certified lifeguard because Angela’s Girl Scout troop needed him to get his license, took a deep breath.  This is a pretty important piece of information. That he was a certified lifeguard. Did you intentionally leave it for a third of the way through the story, or is this just where it seemed to fit?   Picking details here and there, it seemed like a good place to use it as he was treading water. He wasn’t just a regular guy in the water. He’s trying to figure out how to stay alive and not panic, and he’s a certified lifeguard so he’s done a couple things that he’s learned. You know that he is capable of floating.  Then he arched his back and dipped his head forward below the surface, arms slightly extended from his sides – the dead man’s float.

He lay facedown in 30-second increments, coming back up for air, wiping the water from his cheeks, spitting the ocean out of his mouth. Each time he would clutch Christopher’s hands, then lift him up on his back. Christopher would lay his stomach on top of Walt and wrap his arms around his father’s neck. Each time Walt rose to take a breath he ached more; after only a few minutes he came up again and clutched his stomach. Then he vomited. He puked everything he had eaten at lunch, big chunks of his cheeseburgers, floating in a pool of bile on the surface, barely digested. He dry heaved until his throat burned; he was screaming gibberish, nonsense, “Jesus, God, help us….”

Small fish surfaced in packs to feast on the vomited meal, and Christopher reacted with panic. He began to scream. He grabbed at Walt’s hair and tried to rip it out of his head. He was thrashing on Walt’s back, his weight pushing Walt beneath the surface. Christopher weighed about 120 pounds, and he was tearing at his father, digging his fingernails into him, crying at the top of his lungs. Walt pulled him off of his back, wiped his eyes, and croaked, “Please, Christopher, calm down. Please be a good boy.” Christopher looked at Walt, pleading with a pair of helpless eyes, as if to ask: What are we going to do, Dad? Walt had no answer. He couldn’t breathe.  Can you talk about the editing of this story? How close to what you originally wrote is the piece that ultimately ran?   Even though it was 10,000 words, I didn’t just spill out 10,000 words and then have you clean them up. I turned in a clean 10,000 words and he just trimmed it. The structure is intact. That one section about the ‘dignity of risk,’ which involved a more involved scene of Christopher biting kids on school bus, was cut, but this was just a trim. I’m hoping my stories read with the thought, I’ve thought about every sentence. I’ve polished it before I turned it in. I spend time on the sentences. I spent a long time trying to have a polished story that I wanted to show him. It was a great experience. Just me and Terry. And he came back to me and said here is what I think, we could lose this, everything had an explanation, and at the end, his boss wanted to lose the first two sentences and he got them to stay in.

Christopher grabbed for him again, jumping out of the water to get away from the fish, splashing salt water into Walt’s eyes. Walt went under, gulping a throatful of ocean that made him vomit again. Crying, desperate to breathe, he yelled at Christopher, at the situation. Christopher was screaming again, too. What could Walt do? There was really only one thing he could do, for the both of them. He was forced to make a horrible decision: If they stayed together, if Christopher kept clutching his father, they would both drown. Their only chance was for Walt to separate himself from Christopher, to hope that his son could stay afloat on his own. It was the only choice that made any sense. He looked at his son again, then pushed him away into the ocean.  What a horrible choice to make. How far along in the interviewing of Walt did he talk about making this choice, and what was your initial reaction? This seems like something that could easily show up at the very beginning, sort of like Wil. S. Hylton’s “The Unspeakable Choice,” when the mother deliberately drives her son to a hospital to abandon him.   My reaction was I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ Nothing that I had read had talked about that, and that was a big confessional moment to me. And I was like, ‘Really?’ You have to tell me more about this. I don’t know if I believe all this. You are sort of taking his word about what is happening. He is the only narrator. I try to write it in a way you may be skeptical of Walt.   And you believed him? In terms of letting him go, as a method of possibly saving them both, because that was his rationale?   I said to him, ‘Tell me why that makes sense, Walt.’ He said, ‘Well, I taught him to swim, and I didn’t want to die because he wouldn’t be saved.’ Later on, when I saw how Christopher behaved, that made sense to me. Spending so much time with Walt and seeing how they interact, again the story is from Walt’s perspective. You have to go with him, and you may not believe him.

When he was 15 months old, they knew something was wrong. This is almost halfway through the story. Why wait this long to go into the backstory of Christopher and Walt and Robyn’s marriage?   He looked at his son and pushed him away, and I felt like that was a good place for, not an intermission, but a great place to make Christopher a three-dimensional character. You step completely out of the ocean; here is Christopher. You’re not attached to him, but all of a sudden, here is what it’s like for him to be alive and for people to deal with him, and that was very conscious. I am going to completely step away and here is more about Christopher, make him as three-dimensional as I can without talking to him. It was a dramatic moment to step away.  He didn’t pay attention, didn’t make eye contact, didn’t cry. He would just scream and grunt. He didn’t say a real word until he was four. After Christopher was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, Walt spent 20 grand on a couple of miracle cures, including an injection of pig hormones into Christopher’s leg. He also looked into another form of treatment called “patterning,” an exercise designed to improve neurologic organization that required several people to help lift and move the patient’s legs and arms and head for several hours a day. But it cost $10,000, and Walt thought it looked like torture.

He knew where the bathroom was because Walt and Robyn showed him, but he didn’t know how to ask for it when he needed it. Sometimes he would pee or shit in his pants and laugh, or smear his feces on the walls. He would make high-pitched noises when Robyn handed him the telephone and told him his dad was on the other end. He could say “goodbye,” “hello,” “thanks,” “water,” “hungry,” “candy.” He could repeat the phrases “I love you” and “Hi, Dad” and “Wow.” A cadre of therapists had worked with him over the years, tried to teach him skills like brushing his teeth and buttoning a shirt, how to chew quietly. Some of them had quit because he bit them.

He ignored other children, mostly. He’d pick up an object – say, a string of thread – and let it drop, over and over, to see how it behaved on its way to the floor. Sometimes he would spin madly in a circle.  Did you ever worry about taking the reader away from the ocean for too long?   No, it’s just one section, and the section builds. I just wanted to make that section build to the way Walt looked at him, tried to look at him as a regular little boy. When you are with him, unless he starts biting or screaming, he just seems like a normal boy, and that is why Walt takes him to the ocean.

He had so much energy it was exhausting, and he required constant supervision. As he got older, he would sit in the backseat on his way to school with Angela and would bite her on the arm or pull her hair as she screamed. He was fearless and reckless because he didn’t have a concept of danger. There was just a connection missing somewhere. Was there any reaction from parents of other children with autism or the autistic community to this story?   I didn’t have any reaction from anyone who had children with autism. You have to understand where these kids are coming from. This is who they are, this is what we’re dealing with, these are beautiful, special children. That was the easiest way to describe it.

He couldn’t carry on a conversation, but he could listen and understand. He could follow directions: Pick this up, please, Christopher. Take it over there and come back. He responded to sign language, because it was visual. He could point to a flash card to indicate what he wanted to eat. He was in an eighth-grade class with 10 other autistic kids, some who didn’t speak or even act like they knew the teacher was there. The teacher once had a student who spoke only by reciting an infomercial: “If you didn’t buy it here, you paid too much!”  Why include this information?   I thought that was such a memorable, heartbreaking anecdote. This is a real person, and this is what it’s like. What an amazing class, and that makes, that makes him a little more human. We are not just talking about someone’s name in a story.

In the callous terms of the DSM-IV – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Christopher displayed “markedly abnormal nonverbal communication.” To his father he was shy and curious, and sometimes so quiet and so temperate that Walt could imagine his son was perfectly normal.  Do you think Walt had a realistic sense of his son and his limitations? Did that play into his decision to take the boy to the beach against his mother’s wishes?   He just wants Christopher to experience the world how he experiences it. He wants to take him places and do things. In his heart and his mind, he thinks he should experience the world like a normal boy.   How did you approach that as a journalist? Did he know about the ‘dignity of risk’?   I asked him about it, and he didn’t know anything about that. He started researching it and he said, this is me. It validated the way that he did things. That wasn’t my intention, but he didn’t know anything about that term. I’m not a dad of anybody, but I don’t think he wanted or pretended or had a delusion of him being normal. He didn’t want to treat him differently. He just wanted him to experience the world.

The first rescue helicopter appeared just before nightfall, then the boats in the distance, engines breathing on the water. This is a great phrase.   I was thinking how can I make this sound more interesting than just saying it. I did probably spend a few more minutes. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about stuff like that, but that is just a natural way that I write.  Walt called over to Christopher, who had drifted maybe 10 feet away. He told him that he was a good boy and a great swimmer. He pointed his finger to the blinking helicopter high in the sky near shore, and said, “Blue lights. Blue lights. Blue lights coming to get us.” Walt felt like he understood.

Christopher certainly understood what it meant to be in the water. Walt pictured him floating on his back at the YMCA in Oviedo, where he’d learned to swim. Walt had spent hours there teaching him to float, Christopher with his green goggles strapped across his face, laughing, looking up at the ceiling painted to look like a sky.  You’ve kind of changed up the structure here. Before, the scenes that took place in the past happened in its own section, but now, you’re taking the reader out of the ocean and into the past within a section that starts in the ocean. Did you do that on purpose, and if so, why?   As we’re building back up to the ultimate rescue, the rest of the story, these characters have become more evolved and three-dimensional. Now I’m moving in and out now. It started in the water, and now that it’s coming to some climax, it’s headed somewhere, learning they are in the water, but learning little flashbacks, learning about them. It’s a way to not just keep breaking section after section, tied to something happening in the water. He was in the water, he understood what it meant to be there, he was thinking about this stuff, maybe surviving because he taught him to swim, he took him to the YMCA. That is why I did that. There’s not enough to sustain water, water, water, water, water.

At the Y, Christopher was a regular boy. The lifeguards knew him by name, let him go into the utility closet and pick out a foam ring to play with in the water, the same green one every time. He always walked the tiled stoop around the pool, feeling the water on the tops of his feet. Then he’d jump in. Walt would show him how to fill his stomach with air so he could float, then pull him along by his shoulders, walking him around the left lane of the pool.

Out at sea, in the fading light, Christopher rose and dipped from Walt’s line of sight. Walt tried to talk to his son to keep him calm, reciting his favorite lines from his favorite movies. Christopher loved to sit right in front of the small television in his room and watch Disney videos all day. Sometimes he would put his eyeball as close to the screen as he could get it without touching. His all-time favorite scene was Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, flying into space, saying his trademark phrase: “To infinity … and beyond!”

“To infinity!” Walt yelled to Christopher over the waves. He waited for Christopher to respond.  The part where Walt starts yelling the ‘Toy Story’ phrases to Christopher…   I thought that was amazing. I thought that might have been a detail that he said to another reporter on ‘Good Morning America.’ That is something we talked about, such an amazing way they communicate is through Disney movies, I saw that happen right in front of me.

“To infinity, Christopher!”  I’m assuming you got this through interviews with Walt. How much time did you spend with him?   This is the ultimate example of recreating. Half of it is in person, but half I didn’t witness. I spent 15 days total with Walt, which is a lot of time. Half of that is trying to be able to recreate this what happened in the water. I have to be able to paint a vivid enough picture. Half the story is what happened to him that night. The other half is the things that happened in front of me that play out in the piece.

“… and beyond!” lightly from atop the wave, as Christopher was lifted back into view. It didn’t sound like that when Christopher said it, though. It always sounded like “infin’ a beyon’…” And he’d always send his fist into the air. That little fist pump – Walt did it in the water then, too, even though he was trying to conserve energy.

After a while the first helicopter left and another took its place, its blue light flickering over the open water. Looking out toward the black sky, Walt began to wave his arms, certain now that no one could hear him. Christopher pounded his fist against the waves. A group of jellyfish interrupted them, swimming into Walt’s and Christopher’s legs, clutching onto them and burning like strands of electric hair. Christopher shrieked. Then Walt was lifted up at the same time Christopher was lowered. When the tide evened, Christopher was even farther away, 30 or 40 feet. Walt tried to swim toward him, flapping his arms as hard as he could. Then a wave lifted Christopher, and Walt was caught on the other side. When the wave broke, Christopher was no longer there. This is a really powerful paragraph, and a lot happens here. Also, we’re finally back to pretty close to where the story begins. When you first started writing this story, did you imagine this type of structure, where you would start at a certain moment in time and then go back in time, and then circle back around toward the middle of the story?   I did a napkin outline. This is more like one sentence on a napkin, beginning in the water, knew I would come back here, everything that happened in between just happened, I have these little guides. I need to talk about this in this section, but no sentences until I started to write. I love that they just appear. When you’re writing, that is how it happens. Write one sentence, read it, that is the process of creation for me. I knew what I wanted to include, and I knew I would come back to this.

Only his breath in the darkness, a silence as everything settled in. For half an hour, Walt had yelled, begging for Christopher to answer. He had given up conserving energy, had been swimming as hard as he could to try and find his son. “Who’s my best boy?” Nothing. “Christopher, who’s my buddy?” Only the fish beneath him, brushing against his back and legs.


Walt spun in every direction, trying to spot the small white face and the dark-brown hair.

But he was gone.

Walt wiped his eyes, took a breath. He’s gone. It was a thought as dark and fathomless as the ocean itself.   Can you talk about this sentence? It’s sentences like this that set your stories apart from so many other writers, that make them feel short story-esque. Do these sentences just come to you? Do you have to work to find and make them?   I guess I am like, my brow is going up. I didn’t have to do that. You could argue that I didn’t need to do that. It’s just a simile.   That is what sets your work apart from others.   I didn’t have that written down beforehand. I need to have the marks of literary fiction in my story even if they might be hokey to someone else. That is just a simile. A lot of writing doesn’t interest me because it’s just straightforward. Maybe this is something I can do, make a turn of phrase. People might not like it. It’s bordering on the editor might cut it.

At that moment, he couldn’t see it any other way – Christopher was dead. So Walt stopped yelling and shivered as a trail of bright green phosphorescence floated past him. He stared at it, amazed by its arrival, the only color on the sea, passing behind him like lights beneath the water. He told himself it was probably peaceful, told himself that Christopher just got tired and finally let go. Just slipped away under the sea.

But Walt’s mind wouldn’t fully accept that. Christopher was a terrific swimmer. He had nine lives, Walt liked to say. Maybe he was merely playing a game. Maybe he was floating, just beyond where Walt could see. Maybe he just wanted to be alone for a while, like he sometimes did.  How did you find transitions like this?   I’m sitting there thinking, I need to address the fact that he has eloped. It plays directly into what is happening in the water, Walt knowing that he’s been okay in the past. How am I going to get from here, I have to tell this anecdote about him going to the mall. Well, how do I get there from the ocean, and that is something that I thought about. And sometimes an editor will be like, ‘We need a transition here.’

Christopher had wandered off so many times, Walt learned to expect he would always be okay. “Eloped” is the word used to describe the way an autistic person sometimes wanders off – is there one second, then vanishes.  Did you talk to experts about autism for this story? If so, what type of help were they able to give you?   I talked to Walt’s teacher about eloping. I read something about eloping. I think Robyn and Ed had some literature for me. My friend is an expert in autism, and he had been sort of like the patriarch of a house of autistic guys, and some of these guys will elope and they will end up at some sort of water, a puddle or a lake and that kind of plays into all this. I feel like somebody else might have read 10 books for this story. I get overwhelmed in the minutia of learning about something. I don’t want to be an expert.

Christopher had eloped at the mall, at the hardware store, from Walt’s parents’ house, and after a search they would often find him playing in water. At first it was the lake in their old neighborhood, then the retention pond at the bottom of the street – the police had sent a helicopter to search for him. Then it was the neighbors’ pool: floating on his back, naked. The neighbors called the cops, who came and pulled Christopher out and saw the silver chain bracelet on his left wrist with his identification and phone number.

Once when Christopher wandered off, the police searched for him again, and half an hour later, he turned up in the fountain at the Oviedo mall. Christopher had walked across a busy intersection, crossed through six lanes of traffic, had navigated the winding road back to the parking lot at night. He had taken his clothes off and was splashing beneath the falling water in his underwear, his feet brushing the pennies people had tossed in to make a wish.

After each of these episodes, Robyn would fume at Walt. She no longer trusted him. She and Ed held their breath whenever Christopher was with Walt. When Christopher was with Robyn and Ed, they never let him outside without maintaining physical contact. But Walt wanted Christopher to experience the world like a regular boy, wanted him to walk the stadium stands without holding his hand and feel the beach sand and breathe the air, wanted him to make choices.  You’ve got so much information and details about Walt and Robyn’s relationship. Can you talk about how you got all that information?   This is the first time you learn that they don’t think that what he does this right. They don’t agree with the way he raises Christopher. They are worried about stuff like this happening. And then right after it, you’ve got this juxtaposition right here. They don’t want Christopher to do this, but Walt can’t even bear to call him autistic.

Walt couldn’t even bear to call him autistic, to label him that way, and his voice always cracked when he talked about his “little buddy.” He took the good days, swimming together at the Y, sitting together in the front pew of church, eating at McDonald’s without incident, and weighed all of that against the tantrums, the outbursts, the moments in which his son would lunge at him, out of the blue, and sink his teeth into his arm. That’s when Walt would sob. He’d lament having to shout at Christopher, asking him why he’d attack his own father. For every good day there was always some kind of reminder of the bad.

But now he was gone. They shouldn’t have come out to the beach, he told himself. He should’ve rented a movie and spent the day at home. He could never face his own family. He wouldn’t know what to say to his mother and father, to his daughter, to the coast guard, to Robyn and Ed. The guilt, too, the realization that he had been responsible for his son’s death.  This story, I think, might be one of the best at getting inside the head of the main character. How did you do that? You spend 15 days with somebody, and you have a little authority. You ask them about this stuff, you use things that happen. You’re doing a story on somebody and asking them about certain things, you’re at a restaurant and see how they interact with other people. You gradually learn about who they are, and that kind of plays into this. You do learn, depending on how much time you spend with a person. But you do see things happen in the course of being with them that speak volumes, like Christopher biting him. Everything became so clear to me. It all rang so true in that moment. This was all real.

He decided that he should take his own life. It would be easier. Bawling, his tears mixing with the salt water on his face, he took a deep breath, exhaled, and slipped like he imagined Christopher did beneath the surface.

But there was Angela. He had almost forgotten about her. He kicked his legs and came up for air, expelling a mouthful of water. She needed a father too.

The ocean at dawn is a wonderful dream. He thought the night might last forever and now considers the morning itself a sign, too. The birds dive to the surface, stretching out their patternless wings as if to yawn.  You spent so much time out there, obviously, to get these details.   I was on the ocean a couple hours after dawn. I was asking Walt, ‘What happened when it was daylight? What happens when you’re still alive and its morning? Sunburn, tired, did you give up? It’s all changing right now. You’ve survived the night, and the dawn itself is like this sign. That is why this section exists. What is happening to you? What does your skin feel like? What do you see?’ Every little thing he sees is a sign that he might survive, but he is still thinking of Christopher. But now things are going to change. He has survived. This is shift into the next part of the piece.

A seagull, white and with crystal eyes, lands right next to Walt. It looks directly at him, opens its orange beak like it’s trying to get him to talk. Walt can suddenly see the life of everything, the fish swimming on the surface, the actual blue of the water. His neck aches like hell. His hands and wrists are swollen stiff. His lips are chapped and bleeding. He’s numb and warm. His tongue is swollen, his eyes dry.

He thinks he’s floated much farther out, but he really has no point of reference. No one even knows the exact direction in which he and Christopher floated. He has survived the night, he realizes, for nothing. He stares forward, shielding his face from the sun with his arm, and then looks back down to the water, thinking of Christopher.  Part of the tension of this story extends from the fact that we need to know how Walt is rescued, because we know he is. We know you talked to him, so we want to know how he is rescued and what happened to Christopher. Can you talk about developing that engine? Did you know right away that was going to be the narrative engine?   I’ve come back to the climax. He pushed Christopher away, and now you have to sort of take the story into the afterward. One, does Christopher survive? I did that because you still don’t know what is going to happen. You just discovered some dude in the water and he is incoherent. The guys in the boat are like, this is the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen, so the story shifts to the perspective of people encountering the survivor. They have found this guy and he has this amazing preposterous story, and everyone thinks the son is dead.

At 7:15 am, on the deck of a recreational fishing boat called the Open Range, Shawn McMichael looks out and sees a reflection in the water. Just turns his head, while the five other men on the deck are staring forward toward the horizon. Did you look to other stories as models for this one? If so, which?   I did go back and read “Moby Dick.” I skimmed it to see how he was writing about the ocean. It’s ancient, beautiful writing, but it wouldn’t work today. “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane is the best thing I’ve ever read. I thought, I want this to be pretty memorable. When I was in Vancouver, Washington, I stopped in Portland, which is right next to it, and a friend of mine, Paige Williams, said I should read “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I did. That is a heart-pounding, minute-by-minute retelling of what happened to this guy in the ocean.

A glitter, something sparkling, something that maybe on a thousand other days would never catch his eye. It could be anything, maybe one of the cruise-ship balloons that frequently float off the deck and then settle and shimmer on the surface. Shawn looks again and sees movement. Stanley Scott, the boat’s owner, realizes it’s a man. Floating. By himself, waving his arms. The boat slows, turns hard, comes within 50 feet of him.
“How did you get here?” Stanley shouts. “Where’s your boat?”

The man is delirious, won’t stop yelling – they can’t get a word in. He asks about someone named Christopher. The men ease up to him, extend a boat pole out on the left side so he can grab onto it, and walk him around to the platform on the back end, by the engines. It takes two guys to haul him in. Dripping water, swollen, pale, shivering, jellyfish stings like long red scars on his legs. The silver pendant dangling below his chin – that’s what Shawn had seen reflecting.

“I lost him!” They sit him on a beanbag in the back of the boat. “I lost him!” He repeats that phrase until they can get him to stop shouting and ask what he’s talking about. “Christopher, Christopher…have you seen him? Oh, my God, have you seen him?” The men drape a windbreaker over his shoulders, hand him a bottle of water. He drinks six, one after the other. “He’s a great swimmer. He’s a great swimmer…. Oh, God, he’s gone.”  This scene of the rescue contains so much compelling detail. How did you get it?   I interviewed the guys on the boat. When they found a survivor who was floating out at sea, he was sunburned, his hair was oily and curly. I put a little leeway into trusting people’s memory. Walt’s description came from them.   How did you find these guys?   The boat was called the Open Range, and I did a search of Coast Guard documents. I think I might have found one of the guys through that. Three guys took me out on the boat, and then I found the helicopter people too.

He has an amazing, preposterous story, all right. He’s floated nine miles northeast into the ocean from Ponce Inlet.  This is the first mention of how far he had floated. Was that done on purpose?   That is a reveal. Now you know, holy shit, they floated an unfathomable distance in the ocean. And Walt had no idea. Now you are getting everything from other people’s perspective.

The men don’t say a word. They’re in awe. They get the coast guard on the radio and tell them they’ve found a man named Walter Marino, and his autistic son is still missing.

Walt shivers and sniffles in the boat. He calls his younger sister, Linda, and tells her that he’s alive. The night before, Linda had not been able to sleep, knowing her brother and nephew were missing. She stayed up with her elderly mother and father, calling the pastor at the church and asking him what to do. “We’re going to pray for a miracle,” he had told her. Robyn and Ed stayed up too, in fear for Christopher’s life, Robyn convulsing, so sick that Ed almost called 911. Angela had gone to sleep thinking about how her dad had once told her he wanted his ashes scattered, and that she couldn’t remember where.

Walt tells Linda now that Christopher is still missing, that he’s been in the water 13 hours.

“My God, that’s a long time,” she says.

He calls Robyn, too, gritting his teeth. “Tell Angela I’m alive,” he says.

His voice is weak, raspy. She can barely tell it’s him. “Walt?” she shouts.  How did you get this dialogue between Robyn and Ed?   Robyn was a meticulous person, and I asked her what he said over the phone, and that is basically it.

“We’ve lost Christopher,” he says.

“What? What? How? Where is he?” She’s hysterical, asking about her son. She’s talking so fast, asking so many questions that he doesn’t want to answer, so he hangs up.  Seriously?   Robyn said, ‘I will never forget.’ It was memorable to her and to me because he just did not want to talk. That is what this signifies. You have nothing to say. You have no answers. She wants answers, and this thing just happened to him, and he doesn’t have anything else to say to her.

An orange-and-white coast guard boat pulls up next to the Open Range at 9 am. For an hour and a half, Walt has been sitting on the beanbag, moaning. A door opens on the side of the boat, and two men pull Walt inside. He waves goodbye to the guys on the Open Range, who stand in stupefaction.

The ship’s captain asks Walt if he wants to be taken to the hospital or stay on the boat as they go search for Christopher. “Let’s go,” Walt says. But he chooses to sit below in the cabin, because he doesn’t want to be there when someone spots Christopher floating on his stomach, bloated, dead – he doesn’t want to be the one.  Can you talk about Walt’s rescue scene and what happened immediately after? Were there any troubles with trying to figure out how to navigate from here to where the story was going?   I wanted to play up that he was so upset that these guys couldn’t get anything out of him. I remember asking him, he said he just didn’t say anything. He thinks Christopher is dead. Ultimately we’re going to get to the main part of the story, which is about not only the outcome of this night, but raising a child differently. It is all building toward that. So I was thinking, he doesn’t know Christopher is alive, I don’t want you to know he is alive. I was very purposefully trying, and it’s the truth, not over dramatizing this. They were expecting to find him dead.

So he’s escorted down a flight of stairs to a room filled with life jackets and flare guns. An officer in charge of keeping an eye on Walt sits opposite on a bench and says only, “You look like you regret something. Do you regret something?” Walt just shakes his head in his hands – he doesn’t want to talk.  You have mentioned a couple times that Walt is an unreliable narrator. Why?   I think that, isn’t everybody? If you asked me to tell you about what happened to me a few months ago blow-by-blow, I mean. You can call me an unreliable narrator, though it happened to me. You may not know what really ever happened.   Did it have anything to do with his personality?   Maybe a little extra, because he is sort of flaky. That plays into that term a little, but mostly, I mean, isn’t everybody?

All the way from Clearwater, out of the skies above northeastern Florida, the Jayhawk helicopter rides 100 feet above the water. It’s got a bright orange tail and white-striped body, like the fish from Finding Nemo. At 300 feet the trained men aboard can see gulls hitting the surface, but they’re flying even lower this morning, as low as they can go, because they’re looking for a 12-year-old boy.

The helicopter goes into a right-hand orbit, circling once, then again, initially lowering to 50 feet. The flight mechanic had seen the dark-brown hair and white face in the tide line, had seen a body floating there, bobbing. Tom Emerick, a rescue swimmer, is already wearing a shorty wetsuit and puts on a black mask with a snorkel.  Can you talk about how you got all of this information? I’m assuming there were some public records involved?   I talked to the people who were in the helicopter and who had the flight plan. That is why there are so many numbers. That is why they had this information, how high up they were, here is the time it was, I had all that stuff. Nobody told me that it looked like “Finding Nemo,” I saw what the helicopter looked like. That is my tip of the cap to the fact that Christopher loved Disney and that is probably what it looked like to him.   And up to this point in the story, Christopher is assumed dead.   Everyone is just sort of clinically expecting him to be dead, from the guys in the helicopter to Walt who doesn’t know.

Lowered 20 feet down by a thick hoist cable, Emerick hits the water feet first. He swims toward Christopher, the boy’s small pale eyes staring at him, unblinking. Emerick signals for the helicopter to send the basket down. It’s 9:15 am, three miles from where his father had been discovered two hours earlier.

“Hi, how you doing, my name is Tom,” Emerick says.

Christopher says nothing, barely makes a move – just watches as Emerick pulls him into the stainless-steel basket.  So… This is the first instance where we know, at least upon being rescued, that Christopher is alive, and we’re nearly to the end of the story. Clearly you did this deliberately. Why?   You do not know it until the very second. You think that he might be dead when he swims toward the body and the blue eyes are staring. He could be dead still. That is completely on purpose. Even sending the basket down could be for a body. Until he talks to him, he would not be talking to a dead body. That is a cinematic way of doing it.

“Don’t climb out of it, okay, buddy?” he shouts. It’s deafening beneath the whir. The rotor wash is coming down so hard that it stings them, nearly suffocates them.

Christopher rides up in the basket silently, looking down at Emerick still in the water, studying him like a piece of string.
In the stomach of the helicopter, Emerick wraps a wool blanket over Christopher’s shoulders, checks his breathing, his pulse, has him track his index finger with his eyes. He asks him if he wants something to drink, and when Christopher doesn’t answer, he makes a motion with his hands to emulate taking a sip from a cup, and Christopher nods. Sitting on a bench in the helicopter, he shivers, freckles beneath the dark hair. His skin is warm; he’s slightly hypothermic. But other than the jellyfish stings, there doesn’t appear to be anything the matter with him.  This is amazing.   I cannot believe it. Even Walt surviving, nothing is wrong with him. Physically, he doesn’t’ seem to have anything wrong with him.

Robyn and Ed take Christopher home on September 8, after he stays one night at Halifax hospital in Daytona. He can barely walk, so they carry him back and forth from his bed to the bathroom. He can’t put any weight on his legs because of the jellyfish stings. He’s dehydrated. He eats carrot sticks, bananas, pieces of chicken. They let him watch Disney movies, tuck him under his Tigger and Pooh bedsheets. Robyn goes in and sits beside him, asks him softly what he saw out there in the ocean, what it was like. Two days, and she asks him this several times, and finally he tells her: “It was dark.” A whole sentence.

Robyn and Ed have a beautiful home on a quiet street with a pool out back that Christopher can play in. The property is bolted down so tight, Christopher can never elope. The front and back doors have key locks on the inside as well as the outside. The garage is locked. There are locks on all the sliding doors. The house has an alarm system, with a chime function.  This harkens to a prison. And then when you compare it to the wide open ocean, it’s quite the juxtaposition. But then, obviously, the home is the safe place for Christopher. This is also the first time we get a sense of Christopher’s life with his mother.   It’s easy to say, I’m not going to side with anybody, but when you think about it, objectivity is a myth. I liked Walt. I didn’t really know Robyn and Ed very much. I personally felt like maybe keeping him locked in the house, and the language that I wrote it in, made it seem like it may not have been as humane as letting him experience the ocean.   It does seem very locked down, in your description.   But then you know what his mom has had to go through. She has gone through some stuff. I am not going to say that is the right way to do it or the wrong way. I wrote it in a way that was sort of diplomatic, but that is just how it was, that is how they are keeping him in the house.

When Robyn was living alone with Angela and Christopher, he was nearly impossible to care for, and as a single mother she felt she had no other choice but to put him in a place where other people could take care of him 24 hours a day. He got kicked out of day care because he bit other children. They had to put a harness on the bus for him, a five-point seat belt, because without it he’d run up and down the aisles, hitting students and even the driver. Christopher split his weekends between Robyn and Walt and stayed at the group home on weekdays.

When Robyn and Ed first saw Walt after the incident, it was on the dock, as he stepped off the coast guard boat; he was sunburned and babbling like a child. They didn’t have the energy to confront him, to yell at him, to tell him they had been right. They were just happy that Christopher was alive. Curious. Were they happy that Walt was also alive?   You can infer. They’re not evil, but whatever, they care about whether Christopher is alive.

Three weeks after he comes home from the hospital, Christopher is named grand marshal of the parade at Disney World. Robyn and Ed make sure to keep a sharp eye on him the whole time and to hold his hand. He gets a Florida Safety Hero award. He gets to stand on the bridge of a coast guard cutter and pretend to drive.

In January, Walt moves to Vancouver, Washington, just across the bridge from Portland.  Did you get the sense that Walt’s move was related at all to the incident and its fallout?   He was doing contract work. I don’t think it had anything to do with it. He loves spending time with his kids and it’s a pain in the ass to go back and forth. He was taking work where he could get it. He takes a job contracting with the FDIC, closing a bank, for good money, and thus has to live so far away. He flies back to Florida on Friday evenings every two weeks just so he can spend a day and a half with Christopher and Angela before getting up at 4 a.m. on Mondays and flying back. When he drops Angela off at Robyn and Ed’s house, they do not wave at him as he leaves.   Were you ever at the beach with him?   We walked right up to the edge of the water where they got swept out. I wanted to go back out with them, to feel it, see it. I was feverishly writing in my notebook while we were there, see the jetty, the sky, what was the tide like, how is it different than what we’re looking at.

He lives in a hotel room, a suite with comfortable furniture and a nice bed, big wooden cabinets where he can store his things. He goes to the bank in the morning, watches cable in the hotel after work, and lounges around in his sweatpants and gray Columbia fleece pullover. He shares a white Pontiac Vibe hatchback with one of his co-workers. He’s a tall guy, 46 years old, a little pudgy, with high blood pressure.

In March, Walt goes to Florida and takes Christopher back out to the beach at Ponce Inlet. Were you there for this? If so, how did this happen?   I said I would love to see where it happened. I didn’t force them to do it at all.  They sit up in the front seat of the Celica listening to an audiotape of The Aristocats. Christopher eats a bag of Doritos Cool Ranch chips and, later, two McDonald’s double cheeseburgers, layer by layer. “Aaah, eeehh, uhhhhh!” he shouts, off and on.

They drive by the mall where he was found in the fountain with the pennies. “Wow, dude!” Walt says, looking into the empty bag. He leans in and puts his face right up to Christopher’s, almost touching his nose, and says, “You’re my best buddy.” Christopher giggles and then stares at the passing cars.  Obviously this reads as if you are in the car, which reminds me of something Jim Sheeler says, and that’s to always get in the car. You also got in the car with Puddles the Clown. Is this an important thing for you to do when reporting, and if so, why? What do you get out of it as a reporter?   I would love to write every story with so much access that I see everything happening in front of me. I wanted to be with them. This part of the story is my favorite part of the story because it’s like when you go back to real life from this amazing event and it’s so complicated and here is Christopher going back to that house and they tuck him in and do all this stuff and Walt goes back to this hotel room and it’s so beautifully messy to me. It’s so much more interesting to me than what happened in the ocean.

Christopher walks on the beach and looks around, then goes into a bathroom to put on his swim trunks. He dips his feet into the water, recoils upon discovering how cold it is. The waves press into the rocks, the jetty long and uneven out to the ocean. Christopher lies on his stomach in the sand, laughing.

But when Walt takes him back to the group home at around 9:30 that night, Christopher, who had been silent and mostly calm the entire day, looks at his father, then throws his cup of McDonald’s water at the car window. When Walt gets out of the car in front of the group home, Christopher runs into the empty street and sits on the concrete of the cul-de-sac, beneath the streetlight. He looks lost and frightened in the glow.

He starts hitting his head with his fists and shouting at the top of his lungs.

“Please, buddy, please,” Walt begs.

Walt puts his hands under Christopher’s arms and tries to stand him up. Christopher won’t budge. Walt’s voice quivers, “I know you don’t want me to leave, man, but I have to.”

He manages to stand Christopher upright and drag him about 20 feet toward the door of the home, and then Christopher jumps at him, sinks his teeth into Walt’s arm, so Walt lets go and falls halfway to the ground. It had been so easy to forget all day.  Was Walt concerned with the fact that you saw all this, that this would probably be in the story?   I almost dropped my notebook. I wanted to go help Walt, but I was just standing there like an idiot with my mouth open. I thought, this is real, this is very real. Christopher lashed out at him. He did not want him to go, and he bit him. That was unbelievable to me. It was an instance where everything we had talked about crystalized as being truthful, because I could not, after seeing that brief moment, I could not imagine what it was like to raise him. I can’t pretend to know what Walt goes through or what Robyn goes through. And you have to accurately portray that. I look back at this now, I almost want to end with this, “tears running down his face… “ instead of Christopher just stands there.

Walt cries out in pain.

“Why, Christopher, why?”

Tears are running down his face, with nothing but the back of his bitten arm to wipe them away.

Christopher just stands there.

Walt has tried to imagine what that night was like for Christopher. He has imagined it repeatedly, in his sleep, at his work, in his rented hotel suite with the curtains drawn, the empty plastic soup containers on the counter. He has imagined Christopher giggling and splashing, the fish touching his back and arms; Christopher staring in awe at the dolphin snouts and falling stars, soothed by the foam tops of the waves; has imagined the whole night was like this one big adventure, the biggest adventure Christopher will ever have in his life, floating on his back as the water warmed his ears, in wonder as the sounds changed beneath the surface; has imagined that those sounds captivated his son’s imagination, and that since Christopher loves to float and swim more than anything, perhaps he even had fun. And the phosphorescence, the most colorful thing, he hopes it passed his son in a trail on the top of the water, long and thin, sparkling there like something hopeful; prays that Christopher got to see it. He has to believe he did. He can just picture Christopher sticking his hand in the filmy substance, holding it up to the moonlight, slick and shiny and Disney green. In fact, he cannot bring himself to imagine anything else. Walt aches for the day, a day that will probably never come, when he’ll be able to actually talk to Christopher, and ask him about what he saw and what he felt and what he was thinking, how he survived.  Why not end the story with the tears streaming down his face? Why add the epilogue?   This gets back to the narrator part. Walt is a kind of an aloof guy, he’s kind of a kid, and the ending, when you hear this as one of Walt’s things that he tells himself, that it was okay for Christopher and he wasn’t scared and he loves the water, as a magazine writer, you can have the place to call bullshit. I wrote this end because this is a way for me to communicate that I do not agree with him. This builds up. He imagined Christopher giggling, and splashing, Disney sounds and colors. It had to be okay, and he can tell himself that. That last ending is like, right, it was dark, it was a nightmare, and that really is a magazine way of saying that here is how he looks at it. He probably did not enjoy that time, and it reveals a lot about how Walt is trying not to blame himself. That was my shot at saying that I disagree.

But really, all he can do is wonder.
What did Walt think of the story?   At first he was like thank you so much, but he hadn’t read it. And then when he read it, he cussed me up and down and was angry, and then I asked him to read it again. What had happened was, he had also read, when this came out, Nieman Narrative did a thing and interviewed me, and I said one of the reasons I was drawn to this was the story was a hero went out to save his son, but that wasn’t the story, and he was upset that I had said he wasn’t a hero. He said I didn’t know anything about him and Christopher, and that is true, but then I talked to him, and he sent me a picture of Christopher last year. I have fond remembrances of them.

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Turning a Narrative Story into a Documentary Thu, 22 Jan 2015 13:58:20 +0000 More than a few journalists have dreamed of turning their stories into films. Chicago Tribune features writer Kevin Pang actually did, producing a 90-minute documentary about a troubled chef’s attempt to open the country’s best restaurant. In the latest installment of our regular feature, “Writing the Book,” redubbed “Writing the Film” for this essay, Pang discusses the challenges– and revelations– of translating print narrative to a visual medium. To learn more about the film, “For Grace,” click here.

For the better part of the past four years, my life has revolved around a Chicago chef named Curtis Duffy.

Kevin Pang

Kevin Pang

What began as an idea for a short video for the Chicago Tribune website turned into an 8,000-word feature story, and now, a 93-minute documentary I’m taking on the film festival circuit. With the exception of the woman who went from my girlfriend to my fiancee to my wife during the course of the filming, there wasn’t a human being I got to know more intimately than Duffy.

When I first met him, Duffy was about to leave his job as head chef for a high-end Chicago hotel to open his own restaurant, one he hoped would become “the best in the country.” Duffy’s resume, which included stints at the internationally renowned Chicago restaurants Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea, among others, suggested he might have the skills and ambition to pull it off.

As the Chicago Tribune’s dining reporter, I thought there might be a compelling story in his quest to open America’s best restaurant. But I wasn’t sure it was a print story. The process of building a restaurant felt more procedural than emotionally compelling, and not the type of Thomas French or J.R. Moehringer page-turning feature I had grown up reading in newspapers. I’ve always had an interest in visual storytelling, though; I studied broadcast journalism in college and had a grasp of shooting and editing video.

What, then, about a short film? Duffy agreed to cooperate and, my filmmaking partner Mark Helenowski and I began documenting the birth of a restaurant, one that would be named Grace.

We envisioned the piece as a short, standalone online video for the Tribune, paired with some online text components. Transitioning from storytelling with words to moving pictures required me to exercise different creative muscles. The two biggest challenges: Finding a cohesive theme, and structuring the film.

First, it didn’t take too many sessions of filming the new restaurant crew testing out dining room chairs for me to learn that visually documenting the building process wouldn’t be enough. The realization hit: Everything I had learned about narrative writing should be applied to filmmaking as well. The story had to exhibit character volition. It had to show desire. If Duffy’s goal was to build the best restaurant in the country, to what lengths would he go to achieve that?

Quite a lot, as it turned out. I found out that Duffy, who has two young daughters, was going through a divorce, in part because of the enormous toll on his marriage of working 16-hour-plus days, nights, weekends and holidays.

Then, eight months into the filming, I found out something else. When Duffy was 18, his parents had been in process of getting a divorce when his father, on the couple’s 18th wedding anniversary, kidnapped his mother and held her hostage for 12 hours before killing her and then himself.

In his father’s belongings, Duffy found a note in which his father told him he would become one of the best chefs in the world, and advised him to take time to spend with his wife and children. As Duffy read the letter to us on camera, he broke down in tears.

We understood at that moment that, in the same way Seabiscuit isn’t really about horse racing, the film wasn’t about food and restaurants. It couldn’t just be another film with sexy close-up shots of pork belly and foie gras. We had to focus on more relatable, human themes: Sacrifice, family, relationships, balance.  There was enough to make a feature-length documentary.

Los Angeles Times assistant national editor editor Steve Padilla — my writing hero and mentor — spent hours on the phone talking me through the story. The turning point was when he boiled down the story into one pithy sentence: “Cooking gave Curtis Duffy refuge, but cooking also exacted a price.”

There turned out to be one more surprise: a woman named Ruth Snider. Duffy had been a troubled teenager who fought and stole, until Snider, who had been his middle-school home economics teacher, helped him turned his life around. They grew closer after his parents’ deaths and she eventually became his surrogate mother. And whenever Duffy’s new restaurant opened, Snider vowed she’d be the first customer.

There it was. The heart of our story.

Once I discovered the drama behind the procedural, my editors suggested I do a print piece as well. The article ran on Valentine’s Day 2013 over five open pages in the Chicago Tribune and online here. The reporting was captured on nearly 300 hours of video.

Then came the uneviable task of turning an 8,000-word feature into a movie. Our challenge turned from thematic to structural.

Putting words onto paper is a tough enough art form, but it’s still a two-dimensional act of stringing words together. Making a movie forces you to work in four dimensions, if you include linear space-time. There are countless factors filmmakers have to contend with that writers don’t encounter: Range of shots (wide vs. close-up), music usage, dialogue vs. natural sound vs. silence, the way lighting affects mood, shot composition, the rhythm of cutting between shots, breaking the fourth wall, etc. For a neophyte filmmaker like me, much of the decision-making was instinctive. I’m not an expert.

Most of my energy, however, was spent breaking down the film — called “For Grace” — into a series of mini-movies. The importance of scene construction cannot be overstated.

Short of recreating backstory with professional actors or Claymation, it’s harder to present exposition as you can in print, because what you shoot is what you get. That adage of “Show, don’t tell” becomes for documentarians, “Show, can’t tell.”

So the documentary couldn’t just be the newspaper story retold in visual form. We wrote down every scene we shot on Post-It notes and storyboarded the film on a massive white board. The result was a hodgepodge of nearly 75 scenes assembled in chronological order. Next came the task of weeding out the weak ones, and there were many we were pained to see go. It’s easy to fall into a trap of keeping a particular scene because the visuals were nice or someone gave a punchy quote. But our contract with viewers is 90 minutes of their time, tops, so every scene must be in service of the story. (We took solace by telling ourselves, “It’ll be on the DVD extras.”)

What was our criteria for a strong scene? One of the best tips I picked up was from a book called “Save the Cat” by screenwriter Blake Snyder (recommended to me by Tampa Bay Times feature writer Ben Montgomery). The book is formulaic to a fault, a color-by-numbers approach to writing Hollywood blockbusters. But one chapter about scene construction proved immensely helpful: The idea of  >< and +/-.

This is Snyder’s theory: Every scene, ideally, must have opposing forces that create conflict. It doesn’t mean a screaming match between two people. Your protagonist will enter a scene with an agenda, and an obstacle gets in the way that prevents your hero from achieving that goal. Conflict is ><.

It’s a homeless father walking into a grocery store and has no money to pay for food.

Snyder also believed every scene must contain a change in emotional tone, from happy to sad, anxiousness to relief, calm to angry. That’s represented by +/-. If that emotional swing doesn’t exist, our next question should be, “What’s the point of the scene?”

A homeless father prays the grocery store manager is sympathetic enough to spare his family some food. The manager says no. The father goes from hopeful to disappointed.

I’ll add one more criterion I came up with: “IHNI!” In a documentary where we whisk viewers into an unfamiliar world, every scene should present new and fascinating information that’d make you go: “I had no idea!”

Here’s a scene from the documentary about finding the right chair for the dining room. (Note: Salty language in this scene.)

Here’s why we kept it in the film:

​Laying out scenes with +/-, >< and IHNI! helped me identify strong passages and eliminate weak ones. Not all scenes will contain all three, but when I watch back a particularly slow section and can’t put my finger on why it’s dragging, this technique helps me to begin understanding why. It’s the one trick I’ve transferred from filmmaking into my daily writing career.

One last note about why you should visually roadmap your story. When it came time to assemble the film into a cohesive narrative, we adhered to Kurt Vonnegut’s philosophy on story shapes. I’ll let him explain it.

Here’s a rough sketch of the last 30 minutes of the documentary. Essentially, we begin the act with a hopeful tone, add complications to his life, really pile it on, and when all seemed lost, marched our hero toward his happy ending. The emotional arc swoops in a U shape. All our favorite stories do the same.


Books I found helpful:

+  “Save the Cat! The last book on screenwriting that you’ll ever need,” by Blake Snyder.

+  “101 Things I Learned in Film School,” by Neil Landau with Matthew Frederick.

+  “Story: Style, Structure Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting,” by Robert McKee. 

+  “Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction,” by Jack Hart.



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10 Pieces of Wisdom from Top Writers Thu, 08 Jan 2015 14:46:04 +0000 As Matt Tullis writes in his accompanying essay, more than a dozen top narrative writers agreed to speak, either by Skype or in person, to his undergraduate journalism class at Ashland University last fall.  Here is some their best advice:

  1. On reporting and writing: “I don’t draw a distinction between reporting and writing. You can’t write what you don’t report.” – Michael Kruse, senior writer, Politico.
  2. On being a reporter: “Some of it is fun as hell. The thing I love the most is that it changes. You get to choose who you want to learn from. You can call anyone.” – Wil S. Hylton, contributing writer, The New York Times Magazine, contributing editor, New York magazine
  3. On access: “I’m always sort of amazed at how willing people are to let you into their lives to write about them, because I’m writing about people whose lives are in bad shape.” – Eli Saslow, staff writer, The Washington Post.
  4. On life: “Ideally, you find the thing you’re good at, and it’s a thing you love doing. If you try to do something you don’t love, you’ll get crushed by the people who care.” – Chris Jones, writer, Esquire and ESPN The Magazine.
  5. On celebrity interviews: “I don’t talk about myself in interviews anymore, which can be useful to get people to open up, but I don’t do that because I abhor seeing the looks on their faces when I start talking about myself. Now I’m very cut and dry. These are my questions. You’re going to answer them and I’m going to get out of here.” – Vanessa Grigoriadis, contributing editor at New York, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.
  6. On objectivity: “Stories end up being a reflection of you. You choose to begin a story with a certain sentence and to end it a certain way. Objectivity is a myth. You can’t be objective because you’re a person.” – Seth Wickersham, senior writer, ESPN The Magazine.
  7. On ideas: “The idea is everything. If the idea is crappy, the story is mediocre at best. The idea has to have some action. There’s got to be something at stake. Most people try to do too much. If you don’t narrow it down, it’s hard to go deep enough to show how they’re changing over time.” — Kelley Benham French, professor of practice, Indiana University, formerly with the Tampa Bay Times.
  8. On staying until the end: “One funeral I covered, I stayed until the last scoop of dirt was shoveled onto the grave. Then the gravedigger said, ‘Good job Marine. Semper Fi.’ I was the only reporter there. I made it a point. Every funeral, I got there early and I stayed late. I treated it with the care it deserved.” – James Sheeler, Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism and Media Writing at Case Western Reserve University, formerly with the Rocky Mountain News.
  9. On details: “Everything around you, no matter how minute, could be brought out as a hair-raising scene.” – Justin Heckert, contributor to Esquire, Grantland, Indianapolis Monthly, Men’s Journal, and The New York Times Magazine, among others.
  10. On time: “Time is an elastic thing in narrative stories. You can jump back and forth at will.” – Thomas Lake, senior writer, Sports Illustrated.
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What 14 Great Writers Taught One Journalism Class Thu, 08 Jan 2015 14:43:45 +0000 Matt Tullis

Matt Tullis

I knew it was going to be a great class the second week of the semester, when Mike Sager told my 11 undergraduate journalism majors about the time he snorted coke with a pimp who lived on his block — all for a story he was working on.

The narrative journalism class at Ashland University is essentially the final writing/reporting class our journalism majors take. It’s made up of juniors and seniors, some who will end up working in newspapers or magazines, others radio and TV, and still more who will do something entirely different altogether.

You need to know a bit about AU, though, to understand why what Sager said was so, well, awesome. Ashland is a mid-sized liberal arts university smack dab at the midpoint between Cleveland and Columbus. The university was founded by the Brethren Church, and while it’s not a religious school per se (it does have a seminary), a lot of our students come from the surrounding area, which means they often come in with strong religious views, almost all of them of the Christian bent.

And so it was, as Sager, a writer-at-large for Esquire, dropped F-bomb after F-bomb (“Steinbeck was very fucking journalistic!”) and talked about getting high with a pimp and trying to convince Brooke Burke to have sex with him when he was reporting “The Secret Life of a Beautiful Woman” in 1999, that eyes started to widen.

But this was good. I wanted my students to feel uncomfortable, because that’s what good narrative journalism does to you. It takes you to a place you haven’t been and wouldn’t necessarily go, and it does that for the reporter as well as the reader. And while you’re at that place, you start thinking about life, your life, the subject of the story’s life. You start thinking about what it means to be human. What it means to suffer and what it means to triumph.

I knew when I started planning the class that I wanted my students to talk with some of the outstanding journalists they would be reading during the semester.  I’ve long believed that the best way to learn how to write narrative journalism is to read a lot, write a lot, and talk to the best in the business, a lot. I’m always rejuvenated, as a reporter and a writer, whenever I hang out with people who I know are better than me when it comes to telling nonfiction stories.

Initially, I thought maybe I could get one or two nationally renowned reporters to Skype into the class. But as I thumbed through “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists,” edited by Sager and Walt Harrington, I figured I would go for broke. I knew a decent number of the reporters in that anthology thanks to Gangrey: The Podcast, the podcast I host and produce, and which features many of these very reporters talking about their work. So I emailed 14 of them. In the end, every single one said yes. Fourteen of the country’s best reporters agreed to spend 45 minutes to an hour talking to 11 undergraduate students, to share their secrets, to talk about how they get people to open up and how they make words sing.  It was a narrative journalist’s dream.

Every week, my students were assigned three or four stories by the reporter we would be talking to next. By the end of the semester, they had read hundreds of thousands of words.

And then they asked questions. Lots and lots of questions. And they got some amazing answers.

They asked Wil S. Hylton, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and author of “Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II,” how he recreated for an article in GQ  the heartbreaking scene of a mother driving her 11-year-old son 60 miles to a hospital, where she planned to abandon him so he could get the mental health help he needed.

“You have to keep asking the same questions over and over and over again and look for places the story changes,” Hylton said. “Memories are fallible, so I would say, ‘You remembered that differently the last time we talked.’ That’s when they interrogate their own memory. That’s when they remember the minute details.”

They asked Eli Saslow how he got to the point where he could essentially write whatever story he wanted to at The Washington Post, and at such a young age. Saslow, who is 32, started at the Post covering high school volleyball, but has now won one Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for another.

“People who are thriving are doing so because they have found something they care about,” he responded. “I had a pretty good sense early on about what I wanted to do. And then it was all about getting better and better with every story. It’s a super-long evolution, and I’m not nearly there yet. It’s just making sure you’re always continuing to challenge yourself.”

And they asked Chris Jones, a two-time National Magazine Award winner and writer for Esquire and ESPN The Magazine, about his incredible essay about contemplating suicide. That piece ran in an issue of Esquire focused on mental health. The essay wasn’t published online until Robin Williams committed suicide. I hadn’t told Jones to expect questions about this piece because I didn’t know it existed. I had somehow missed it in the magazine when it came out. My students found it on their own, though, and asked what it was like to write something so personal. He was silent for about 30 seconds while he contemplated an answer.

“The nice thing about writing is I never have to face my audience,” Jones said as he faced his audience. “I hardly ever think of something being read. Nobody knew that stuff. My wife didn’t know about that stuff. But I had been feeling a lot better, and I thought it was important to share that stuff.”

But did it work? Did this idea of reading a lot and writing a lot and talking to these remarkable reporters and writers work? Did my students write great, 2,000-word narratives? As with every class, some students did. Some didn’t. But here’s the thing: most of the pieces had voice. They had structures that looked like the stuff they had read. They all tackled topics that were difficult in their own ways. And a few were remarkable, far better than I had hoped for.

They wrote about friends grieving for a classmate who died in a car crash, an 89-year-old cleaning lady with just one remaining client, and an SPCA humane officer who still thinks about one horrific dog rescue.

Nobody in the class took an easy way out. They all attempted difficult stories, and they all succeeded in one way or another. At the very least, they made themselves uncomfortable. They took risks.

And this, I think, was the most important lesson from the semester. Great reporters aren’t great because perfect stories just flow out of them. They are great reporters because they take chances. They try stories no one else will. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.  But in every case, the great reporters, the ones who talked to my class last fall, are striving for that flawless story, even when they know it’s impossible.

Seth Wickersham, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, talked about the time he was in college and he wrote a story about a football player whose dad was an alcoholic. He wrote the story from the second-person point of view of the alcohol. He said it was an internship at The Washington Post that taught him to rein in his language,  to be more clear and concise.

Kelley Benham French, formerly a reporter and editor at the Tampa Bay Times and now a professor at Indiana University, spoke about the regrets that linger from her remarkable story “Kennel Trash,” and how she didn’t notice, or was afraid to notice, the story shift under her feet. She wrote a story about compassion, about women charged with putting rescued dogs to sleep. But she realizes now the story should have been about stereotyping, how pit bulls were put to sleep simply because they were pit bulls.

“Looking back, you can make a strong case that journalists have turned pit bulls into boogie men by reporting inaccurately,” she said to the class. “I wish I had let my emotions guide me more. I was too cautious.”

Chris Jones said he pitches 20 story ideas for every one story Esquire takes. And he’s on staff there. He pitched his iconic Roger Ebert profile for six months and it wasn’t until Taylor Swift backed out of a proposed story, he said, that he got the go-ahead.

I gave a presentation on this class at a College of Arts and Sciences meeting at AU, and one faculty member asked how much I had to pay these reporters to spend time with my students. Nothing, I said. They do it, I suspect, because they love narrative journalism, and they see value in teaching others not only how to do it but how and why they should love it.

Now that the semester is over, I truly think some of my students left with a love of this type of reporting and writing. That leaves me hopeful for the future of narrative journalism, and makes me think, maybe, just maybe, one day in 10 or 15 years I’ll be Skyping with one of these 11 students as they talk to a new generation of students about the stories they’ve written.

 For 10 pieces of advice these writers gave the students, go here.

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Stories We Loved: Some Favorite Narrative from 2014 Wed, 31 Dec 2014 01:49:58 +0000 It’s that time of year when “Best of” lists litter the landscape like pine needles. Here at Storyboard, we decided to do something a little different to commemorate 2014. We asked a handful of terrific storytellers to tell us their five favorite stories of the year. Not necessarily the “best” stories or the ones they thought would win awards, but the stories they couldn’t stop thinking about, the stories they told their friends to read — the stories they loved. And we said they could choose any kind of story, in any medium. Because great narrative is everywhere. Their choices will surprise and inspire you.

Here are our guest editors and their picks:

Tommy Tomlinson
Tommy Tomlinson

Tommy Tomlinson is a contributing writer for ESPN and author of the forthcoming “The Elephant In the Room” (Simon and Schuster, 2016-ish). He was a 2008-09 Nieman Fellow.

1. “Breaking Madden: The Mark Sanchez Century,” Jon Bois, “Breaking Madden” is a series where Bois pushes the John Madden NFL video game to its limits, creating freakish players and nightmare seasons and misguided quests that all turn out to have a strange beauty. In this episode he takes Mark Sanchez, one of the league’s worst-rated quarterbacks ever, and tries to win a Super Bowl with Sanchez in charge. And tries. And tries. And tries. By the end Tom Waits is singing, and everything’s in slow motion, and I’m not ashamed to say I cried a little for stupid Mark Sanchez, and for Bois’ brilliant imagination.

2.  ”Serial, ” executive producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, “This American Life.” The first lesson of “Serial” is that people will always be drawn to great stories, no matter the length or the format. The second lesson is that transparency in storytelling is not a bug, but a feature. Koenig stumbles down wrong roads and doubts her sources and questions the whole enterprise, and all this makes the story more compelling. That’s important to know for journalists who try to hide what’s behind the curtain.

3. “Tim’s Vermeer, ” director Teller, Sony Pictures Classics. Tim Jenison, a millionaire who made his fortune in computer graphics, is fascinated by the art of Vermeer. He comes to believe that Vermeer used mechanical devices to create the photo-like feel of his paintings. So Jenison sets out to prove it by trying to duplicate a Vermeer. Teller (yep, from Penn and Teller) tells the story of the places where art and technology become so close that it no longer matters which is which. Jenison is so smart and funny that you’ll gladly follow him down the rabbit hole.

4. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux, ” Jeremy Collins, SBNation. com. A raw and beautiful story of pain, friendship and one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. The stories I chose for this list are the ones that lingered in my mind and heart, and this story lingered the most. I still think about it.

5. “Our Song,” director Lance Acord, Apple. This is not just fiction, it’s fiction designed to make us buy stuff. I don’t care. It’s a beautiful, complete story, told in just a minute and a half, and it chokes me up every time I watch. The look on the old woman’s face when she hears her voice … I’ll never forget that look.

Stephen Henderson

Stephen Henderson

Stephen Henderson is the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press and a Detroit native. He won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

1. “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic. A stunning and deep look at the history of America’s racial crimes. Likely the most penetrative look at the roots of this country’s current racial imbalances. More important, the history lesson here is propelled over and over by deeply illustrative, narrative storytelling – about victims of discrimination, seekers of compensation for the wrongs they were done, and about the author himself.

2. “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words,” director Peter Kunhardt, HBO Documentaries. If you never believed Richard Nixon was his own worst enemy, this film would almost certainly change your mind. Using thousands of hours of tape-recorded White House conversations, the filmmakers wraps Nixon’s rants and raves (about everyone from his perceived political enemies to racial and religious minorities) in news context, illustrating what was happening at the time Nixon was speaking. It is at once chilling and fascinating. Worth more than one watch.

3. “More Plot Twists than ‘The Maltese Falcon,’”  Kathryn Shattuck, The New York Times, Nov. 28, 2014. This edition of the  ”Vows” wedding column reached the heights readers hope for each week. Love long lost, then reunited, across miles and decades and a wide range of emotional highs and lows. It helped that the groom was the son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but the love story would have arced perfectly on its own, even without the star quality. I read all the way to the end. Then read it again.

4. “The Song that Never Ends: Why Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’ Sustains,” producer Dan Charnas, NPR “Morning Edition.” You know you want to get up and dance. As Charnas points out in this wonderful, whimsical piece, right from the opening horn flourish, this song makes people feel good, and move their backsides. That’s why it’s one of the most popular selections at wedding receptions, more than 30 years after it was recorded. The piece wins with for the gravel-stained voice of the song’s female writer, explaining how sure she was that the repeating line, “Ba-dee-ya” was unacceptable gibberish, rather than the song’s most memorable refrain.

5. “Dehumanizing Ferguson,” Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post​. This column’s opening line, “The name Ferguson should become shorthand for dehumanization,” set the tone for a remarkably powerful venting of African-American frustration with the cheapening of black life embodied, for many, in the failure to indict officers who kill. Robinson’s prose is flawless, and sucks you in over and over.

Kelley Benham French/Photo by Cherie Diez, Tampa Bay Times

Kelley Benham French/Photo by Cherie Diez, Tampa Bay Times

Kelley Benham French is a professor of practice at the Indiana University Media School. Formerly a longtime writer and editor for the Tampa Bay Times, she was a 2013 Pulitzer finalist.

1. “While the World Watched,” Wright Thompson, ESPN. This story – which I avoided for a while because, you know, soccer + torture — brought me places I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t look away. In it, the cheers from Argentina’s 1978 World Cup victory merge with the screams from its Dirty War torture chambers, and ghost of all of it lingers over the city preparing to host another World Cup while reconciling with its past. While I was reading, I kept hearing my daughter say, “Time to eat, Mommy. Mommy? Time to eat!” and I couldn’t stop. When it was over, I wasn’t hungry.

2. “The Witness,” Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly. I’ve seen a man die by lethal injection, but not like this. Through the eyes of Michelle Lyons, who witnessed 278 Texas executions, we see the death penalty from both sides of the glass. We are close enough to hear their last breaths, and we have enough distance to feel the accumulated injury of so many needle pricks, to our society, to our best selves. Lyons’ long relationship with Death Row allows for a nuanced, unflinching and unsentimental reflection on capital punishment.

3. “Away,” Chris Jones, Esquire. In space, callouses slough off your feet and fire floats like tiny suns. As we ponder outposts on other planets, first we have to find out what living in space does to us. Jones profiles an astronaut preparing to spend a year away from his family, his planet, his gravity in all its forms. He will return with his life and body transformed. A story on what it takes, with an ending that makes it hard to breathe.

4. “The Lost Bones,” Ben Montgomery, Tampa Bay Times. I keep thinking about the little boys. Buried – discarded – in a shoddily marked cemetery at a hellhole of a reform school in the panhandle of Florida. They lay forgotten for decades, until the trees grew up over them and their bones rotted into the dirt and the people who put them there had died and the people who remembered them were almost all gone.  They would have stayed there forever maybe, had Ben Montgomery not worked for six years to expose a century of torture at the school, to shut the place down, and to follow the archeologist who finally brought the boys out of the ground, matched bones with names, and delivered them to their families.  I’m close to this story – I edited its prequels, including “For Their Own Good” — but if this story doesn’t represent best of what we do, I don’t know what does.

5. “Beer, Breakups and Babies: Six stories of the Ikea coffee table phase of life,” Jessica Contrera, The Washington Post. This story reminds me of so many other stories I’ve loved over the years but rarely see anymore: of red plastic cupsplastic porch chairs and containers and Yankee Candles. It feels deeply true. Not unlike an Ikea coffee table, it is simple and not showy, surprisingly sturdy, more than the sum of its parts. It is made for this moment, and not for forever, but it tells us something about life and how we live it, right now. I’ll teach it this semester, and I’ll make notes on my copy on the Ikea Lack table in my campus office.

Lisa Pollak

Lisa Pollak

Lisa Pollak won the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and worked as a producer for “This American Life” for nine years. Last semester, she taught a course called “Storytelling for the Ear” at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

1. “Boyhood,” director Richard Linklater. This film about a boy coming of age was filmed in real time, over the course of 12 years, so even though it’s fiction, the changes we see happening to the actors are real. The plot has upsetting moments, but what ultimately made me cry was the way Linklater captured the passage of time itself, and all the beautiful and sad ways that time leaves its mark on us.

2. “StartUp,” Alex Blumberg, Gimlet Media. I will never forget the feeling of walking down the street listening to this podcast series and marveling at the fact that a story about a guy starting his own company could be so riveting and emotional — hilarious at times, poignant  at others. Alex (a former colleague of mine) even finds a way to make the ads compelling.

3. “Behind the yellow door, a man’s mental illness worsens,” Stephanie McCrummen, The Washington Post. I think this is one of the most gripping stories on mental illness and what it does to families that I’ve ever read.

4. “Help Wanted,” Luke Malone and Robyn Semien,”This American Life.” A painful, eye-opening and unforgettable story about a young man trying to deal with his attraction to children by starting an online support group for pedophiles, like himself, who haven’t committed crimes and don’t want to harm children. It’s alarming to learn how little help and research exists for this young man, and heartbreaking to hear about his quest to help himself. This piece won the “Radio Impact” award at the 2014 Third Coast competition.

5. “Heart-Rending Test in Ebola Zone: A Baby,” Sheri Fink, The New York Times. It’s hard to choose just one piece from the NYT’s Ebola Ward series, but this story — and really, the headline says it all — is the one that I can’t stop thinking about.

Louise Kiernan

Louise Kiernan

And, finally, I’ll add a few favorites of my own. I second the nominations for “Serial” and “Boyhood” both of which I enjoyed for many different reasons but which share a patience in the approach to storytelling that conjures up a rare sense of subtlety and depth.

After living in Chicago for more than two decades, I’ve read and watched and listened to more reports than I can count about the terrible toll of violence in my beloved city. This year, though, I thought a single photograph told one of most nuanced — and painful– stories. This image by Scott Strazzante, a Chicago Tribune photographer who now works for the San Francisco Chronicle, stands apart from the familiar images of bereft mothers holding aloft snapshots of their lost children or crowds gathered around a lumpy body bag on a street corner. Words can’t do justice to the expression on that police officer’s face.

Sarah Stillman at The New Yorker reports on social issues ranging from ebola to Ferguson to civil forfeiture with an unparalleled intelligence and grace. Her story on for-profit alternatives to incarceration was a compelling exploration of a little-known, profoundly unfair phenomenon.

My concluding recommendation is hardly fair to share because it’s a museum exhibit and disappearing in matter of days but nothing made me think harder about construction and deconstruction of story this year than the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s show “David Bowie Is.”  The exhibit is an utterly immersive narrative experience, with Bowie speaking or singing in your ear through the geographically responsive headphones as you approach various displays and artifacts that include, among dozens of other items, scraps of handwritten song lyrics and the set of keys to his apartment in Berlin. And, of course, the show examines through Bowie’s various personas the concept of the creation of individual narrative that we all undertake in some form or another. I didn’t encounter a more beautifully built story this year — and I’m not even much of a Bowie fan.

What were your favorite stories of 2014?

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Best of Storyboard: Reader Favorites for 2014 Thu, 18 Dec 2014 16:16:22 +0000 This year marked some major changes at Storyboard: new website, new editor and new narrative territory. Our most popular posts of 2014 reflect some timely– and timeless– themes. Most notable is the flourishing passion for audio storytelling. No fewer than four of our top 10 posts involve some sort of story, discussion or analysis of radio or podcast narrative. At the same time, readers remain interested in classic print pieces, with our well-established Annotation Tuesday feature drawing attention for its deconstruction of three magazine articles, two of them several (or more) decades old. And there’s no expiration date when  it comes to sound writing advice, as evidenced by the digital resurrection of a pair of past essays by two masters of the craft.

Here are our top 10 posts (mostly, but not slavishly in order) for 2014:

Sarah Koenig

Sarah Koenig

The most-viewed post by many thousands of clicks was our October interview with “Serial” executive producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, which isn’t surprising given the runaway success of their “This American Life” spinoff podcast. In its first season, the 12-episode narrative, which concluded today, explored the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Lee and subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.

In this excerpt from our chat, Koenig, who also hosts the program, talks about the gap between the audience’s expectations and her purpose as a storyteller:

“The popularity of this podcast, I was unprepared for. I think a lot of that is the fact that it’s a crime. It’s a murder case. I had not banked on that’s what people are responding to. It’s not our great idea and our wonderful storytelling; it’s just that people can’t resist a murder mystery. I really did not appreciate that until now. I’m afraid there probably is some of that out there, where it’s just a caper. And that’s fine. I think that’s not our interest, though. That’s not our intention. I think our intention is more complicated and probably more subtle, and maybe too subtle.

It’s funny because I keep thinking for all these people who are like, “Does she know the ending? What’s the ending? How’s it going to end?” To me, when I’m watching “House of Cards” or “Downton Abbey,” or whatever it is, I don’t want to know the ending. To me, the pleasure is in the story, right? So I’m always a little bit like, “Wait, don’t you guys just want to stick with me? Why are you trying to get ahead of the story? Isn’t the pleasure in having it lay out? To me, that’s what I like. So I don’t relate, honestly, so much. I really don’t. I’m sad when it gets to the end of those series. I just want it to keep going.”

Gabe Bullard

Gabe Bullard

Listeners worried about how to replace their “Serial” fix may have accounted for the strong interest in Nieman fellow Gabe Bullard’s list of recommended replacement podcasts. His top three?

The Memory Palace.” This is my ultimate “high reward” podcast. It’s short and infrequent, but the storytelling is among the best available online.

Judge John Hodgman.” Writer and actor John Hodgman (“The Daily Show,” those Mac/PC ads) adjudicates petty conflicts between friends in this People’s Court-style podcast. Many humor podcasts consist of funny people (or people who think they’re funny) riffing and hoping for laughs, but this is smarter and, at times, surprisingly heartfelt.

Gastropod.” In each episode, Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley look at issues related to the future of eating. This is new, but with its focus on reporting and sharp writing, it’s quickly become one of two food-related podcasts I always listen to (the other is “America’s Test Kitchen,” from the same people who make the TV and radio shows).

Also in the top half of our year-end list is another audiocentric story, an examination of the podcast renaissance by Cynthia Graber. Graber, whose article also appeared in our sister publication Nieman Reports, writes:

Today, podcasting is making a comeback, in part because the technology—smartphones and audio recording programs—is easy to use. According to the Infinite Dial 2014 study, the latest from Edison Research on consumer adoption of digital media, more than 60% of the American public has a smartphone. (This increases to 80% of the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.) Apps like Stitcher encourage seamless podcast listening, and websites like SoundCloud make embedding and sharing audio a snap.

The result: Thousands of podcasts are available on iTunes, with an offering for seemingly every interest—from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “StarTalk Radio” to “Common Sense” with Dan Carlin.

Annotation Tuesday remains one of Storyboard’s most popular features, with four entries in our top 10. Our first audio annotation (yes, more ear candy!) highlighted a classic “This American Life” story about a young man, his mother, a voicemail and the Little Mermaid. Producer Jonathan Goldstein told annotator Lisa Pollak that he thought the story, which inspired a new award at this year’s Third Coast audio conference, worked because it continues to surprise the listener.  Here, a short exchange between Goldstein and his friend Josh Karpati is followed by a discussion of how to create in an interview “the joy of being in it together.” (In the annotations, the annotator’s questions are in red; the author’s answers in blue.)

Jonathan: You have it? You have the message?

Josh: I do not have the message. I have the message in my head. I am telling you a story. All right?   What’s going through your head as you do this interview?     At every beat I know that certain things are going to set [Josh] off and I know that’s only going to prolong the gratification. It was like, even when he’s about to tell me what the message is and then I ask him, “Oh, you have the message?” And I knew he didn’t have the message, but I also knew he would beat me up for it. And then when he’s just about to tell the message he’s like, “You’re ready?” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah,” and then he goes, “Oh, one more thing.” And I left that in because I felt like, you’re with him. You’re along for the ride in this wonderful way.   This isn’t the first time Josh is telling you the story, but it sounds like it could have been. How do you do that?     There’s this idea in radio that the best kind of tape is tape in which something is “happening.” So if there is a feeling of you reacting, being surprised, laughing, it makes it feel — though it’s only a conversation in a studio —  like something is happening. And the listener will have a bit more of that vicarious thrill… the joy of being in it together. So you want to find a balance between knowing some things but still allowing room for surprise. And I have to admit, I’m not much of a laugher, which has made my career in radio more difficult. I do not have the free and easy laugh that makes subjects feel like they are the wisest, funniest people in the world. I try to sound like I’m smiling  but that doesn’t always come across. I have to do things like say “Wait… you what?” or repeat what they just said to underline it for the listener. And one of the things I love about Josh is that he makes me laugh in a way very few people do and so he makes me a better broadcaster than I am.

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Contributor Elon Green annotated Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s essay in The Believer on comedian Dave Chappelle, which was a finalist for a 2014 National Magazine Award. Ghansah made some highly personal choices in reporting and writing her story, among them not approaching Chappelle when she accidentally ran into him on the street, a decision that provoked this exchange with Green:

This decision of yours–to let him go, as it were–was quite contentious! “There was no conversation to have,” you told Longform, because Chappelle had already declined to do an interview. “The point is he’s stated all he needs to say.” Is this the difference between being a reporter and an essayist? I think a reporter would be obligated to be, as you put it to Longform, a pest, while the essayist has the freedom to stay back.   But is the reporter obligated to find things if they already know the answer? Plus, I don’t think the story needed it. You need to respect people’s autonomy and their ability to make decisions for themselves. It’s a comment on the entire history of black people in America. We haven’t had autonomy and ownership of things. Here was someone who had ownership of all that stuff, and didn’t have any reason to return again. I don’t think I wanted to see Dave Chappelle, the person who wanted to be pestered; I wanted to see Dave Chappelle, the person who wouldn’t talk to me. And that’s what I got. I was pretty satisfied with that.

Two other annotations also caught the attention of readers. The first deconstructed Mike Sager’s 1989 profile of porn star John Holmes for Rolling Stone. This annotation also unofficially contained the most mentions of the male anatomy in Storyboard history. When the discussion turned to storytelling, however, Sager offered this insight, among others:

I always wrote out loud, but I had to stop eventually because my voice was getting too fucked up. But if you listen to, say, Oscar Peterson playing, he’s always humming over his work. That’s how I write. That shit’s made to be read. There’s poetry in commission. I look at sentences that way. Also, I kind of like long sentences that, by pace and rhythm, give you time to breathe but take you on a different journey. I refer to it as the J-stroke. If you ever went to camp and took canoeing, you know what it is–a stroke with a turn. That’s what I like to do to my readers: fuck with their heads. Everybody thinks they always know where you’re going, and I never want to go there.

Still holding strong in this year’s Top 10 from 2013 is the annotation of the iconic Gay Talese story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a cornerstone of the New Journalism movement. Here, Talese spoke to Green about his approach to note-taking:

Do you have a photographic memory?   I go over stuff so much, and go over it again and again and again, that I can remember it forever, almost.   A couple of years ago, you told Chris Jones, “I don’t take notes in front of people.”   Right.   So what techniques to do you use to remember such a complicated scene or extended dialogue? You’re describing — in great detail — movement, wardrobe and the location of the various parties. This strikes me as something that would be difficult to capture even in real time. Every night, if I don’t sneak notes in during the day going to the bathroom or something — which I do — I go home and before I go to sleep I write down notes from the whole day, what’s in my mind.

Jill Lepore, who has a new book out about Wonder Woman, is a sort of Wonder Woman herself, as both a Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer.  In her Q-and-A with Storyboard, she discussed the parallels and divides between her academic and journalistic careers:

You know it’s easy to bash academic writers, but it’s completely unfair in the sense that academics aren’t writing for those readers. They’re writing for other academics and specialists and that’s all to the good and what they should be doing. That’s an efficient way to advance the production and distribution of knowledge within a field, within a field of inquiry. There’s nothing wrong with that.

[W]riting for a different audience is really fun. To the degree I have the capacity to do that, I owe it entirely to my editor at The New Yorker, who is just an incredibly brilliant editor and has taught me more than I could possibly hope to ever really learn and digest.

But thinking about how to take a complicated body of knowledge that particular historians have, bring it onto the page in a way that will reach a reader that does not have that body of knowledge but does not want to be spoken down to in any way because they’re a very, very smart person, and bring it to life by respecting that these people lived lives and they’re not to be used, they’re not fodder for our cannons, they’re real people who lived and died and they deserve every bit of the truth and dignity of the lives they led and not to be put to some political use in our particular moment in time. Nonetheless, to have a story have a kind of resonance with the current moment because we’re all human and because we face struggles in common, struggles over time, that’s like the most fun jigsaw puzzle.

Highlighting Storyboard’s value as a timeless resource, two “vintage” essays on craft sparked renewed interest. In excerpts from his 2010 lecture at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough offered this practical advice about avoiding writer’s block:

So at the beginning of the first day, when I get the assignment, I start two files on my desktop. Let’s say the story is slugged Mayborn. I start Mayborn.reporting and Mayborn.writing. Everything I gather, obviously, goes in Mayborn.reporting, but unlike a lot of people I don’t wait to the end to start filling up Mayborn.writing. I start immediately. I write up every single thing I get in Mayborn.writing because I’ve found that I block, badly, badly, badly. And so, what I do is, let’s say I get a nice interview with George. I’ve got eight grafs, I write it up. It makes me feel good to be able to look and see that I’ve already got stuff written. Everybody knows that the worst part of any narrative project is the early stuff, when you don’t really have the confidence that you’re going to get enough to do it, and you panic, “I’ll never be able to do it.” We all have this. And I feel so [much] better about myself, when I can say, “Look. I have eight paragraphs.”

Readers also revisited a 1997 essay by University of Illinois journalism professor and former Washington Post staff writer Walt Harrington about intimate journalism, which he describes here:

The kind of journalism we end up doing is shaped by the way we think about our mission. If we think that a vital part of our job is to uncover, describe and evoke the texture, tone and meaning — the warp and woof, as people say — of the everyday lives of our readers, then the crucial role of intimate journalism comes suddenly and inevitably to the fore. This kind of journalism often gives up something in breadth and on-high authority in return for something gained in evocation and humanity. It is not “news you can use,” as the modern catchphrase goes, but “news you can feel.”

And, finally, evidence that no list is complete without its own list of lists, last December’s list of “Top 10 Top 10 lists” anchored the No. 10 spot on our Top 10 of 2014 list (follow that?). This round-up gathered recommendations for reporting and writing resources from around the Internet in 2013.

Who knows? Maybe this year’s top 10 posts will make the 2015 list.







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New Print Magazines Are Embracing Narrative and Finding Their Niche Fri, 12 Dec 2014 01:31:22 +0000 In 2011, as the Arab Spring dawned, young Lebanese journalist Ibrahim Nehme yearned to play a role in the changes sweeping the Middle East. The region’s print media, he believed, didn’t measure up to the hopes of the demonstrators, who demanded democracy and fresh ideas. So Nehme resolved to start his own magazine as an outlet for the voices of the younger generation. He drained his savings, took out a loan, and asked family and friends for help. The first issue of The Outpost, a quarterly English-language print publication featuring long-form articles on the choices facing the Arab world, appeared in September 2012.

“I felt there’s an opportunity to say and make something different, make something that would become part of the revolution,” says Nehme, now 28. The idea was to create a “media voice that can capture our imagination, provide us with a space to dream, speak up, think freely, be who we are as Arab youth.”

Launching a print magazine today is courageous; some would say foolhardy. Indeed, two years in, Nehme has slowed his publishing pace from quarterly to semi-annual as he faces a constant struggle to make ends meet. But The Outpost, with a print run of about 3,000 per issue, is hardly flying solo. Worldwide, new print titles have been popping up to cover a breathtaking array of topics, from new-age agriculture (Modern Farmer) to handyman ingenuity (Makeshift) to Californian culture (The California Sunday Magazine).

And some of these publications are highlighting long-form narrative as a key selling point. Take Lucky Peach, a food magazine launched in 2011, with its award-winning features on Manhattan chef and restaurateur Wylie Dufresne and canning Southern fruits, or The Caravan, a venerable monthly that Delhi Press relaunched in 2010 after a long hiatus, with its essays on anti-Sikh violence, Hindi literature, and the full spectrum of politics and culture in between. For these publications, print still offers a powerful brand flagship as well as a source of revenue that digital platforms can supplement but not yet supplant.

Those launching print titles today are generally independent publishers, driven by passion, with little expectation of big profits. “When was the last time you heard of a [new] magazine coming from Time Inc.?” asks Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. The number of launches has fallen over the years, as has magazines’ collective circulation, yet new titles keep coming. What it takes to survive, according to magazine entrepreneurs like Nehme, is targeting a clearly defined niche, finding committed backers and creative fundraising methods and, above all, a willingness to be scrappy and innovative.

THE OUTPOST Beirut journalist Ibrahim Nehme, below, founded the English-language magazine to give voice to a new generation in the Arab world

THE OUTPOST Beirut journalist Ibrahim Nehme, below, founded the English-language magazine to give voice to a new generation in the Arab world

Of all the types of magazines to consider starting during the digital age, travel seems among the least likely to succeed, though Airbnb plans to launch a travel magazine called Pineapple. Digital travel tips have practically obviated the need for guidebooks, making Lonely Planet (my first writing job out of college) look almost like Baedekers. The graveyard of recently shuttered magazines includes Executive Travel, National Geographic Adventure, and Everywhere. And yet the circulation of Afar, started by Greg Sullivan and Joseph Diaz in 2009, in the teeth of the Great Recession, has grown to 250,000, a five-fold increase from its launch, and advertising—the saving grace of the travel market—has become the core financial pillar. Plus, the business is now profitable, says Sullivan.

Afar’s genius is targeting a different sort of journey, which the editors have dubbed “experiential” travel, in which the visitor interacts with a place as the locals do and sees it through their eyes. It’s not, says San Francisco-based editor in chief Julia Cosgrove, about a “vacation built around escapist fantasies of going to the beach.” Local markets, local dress, local cuisine—all are featured, often in long, narrative formats. A popular feature is Spin the Globe, in which writers are sent to random destinations; one that captured particular attention was a 2011 trip by Ryan Knighton, who is blind, to Cairo, a city rich with history but difficult to navigate. The magazine avoids “homogenizing” its writers’ voices, says Cosgrove, keeping “the stories as personal and fresh as possible, because I think that has more staying power than that sort of uni-voice that you find so often in magazines.”

Cosgrove says Afar keeps a lean staff, with just nine editors, yet puts original content on its website, largely by encouraging readers to volunteer their work. “In Paris, if you discover this really great coffee shop, you can take a photo, upload to, and describe the experience,” says Cosgrove. “People are willing and then wanting to share this information with other travelers.”

Afar’s success reflects the importance of targeting a highly specific audience. “You just have to find your audience much more explicitly now than you’ve had to,” says Dana Chinn, a media analytics strategist at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Such strategies are behind magazines like Yoga Digest, a Dallas online community that launched a national magazine in November; Good, a newly re-launched magazine focusing on people making a positive impact in the world; and Makeshift, which features acts of ingenuity from around the world.

Knowing your audience can pay off in revenue beyond subscriptions and advertising, the traditional pillars of print profit. “You’re building a community,” says Chinn, “an audience who wants to be associated with each other.” Afar derives revenue from excursions it organizes each year to destinations like Cairo, Johannesburg, and Montreal. The journeys, which cost $1,800 to $4,500, offer readers a chance to meet locals, including politicians and activists, as well as like-minded Afar readers. The trips “bring the pages of the magazine to life in a very literal way,” Cosgrove says.

The narrative niche itself can sometimes be the source of a title’s appeal, as readers seek out longer reads and deeper analysis. That’s why newsweeklies are losing relevance, according to Anant Nath, editor of The Caravan, which claims to be the first magazine in India devoted to long-form narrative. “Weekly journalism is increasingly a regurgitation of the past week’s news, which is of little relevance,” he says. “An 8,000-word profile of a politician, wherein the reporter has done some 30 to 40 interviews, presents a lot of new information,” and thus presents greater appeal to readers.

Even subjects like food, normally more associated with recipes than long-form, can lend themselves to narrative. “Twitter is awesome, but you don’t disconnect from the stress of your daily life and sink into your couch with your iPhone,” says Lucky Peach co-founder Peter Meehan. “You maintain the paranoia.”

Lucky Peach, which prints about 100,000 copies of each issue, happily publishes long pieces on trends like Malaysian street food and Christian culinary traditions in India. The magazine won five James Beard awards this year for articles on, among other topics, gay influences on cooking and the tale of a Long Island chef who blended cuisines long before it was cool, like roasted lobster flavored with soy sauce. “For us, it was like, Where are our strengths? What can we do that Bon Appétit can’t do?” Meehan says, recalling the thought process that went into starting the company. “Literature is nourishing.”

Magazine co-founders David Chang, far right,
and Peter Meehan, in Chang’s New York Momofuku noodle bar. Lucky Peach recently won five James Beard awards

LUCKY PEACH Magazine co-founders David Chang, far right, and Peter Meehan, in Chang’s New York Momofuku noodle bar. Lucky Peach recently won five James Beard awards

Technology has brought down printing costs, but launching a magazine remains extremely expensive. For The California Sunday Magazine, which debuted this fall with a print run of more than 400,000, the magic number was $2 million. Douglas McGray, one of the co-founders, says he and his colleagues raised that amount from a mix of individual investors, some from Hollywood, publishing, and the technology world. With its emphasis on artfulness and narrative style, California Sunday carries echoes of The New Yorker, but with features on virtual reality and Blue Bottle Coffee instead of opera and Manhattan traffic. Perhaps inevitably for a publication born in the spirit of Silicon Valley, McGray doesn’t see it as a print launch. The same content that reaches readers at their homes the first Sunday of each month also appears on apps and the Web. McGray, a longtime feature journalist, and publisher Chas Edwards got the idea for California Sunday from Pop-Up Magazine, their live “magazine” of on-stage storytelling whose performances up and down the West Coast sell out in minutes. Pop-Up performs at night, a time when even people in tech-frenzied California relax and open their minds to stories. A Sunday magazine could pleasurably fill non-working hours, he reasoned, especially if people could read it however they wanted—on tablets, on phones, in print. And California had no answer to The New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker, though Pacific Standard fills some of that role. “It started to strike me as strange that with all the people in California and the West, and all the cultural, political, and business influence, that when we read big national features about [life and ideas in the West], it tends to be made in New York,” McGray says.

His backers’ money allows McGray to pay well for quality freelance work. The magazine currently has no staff writers. “We’re trying to be as lean as possible everywhere except for stories and art and the things that bring readers stories,” he says. The November issue included a long tale about the dangers and opportunities of deep-sea mining, with reporting from Papua, New Guinea. A photo essay told the story of the U.S.-Mexico border fence: one image showed a scattering of shotgun shells, another a battered soccer ball, a third the high, rust-colored border fence extending down a sandy beach.

Print has emerged as a core part of California Sunday’s business model. Rather than laboriously building a subscriber base by itself, California Sunday piggybacked on the distribution of existing newspapers. The magazine currently arrives as an insert in certain home-delivered editions of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee, as well as San Francisco-area copies of The New York Times. Paying newspapers to distribute a magazine is far cheaper than mailing them out individually, of course, and the big initial circulation numbers also allowed California Sunday to attract high-dollar advertisers such as Lexus and Nest Labs, the Google-owned maker of smart-home hardware. “We’re trying to be nimble,” McGray says. “We’re launching with the footprint of a magazine that a big media company would produce, but we’re really influenced by the start-up culture of Silicon Valley.”

California Sunday is an outlier. For most fledgling magazines, print cannot pull in the necessary advertising dollars. Crowd-funding goes only so far, and few print magazines launch with enough subscribers to entice advertisers. Nor are many sufficiently well funded at launch to keep publishing long enough to build the circulation and reputation that attracts advertisers. (Afar is one exception; its founders, Diaz and Sullivan, as well as another investor, Ernie Garcia, have pumped $20 million into it.) The Outpost had hoped initially to generate virtually all of its revenue from advertising, but now has given that up. “We’ve literally stopped contacting or approaching advertisers,” says Nehme, the editor in chief. “It’s just discouraging and demotivating and we’re worlds apart.” The alternative is a higher price for subscribers and single issues—in effect, forcing readers to pay more for the content.

BOOM This California history and culture quarterly, based
at UCLA, made
a splash with an issue devoted to Los Angeles and the politics of water

BOOM This California history and culture quarterly, based at UCLA, made a splash with an issue devoted to Los Angeles and the politics of water

Still, print often carries a cachet that digital formats do not, at least not yet, many entrepreneurs say. A print product—a copy of The Economist or The New Yorker lying on a coffee table—is a fashion statement. At Boom, a three-year-old quarterly about Californian history and culture published by the University of California Press, “the print edition is the beautiful, substantive and evocative object at the center of the whole enterprise,” says editor Jon Christensen. Boom features long essays and photographs on everything from John Muir to the San Francisco housing boom and is somewhat reminiscent of Monocle magazine, but on a California level. Last year, when Boom devoted an entire issue to the controversial history of Los Angeles’ water imports from the Sierra Nevada mountains, it generated plenty of attention despite the magazine’s modest circulation.

One of the most improbable new titles of recent years is Makeshift, a quarterly magazine devoted to the ingenuity of ordinary people. Myles Estey, editor in chief and co-founder, had been living in Liberia for a couple years and became fascinated by the informal economy there—how people built and fixed their own motorbikes, how discarded stuffed animals were cleaned and reused, how people scraped and scrapped for a living. And so, in 2011, he and a like-minded engineer, Steve Daniels, decided to start a magazine devoted to this niche.

The subject matter was so specific that they knew they wouldn’t attract many advertisers or even enough subscribers to break even, but they pushed forward nonetheless. Print was the obvious choice, according to Estey, because magazines have a special way of telling stories and building community. Makeshift has built a following by publishing long essays on subjects such as the blind hawkers in Mumbai’s train stations and how the tunnels under the border between Gaza and Egypt are built and destroyed. “It’s a lot of work,” admits Estey, who spends much of his time in Mexico City and has written about drug smuggling and film pirating. Makeshift’s editors all work other jobs, because no can yet make a full-time living from the magazine. It’s an advantage, Estey argues, because editors pull ideas from their outside lines of work.

Readers—and, just as crucially, sponsors—have responded enthusiastically. Makeshift has built its circulation to 20,000. Crowd-funding helped with the early issues, which also received support from an engineering group; subsequent sponsors have included General Electric. The magazine is now expanding into design consulting and teaching as other ways of raising revenue.

MAKESHIFT The ingenuity
of ordinary people in Liberia was
the impetus behind the founding of
this quarterly, which markets itself via new tools, such
as Magpile and Stack

MAKESHIFT The ingenuity of ordinary people in Liberia was the impetus behind the founding of this quarterly, which markets itself via new tools, such as Magpile and Stack

It has also innovated on the distribution side, taking advantage of new digital tools that can help small publishers reach wider audiences. Single-issue copies can be purchased at Magpile, an online library and media shop that charges sellers like Makeshift a monthly fee and takes an 8 percent cut of an issue’s cover price. Publishers themselves are responsible for mailing out the magazines. Another service is U.K.-based Stack; founder and director Steve Watson buys a different magazine each month to send out to his subscribers. Watson aims for interesting, fresh titles, and Makeshift, says Estey, is in the 2015 lineup.

For these nascent titles, digital strategies diverge. Many lack an elaborate Web presence; Lucky Peach, for example, has a Tumblr presence, but mostly steers users toward its print edition (“We’re going to start a real site next year, with daily content,” says Meehan.) The Web has a faster metabolism, as Casey Caplowe, co-founder of Good magazine, puts it. “The Web is a great place for the more quick and news-responsive thing,” he says, whereas print allows for sitting back and digging into nuance.

Yet the question remains whether digital media will one day erode print so profoundly that it disappears completely. There are signs, in fact, that users are increasingly comfortable reading long-form writing on tablets and mobile devices. Earlier this year people spent more than 25 minutes reading a 6,000-word BuzzFeed story on their phones about buying a cheap home in Detroit, according to The Atlantic. The story received more than a million pageviews, with nearly half the people accessing it from mobile devices.

The venture planned by former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson and journalist and media entrepreneur Steven Brill, which will feature mammoth long-form stories each month in digital rather than print, shows that even old media types are considering digital as a way forward for long-form journalism.

For now, though, the new print magazines are living in the moment, and hoping to expand. California Sunday, for one, has grand plans. McGray hopes to increase distribution, on apps and in print, and steer the publication toward biweekly and finally weekly frequency. “We talk around the office of not having the benefit of 100 years of history,” says McGray. “But we don’t have the burden either.”

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