Journalism, poetry, fiction and music all came together on Storyboard this week, so yes, call it a dream week for me. I love seeing how the same skills apply whether you’re a poet like Verandah Porche, a fiction writer like James M. Cain, a songwriter like Bruce Springsteen or a journalist trying to make deadline. We are all trying to distill the story — and what moves us — to its essence. As Porche says, “Sort what haunts you.”
“The Power of Narrative conference: how the tools of poetry can help journalists.” Perhaps unsurprisingly for the editor of a literary journalism site, I’m a bit obsessed with the rhythm of language. So it’s no surprise that a session at Boston University’s Power of Narrative conference last weekend called “Turn Grim News into Daring Poetry: A workshop on the alchemy of transforming fact into imagery” was one of my favorites. She offered a poet’s tips to journalists: Imagine/invent/address your perfect reader; Make thumbnail portraits of the characters; Distill little soliloquies; Smell the setting; Discover the lead; Sense the ending; Pare down the language.
The soundtrack: “Poet,” by Sly and the Family Stone. A great groove accompanies these lyrics: “I’m a songwriter/A poet/And the things I flash on everyday/They all reflect in what I say.” Such a wonderful band.
“In a divided land, Bruce Springsteen and the runaway American dream.” I think journalists love Bruce Springsteen in part because he’s their musical equivalent: He’s a storyteller, and he gives voice to the powerless. We just wish we could do it so beautifully, and in the bounds of a three-minute song, no less. That’s why I think he deserved a spotlight on Storyboard, and Tom McNichol did a wonderful job capturing the four-decade arc of his giving witness the faltering American dream in the heartland. It seemed particularly relevant today in a divided country where, he writes, “millions of Americans have come around to Springsteen’s view of the country’s problems, even if there’s bitter disagreement over who’s to blame and what to do about it. More than a few of the characters in Springsteen’s songs probably would have voted for Donald Trump.”
The soundtrack: “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” by Bruce Springsteen. The title track to my favorite Springsteen album is bleak. (The line about everyone having a secret that they have to cut loose or let it drag them down gives me shivers.) If they ever give the Nobel Prize for literature to another singer, they could cite this line: “I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost/for wanting things that can only be found/ in the darkness on the edge of town.”
One Great Sentence
“She is the mother of two fatherless children and she was walking into the history of this country because she was showing everybody who felt old and helpless and without hope that she had this terrible strength that everybody needed so badly.”
Jimmy Breslin, “Digging JFK Grave Was His Honor,” the New York Herald Tribune, November 1963. Read why we think it’s great.
What I’m reading online: I’m impressed with The Big Roundtable project The Promise (very Springsteen-sounding), what it calls “Letters From Flyover Country: Three Towns in the Age of Trump.” And this week’s installment is really up my alley: Michael Shapiro spends some time with the digital version of microfiche, looking up old editions of the newspapers of each of the small towns. He writes: “They are as much a part of the town as city hall, the library, the high school, and the access roads to the business loop. Much more, really, because without them there is no record of the past — and by record I refer not to stenography but to narrative.” It’s a fascinating read.
This obituary of “rock star” ornithologist Chandler S. Robbins by Darryl Fears in The Washington Post reminds me how the best obits are posthumous profiles. Robbins really comes alive here, if that isn’t too Lazarus of me to say. In the birding world, he was so revered, one birder says “she was surprised she didn’t faint when a kind stranger who complimented the way she led a field trip turned out to be her hero, Robbins.”
What’s on my bedside table: A recent Storyboard interview with the writer of a blog called Small Town Noir sent me to the bookshelves for an old favorite by the great noir writer James M. Cain: “Mildred Pierce.” I hadn’t realized that Cain was a journalist and didn’t publish his first novel until he was 42. The first page of the book gives his background, and makes this astute observation: “Of all that hard-boiled school, he is the toughest and most laconic: his novels are stripped of everything extraneous to plot and action; it is the flayed nerve-ends of sensation that he lays bare. Characteristically, his economy applies to his own background: the years he spent as a reporter tightened his prose and gave him an eye for the highlights of a story.”
What’s on my turntable: Although I spend most of my time listening to music on Spotify, sometimes I want to hear the needle touching down on vinyl. This week’s vinyl: “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen. Yes, it’s Springsteen-o-rama this week. I hadn’t listened to this album in years, probably because it’s far from my favorite Springsteen album. Why? The music is the E Street Band at its E Streetiest, compounded by the overproduction of ’80s pop. That may have abetted the willful misinterpretation of the lyrics, which are much darker than the relentless cheeriness of the music. Perhaps more than any of his other albums, I’d love Springsteen to do a slowed-down, unplugged version of this one. (Yes, I spend time thinking of such things.) I think the fineness of the words would shine through.
If you want to chat about storytelling (or music), you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can find me at @karihow on Twitter.