One little mistake on a freezing-cold day can end badly.

One little mistake on a freezing-cold day can end badly.

This week’s One Great Sentence by Susan Orlean, referenced in the headline above, could be my journalism mantra. Yes, we must know about the great events and people of our time. But to closely examine an “average” person and see the greatness there is a gift, and has created some of the most memorable journalism of our time. The Peter Stark piece about hypothermia below is an offbeat example: It creates a second-person “everyman” narrator who nearly freezes to death. As Outside magazine’s editor at the time, Mark Bryant, says: “I think one of the things we were interested in then was elevating storytelling, but also shifting the sensibility a bit — less of the hairy-chested, man-against-nature thing, less about superpeople and more about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.”

The Pitch: How to break into The California Sunday Magazine. This magazine has been a go-to source of great writing since it was launched a few years back. (Storyboard has showcased it here and here and here.) And the pitch that contributor Katia Savchuk and Douglas McGray annotate here led to one of my favorites in the publication. But almost as good are some of McGray’s tips on pitching to the magazine, like this: “It doesn’t matter to me at all if I recognize your name or who you’ve written for. It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve never written anything, though I might have some questions in that case. We really put a lot of weight on the pitch. In the space of a pitch, you have to tell a good story and write in the voice you will write the piece in. If you just describe the facts and don’t give us a sense of you as a writer, the pitch isn’t going to stand out.”

The soundtrack: “Dirge,” by Death in Vegas. The story pitched here, “The Vegas Plot,” a Coen Brothers-ish yarn about would-be killers by Ashley Powers, made me think of this band. I remember when this album came out, I played this song over and over, at great volume. It’s hypnotic, starting with just this la-la-la refrain, and then layering on instruments (including, I think, a theremin!) and almost white noise until it fills your head almost to exploding.

One Great Sentence

“An ordinary life examined closely reveals itself to be exquisite and complicated and exceptional, somehow managing to be both heroic and plain.”

Susan Orlean, “The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup.” Read why we think it’s great.

 

It doesn't take long to freeze to death in a lonely, snow-covered terrain.

It doesn't take long to freeze to death in a lonely, snow-covered terrain.

Peter Stark and “As Freezing Persons Recollect the Snow – First – Chill – Then Stupor – Then the Letting Go –” How can you not love a story whose original headline came from an Emily Dickinson poem? Especially when the adventurousness of the writing nearly matches that of the poet. I also love the writing by contributor Brian Kevin in this Why’s This So Good? about the 20-year-old story. “Within days of the story’s publication Outside magazine,” he writes, “media outlets interviewing Stark were referring to the article by its less unwieldy dek, ‘The Cold Hard Facts of Freezing to Death,’ a name that stuck for the next couple of decades. Then, in 2016, when Outside gave the piece a sexy new web treatment, the magazine abridged its hed even further, calling it simply ‘Frozen Alive.’ Like a digit amputated knuckle by knuckle, the damn title keeps getting shorter.”

The soundtrack: “Cold Cold Cold,” by Cage the Elephant. The song has a nice 1960s garage-rock feel. And the lyrics are perfect: “Doctor look into my eyes / I’ve been breathing air but there’s no sign of life / Doctor the problem’s in my chest /My heart feels cold as ice but it’s anybody’s guess.”

What I’m reading online: The Final, Terrible Journey of the Nautilus, by May Jeong. The writer of this Wired piece was a close friend of journalist Kim Wall, who was killed by a mad inventor named Peter Madsen aboard his handmade submarine. The details are shocking, and deeply saddening. As a woman journalist (in fact, as a journalist, period), I was struck by this bit: “In reporting this story, my editor made me promise that I wouldn’t put myself in harm’s way. But much of reporting is just that—routinely putting yourself in uncomfortable positions. In the four months I spent on this story, I did things that in other circumstances might have seemed foolish. I went on long drives at night with sources. I met strangers on their doorsteps and entered their homes. In stepping onto that submarine, Kim was doing what any reporter onto a good story would have done.”

A Journey in Which I Travel North, on the World’s Most Beautiful Voyage, Searching for the Spectre of My Grandfather and a Glimpse of the Ever-Elusive Midnight Sun, by Reif Larsen. This competes with the Peter Stark hypothermia headline for length. It crawls across the page like a boat skirting the Norwegian coast. Everything about this piece is lovely: the writing, the videos, the animated illustrations. But I’m particularly in awe of the page design. The New York Times is committed to beauty in storytelling, in all its forms. Special shoutout to Alicia DeSantis, who produced the page.

A Peek at Famous Readers’ Borrowing Records From a Private New York Library, by Erin Shreiner. This is another jewel from Atlas Obscura, about the New York Society Library, whose members pay an annual fee, “like a gym-membership for the mind.” She writes that past members include Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Henry James,  P.G. Wodehouse, W.H. Auden, Lillian Hellman, John Cheever, Roald Dahl, Leonard Bernstein and Shirley Hazzard. Love this bit: Melville kept out a book on whaling for 13 months while writing “Moby-Dick.”

What’s on my bedside table: “Pigeon Pie,” by Nancy Mitford. After watching an old TV version of  “Love in a Cold Climate” last week, I decided to read this lesser-known novel by Mitford. I’m trying to imagine how a satire about World War II that was published during the war (and actually written before it) went over. Consider lines like this one: “Then they passed by a hideous late-Victorian church, and the whole population of the town seemed to be occupied in propping it up with sandbags. Sophia, who had never seen a sandbag before, began to cry, partly in terror and party because it rather touched her to see anybody taking so much trouble over a church so ugly that it might have been specially made for bombs.” And this, on the long wind-up to the war: “I suppose it is unreal because we have been expecting it for so long now, and have known that it must be got over before we can go on with our lives. Like in the night when you want to go to the loo and it is miles away down a freezing cold passage and yet you know you have to go down that passage before you can be happy and sleep again.”

What’s on my turntable: “Let Go,” by Nada Surf. This is one of my Top 10 albums, and I’ve never had it on vinyl until now. I’ve always loved the existential nature of the title (which doesn’t come from a title of a song on the album but a lyric in one of them: “on a plane ride, the more it shakes/the more I have to let go.” I’m particularly pleased that the lyric echoes the Emily Dickinson poem in the headline of the Peter Stark piece about hypothermia above.

If you want to chat about storytelling (or music), I’m Storyboard editor Kari Howard, and you can reach me at editor@niemanstoryboard.org. Or you can find me at @karihow on Twitter.

Most popular articles from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment