This week’s One Great Sentence, by the novelist John Cheever, has stayed with me all week. It’s an existential matter for writers and artists of all types, the battle between the introspective and mostly solitary process of creating and the desire to be part of the real world. But in these days of #MeToo and political upheaval, it hits even closer to home. That’s one of the miracles of journalism — sometimes the act of writing has an impact on the real world.
Elizabeth Weil and “The Curse of the Bahia Emerald.” I know it’s early in the year yet, but it will be hard to top this bit of advice from Elizabeth Weil on how she approaches storytelling in this annotation of her Coen Brothers-ish caper story for Wired: “Be open to the funny while you’re reporting. Look for it. And look for ways to love your subjects, too.” I also like this line from her: “My working title on this story was ‘Some Dreamers of a Certain Dream.’ Like a lot of writers (and especially female writers of a certain age who live in California), I have a Didion problem.”
The soundtrack: “Cursed,” by Lord Huron. This is a pretty bitter song about unrequited love, or at least uneven love. But the melody is a wonderful contrast, all bright pop with a hint of the Cure. Lord Huron is part of the wave of earnest, heart-on-sleeve pop in recent years — for me, best taken in smallish doses.
One Great Sentence
“There is a time to write and a time to walk and a time to reflect and a time to act and I come unwillingly to this journal today, wanting to do something less reflective and feeling that I sometimes strip myself of my most reasonable attributes, bent over this machine.”
John Cheever, “The Journals of John Cheever,” 1991. Read why we think it’s great.
“The Uncounted”: combining the power of narrative with an 18-month investigation. This is a perfect example of the effectiveness of grounding a sweeping, comprehensive investigation in the connecting power of the human, using the techniques of narrative. As contributor Abby Sewell begins, “Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal’s exhaustively reported investigation into the scale of civilian casualties in the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS, begins, like many disaster narratives, with a banal domestic scene. But in this case, the humdrum opening doesn’t just set up the shock of what follows, but also establishes the bizarre circumstances surrounding it: a slice of Westernized middle-class life in the middle of an ISIS occupation.”
The soundtrack: “Written on the Forehead,” by P.J. Harvey. I listened to the album this is on, “Let England Shake,” a lot while editing stories out of Iraq at the Los Angeles Times. It’s an anti-war stunner. Here’s one lyric from this song: “He turned to me and answered, ‘Baby, see.’ Said, ‘War is here in our beloved city.'”
What I’m reading online: I Started the Media Men List. My Name is Moira Donegan. This is the story everyone was reading Thursday morning, a personal essay in The Cut by the journalist who created an open-source spreadsheet of alleged sex harassers (and worse) in the media world. As Harper’s magazine prepared to publish a story identifying her, she outed herself in this powerful piece. This is wonderful: “We’re being challenged to imagine how we would prefer things to be. This feat of imagination is about not a prescriptive dictation of acceptable sexual behaviors but the desire for a kinder, more respectful, and more equitable world.” (Related: In last week’s newsletter, I forgot to point out this perfectly crafted story in The New York Times: How I Learned to Look Believable, by Eva Hagberg Fisher.)
In the Home of the Bear, by Christopher Solomon. You know how some writers just set off your writing tuning fork? Solomon is one of those for me, probably because he combines humor and serious issues to such great effect. In this piece for High Country News, he self-deprecatingly makes himself a character, The Great Outdoorsman, in search of bears in Alaska. There are a lot of funny lines, but I think this is my favorite: “But the rain has made him shivery, and he thinks he has forgotten his pocketknife at home.”
Describing “My Struggle,” by Toril Moi. I love Moi’s unapologetic passion for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “unartistic” series of novels. In this piece for The Point, he writes, wonderfully: “Nothing is more ordinary than existence—than being there; nothing is easier to miss. This is the heart of the project of My Struggle: all these thousands of pages are attempts to pay attention. They arise from the realization of how easy it is to miss the adventure of one’s own existence, to live one’s life without noticing, without paying attention to that one thing: that I was there.”
Finally, this piece is so bittersweet, and such a lovely idea: Last days of a first job: newspaper carriers cut as community papers fold, by Judy Trinh. The headline needs work, because it doesn’t tell you what the story really is: an interview with a 12-year-old paperboy who has lost his job. I didn’t realize paperboys still existed, and that somehow makes it worse to discover that a 21st-century boy is the latest victim of journalism’s economic crisis.
What’s on my bedside table: “The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories,” by Sarah Orne Jewett. This is a classic of Maine literature. It can be a bit hard to get through — she uses dialect and is very present as the observer narrator. But there’s beauty in lines like this one, which echoes the lovely title and will bring the Maine coast to the mind of anyone who has seen it: “We were standing where there was a fine view of the harbor and its long stretches of shore all covered by the great army of the pointed firs, darkly cloaked and standing as if they waited to embark.”
What’s on my turntable: “And We Were Lovers,” Shirley Bassey. Sometimes you just need a big, brassy voice like Bassey’s. This one doesn’t have the Basseyest song of all, “Goldfinger,” but it does have an English version of “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” which I didn’t know was co-written by Rod McKuen. He wrote some swinging liner notes here: “It’s been a bang-bang day. Too much work. Too much work undone. An hour ago, the test-pressing of your album arrived and I used it as an excuse to begin unwinding. Maybe it’s the scotch. Maybe it’s the time of evening and the fact that I’m by myself — whatever, I am unwinding and next to me is that probing, prying voice of yours — now warm, now cold as an iceberg, coaxing out my song.”
If you want to chat about storytelling (or music), I’m Storyboard editor Kari Howard, and you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can find me at @karihow on Twitter.