Nieman Storyboard » Storyboard Posts http://niemanstoryboard.org Exploring the art and craft of story Fri, 27 Mar 2015 21:00:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.1 Virtual Reality Lets the Audience Step into the Story http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/virtual-reality-lets-the-audience-step-into-the-story/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/virtual-reality-lets-the-audience-step-into-the-story/#comments Thu, 19 Mar 2015 18:37:58 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=118817 You’re standing in the middle of an eerily empty two-lane road. Cookie-cutter apartment complexes surround you. Broad-leaved trees line the street. It looks like an average American suburb, but something’s not right.

You look left, then right. Yellow police tape blocks off the street, and red and blue lights flash in the distance. You move forward a bit and notice the white outline of a body on the asphalt, sprawled with its left hand above its head. Glowing arrows beckon away from it. Following them, you end up at the passenger-side window of a police cruiser. You enter a flickering cylinder. It brightens, and a comic strip appears showing an illustration of a man wearing a baseball cap, looking down the road you just walked along.

This is a 3D rendering of Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown when he died and is the man in the baseball cap featured in the illustration, is just one character you meet in this virtual world, created by graphic journalist Dan Archer with the help of photographs, satellite imagery, and video game software.

Archer, through a fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and a partnership with Fusion, where “The Michael Brown Shooting Visualized: Eyewitness Accounts” was published last December, reconstructed eight eyewitness accounts for users to explore, guided by arrows that lead to the locations where each person observed the event. He notes that users spend on average over 10 minutes with his Ferguson piece, “practically unheard of in the ADD [attention deficit disorder] world of online news,” he says. Those are promising stats at a time when media outlets are fiercely competing for users’ attention. Immersive journalistic experiences like this one could become a way to keep audiences engaged while offering reporters innovative new ways to tell stories.

The goal of journalism has always been to be immersive, to bring audiences as close to unfolding events as possible. New Journalism icons like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese practiced their own form of low-tech immersive journalism by inserting themselves into their stories in imaginative ways. The qualities that lend virtual reality its “wow” factor are the same ones inherent in any well-crafted tale, fiction or non. Though his digitally rendered version of Ferguson is far from seamless—the graphics are pixelated, and the mouse controls don’t always work the way you want them to—Archer believes immersive storytelling is the best model for presenting “complexities, ambiguities and all-out contradictions inherent in larger, longer-running stories.” Someday, he hopes, this interactive model could give the old-fashioned feature a run for its money.

Immersive journalism is picking up now in part because the necessary technology has gotten better, cheaper, and more portable. The smartphone’s ability to stream high-definition video as well as its increasing popularity—58% of Americans had one as of January 2014, according to Pew Research—have further accelerated adoption. Add to that the more widespread use of interactive data visualizations and advances in wearable computing and the stage may be set for a more robust adoption of virtual reality. “It’s not just the media coming to you,” says Dan Pacheco, professor of journalism innovation at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. “You move into the media.”

Immersive journalism is picking up now in part because the necessary technology has gotten better, cheaper, and more portable

Immersive storytelling was on prominent display at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring in the form of “Use of Force” by former Newsweek correspondent Nonny de la Peña. When you strap on the headgear to experience the piece, the first thing you hear is crickets, then screaming. Two uniformed agents drag a man dressed in white to the ground and start kicking him. A dozen other officers stand quietly by as he screams. Other bystanders watch in horror. A man asks, “Why are you guys using excessive force?” A woman shouts, “He’s not resisting! He’s not resisting!”

This incident occurred in May of 2010 at the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego. The death of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, the man in white, was ruled a homicide by the San Diego coroner’s office. Border agents maintain force was necessary because Hernandez-Rojas, who had methamphetamine in his system, was combative. It is a very disturbing few minutes to re-live. Though the computer-game feel of the graphics creates some cognitive distance between you and the action, you are confronted with the stark brutality of the beating in a way that feels more intimate than the documentary footage on which the virtual rendering is based. In the immersive version, you feel powerless to stop a violent act that feels like it’s happening before your very eyes.

De la peña also presented an immersive piece at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Project Syria.” It transports you to a lively intersection in Aleppo, Syria. You hear a girl sing in Arabic. Suddenly, a bomb explodes. People flee in every direction, and through the thick cloud of debris you see several bodies lying on the ground. A screeching fills your ears. When it stops, a narrator’s voice breaks in, “A third of all Syrians have been displaced by the war.” A child runs by as the narrator continues, “Reports indicate children have been specifically targeted in the violence.” The chaotic sounds crescendo and then cease as the scene fades to black.

You are then transported to a desert, with trailers and tents visible in the distance. Translucent white figures stand before you. More and more figures and more and more tents appear as the narrator continues, “There are now over a million refugee children.” For de la Peña, the virtue of virtual reality is that it puts “people inside the story so they can experience the action as it unfolds. [It] allows you to experience stories in a visceral way.”

Just a few years ago, head-mounted displays that simulate 3D environments cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were rarely found outside military research labs. Then, in 2012, inventor Palmer Luckey raised $2.4 million through a Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift virtual reality system. He offered development kits to early adopters who wanted to make games for it. Facebook bought the company for $2 billion. Though the Oculus Rift has yet to reach the general public, anyone who wants to try it out can order a prototype. Other competitors have also launched consumer-grade devices.

Video game technology has attracted journalists looking to experiment with storytelling forms, including David Dufresne, who is a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Open Documentary Laboratory. Dufresne is convinced journalists can deepen users’ experiences by borrowing narrative and nonlinear techniques from filmmakers and gamers. “The video game industry has revolutionized the narrative,” he says, particularly by encouraging audiences to participate in the story.

In “Fort McMoney,” Dufresne put the fate of a real Canadian town in Alberta, Fort McMurray, into users’ hands. Fort McMurray sits atop a large oil sands reserve, and you get to decide its future in a Web-based documentary game. The experience opens cinematically. Driving down a snowy highway, you pass an overturned car. A woman’s voice narrates, “You have reached the end of the road, at the world’s edge.” You’re eventually left to explore the photorealistic setting.

There’s a woman facing you from the passenger seat of a Ford F250, door ajar. When you hover the mouse over her, everything around her blurs. When you click, titles appear on the screen identifying Marquesa Shore, a waitress and car saleswoman. She arrived in Fort McMurray two months ago and earns about $10,000 a month. “It’s good,” she says. “It’s good to be a woman here.”

Users are then offered two choices: Get Into Her Pickup Truck or Speak To Her Later. If you choose the latter, you can explore other characters. If you choose the former, you take a ride in her truck as she tells you about life in Fort McMurray. A few minutes later, she offers to drop you off at City Hall, where you can meet the mayor. Throughout the game, users refer to a dashboard that tracks their progress. For Dufresne, this kind of gamification can attract users to stories they might otherwise ignore. “Nobody wants to read a news report or watch a movie about environmental issues,” he observes. “What we saw with ‘Fort McMoney’ is a lot of people who came for the game stayed for the topic.”

MIT’s David Dufresne aims to create a template for interactive documentaries

One of the biggest challenges in constructing a story with so many different possible outcomes is thinking non-linearly. Rather than watching a documentary that unfolds scene by scene, the audience explores the people and places of Fort McMurray based on their preferences. If you don’t want to meet the mayor and hear her perspective on things, you can click away. If you’re interested in the real issues behind the game, you can debate them with other players. As part of his fellowship at MIT, Dufresne is building a tool that he hopes will make it easier for journalists to create interactive projects of their own, a kind of Microsoft Word or Final Draft for interactive documentaries. “We lose a lot of time explaining to each other what we are doing,” he says, and he hopes his software template will enable editorial teams to collaborate more efficiently.

There are potential downsides to immersive experiences. For starters, virtual reality technology can make some people feel sick. Simulators make you think you’re moving when you’re not, and some experience motion sickness. “You don’t always get a good match between what the sensors in the system are reporting compared to what the inner ear is experiencing,” says Douglas Maxwell, a project manager for the U.S. Army who has been studying virtual environments since the late 1990s. The Oculus Rift developers have tried to address the problem of motion sickness by reducing the lag that can occur between a user’s actions and the reaction of the program.

Simulations that supposedly portray real-world events also raise psychological questions, such as: Are you “you” when you enter these worlds or one of the individuals depicted? How do you distinguish your own views from whomever’s perspective is being displayed? And where does the journalist exist in these spaces? Karim Ben Khelifa provocatively plays with questions like this in “The Enemy,” an audio-video installation that puts users directly between two soldiers on opposing sides of a conflict.

Khelifa is collaborating with D. Fox Harrell, founder of MIT’s Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory, to tailor the action to each individual visitor. “Your virtual representation shifts depending on how you interact with the soldiers,” Harrell explains. Are you looking the character in the eye, shifting to the side, or spending more time with one person than the other? The answers alter the narrative. That sort of advanced interaction creates a sense of intimate presence, says Harrell. You’re not just telling people a story; they’re participating in the creation of it.

“There are a lot of ethical questions, but it’s not unique to digital media or virtual reality,” says Harrell. “Even media that seem to be very direct are actually very subjective.” Harrell points out that a unique advantage of stories with game-like qualities is that people see different perspectives with each exposure to the story and can come to their own conclusions.

As virtual reality enters newsrooms, journalists will need to develop standards for working in the new form. One of the first to test them is The Des Moines Register with an immersive experience called “Harvest of Change.” It brings readers into the simulated world of the Dammanns, who have run their farm for the past century, to illustrate how climate change, new technologies, and cultural shifts are affecting agriculture. It combines a computer-generated world with 360-degree video to depict the nuances of farm life. In the video scenes, you feel like a voyeur, witnessing intimate moments like a father-son outing on a tractor.

The 360-degree video Dan Edge is shooting in Africa will give Frontline viewers a new perspective

The 360-degree video Dan Edge is shooting in Africa will give Frontline viewers a new perspective

A team at Frontline, in collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and the Canadian company Secret Location, is taking users into the Ebola crisis. Director Dan Edge is filming 360-degree video in West Africa for the project, which includes a standard 2D, linear documentary as well as digital interaction. The project will present the Guinea village of Meliandou, where scientists have pinpointed what they believe is the first case of Ebola. In one planned scene, you can explore the inside of a towering, hollowed out tree, home to a colony of bats that scientists are studying to determine if they were the source of the outbreak.

While “Harvest of Change,” Dan Archer’s Ferguson piece, and the pioneering work by Nonny de la Peña rely heavily on computer graphics, the Ebola project replaces 3D modeling with 3D film footage. Raney Aronson, deputy executive producer at Frontline, envisions layering multimedia data visualizations into this 3D environment. “The dream would be that you could go inside the tree and then explore everything we know about it”—from inside, she says.

There are many questions to address as the team completes the project in the coming months. A big one, says Taylor Owen, research director at Tow Center, is: Where do you situate the journalist? What does narrative look like when cuts are no longer needed because the camera captures an entire room at once? In documentary interview scenes, for example, the subject is often the only person on screen. With 360-video, both interviewer and interviewee are captured and the viewer can look back and forth between them, just like they would in real life.

Though the technology is new, the ethical challenges facing journalists are not. “Any time you’re creating a computational world or self, you’re abstracting from the real world, taking some elements from the real world, leaving some out,” says MIT’s Harrell. “There are changes.” The imperative of remaining true to the reported facts is the same, regardless of whether the story is intended for the evening paper or the Oculus Rift.

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Writers, Editors Talk Shop at Missouri http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/writers-editors-talk-shop-at-missouri/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/writers-editors-talk-shop-at-missouri/#comments Tue, 17 Mar 2015 03:27:52 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=118731 Forget South by Southwest. The real happening place to be Monday, at least if you’re a narrative nerd, was Columbia, Missouri, where you could have heard a full day’s worth of conversations between some top long-form writers and their editors as part of an event sponsored by the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.

Called “Writers and Editors: The Most Dynamic Relationship in Journalism,” the conference featured some familiar bylines, among them Esquire’s Chris JonesGQ’s Jeff Sharlet and and Los Angeles magazine’s Amy Wallace, as well as Atavist founder Evan Ratliff and Women’s Health editor-in-chief Amy Keller Laird.  Mizzou’s student-run magazine, Vox, has detailed coverage of the day’s sessions.  And here’s a handful of our favorite tidbits of wisdom, humor and advice, culled from Twitter and Instagram posts:

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Narrative Conferences and Workshops: Where you can hone your skills in 2015 http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/narrative-conferences-and-workshops-where-you-can-hone-your-skills-in-2015/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/narrative-conferences-and-workshops-where-you-can-hone-your-skills-in-2015/#comments Fri, 13 Mar 2015 14:33:27 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=118708 As thoughts turn to spring — and spring break — isn’t it time to plan some journalism-related travel? This round-up of upcoming conferences and workshops with a narrative or storytelling bent should help. Whether you want to delve into digital storytelling, work one-on-one on a piece in progress or just get a jolt of inspiration, there’s an event for you on this list, not to mention a chance to explore everywhere from Amsterdam to Grapevine, Texas.

“The Power of Narrative: Staying Savvy, Skilled, and Solvent in Journalism’s Wired Era”
March 27-29
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts
The granddaddy of narrative conferences, back at its original Boston University home, focuses this year on narrative craft skills, innovation in digital storytelling and on how to make a living in the field. Speakers include former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson and Steven Brill, who are launching a new longform journalism startup together; Sarah Koenig of “Serial” fame; journalist Masha Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot; freelance journalist Theo Padnos, who was held hostage in Syria for two years before being released in August 2014; and Alex Tizon, formerly of the Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times and the author of Big Little Man – In Search of My Asian Self. Registration is open until the conference begins, with rates of $50 for BU students, $150 for BU alumni and non-BU students, and $350 for regular admission. Check out our collection of tips and inspiration from last year’s speakers here.

Conference on Narrative Journalism, Amsterdam: “The Protagonist”
April 16
Initiative for Narrative Journalism in the Netherlands
Amsterdam, Netherlands

With a theme of “the protagonist,” this year’s conference highlights speakers who include New Yorker staff writer George Packer, comic journalist Josh Neufeld, and writer and former “This American Life” producer Lisa Pollak. Those who make it to Amsterdam and can stick around for the day after the conference can also expect master classes from international speakers like Neufeld and Pollak and coaching from BU conference founder and director Mark Kramer. The conference costs 105 euros (plus an additional 90 euros if you want to attend a master class), with a small discount available if you pay 35 euros for an annual membership as a “friend of the foundation.”

“Crafting the True Story: An Exploration of Creative Nonfiction”
June 1-5
Madeline Island School of the Arts
La Pointe, Wisconsin
This immersive workshop, led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jacqui Banaszynski, will focus on developing and shaping stories, covering lessons especially applicable for writers of narrative nonfiction. In addition to completing fieldwork, in-class exercises, and peer critique, participants will work one-on-one with Banaszynski to develop a work-in-progress and build a plan for future writing. Tuition is $600 for the week.

“THREAD at Yale: Storytelling in Modern Media”
June 7-10
Yale Journalism Initiative
New Haven, Connecticut
Debuting this summer, THREAD at Yale is “a gathering of professional journalists and storytellers” working across media. Attendees will engage in conversations with mentors who include The New York Times Magazine’s Emily Bazelon; Catherine Burns, Artistic Director at “The Moth;” author, journalist, and radio producer Jake Halpern; and New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman. There will also be small-group workshops and evening “parlor discussions” among participants and mentors. The program, aimed at journalists and storytellers with various levels of experience, is limited to those age 21 and up and requires a short online application, due May 1. Tuition for THREAD at Yale is $1,750 for program materials only, or $1,995 for program materials, housing at Yale, and breakfast.

Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference
July 17-19
Frank W. & Sue Mayborn School of Journalism
University of North Texas
Grapevine, Texas

This conference, back for its 11th year, will feature keynote speakers Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down; journalist, social critic, and Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich; and journalist and author Alex Tizon. The conference organizers have also announced a host of other speakers, among them Jill Abramson, the New York Times’ Dan Barry, Washington Post and ESPN The Magazine journalist Eli Saslow, and 2009 Nieman fellow Chris Vognar, with more to be announced. We’ve got coverage from last year’s conference here. Early bird registration is open until May 1, with early bird rates at $324 for students, $354 for educators, and $374 for general admission.

Narrative at Cal
November 7
Graduate School of Journalism
UC Berkeley
Berkeley, California
Planning will officially begin in May, but the “save the date” has already gone out for this conference, which last year featured keynotes by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik and New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein. With Constance Hale (who ran the former Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism) at the helm, attendees will consider “the tradition and the edges of literary nonfiction” through lectures, workshops, and panels, as well as master classes on the following day, offered for an additional fee of $50. The conference is limited to 80 experienced writers and registration opens Sept. 1. General admission is $275; members of sponsoring organizations listed on the conference website can register early, with a small discount, starting Aug. 15. Read a Q&A with Hale on the vision for the conference here.

“The Power of Storytelling”
Sponsored by Decât o Revista
Dates TBA
Bucharest, Romania
The 2015 dates for this conference aren’t announced yet, but you can sign up to get conference news via email on the conference’s website. Past speakers have included Esquire’s Chris Jones; Amy O’Leary, formerly of the New York Times and now editorial director at Upworthy; and Pulitzer winner Jacqui Banaszynski. Read more about their conference sessions and others here.

We’ve also got our eyes on a few conferences that will be announcing their programs in the coming weeks and months. Look out for more details from the organizers of the annual Investigative Reporters & Editors Conference, which will be held June 4-7 in Philadelphia, and of Excellence in Journalism 2015, which will take place Sept. 18-20 in Orlando. The International Association for Literary Journalism Studies will be holding its annual conference, this year titled “Literary Journalism: Media, Meaning, Memory,” May 7-9 in Minneapolis. The Third Coast Conference, which focuses on audio storytelling, takes place every other fall and will be back in 2016.

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Annotation Tuesday: Michael J. Mooney and the Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/annotation-tuesday-michael-j-mooney-and-the-most-amazing-bowling-story-ever/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/annotation-tuesday-michael-j-mooney-and-the-most-amazing-bowling-story-ever/#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 14:45:38 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=118529 Michael J. Mooney staked his claim in the world of narrative journalism with two stories that ran just weeks apart in the summer of 2012. In June, Mooney, a staff writer at D magazine, published a searing account of a 62-year-old woman who survived being tortured and raped for 12 days by her former neighbor. (You can read a Storyboard Q-and-A with Mooney about that story here.)

Michael J. Mooney

Michael J. Mooney

The next month, he returned with a very different kind of story, the one we’re annotating today: “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever.” The headline isn’t hyperbole. The story made a slew of year-end lists, among them Longread’s “Best of 2012″ and Byliner’s “102 Spectacular Pieces of Nonfiction from 2012,” and was included in “Best American Sports Writing 2013.”

Mooney has also written for GQ, Outside and Grantland. He most recently profiled Glenn Beck for D and an e-book he wrote about Chris Kyle, the subject of the film “American Sniper,” will be released in paperback March 24 by Little, Brown and Company.

But it all started, in many ways, with Bill Fong and the amazing bowling story. We talked over the phone. My questions are in red;  Mooney’s responses 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 some questions:

How did you find out about this story?

My editor mentioned it to me vaguely. He actually misremembered it. He remembered it incorrectly but remembered that there was a guy who had bowled a 299 mentioned in the newspaper. I first looked it up and couldn’t find it and didn’t think about it again, but it kind of sat with me and it did come back up in my mind a couple times. And I started looking for it and found the newspaper story. There had been a front page– a sports story. Front page of the sports section of the Dallas Morning News.

When you found the story, what did you do after that?

I actually tracked Bill down at the bowling alley. I think I found the number for him and it didn’t work, and I think I found him on Facebook and he didn’t reply, and then I called up the bowling alley and he was there at the moment I called.

So you talked with him briefly over the phone?

I did. I introduced myself, explained that I thought his story was really interesting, really fascinating. He thought that I was joking with him. He thought that I was playing a prank on him and one of his friends set it up. And I had to go and explain, no I really think your story is interesting in this big, beautiful way. And then he told me, “You know, that night I nearly died.” And I thought he was kidding with me. And then at some point, I went up there and met with this group, spent the Monday night with them, and kind of watched them and then sat down with Bill, with his notes, and really intensely went through the entire night, game by game.

How did you pitch the story to your editor? You said your editor had heard about this but then did you have to pitch it formally to the magazine?

It wasn’t exactly formally. The biggest problem with the pitch was there was another bowling-related story that I wanted to do, and I still want to do. And he told me, Look, the magazine can do one bowling story maybe every 10 years. So you pick one, one of these. But I picked this one.

Were you worried about making people read and care about bowling? Was that something that ever came up?

That was the biggest worry. Before the story came out, I was a little nervous. I was like, “What did I just write? What is this?” But I probably should have worried about that a little more than I did. On some level, it was probably the biggest worry I had, but I was kind of so excited that I got to do the story, you know. I honestly was so thrilled that I was doing the story that seemed like the most anti-formulaic story of all time. It was one night of bowling somewhere in the suburbs two years ago, and nobody famous, you know, was involved. So that Tim Rogers (his editor) even encouraged me to do this, I think, I was really just—I was also intrigued by it, and he was intrigued by it. That’s a good sign. But overcoming the bowling hurdle was… that’s a big thing.

I noticed there’s a documentary in the works. Have you had anything to do with that?

I am a producer on the documentary, and I think got a writing credit, too. But it is largely the work of Joey Daoud. He is incredible. And there’s some pretty cool news coming about that documentary soon. I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about it yet. (Update: The cool news? That the New York Times is featuring the documentary as part of its new “Made with Kickstarter” project, a series of short documentaries funded, in part, by the online money-raising platform. You can watch it here.)

What did Bill ultimately think about the story?

He loved it. People were coming up to him at the bowling alley and asking to autograph it. So in some way, and with the documentary too, in some way he really feels like he’s getting a modicum of the respect that he has always kind of deserved.

Were you surprised at how well the story was received? 

Yeah, of course. It’s ridiculous. It’s still a story about bowling. It’s very ridiculous. Of all the stories I’ve written and worked on—I mean I understand some elements of why people connect to the story. But it is still really surprising, very surprising.

Why do you think people connect to it?

A couple of reasons. I think one, Bill is a really compelling, really interesting, funny, sweet character. And just entertaining to be around, too. But I also think that it is fundamentally about something that is relatable. It’s about trying to do something in the exact right way over and over and over again. This is exactly what I’m trying to do with writing … So there’s that aspect of it. And it’s also just about this thing everybody can relate to, right? This attempt at perfection and how it’s just more revelatory—it reveals more about people when they do not succeed perfectly. I really am a firm believer in that. Winning a championship doesn’t teach you an enormous amount except exactly how to win championships. Far more people don’t win a championship every year. Way more people don’t succeed in exactly what they want to do, and those are things we need to think about as people.

“The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever”
By Michael J. Mooney
D magazine
July 2012

When Bill Fong approaches the lane, 15-pound bowling ball in hand, he tries not to breathe. He tries not to think about not breathing. He wants his body to perform a series of complex movements that his muscles themselves have memorized. In short, he wants to become a robot.  I’m thinking there are a lot of places you can start this story, structurally, but also in time. Why did you choose this paragraph and this space in time, and how did you come to understand what he thinks about as he’s getting ready to roll the ball down the lane?   I talked to him a lot about this. He is—the robot analogy came from him. That is something he talks about and thinks about. And in some ways it was… You know somebody who tries not to feel emotion just provokes more emotion. And so, you know, it’s about him throwing the bowling ball. On a really, really basic level, the entire story is about him throwing a bowling ball. So why not start with the way he throws a bowling ball? In terms of time, though, why this?   I wanted to bookend it… I was writing this right when Ben Fountain’s novel came out, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” And we were talking about it a lot in the office. And it’s largely, you know, you understand that something happened, and you’re going through the book trying to figure out exactly what happened to put these guys in this situation. And I just really liked that dynamic, and so I wanted the story to do that. We knew something incredible happened, but we didn’t know exactly what.

Fong, 48 years old, 6 feet tall with broad shoulders, pulls the ball into his chest and does a quick shimmy with his hips. He swings the ball first backward, then forward, his arm a pendulum of kinetic energy, as he takes five measured steps toward the foul line. He releases the ball, and it glides across the oiled wooden planks like it’s floating, hydroplaning, spinning counterclockwise along a trajectory that seems to be taking it straight for the right-hand gutter.  How many times did you have to watch Bill roll a ball in order to be able to nail that description you have of him in the second paragraph there?   I thought about this. I’ve probably seen him roll 50 to 100 times. No, I guess over 100 times. So I watched him practice, and I watched him bowl an entire series of games. Then I watched a video of him bowling quite a bit. And I watched those last couple frames, or the last frame actually, like the last couple rolls, over and over and over again.   How important was it for you to nail that description?   Yeah, it felt like it was kind of part of his personality. That’s the way we’re going to help build this, help people understand this character– by looking at the way he does the thing he loves doing.

But as the ball nears the edge of the lane, it veers back toward the center, as if guided by remote control. The hook carries the ball back just in time. In a heartbeat, what was a wide, sneering mouth of pins is now—nothing.  Wide, sneering mouth of pins is fantastic.   It just is kind of what it looks like to me. Especially, you know, if you feel like you’re doing battle with those pins. It was a subtle way of trying to kind of establish a nemesis for Bill here.

He comes back to the table where his teammates are seated—they always sit and bowl in the same order—and they congratulate him the same way they have thousands of times over the last decade. But Fong looks displeased. His strike wasn’t good enough.

“I got pretty lucky that time,” he says in his distinctly Chicago accent. “The seven was hanging there before it fell. I’ve got to make adjustments.” With a pencil, he jots down notes on a folded piece of blue paper.

His teammates aren’t interested in talking about what he can do to make his strikes more solid, though, or even tonight’s mildly competitive league game. They’re still discussing a night two years ago. They mention it every week, without fail.  When you watched him bowl on that night, that one night you went and watched him bowl in the series, were you there solely as an observer or were you also talking to his teammates? Were you kind of doing a little bit of everything?   Yeah, it was everything. I think I had to pull up a chair next to the table, right, because I didn’t want to disrupt their actual seating arrangement, their traditional seating arrangement. They were much less interested in the game that was actually going on that night than talking about this incredible night. And as soon as we started talking about that night—everybody just calls it “that night”—as soon as we started talking about that night, people from other tables were coming over. You know, it was a big discussion that got around very quickly. It was very easy to find a lot of people who were there that night and people who had thoughts of what was going on.   This was two years later, and it’s still a lot of the same people who bowled in that league, even two years earlier?   That’s their community, that’s their regular Monday night. Everybody at the bowling alley, that’s their thing, right? Plano is a gigantic suburb. Sometimes it’s hard for people to cut out specific lives for themselves, and people who go to this—you know, that’s one of the ways that people do that. It’s a subculture, really.

In fact, all you have to do is say the words “That Night” and everyone at the Plano Super Bowl knows what you’re talking about. They also refer to it as “The Incident” or “That Incredible Series.”  How did you get those descriptions?   Honestly, just being there, talking about it. It comes up very quickly. So you know, people were pointing out, oh he was there, he was there. People were coming over to our table. I was able to talk to probably 10 or 12 people who were there that night and remember it very vividly, within an hour of being at the bowling alley.

It’s the only time anyone can remember a local recreational bowler making the sports section of the Dallas Morning News. One man, an opponent of Fong’s that evening, calls it “the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in a bowling alley.”  When did you know that this would end up being a special story? Did you know that in the reporting phase?   When you work on stories, the kind of stories that we like to do, at the moment, every story is really special. You know, I don’t want to work on a story if I can’t find a way to make it special at the time. I would love to say, “Yeah, I totally knew at the moment when I was talking to these guys that two years later, I’d be talking about it with Nieman.” But no, it’s still pretty astounding how far the story has gotten. At the moment, the funniest part was when Bill was asking me about other stories that I’ve written and other people I’ve interviewed. Basically like, who’s the most famous person you’ve ever interviewed? And I think I said Mikhail Gorbachev. When I said Mikhail Gorbachev, then Bill was like, ‘Ah now I understand why you’re doing this story.’ I still don’t completely understand what that was, but that was what completely explained it to him.

Bill Fong needs no reminders, of course. He thinks about that moment—those hours—every single day of his life.  We get to the end of this first section and I’m thinking about the lead again and wondering were you ever tempted to lead with the night you were there, watching, rather than…   The other way around.   Lead with the night in question, right? The incident, or whatever, rather than leading two years later. And what ultimately made you choose the approach you chose?   I don’t think I did consider starting with the original incident. I like stories that are bookended, and it goes back to that Ben Fountain book. I just really liked the dynamic, the way that that sets the reader up to freely go through it fast. It really propels a story, when you know something exciting happened and you don’t know exactly what it is.

• • •

Most people think perfection in bowling is a 300 game, but it isn’t. Any reasonably good recreational bowler can get lucky one night and roll 12 consecutive strikes. If you count all the bowling alleys all over America, somebody somewhere bowls a 300 every night. But only a human robot can roll three 300s in a row—36 straight strikes—for what’s called a “perfect series.” More than 95 million Americans go bowling, but, according to the United States Bowling Congress, there have been only 21 certified 900s since anyone started keeping track.  Were you surprised at the low number of certified 900s, when you found that out?   Pretty early on, I looked that up, and the United States Bowling Congress is here, in a suburb of Dallas. I was really surprised. Because there’s a couple of videos of other people who have had 900. And when you think about it, you know, at first it depends on your perspective. When you think a 300 is rare, then you never even think about a 900. When you think the sheer number of people who bowl, how many games somebody can bowl, just the sheer number of bowling games that take place, then 300s, yeah okay. Every single bowling alley, every single night, somewhere probably. And then you gotta think just statistically, these have to be more common. And so I was really surprised.

Bill Fong’s run at perfection started as most of his nights do, with practice at around 5:30 pm. He bowls in four active leagues, and he rolls at least 20 games a week, every week. That night, January 18, 2010, he wanted to focus on his timing.  You have a lot of details that come from Fong himself, and specifically talking about that night, it’s phenomenal that he remembers some of the things that he does, and I’m curious what was it like interviewing him.   It was interesting. He has notes. So he has very thorough notes, that it’s essentially like finding a source with a diary. Except in this case, the diary consisted largely of numbers. And then you have the fact that when adrenaline is flowing, that’s when humans generally have the most—that’s when memories are kind of burned into place. And he had a lot of adrenaline that night. And a lot of people did. So, talking to him, he was in moments elated and proud. This is still a great accomplishment. He does know that. He’s been told it so many times, and he was also really sad because in so many ways, especially looking back — his life up to that night — and it did not go the way that he really, really wishes it had gone.

Timing is everything. Speaking of timing, you really delay letting the reader in on Fong’s backstory. How he got interested in bowling and his childhood and all of that. Why did you set the story up that way?   So this is a slotting game. If I wanted to bookend it with the night that I was there and kind of make it about these people recounting the story, then I had certain elements that I had to get at some point. You have to explain the whole 900. You have to explain his background. You have to, at some point, get to, and I will talk about it in a bit, but you have to get to the fact that he almost had a chance at a Texas record before. He had a chance at a really incredible night and then completely cracked. And then you have to get to the stroke. And inside of all of that, or through all of that, the story of that night. So it was really just slotting what goes first… You know you have to explain the 900 before the rest of the stuff. And then I wanted to break it up in terms of his games that night. So it’s the night that I was with him, in the beginning and the end, and his three games throughout the middle of that. And then to each one of those games we attach something else, some other concept or backstory or something else. In the first one, it’s this explanation of 900. In the second one, it’s his backstory and his buildup. In the third one, it’s the kind of notion of perfection and how rare it is and how ethereal it is.   Did you outline the story? I did. I’m a religious outliner.   Give me an example of how you go about outlining.   I think for this story, it was actually sitting down talking with Tim. And it was, you know, Roman numeral one, talking to them. Then it was two, first game. Three, second game. Four… And then underneath each one, what we’re going to get at in those sections. And it was probably on the back of—Probably the first time I did it was on the back of any kind of scrap paper, and then at some point, I kind of sat down and built a more thorough outline in my notebook.  When your timing is right, when your arms, legs, and torso all move in rhythm toward the lane, you have better balance. When you’re balanced, you’re also more accurate. And when you’re accurate, your decision-making also improves. By contrast, if your timing is off, your balance is off, and you don’t hit your targets. There are too many variables to assess, too many elements to gauge, and you can’t possibly make the best decisions. So, do you bowl at all?   Not competitively, but I have gone bowling somewhat regularly since I was really young, since I was in daycare probably. And especially in college, I spent a lot of time with one of my best friends one summer. We basically went to the school bowling alley almost every single day. We bowled 13 games one day, actually.   So in terms of understanding what Bill was talking about, that wasn’t difficult for you?   Oh yeah, no, no. I still had no idea about the…In no way was I an analytical bowler. So when he started talking about oil patterns, I had to really research a lot of that stuff. I didn’t even realize that a lot of bowlers kept notes the way he did. Of course, there are a lot of people who keep track of the high records in each state and all sorts of things like that that I, as a recreational bowler, never even considered.  Fong knows a hot streak is all about timing. So in practice that night, he breathed, he tried to erase all thoughts, and he tried to make his approach with each body part functioning as programmed.  You keep coming back to this idea of the robot bowler. So I’m assuming that it was what Fong said he was trying to do?   Yeah, this is his analogy. He understands that to be successful, you essentially have to shut down distractions, emotions, anything that might differentiate one particular roll. And so he really wants to be a robot when he’s bowling, which then of course, when he has this very, very human ending… I think it was even more poignant.

That night, he didn’t roll many strikes in practice. There was nothing to make him think this night would be anything special.

Fong’s team, the Crazy Eights (he picked the name because eights are lucky in Chinese culture), When you’re talking about the team name, it’s the first mention that he’s Chinese, or is of Chinese extraction. Was that a deliberate decision to hold off on that? Or that’s just where it came up?   That’s really the first place it came up. Being Chinese is a big part of Bill’s identity, and it comes up pretty regularly in conversation. I think going through the story, that’s just the first time that it came up in terms of a place where I would have mentioned it. It was just a natural question that I asked him. Why is the team named that? was assigned lanes 27 and 28, one of Fong’s favorite pairs. The left lane, 27, hooks more, he says. The right lane, 28, tends to be more direct.

Frame one was on the left lane. As always, he was last in the bowling order, the anchor position. He watched his teammates roll and noticed each one throw a ball that hooked early and missed the pocket, the sweet spot between the head pin and the three pin on the right, the place that gives you the best chance of getting a strike. So when it was Fong’s turn, he opted to roll a deeper hook, to stay outside and ride the edge of the gutter a little longer.

The result was a loud, powerful strike. His ball slammed into the pocket with a vengeance, obliterating all 10 pins. His next roll, on 28, was another violent strike. All four of the first frames were robust strikes, actually. But his teammates barely took notice.

“To tell you the truth, that wasn’t that unusual,” says JoAnn Gibson, a sweet Southern woman who enjoys the company more than she does the actual bowling. Were you surprised that Fong’s teammates weren’t necessarily as serious about bowling as he was?   No, I’m not surprised that anybody is not as serious about bowling as he is. Nobody is as serious about bowling as he is, that I’ve ever met probably. I was a little surprised by the interesting variety, by the real true dynamic that they have in terms of people who… It really is just kind of a fun Monday night out to Bill. He has different teams for every single night of the week. Yeah, he seems so serious about it that he wouldn’t necessarily work well with people who weren’t as serious. The really interesting aspect of it is that this incredible feat happened on a Monday. He has so many more serious teams, even more serious leagues. This would be like a hardcore fantasy football player playing in a casual office pool. Or an amateur professional poker player playing in a home five-dollar game. He just likes getting the rolls in. The fact that it happened on a Monday of all the places, of all the times, is just one of those small, little details I found interesting. Did he talk about that much? It seems like somebody like Bill would really want that to happen on a serious night, where the really good bowlers would recognize him. Does that make sense?   He was happy that there happened to be a lot of the people in the bowling community there, who happened to be there that night. Or, at some point, somebody called them and they showed up, or they heard about it very quickly. On the other hand, he, in some ways, is glad that they weren’t there, right? He does think of this as a devastating moment. It’s still hard for me to remember that, and it’s hard for a lot of people to remember that. That it still is a devastating time for him.

“Bowlers like Bill can roll off mini-streaks like that all the time,” says Tom Dunn, a more serious bowler who sometimes flirts innocently with JoAnn.

Both Gibson and Dunn have bowled with or against Fong in this league since the Clinton administration. They’ve been teammates for nine years. James Race, who, with his perpetual smile and polite demeanor, reminds the other teammates of Mister Rogers, came a few years later. They don’t really hang out much outside the bowling alley, but no matter what’s going on in life, they go to Plano Super Bowl for a few hours on Monday nights.

Fong’s fifth roll of the night wasn’t so beautiful. His approach and release seemed the same—he was becoming the robot—and the ball hit the pocket, but the pins didn’t go down quickly. The 10 pin was wobbling upright, teetering, when Fong got what is called a “messenger.” From the left, one of the pins he’d just sent bouncing came back across the lane, clipping the 10 just enough to knock it off balance. How did you get these details, considering it happened two years earlier?   So they are singed into his memory, right? And this is something I’m worried about. It’s not on video. A lot of the records show exactly where the splits were, but if it’s a strike, it’s a strike. It’s hard to tell just on the written record, on the printout sheet, what exactly happened. He has all of these little notes in his records that he’s kept. I wouldn’t say he remembers each frame, but he probably, of the 36, probably has a very, very, very good recollection of almost all of them, along with these little notes. And other people on his team remember a couple of these things. So, somebody else would say, “Oh the time that it looked like the seven and 10 were both going to stay up,” and then, “Oh it looked like you were going to cut in too deep.” And then nope, still a strike. And more as they went on, right? So fewer from the first game. His teammates vaguely remember the first game. It was only toward the end of the second game and then the third game. It’s a lot of like, “Oh man, do you remember that? Oh man, you remember that one?”  When he got back to the table, his teammates congratulated him, but Fong called it what it was: a lucky strike.

In the sixth frame, he had another loud, devastating strike. Then another. Then another. With each throw, he could tell it was a strike from the moment it left his hand. He’d watch as the pins were there one second, then gone the next. “It felt like driving and catching a green light, then the next one, then the next, then turning, and still catching every green light everywhere you go,” Fong says.

Before he knew it, it was the 10th frame. Back on the right lane, he again tried to swing the ball wide, let it run along the outside of the lane, next to the gutter. The first two rolls of the 10th frame both tucked into the pocket just as Fong hoped, and both were solid strikes.

On the last roll, though, something happened. He could tell from the sound of the pins. As the clutter at the end of the lane cleared, he could see the nine pin (the second from the right on the last row) still standing. He watched the chaos of the flying pins, each rotating right past the upright nine. Fong craned his neck, watching, hoping. Until one of the pins popped up from its side and swiped the nine down.  Did you ever worry in the writing of this story that maybe, just maybe, memories weren’t clear as to what happened that night? I’m just curious how they remembered all this, but it seems like it was a communal thing. By the second game, everybody was kind of fully invested in what was going on. And so they’re validating each other’s memories in a way, you know?   Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. So you know, I wasn’t there that night, but this is the way that these people have remembered it. And there was nobody arguing over each frame, so however they’ve come to these conclusions, this is established how it went that night.

“The best way to describe the first 300 was just ‘powerful,’” Race says.

One of the Super Bowl employees announced Fong’s name and score over the loudspeaker, something Fong is a particular fan of. There was a round of applause.

“Sometimes, when you have a lot of 300s, or if you get more than one in a week, they won’t announce it,” he says.  I love that he really wants his name to be announced when he bowls a 300.   And it’s also his kind of humble-braggy way of saying how often he gets 300s. That they don’t always announce his 300s. That’s a very Bill Fong thing to say.

The night was just beginning. You knew the structure as you sat down to write because you had outlined. Did you know the cliffhanger? Because there are kind of cliffhangers at the end of each section as well. Did you know what those were before you started writing?   I knew some of them. So I knew that when things were just beginning, I knew that there was going to be something similar to that in that very spot. Fewer as the story goes on, I think. Those were the kind of things that just happened; those were the decisions that are just going to happen when you’re actually typing.

• • •

Aside from bowling, Bill Fong hasn’t had a lot of success in life. His Chinese mother demanded perfection, but he was a C student. He never finished college, he divorced young, and he never made a lot of money. By his own account, his parents didn’t like him much. As a bowler, his average in the high 230s means he’s probably better than anyone you know. But he’s still only tied as the 15th best bowler in Plano’s most competitive league. Almost nothing in life has gone according to plan.  Was it hard to get Fong to talk about his past, given that nothing has gone according to plan?   Yes, that was one of the most difficult parts. And there’s some reference to him having smoked pot when he was younger, and he was really worried about that at first, too. He just didn’t know—and it was actually, when I was talking to him, when he was putting a lot of these things together, realizing how much of his life had built up to these moments. So, him talking about bowling, he can go on forever. He would much rather talk about bowling than his own personal history, I think.   Did you interview him outside of the bowling alley to get that information? Or was that all in the bowling alley as well?   No, I talked to him outside the bowling alley, and we talked on the phone quite a bit, too. I think a lot of that stuff actually came in the phone conversations. That first paragraph—it’s not long but it tells you a lot. Did you feel like you had to pack a lot in given space considerations?   It wasn’t really space, although I knew they were just not going to dedicate an enormous amount of space to a story about bowling, no matter what. I just wanted to keep the story moving as fast as possible. And I wanted it to be in scene as much as possible, so I wanted to hit these background bits as hard as I could and get people a very clear picture of Bill as fast as possible.

He likes to say he got his approach to bowling from the hard-hitting alleys in his native Chicago, where he went to high school with Michelle Obama. He was one of the few kids from Chinatown interested in bowling at the time. Despite his strict mother and the fact that his friends were all on the honor roll, little William preferred sports. He dreamed of being a professional athlete one day. He wasn’t big—too short for basketball, too slender for football—but he’d run up and down the block as a boy, racing imaginary friends.

When Fong was young, his parents divorced. He remembers the man who would become his stepdad taking his mom out on dates to a local bowling alley, where they could bring the kids. He noticed that when he was bowling, he wasn’t thinking about whatever was going on behind him. His mind could focus on the ball, the lane, the pins—and the rest of the world would disappear. He had never been captivated by anything like that. How long did this story take you to report and write? I reported it over about two weeks while I was working on some other stuff. I was actually working on this story at the same time I was working on a crime story about a woman who was kidnapped and tortured and eventually escaped. And I actually wrote this story in the hotel room while I was covering that trial. So in a Holiday Express in Parker County somewhere was where I actually wrote almost all the story.   Total writing time?   Honestly, I think I wrote the majority of the entire draft over one night.   Do you write as you report or do you wait until you’re completely done reporting?   You will never be completely done reporting. That’s the hard part. I write when I have to write. I wish that I was more disciplined, and a lot [of writers] I know are really, really great at being able to pound out a certain number of words every single day. But, you know, generally my deadline or when I need to hand a story in… I’m writing a couple of days before that. And sometimes it’ll be staring at a screen for a couple of hours or days until everything just falls into place. And then sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, you need to hammer it out. It’s weird. It’s like bowling. I never know exactly what’s going to hit the strike. I know I can type, if I’m going on a good day, I can do six, seven thousand words in a day. But that is followed and preceded by a lot of days of despair and not typing.

While still courting Fong’s mother, his stepdad promised that if the boy ever got a score higher than 120 he’d buy him his own ball. “He never did,” Fong says. “I bought it myself.”

After his mother remarried and moved away, he still had his siblings, his quiet, hard-working father, and his bowling. He joined the high school team. He went to the public library and checked out stacks of books about bowling theory. After a stint in college, he found himself smoking a lot of pot and staying out all night bowling, trying to hustle people out of small bets. He’d leave the alley after the sun came up, go out to breakfast, sleep until 6 pm, and then repeat the process.  Can you talk about that interview, in which you got all that information? There’s so much there. I’m curious how you sorted through it and figured out what was relevant to the story and what wasn’t. I wanted to cull all of that information for the things that were most important to his personality and our understanding of what happened to him that night. So how important bowling is for him, how important his success is to him, how driven and kind of disappointing a lot of his life was. You know, those are the key things I wanted to get to before we got back into the bowling. Talking to him about things—he feels like his background, being from Chicago… The hard streets of Chicago were where hardcore bowlers come from, especially in his mind. Basically like, Rucker Park. From his perspective, the most important parts of his background were just the Chicago kind of born-and-bred aspects. The fact that he went to high school with Michelle Obama in Chicago, in his mind, tells people all they need to know about his bowling history, too.

At 22, he got married and his wife encouraged him to “grow up.” He realized he wasn’t ever going to become a professional bowler like the men he watched on TV every week, and he took a job cutting hair.

“It was just something I could always do for money,” he says. “I like the artistic side, but it’s not my passion.”

Soon he gave up bowling and took up golf. It was a lot like bowling—timing, balance, accuracy—and he’d heard that with 10 years of practice, anyone could become a top-level golfer. He read books about golf, took a job at a pro shop, and learned to cut his own clubs. For 10 years, through career changes, through his divorce, through his move to Dallas (several family members had moved to Texas for various reasons and he’d always enjoyed visiting), Fong played golf. His younger sister was by then a standout on the Baylor University golf team. But after all those years of playing nearly every day, he still wasn’t a scratch golfer. He couldn’t take the frustration, and he swore off the game for good. This is interesting, that someone would put so much effort into something and then just quit. Did he ever consider giving up bowling a second time in his life? No. He has never thought of giving up bowling that I know of. He basically regrets having given it up for the time that he did. And really feels like he’s being punished. He really feels like that pin was punishment for that time away… To my knowledge, he has never considered giving it up again and regrets having given it up the first time.

He remembered how much he’d enjoyed bowling. He didn’t miss the up-all-night-gambling lifestyle, but the game itself, shutting out the world and making himself robotic—those things he missed. In terms of going back to the whole robot theme, does he, outside the bowling alley, does he want to be a robot as well? Or no.   I don’t know. I don’t think so. And honestly because he doesn’t spend an enormous time outside the bowling alley. He would be in the bowling alley constantly. And now he has a bowling shop, so he’s constantly thinking about bowling. I think he’s dedicated his life to bowling in a monastic way.

He joined a few leagues and bowled in tournaments all over North Texas, but no alley felt to him quite like the Super Bowl in Plano. There’s something about the friendly faces, the way a great strike sounded there. It felt right.

After 14 years, he knows all 48 lanes. He equates it to the way Tiger Woods knows the holes on his home golf course. Fong has rolled on each of these lanes dozens of times over the years, and he keeps detailed records.

“No two lanes are the same,” he says.

He documents which lanes hook better and which seem to suck the ball into the gutter. He notes any tiny divot and nearly imperceptible slope, any imperfection he can find. Lane five, for example, has a higher strike percentage when people throw straighter. On lane 16, the oil tends to swirl closer to the pins.

In the years she’s known Fong, Gibson has had very few conversations with him that didn’t involve ball movement and oil patterns, though she admits most of the technical bowling talk flies right over her head. But she smiles, not wanting to offend anyone. “This really is Bill’s life,” she says.  I can’t tell if she thinks that’s wonderful or if she thinks that’s sad.   Yeah, I can’t tell either.   What do you think? It’s both, right? It is both wonderful and sad. To a lot of people a life dedicated to bowling seems very sad and empty, but to Bill, he really does love bowling. He likes the pains of it, likes the technicality of it, likes the success, likes the glory, in whatever measure he can get it. And then when a lot of his teammates came to visit him in the hospital and a lot of his opponents and a lot of people from the bowling community kind of showed that they do care for him so much, I kind of thought of it as back to the wonderful part of it. It really was like, look at this life he’s built out of bowling. He didn’t even realize in some ways how appreciated he was.   Well I wonder why would we think of bowling, dedicating your life to bowling, is being any less cool than dedicating your life to running or baseball, you know? I don’t know, bowling’s got a bad rap, I think.    It does. It has kind of a blue-collar, Midwestern, Americana association to it. For better or for worse. Although I think bowling is one of the few things that really unites an enormous amount of Americans. Whatever your race, creed, politics, gender, a lot of people at some point in their lives have thrown a bowling ball down an aisle, down some sort of alley.

“Looking back,” Fong says, “I guess bowling just always filled whatever emptiness I had.”

• • •

That night, people were still coming over to congratulate Bill Fong on the 300, when he did something unimaginable: for his second game, he switched bowling balls.  Was it obvious to you, when you learned that he changed the balls before that second game, that that was how you were going to lead that section?   I think so. I think it was pretty surprising to me and especially when I thought about from the perspective of wanting to repeat success over and over and over again. And it just seemed like an interesting, strange twist. I need to be able to relate his night bowling to general readers as much as possible. And so, little things like that help a lot. And generally, in the editing process, it was kind of a surgical removal of a little bit of bowling here, a little bit of bowling there. And that was most of the editing process on the backend.   Can you talk about the editing process? Maybe the evolution the story went through in that process?   Tim is an incredible editor. He trusted me to write the story, thought it was kind of an entertaining little tale. And then sat with me and we outlined it together. Honestly, it was a lot of his ideas on where to slot things. Once I kind of thought of the Ben Fountain-inspired beginning. Sometimes the draft, the story has to be completely rewritten from top to bottom five, six, seven times. This was one of those that was lucky enough that it didn’t really. On the first draft, most of the stuff was there. It was just kind of cutting out a couple hundred words of bowling.

He remembered, two weeks earlier, practicing on lanes 27 and 28. He remembered that after a few games, the oil pattern on the right lane shifted. So to start game two on the right lane, he switched to his more polished ball, the one that hooks less and rolls straighter.

Someone on another lane saw him making the change. “Is Bill Fong switching balls?” the man called out to his friends incredulously.

Fong heard him and turned around.

“Yep,” he said.

The man called back to him: “You’re crazy!” That’s a great little exchange that offers a glimpse into this world. How did you get that? So Bill mentioned it really off-handed, almost exactly describing that exact way. And I didn’t realize who he was talking about until I was talking to one of his other buddies who was there that night, and he was telling me like, “I saw it out of the corner of my eye,” and he recounted the exact same thing verbatim to me. And I’m like, alright, done. You know, this is excellent.   So they both remembered it exactly the same way.   Independently. Exactly verbatim. I mean obviously not independently, they’re friends. But me talking to them in completely separate times in separate places. And I wasn’t asking specifically about that. I didn’t even realize that was the guy who had said that. Does that show something about that night, you think? In terms of how these people… You use the phrase “seared into memory.”   I thought it was pretty interesting, and I also really liked using the audience there as a kind of reflection of what was going on. Early on in the story, the fact that people were talking about this event, and we don’t know exactly what happened. And then at various points in the story, it’s Bill interacting with other people or the audience, whether it’s shaky phones or calling each other. So there’s some kind of reflection about, some sort of three-dimensional aspect of what’s going on. I like doing that when I can because in some ways it goes back to why old sitcom creators like having a studio audience. The little, subliminal cues that kind of signal audiences what to do.

Fong grinned and turned back toward the lane. He stepped forward and unleashed a solid, thorough strike—his 13th of the night. Then he stood there, arms wide, shaking his head. His gutsy move had paid off.  Can you talk about recreating the scene that kind of follows him through that first ball that second game? How did you get those details from Fong? Notes I’m assuming, but how else? He remembers it really well. He’s stared at his own notes for hours, I’m sure. And his teammates remember it pretty well. And his friends, who were there and saw him switch balls, remember it pretty clearly, too.

Dunn remembers the feeling in the air. “Because he started out by switching balls, and that was so incredible, the second game was definitely more emotional,” he says.

Throughout the second game, Fong continued using his more aggressive ball on the left lane, and the more polished, less aggressive ball on the right lane. And the strikes kept coming.

It seemed like even members of the other team were smiling when Fong was up to roll. Fong himself was laughing and smiling, pointing and calling out to friends at other lanes. He remembers shrugging a lot. “I felt loose as a goose,” he says.

As he sent strike after strike down the lanes, he began to feel magical. Literally, the way he was commanding the balls to turn and burrow into the unsuspecting pins, it felt a little like he was moving heavy objects with only the power of his mind. In the fourth frame, both the seven and the 10 pins stayed up just a bit longer than he wanted. As he gestured with both arms, they fell. Something similar happened in the eighth frame.  That’s another detail that I think anybody’s who’s bowled can relate to.   Yeah, and it slows down time. In their memories, they describe these things happening in slow motion basically. Because I think at the moment there was so much blood flowing and adrenaline going that it was really tense there.   When you say slows down time, it slows down time for the people who are watching it, but are you thinking from a writer’s standpoint as well? From a story’s standpoint? And why there?   Yeah. In terms of a montage, I want to get through that as much as possible as fast as possible, while still slowing down for little moments that people are going to be able to relate to. You can’t show every ball that he rolls in that game. But you also don’t want to just rush through it. You need those instances where everything slows down a bit. Right, those have to stand in, in a lot of ways, for the rest of the game.

“It was like Moses parting the sea,” he says. “I’d move my hands and everything would get out of the way.”

Soon the other bowlers began stepping back when he was up, taking extra precaution not to get in his way. “Nobody wants to mess up a streak like that,” Dunn says.

By the 10th frame, Fong found that most people around him wouldn’t make eye contact for fear they would be the last thing he would see before rolling a dud. On the first roll of the last frame, he had what he calls a “happy accident.” For the first time that night, one of his powerful throws missed its mark ever so slightly. But because the oil was now evaporating on the left lane, too, the ball found the pocket for a perfect strike. Noticing what happened on the first roll, he adjusted his position and finished the game with two more powerful strikes, Nos. 23 and 24 of the night. Would this story have been possible without Fong’s extensive note-taking?   I don’t think so. It would be really, really hard to try and examine 36 frames of bowling two years after it happened without really extensive notes.

Once again, Fong got to hear his name called from the speakers. And again he took a moment to shake hands with the line of people waiting to congratulate him. A few were embarrassed that they hadn’t come over after the first 300. People were delightfully confused, shaking their heads as they patted Fong on the back.

“Never seen anything like it,” they said. “Back-to-back 300s.”

And Fong shook his own head. “Me neither,” he said.  Here, you don’t really end on a cliffhanger. There’s really nothing hinting at something more incredible happening. Was that done on purpose, and if so, why?   At this point in the story, we don’t have to push as hard. It’s not like it’s a mystery as to what happened. Exactly how it ends is still a mystery, but we’ve established a lot. At this point, you either want to know or you don’t. Here is where you’re going to stop reading the story or you’re not. • • •

There’s almost never a time when every decision you make is correct and every step is in the right direction. Life, like bowling, is full of complicating factors, unpredictable variables, plenty of times when there is no right answer. But Bill Fong had some experience with near-perfection prior to the night. He’d had another amazing run two years before that. He’d bowled a 297, then a 300. Why did you wait until this late in the story to let the reader know he’s kind of done something like this before?   This just goes back to that slotting. This is just where this had to go. We’re either stacking a bunch of various background all in one place, or we kind of have to sprinkle it out throughout the story. And this just seemed like the most logical place to put it. It’s also foreshadowing, obviously. But this just seemed like the most obvious place to put that.

Someone mentioned to him that with another great game he could beat the Texas state series record, which was 890. Fong can admit it now: he choked in that third game. He could feel himself thinking too much, slipping out of the zone. Soon he was out of rhythm and his balance was off. That night he shot a 169 in the last game; he didn’t even break 800 for the series. It was exactly what he was trying to avoid after his two straight 300s.

So this time, before game three, he approached a friend who was bowling a few lanes down. Fong mentioned that he was thinking about switching balls again, using the less aggressive ball on both lanes in the final game. His friend, who had plenty of 300s under his own belt, was surprised but gave him simple advice: “Trust your instinct.”

When that first roll of the third game produced another strike—another risky decision rewarded—Fong felt like he was floating. He wasn’t drinking, but he felt a little drunk. I love this detail, especially after having read the story multiple times, because it foreshadows what is coming up. That was a conscious thing for you to do as a writer?   It was both. I don’t think originally it was conscious. When he told me about it, certainly, I didn’t think about it in terms of the stroke. When he was first telling me, I’m asking questions like: “How do you feel at that moment? How are you acting when you’re not up there bowling?” “What are you doing?” And he’s like, “You know, I’ve never felt lighter, I felt drunk. Felt like I was floating around.” And you can even see in the video from those last frames, he does look a little drunk. And so obviously then, what I was thinking about—I think by the time I actually typed it up, I probably was pretty conscious of how that foreshadowed the ending because… it matches the back part of his story perfectly. It’s sad to think about it, right? It’s happy to think about him floating around and drunk and happy if it’s this kind of run that he’s on. It’s more sad to think about it in terms of the thing that potentially threw him off and threatened his life.  Both his teammates and his opponents bowled as fast as they could to get out of his way. By the time he struck in the fifth frame, he realized he would almost certainly break the coveted 800 mark. He was relieved.

By the sixth frame, a large crowd had formed behind Fong. Dozens of people had stopped bowling to watch. Texts were sent and statuses posted to Facebook, and the audience grew.

“We were more nervous than he was at the time,” Gibson says. “It was almost like he was putting on a show up there.”

How many people did you talk to for the story? Because Fong is definitely kind of a loner, it seems. And we mostly hear from his teammates. Did you talk to other people? Did you talk to his family or other friends or anybody like that?   I didn’t talk to his family. I talked to all of his teammates, and I talked to a bunch of people from the bowling alley that night. Probably like 15 to 20, including two or three of his really, really close friends. And they’re all bowlers, obviously. His close friends?   Yeah, I mean his close bowling friends. People he knows through the bowling alley. One of which actually passed away only a couple weeks after the story came out. Yeah, it was one of Bill’s best friends in the world.

Each time he approached the lane, the entire bowling alley went silent. Every time he let fly another roll, there were audible moans from strangers and shouts from the crowd: “That’s it, baby!” Each time he struck, the room erupted with applause. In all his life, Bill Fong had never heard anyone cheering him like that.

He had 33 straight strikes entering the 10th frame of the third game. Out came the cell phone cameras. There were whispers, but as soon as Fong picked up his ball, it was dead quiet. He turned to look at the crowd behind him, now well over 100 people, densely packed from the end of the snack bar to the vending machines 80 feet away.

That’s when the magic left him. Fong began to feel nervous, like the world was watching him pee. He felt the buzz—whatever it had been—leave his body. As he stood in front of lane 28, he felt numb. He tried to push through it.

He lined up and threw a ball without much hook on it. As soon as it left his hand, Fong began waving at it, trying to will the ball left. It connected with the pocket but without the usual force. As the other pins dropped, the nine pin stayed up for what seemed like ages. But just as the gasp of the crowd reached a crescendo, one of the pins rolling meekly across the lane bumped the nine just enough to tip it. The room exploded with cheers and whistles. The sound was enough to shake one of the cameras now capturing the moment.  How important were the videos shot on camera phones for you to recreate those last three rolls?   That was really important. And not just that, but also to kind of confirm some of the earlier stuff too… Especially recounting those last couple frames, that was everything. Because Bill really does not like talking about that.   Does he remember those last three frames?   Given what he might have been going through, he does. He does remember them, yeah. And it is basically like hearing somebody talk about getting shot… I’m really glad I had the video. When I first started the story, I just assumed there would be video, and then at some point when I couldn’t find the video, when I couldn’t just find it somewhere posted, I was a little worried. And it’s also just a fantastic story, right? I just really wanted to make sure that this video just confirmed that all of these things even happened, and it wasn’t some sort of conspiracy against me, given all the recent bad news in journalism, especially now. I watched that video 50 or 60 times easily.

Fong looked dizzy as he walked back to the ball exchange. For the first time that night, he began sweating profusely. But he realized the mistake he’d made on his last throw, and the second roll was much cleaner. Again there were shouts from the audience as the ball blazed down the lane, zipping back in time to smash the pins apart in a powerful, driving strike. And there was even more cheering as all 10 pins fell. Thirty-five strikes down, one to go.  The subhead in this story is, “In a bowling alley one night, Bill Fong came so close to perfection that it nearly killed him.” Do you feel like that gives away the ending? Yeah, I do. I am very trusting when it comes to headlines and deckheads. The editors, that’s their jobs. They know what they’re doing. They’re really good at that. The print headline for this story was “Near Miss,” [and] I’m really glad they ended up using a different headline on the web because I honestly don’t know if the story would’ve the traction that it got under “Near Miss”… I don’t know if it bothered me or not. It didn’t give away every aspect of the ending, and it worked out pretty well in terms of people getting the theme of the story.   Right. I think “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever” is clearly a headline written for search engine optimization, but it is a great headline, you know?   Yeah. I was really glad. I think I first saw that—it was like a cover tag on the print issue, and I think they just used that for the web head. I liked it more than “Near Miss.” It’s a little presumptuous, but it’s certainly the most amazing story I’ve ever heard about a bowling alley. It baffles the mind to think of a bowling story that would—that’s actually about bowling—that would be more incredible than this.

Before his final roll, Fong wiped his ball with his towel. He heard a woman’s voice behind him, a stranger, saying, “We are having fun, aren’t we?” He lifted the ball to his chest and stood calmly for a moment. Then he took five steps and released the ball toward perfection.

It looked good from his hand, arcing out the way so many of his great strikes that night had, cutting back to the pocket just in time. Several people started applauding before the ball even reached the end of the lane—that’s how good it looked. But this time, as the pins scrambled, something unimaginable happened. The 10 pin, farthest to the right, wobbled. But it didn’t fall. I still get goose bumps reading this paragraph. And I’ve read it, I don’t know, four, five, six times maybe. What was it like writing—can you remember writing that specific paragraph? Or that entire section?   I don’t really remember… I mean you go into the trance where you’re actually typing stuff up from your outline. Watching that video though, I think I knew exactly how it was going to go. Because it is just devastating to watch. You could hear all the cheers, and then it turns to that moment where you hear everybody simultaneous moan, “Ohh..” And it’s just so, so sad.

Some of the people in the room couldn’t process what they’d just witnessed. How could the last roll, like the 35 before it, not be a strike?

Strangers fell to their knees. It was hard for anyone to breathe.  How did you get that detail, especially the breathing? You could probably watch them fall to their knees maybe in the video, but the breathing one, I can’t remember. In the video… you can hear them gasp. You can hear people just gasp. And then somebody actually told me, that was actually one of the details that I had in my notes, that when they were watching—I don’t remember if that was a direct quote or not—they said, “I couldn’t breathe. After he… he kind of spun away and was walking away. I’m guessing I just couldn’t breathe watching him.” Like wow, that’s a great line.

Fong turned and walked to his right. He was empty. Blank.

His friends, the ones who were prepared seconds ago to tackle him in celebration, grabbed him and held him still. As he stood there, Fong wanted to say something—anything—but he couldn’t make a sound.  I’m curious what you did writing-wise to make sure the reader gets to this point in the story, in terms of narrative engine, setting up early so you know they’ll get to this point. This is what everything was building up to. This is why you start with a bookend beginning. Why you kind of slowly build into something. Why you want to get things going as fast as you possibly can. Why you want to add in a bunch of reasons to care about these characters, this character in particular. And little things that might have readers relate to these people. That’s everything that went into that right at these moments.

• • •

Sitting around the table two years after that night, Bill Fong and his teammates still argue. Fong truly believes that the last pin could have made his life perfect. “It would have made all the difference,” he says. With a 900, he theorizes, he might have made SportsCenter, and he would surely have sponsors. He thinks he might have had a chance to join the pro tour. At least, he figures, he’d be the best of all time at something, with the name Bill Fong immortalized above even the legends of the game—and he wouldn’t be just a regular guy.  We go back to the night you’re there. So we’re jumping two years into the future. Why do you do that here and not just push straight through to the big surprise at the end?   Well, probably the most common question I got about this story with writers is how and why I didn’t mention the stroke earlier. For me, that was never really a question, you know? Medical stories or illness stories are really hard to make not follow the same kind of tropes, right? So if you mention the stroke early in the story, it’s a stroke story. It’s not a bowling story; it’s not a story about perfection. It’s about somebody who had a stroke. And it’s really hard. Really good writers can do it, but it’s really a challenge to make that, if it’s about that, to avoid clichés and tropes. And I generally like chronology. I might start out of chronological order, but generally I try and have things come in chronological order. So it was never really a question of where it was going to go for me. I just wanted to come back and put this in present tense a little bit so that we kind of have some recovery time. That hits really hard, and I kind of wanted to debate over what that was before we get into this other twist.

“That pin makes me like the Rodney Dangerfield of bowling,” he says. “I get no respect.”

He goes over that last roll in his mind all the time. He watches the shaky cell phone video.

“It looked so good as it left my hand,” he says.

When that 15-pound sphere collides with the pins, so many things happen so fast that there’s no way of knowing exactly what went wrong in those milliseconds.

That hasn’t stopped Fong from searching for some reason. He wonders if he could have practiced more. He blames the 10 years he was away from bowling. Like that single pin represents the Bowling Fates punishing him for his insolence.

His teammates disagree. They don’t think that pin would have made much of a difference in Bill Fong’s life at all. What he did was amazing, something that will come up in conversation around the Plano Super Bowl for years.  This is a lovely, subtle sentence that drives home exactly Fong’s point, that his life hasn’t changed, that it wasn’t amazing, that it’s just the fodder for another Monday night at the Plano Super Bowl.   That’s interesting that’s how you think of that. In this world, his life did change, right? We don’t know. We honestly don’t know what would’ve happened if the pin had fallen or not. There’s a lot of people—or not a lot. There’s a couple people who’ve bowled 900. I don’t know if any of them immediately got pro sponsorship or went on tour. But in this world, in this subculture, in this community, it is the greatest feat that has been accomplished. They still talk about it with reverence. Does he open a pro shop? Does he open his own bowling shop if he doesn’t roll that series? I don’t know. He and I have discussed that, and he doesn’t know, one way or the other. It’s hard to say. I don’t know.

“It was mind-boggling,” Gibson says.

The fact that he missed perfection by the last pin on the last roll—that makes the whole thing more human, less robotic. And that, somehow, makes it seem almost beautiful. Besides, they argue, Fong still holds the Texas state record. And because there have been only 21 perfect 900s, he is technically tied for the 22nd greatest night in the annals of bowling history. (There have been only 11 899s.)

His life is also better now. Around the time of the 899, Fong got a part-time job at the pro shop at the Super Bowl. Recently, he opened his own place down the road, Bowling Medic Pro Shop. A lot of people from his four leagues come by to have him drill their balls. Sometimes he cuts their hair, too.

There’s also this: that night, after the 899, his friends bought him a few beers. He doesn’t usually drink, but at the time, he felt like the best day of his life had just turned into the worst. After a beer or two—and at least an hour of excited congratulations from strangers—he felt dizzy. When he got home, he went into the bathroom and vomited in the toilet. The walls were spinning.

It turns out Bill Fong was having a stroke.  Did you have discussions with editors or Tim about whether that should go there or somewhere else in the story? Or was he on board with that, too? Yeah, I think he was on board with it too. I think we both just kind of assumed, for some reason, that that was about where it was going to come. The hardest part for that was the actual convincing, right? How do you bring this into, “Oh by the way… In the entire thing he was having a stroke.” So, “There’s also this.” That’s the transition. Which I love. It’s a great transition. It comes in that paragraph before, “There’s also this.” I mean it’s really simple, but it accomplishes what it needs to accomplish. Of all the amount of time I’ve spent writing, I probably spent more time on that very sentence, just debating what that transition was going to be. That sounds a little bit like Tim. That may be even his final edit, actually. I don’t remember who wrote that.

With the stress, the tension of the night, his already high blood pressure had surpassed dangerous levels. Not long after, he had another stroke. When the doctor saw the scar tissue and heard about the night of dizziness, he explained to Fong that he had suffered what could very easily have been a fatal stroke. That night at the bowling alley, had things gone differently, he could have died.

It also means that with the sweating and dizziness he was feeling in the third game, it’s likely that Fong bowled the last few frames through the beginning of that stroke—which makes the accomplishment that much more amazing.

When he had his heart surgery, he was in the hospital for a week. Not many family members visited him. Nobody came from his haircutting days. But he didn’t lack for visitors. Plenty of people from the bowling alley took the time to see him, not just teammates but also some longtime opponents. They asked him how he felt and encouraged him to get well quickly. And, one by one, they each mentioned that incredible night in January, when Bill Fong fell just one pin short of perfect.  Did you ever think about ending the story here?   I did. And that’s also the kind of line that an editor might have just cut the rest and left it right there. I think when I was with him, especially watching him bowl where he’s taking extensive notes, even after a strike. You know, especially after a strike. When I saw that, I think I was pretty convinced that I had the idea of ending it there. He’s working hard to get back in groove. Because I like stories to work in perpetuity, I like endings that kind of signify that the story exists in perpetuity. Still ongoing. But I actually did think about that when I was looking at the piece.

Rehab was hard at first. The strokes took a lot of his strength. But within a few months—earlier than doctors recommend—Fong was back to his usual form, back to rolling five days a week. More recently, he’s been sharper than ever. Since that night, Fong has rolled 10 more 300s and four series of at least 800.

As they’re talking about that night, one of his teammates poses the question: wouldn’t Fong rather be alive with an 899 than dead with a 900? It’s really a rhetorical question, but Fong takes a moment to consider it seriously. It takes him awhile, but eventually Fong says he’d rather be alive.  Would you have still done this story if he had bowled the 900? I don’t think so. I am a firm believer that the more interesting story is the miss. The imperfection, the loss. Almost winning and not winning is in some ways the perfect story, right? It’s not the perfect experience by any means. It’s a devastating human experience. But especially in the context of sports, where there isn’t actually, generally going to be life and death, it really is the perfect story because that is the majority of us. That’s the human experience.

“Well,” says Race, the Mister Rogers of the group, “we’re sure happy to have you still here and bowling with us.”

Tonight, Fong struggles through the first few games. But in the final game of the night, he starts with three straight strikes. Then a fourth. Then a fifth. In the sixth frame, he throws it well but leaves the 10 pin standing, taunting him.

After picking up the spare, Fong comes back to the table, shaking his head and looking at his teammates.

“I’ve got to make adjustments,” he says, and he begins making notes.  Can you talk about why you had it end with him making adjustments?   I really wanted the story to exist in a perpetuity. I want to be ending to kind of signify that the story is ongoing. He is still struggling, he is still trying for perfection. When Joey, the filmmaker who made the documentary, got in touch with me, and he asked, “Is he still trying for 900? Do you think he’ll try for a 900 when I’m there?” He’s trying for a 900 every day, man. This is the kind of thing that he’s always, always working for.

 

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Billy Collins on defying convention, the reader’s indifference and making other writers jealous http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/billy-collins-on-defying-convention-the-readers-indifference-and-making-other-writers-jealous/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/billy-collins-on-defying-convention-the-readers-indifference-and-making-other-writers-jealous/#comments Wed, 18 Feb 2015 22:05:51 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=118432 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 http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/five-questions-for-jessica-stern/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/five-questions-for-jessica-stern/#comments Mon, 09 Feb 2015 14:26:47 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=118348 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 http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/checking-out-the-national-magazine-award-winners/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/checking-out-the-national-magazine-award-winners/#comments Tue, 03 Feb 2015 19:13:15 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=118317 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” http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/annotation-tuesday-justin-heckert-and-lost-in-the-waves/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/annotation-tuesday-justin-heckert-and-lost-in-the-waves/#comments Tue, 27 Jan 2015 14:19:25 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=118276 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 CNN.com, 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.

“Christopher?!”

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 http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/turning-a-narrative-story-into-a-documentary/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/turning-a-narrative-story-into-a-documentary/#comments Thu, 22 Jan 2015 13:58:20 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=118271 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 http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/10-pieces-of-wisdom-from-top-writers/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/10-pieces-of-wisdom-from-top-writers/#comments Thu, 08 Jan 2015 14:46:04 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=118108 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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