If you missed a post or two in our weeklong recap of this year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, here’s the roundup: On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times‘ Kelley Benham and her husband, Tom French, talked about the memorable narrative series “Never Let Go,” and about their book collaboration; on Wednesday, Texas Monthly‘s legendary Skip Hollandsworth offered some reporting and writing tips; Thursday’s post featured Hollandsworth’s keynote address, about the longform narrative that became the film Bernie. Today, in our final post in the Mayborn series, we leave you with some tips and insights culled from talks by a range of great Mayborn participants:
Susan Orlean, New Yorker staff writer and author of The Orchid Thief, The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup and the 2011 bestseller Rin Tin Tin:
I had always as a writer relied on my intuition and my response to what I saw in front of me. I was used to working off my emotional reaction to what I saw. So I was getting to learn about working out of the library, working from archival material, where I couldn’t go experience what I was writing about. That was very challenging. I was worried about where the intuitive contact was with the material that I count on so much. Where was my sense of ownership?
I enter all my stories as a student. I don’t know anything about anything. I had no expertise. I was a student for the five or six years I was reporting on Rin Tin Tin, I gave myself a seminar and then there was a significant moment where I felt that I could become a teacher, and I could teach readers what I had learned. That’s the moment I felt that I could write about World War II. I could write about a piece of it in a very intimate way. It’s something that I feel: That model of going into a story as a student frees you out of that notion that you need to go in as an expert.
I had never worked out of archives, and I had always thought it was — how boring. Just the word “archives” — boring. As somebody who was always so convinced that the only way to write truly vibrant stories was by experiencing something in the moment, what I realized was that the material was much more in the moment, and intimate … than when Lee Duncan was alive. I felt as if I had drilled my way into someone’s still-humming life.
When I got to the New Yorker, it was a revelation to me that you could tell a story at the pace that you felt fit. That you could step in and out of your story as the storyteller without making yourself the story. That you could dig deeply. That your own passion for a subject rather than a focus-grouped marketing analysis of the subject would suffice to explain why it was important.
I’m always interested in not knowing. I’m interested in being a student, of learning something new. And I never really like writing about anything I already know about. Generally, part of the journey of the writing for me is diving into something I know nothing about.
I begin with these ideas that are very broad — or super specific, and in that sense they’re very broad. The process of trying to figure out why I wanted to do the story and what I learned, I can’t extricate it from what it is I’m telling you. Not deliberate where I think, “Oh, this’ll make a good part of the story,” but I think some of it is that I feel as a writer that I’m your proxy. I’m going through the learning and then I’m going to have you go through it with me. And that “you’re learning how I learned,” seems like part of the story. It just feels like part of what my storytelling is about.
In a panel discussion with The Atavist founder Evan Ratliff and Byliner’s Mark Bryant, Orlean talked about the structural demands of stories beyond 4,000 or 5,000 words, and the error of mistaking length for quality, something she noted as a National Book Award judge:
There’s no reason a book needs to be 300 pages, except that the entire economic structure of publishing a book requires it having a price of about 25 to 29 bucks, otherwise publishers can’t make money. If you have a book 100 pages long, it’s really hard to put a price tag on it of 29 bucks. So publishers have always been very nervous about very short books.
The freedom that (digital) gives you, to think of (stories) at the length they ought to be, is really a revolution. It also puts the onus on you as a writer to really know what your story is. What’s the really natural organic length of the story that you’re trying to tell?
She’s working on an upcoming digital project with Byliner: a serialized nonfiction project that will invite Byliner readers to follow a story in as many as eight parts:
There’s something super delicious about getting addicted to something and having to wait for the next part.
Allen Prendergast, staff writer for Westword, a Denver newsweekly:
The more time you spend with archives, the more you come across this conflict between the public and private persona.
Kevin Merida, managing editor of the Washington Post and co-author of Divided Soul: The Supreme Discomfort of Clarence Thomas:
Almost in every place, whoever was difficult to talk to, you’ve got to go talk to them. The other key about just showing up is, you never know when you’re going to get a breakthrough.
On the power of narrative storytelling:
We find that every time we publish one of these really big, masterful tales, we put it online and it’s the highest traffic-getter of the week, the month, and sometimes the year. That’s a trend. A good story is a good story.
Donna Britt, a Washington Post columnist and author of Brothers (and me): a Memoir of Loving and Giving:
I already wanted to be a writer but I knew what I had to write about. I had to write about the distance that we create between the other — between people who don’t look like us, or who for whatever reason, whether that’s men and women, whether that’s older and younger, whether it’s, in the case of my brother, black and white — and what that felt like.
On advice she got as she struggled to report on the life of her late brother, a young man shot to death by two policemen in Gary, Ind.:
The thing about memoir is it’s terrifying if you’re honest.
Caroline Alexander, contributor to the New Yorker, Outside magazine, Smithsonian and National Geographic and author of multiple books, including The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, and The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty:
The great thing about archives and the past is that there’s these universes that you can really enter and study. … You can methodically come to know all of the characters, all of the landscape, all of the things there. There is a surety that is hard to match in the present.
I feel often you can know historical figures better or reveal them more nakedly than is the case with living people.
You have to believe that that story you’re working on is the most important thing in the world. It’s a question to me of passion and metabolizing the events.
Kevin Fedarko, Esquire and Outside magazine contributor, former Time magazine staff writer, and author of The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History. Fedarko spent five years working as a part-time river guide to research his story of a record-breaking boat ride down the Colorado River during a 1993 flood that nearly destroyed the Glen Canyon Dam:
I felt like it was actually essential for me to not only come to a sort of concrete understanding but to have a connection to the landscape itself. I ended up actually apprenticing myself as a river guide at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. … At a certain point in writing, I reached the moment where I was writing what it was like to handle rapids. (His writing shifted from third person to second person. As he addressed the reader as “you” and took them through the visceral experience, he felt like he had passed what he termed ‘the you test.’) … To me that was the sense that I had passed some sort of threshold in terms of my relationship with the landscape, so that it had become internalized and it was then coming through in the writing.
What really electrified me was that the little adventure story at the heart of it was representative of … larger abstract ideas that have relevance for all of us.
There’s something called the meta-narrative. It’s the dimension of the narrative that arches over the set of events that you’re focused on. And asking yourself, “What is the meta-narrative? What is the meta-story here?” That’s a really good question to ponder, I think. And the moment you begin to realize that there is an answer to that is the moment you realize you have a story in your hands that has some potential to take you a long way, maybe all the way through the book.
Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and historian and author of six books, including an award-winning trilogy on the U.S. role in liberating Europe in World War II:
Storytelling, as everyone in this room knows, is too important to leave to the novelists and the playwrights.
A fact is not a truth until you love it, in the words of Shelby Foote. We’re looking for facts to love.
Bonnie Nadell, a Los Angeles-based literary agent who represents narrative journalist and nonfiction author Sonia Nazario. In a panel discussion, she and Nazario talked about their agent-writer relationship and its impact on Nazario’s effort to expand her 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning series for the Los Angeles Times, “Enrique’s Journey,” into an award-winning best-seller:
I told Sonia the second-biggest lie. I told her that writing this book was going to be easy. Because, I said, “You’ve already written 30,000 words. You already have all the material, which I knew was not true. … To the extent that Sonia needed to believe me at that point, she did.
Alfredo Corchado, Dallas Morning News Mexico City bureau chief, 2009 Nieman Fellow and author of the memoir Midnight in Mexico, a Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness:
It was meant to be a personal story. The key was to make it a universal truth.
On working with sources and allowing them to see sections of the book that dealt with them before it was published:
The more you’re open with them, the more you build this trust, you build this confidence, the more they open up to you.
Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize- and Emmy-winning journalist, biographer and co-author of the bestseller Flags of Our Fathers:
Paradox — sometimes the things you don’t know and can’t know are the keys for unlocking your imagination.
Amanda Bennett, executive editor projects/investigations for Bloomberg News, is the author of six books, including The Cost of Hope, a 2012 memoir on her husband’s struggle with a rare form of kidney cancer. The book grew out of her 2007 in-depth feature for Bloomberg and BusinessWeek, “End of Life Warning: $618,616 Makes Me Wonder Was It Worth It:”
I inevitably get three questions. The first question is, “Wasn’t it painful to write a memoir like this?” The second is, “Don’t you have to have an incredible memory, or did you take notes?” And the third was, “Wasn’t it hard to combine objective reporting with a subjective experience of your life?” And the answer to all three is, “No.” We all live our lives in stories. It’s our stories that help us organize our lives and give us access to our own actions.
You’ve got this wonderful right-brain-left-brain thing going on. The stories of your lives are there for you to find. Reporting on other people is great; reporting on myself was just a matter of letting my right brain take over.
When you talk about finding reality in the archive — just because it’s written doesn’t mean it’s real. Between my memory and his documents, I’m going to choose my memory. I didn’t make up anything. I didn’t combine anything. But when it came down to it, this was my story. This was my story. And if something existed only in my memory, then it was real.
Paul Hendrickson, a former Washington Post reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote Sons Of Mississippi: A Story of Race and its Legacy, which explored the lives and legacies of seven Mississippi lawmen captured in a single iconic civil rights-era photograph:
(American painter) Thomas Eakins said, in 1906, “Make pictures from the very start and you will feel what you need as you go along.” That’s pretty good advice. With Sons of Mississippi, the entire narrative derives from a single, searing photograph.
It’s simply a matter of how you let your imagination take you. I often think of writing as a kite in the wind.
It is a leap of faith. It is a mystery. You just go. If you go, it’ll happen, is what I’m always telling my writing students at the University of Pennsylvania.
You have this old inert image in your hand and you let it do with you what it will. What you are hoping for and can never quite explain, not least to yourself, is a kind of journalistic luck based on terrible desire.
On researching the story of the lawmen in the 1962 photo:
So many stories, mysteries, interconnected lives, curling outward from some faces under a tree. The search turned out to be like a series of outward-spreading concentric circles. Those lives, the parables therein, have expanded exponentially. All I had to do was follow. There was never enough time. There were constant surprises, redemptive ones, bracing ones, depressing ones. The search started with what I could see between the four edges of the rectangle.
I believe, and, of course cannot prove — it is an unprovable theorem — that the finding of a book, the seasoning of it in your imagination, loops around in ways that defy rational explanation.
Hendrickson discusses a course he teaches at Penn, titled Telling Stories Out of Photographs. He asks students to begin by bringing to class the family photos they brought for their college living spaces. Then, he asks them to consider how closely they’ve looked at the photograph:
Have you ever talked to your mother about that shoe that’s there in the corner? And where did that shoe come from? And where was it bought? And how long did you wear it?
Suddenly, these things begin to expand outward. If you’re a filmmaker shooting on a scale on 20:1 — not that you would necessarily use all of that — there is so much contained between the walls of a photograph. And it is about walking back into it. Almost literally. Almost stepping back into it. And it is about the quality of your noticing and the intensity of your looking.
In a question-and-answer session, Hendrickson is asked how hard it was to get the men in the photos and their relatives to open up to him and how he approached them:
You go very awkwardly, very nervously, very authentically, and you let your honestly and your hopeful goodwill do a little bit of carrying the day. You just swallow your spit.
I went back to the men in the picture, to their fathers and to their grandfathers. A narrative storytelling universe opens up to you. It expands exponentially.
Cathy Booth Thomas, former Time magazine staff writer, instructor at the Mayborn School of Journalism:
The age-old truth still holds, and that is that all stories are about journeys.