The day I left Bucharest, the International Herald-Tribune ran a front-page story about the shambles that is Romania. After three visits there in three years, I can tell you that it is, indeed, a mess. Communism is lifted and people no longer fear to speak, or to hope. But promises of political reform are broken as often as they’re made. The economy squats with Bulgaria at the bottom of EU nations. Corruption is a given, bribes are common currency and most of the press – while no longer officially censored – remains cowed and politicized.
So why do I keep returning?
I like messy, underdog places. They teach me something that seems to matter about the human spirit. More to the point, out of these shambles rises a narrative journalism movement that is as inspiring as it is surprising.
For two years now, a small band of young believers has defied a national sense of lethargy and a severe lack of funding in order to host “The Power of Storytelling” conference. This year’s marquee speakers: Esquire writers Chris Jones and Mike Sager, The Atavist’s Evan Ratliff, Radiolab’s Pat Walters, This American Life’s Starlee Kine, Frontline’s Travis Fox, Intimate Journalism author Walt Harrington and two Pulitzer winners, Alex Tizon and me. The day-and-a-half event drew almost 300 people – twice as many as last year’s inaugural conference. A few were working journalists, but many more came from corporate communications, public relations, education, government, law and even medicine – all curious about this American thing we call true storytelling.
The conference was born of an even bigger act of faith: the launch of Decât o Revistă, a quarterly magazine that takes on taboo issues, dares to raise its voice against indifference and dares to have a personality. Cristian Lupsa founded the magazine four years ago, after he returned to his native Romania with a master’s degree from the Missouri School of Journalism and saw nothing like the journalism he aspired to practice. He had no money, no business or management experience; no assurance that anyone in Bucharest would understand his magazine, buy it or advertise in it. But he gathered a few close and like-minded talents who also wanted to believe. Together, they planted the seeds of possibility. Together, they keep that possibility watered.
Like Lupsa’s magazine, ”The Power of Storytelling” is held together by creative desperation. A few dollars from the U.S. embassy. A sponsor’s name on give-away notebooks. A hotel that trades speakers’ rooms for an ad in the magazine and a banner at the conference. Friends and more friends (and a few relatives) who provide rides and meals (oh, the meals!) and computer help and trips to museums and trips to nightclubs and trips to painted churches and enthusiasm that should be archived in museums and painted on the walls of churches, and is toasted over drinks in nightclubs.
I live in a country far more privileged, yet where newsrooms are under siege, conferences fold for lack of paid attendance and the industry news can read like a dirge. Then I go to Romania, the shambles that it is, invited by a group of young journalists with no Constitution to protect them, no history to stand on, no example to learn from and no guarantee of anything. And there I find a family of like-minded believers, a plug-in to inspiration and, oddly, a seat at the table with the masters.
Consider joining us next year, sometime in early October. You might be surprised, and inspired, by what you discover there.
— Jacqui Banaszynski
In Thursday’s post, we gave a taste of the talks. Today begin the full texts, lightly edited for clarity and space: Banaszynski on the future of storytelling; Ratliff on moving from magazine writer to digital entrepreneur; and, next week, Tizon on writing your own story; Harrington on keeping the “non” in “nonfiction;” Jones on why stories matter; Sager on shutting up and listening; Kine on story forms and theme; Walters on the beauty of ambiguous endings. A very special thanks to Lupsa for sharing this material with Storyboard.
Writing on the Rocks, Writing on the Stars
This is amazing. Can’t thank you enough for being here, and for giving us the privilege of working with you. We’re struggling in the U.S. with journalism these days, and so whenever I’m in a place where I’m with people who are absolutely passionate about this work it helps me remember why I care about it so much.
We have a tradition in the U.S. in journalism called the obituary. And I’ve asked whether or not that’s a tradition in Romanian media and I found that it is quite different. That you do paid death notices – and we do that in the U.S. too, but for years and years and years, especially in smaller papers, anybody who died in a community got an obituary written by the newspaper. Bigger newspapers only do obituaries of famous people, because they can’t possibly write about everybody. But what’s happened over the years is that those paid death notices have gotten longer and longer because people are desperate to tell the life stories of their loved ones.
Every journalist who studies in a journalism program or starts as an entry-level reporter in the United States cuts their teeth on obituaries. They all hate it. Right? ’Cause why would you want to call up the widow of the guy who just died and say, “Can I talk to you about your dead husband?” So young people get very nervous about it until they realize that people are desperate to tell the stories of people they love. And some of the finest writers in America, I believe, learned how to write the way they write because of writing obituaries.
Unless you control the obituary you write yourself, most news organizations work with funeral homes and they have a formula for how to write an obituary. You have to start with, you know, “They died on certain day and such and such,” and then you do a chronology of their life. Mostly a list of their accomplishments, what they achieved, and then you end with who survived them.
Why do I tell you this?
Well, obituaries to me are the ultimate story. They’re the last things ever said about somebody. And the formula that we’ve built is a formula that I think has had advantages but also is a formula that I learned the power of.
My mother died four years ago this month, and I wrote her obituary. I wish I had done the same thing when my father died six years before her, or when my oldest brother was killed by a 16-year-old driver seven years before that. But my father’s and my brother’s death caught us by surprise. We weren’t in an emotional state – any of us in my family – to sit down and write their story. So we did fill-in-the-blanks obituaries. They were adequate at the time, just one more task to be checked off a very exhausting list of emotional tasks. Those of you who have lost somebody you love, you know how exhausting those days are. How much there is to be done. But looking back at my father’s and my brother’s fill-in-the-blanks obituaries I realize that they told me what they did in their life, but they never told me who they were.
When my mother died it was different. No less painful, certainly, but her death did not come to us as a surprise. We had spent years chasing a long and dizzying descent, watching her lose herself to dementia. We had, my brothers and my sisters-in-law and I, changed her soiled diapers. I lived with her for the last several weeks before (she went to) a care home, and I got to the point where I had to sleep on the floor outside her bedroom door. She took to wandering in the middle of the night. And we knew we were in trouble when I received a phone call from a police officer – I was at a conference somewhere, and a police officer called me at 1 in the morning, and said they had her in psych lockup because they had found her wandering on the freeway. She was 80 years old and she was trying to go home to the family farm, because she wanted to be with her mother and father again.
So I went home to stay with her until we found a place that could care for her. And because she was a wanderer we had to figure out ways to keep her safe. And I started by thinking if I just left the door open I could hear her. But she was really, really clever. So then I started piling up empty soda cans in front of the door. She still got out. She somehow would get up in the middle of the night and sneak to that front door and she was so desperate to go home, to the family farm that didn’t exist anymore, that she would dismantle those soda cans one by one, so I couldn’t hear her, and leave the house. The only thing I could do was sleep on the floor in front of her bedroom, so if she left in the night she at least had to trip over me, and we would negotiate her return to bed.
I also had to take to reminding her that she had been married. That, yes, she had children. She didn’t remember that. And that the photos on the wall in our living room were photos of people she knew. She would take the photos off the wall and bring them to me and say, “Who are this people and why do I have a picture of them?” The photos were of her oldest son and his wife and their three children. All of this played out over about seven years, and the last two or three were pretty critical. So when death finally took my mother we weren’t so shocked that we couldn’t remember her life. If anything, we had a chance to lose her and grieve for her as she lived, and therefore when she finally died we were truly able to celebrate the life before that.
Now interestingly, when I wrote her obit I realized that because she was a woman of her generation – therefore a homemaker – she had done less in a catalog sense than my father or my brother, who both had careers, who were both accomplished in the community. But her obituary, after I wrote it, actually captured a richer sense of her life. And a richer history than I was able to catch for either my father or my brother.
I’m not gonna dwell on that history, I just want to introduce her to you for a second. This is my mother just a few weeks before we put her in a care home, and she’s with her first great-grandchild. He’s now 5. By this point my mother couldn’t remember my name. She never remembered his name when we came to bring him to visit. And one of the interesting things that happened was we watched this young child grow and develop and gain skills just as we watched my mother lose hers. So as my nephew is gaining language, gaining the ability to relate to people, my mother was losing the ability to walk, losing the ability to talk and finally she lost the ability to eat. Her body no longer remembered how to swallow.
One of the things that happened when I spent time with my mother those last several weeks was she’d look at her hands and she’d pull at them, and she’d say to me, “Something’s wrong, something’s wrong.” And I thought she was in pain, and I tried to figure it out, and finally – it’s harder to get stories out of people when they can’t relate to you the way we do as adults – finally I realized that the reason my mother thought something was terribly wrong with her hands was because when she looked down she saw the hands of an 80-year-old, even though she still felt like she was 17.
And indeed, as the weeks went on, I’d get up in the morning, I’d feed her her breakfast – she didn’t know how to pour cereal anymore – and she’d say to me, “Can you take me home today? You’re a really nice lady, but I think it’s time for me to go home and I think my mother and father would be worried. And I wanna go back home, to the farm.”
As I said, the farm was long gone and her parents were long dead. And so every day I got in a habit of taking her to the cemetery where her parents were buried, and we would sit on the cemetery stones and I’d let her tell stories, because she remembered things from when she was 8.
My goal isn’t to have you know my mother but to illustrate my belief that the smallest stories, when told well and honestly and with care, have enormous power in our lives. One story sparks another, which sparks another. The story of one becomes the story of many. The story of them becomes the story of us. Those stories, shared, help us understand ourselves and each other, and help us find our way in the world.
In my mother’s obituary I wrote about the Barbie doll clothes that she used to knit and sew. You guys have Barbie dolls here? My mother was a seamstress. She was a homemaker, but she could sew, she knit, she crocheted, and she made Barbie doll clothes for all of the girls in my village when we were all growing up playing with Barbie dolls. I had little ice-skating outfits and little ball gowns, all that my mother made. After our neighbors read her obituary, they suddenly went up into their attics and down into their basements, and pulled out boxes that had been stored away 50 years earlier, and brought out the Barbie doll clothes, and called their daughters and remembered the times when their daughters where 5 and 6 and 8, playing with those clothes.
One of the women, who was my mother’s age, came to the funeral home the night before the services, and brought me a box of those clothes. And her daughter showed up, and her daughter’s daughter, and we sat and told stories about what it was like to grow up during that time.
In my mother’s obituary I wrote of the afghans, the blankets that she crocheted and knit as wedding gifts. Everybody in my family has a knitted or crocheted blanket from my mother. And a cousin of mine, who was an ordained minister, led the services at my mother’s funeral, and while she was leading the service she held the blanket that my mother had knit for her own wedding, 30 years earlier. Held it in her arms and built her service around the notion of being wrapped in the comfort of God, in the comfort of community and in the comfort of family in times of grief. All because I had mentioned in a story that my mother knit blankets for people’s weddings.
I wrote of the pie and coffee that were always waiting in my mother’s kitchen when my father or his colleagues would come home, tired and dirty from fighting a fire or reconnecting downed electrical lines after a storm. Now, at the funeral, over pie and coffee, the old men who had once worked in those crews stepped forward to tell their own tales of those times. They seemed to remember their own stories as they remembered my mother’s. Again, it’s not my mother’s specific story that matters except to those of us who loved her.
I would encourage you all to think, what is the story you would tell about your mother or someone you love? And then, how do you bring that same care and the same sense of storytelling in everything you do?
It is what the telling and the hearing of stories teach us that we need to pay attention to, as much as the craft of telling those stories.
True stories told with care for the subject and care for the craft touch us in ways little else does. That has been true since man first took ochre to rocks. I trust it will be true when we learn to write on the stars.
I did not set out to become a storyteller. I started in newspapers, 30 years ago, far more interested in reporting than in writing. Reporting gave me license to be curious, and to be constantly learning. Writing was the price I had to pay to let people know all this cool stuff that I had learned. Writing was painful and lonely for me. And frankly, I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t know it while it was happening, but I was lucky. My first newsrooms were small ones that were more invested in their communities than in winning big awards. We ran hard and somehow slapped out a newspaper every day – each reporter filing multiple reports for multiple editions, a lot like we do today online.
My editors worried more about what I wrote than how I wrote. Did I get to the right sources, did I have my facts straight, was I ahead of TV? But since no one told me what to do – we weren’t really taught at the time, we just learned on the job – no one told me what not to do. So in between county commission meetings and government sessions and crime briefs and stories about budgets, I tried to write the kinds of stories that I loved to read. Stories that I found on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, magazine pieces from Esquire or Vanity Fair or Sports Illustrated, true versions of the fiction I could never put down as a child. I even spent a couple of years devouring everything Stephen King wrote, all of his horror stories, trying to figure out how he kept me turning the pages late at night.
I moved to bigger newsrooms but for a long time our work stayed anchored to fairly traditional news beats: sports, politics, taxes, labor, the environment. I spent time covering business, and I spent times covering sports. I was never in a position to indulge solely in the topics or the kinds of stories I really wanted to write. That too proved lucky. I learned to be interested in things that I never would have been drawn to on my own. I learned to be curious not for my own sake, but for the sake of readers who counted on me to be where they couldn’t. And my writing began to take shape out of a keen desire to communicate. If I spent time struggling at the keyboard – and the keyboard’s always a struggle for me – I wanted that struggle to have a purpose. I wanted to reach an audience. To help them understand something, help them feel compassion or outrage or joy. Transport them for a few minutes.
It also proved lucky because in order to do the kind of work I naturally lean towards, I had to find stories. Not just articles, but stories. And I think there’s a difference. And I had to find those stories in the thicket of all those institutional beats. I could report the dollars that divided workers and management in a big meatpackers’ strike. Or I could find the family in that strike that was divided, because the father worked on the kill floor and the daughter worked for the boss in the corporate office. How do they resolve a strike when it sits in the center of who they are as a family? I could chronicle the takedowns and the final score of an Olympic wrestling match. Or I could sit in the stands with the identical twin brother who sacrificed his own medal dreams so his brother could be out on the mat and win silver. Much more interesting than the score of the match was the score that these brothers kept with each other.
And during the crucible times of the AIDS crisis in America I could and did file report after report after report of transmission numbers, policy debates, questions about discrimination in jobs and housing against gay people. But I also found two young men who were in love with the land and with each other, and I witnessed as that love ultimately resulted in their deaths. “AIDS In The Heartland,” published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.
But long before and long, long after that prize, the death-do-us-part story of Dick Hanson and Bert Henningson rippled into the world and made a difference. Which is the other thing stories do, when they’re done right: They make a difference.
A father called the gay son he had disowned. A conservative nurse led efforts to get her small town hospital to accept AIDS patients. A newspaper, my newspaper, amended its obituary policy to become one of the first in the country to include unmarried partners as survivors. Imagine dying and having your life partner erased from your obituary; 25 years ago that’s was used to happen, until we wrote about the people living in this crisis.
Now, all this is easy for me to talk about. I’ve already done all these things so I can relax in the success of them without having to remember the anxiety and the uncertainty and the terror I felt each time I sat down to write. I used to believe that we have a quota of words and eventually I was gonna run out of them. I still sometimes sit down at my computer and think, “Maybe words are done for me. Maybe I had my shot.”
These days, anxiety and uncertainty seem to be at an all-time high in the world. You all know that. It’s true of our world economy, of our politics, of our cultural differences, our questions about the future. Definitely true in the United States right now, with the election we’re facing in six weeks. This uncertainty and anxiety is especially acute in the world of journalism and publishing and, as a result, storytelling. So these are challenging and confusing times to be a storyteller. Not only for those of us who primarily trade in words for a living and want to make a bit of money at it, but for anybody who’s trying to figure out how to find their place in the white noise of the digital world, where information is as accessible as a pocket phone; where anyone and everyone can join the ranks of those of us who used to claim to be society’s storytellers; where some people actually think that Twitter is one of the greatest things to happen to mankind since the discovery of fire.
I was in Finland three years ago at a conference much like this one, and a young journalist interviewed me for some story about the conference. And I remember I was feeling a little bit anxious because she was challenging how we could promote and talk about the value of deep narrative storytelling and the place of professional storytellers in this crazy new digital age. And at some point she just looked at me, and asked very bluntly, with a microphone in my face: “Is narrative dead?” I remember swallowing hard and then I remember getting angry. And that’s when I looked at her and I said, “We have been telling stories since man has written on the rocks, and why wouldn’t we tell them when we write on the stars?”
I saw the path, that day, from those who wrote on those rocks, to the time where I got to be part of a great storytelling tradition in American journalism. I see the connection between that history in the past and what I do now. The troubadours, the scribes, the people who carried fire from camp to camp in Indian tradition because they carried the stories along with it. I also now see that future, that need to recognize that stories are as eternal and essential as humanity itself. We too often in our anxiety confuse the means of delivery with the essence of what we deliver. Sure, how we tell our stories matters. And we must master as many ways of telling stories as there are stories to tell. But the center that will hold is the story itself. Stories will survive and be needed as long as human beings survive.
But I’m someone who, I think like most of you, is plagued by insecurity and by doubt. I’ve had my share of career crises over the years. I learned, as a survival tool, to do the thing that I do best: Get out of my head and get out in the world and report. Every few years, I reach out to a few people I believe in and trust and who I know and who I think are really great journalists, storytellers of whatever kind, and I send them a quick note: “In 30 seconds, no more, I want you to write me an e-mail and I want you to answer this question: ‘Why do we need stories?’”
Last week, as I was thinking of the getting together with you I reached out to a few people again, and I sent a note and I said, “Hey. Thirty seconds. Why do we need stories?” I’ll share a few of them with you.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist — former journalist. She left the business a little while ago to support her husband who’s running for the U.S. Senate. She sent me a note:
We tell stories to close the distance. We meet someone and immediately we see what we don’t have in common. Then we share our stories and realize we’ve known each other always.
Bryan Denson, reporter I used to work with in Portland, Ore., who’s now finishing up a book that has actually a Romanian history, about one of the most famous traitors in the CIA. He sent me this:
We need stories because they are part of our universal vocabulary. We’ve been telling them around fires since the beginning of human kind. Humans have changed much, but the stories, the components of them, haven’t. We’ve always had heroes, villains, obstacles to overcome and loves to win and lose. In the end, the heroes always learn something valuable, and those become our shared gifts.
And Wendy Call, who was the co-editor of Telling True Stories, sent me this just today, along with this picture. This is a picture indeed of a story told on rocks. It’s in the Pacific Northwest, where Wendy lives and where I live, so it’s not far from Washington, it’s up in a beautiful wilderness area. Wendy’s been spending some time up there and she sent me a picture of a story told on rocks. And she did a little research and she says it’s at least 600 years old, when people migrated to that part of the country. It could be as much as 9,000 years old. And here’s what she sent me:
Storytelling might be the one activity, beyond loving and hating and physically sustaining ourselves, in which all communities engage. We don’t yet know whether whales and dolphins and wolves might be telling stories too, but we can be sure that all of humans are and always have. I look at this image sometimes before I begin writing a story myself, to remind myself that I’m part of a long tradition. To remind myself that I’m not trying to be original, or to entertain, or to educate, or to castigate, so much as I’m simply participating in the longest, greatest, most fundamental human tradition.
One last thing. We talked about rocks and stars and you got a rock star crew with you today, so I’m gonna leave you with a few words of wisdom from one of my favorite rock stars, Bruce Springsteen. The boss. Springsteen came out with a new album this year called Wrecking Ball, and it becomes kind of an anthem for some of the things that we’re going through in the U.S. Springsteen spoke at the South by Southwest conference, which is this big, fabulous, media conference in Austin, Texas, every year, and I just want to read you one paragraph from what he told. He was dealing with the young musicians who were struggling, who were trying to own their craft, who were figuring out how they could be creative, how they could find their own voice, whether they had a place in the world, and whether it was worth doing, this thing that they didn’t know how they’d make money at. And here’s what he said:
So rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears, and open your heart. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry, and worry your ass off. Have unclad confidence, but then doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town, and that you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong. And stay hard, stay hungry, and stay alive. And when you walk onstage tonight, to bring the noise, treat it like that’s all we have. And then remember: It’s only rock and roll.
Rock and roll this weekend, my friends!
Jacqui Banszynski has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years and won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. She now holds the Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism and a visiting faculty member of The Poynter Institute.
Writer to Digital Entrepreneur
I’m honored to be here, I’m honored talking to you, and I say that first partly because, I think the idea of someone coming from the U.S. and standing in front of you trying to tell you something about business or entrepreneurial ventures is maybe a little bit ridiculous. I don’t really know anything about business. I started a business without having the first clue of what it would take to create something that would last longer than a magazine issue. So, if you don’t listen to anything else that I’ll say, if there’s one thing you can take away it’s that: It’s okay to not know what the fuck you’re doing.
Even when I was starting as a writer, I had no idea of what I was doing. Even when I go on reporting trips now, I have no idea what I’m doing. No one can tell you, for instance, what you should do when a source says/does this. What should you do when suddenly you have to deal with tax accountants and lawyers? You can only learn those things by doing them. You can read and be inspired by what you read and listen to the amazing people that you already have heard from, but really you just have to do it, and you find out and you fuck up and you kind of figure it out from there.
So, that’s the overall lesson of what I’m going to tell you right now.
The way I’ll tell you that is by telling you a story. The story is in the first person, it’s self-indulgent – it’s slips off into self-indulgence really quickly. Hopefully it’s not boring.
A few years ago I got this idea in my head that I wanted to write about people who disappear, and I got really obsessed with people who fake their own deaths, and do the ultimate reinvention – they decide, for whatever reason, that they don’t want to participate in their lives anymore, maybe they’re in trouble, maybe they’re in a bad marriage, and they go to the absolute extreme, I’m gonna change my life, I’m going to pretend that I killed myself and then I’m going to start over with a new identity. I was talking with my editor at Wired for months and months about how to do this, how to write a story about these people. Because the problem is – if they succeed, you can’t find them and write about them because they’ve completely changed their identity and if they failed they kind of sucked at it, so they’re not that interesting. So eventually I hit upon this idea that I myself would try and disappear. I would live this life for a month and then I would have some kind of an insight into the psychology of what it takes to reinvent yourself.
I sat down with my editor over lunch and I told him this idea: I will disappear, and then we’ll have people trying to find me. We’ll let anyone in the U.S. try to find me. And I believe he said, “That is the fucking dumbest idea I have ever heard.”
We talked about it some more for a couple of weeks and eventually we came up with some parameters and rules and he said, “You know what? I think we can do this.” He kind of got into it and I got into planning for it, and after about three or four months we said, “Okay, we’ll do this.”
We decided we’re going to (use) photos of me in the magazine, and that if anyone in the U.S. could find me, they could (win) $5,000. I would try to get a new identity and live one month on the run. This actually seemed like a good idea as we were planning it out. It was Aug. 8, 2009, when I woke up and I realized I actually had to do this – I had to leave my friends and family behind, and go.
I took $3,000 that I’d withdrawn from the bank. I got my car and I drove across the Bay Bridge, out of San Francisco. I pulled out the battery out of my phone so no one could track it, and I was gone.
I needed to sort of change my appearance because people could identify me on the street potentially, they could say the code word that was in the magazine, and then I would be out. So I took all these extreme measures to do that, and I also took a lot of videos of myself. Everyday I took a video of myself becoming increasingly paranoid about people who were close to finding me and how I was maneuvering.
But eventually I got caught. I got caught, I came back, I wrote a story about it and that story appeared in Wired. Now the story got more attention than I ever gotten from doing anything else, and it was wonderful, but around the same time I started talking with the same editor I’ve been working with. We were talking about how much fun it was to do this story, which was written in two parts. The first part was 4,000 words and the second part was 9,000 words. And we talked about how we don’t get to do that so much. Maybe 5,000 words is about as much as you would get to write, but here we live in a digital age, with actually unlimited space. There’s no reason why online you can’t make something as long as you want, and yet the web forced people into doing things that were much shorter, from blogging to RSS feeds to tweets.
It’s getting shorter and shorter and at the same time you were freed of all the limitations of how much advertising there was in a magazine. So we started talking about that and we started talking about the videos I took, and how we couldn’t use them for anything.
Even on the web they didn’t use the videos. So I thought, what if I constructed the story using those videos that showed how strange I became in this period of a month? Maybe it would have been better, maybe it would have been worse, but it was an idea.
What if you conceived a story from the start to appear on the web, no print at all?
So we started talking and we ended up talking to this third guy, (Jefferson Rabb), who is a programmer, and we started throwing out ideas. What if we had something that people read on their phone? What if we sold stories individually? What if we had video, what if we had audio? And for the better part of a year, this is basically what we did.
We sat in a bar, we had drinks, we would have a couple of drinks and say, “That’s not a good idea,” and then we would have five or six drinks and we would say, “Actually no, this is fantastic, it’s the best idea we ever had.”
And Jefferson started to build prototypes, started building things for the phone. He’s that kind of guy, who can take an idea and code it up and turn it into a basic version. After a year we said, “Now we’ve got something; maybe we should find some stories for it.” We’d built this technology, so we went out trying to convince writers to write. But when you try to convince people to write for something that doesn’t exist at all it’s very difficult because writers like to see their things published and if you say, “We’re going to invent something that your story will go into” most of them will say, “Call me when it’s out.” But we managed to find one writer who would write for it, and then I wrote for it myself. At a certain point we said, “We don’t know what we’re doing, and we don’t know why we’re doing it exactly, except this is fun and interesting,” and then, along the way we went to an investor. He looked over the project and he said, “It’s very interesting what you’re doing, but why are you wasting your time doing these stories? Why don’t you build this technology thing and sell that, and you get rich and then you do as many magazine stories you want?”
We walked away from there thinking that guy was probably right: There’s probably not a business in selling these long stories. But fuck it. Sometimes you just have to take the battery out of your phone, and get in your car, and drive across the bridge and see what happens. And that’s what we did.
So we launched it in January 2011. It’s called The Atavist. It’s kind of like a magazine, it’s kind of like short books. We do these stories that are between 5,000 and 30,000 words. They’re all narrative nonfiction, and they’re sold on Kindles and Nooks as e-books, as well as in apps on iPads, other tablets and things like that. So it’s all designed to exist on these tablets and this presentation is made inside of our app.
Two of the lessons that I’ve learned doing this are: First, if you start to pursue something like this, you say, “This is the thing I love, I love narrative journalism, and I’m going to see if I can find a way to make some.” You can find other people who will join up with you, and whatever they want to do, you should take them on, particularly if you find someone skilled in ways that you aren’t. We wouldn’t exist if it was just me because it really required someone who was willing to have the same love for creating that I had, and spend hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of unpaid hours putting this sort of thing together.
So we launched it, we started selling stories, we’re doing pretty well but in the middle of 2011 we realized that running a business is not as simple as launching a side project and putting stories out there. Because suddenly you have to either take on more people in order to stop working 100 hours a week, or you have to do less. We were doing a story a month and they were selling pretty well, but it wasn’t enough to pay our salaries, to keep us away from putting everything on a credit card.
So we kind of lucked into another aspect of the business. Jefferson created an actual system in order for us to do all this stuff. It’s like a piece of software that you log into online, and it enables us to create these stories, it enables us to layer in all the sounds, and the videos, as well as all these eBook files that we sell in other places. It turned out that other people wanted to use the system to do similar things. So, just almost by accident we started licensing the system to other people: A university produces case studies; TED produces their own line of books; we’re helping The Paris Review – we launched their app, and put their archives in it.
Then we started making money. Now we have a business, where we’re selling software basically, and we’re selling stories and we hired some people, we have an office. We have what seems a real business. For me, to go from a person who took an assignment and went into the world, and talked to people, or tried to disappear, suddenly I was spending all my time negotiating (software contract) terms, sending them back to people – there’s no way you can call this storytelling.
So, lawyers, accountants, investors. That’s the way I spend most of my time now. It was very difficult for me because here I am, fancying myself a writer, and trying to make it in the world of narrative journalism, and suddenly I’m doing all these things I became a writer not to do.
I think the lesson here is one that I’m still grappling with. I think that sometimes you just have to get over yourself, and sometimes you just have to survive. And this is what we had to do to survive. We had to do things that we were not ready to do and I think that is true for a lot of journalists who want to strike out as freelancers, who want to write things that are different from what your editors want you to write, and you want to go out in the world and find new magazines and find new homes.
Sometimes you have to write some advertising copy on the side and sometimes you have to go write research reports or fact checking, or whatever will pay your bills, while you do the thing that you love doing.
The good news was, we were still in business, but the question was how to make it a business that we actually enjoy doing. We have this American expression, “Go big, or go home.” Basically, it’s either you bring everything to something, or you might as well not do it. And, believe me, many, many times I decided I’m not going to do this anymore. I walked into meetings with my co-founders and said, “I’m done.” But eventually I kind of said, “Well, we’ve created something and rather then let it die, let’s see if we can make it bigger.”
When you’re a writer, especially a freelance writer, you face rejection a lot. What you deal with is pitching stories to people and they say no. And it takes a long time, getting used to that. You can take the “no” but also say, “All right, that doesn’t say anything about me. This (just) means I have to try again.” But in this case it was sort of the opposite problem, which is that sometimes you have to be willing to accept people’s expectations.
At some point you have to say, “You know what? We’re going to take on everyone’s expectations and we’re going to do our best, and if we don’t end up doing it and everyone (says) we failed, it’s better then saying we don’t have the guts to do it.”
So we took on investors and the second thing we did was try to open up this platform that we made so anyone can use it. It’s a way for us to say that we made something anyone can use to make a story, anyone can use to create a book. We’re about to open up it more. We let a group of reporters use it for a long story. They did one in Joplin, Mo., were there was a big tornado. They told some pretty amazing stories. And then they made a book and they’re selling a book. Then we have photographers – a photographer that was in Japan after the tsunami shot all these beautiful portraits of clothing, just empty clothing that was either washed up or lying around, and he’s using it as a way to present his work.
So we got into a place where we feel we can help people tell the types of stories that we want to tell.
I can tell you from experience that when you’re caught up in issues like how you’re going to survive, how you’re going to pay off your credit card bill, or how you’re going to pay your employees and give them health insurance, it is very easy to lose track of why you’re doing what you’re doing. So for us, putting out a story every month is not just a business; it’s the way we stay grounded in the things that we care about.
Evan Ratliff is founder and editor of The Atavist and a contributor to Wired, The New Yorker and National Geographic. His story “Vanish” was a finalist for the National Magazine Award.