Yesterday on the Storyboard, we looked at a new approach to narrative by focusing on Paige Williams’ self-published project “Finding Dolly Freed.” That post considered the possiblities for crowdfunded narrative journalism, but we were intrigued enough with the rest of what Williams had to say to offer more of it here. Below are excerpts from this week’s phone and email conversations with her.
You’ve already gotten a lot of coverage for “Finding Dolly Freed.” What hasn’t been said yet?
What may be getting lost here is Dolly Freed herself and what a fascinating person she is. I just want people to get to know Dolly the way I did and appreciate her, and Possum Living’s, relevance today.
What do you see as her relevance?
We’re reliving some of what happened in the ’70s. People panicked about their jobs, their well-being and their livelihood. Her big message is that you don’t have to panic. A lot of people are beyond the place where they could do what she did way back then. They’re so entrenched in the consumer economy that they can’t just drop out, because of credit card debt and the “live beyond your means” lifestyle that so many of us live. But the basic sentiment stands, that it doesn’t have to be that complicated, that you can strip it down and still have a good life.
You were having your own financial issues at the time, weren’t you?
I heard about Dolly two days after losing my job. I met her at a time in my life when everything centered acutely on money and survival, and her ideas on simplicity appealed to me.
I was thinking about the story and working on it while I was packing up my life and every tiny piece of crap I’d been dragging around with me since my divorce: knickknacks and paper files, just so much stuff. All I really need is my books and my dog, and something to sleep on. And my bike. And my coffee pot. And my laptop. Not a lot, really.
What else was going on at the time that you could do this piece?
Nothing. I was just trying to find a job. I knew that I didn’t have the money to go back and forth to Texas, so at one point, I was thinking it would be smarter to go and camp out in Houston get a cheap apartment off Craigslist for a month. But really I thought I would be able to sell the story idea and go back and work on it.
How long did you try to sell the piece?
The piece itself was never written until the very end—it was the idea I was trying to sell, and maybe I was selling it all wrong. The attempts went on for months. I was stunned by the lack of interest. I thought catching up with Dolly Freed was a no-brainer of a story—all over the Internet people were mooning about what had become of her and asking “Where are you, Dolly Freed?” I wanted to tell them the answer. I felt like plenty of readers would be as riveted by her and what had become of her as I was. I mean here was a woman who published a book and went on to become a rocket scientist with basically a seventh-grade education, and whose book is as fascinating for its literary quality as for its usefulness. Maybe I overestimated editors’ appetite for this story; maybe the connection was clearer to me because of my personal situation, but I thought the idea would sell.
It’s been interesting to watch peoples’ responses to my saying that. There are a lot of really great people out there giving helpful feedback, but some have suggested I’m stupid or naïve for pursuing the story without a buyer.
It’s not at all naïve to answer something that speaks deeply to you. If we don’t follow what we love, what the hell are we doing? If I backtracked over the course of my 20-year career as a journalist and played every move safe, I wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done. I had to find out what the story was about.
For me the outcome has nothing to do with the money. I was prepared to lose that $2,000. I wrapped the money into it, by adding the PayPal option, because I got curious about what would happen. Luckily the response has been thoughtful and thought-provoking. Anytime you put yourself out there, try something new, you run the risk of attracting the opposite, though, too: people who seem more interested in going straight to the negative and gleefully screaming folly, telling you what a mistake you’re making. I don’t mind strong comments, but make them insightful, make them accurate.
I like the extensive use of footnotes—they turn into this organic outgrowth of the mainbar.
I have a footnote fetish. I’ve used them in magazine stories before. I once wrote about the 13th-tallest woman in the world, who happens to live in Atlanta. I was in line behind her one night at Whole Foods and the minute I saw her I knew I had to write about her. I had to think really quickly—she was paying for her Thanksgiving turkey—and I knew it would be predictable to ask her height so instead I went up to her and said, “I just have to ask, How many times a day do people ask you how tall you are?” She said, “You’re about the eighth today.” I gave her my card. And she graciously allowed me to do a story on her.
I used footnotes in that story because they allowed me to give more information without interrupting the narrative. For my money, with footnotes you get a narrative and you get bonus info.
Was the voice you used in the Dolly Freed piece different than it would have been if you were writing for a magazine?
For better or worse, that’s my tone, my voice. I don’t know how to write any other way. But how it could be different when you’re self-publishing—that’s one of the questions that I find most interesting: If you don’t have to conform to a voice, a tone, or an audience, how does the delivery play out? Can you have more fun with structure or voice, within the journalistic parameters we have to follow?
On the Dolly piece I didn’t have time to explore that question. It had to happen so fast. I wrote the story in a few days, and then rewrote and tweaked over a couple weeks. There wasn’t time to think about innovation and structure.
How long was The New York Times piece on Dolly that got killed?
About 1,200 words. It fell through right before it was scheduled to run. I got the email from the editor on December 7; the piece was supposed to run on the 10th. So, the 5,000 words and the web site all came together in about three weeks. I had a team that just went into action. I have to say that I think it worked out this way because it was supposed to work out this way. It sounds so meta, but trying to force the story into some other form was like trying to push a relationship with a guy who doesn’t want to be with you.
What template do you think this can provide for narrative journalism?
The story and who’s telling the story are important—within the journalistic conversation, that’s what’s probably most relevant. The credibility has to be there. That’s not to say that new reporters or writers can’t go do this online themselves, but I suspect they’ll be more successful if they have a foundation of experience and credibility.
I’ve been asked at what point can we consider the Dolly project a success. When I recoup my expenses? When I can pay the photographer beyond expenses? Is the piece a success when Audra makes what she would have made if the job had come through a regular magazine assignment? A photographer like Audra Melton would have cost at least $6,000 for a feature like this. She did the work for expenses only because she’s a friend and believed in the project.
So, I don’t know if this template can work for everyone. That wasn’t the question I set out to answer. I just wanted to see if it would work for this one story.
One built-in hurdle from a reporting standpoint: If you endeavor to do this kind of work, it’s going to be harder when sources ask who you’re reporting for. When I was dealing with NASA, their first question was “Who is this for?” And I said, “It’s for me. I’m a journalist, and it’s for my web site.” Some sources are institution-minded and may be less inclined to cooperate unless they’re dealing with a journalist backed by a known publication. Student journalists run into that all the time, sources taking them less seriously because they’re reporting for campus publications.
Did you have anyone for a role model, someone who’s done this and done it well?
There wasn’t anything like it that I had seen. Plenty of websites run long-form pieces, of course, but I’d never seen anyone do a self-published one-off and have the story run the same gauntlet as it would at a magazine or newspaper. All I had in mind was the way I wanted the story to go, and the format. The site will evolve. It’s not as tricked out or useful as it could be, but until I can pay for changes it’ll have to stay at 1.0 for a while.
We launched a week ago. Since then there’ve been 5,885 unique visitors, 11,829 page views. That to me is really fascinating. I’m up to $878.75 in donations. And in a week, I’ve gained more than 100 new followers on Twitter. In the big scheme that’s not a lot, but the quick-time doubling seems telling. The contributions have ranged from 75 cents to $100. Adam Penenberg sent me $100. Sweet Hank Stuever sent me $100, with a note. He said, “I’m happy to feel strongly enough about what you do – what we do – to put money behind it… I feel it all going away: serendipitous stories, lark, wonder, exploration, heart. Everything in the newsroom now is just reactive, scoop-centered, gossipy, fuss-and-chit-chat.”
You wrote Dolly’s story in just three weeks. Going back and rereading, is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
I never read stories once they’re out, for this very reason. When it’s in print, it’s too late. I can’t change anything. With Dolly, I could change it if I wanted, but I haven’t touched it except to fix two typos. I also think there’s a danger in tinkering with things too much. This original version is the truest form of it—this is how it came out. If you practiced this self-publishing online model and thought about stories as fluid documents, maybe there would be some possibilities for evolution and elaboration in there. It’s an interesting thought. Maybe next time.