We’ve configured this year’s Best of Storyboard roundup by category* this year, as opposed to ranking them by readership, though we’ll say that in terms of pageviews the Gay Talese/Elon Green annotation of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” walloped every other read in the history of Storyboard, by far. Check back next week for our Best of Narrative 2013 roundup, in which guest editors give their picks in the categories of audio, magazines, multimedia, newspapers, online and video. Till then, here are the 15 most-read Storyboard posts of the year. Enjoy!
Gay Talese and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Elon Green: Storyboard contributor Elon Green talked to Talese about his classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” considered a fundamental piece of the New Journalism. An excerpt:
With most women Sinatra dates, his friends say, he never knows whether they want him for what he can do for them now — or will do for them later. With Ava Gardner, it was different. He could do nothing for her later. She was on top. If Sinatra learned anything from his experience with her, he possibly learned that when a proud man is down a woman cannot help. Particularly a woman on top. Was this belief Sinatra’s or yours? It’s my voice. It’s my deduction of all the research I did. The point is to establish the voice. What I don’t like, if I can avoid it, are direct quotes. If I can avoid a direct quote — and sometimes you cannot or should not — I will. Because what you do, with a direct quote, is surrender your voice. If you know what you’re talking about, and think you can be declarative in terms of sentences and attitude, then go with it. That’s your voice. And if you surrender to the direct quote, the quote more often than not is not considered and it’s not literary. A direct quote out of a person’s mouth is not a written sentence. When you write that sentence you might write it a dozen times. A single sentence. What is the point? It’s to try to establish language that is both specific and has a tone that is in concert with the voice. And that is what makes for smoothness in writing style and makes the departure from journalism to literary writing — sometimes called literary journalism. You cannot fracture it with direct quotes. You are then surrendering to the subject that you’re quoting, and they become the writer. And they don’t write very well.
Lillian Ross and Ernest Hemingway, also by Elon Green: Green had a remarkable year with annotations, and he wrapped it up with the New Yorker writer whose famous profile of Hemingway, “How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?” is another narrative classic. Ross still lives in the city and writes for the magazine. An excerpt:
Hemingway put his briefcase down on a bright-red couch and advanced on the bookcase, then slowly, with expression, read the titles aloud–”Elementary Economics,” “Government of the United States,” “Sweden, the Land and the People,” and “Sleep in Peace,” by Phyllis Bentley. “I think we are an outfit headed for extinction,” he said, starting to take off his necktie. To what extent was Hemingway performing for you? None. You’re bringing up this cliché that’s been said about him. Forget that. Rely on your own interests and curiosity. I don’t judge. There was one Hemingway, one and only. Just as there was only one J.D. Salinger. I was privileged to know both men, and to eventually write about both of them. And they became friends. There is no such thing as quote unquote subjects. These men are just themselves. I love and respect that. Everything they said was of interest to me, and a joy.
Amy Wallace and Garry Shandling: Wallace, who writes for GQ and Los Angeles magazine, among others, line-by-lined one of her most popular pieces and showed that celebrity profiles don’t all have to be fluff and spin. An excerpt:
Shandling looks down at his Pradas. “Here’s what I’m very sensitive about,” he says, pausing for a good thirty seconds before he raises his head. “You’re right.” Then he laughs. “I would only rephrase it this way: I want to take myself seriously as an actor. And to know that I can be free enough and strong enough and courageous enough to express myself in emotional ways that are a little bit harder than standing there telling a joke.” Now we’re getting down to the guts of it. All profiles have to mine a little soul but this revelation feels sincere and strong, to me. Was it what you expected? What happened in the two or three beats after he said this? We were really clicking in this interview. I’d done my homework – watched everything he’d ever done, obviously, but also talked to a lot of people who knew him really well. So that laid the groundwork. But Garry was in a mindset where he wanted to be honest. He wanted to be understood. He wanted me not to get it wrong. And he was willing to help me. It was an intense experience, and this was a moment where the intensity of it was palpable. He’s always funny, even when he’s deep. But there was an intimacy to our conversation. Because he wasn’t just cracking wise. We were talking about some of life’s big shit.
“Why’s this so good?”
Storyboard: … How did reporting and writing affect you?
Saslow: The story has followed me around, too, and I have a feeling I will be thinking about the Bardens for a while. I spent about a month working on it – two trips to Newtown, and then a week or more of writing. For most of that time the story occupied a good bit of my mind. I couldn’t shake it. Both the reporting and the writing had hard moments when I felt emotionally drained, but even writing that, to you, now feels lousy, because of course anything I experienced was fractional and irrelevant compared to the emotional toll I was writing about. And now the story ends and I get to move onto the next one, and the Bardens stay in place, dealing with this.
Micah Wimmer on Woody Allen‘s piece on NBA legend Earl “The Pearl” Monroe:
While Allen wrote about a specific person, his piece could hardly be called a profile. He doesn’t concern himself with biographical details or interesting anecdotes, and instead focuses on the visceral impact of Monroe’s playing style. Angling the story on Monroe’s artistry allows Allen to focus on a timeless aspect of basketball, which in turn makes “A Fan’s Notes” timeless. Games and great plays occur nightly, but most are soon forgotten. Great art, on the other hand, endures. How is it that a film director who had never written about sports was able to compose such a great piece? Ironically, it may have been Allen’s outsider status that helped him. Most sportswriters are consistently working on a deadline; watching the same teams over and over again; growing jaundiced, bored. Writing from the perspective of a fan gave Allen license to focus on beauty. (Also, when was the last time you read a sports piece that referred to Jascha Heifetz, John Maynard Keynes and Groucho Marx?)
Nack hitches up your stirrups and then—swoooosh!—gallops you along for the heart-thumping, 12-week ride. Even if you had read Nack’s book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, the glittering prose of “Pure Heart” puts you right back in the barn, on the rail and down the homestretch. Nack makes you feel every moment, every emotion, even an older man’s thrill at falling, with a teenager’s passion, helplessly in love. To hell with being unbiased or detached; this is a narrator rooting like a madman for a thoroughbred that belongs as much to him as to every $2 bettor. If Secretariat wins, Nack wins, too, though it isn’t cash at the betting windows. No, he wins a great story. A writer knows: Nothing is more valuable than a great story belonging only to you.
Frazier is a master of voices, especially his own. Nowhere is his voice sharper than when he describes Mayor Bloomberg. After meeting Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs, who is tasked with the administration’s policies for the homeless, Frazier writes: “Her blue eyes often have an expression that can only be described as a twinkle.” He sees that twinkle not only in Gibbs’s eyes, but in the eyes of the entire Bloomberg administration, which launches Frazier into one of the most powerful first-person passages in the entire piece:
I think the contagious Bloomberg twinkle comes partly from the Mayor’s role as a sort of Santa figure. He works for the city for a dollar a year, he gives away his money by the hundreds of millions, and he manifestly has the city’s happiness and well-being at heart. Every rich person should be like him. His deputies and staffers twinkle with the pleasure of participating in his general beneficence, as well they should. “You can’t make a man mad by giving him money”—this rule would seem to be absolute. And yet sometimes people in the city he has done so much for still get mad at Bloomberg and criticize him. At the wrong of this, the proper order of things is undone, and the Bloomberg twinkle turns to ice.
Solnit has an unusual talent for delineating physical and social phenomena hiding in plain sight. Also for spinning the camera so that it lands not on easy, vulnerable targets of blame, but on the shadowy, better-protected figures responsible for wrenching the levers of harmful change. (Every time there’s a new large-scale disaster and the media begin fanning fears over riots and mayhem, I find myself recommending her excellent book A Paradise Built in Hell, which challenges orthodox notions about the ways government and society respond to calamity.)
Storytellers on craft
I suddenly realized its familiarity and utility are almost 2,000 years old, expressed in the Nicene Creed, that act of faith recited in countless vernacular languages at Mass each day by millions of Catholics across the globe. I can almost recite it by heart, that Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father….”
“To give the impression that something that hasn’t happened has happened”
This is the secret to every great story. They make the reader see something that they did not see. They make the reader feel something that they were not part of. They make them feel as though they were in a room, that they heard this person talking. Great stories make the impossible possible. You’re not telling a reader what to think, you’re not telling them what to do; you’re telling a story in such a way that they feel like they’re there. They feel like they experience — they help carry Joey Montgomery home. Or, they were in space. I mean, that’s an amazing thing. Most of us will never get to space. But if you write a story properly, if you do a story well enough, if you go see the movie Gravity — amazing — you’ll feel like you’ve been to space. That’s an amazing thing, to take someone out of their chair in their living room and make them feel like they traveled in space.
What the story’s about is literally what happens in the narrative — who this character is, what goal he or she is trying to reach, what obstacle is in the way. The unique set of facts. What the story’s REALLY about is a way of saying, what’s the point? What’s the universal meaning that someone should draw from this story? What’s the lesson? When you think about it that way, you’ll find that you end up with a second obstacle and a second goal.
The journalist I admire more than anybody else is another guy who wears suits, Tom Wolfe. Because Tom Wolfe, by God, he has his say. If you look at the stuff that he did in the ’60s, it was shocking in its seizure of narrative freedom — freedom of voice, freedom of expression. There’s still nobody who has topped him in that regard. And yet during the 1960s he never wrote a story about Vietnam, he never wrote a story about civil rights, he never wrote a story about Lyndon Johnson, he never wrote a story about crime. He didn’t write anything that was considered serious journalism. But because he exercised freedom to a degree that no other journalist ever had, his work remains indelible.
New in narrative
The Big Roundtable launched, with a pay-what-you-want model for Columbia journalism students. Here’s founder and professor Michael Shapiro:
Out there, as I write, I know, just know, that there are all these wonderful writers with stories burning in their notebooks who are thinking, “There is more to this story than 700 words.” Maybe the New Yorker? The Times magazine? Maybe. But the odds aren’t good. I know this because I have been that writer and I wanted to tell that story and yes, I wanted to be paid for it. But I needed to tell it. And to put my money where my mouth is, I’m working on one now for the BRT. I really need to tell this one. No advance.
The Big Book of Narrative, our compendium of 150 original essays, annotations, interviews and more, launched in honor of the Nieman Foundation’s 75th anniversary. From Peter Richmond‘s essay on what it was like, having John Hersey as a writing professor at Yale:
146) “Professor Hersey: One student, the iconic author of Hiroshima, and six timeless takeaways,” by Peter Richmond
“If what you leave out is essential, then the details you choose to leave in must be essential. (i.e.: The dank, decaying, ominous scent of a jungle is relevant if the man smelling it might be about to die from an unseen bullet, but maybe not if your story is of the prison road gang laying a highway through it).”
Storyboard: What did you learn from doing the project?
Salter: I recently did another live story, this time on New York City’s response during Hurricane Sandy. Having two under my belt hardly makes me an expert, but I’m getting a feel for what works. I treat the live stories like a magazine feature. For Detroit, I had interviewed everybody over several months so I knew what each person represented. That’s how I cast the piece, covering the main themes and thinking of everyone’s best stories. Then I wrote a script. It’s different than a magazine story in that it’s more conversational and more theatrical. It’s meant to be performed. But just as with a written piece, structure is everything. Because I had four people and because the audience could see them and remember their voices and faces, as opposed to a name on a page, I could bring them in and out of the piece more freely. The format was more flexible.
*We omitted the categories of Pinned and Featured Fellow from the rankings.
Well done, 2013.