This week, I had a chance to talk by phone with Tom Shroder, who took a buyout from The Washington Post earlier this year. Shroder specializes in long-form narrative stories and recently launched his own editing site, and so I was curious what he would have to say about the current state of narrative journalism.
In our conversation, he dishes on a common mistake made by narrative freelancers, talks about the genesis of one of the best newspaper narratives ever written, and a offers up a considered defense of poop jokes. Here's a taste:
Where a lot of narrative journalism went wrong was that it became all about the writing, and not about the details for the story and the facts behind it. People felt they could throw some words at people and dazzle. But even good writers need to start with an exceptional set of facts.
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A few years ago an intern did a study of the writing that showed up in our newspaper. He ran our stories through a computer program that measured the reading level you would need to understand each piece. It turned … Read more
[The first in an occasional series aimed at helping readers find other online resources that focus on narrative journalism.]
Plenty of people are worried about the future of long-form journalism. Not Mark Armstrong. In April of this year, Armstrong started a “longreads” hashtag on Twitter in an attempt to create a community of people who could find and recommend great long-form stories available online. I spoke with him today, and he shared what motivated him to find a Twitter fan base for great online narratives:
“I think right now is really a perfect time for long-form journalism because of the iPhone, because of these apps that are out there. It’s changed the online reading experience to going from little nuggets that you consume between doing other tasks to something you can sit back with to read in a relaxed setting or on a commute. These are really the places where long-form journalism can work.”
Providing this kind of archive has been a part of the mission of our sister site, the Nieman Narrative Digest, and online stalwarts like Gangrey.com for more than three years. And here at Nieman Storyboard, we want to cheer on anything that keeps the narrative nonfiction flame burning. So even if you don’t use Twitter, visit @longreads to find links to stories people are recommending.
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Current Nieman fellow Hopewell Rugoho-Chin’ono recently pointed out this striking TED talk from July, in which Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks on the danger of letting one narrative define other people or places. Adichie describes her own … Read more
Today we offer the second installment of a two-part look at narrative nonfiction from Granta’s summer issue. I spoke with author Mary Gaitskill about “Lost Cat,” her memoir on the disappearance of an adopted pet, and how she connected the loss to other events in her life.
On the topic of using the piece to examine her own motives, she says, “I think that one’s own motives are interesting. Everybody’s motives are interesting… True feeling is often hidden under superficial or more attractive feelings; selfish motives are often wound up with truly altruistic ones.”
She references the Grace Paley adage about fiction being a lie you tell to get to a bigger truth, and talks about the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. Fiction, she says, “is a lie if you believe it literally. It’s a story that didn’t happen, but it illuminates the idea. I express myself much more plainly or directly with nonfiction. With fiction, I am largely speaking the language of metaphor, which people frequently mistake for literal communication.”
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At last weekend’s American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors conference, keynote speaker Shawn Levy spoke about "getting the story" and the connections between writing books and journalism. The film critic at The Oregonian, Levy has written five books, including King of Comedy, about comedian Jerry Lewis, and his most recent biography—Paul Newman: A Life. In addition to his work at The Oregonian, he blogs about film and professional soccer, and tweets compusively, suffering from what he calls “monkey brain.”
Levy suggested reporters should “look high, look low, and look sideways” when researching, and he praised the investigative reporters who taught him how to dig for a story. He talked about the “high”—academic institutions and libraries that offer arcane documents and details. He connected the “low” with tabloid accounts and stories on a subject, and the concept of looking “sideways” with looking for what else was happening in the life and community of a subject at any given point in his life.
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Excerpts from an August 2009 interview with Michael J. Mooney, reporter for Florida’s New Times, whose stories won a slot in the Best American Crime Reporting and Best American Sports Writing anthologies for 2009: When did you first get interested … Read more
Excerpts from a July 2009 interview with Steve Luxenberg on his memoir, which traces the discovery that his mother had an institutionalized sister whose existence she kept secret from her children for more than half a century: How long did you spend … Read more
“The Girl in the Window” is the story of Dani, a child so removed from normal human community she has been labeled “feral.” In this St. Petersburg Times piece, Lane DeGregory walks along a delicate tightrope, exploring an abused child’s … Read more