Nieman Storyboard » Storyboard Posts Exploring the art and craft of story Tue, 21 Apr 2015 19:04:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Three Pulitzer Winners to Read Now Tue, 21 Apr 2015 19:04:51 +0000 The Pulitzer Prizes are revealed in one fell swoop, winners and finalists alike, 21 separate categories that cover everything from music to history to local news reporting. And many of the winning stories consist of multiple parts. So, if you’re like most of us, yesterday’s announcement of the 2015 prizes suddenly dumped a lot more reading on your nightstand.

Where to start?  We’ll try to help with the suggestion of three prize-winning entries that stand out for their storytelling. A caveat, though: don’t let your exploration of this year’s best in journalism stop here. These are just a few highlights among many excellent pieces of work.

The New York Times won the international reporting award for its coverage of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, with a team who, as the newspaper’s nominating letter notes, included a Pulitzer-prize winning physician, a videographer so familiar with the area that he speaks a local tribal dialect and a staff reporter who is Liberian-American and returned to her homeland to write about the outbreak. The entire package is well worth your time but begin with the two videos by Ben Solomon. These taut, stark stories — one about ambulance drivers, the other about patients dying at the hospital door — illustrate the power that sophisticated visual journalism can bring to a complex issue.

Many narrative journalists, of course, turn first to the feature writing prize. This year’s contest was of particular interest because, for the first time, the Pulitzer board allowed the submission of entries from online and print magazines here and in the investigative reporting category. While The New Yorker fielded a finalist in Jennifer Gonnerman’s article about the three-year imprisonment of a teenager at Rikers Island, the winner was Diana Marcum’s intimate, detailed portraits of people affected by the drought in California for The Los Angeles Times. These are quiet stories in the best sense of the word, offering subtle but striking moments like this one, when a struggling store owner is asked for credit by a man buying two packages of hot dog buns and a roll of paper towels:

“Hey, Kenny, OK if I pay for these after Friday?” he asked, lowering his voice.

Alrihimi nodded. But his stomach dropped. This was a man who had never asked for credit before.

The store owner had 29 receipts that constituted the week’s IOUs. On the backs of two torn-up cigarette cartons, he wrote the running accounts: the ones where they owed $34, paid $12, then charged $8.

“It’s too sad to say no. I think of their kids,” said Alrihimi, a father of five. “They don’t have any money. I don’t have any money. We’re all trying to get through, little-by-little-bit.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for its coverage of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., but the images are anything but fleeting. Some, like the photograph of a young man tossing back a tear gas canister, have already etched themselves into our collective memory of the events; none shy away from the raw emotions and uncomfortable aspects of this story, including one photo that portrays a gun-toting looter. It’s clear from the depth and range of the work that, as the newspaper’s director of photography told The New York Times photo blog, “The staff are experts at St. Louis.”

Again, this is just an introduction to a collection of remarkable journalism, both winners and finalists. So when you’ve finished these, move on to the Post and Courier’s stunning series on deaths from domestic violence in South Carolina, which won the medal for public service, and keep going from there.






]]> 0
Ari Daniel: “It’s so important to show stories that have hopeful threads.” Wed, 15 Apr 2015 12:32:54 +0000 If you heard a story last week on NPR’s “Here and Now” about a new kind of nuclear reactor or perhaps remember a recent piece on PRI’s “The World” about the death of the word “uh,” you’ve encountered the work of Ari Daniel Shapiro, a scientist turned science storyteller.

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Shapiro, who goes by Ari Daniel professionally to avoid confusion with the other Ari Shapiro on public radio, earned a Ph.D in biological oceanography from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution but realized he didn’t want to continue doing research. Instead, he now works as a science journalist for public radio and NOVA and also hosts and produces the Boston branch of Story Collider, a live event and podcast where people present personal stories about science.

After a talk on the Harvard campus, he stopped by the Nieman Foundation to chat about the world of science narrative. An edited conversation follows:

You’ve spoken about the need to tell stories that include a thread of hope, especially in science journalism. Can you elaborate on that?

I feel very strongly that one of my roles as a science journalist is to achieve science literacy, is to help educate the public about science. I think that sometimes people have a kind of automatic response to science or to math where when they know that’s the topic coming, they shut down for a variety of reasons.

I think it’s important that I come up with strategies to help circumvent that shutting down. I speak specifically around the notion of stories around the environment or climate change. I think one reason why people would shut down is if they think that they’ve heard the story before, or that by listening to the story, nothing’s really going to get better.

I’m not saying that you delete the reality, but I think it’s about how you contextualize it. I think that it’s so important to show stories that have hopeful threads in them… It’s not like all the stories have that, but that’s one thought for how to create an entry point.

I think it’s just who I am. I try to find ways of adding positive sparks to narrative, to life.

What are some of the other challenges of doing science narrative and how do you address them?

I feel like one role I have when I’m doing my job is to empower my interviewee to participate in the story… During an interview, if someone gives me an answer that I know is not usable, I work really hard during the course of the interview to get — I want them to be a participant in the story. If we’ve taken the time to set this up and I’m spending all this time, I want them to be on tape in the story.

I think it creates a better radio piece when I can find this other angle in. Sometimes I’ll know we’ll have the science done, but there’s no story yet. Then I go around poking a bit.

I did an interview just last week about a new startup that’s experimenting with a different kind of nuclear reactor, and they’re hoping to make clean, safe, and very efficient nuclear energy, environmentally friendly at that. One of the scientists I interviewed was speaking in incredibly dense language.

That’s a big challenge. Because scientists can feel safe around vocabulary and sentence constructions that they write and that they express their technical ideas in, which don’t work on the radio. As he’s talking, I know it’s not going to work… I forget what I said, but it was something like, “I don’t understand that. That’s way too technical.” Basically, “What’s happening here? What in general?”

Then he gave it. He was like, “I want to help make clean, safe, energy.” Then, the young woman who started, co-founded the company said, “And save the world.”

That’s a good thing that I can use. They’ll both be in the piece.

How do you deal with story fatigue, especially when it’s regarding an important issue that should be talked about and reported on?

I try to be a bit of a proxy for the audience. Because I sometimes feel fatigue with this subject. The question is how do I take a story and make it feel different?

One of my editors asked me recently to find stories about climate change that were positive. I find climate change really tough. It’s the sort of thing where I have to find the right in. Someone had suggested a story that was taking place out in Arizona, in Tempe. Even going into it, I wasn’t feeling thrilled about it.

It’s about a team of people that are there who are working on carbon capture, coming up with a material that will pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that they can then use to sequester somewhere else.

With this one, during the interview I found myself feeling really hopeful. Like, buoyant by the possibility of what they were suggesting… I felt the fatigue drift away. That’s an example.

I think part of it is I spend a lot of time just looking for the stories that are not going to feel fatiguing. If they do, then trying to find a different angle or a different topic or a way to address it. Ultimately I think I try to shed that. I try to make sure I don’t feel fatigued by it, and if I feel excited, then hopefully I can convey that excitement in the piece.

You’re the Boston producer of Story Collider, a live show and podcast that presents stories about science. What role do you think live events now play in narrative and storytelling? How is it similar or different from your other work?

They’re all variations on a theme. What’s different is that it’s live and you can rehearse…The other producer on the show and I work with the storytellers in advance to get them ready for the big night. In some ways, it’s a bit like working through drafts of a radio piece.

The live storytelling has this wild element to it, which I think makes it a kind of — what’s the right word? It makes the experience, brings it alive and makes it electric.

… The sense of it feeling real and visceral and raw — I think there are ways of doing that with radio. Each provides its own magic. The story, the live storytelling is, it’s a real thrill. To be up there and to have such a positive vibe in the room, people have come out to hear people talk about science. It’s like a social night out. It’s really gratifying.

What else would you want to include or emphasize in a discussion of storytelling, particularly science storytelling?

I think that ultimately what drives many, many scientists is this curiosity that remained active from when they were kids. Many kids are scientists just naturally. They don’t take things for granted and they’re asking why and how about everything. Scientists just pull that forward.

Science can be accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. Because I think that questioning and curiosity is inherent to the human condition. People can tap into that. As a reporter, you can tap into that to hopefully reawaken that sense of questioning.

That’s why I don’t like to think about dumbing something down. I think people can handle complexity. Because I think people are curious beings somewhere inside.


]]> 0
Weekend picks: Child stars, scandal and poetry Fri, 10 Apr 2015 14:28:05 +0000 Want some smart, provocative, moving stories for your weekend inspiration? Here are Storyboard’s picks of some notable recent work, ranging from poetry about race to essays on journalistic misdeeds and a tale about a forgotten child star from the 1970s.

Claudia Rankine’s fifth volume of poetry, “Citizen: An American Lyric” won this year’s National Book Critics Circle poetry award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s a remarkable book, weaving together prose poems, essays and visual images in a sharp, haunting exploration of racism. And, in a week that featured the release of a horrific video showing a South Carolina police officer repeatedly shooting an unarmed, fleeing man in the back, her voice takes on even more resonance. Here, in a poem that explicitly addresses the issue of black men being pulled over by police, she writes:

“Then flashes, a siren, a stretched-out roar– and you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”

This YouTube video, depicting 1970s child star Mason Reese breaking down into tears on “The Mike Douglas Show,” prompted Jonathan Goldstein, host of the CBC radio progam “WireTap,” to investigate why clips of the precocious television and film actor had suddenly begun showing up on the video-sharing service 40 years after his heyday.

In a co-production with the podcast “Reply All,” Goldstein tracks down Reese to find out what became of him. The story is a beautifully structured hourglass, seamlessly leading you from general musings about late-night nostalgia to the claustrophobia of a memento-filled two-room apartment in New York and back out again. And, like the best of this kind of work, it takes you through a narrative that is far more complex and nuanced than you might expect.

In the chorus of reaction to the release this week of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s report on the discredited Rolling Stone article about campus rape, two pieces stood out. The first is the Columbia Journalism Review Q-and-A with the report’s lead authors, journalism school dean Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs. The interview offers valuable insights into what the two discovered during the investigation and believe should be its lessons. Coll, in particular, emphasizes one interesting point that did not get as much attention elsewhere:

“If anyone thinks there was a golden age of excellent reporting practice, that’s probably wrong. But certainly now, there are a lot of new entrants and a lot of young self-educating reporters who need a way to talk about these practices at a level of real ethical detail and seriousness. Because if you get it wrong that can not only have consequences that are serious for others but you can end your career, real quickly.”

And in The New Yorker, George Packer implicates the “tyranny of narrative” in the debacle, citing various points where the reporter and editors made decisions that favored story over truth:

“One can imagine the impulses competing in the feature editor’s mind—carefulness and transparency on the one hand, the stylistic pleasure of an uninterrupted flow of narrative on the other. It’s a question that comes up in every piece of literary journalism worth the name.”






]]> 0
“Power of Narrative” Conference: Three ways to tell a story Tue, 31 Mar 2015 13:16:41 +0000 Editor’s note: In his second and final installment from last weekend’s “Power of Narrative” conference at Boston University, current Nieman Fellow Gabe Bullard explores strategies for storytelling as outlined by author Joshua Wolf Shenk during his session at the event. In his first dispatch, Bullard covered a panel discussion featuring “Serial” producer Sarah Koenig and New York Times reporter Fernanda Santos, among others, discussing how to get access to difficult sources. 

Here is one way to tell a story:

Notice how the life-or-death stakes are established in the first 30 seconds. Then the story is filled in, with a nice mirroring between emotional and physical peril. It’s effective and powerful. But it’s just one strategy.

This video was the first example author and journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk used in his session last weekend at the “Power of Narrative” conference at Boston University. Called “Plotting the Course: Narrative strategies for long-form non-fiction,” it focused on three techniques for managing true stories.

While explaining this first technique—setting stakes and following an arc—Shenk reminded the crowd that “it’s not enough to move through time.” A story that progresses this way needs an arc. Sometimes, that arc can be seen as an actual arc – a shape, as illustrated in Shenk’s second example, a videotaped talk by Kurt Vonnegut.

But the story doesn’t have to be entirely linear. Shenk highlighted E.B. White’s essay “Death of a Pig” and Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which both reveal major plot details early on (spoiler: White’s pig dies in the first paragraph).

The second technique was what Shenk called the “Frank Gehry approach to nonfiction.” Find the shape a story takes, then build it with your facts. The most extreme example is Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker piece “Forty-One False Starts,” which takes the form of its title—41 abandoned ledes that coalesce into a story about artist David Salle.

Shenk’s other examples of Frank Gehry narratives also came from The New Yorker. Ian Frazier’s “Canal Street” follows the shape of the street and the pace of its traffic, slowing at the section about the Holland Tunnel. The most meta — and most recent — example of the structure was John McPhee’s “Structure.”

The final story form is not quite as direct as the first, nor as abstract as the second. It’s the method of building a story with voice and example, going, as Shenk described “around rather than through” the topic, as Joan Didion does with the Haight-Ashbury lifestyle in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” It’s attitude up front, followed by scenes. “Manifestations of chaos,” according to Shenk, in his description of Didion’s piece, which opens with a summary, but concludes with a sort of second nutgraf, all filtered through her critical style.

“The primary image a reader will see in your piece is you,” Shenk said, citing David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” another narrative piece that follows the author’s voice through a series of scenes, resulting in a conclusion suggested in the lede.

These three forms aren’t just ways to write the stories, and they aren’t only meant to be considered once you’re at your desk, sorting through notes, Shenk said. They can shape a piece much earlier, and Shenk described an instance of the form changing his approach. While reporting his 2002 Atlantic piece on Lincoln presenters, people who dress as the 16th President, Shenk realized the story was truly about “how to be a Lincoln presenter.” This guided the rest of his reporting (some of it conducted in costume) and writing. “Pursue [your form] to the end of the earth,” Shenk said, “and see where it leads.”


]]> 0
“Power of Narrative” Conference: The Secrets of Access Mon, 30 Mar 2015 13:55:49 +0000 Editor’s Note: Last weekend, Boston University hosted its annual conference on narrative journalism. In the first of two dispatches from the conference, Nieman Fellow Gabe Bullard writes about a panel discussion featuring “Serial’s” Sarah Koenig, among other accomplished journalists, on gaining access to sources.

What do you do if the subject of your story is in jail, in hiding, or otherwise unwilling or unable to talk to you? You keep trying.

That was the message of five journalists who have written stories with seemingly impossible insight and access to their subjects: Fernanda Santos of The New York Times; Masha Gessen, who has written about Vladimir Putin, Pussy Riot, and Boston Marathon bombing suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers; author and journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis; Beth Schwartzapfel with the Marshall Project; and Sarah Koenig of “Serial.” The five sat on a panel on access in journalism at the “Power of Narrative” conference at Boston University.

When Gessen was looking for ways to write about the Tsarnaev brothers, she went to the region where their ancestors lived. She also spent time in Boston, at one point checking into an AirBnB on the street of a person she hoped to talk to. “There’s nothing like being there. Just be there physically,” she said.

Santos, the Phoenix bureau chief for the Times, also said her experience on the scene helped build contacts for her reporting on the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a firefighting group who lost 19 members in a fire in 2013. Santos, who is writing a book on the group, had a relationship with some families of firefighters, and her presence helped her to meet more families and understand the culture of the team and why they would go into danger the way they did, she said.

But being present doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will talk to you. Santos said the firefighters’ families appreciated that she wasn’t busting down their doors, demanding to talk in a time of tragedy. A calmer approach, through letters and mutual contacts, worked better.

The others agreed. Gessen once offered to help a reluctant source shovel snow. (The source declined, but later talked.)

“The nice ask can get you really far,” said Schwartzapfel. Schwartzapfel writes frequently about people who are in prison, which means she often communicates with her subjects through letters. One letter recipient, a prisoner who was denied parole, called Schwartzapfel “an angel” for simply reaching out, she said.

And it has to be genuine. “They don’t give a shit about your scoop,” Schwartzapfel said, adding that compassion and empathy are key, and kindness shouldn’t be employed to use subjects as means to an end in reporting. She then asked if anyone had read Janet Malcolm’s treatise on ethics and honesty, ‘The Journalist and the Murderer,’ a few crowd members raised their hands, and so did Koenig.

“I’m a big proponent of a super nice, super respectful approach,” said Koenig. “I wasn’t an asshole,” she said of her approach while reporting “Serial.” Koenig added that aside from being kind, the technique had advantages. It made it easier for her to circle back to people who initially didn’t want to talk. Half the time, people would speak to her on the third or fourth approach, since no bridges had been burnt earlier. (Koenig’s technique in approaching subjects was on public display in a series of articles last year, in which The Intercept published excerpts of emails she sent one of Serial’s main characters, Jay.)

Koenig’s access to “Serial’s” central voice, Adnan Syed, came only through the phone. He called her from prison, where he is serving a sentence for the murder of his former girlfriend. This was a workaround. Koenig wasn’t allowed to record Syed in person, so she visited in person, then worked to build a relationship that led to him calling her. (The prison put a stop to this in the last week of recording, she said).

Syed had limited time to talk to Koenig. Others weren’t willing to talk at all. But a number of sources had talked in court, and Koenig had access to recordings of Syed’s trial. But those recordings almost didn’t made it on the show. Koenig explained how Baltimore officials had warned her and the other producers that they weren’t allowed to broadcast the audio from the videotapes of court proceedings. But they pushed back, and realized the rule officials cited referred mainly to broadcasting the actual video, not just the audio, and that, according to the lawyers they consulted, legal action would be unlikely.

“If you push at this stuff, even a little bit, it works,” Koenig said.

Sometimes it helps to step back. Denizet-Lewis described how he got access for his story, “Double Lives on the Down Low,”  about a sex subculture in which nonwhite men who identify as straight have sex with other men. Denizet-Lewis went online and found Down Low groups on AOL. There he found people who became what he called “ambassadors,” and helped him gather trust and contacts. But, he said, it’s important to not constantly be around asking questions. “Know when to go away,” he said. Subjects can get tired of being watched.

In addition to offering a reminder to follow the basic ethics of never deceiving someone into thinking you’re not a journalist or that you’re not on the record during conversations, the panelists pushed the importance of being honest about who you are as a person.

“Use the thing in your personality that people like,” said Koenig. Whether shyness, humor, or charm, these traits endear journalists to friends off duty, and they can work on duty, too. Denizet-Lewis said the nature of reporting a narrative piece involves spending a lot of time with people, and you share your personality with the subject. The fact that the sources’ words are the story must never be blurred or forgotten, he said, but openness is inevitable, to a degree.

This can also lead to a better outcome, said Schwartzapfel. She said sources feel that “you’ll do right by them” if you’re honest the whole time you’re dealing with them.

]]> 0
Virtual Reality Lets the Audience Step into the Story Thu, 19 Mar 2015 18:37:58 +0000 You’re standing in the middle of an eerily empty two-lane road. Cookie-cutter apartment complexes surround you. Broad-leaved trees line the street. It looks like an average American suburb, but something’s not right.

You look left, then right. Yellow police tape blocks off the street, and red and blue lights flash in the distance. You move forward a bit and notice the white outline of a body on the asphalt, sprawled with its left hand above its head. Glowing arrows beckon away from it. Following them, you end up at the passenger-side window of a police cruiser. You enter a flickering cylinder. It brightens, and a comic strip appears showing an illustration of a man wearing a baseball cap, looking down the road you just walked along.

This is a 3D rendering of Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown when he died and is the man in the baseball cap featured in the illustration, is just one character you meet in this virtual world, created by graphic journalist Dan Archer with the help of photographs, satellite imagery, and video game software.

Archer, through a fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and a partnership with Fusion, where “The Michael Brown Shooting Visualized: Eyewitness Accounts” was published last December, reconstructed eight eyewitness accounts for users to explore, guided by arrows that lead to the locations where each person observed the event. He notes that users spend on average over 10 minutes with his Ferguson piece, “practically unheard of in the ADD [attention deficit disorder] world of online news,” he says. Those are promising stats at a time when media outlets are fiercely competing for users’ attention. Immersive journalistic experiences like this one could become a way to keep audiences engaged while offering reporters innovative new ways to tell stories.

The goal of journalism has always been to be immersive, to bring audiences as close to unfolding events as possible. New Journalism icons like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese practiced their own form of low-tech immersive journalism by inserting themselves into their stories in imaginative ways. The qualities that lend virtual reality its “wow” factor are the same ones inherent in any well-crafted tale, fiction or non. Though his digitally rendered version of Ferguson is far from seamless—the graphics are pixelated, and the mouse controls don’t always work the way you want them to—Archer believes immersive storytelling is the best model for presenting “complexities, ambiguities and all-out contradictions inherent in larger, longer-running stories.” Someday, he hopes, this interactive model could give the old-fashioned feature a run for its money.

Immersive journalism is picking up now in part because the necessary technology has gotten better, cheaper, and more portable. The smartphone’s ability to stream high-definition video as well as its increasing popularity—58% of Americans had one as of January 2014, according to Pew Research—have further accelerated adoption. Add to that the more widespread use of interactive data visualizations and advances in wearable computing and the stage may be set for a more robust adoption of virtual reality. “It’s not just the media coming to you,” says Dan Pacheco, professor of journalism innovation at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. “You move into the media.”

Immersive journalism is picking up now in part because the necessary technology has gotten better, cheaper, and more portable

Immersive storytelling was on prominent display at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring in the form of “Use of Force” by former Newsweek correspondent Nonny de la Peña. When you strap on the headgear to experience the piece, the first thing you hear is crickets, then screaming. Two uniformed agents drag a man dressed in white to the ground and start kicking him. A dozen other officers stand quietly by as he screams. Other bystanders watch in horror. A man asks, “Why are you guys using excessive force?” A woman shouts, “He’s not resisting! He’s not resisting!”

This incident occurred in May of 2010 at the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego. The death of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, the man in white, was ruled a homicide by the San Diego coroner’s office. Border agents maintain force was necessary because Hernandez-Rojas, who had methamphetamine in his system, was combative. It is a very disturbing few minutes to re-live. Though the computer-game feel of the graphics creates some cognitive distance between you and the action, you are confronted with the stark brutality of the beating in a way that feels more intimate than the documentary footage on which the virtual rendering is based. In the immersive version, you feel powerless to stop a violent act that feels like it’s happening before your very eyes.

De la peña also presented an immersive piece at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Project Syria.” It transports you to a lively intersection in Aleppo, Syria. You hear a girl sing in Arabic. Suddenly, a bomb explodes. People flee in every direction, and through the thick cloud of debris you see several bodies lying on the ground. A screeching fills your ears. When it stops, a narrator’s voice breaks in, “A third of all Syrians have been displaced by the war.” A child runs by as the narrator continues, “Reports indicate children have been specifically targeted in the violence.” The chaotic sounds crescendo and then cease as the scene fades to black.

You are then transported to a desert, with trailers and tents visible in the distance. Translucent white figures stand before you. More and more figures and more and more tents appear as the narrator continues, “There are now over a million refugee children.” For de la Peña, the virtue of virtual reality is that it puts “people inside the story so they can experience the action as it unfolds. [It] allows you to experience stories in a visceral way.”

Just a few years ago, head-mounted displays that simulate 3D environments cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were rarely found outside military research labs. Then, in 2012, inventor Palmer Luckey raised $2.4 million through a Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift virtual reality system. He offered development kits to early adopters who wanted to make games for it. Facebook bought the company for $2 billion. Though the Oculus Rift has yet to reach the general public, anyone who wants to try it out can order a prototype. Other competitors have also launched consumer-grade devices.

Video game technology has attracted journalists looking to experiment with storytelling forms, including David Dufresne, who is a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Open Documentary Laboratory. Dufresne is convinced journalists can deepen users’ experiences by borrowing narrative and nonlinear techniques from filmmakers and gamers. “The video game industry has revolutionized the narrative,” he says, particularly by encouraging audiences to participate in the story.

In “Fort McMoney,” Dufresne put the fate of a real Canadian town in Alberta, Fort McMurray, into users’ hands. Fort McMurray sits atop a large oil sands reserve, and you get to decide its future in a Web-based documentary game. The experience opens cinematically. Driving down a snowy highway, you pass an overturned car. A woman’s voice narrates, “You have reached the end of the road, at the world’s edge.” You’re eventually left to explore the photorealistic setting.

There’s a woman facing you from the passenger seat of a Ford F250, door ajar. When you hover the mouse over her, everything around her blurs. When you click, titles appear on the screen identifying Marquesa Shore, a waitress and car saleswoman. She arrived in Fort McMurray two months ago and earns about $10,000 a month. “It’s good,” she says. “It’s good to be a woman here.”

Users are then offered two choices: Get Into Her Pickup Truck or Speak To Her Later. If you choose the latter, you can explore other characters. If you choose the former, you take a ride in her truck as she tells you about life in Fort McMurray. A few minutes later, she offers to drop you off at City Hall, where you can meet the mayor. Throughout the game, users refer to a dashboard that tracks their progress. For Dufresne, this kind of gamification can attract users to stories they might otherwise ignore. “Nobody wants to read a news report or watch a movie about environmental issues,” he observes. “What we saw with ‘Fort McMoney’ is a lot of people who came for the game stayed for the topic.”

MIT’s David Dufresne aims to create a template for interactive documentaries

One of the biggest challenges in constructing a story with so many different possible outcomes is thinking non-linearly. Rather than watching a documentary that unfolds scene by scene, the audience explores the people and places of Fort McMurray based on their preferences. If you don’t want to meet the mayor and hear her perspective on things, you can click away. If you’re interested in the real issues behind the game, you can debate them with other players. As part of his fellowship at MIT, Dufresne is building a tool that he hopes will make it easier for journalists to create interactive projects of their own, a kind of Microsoft Word or Final Draft for interactive documentaries. “We lose a lot of time explaining to each other what we are doing,” he says, and he hopes his software template will enable editorial teams to collaborate more efficiently.

There are potential downsides to immersive experiences. For starters, virtual reality technology can make some people feel sick. Simulators make you think you’re moving when you’re not, and some experience motion sickness. “You don’t always get a good match between what the sensors in the system are reporting compared to what the inner ear is experiencing,” says Douglas Maxwell, a project manager for the U.S. Army who has been studying virtual environments since the late 1990s. The Oculus Rift developers have tried to address the problem of motion sickness by reducing the lag that can occur between a user’s actions and the reaction of the program.

Simulations that supposedly portray real-world events also raise psychological questions, such as: Are you “you” when you enter these worlds or one of the individuals depicted? How do you distinguish your own views from whomever’s perspective is being displayed? And where does the journalist exist in these spaces? Karim Ben Khelifa provocatively plays with questions like this in “The Enemy,” an audio-video installation that puts users directly between two soldiers on opposing sides of a conflict.

Khelifa is collaborating with D. Fox Harrell, founder of MIT’s Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory, to tailor the action to each individual visitor. “Your virtual representation shifts depending on how you interact with the soldiers,” Harrell explains. Are you looking the character in the eye, shifting to the side, or spending more time with one person than the other? The answers alter the narrative. That sort of advanced interaction creates a sense of intimate presence, says Harrell. You’re not just telling people a story; they’re participating in the creation of it.

“There are a lot of ethical questions, but it’s not unique to digital media or virtual reality,” says Harrell. “Even media that seem to be very direct are actually very subjective.” Harrell points out that a unique advantage of stories with game-like qualities is that people see different perspectives with each exposure to the story and can come to their own conclusions.

As virtual reality enters newsrooms, journalists will need to develop standards for working in the new form. One of the first to test them is The Des Moines Register with an immersive experience called “Harvest of Change.” It brings readers into the simulated world of the Dammanns, who have run their farm for the past century, to illustrate how climate change, new technologies, and cultural shifts are affecting agriculture. It combines a computer-generated world with 360-degree video to depict the nuances of farm life. In the video scenes, you feel like a voyeur, witnessing intimate moments like a father-son outing on a tractor.

The 360-degree video Dan Edge is shooting in Africa will give Frontline viewers a new perspective

The 360-degree video Dan Edge is shooting in Africa will give Frontline viewers a new perspective

A team at Frontline, in collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and the Canadian company Secret Location, is taking users into the Ebola crisis. Director Dan Edge is filming 360-degree video in West Africa for the project, which includes a standard 2D, linear documentary as well as digital interaction. The project will present the Guinea village of Meliandou, where scientists have pinpointed what they believe is the first case of Ebola. In one planned scene, you can explore the inside of a towering, hollowed out tree, home to a colony of bats that scientists are studying to determine if they were the source of the outbreak.

While “Harvest of Change,” Dan Archer’s Ferguson piece, and the pioneering work by Nonny de la Peña rely heavily on computer graphics, the Ebola project replaces 3D modeling with 3D film footage. Raney Aronson, deputy executive producer at Frontline, envisions layering multimedia data visualizations into this 3D environment. “The dream would be that you could go inside the tree and then explore everything we know about it”—from inside, she says.

There are many questions to address as the team completes the project in the coming months. A big one, says Taylor Owen, research director at Tow Center, is: Where do you situate the journalist? What does narrative look like when cuts are no longer needed because the camera captures an entire room at once? In documentary interview scenes, for example, the subject is often the only person on screen. With 360-video, both interviewer and interviewee are captured and the viewer can look back and forth between them, just like they would in real life.

Though the technology is new, the ethical challenges facing journalists are not. “Any time you’re creating a computational world or self, you’re abstracting from the real world, taking some elements from the real world, leaving some out,” says MIT’s Harrell. “There are changes.” The imperative of remaining true to the reported facts is the same, regardless of whether the story is intended for the evening paper or the Oculus Rift.

]]> 0
Writers, Editors Talk Shop at Missouri Tue, 17 Mar 2015 03:27:52 +0000 Forget South by Southwest. The real happening place to be Monday, at least if you’re a narrative nerd, was Columbia, Missouri, where you could have heard a full day’s worth of conversations between some top long-form writers and their editors as part of an event sponsored by the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.

Called “Writers and Editors: The Most Dynamic Relationship in Journalism,” the conference featured some familiar bylines, among them Esquire’s Chris JonesGQ’s Jeff Sharlet and and Los Angeles magazine’s Amy Wallace, as well as Atavist founder Evan Ratliff and Women’s Health editor-in-chief Amy Keller Laird.  Mizzou’s student-run magazine, Vox, has detailed coverage of the day’s sessions.  And here’s a handful of our favorite tidbits of wisdom, humor and advice, culled from Twitter and Instagram posts:

]]> 0
Narrative Conferences and Workshops: Where you can hone your skills in 2015 Fri, 13 Mar 2015 14:33:27 +0000 As thoughts turn to spring — and spring break — isn’t it time to plan some journalism-related travel? This round-up of upcoming conferences and workshops with a narrative or storytelling bent should help. Whether you want to delve into digital storytelling, work one-on-one on a piece in progress or just get a jolt of inspiration, there’s an event for you on this list, not to mention a chance to explore everywhere from Amsterdam to Grapevine, Texas.

“The Power of Narrative: Staying Savvy, Skilled, and Solvent in Journalism’s Wired Era”
March 27-29
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts
The granddaddy of narrative conferences, back at its original Boston University home, focuses this year on narrative craft skills, innovation in digital storytelling and on how to make a living in the field. Speakers include former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson and Steven Brill, who are launching a new longform journalism startup together; Sarah Koenig of “Serial” fame; journalist Masha Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot; freelance journalist Theo Padnos, who was held hostage in Syria for two years before being released in August 2014; and Alex Tizon, formerly of the Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times and the author of Big Little Man – In Search of My Asian Self. Registration is open until the conference begins, with rates of $50 for BU students, $150 for BU alumni and non-BU students, and $350 for regular admission. Check out our collection of tips and inspiration from last year’s speakers here.

Conference on Narrative Journalism, Amsterdam: “The Protagonist”
April 16
Initiative for Narrative Journalism in the Netherlands
Amsterdam, Netherlands

With a theme of “the protagonist,” this year’s conference highlights speakers who include New Yorker staff writer George Packer, comic journalist Josh Neufeld, and writer and former “This American Life” producer Lisa Pollak. Those who make it to Amsterdam and can stick around for the day after the conference can also expect master classes from international speakers like Neufeld and Pollak and coaching from BU conference founder and director Mark Kramer. The conference costs 105 euros (plus an additional 90 euros if you want to attend a master class), with a small discount available if you pay 35 euros for an annual membership as a “friend of the foundation.”

“Crafting the True Story: An Exploration of Creative Nonfiction”
June 1-5
Madeline Island School of the Arts
La Pointe, Wisconsin
This immersive workshop, led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jacqui Banaszynski, will focus on developing and shaping stories, covering lessons especially applicable for writers of narrative nonfiction. In addition to completing fieldwork, in-class exercises, and peer critique, participants will work one-on-one with Banaszynski to develop a work-in-progress and build a plan for future writing. Tuition is $600 for the week.

“THREAD at Yale: Storytelling in Modern Media”
June 7-10
Yale Journalism Initiative
New Haven, Connecticut
Debuting this summer, THREAD at Yale is “a gathering of professional journalists and storytellers” working across media. Attendees will engage in conversations with mentors who include The New York Times Magazine’s Emily Bazelon; Catherine Burns, Artistic Director at “The Moth;” author, journalist, and radio producer Jake Halpern; and New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman. There will also be small-group workshops and evening “parlor discussions” among participants and mentors. The program, aimed at journalists and storytellers with various levels of experience, is limited to those age 21 and up and requires a short online application, due May 1. Tuition for THREAD at Yale is $1,750 for program materials only, or $1,995 for program materials, housing at Yale, and breakfast.

Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference
July 17-19
Frank W. & Sue Mayborn School of Journalism
University of North Texas
Grapevine, Texas

This conference, back for its 11th year, will feature keynote speakers Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down; journalist, social critic, and Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich; and journalist and author Alex Tizon. The conference organizers have also announced a host of other speakers, among them Jill Abramson, the New York Times’ Dan Barry, Washington Post and ESPN The Magazine journalist Eli Saslow, and 2009 Nieman fellow Chris Vognar, with more to be announced. We’ve got coverage from last year’s conference here. Early bird registration is open until May 1, with early bird rates at $324 for students, $354 for educators, and $374 for general admission.

Narrative at Cal
November 7
Graduate School of Journalism
UC Berkeley
Berkeley, California
Planning will officially begin in May, but the “save the date” has already gone out for this conference, which last year featured keynotes by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik and New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein. With Constance Hale (who ran the former Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism) at the helm, attendees will consider “the tradition and the edges of literary nonfiction” through lectures, workshops, and panels, as well as master classes on the following day, offered for an additional fee of $50. The conference is limited to 80 experienced writers and registration opens Sept. 1. General admission is $275; members of sponsoring organizations listed on the conference website can register early, with a small discount, starting Aug. 15. Read a Q&A with Hale on the vision for the conference here.

“The Power of Storytelling”
Sponsored by Decât o Revista
Dates TBA
Bucharest, Romania
The 2015 dates for this conference aren’t announced yet, but you can sign up to get conference news via email on the conference’s website. Past speakers have included Esquire’s Chris Jones; Amy O’Leary, formerly of the New York Times and now editorial director at Upworthy; and Pulitzer winner Jacqui Banaszynski. Read more about their conference sessions and others here.

We’ve also got our eyes on a few conferences that will be announcing their programs in the coming weeks and months. Look out for more details from the organizers of the annual Investigative Reporters & Editors Conference, which will be held June 4-7 in Philadelphia, and of Excellence in Journalism 2015, which will take place Sept. 18-20 in Orlando. The International Association for Literary Journalism Studies will be holding its annual conference, this year titled “Literary Journalism: Media, Meaning, Memory,” May 7-9 in Minneapolis. The Third Coast Conference, which focuses on audio storytelling, takes place every other fall and will be back in 2016.

]]> 0
Annotation Tuesday: Michael J. Mooney and the Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever Tue, 03 Mar 2015 14:45:38 +0000 Michael J. Mooney staked his claim in the world of narrative journalism with two stories that ran just weeks apart in the summer of 2012. In June, Mooney, a staff writer at D magazine, published a searing account of a 62-year-old woman who survived being tortured and raped for 12 days by her former neighbor. (You can read a Storyboard Q-and-A with Mooney about that story here.)

Michael J. Mooney

Michael J. Mooney

The next month, he returned with a very different kind of story, the one we’re annotating today: “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever.” The headline isn’t hyperbole. The story made a slew of year-end lists, among them Longread’s “Best of 2012″ and Byliner’s “102 Spectacular Pieces of Nonfiction from 2012,” and was included in “Best American Sports Writing 2013.”

Mooney has also written for GQ, Outside and Grantland. He most recently profiled Glenn Beck for D and an e-book he wrote about Chris Kyle, the subject of the film “American Sniper,” will be released in paperback March 24 by Little, Brown and Company.

But it all started, in many ways, with Bill Fong and the amazing bowling story. We talked over the phone. My questions are in red;  Mooney’s responses in blue. If you’d like to read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button to the right. Let’s start with some questions:

How did you find out about this story?

My editor mentioned it to me vaguely. He actually misremembered it. He remembered it incorrectly but remembered that there was a guy who had bowled a 299 mentioned in the newspaper. I first looked it up and couldn’t find it and didn’t think about it again, but it kind of sat with me and it did come back up in my mind a couple times. And I started looking for it and found the newspaper story. There had been a front page– a sports story. Front page of the sports section of the Dallas Morning News.

When you found the story, what did you do after that?

I actually tracked Bill down at the bowling alley. I think I found the number for him and it didn’t work, and I think I found him on Facebook and he didn’t reply, and then I called up the bowling alley and he was there at the moment I called.

So you talked with him briefly over the phone?

I did. I introduced myself, explained that I thought his story was really interesting, really fascinating. He thought that I was joking with him. He thought that I was playing a prank on him and one of his friends set it up. And I had to go and explain, no I really think your story is interesting in this big, beautiful way. And then he told me, “You know, that night I nearly died.” And I thought he was kidding with me. And then at some point, I went up there and met with this group, spent the Monday night with them, and kind of watched them and then sat down with Bill, with his notes, and really intensely went through the entire night, game by game.

How did you pitch the story to your editor? You said your editor had heard about this but then did you have to pitch it formally to the magazine?

It wasn’t exactly formally. The biggest problem with the pitch was there was another bowling-related story that I wanted to do, and I still want to do. And he told me, Look, the magazine can do one bowling story maybe every 10 years. So you pick one, one of these. But I picked this one.

Were you worried about making people read and care about bowling? Was that something that ever came up?

That was the biggest worry. Before the story came out, I was a little nervous. I was like, “What did I just write? What is this?” But I probably should have worried about that a little more than I did. On some level, it was probably the biggest worry I had, but I was kind of so excited that I got to do the story, you know. I honestly was so thrilled that I was doing the story that seemed like the most anti-formulaic story of all time. It was one night of bowling somewhere in the suburbs two years ago, and nobody famous, you know, was involved. So that Tim Rogers (his editor) even encouraged me to do this, I think, I was really just—I was also intrigued by it, and he was intrigued by it. That’s a good sign. But overcoming the bowling hurdle was… that’s a big thing.

I noticed there’s a documentary in the works. Have you had anything to do with that?

I am a producer on the documentary, and I think got a writing credit, too. But it is largely the work of Joey Daoud. He is incredible. And there’s some pretty cool news coming about that documentary soon. I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about it yet. (Update: The cool news? That the New York Times is featuring the documentary as part of its new “Made with Kickstarter” project, a series of short documentaries funded, in part, by the online money-raising platform. You can watch it here.)

What did Bill ultimately think about the story?

He loved it. People were coming up to him at the bowling alley and asking to autograph it. So in some way, and with the documentary too, in some way he really feels like he’s getting a modicum of the respect that he has always kind of deserved.

Were you surprised at how well the story was received? 

Yeah, of course. It’s ridiculous. It’s still a story about bowling. It’s very ridiculous. Of all the stories I’ve written and worked on—I mean I understand some elements of why people connect to the story. But it is still really surprising, very surprising.

Why do you think people connect to it?

A couple of reasons. I think one, Bill is a really compelling, really interesting, funny, sweet character. And just entertaining to be around, too. But I also think that it is fundamentally about something that is relatable. It’s about trying to do something in the exact right way over and over and over again. This is exactly what I’m trying to do with writing … So there’s that aspect of it. And it’s also just about this thing everybody can relate to, right? This attempt at perfection and how it’s just more revelatory—it reveals more about people when they do not succeed perfectly. I really am a firm believer in that. Winning a championship doesn’t teach you an enormous amount except exactly how to win championships. Far more people don’t win a championship every year. Way more people don’t succeed in exactly what they want to do, and those are things we need to think about as people.

“The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever”
By Michael J. Mooney
D magazine
July 2012

When Bill Fong approaches the lane, 15-pound bowling ball in hand, he tries not to breathe. He tries not to think about not breathing. He wants his body to perform a series of complex movements that his muscles themselves have memorized. In short, he wants to become a robot.  I’m thinking there are a lot of places you can start this story, structurally, but also in time. Why did you choose this paragraph and this space in time, and how did you come to understand what he thinks about as he’s getting ready to roll the ball down the lane?   I talked to him a lot about this. He is—the robot analogy came from him. That is something he talks about and thinks about. And in some ways it was… You know somebody who tries not to feel emotion just provokes more emotion. And so, you know, it’s about him throwing the bowling ball. On a really, really basic level, the entire story is about him throwing a bowling ball. So why not start with the way he throws a bowling ball? In terms of time, though, why this?   I wanted to bookend it… I was writing this right when Ben Fountain’s novel came out, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” And we were talking about it a lot in the office. And it’s largely, you know, you understand that something happened, and you’re going through the book trying to figure out exactly what happened to put these guys in this situation. And I just really liked that dynamic, and so I wanted the story to do that. We knew something incredible happened, but we didn’t know exactly what.

Fong, 48 years old, 6 feet tall with broad shoulders, pulls the ball into his chest and does a quick shimmy with his hips. He swings the ball first backward, then forward, his arm a pendulum of kinetic energy, as he takes five measured steps toward the foul line. He releases the ball, and it glides across the oiled wooden planks like it’s floating, hydroplaning, spinning counterclockwise along a trajectory that seems to be taking it straight for the right-hand gutter.  How many times did you have to watch Bill roll a ball in order to be able to nail that description you have of him in the second paragraph there?   I thought about this. I’ve probably seen him roll 50 to 100 times. No, I guess over 100 times. So I watched him practice, and I watched him bowl an entire series of games. Then I watched a video of him bowling quite a bit. And I watched those last couple frames, or the last frame actually, like the last couple rolls, over and over and over again.   How important was it for you to nail that description?   Yeah, it felt like it was kind of part of his personality. That’s the way we’re going to help build this, help people understand this character– by looking at the way he does the thing he loves doing.

But as the ball nears the edge of the lane, it veers back toward the center, as if guided by remote control. The hook carries the ball back just in time. In a heartbeat, what was a wide, sneering mouth of pins is now—nothing.  Wide, sneering mouth of pins is fantastic.   It just is kind of what it looks like to me. Especially, you know, if you feel like you’re doing battle with those pins. It was a subtle way of trying to kind of establish a nemesis for Bill here.

He comes back to the table where his teammates are seated—they always sit and bowl in the same order—and they congratulate him the same way they have thousands of times over the last decade. But Fong looks displeased. His strike wasn’t good enough.

“I got pretty lucky that time,” he says in his distinctly Chicago accent. “The seven was hanging there before it fell. I’ve got to make adjustments.” With a pencil, he jots down notes on a folded piece of blue paper.

His teammates aren’t interested in talking about what he can do to make his strikes more solid, though, or even tonight’s mildly competitive league game. They’re still discussing a night two years ago. They mention it every week, without fail.  When you watched him bowl on that night, that one night you went and watched him bowl in the series, were you there solely as an observer or were you also talking to his teammates? Were you kind of doing a little bit of everything?   Yeah, it was everything. I think I had to pull up a chair next to the table, right, because I didn’t want to disrupt their actual seating arrangement, their traditional seating arrangement. They were much less interested in the game that was actually going on that night than talking about this incredible night. And as soon as we started talking about that night—everybody just calls it “that night”—as soon as we started talking about that night, people from other tables were coming over. You know, it was a big discussion that got around very quickly. It was very easy to find a lot of people who were there that night and people who had thoughts of what was going on.   This was two years later, and it’s still a lot of the same people who bowled in that league, even two years earlier?   That’s their community, that’s their regular Monday night. Everybody at the bowling alley, that’s their thing, right? Plano is a gigantic suburb. Sometimes it’s hard for people to cut out specific lives for themselves, and people who go to this—you know, that’s one of the ways that people do that. It’s a subculture, really.

In fact, all you have to do is say the words “That Night” and everyone at the Plano Super Bowl knows what you’re talking about. They also refer to it as “The Incident” or “That Incredible Series.”  How did you get those descriptions?   Honestly, just being there, talking about it. It comes up very quickly. So you know, people were pointing out, oh he was there, he was there. People were coming over to our table. I was able to talk to probably 10 or 12 people who were there that night and remember it very vividly, within an hour of being at the bowling alley.

It’s the only time anyone can remember a local recreational bowler making the sports section of the Dallas Morning News. One man, an opponent of Fong’s that evening, calls it “the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in a bowling alley.”  When did you know that this would end up being a special story? Did you know that in the reporting phase?   When you work on stories, the kind of stories that we like to do, at the moment, every story is really special. You know, I don’t want to work on a story if I can’t find a way to make it special at the time. I would love to say, “Yeah, I totally knew at the moment when I was talking to these guys that two years later, I’d be talking about it with Nieman.” But no, it’s still pretty astounding how far the story has gotten. At the moment, the funniest part was when Bill was asking me about other stories that I’ve written and other people I’ve interviewed. Basically like, who’s the most famous person you’ve ever interviewed? And I think I said Mikhail Gorbachev. When I said Mikhail Gorbachev, then Bill was like, ‘Ah now I understand why you’re doing this story.’ I still don’t completely understand what that was, but that was what completely explained it to him.

Bill Fong needs no reminders, of course. He thinks about that moment—those hours—every single day of his life.  We get to the end of this first section and I’m thinking about the lead again and wondering were you ever tempted to lead with the night you were there, watching, rather than…   The other way around.   Lead with the night in question, right? The incident, or whatever, rather than leading two years later. And what ultimately made you choose the approach you chose?   I don’t think I did consider starting with the original incident. I like stories that are bookended, and it goes back to that Ben Fountain book. I just really liked the dynamic, the way that that sets the reader up to freely go through it fast. It really propels a story, when you know something exciting happened and you don’t know exactly what it is.

• • •

Most people think perfection in bowling is a 300 game, but it isn’t. Any reasonably good recreational bowler can get lucky one night and roll 12 consecutive strikes. If you count all the bowling alleys all over America, somebody somewhere bowls a 300 every night. But only a human robot can roll three 300s in a row—36 straight strikes—for what’s called a “perfect series.” More than 95 million Americans go bowling, but, according to the United States Bowling Congress, there have been only 21 certified 900s since anyone started keeping track.  Were you surprised at the low number of certified 900s, when you found that out?   Pretty early on, I looked that up, and the United States Bowling Congress is here, in a suburb of Dallas. I was really surprised. Because there’s a couple of videos of other people who have had 900. And when you think about it, you know, at first it depends on your perspective. When you think a 300 is rare, then you never even think about a 900. When you think the sheer number of people who bowl, how many games somebody can bowl, just the sheer number of bowling games that take place, then 300s, yeah okay. Every single bowling alley, every single night, somewhere probably. And then you gotta think just statistically, these have to be more common. And so I was really surprised.

Bill Fong’s run at perfection started as most of his nights do, with practice at around 5:30 pm. He bowls in four active leagues, and he rolls at least 20 games a week, every week. That night, January 18, 2010, he wanted to focus on his timing.  You have a lot of details that come from Fong himself, and specifically talking about that night, it’s phenomenal that he remembers some of the things that he does, and I’m curious what was it like interviewing him.   It was interesting. He has notes. So he has very thorough notes, that it’s essentially like finding a source with a diary. Except in this case, the diary consisted largely of numbers. And then you have the fact that when adrenaline is flowing, that’s when humans generally have the most—that’s when memories are kind of burned into place. And he had a lot of adrenaline that night. And a lot of people did. So, talking to him, he was in moments elated and proud. This is still a great accomplishment. He does know that. He’s been told it so many times, and he was also really sad because in so many ways, especially looking back — his life up to that night — and it did not go the way that he really, really wishes it had gone.

Timing is everything. Speaking of timing, you really delay letting the reader in on Fong’s backstory. How he got interested in bowling and his childhood and all of that. Why did you set the story up that way?   So this is a slotting game. If I wanted to bookend it with the night that I was there and kind of make it about these people recounting the story, then I had certain elements that I had to get at some point. You have to explain the whole 900. You have to explain his background. You have to, at some point, get to, and I will talk about it in a bit, but you have to get to the fact that he almost had a chance at a Texas record before. He had a chance at a really incredible night and then completely cracked. And then you have to get to the stroke. And inside of all of that, or through all of that, the story of that night. So it was really just slotting what goes first… You know you have to explain the 900 before the rest of the stuff. And then I wanted to break it up in terms of his games that night. So it’s the night that I was with him, in the beginning and the end, and his three games throughout the middle of that. And then to each one of those games we attach something else, some other concept or backstory or something else. In the first one, it’s this explanation of 900. In the second one, it’s his backstory and his buildup. In the third one, it’s the kind of notion of perfection and how rare it is and how ethereal it is.   Did you outline the story? I did. I’m a religious outliner.   Give me an example of how you go about outlining.   I think for this story, it was actually sitting down talking with Tim. And it was, you know, Roman numeral one, talking to them. Then it was two, first game. Three, second game. Four… And then underneath each one, what we’re going to get at in those sections. And it was probably on the back of—Probably the first time I did it was on the back of any kind of scrap paper, and then at some point, I kind of sat down and built a more thorough outline in my notebook.  When your timing is right, when your arms, legs, and torso all move in rhythm toward the lane, you have better balance. When you’re balanced, you’re also more accurate. And when you’re accurate, your decision-making also improves. By contrast, if your timing is off, your balance is off, and you don’t hit your targets. There are too many variables to assess, too many elements to gauge, and you can’t possibly make the best decisions. So, do you bowl at all?   Not competitively, but I have gone bowling somewhat regularly since I was really young, since I was in daycare probably. And especially in college, I spent a lot of time with one of my best friends one summer. We basically went to the school bowling alley almost every single day. We bowled 13 games one day, actually.   So in terms of understanding what Bill was talking about, that wasn’t difficult for you?   Oh yeah, no, no. I still had no idea about the…In no way was I an analytical bowler. So when he started talking about oil patterns, I had to really research a lot of that stuff. I didn’t even realize that a lot of bowlers kept notes the way he did. Of course, there are a lot of people who keep track of the high records in each state and all sorts of things like that that I, as a recreational bowler, never even considered.  Fong knows a hot streak is all about timing. So in practice that night, he breathed, he tried to erase all thoughts, and he tried to make his approach with each body part functioning as programmed.  You keep coming back to this idea of the robot bowler. So I’m assuming that it was what Fong said he was trying to do?   Yeah, this is his analogy. He understands that to be successful, you essentially have to shut down distractions, emotions, anything that might differentiate one particular roll. And so he really wants to be a robot when he’s bowling, which then of course, when he has this very, very human ending… I think it was even more poignant.

That night, he didn’t roll many strikes in practice. There was nothing to make him think this night would be anything special.

Fong’s team, the Crazy Eights (he picked the name because eights are lucky in Chinese culture), When you’re talking about the team name, it’s the first mention that he’s Chinese, or is of Chinese extraction. Was that a deliberate decision to hold off on that? Or that’s just where it came up?   That’s really the first place it came up. Being Chinese is a big part of Bill’s identity, and it comes up pretty regularly in conversation. I think going through the story, that’s just the first time that it came up in terms of a place where I would have mentioned it. It was just a natural question that I asked him. Why is the team named that? was assigned lanes 27 and 28, one of Fong’s favorite pairs. The left lane, 27, hooks more, he says. The right lane, 28, tends to be more direct.

Frame one was on the left lane. As always, he was last in the bowling order, the anchor position. He watched his teammates roll and noticed each one throw a ball that hooked early and missed the pocket, the sweet spot between the head pin and the three pin on the right, the place that gives you the best chance of getting a strike. So when it was Fong’s turn, he opted to roll a deeper hook, to stay outside and ride the edge of the gutter a little longer.

The result was a loud, powerful strike. His ball slammed into the pocket with a vengeance, obliterating all 10 pins. His next roll, on 28, was another violent strike. All four of the first frames were robust strikes, actually. But his teammates barely took notice.

“To tell you the truth, that wasn’t that unusual,” says JoAnn Gibson, a sweet Southern woman who enjoys the company more than she does the actual bowling. Were you surprised that Fong’s teammates weren’t necessarily as serious about bowling as he was?   No, I’m not surprised that anybody is not as serious about bowling as he is. Nobody is as serious about bowling as he is, that I’ve ever met probably. I was a little surprised by the interesting variety, by the real true dynamic that they have in terms of people who… It really is just kind of a fun Monday night out to Bill. He has different teams for every single night of the week. Yeah, he seems so serious about it that he wouldn’t necessarily work well with people who weren’t as serious. The really interesting aspect of it is that this incredible feat happened on a Monday. He has so many more serious teams, even more serious leagues. This would be like a hardcore fantasy football player playing in a casual office pool. Or an amateur professional poker player playing in a home five-dollar game. He just likes getting the rolls in. The fact that it happened on a Monday of all the places, of all the times, is just one of those small, little details I found interesting. Did he talk about that much? It seems like somebody like Bill would really want that to happen on a serious night, where the really good bowlers would recognize him. Does that make sense?   He was happy that there happened to be a lot of the people in the bowling community there, who happened to be there that night. Or, at some point, somebody called them and they showed up, or they heard about it very quickly. On the other hand, he, in some ways, is glad that they weren’t there, right? He does think of this as a devastating moment. It’s still hard for me to remember that, and it’s hard for a lot of people to remember that. That it still is a devastating time for him.

“Bowlers like Bill can roll off mini-streaks like that all the time,” says Tom Dunn, a more serious bowler who sometimes flirts innocently with JoAnn.

Both Gibson and Dunn have bowled with or against Fong in this league since the Clinton administration. They’ve been teammates for nine years. James Race, who, with his perpetual smile and polite demeanor, reminds the other teammates of Mister Rogers, came a few years later. They don’t really hang out much outside the bowling alley, but no matter what’s going on in life, they go to Plano Super Bowl for a few hours on Monday nights.

Fong’s fifth roll of the night wasn’t so beautiful. His approach and release seemed the same—he was becoming the robot—and the ball hit the pocket, but the pins didn’t go down quickly. The 10 pin was wobbling upright, teetering, when Fong got what is called a “messenger.” From the left, one of the pins he’d just sent bouncing came back across the lane, clipping the 10 just enough to knock it off balance. How did you get these details, considering it happened two years earlier?   So they are singed into his memory, right? And this is something I’m worried about. It’s not on video. A lot of the records show exactly where the splits were, but if it’s a strike, it’s a strike. It’s hard to tell just on the written record, on the printout sheet, what exactly happened. He has all of these little notes in his records that he’s kept. I wouldn’t say he remembers each frame, but he probably, of the 36, probably has a very, very, very good recollection of almost all of them, along with these little notes. And other people on his team remember a couple of these things. So, somebody else would say, “Oh the time that it looked like the seven and 10 were both going to stay up,” and then, “Oh it looked like you were going to cut in too deep.” And then nope, still a strike. And more as they went on, right? So fewer from the first game. His teammates vaguely remember the first game. It was only toward the end of the second game and then the third game. It’s a lot of like, “Oh man, do you remember that? Oh man, you remember that one?”  When he got back to the table, his teammates congratulated him, but Fong called it what it was: a lucky strike.

In the sixth frame, he had another loud, devastating strike. Then another. Then another. With each throw, he could tell it was a strike from the moment it left his hand. He’d watch as the pins were there one second, then gone the next. “It felt like driving and catching a green light, then the next one, then the next, then turning, and still catching every green light everywhere you go,” Fong says.

Before he knew it, it was the 10th frame. Back on the right lane, he again tried to swing the ball wide, let it run along the outside of the lane, next to the gutter. The first two rolls of the 10th frame both tucked into the pocket just as Fong hoped, and both were solid strikes.

On the last roll, though, something happened. He could tell from the sound of the pins. As the clutter at the end of the lane cleared, he could see the nine pin (the second from the right on the last row) still standing. He watched the chaos of the flying pins, each rotating right past the upright nine. Fong craned his neck, watching, hoping. Until one of the pins popped up from its side and swiped the nine down.  Did you ever worry in the writing of this story that maybe, just maybe, memories weren’t clear as to what happened that night? I’m just curious how they remembered all this, but it seems like it was a communal thing. By the second game, everybody was kind of fully invested in what was going on. And so they’re validating each other’s memories in a way, you know?   Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. So you know, I wasn’t there that night, but this is the way that these people have remembered it. And there was nobody arguing over each frame, so however they’ve come to these conclusions, this is established how it went that night.

“The best way to describe the first 300 was just ‘powerful,’” Race says.

One of the Super Bowl employees announced Fong’s name and score over the loudspeaker, something Fong is a particular fan of. There was a round of applause.

“Sometimes, when you have a lot of 300s, or if you get more than one in a week, they won’t announce it,” he says.  I love that he really wants his name to be announced when he bowls a 300.   And it’s also his kind of humble-braggy way of saying how often he gets 300s. That they don’t always announce his 300s. That’s a very Bill Fong thing to say.

The night was just beginning. You knew the structure as you sat down to write because you had outlined. Did you know the cliffhanger? Because there are kind of cliffhangers at the end of each section as well. Did you know what those were before you started writing?   I knew some of them. So I knew that when things were just beginning, I knew that there was going to be something similar to that in that very spot. Fewer as the story goes on, I think. Those were the kind of things that just happened; those were the decisions that are just going to happen when you’re actually typing.

• • •

Aside from bowling, Bill Fong hasn’t had a lot of success in life. His Chinese mother demanded perfection, but he was a C student. He never finished college, he divorced young, and he never made a lot of money. By his own account, his parents didn’t like him much. As a bowler, his average in the high 230s means he’s probably better than anyone you know. But he’s still only tied as the 15th best bowler in Plano’s most competitive league. Almost nothing in life has gone according to plan.  Was it hard to get Fong to talk about his past, given that nothing has gone according to plan?   Yes, that was one of the most difficult parts. And there’s some reference to him having smoked pot when he was younger, and he was really worried about that at first, too. He just didn’t know—and it was actually, when I was talking to him, when he was putting a lot of these things together, realizing how much of his life had built up to these moments. So, him talking about bowling, he can go on forever. He would much rather talk about bowling than his own personal history, I think.   Did you interview him outside of the bowling alley to get that information? Or was that all in the bowling alley as well?   No, I talked to him outside the bowling alley, and we talked on the phone quite a bit, too. I think a lot of that stuff actually came in the phone conversations. That first paragraph—it’s not long but it tells you a lot. Did you feel like you had to pack a lot in given space considerations?   It wasn’t really space, although I knew they were just not going to dedicate an enormous amount of space to a story about bowling, no matter what. I just wanted to keep the story moving as fast as possible. And I wanted it to be in scene as much as possible, so I wanted to hit these background bits as hard as I could and get people a very clear picture of Bill as fast as possible.

He likes to say he got his approach to bowling from the hard-hitting alleys in his native Chicago, where he went to high school with Michelle Obama. He was one of the few kids from Chinatown interested in bowling at the time. Despite his strict mother and the fact that his friends were all on the honor roll, little William preferred sports. He dreamed of being a professional athlete one day. He wasn’t big—too short for basketball, too slender for football—but he’d run up and down the block as a boy, racing imaginary friends.

When Fong was young, his parents divorced. He remembers the man who would become his stepdad taking his mom out on dates to a local bowling alley, where they could bring the kids. He noticed that when he was bowling, he wasn’t thinking about whatever was going on behind him. His mind could focus on the ball, the lane, the pins—and the rest of the world would disappear. He had never been captivated by anything like that. How long did this story take you to report and write? I reported it over about two weeks while I was working on some other stuff. I was actually working on this story at the same time I was working on a crime story about a woman who was kidnapped and tortured and eventually escaped. And I actually wrote this story in the hotel room while I was covering that trial. So in a Holiday Express in Parker County somewhere was where I actually wrote almost all the story.   Total writing time?   Honestly, I think I wrote the majority of the entire draft over one night.   Do you write as you report or do you wait until you’re completely done reporting?   You will never be completely done reporting. That’s the hard part. I write when I have to write. I wish that I was more disciplined, and a lot [of writers] I know are really, really great at being able to pound out a certain number of words every single day. But, you know, generally my deadline or when I need to hand a story in… I’m writing a couple of days before that. And sometimes it’ll be staring at a screen for a couple of hours or days until everything just falls into place. And then sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, you need to hammer it out. It’s weird. It’s like bowling. I never know exactly what’s going to hit the strike. I know I can type, if I’m going on a good day, I can do six, seven thousand words in a day. But that is followed and preceded by a lot of days of despair and not typing.

While still courting Fong’s mother, his stepdad promised that if the boy ever got a score higher than 120 he’d buy him his own ball. “He never did,” Fong says. “I bought it myself.”

After his mother remarried and moved away, he still had his siblings, his quiet, hard-working father, and his bowling. He joined the high school team. He went to the public library and checked out stacks of books about bowling theory. After a stint in college, he found himself smoking a lot of pot and staying out all night bowling, trying to hustle people out of small bets. He’d leave the alley after the sun came up, go out to breakfast, sleep until 6 pm, and then repeat the process.  Can you talk about that interview, in which you got all that information? There’s so much there. I’m curious how you sorted through it and figured out what was relevant to the story and what wasn’t. I wanted to cull all of that information for the things that were most important to his personality and our understanding of what happened to him that night. So how important bowling is for him, how important his success is to him, how driven and kind of disappointing a lot of his life was. You know, those are the key things I wanted to get to before we got back into the bowling. Talking to him about things—he feels like his background, being from Chicago… The hard streets of Chicago were where hardcore bowlers come from, especially in his mind. Basically like, Rucker Park. From his perspective, the most important parts of his background were just the Chicago kind of born-and-bred aspects. The fact that he went to high school with Michelle Obama in Chicago, in his mind, tells people all they need to know about his bowling history, too.

At 22, he got married and his wife encouraged him to “grow up.” He realized he wasn’t ever going to become a professional bowler like the men he watched on TV every week, and he took a job cutting hair.

“It was just something I could always do for money,” he says. “I like the artistic side, but it’s not my passion.”

Soon he gave up bowling and took up golf. It was a lot like bowling—timing, balance, accuracy—and he’d heard that with 10 years of practice, anyone could become a top-level golfer. He read books about golf, took a job at a pro shop, and learned to cut his own clubs. For 10 years, through career changes, through his divorce, through his move to Dallas (several family members had moved to Texas for various reasons and he’d always enjoyed visiting), Fong played golf. His younger sister was by then a standout on the Baylor University golf team. But after all those years of playing nearly every day, he still wasn’t a scratch golfer. He couldn’t take the frustration, and he swore off the game for good. This is interesting, that someone would put so much effort into something and then just quit. Did he ever consider giving up bowling a second time in his life? No. He has never thought of giving up bowling that I know of. He basically regrets having given it up for the time that he did. And really feels like he’s being punished. He really feels like that pin was punishment for that time away… To my knowledge, he has never considered giving it up again and regrets having given it up the first time.

He remembered how much he’d enjoyed bowling. He didn’t miss the up-all-night-gambling lifestyle, but the game itself, shutting out the world and making himself robotic—those things he missed. In terms of going back to the whole robot theme, does he, outside the bowling alley, does he want to be a robot as well? Or no.   I don’t know. I don’t think so. And honestly because he doesn’t spend an enormous time outside the bowling alley. He would be in the bowling alley constantly. And now he has a bowling shop, so he’s constantly thinking about bowling. I think he’s dedicated his life to bowling in a monastic way.

He joined a few leagues and bowled in tournaments all over North Texas, but no alley felt to him quite like the Super Bowl in Plano. There’s something about the friendly faces, the way a great strike sounded there. It felt right.

After 14 years, he knows all 48 lanes. He equates it to the way Tiger Woods knows the holes on his home golf course. Fong has rolled on each of these lanes dozens of times over the years, and he keeps detailed records.

“No two lanes are the same,” he says.

He documents which lanes hook better and which seem to suck the ball into the gutter. He notes any tiny divot and nearly imperceptible slope, any imperfection he can find. Lane five, for example, has a higher strike percentage when people throw straighter. On lane 16, the oil tends to swirl closer to the pins.

In the years she’s known Fong, Gibson has had very few conversations with him that didn’t involve ball movement and oil patterns, though she admits most of the technical bowling talk flies right over her head. But she smiles, not wanting to offend anyone. “This really is Bill’s life,” she says.  I can’t tell if she thinks that’s wonderful or if she thinks that’s sad.   Yeah, I can’t tell either.   What do you think? It’s both, right? It is both wonderful and sad. To a lot of people a life dedicated to bowling seems very sad and empty, but to Bill, he really does love bowling. He likes the pains of it, likes the technicality of it, likes the success, likes the glory, in whatever measure he can get it. And then when a lot of his teammates came to visit him in the hospital and a lot of his opponents and a lot of people from the bowling community kind of showed that they do care for him so much, I kind of thought of it as back to the wonderful part of it. It really was like, look at this life he’s built out of bowling. He didn’t even realize in some ways how appreciated he was.   Well I wonder why would we think of bowling, dedicating your life to bowling, is being any less cool than dedicating your life to running or baseball, you know? I don’t know, bowling’s got a bad rap, I think.    It does. It has kind of a blue-collar, Midwestern, Americana association to it. For better or for worse. Although I think bowling is one of the few things that really unites an enormous amount of Americans. Whatever your race, creed, politics, gender, a lot of people at some point in their lives have thrown a bowling ball down an aisle, down some sort of alley.

“Looking back,” Fong says, “I guess bowling just always filled whatever emptiness I had.”

• • •

That night, people were still coming over to congratulate Bill Fong on the 300, when he did something unimaginable: for his second game, he switched bowling balls.  Was it obvious to you, when you learned that he changed the balls before that second game, that that was how you were going to lead that section?   I think so. I think it was pretty surprising to me and especially when I thought about from the perspective of wanting to repeat success over and over and over again. And it just seemed like an interesting, strange twist. I need to be able to relate his night bowling to general readers as much as possible. And so, little things like that help a lot. And generally, in the editing process, it was kind of a surgical removal of a little bit of bowling here, a little bit of bowling there. And that was most of the editing process on the backend.   Can you talk about the editing process? Maybe the evolution the story went through in that process?   Tim is an incredible editor. He trusted me to write the story, thought it was kind of an entertaining little tale. And then sat with me and we outlined it together. Honestly, it was a lot of his ideas on where to slot things. Once I kind of thought of the Ben Fountain-inspired beginning. Sometimes the draft, the story has to be completely rewritten from top to bottom five, six, seven times. This was one of those that was lucky enough that it didn’t really. On the first draft, most of the stuff was there. It was just kind of cutting out a couple hundred words of bowling.

He remembered, two weeks earlier, practicing on lanes 27 and 28. He remembered that after a few games, the oil pattern on the right lane shifted. So to start game two on the right lane, he switched to his more polished ball, the one that hooks less and rolls straighter.

Someone on another lane saw him making the change. “Is Bill Fong switching balls?” the man called out to his friends incredulously.

Fong heard him and turned around.

“Yep,” he said.

The man called back to him: “You’re crazy!” That’s a great little exchange that offers a glimpse into this world. How did you get that? So Bill mentioned it really off-handed, almost exactly describing that exact way. And I didn’t realize who he was talking about until I was talking to one of his other buddies who was there that night, and he was telling me like, “I saw it out of the corner of my eye,” and he recounted the exact same thing verbatim to me. And I’m like, alright, done. You know, this is excellent.   So they both remembered it exactly the same way.   Independently. Exactly verbatim. I mean obviously not independently, they’re friends. But me talking to them in completely separate times in separate places. And I wasn’t asking specifically about that. I didn’t even realize that was the guy who had said that. Does that show something about that night, you think? In terms of how these people… You use the phrase “seared into memory.”   I thought it was pretty interesting, and I also really liked using the audience there as a kind of reflection of what was going on. Early on in the story, the fact that people were talking about this event, and we don’t know exactly what happened. And then at various points in the story, it’s Bill interacting with other people or the audience, whether it’s shaky phones or calling each other. So there’s some kind of reflection about, some sort of three-dimensional aspect of what’s going on. I like doing that when I can because in some ways it goes back to why old sitcom creators like having a studio audience. The little, subliminal cues that kind of signal audiences what to do.

Fong grinned and turned back toward the lane. He stepped forward and unleashed a solid, thorough strike—his 13th of the night. Then he stood there, arms wide, shaking his head. His gutsy move had paid off.  Can you talk about recreating the scene that kind of follows him through that first ball that second game? How did you get those details from Fong? Notes I’m assuming, but how else? He remembers it really well. He’s stared at his own notes for hours, I’m sure. And his teammates remember it pretty well. And his friends, who were there and saw him switch balls, remember it pretty clearly, too.

Dunn remembers the feeling in the air. “Because he started out by switching balls, and that was so incredible, the second game was definitely more emotional,” he says.

Throughout the second game, Fong continued using his more aggressive ball on the left lane, and the more polished, less aggressive ball on the right lane. And the strikes kept coming.

It seemed like even members of the other team were smiling when Fong was up to roll. Fong himself was laughing and smiling, pointing and calling out to friends at other lanes. He remembers shrugging a lot. “I felt loose as a goose,” he says.

As he sent strike after strike down the lanes, he began to feel magical. Literally, the way he was commanding the balls to turn and burrow into the unsuspecting pins, it felt a little like he was moving heavy objects with only the power of his mind. In the fourth frame, both the seven and the 10 pins stayed up just a bit longer than he wanted. As he gestured with both arms, they fell. Something similar happened in the eighth frame.  That’s another detail that I think anybody’s who’s bowled can relate to.   Yeah, and it slows down time. In their memories, they describe these things happening in slow motion basically. Because I think at the moment there was so much blood flowing and adrenaline going that it was really tense there.   When you say slows down time, it slows down time for the people who are watching it, but are you thinking from a writer’s standpoint as well? From a story’s standpoint? And why there?   Yeah. In terms of a montage, I want to get through that as much as possible as fast as possible, while still slowing down for little moments that people are going to be able to relate to. You can’t show every ball that he rolls in that game. But you also don’t want to just rush through it. You need those instances where everything slows down a bit. Right, those have to stand in, in a lot of ways, for the rest of the game.

“It was like Moses parting the sea,” he says. “I’d move my hands and everything would get out of the way.”

Soon the other bowlers began stepping back when he was up, taking extra precaution not to get in his way. “Nobody wants to mess up a streak like that,” Dunn says.

By the 10th frame, Fong found that most people around him wouldn’t make eye contact for fear they would be the last thing he would see before rolling a dud. On the first roll of the last frame, he had what he calls a “happy accident.” For the first time that night, one of his powerful throws missed its mark ever so slightly. But because the oil was now evaporating on the left lane, too, the ball found the pocket for a perfect strike. Noticing what happened on the first roll, he adjusted his position and finished the game with two more powerful strikes, Nos. 23 and 24 of the night. Would this story have been possible without Fong’s extensive note-taking?   I don’t think so. It would be really, really hard to try and examine 36 frames of bowling two years after it happened without really extensive notes.

Once again, Fong got to hear his name called from the speakers. And again he took a moment to shake hands with the line of people waiting to congratulate him. A few were embarrassed that they hadn’t come over after the first 300. People were delightfully confused, shaking their heads as they patted Fong on the back.

“Never seen anything like it,” they said. “Back-to-back 300s.”

And Fong shook his own head. “Me neither,” he said.  Here, you don’t really end on a cliffhanger. There’s really nothing hinting at something more incredible happening. Was that done on purpose, and if so, why?   At this point in the story, we don’t have to push as hard. It’s not like it’s a mystery as to what happened. Exactly how it ends is still a mystery, but we’ve established a lot. At this point, you either want to know or you don’t. Here is where you’re going to stop reading the story or you’re not. • • •

There’s almost never a time when every decision you make is correct and every step is in the right direction. Life, like bowling, is full of complicating factors, unpredictable variables, plenty of times when there is no right answer. But Bill Fong had some experience with near-perfection prior to the night. He’d had another amazing run two years before that. He’d bowled a 297, then a 300. Why did you wait until this late in the story to let the reader know he’s kind of done something like this before?   This just goes back to that slotting. This is just where this had to go. We’re either stacking a bunch of various background all in one place, or we kind of have to sprinkle it out throughout the story. And this just seemed like the most logical place to put it. It’s also foreshadowing, obviously. But this just seemed like the most obvious place to put that.

Someone mentioned to him that with another great game he could beat the Texas state series record, which was 890. Fong can admit it now: he choked in that third game. He could feel himself thinking too much, slipping out of the zone. Soon he was out of rhythm and his balance was off. That night he shot a 169 in the last game; he didn’t even break 800 for the series. It was exactly what he was trying to avoid after his two straight 300s.

So this time, before game three, he approached a friend who was bowling a few lanes down. Fong mentioned that he was thinking about switching balls again, using the less aggressive ball on both lanes in the final game. His friend, who had plenty of 300s under his own belt, was surprised but gave him simple advice: “Trust your instinct.”

When that first roll of the third game produced another strike—another risky decision rewarded—Fong felt like he was floating. He wasn’t drinking, but he felt a little drunk. I love this detail, especially after having read the story multiple times, because it foreshadows what is coming up. That was a conscious thing for you to do as a writer?   It was both. I don’t think originally it was conscious. When he told me about it, certainly, I didn’t think about it in terms of the stroke. When he was first telling me, I’m asking questions like: “How do you feel at that moment? How are you acting when you’re not up there bowling?” “What are you doing?” And he’s like, “You know, I’ve never felt lighter, I felt drunk. Felt like I was floating around.” And you can even see in the video from those last frames, he does look a little drunk. And so obviously then, what I was thinking about—I think by the time I actually typed it up, I probably was pretty conscious of how that foreshadowed the ending because… it matches the back part of his story perfectly. It’s sad to think about it, right? It’s happy to think about him floating around and drunk and happy if it’s this kind of run that he’s on. It’s more sad to think about it in terms of the thing that potentially threw him off and threatened his life.  Both his teammates and his opponents bowled as fast as they could to get out of his way. By the time he struck in the fifth frame, he realized he would almost certainly break the coveted 800 mark. He was relieved.

By the sixth frame, a large crowd had formed behind Fong. Dozens of people had stopped bowling to watch. Texts were sent and statuses posted to Facebook, and the audience grew.

“We were more nervous than he was at the time,” Gibson says. “It was almost like he was putting on a show up there.”

How many people did you talk to for the story? Because Fong is definitely kind of a loner, it seems. And we mostly hear from his teammates. Did you talk to other people? Did you talk to his family or other friends or anybody like that?   I didn’t talk to his family. I talked to all of his teammates, and I talked to a bunch of people from the bowling alley that night. Probably like 15 to 20, including two or three of his really, really close friends. And they’re all bowlers, obviously. His close friends?   Yeah, I mean his close bowling friends. People he knows through the bowling alley. One of which actually passed away only a couple weeks after the story came out. Yeah, it was one of Bill’s best friends in the world.

Each time he approached the lane, the entire bowling alley went silent. Every time he let fly another roll, there were audible moans from strangers and shouts from the crowd: “That’s it, baby!” Each time he struck, the room erupted with applause. In all his life, Bill Fong had never heard anyone cheering him like that.

He had 33 straight strikes entering the 10th frame of the third game. Out came the cell phone cameras. There were whispers, but as soon as Fong picked up his ball, it was dead quiet. He turned to look at the crowd behind him, now well over 100 people, densely packed from the end of the snack bar to the vending machines 80 feet away.

That’s when the magic left him. Fong began to feel nervous, like the world was watching him pee. He felt the buzz—whatever it had been—leave his body. As he stood in front of lane 28, he felt numb. He tried to push through it.

He lined up and threw a ball without much hook on it. As soon as it left his hand, Fong began waving at it, trying to will the ball left. It connected with the pocket but without the usual force. As the other pins dropped, the nine pin stayed up for what seemed like ages. But just as the gasp of the crowd reached a crescendo, one of the pins rolling meekly across the lane bumped the nine just enough to tip it. The room exploded with cheers and whistles. The sound was enough to shake one of the cameras now capturing the moment.  How important were the videos shot on camera phones for you to recreate those last three rolls?   That was really important. And not just that, but also to kind of confirm some of the earlier stuff too… Especially recounting those last couple frames, that was everything. Because Bill really does not like talking about that.   Does he remember those last three frames?   Given what he might have been going through, he does. He does remember them, yeah. And it is basically like hearing somebody talk about getting shot… I’m really glad I had the video. When I first started the story, I just assumed there would be video, and then at some point when I couldn’t find the video, when I couldn’t just find it somewhere posted, I was a little worried. And it’s also just a fantastic story, right? I just really wanted to make sure that this video just confirmed that all of these things even happened, and it wasn’t some sort of conspiracy against me, given all the recent bad news in journalism, especially now. I watched that video 50 or 60 times easily.

Fong looked dizzy as he walked back to the ball exchange. For the first time that night, he began sweating profusely. But he realized the mistake he’d made on his last throw, and the second roll was much cleaner. Again there were shouts from the audience as the ball blazed down the lane, zipping back in time to smash the pins apart in a powerful, driving strike. And there was even more cheering as all 10 pins fell. Thirty-five strikes down, one to go.  The subhead in this story is, “In a bowling alley one night, Bill Fong came so close to perfection that it nearly killed him.” Do you feel like that gives away the ending? Yeah, I do. I am very trusting when it comes to headlines and deckheads. The editors, that’s their jobs. They know what they’re doing. They’re really good at that. The print headline for this story was “Near Miss,” [and] I’m really glad they ended up using a different headline on the web because I honestly don’t know if the story would’ve the traction that it got under “Near Miss”… I don’t know if it bothered me or not. It didn’t give away every aspect of the ending, and it worked out pretty well in terms of people getting the theme of the story.   Right. I think “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever” is clearly a headline written for search engine optimization, but it is a great headline, you know?   Yeah. I was really glad. I think I first saw that—it was like a cover tag on the print issue, and I think they just used that for the web head. I liked it more than “Near Miss.” It’s a little presumptuous, but it’s certainly the most amazing story I’ve ever heard about a bowling alley. It baffles the mind to think of a bowling story that would—that’s actually about bowling—that would be more incredible than this.

Before his final roll, Fong wiped his ball with his towel. He heard a woman’s voice behind him, a stranger, saying, “We are having fun, aren’t we?” He lifted the ball to his chest and stood calmly for a moment. Then he took five steps and released the ball toward perfection.

It looked good from his hand, arcing out the way so many of his great strikes that night had, cutting back to the pocket just in time. Several people started applauding before the ball even reached the end of the lane—that’s how good it looked. But this time, as the pins scrambled, something unimaginable happened. The 10 pin, farthest to the right, wobbled. But it didn’t fall. I still get goose bumps reading this paragraph. And I’ve read it, I don’t know, four, five, six times maybe. What was it like writing—can you remember writing that specific paragraph? Or that entire section?   I don’t really remember… I mean you go into the trance where you’re actually typing stuff up from your outline. Watching that video though, I think I knew exactly how it was going to go. Because it is just devastating to watch. You could hear all the cheers, and then it turns to that moment where you hear everybody simultaneous moan, “Ohh..” And it’s just so, so sad.

Some of the people in the room couldn’t process what they’d just witnessed. How could the last roll, like the 35 before it, not be a strike?

Strangers fell to their knees. It was hard for anyone to breathe.  How did you get that detail, especially the breathing? You could probably watch them fall to their knees maybe in the video, but the breathing one, I can’t remember. In the video… you can hear them gasp. You can hear people just gasp. And then somebody actually told me, that was actually one of the details that I had in my notes, that when they were watching—I don’t remember if that was a direct quote or not—they said, “I couldn’t breathe. After he… he kind of spun away and was walking away. I’m guessing I just couldn’t breathe watching him.” Like wow, that’s a great line.

Fong turned and walked to his right. He was empty. Blank.

His friends, the ones who were prepared seconds ago to tackle him in celebration, grabbed him and held him still. As he stood there, Fong wanted to say something—anything—but he couldn’t make a sound.  I’m curious what you did writing-wise to make sure the reader gets to this point in the story, in terms of narrative engine, setting up early so you know they’ll get to this point. This is what everything was building up to. This is why you start with a bookend beginning. Why you kind of slowly build into something. Why you want to get things going as fast as you possibly can. Why you want to add in a bunch of reasons to care about these characters, this character in particular. And little things that might have readers relate to these people. That’s everything that went into that right at these moments.

• • •

Sitting around the table two years after that night, Bill Fong and his teammates still argue. Fong truly believes that the last pin could have made his life perfect. “It would have made all the difference,” he says. With a 900, he theorizes, he might have made SportsCenter, and he would surely have sponsors. He thinks he might have had a chance to join the pro tour. At least, he figures, he’d be the best of all time at something, with the name Bill Fong immortalized above even the legends of the game—and he wouldn’t be just a regular guy.  We go back to the night you’re there. So we’re jumping two years into the future. Why do you do that here and not just push straight through to the big surprise at the end?   Well, probably the most common question I got about this story with writers is how and why I didn’t mention the stroke earlier. For me, that was never really a question, you know? Medical stories or illness stories are really hard to make not follow the same kind of tropes, right? So if you mention the stroke early in the story, it’s a stroke story. It’s not a bowling story; it’s not a story about perfection. It’s about somebody who had a stroke. And it’s really hard. Really good writers can do it, but it’s really a challenge to make that, if it’s about that, to avoid clichés and tropes. And I generally like chronology. I might start out of chronological order, but generally I try and have things come in chronological order. So it was never really a question of where it was going to go for me. I just wanted to come back and put this in present tense a little bit so that we kind of have some recovery time. That hits really hard, and I kind of wanted to debate over what that was before we get into this other twist.

“That pin makes me like the Rodney Dangerfield of bowling,” he says. “I get no respect.”

He goes over that last roll in his mind all the time. He watches the shaky cell phone video.

“It looked so good as it left my hand,” he says.

When that 15-pound sphere collides with the pins, so many things happen so fast that there’s no way of knowing exactly what went wrong in those milliseconds.

That hasn’t stopped Fong from searching for some reason. He wonders if he could have practiced more. He blames the 10 years he was away from bowling. Like that single pin represents the Bowling Fates punishing him for his insolence.

His teammates disagree. They don’t think that pin would have made much of a difference in Bill Fong’s life at all. What he did was amazing, something that will come up in conversation around the Plano Super Bowl for years.  This is a lovely, subtle sentence that drives home exactly Fong’s point, that his life hasn’t changed, that it wasn’t amazing, that it’s just the fodder for another Monday night at the Plano Super Bowl.   That’s interesting that’s how you think of that. In this world, his life did change, right? We don’t know. We honestly don’t know what would’ve happened if the pin had fallen or not. There’s a lot of people—or not a lot. There’s a couple people who’ve bowled 900. I don’t know if any of them immediately got pro sponsorship or went on tour. But in this world, in this subculture, in this community, it is the greatest feat that has been accomplished. They still talk about it with reverence. Does he open a pro shop? Does he open his own bowling shop if he doesn’t roll that series? I don’t know. He and I have discussed that, and he doesn’t know, one way or the other. It’s hard to say. I don’t know.

“It was mind-boggling,” Gibson says.

The fact that he missed perfection by the last pin on the last roll—that makes the whole thing more human, less robotic. And that, somehow, makes it seem almost beautiful. Besides, they argue, Fong still holds the Texas state record. And because there have been only 21 perfect 900s, he is technically tied for the 22nd greatest night in the annals of bowling history. (There have been only 11 899s.)

His life is also better now. Around the time of the 899, Fong got a part-time job at the pro shop at the Super Bowl. Recently, he opened his own place down the road, Bowling Medic Pro Shop. A lot of people from his four leagues come by to have him drill their balls. Sometimes he cuts their hair, too.

There’s also this: that night, after the 899, his friends bought him a few beers. He doesn’t usually drink, but at the time, he felt like the best day of his life had just turned into the worst. After a beer or two—and at least an hour of excited congratulations from strangers—he felt dizzy. When he got home, he went into the bathroom and vomited in the toilet. The walls were spinning.

It turns out Bill Fong was having a stroke.  Did you have discussions with editors or Tim about whether that should go there or somewhere else in the story? Or was he on board with that, too? Yeah, I think he was on board with it too. I think we both just kind of assumed, for some reason, that that was about where it was going to come. The hardest part for that was the actual convincing, right? How do you bring this into, “Oh by the way… In the entire thing he was having a stroke.” So, “There’s also this.” That’s the transition. Which I love. It’s a great transition. It comes in that paragraph before, “There’s also this.” I mean it’s really simple, but it accomplishes what it needs to accomplish. Of all the amount of time I’ve spent writing, I probably spent more time on that very sentence, just debating what that transition was going to be. That sounds a little bit like Tim. That may be even his final edit, actually. I don’t remember who wrote that.

With the stress, the tension of the night, his already high blood pressure had surpassed dangerous levels. Not long after, he had another stroke. When the doctor saw the scar tissue and heard about the night of dizziness, he explained to Fong that he had suffered what could very easily have been a fatal stroke. That night at the bowling alley, had things gone differently, he could have died.

It also means that with the sweating and dizziness he was feeling in the third game, it’s likely that Fong bowled the last few frames through the beginning of that stroke—which makes the accomplishment that much more amazing.

When he had his heart surgery, he was in the hospital for a week. Not many family members visited him. Nobody came from his haircutting days. But he didn’t lack for visitors. Plenty of people from the bowling alley took the time to see him, not just teammates but also some longtime opponents. They asked him how he felt and encouraged him to get well quickly. And, one by one, they each mentioned that incredible night in January, when Bill Fong fell just one pin short of perfect.  Did you ever think about ending the story here?   I did. And that’s also the kind of line that an editor might have just cut the rest and left it right there. I think when I was with him, especially watching him bowl where he’s taking extensive notes, even after a strike. You know, especially after a strike. When I saw that, I think I was pretty convinced that I had the idea of ending it there. He’s working hard to get back in groove. Because I like stories to work in perpetuity, I like endings that kind of signify that the story exists in perpetuity. Still ongoing. But I actually did think about that when I was looking at the piece.

Rehab was hard at first. The strokes took a lot of his strength. But within a few months—earlier than doctors recommend—Fong was back to his usual form, back to rolling five days a week. More recently, he’s been sharper than ever. Since that night, Fong has rolled 10 more 300s and four series of at least 800.

As they’re talking about that night, one of his teammates poses the question: wouldn’t Fong rather be alive with an 899 than dead with a 900? It’s really a rhetorical question, but Fong takes a moment to consider it seriously. It takes him awhile, but eventually Fong says he’d rather be alive.  Would you have still done this story if he had bowled the 900? I don’t think so. I am a firm believer that the more interesting story is the miss. The imperfection, the loss. Almost winning and not winning is in some ways the perfect story, right? It’s not the perfect experience by any means. It’s a devastating human experience. But especially in the context of sports, where there isn’t actually, generally going to be life and death, it really is the perfect story because that is the majority of us. That’s the human experience.

“Well,” says Race, the Mister Rogers of the group, “we’re sure happy to have you still here and bowling with us.”

Tonight, Fong struggles through the first few games. But in the final game of the night, he starts with three straight strikes. Then a fourth. Then a fifth. In the sixth frame, he throws it well but leaves the 10 pin standing, taunting him.

After picking up the spare, Fong comes back to the table, shaking his head and looking at his teammates.

“I’ve got to make adjustments,” he says, and he begins making notes.  Can you talk about why you had it end with him making adjustments?   I really wanted the story to exist in a perpetuity. I want to be ending to kind of signify that the story is ongoing. He is still struggling, he is still trying for perfection. When Joey, the filmmaker who made the documentary, got in touch with me, and he asked, “Is he still trying for 900? Do you think he’ll try for a 900 when I’m there?” He’s trying for a 900 every day, man. This is the kind of thing that he’s always, always working for.


]]> 0
Billy Collins on defying convention, the reader’s indifference and making other writers jealous Wed, 18 Feb 2015 22:05:51 +0000 Billy Collins, who served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, spoke today at the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley. Tough gig, right?

He may describe himself as “an amateur, a tyro” at wine, but Collins, often called the nation’s most popular poet, is obviously no slouch at writing, having produced 10 collections of poetry and won a Guggenheim fellowship, among many other honors, as well as being named New York State Poet from 2004 to 2006.

Here are a handful of our favorite insights, jokes and writing tips from his talk, titled “There Stands the Glass: Description and Story:”

  1. On audience: “We can always assume the indifference of the reader.”
  2. On revision: “You have to pretend you’re a stranger to your own writing.”
  3. On why we write: “Isn’t the purpose of writing to make other writers jealous?” (This, in case it’s not obvious, was a joke.)
  4.  On finding your own path: “If you detect that other writers are following a set of conventions, see if you can turn them around.”
  5. And what he does when he’s stuck writing a poem: “I try to picture the poem set in the typeface of The New Yorker.”

Collins also read several of his works, including “Osso Bucco,” and a favorite with the wine writers: “Hangover.”

]]> 0