This essay is based on presentations given in advanced feature writing seminars the author taught at The Washington Post.
On Thinking About Intimate Journalism
It’s the kiss of death for anyone aspiring to do intimate journalism to think of what he or she does as lighteners, brighteners or human interest stories. That is a newsperson’s way of thinking. Too often, those of us aspiring to do intimate journalism work in isolation from the grand traditions that inform or should inform our work — the traditions of documentary nonfiction, qualitative social science and anthropology, the classic journalism of the New Yorker, the new journalism of the ’60s and ’70s, the literary journalism of the ’80s and ’90s and the best of travel and nature writing. That is our genealogy.
The artfulness required to do intimate journalism is not mostly a God-given skill, but craft. It’s crucial to think that way. Otherwise, we make the mistake of assuming that some people just have the knack. Some people do have the knack, but much of artful journalism, whether or not it is for ordinary people, is simply hard work — craft. I know, because whatever artfulness exists in my journalism was acquired, not inherited. The ideas, insights and tricks of the trade that I share here grow from two decades spent pursuing that acquisition. I came out of a social science background in college and graduate school and was poorly read in literature and “writerly” journalism. My plan was to do a kind of humanized public affairs journalism, a dumbed-down social science for the masses. But as I went along during my first few years, I realized that I couldn’t make my stories capture the complexity and subtlety I saw in the events I was reporting. My stories were caricatures of reality, not portraits of reality, because I simply didn’t have the skills to capture what I knew to be before me.
So I put myself on a program. I took courses in fiction and autobiography writing. I began to read fiction, particularly short naturalistic fiction, with an eye to what I could take away for my journalism. I read and studied the artful journalism classics — the new journalism of Esquire and Rolling Stone, the old new journalism of The New Yorker, the classic nonfiction of A.J. Liebling, E.B. White, Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross, John Hersey, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Susan Sheehan, John McPhee, Jane Kramer, Tracy Kidder and Joan Didion. [See endnote for suggested nonfiction readings.] I went back to the kind of fiction cited as having influenced modern nonfiction: Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage,” Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of the Plague Years,” Ernest Hemingway’s “In Our Time,” John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men.” I found my way to the nature writing of Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry and the travel writing of Peter Matthiessen, Bruce Chatwin and William Least Heat Moon, with its intricate interplay between sensory detail and interpretative meaning. I discovered the oral history of anthropologist John Langston Gwaltney and Studs Terkel, the documentary-cum-social science of Robert Coles and Michael Lesy and the documentary-cum-literature of James Agee.
Linking this work with my training in sociology, I began to think of each story I did not as a little feature but as a journalistic case study, which is a marvelous way to take your journalism seriously no matter how small your newspaper or magazine, no matter how obscure your outpost. If examining everyday life is your goal, every place is your laboratory. It was years before I thought of “intimate journalism” as a subgenre of literary journalism, which may or may not attempt to evoke the subjective realities of subjects, either famous or obscure, but which inevitably uses reporting and writing techniques aimed at giving nonfiction a more storylike quality.
The idiosyncratic beauty and power of Agee’s famous documentary work, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” stunned me, and I latched onto the documentary method’s overarching goal, as explained by historian William Stott in his book “Documentary Expression and Thirties America” — to describe and evoke “felt life” or the “feeling of a living experience.” Unlike some stylishly interpretive journalism that aims to impose the author’s “attitude” on the subject, my goal — and that of the documentary approach and the social science exemplified by books such as Elliott Liebow’s “Talley’s Corner,” Michael Lesy’s “Time Frames” and Robert Coles’s “Privileged Ones” — is to be essentially self-effacing, to let interpretations arise from within the subjects themselves.
But these notions I kept to myself in the newsroom, where they would have been viewed as weird or “highfalutin’,” even subversive. Unfortunately, America’s newsrooms are filled with men and women who know too little about artful journalism — its grand place in the journalistic scheme of things, its intricate reporting and writing methods, the sometimes idiosyncratic personalities of those who are or could be good intimate journalists and the time and work that it takes to make in-depth intimate journalism happen.
We all know news editors who instinctively salivate at a good news or investigative story but whose eyes, if you were to tell them that your goal was to render the “feeling of a living experience,” would glaze over as they assigned you to the ranks of the muddleheaded. This attitude has consequences.
The kind of journalism we end up doing is shaped by the way we think about our mission. If we think that a vital part of our job is to uncover, describe and evoke the texture, tone and meaning — the warp and woof, as people say — of the everyday lives of our readers, then the crucial role of intimate journalism comes suddenly and inevitably to the fore. This kind of journalism often gives up something in breadth and on-high authority in return for something gained in evocation and humanity. It is not “news you can use,” as the modern catchphrase goes, but “news you can feel.”
The simple goal of intimate journalism should be to describe and evoke how people live and what they value. That short phrase encompasses the full range of our lives — work, children, faith, anything that we do or that we believe important, everything ordinary and everything extraordinary in our lives.
I’m talking about a kind of story that rises and falls on narrative structure, the reporting of physical detail, the reporting of human emotion, on evocative tone and the pulling of thematic threads through the course of the story. It’s a journalism rooted in descriptive realism. As in Nelson Alfren’s words, “I try to write accurately from the poise of mind which lets us see that things are exactly what they seem.”
The basic techniques:
Thinking, reporting and writing in scenes.
Capturing a narrator’s voice and/or writing the story from the point of view of one or several subjects. In other words, writing from inside the heads of our subjects, trying to evoke their emotional realities — their felt lives.
Gathering telling details from our subjects’ lives, details that evoke the “tone” of that life. This means gathering a full range of sensory details — trying to report through all five of our senses, which creates not “color,” as some reporters would call it, but documentary detail that allows us to write, in Algren’s terms, as if “things are exactly what they seem.”
Gathering real-life dialogue. It creates the sense of life happening before readers’ eyes. A corollary to this is to keep in mind the goal of having as few quotes as possible from people who are speaking to no one in the story except the reporter — in other words, the narrator. In fictional stories, subjects do not talk to the omniscient narrator. When they do in artful journalism, it’s the equivalent of disembodied, talking heads in TV news.
Remarks made to no one in the story keep readers from losing themselves in the telling, because it reminds them that events aren’t really happening before their eyes but are being relayed secondhand through an interpreter. Quotes going out into the ether interfere with readers losing themselves in the self-referential boundaries you are trying to create in the story.
Gathering “interior” monologue — what subjects are thinking, feeling, imagining, dreaming, worrying about or wondering to themselves. Intimate journalism focuses not only on the facts but on the meaning that the facts have for our subjects. As Mark Twain wrote, “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and words! His real life is led in his head.”
Reporting to establish a time line that will allow us to write, as Jon Franklin has written in his book “Writing for Story,” a narrative article that at is beginning posits a problem, dilemma or tension that will be resolved or relieved by the end of the story, with a resultant change — usually some form of redemption but at least some kind of change — in our main subject or subjects. This gives a story a beginning, a middle and an end.
Immersing ourselves temporarily in the lives of our subjects so that they become relaxed in our presence and so that we can see real events unfold, develop and be resolved.
Gathering physical details of places and people, along with descriptions of their tics and mannerisms, at specific points in conversation or scenes so they can be used at exactly those points in our stories.
Always being aware that no matter how artful our stories may be, how specific they are to the lives of our subjects, they are primarily meant to enlighten, caution, criticize or inspire, and always resonate, in the lives of readers. The eternal verities of love, hate, fear, ambition, dedication, compassion are still our bread and butter. Always remember: Scene, detail and narrative bring a story to life, while theme and meaning imbue it with a soul.
Finally, the glue for all of this is the reader’s belief that, as Tom Wolfe once said, All of this is true! It’s all true — the color of hair and eyes, the raising of any eyebrow or a pause in midsentence, the details of a private reverie. The standard of what is “writerly” in journalism is much lower than it is in fiction for exactly this reason: It’s all true. We can’t build composites or play with the facts to fit a moral.
Of course, neither all or even most of these goals will ever be met in any one story, because each story will have different requirements, limitations and opportunities. Different journalists have different styles: Gary Smith’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Read” has almost no quotes, no dialogue, which is common in his stories. Mike Sager’s “Death in Venice” is replete with dialogue, which is common in his stories. Except for accuracy and fairness, no rule is immutable. But thinking in these grand terms means that a piece of intimate journalism is a creature all its own. It has certain internal needs, in the way that TV news requires action footage and magazine articles require good photos. The more of these needs you can meet, the better your story.
Remember also that a journalist doesn’t become proficient in all these techniques at once. John McPhee has a collection of stories titled “Pieces of the Frame.” That’s how an aspiring intimate journalist should approach the body of knowledge he or she must eventually master — build your frame one piece at a time. Remember that almost every esteemed nonfiction writer started out writing simple feature stories. When Mike Sager was a young journalist at The Washington Post, he wasn’t given the time or space to do the kind of stories he hoped to write someday. So he did small stories that allowed him to focus on aspects of the craft — a story about a farmer preparing his farm for winter, a story about three men who got together once a week to play pool, a story about a high school football team preparing for Saturday night’s big game.
Jon Franklin took much the same tack as a young journalist. Before writing “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” he wrote a story on one day in the life of a dogcatcher, a story about a severely retarded man and the nurse who cared for him and a story about workmen building a wall in the middle of a busy freeway. Both men were often frustrated by editors who didn’t share their journalistic vision. But I believe it’s important to educate those editors, explain the kind of journalism you hope to do someday, give them examples of work you admire. But most of all, live up to their standards of absolute reporting accuracy and never let sloppy reporting or writing be an editor’s legitimate excuse for reining you in.
For those who will or do work in a newspaper newsroom, it’s necessary to distinguish between a piece of intimate journalism and what are known in the newspaper business as “news feature” stories. A news feature, a worthy and noble form, is first and foremost an issue or trend story that is humanized with examples and quotes from real people.
A fine example of the news feature form is a story by The Washington Post’s Barbara Vobejda that ran on the Post’s front page. It’s about the wrenching adjustment middle-class parents must make when their children fail to live out parental dreams and ambitions. Vobejda’s story is humanized with wonderful detail and description, great and telling quotes. To make its point, the story intersperses human stories with quotations from experts. It begins with a nice anecdotal lead and ends with a touching, telling remark. It is the perfect news feature.
The story could also have been done as piece of intimate journalism. But Vobejda would have had to make decisions very differently from the beginning. She would have had to first pick one family to represent all families going through these events. Ideally, she would have found a family going through the events now—in other words, a family in the midst of resolving these disputes. She’d want a family that probably wasn’t too pathological so that it could represent what an average family might go through.
She’d need a family willing to have its intimate lives portrayed in headlines. She’d need a family in which the parents and child were bright and articulate and not shy about expressing their thoughts and feelings. She’d still have to interview experts to know the issues that she should be certain to talk about with her family, although she’d probably not quote them at all. Then she’d need to follow the family through the weeks of unfolding contention and eventual resolution. She’d collect each person’s narrative. While the family would be like blind people touching the elephant, Vobejda would see the whole elephant.
Eventually, something would happen, the matter would take a turn or even be resolved, and she would be there to see it happen. Vobejda would nudge this process along by bringing the family together for interviews that would encourage them to discuss matters they might normally not discuss. She’d ask questions from her knowledge of each person that the people themselves would never ask of each other.
If she had gone this route, her story would have been different. Not necessarily better, but different. It would have had the quality of a real-life short story being played out before our eyes. Readers would have lost the breadth of many examples and the authority of the experts’ quotations, but readers would have gained in human depth, texture and evocation.
This kind of journalism requires, I believe, a somewhat different ethical stance for journalists. In classic journalism, it’s the reader who is identified as what media ethicist Stephen Bates calls the “client” — the person the journalist is serving above those he is writing about and above those who employ him. That makes sense because the institution of American journalism is justified and protected by the First Amendment, which is meant to serve neither journalists nor subjects but the public interest. Yet when writing about the intimate lives of ordinary people, I believe journalists must adopt a hybrid ethical outlook closer to the one Bates says anthropologists use when writing about their normally ordinary subjects: “The anthropologist must do everything within his power to protect their physical, social and psychological welfare and to honor their dignity and privacy.”
But unlike anthropologists, journalists usually use real names in their stories. The first ethical rule of intimate journalism is to be completely honest with your subjects about what kind of story you are writing. No ambush articles. The next rule is to explain to subjects the journalistic protocol of “on the record” and “off the record.” Subjects who aren’t used to dealing with reporters should be encouraged to go off the record whenever they wish, just as any politician would routinely do. But the final rule is still never to write a story that omits information to protect a subject if that information would alter a reader’s basic interpretation of the published story. Sometimes, that can mean changing the focus of an article or even killing a story.
The difference between news features and intimate tellings is the difference between the humanized overview takeout on, say, mainstreaming handicapped children in the public schools and telling the in-depth story of one handicapped child who has been mainstreamed for the first time. It is the difference between the overview takeout on the growing girls’ sports movement in America and telling the story of one girl’s basketball team, as does Madeline Blais’s “In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle.” It’s the story of how one poor family lives, as told in Richard Ben Cramer’s “How the World Turns in West Philadelphia.”
One of the key choices in this kind of journalism is knowing when less is more — when leaving out the statistics, experts, the heavy-handed “so what” paragraphs helps the story. Years ago at The Washington Post Magazine I edited a story about legendary Florida Congressman Claude Pepper, who was in the final downhill slide of his remarkable political career. It was really a piece about a once-powerful man facing the loss of power and the end of his life. From scene to scene, you saw the bittersweet truth of life in Washington played out. But in the middle of this, we inserted a good 30 inches of biography and background. When I read it in print, I realized that I’d forgotten the prime directive of intimate journalism: Less is more.
But for Barbara Vobejda’s story, the Claude Pepper story, any intimate story, the decision about how to proceed must usually be made at the start. Because if we are reporting only Pepper’s final days, all our time and energy and attention and space can go into that rendering. That’s why the way we think about stories is so important. The way we think about them unalterably determines their final shape. This is the point where newspeople, often without knowing they are abandoning an intimate story, elect the news feature form, unwittingly rejecting the insight of Henry Adams, who said that understanding is “not a fact but a feeling.”
The goal of intimate journalism is simple: It is to understand other people’s worlds from the inside out, to understand and portray people as they understand themselves. Not the way they say they understand themselves but the way they really understand themselves. The way, as a subject once told me, you understand yourself “when you say your prayers in a quiet room.”
It is the motivation of the anthropologist and the novelist, not the judgmental journalist or the self-righteous crusader. Stephen Crane once said that his only goal in writing Maggie, his novella about the life of a poor 19th-century girl, was to accurately describe her world. That is the goal.
A warning about attitude — your attitude.
As journalists, we are wise to be skeptics. But cynicism — the refusal to take anyone at face value — is crippling for those who aspire to do intimate journalism. A better mental pose is suggested by novelist Amy Tan in her book “The Joy Luck Club,” where she writes that a wise person must learn “to lose your innocence but not your hope.” Remind yourself of that once a week, because human truths must be pursued with an open heart. As journalists of a different cut, we shouldn’t have to apologize for that.
It’s hard to lay out a set of rules for intimate reporting, because it comes in so many different forms. Gary Smith’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Read,” about the mindscape of the man hiding his illiteracy, is much different from Mike Sager’s article on crack users in Venice, Calif., which is much different from David Finkel’s “The Last Housewife in America,” which is much different from my own piece, “The Shape of Her Dreaming,” about how Rita Dove, former U.S. poet laureate, writes a single poem. But the various forms and these selected articles still share many reporting methods — and we must be ready to borrow from them all.
Naturally, the basic rules of news journalism apply to intimate journalism — facts must be correct and context must be fair and accurate. But when it comes to intimate journalism, there’s a whole other realm of “facts” that must be collected if we are to achieve our goals — if we are to evoke the worlds of the people we are writing about, describe people and places in enough documentary detail that they seem somehow indisputably real, evoke and describe the inner lives of our subjects, capture a tone in which the reader can, we hope, momentarily forget that this is a story and have the sensation of felt life happening before his or her eyes.
It’s important to remember that, although detail and dialogue and graphic description are often important for their own sake in rendering our stories, the meaning of our collected details in the minds of our subjects, the interplay between detail and meaning, is still at the heart of intimate journalism.
“A Fortunate Man,” by John Berger and Jean Mohr, is a book about the day-to-day life of an English country doctor. It begins with the doctor driving fast to the scene of an accident where a tree has fallen on a man, and he is hurt severely. Several miles before the doctor gets there, he begins beeping his horn constantly. It can be heard all over the countryside and could be seen as a rural version of an ambulance siren. But the author asks the next question, which is why is the doctor beeping his horn. The doctor says he’s doing it because he believes the man pinned under the tree may hear it, know that the doctor is on his way, be filled with hope and thus hang on to life until the doctor can arrive.
Naturally, the doctor’s motives tell us a great deal about the doctor — his sensitivity and empathy, his desire to grasp even the slimmest advantage in his effort to save a life. Yet it’s easy to imagine any fairly good journalist describing that scene but missing its dramatic and fully subjective meaning by forgetting to ask the last simple and obvious question: What does it mean?
A great deal of the best intimate journalism reporting is spent trying to determine such meanings, trying to turn emotions and feelings and sensations into reportable “facts” that meet all the standards of journalism. The more layers of complexity the better. If the man pinned under the tree were to live, for instance, the questions to ask him are whether he heard the doctor’s horn and what he thought if he did? Was he conscious and filled with hope, as the doctor had imagined? Or was he unconscious and the doctor’s effort went for naught? Or did he hear the horn but have no idea that the blare and the doctor were linked? These layers of human meaning aren’t simply nice touches meant to make the providing of information more palatable to the reader. These layers of human meaning are the story itself.
As print journalists, we have been too much influenced by our fear that television is taking over our livelihoods, and we too often believe that the answer to TV and film competition is to simply “let the camera roll” — to capture more detail, scene and description in the fashion of a movie camera. We forget our great advantage: we can play the narrator, moving in and out of people’s heads, telling our readers what things mean to our subjects. It’s our edge and we should take full advantage of it. So if a policeman you are profiling has a doodad of some sort stuck to his dashboard, you can simply report it as a piece of “color” or you can ask him where he got it — perhaps it isn’t even his, was there when he inherited the squad car. But perhaps it was a gift from his mother on her deathbed or a good-luck charm of an old partner who was killed in action. You just never know.
While once doing a story on a fundamentalist family, I asked the mother to walk me through her house and tell me where she got each item on display. As she gave me the tour, it became clear that she and her husband had bought nothing with an eye to decorating their home. Nearly all the knick-knacks on the shelves were gifts from people for whom they had done kindnesses. To simply have described these “status” details, as Tom Wolfe once called them, would have missed the point. Mark Kramer, a respected author and literary journalist, writes that “truth is in the details.” A still deeper truth is in the meaning of the details.
Unlike in news reporting, in intimate reporting everything is a potential piece of data — and the problem is that you often can’t know what will be important and what won’t while you’re reporting, so you’ve got to try and get it all. Much of it is obvious: You’ve got to collect details about the way, say, the homicide cop in my story “True Detective” looks and sounds — his hair color, eye color, shape of his nose and mouth, skin color and tone; where his wrinkles are when his face is in repose and where they are when he’s smiling or frowning; how he talks, how fast, slang pitch of voice, does it rise or drop when he gets afraid or angry.
At various points in intimate reporting, it’s valuable to just stop whatever you’re doing and jot such observations in your notes or dictate them into your tape recorder. But that’s the easy part. Then comes the context in which your subject exists: What does the street where the murder victim is sprawled dead look like? Or what does the room where the suspect is being questioned look like? Unfortunately you can’t know what will be important and what will not be important until later, when your story has taken shape, so you must get as much down as you can.
There’s a scene in “True Detective” about the nature of detective work, but it could have been written about intimate reporting: “The details seem trivial, but a homicide detective’s life is a sea of details, a collage of unconnected dots gathered and collated. In the end, most will turn out to be insignificant. But at the time, a detective cannot know the revelatory from the inconsequential. He must try to see them all, then hold them in his mind in abeyance until the few details that matter rise forth from the ocean to reveal themselves.”
When I jotted in my notes that a rat scurried along the sidewalk and then dove into the bushes as my detective returned to headquarters at dawn after having arrested a murderer, I didn’t know that I would later use that rate diving for cover to symbolize the victory of good over evil.
So I wrote down everything and anything.
Remember to collect, in the moviemaker’s parlance, not only long shots but tight shots. My father was an amateur painter, and he used to tell me that there were two ways to paint a picture — one was to stand back and squint your eyes and see shapes and colors emerge in a beautiful blur, and the other was to get down on your knees and examine the flower, petal by petal.
It’s important to think of the details you’re gathering in that way, because there will be times when you’ll want to capture and describe the sweep of things — the long shot, the dreamy and impressionistic vision at the crime scene. There also will be times when you’ll want to stop the action for a tight shot and describe the scene before you in a precise and surgical manner, in a kind of anatomical detail — petal by petal. While collecting details, always try to keep these two later writing needs in mind.
Remember also to collect facts through all your senses. I have a hard time with this myself, and I admire people like Gary Smith, Madeleine Blais, Richard Ben Cramer, Mike Sager and Susan Orlean, who seem to do this effortlessly, while I must resort to craftsmen’s tricks. I try to consciously keep a counter running in my head reminding me to note something from all my senses and important settings: What does the air smell like? What does the wind feel like on the skin? What is the touch of the murder weapon? What is the sound of the siren? What is the taste of the coffee?
In collecting such material, you must be methodical. I remember reading that John McPhee was once asked how he could possibly have known the temperature of the river water in which he was canoeing at exactly the precise instant he had reported it. McPhee explained that he had hung a thermometer on a string over the side of the canoe and that every once in awhile he had pulled it up and recorded the water temperature at exactly that instant.
That’s not an artist, but a craftsman, at work.
The most obvious reportorial aid for the intimate journalist, other than the pen and notebook, is the tape recorder. Although Gary Smith, Susan Orlean and David Finkel rarely use tape recorders, I and other writers find them indispensable when time allows for their use.
For sit-down interviews, tape recorders are obviously helpful, not only for the gathering of long and correct quotations but because you inevitably hear subtleties on second listening that you don’t hear in person. The tape recorder in sit-down interviews also frees you to take elaborate notes on a subject’s appearance, mannerisms and voice and to record his or her facial expressions at specific times, as well as the movement of hands and arms, telling pauses, sighs, hesitations.
But where the tape recorder really makes its mark is in the creation of scenes. In “True Detective,” it would have been impossible for me to describe the dialogue during police raids or on-the-scene police interviews with suspects if my tape recorder hadn’t been poked right into people’s faces. I couldn’t have said the detective knocked on the door nine times or that he waited five seconds before he knocked again. Events are happening too fast to write it all down, even to take it all in. Certainly, events are happening too fast to accurately capture idiosyncrasies of speech and dialect. You also can dictate the details and events of a scene into your tape recorder much faster than you can make notes.
Another, less commonly used feature of reporting aid is the camera. When reading James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” it seemed to me quite possible that some of his descriptions were actually descriptions of Walker Evans’s accompanying photographs. When I read William Least Heat Moon’s American travelogue, “Blue Highways,” I noticed that some of his scenic descriptions also seemed like descriptions of the photos in his book. Knowing the author was also a photographer, I realized it was possible that any number of beautifully turned scenes in Blue Highways might have been written with the help of his unpublished photographs.
Before this, I’d often gone to the photographers who’d shot my stories and examined their pictures, including outtakes, just to rekindle my feeling for the story before writing. But after “Blue Highways,” I realized there was no reason for me to wait for the photographer, that I could take my own not-for-publication snapshots, which I started doing. For my book “Crossings: A White Man’s Journey Into Black America,” I ended up taking more than 1,500 photographs, which turned out to be invaluable for recapturing not only the feeling of people and places but also the documentary details of dress, appearance and scene.
In “True Detective,” a paragraph describes the dingy boardinghouse room of a murder victim, and a Washington Post colleague complimented me for its use of detail. Unfortunately, I had to admit that it wasn’t my great powers of observation that allowed me to capture the details of that room, but the snapshots I had examined with a magnifying glass long afterward.
Intimate journalism is often accomplished by leaving out this kind of ugly reporting substructure. In his book “Looking for the Light,” about the life of Depression-era photographer Marion Post Walcott, Paul Hendrickson has a chapter titled “Ode to an Instrument.” It is two pages that describe and evoke the beauty of the old Speed Graphic camera, which Walcott used. When you read it, you think, “Lord, this man can write!” But it is the in-artful substructure — the reporting — that Hendrickson leaves out of his telling that makes the artful possible.
What Hendrickson doesn’t mention is that he went to the Smithsonian Institution and got copies of the original catalogues and publicity literature on the Speed Graphic. Then he bought an old Speed Graphic so he could examine it, hold it, feel it, run through its complicated mechanical routine, hear its clicks and whirs. Then he found a photographer — The Washington Post’s Bill Snead — who had actually used a Speed Graphic decades ago. Hendrickson had him recall what it was like to use the camera in the field. Watching and hearing Snead talk about the Speed Graphic with awe and respect, Hendrickson told me, “was like poetry.” Yet none of this gritty, laborious craft is in his chapter.
There’s no end to the craft you must hide: to say in passing that the farm house sits below a 900-foot bluff, you will swing by the county soil conservation office and get a copy of the farm’s geological survey map. To say in passing that someone has a vase of Vivaldi roses in his apartment, you will spend an hour on the phone interviewing rose experts. You will go back to the scene of the crime the next day and walk off distances and check heights and angles. You will check maps to determine north, south, east and west. You will check decades-old weather reports to be sure it actually rained on the day someone said it rained.
You can be sure that Jon Franklin knew more than he reported in “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster.” He interviewed Mrs. Kelly, who was preparing to undergo dangerous brain surgery. He knew where Dr. Ducker, the brain surgeon, went to medical school. But little of this is in his story. You can be sure that Mike Sager wasn’t as much the fly on the wall as his “Death in Venice” article about crack users makes him seem. He was asking questions, checking to see that it really was lint on the floor that the crack-heads kept reaching for. You can be sure that David Finkel, for “TV Without Guilt,” got a lot of information about Mrs. Delmar by asking question after question about what later appears as Mrs. Delmar’s thoughts. As Finkel told me, “We ask the most annoying questions.”
And they are different questions. Under the rule of “you don’t know what matters until you know what matters,” you ask questions about everything — depending on the story — from “Do you believe in God?” to “Where did those little white spots on your shirt come from?” But this dual role of invasive inquisitor and invisible observer is a hard pose of mind to create in ourselves, because it requires that we relax completely and be completely alert at the same time. In psychiatrist and documentarian Robert Coles’ book “The Call of Service,” there’s a chapter about the methods he has learned to employ — and that’s the key, learned to employ, because it takes years to do so. His goal is not only to get people to open up to him, as most reporters would say, but for him — Coles, the observer, the reporter — to be able to hear what people are saying.
This is where straight journalism’s outlook of skepticism, even cynicism, comes into play, because the intimate journalist must find a different place — a different mental posture from which to work. This is not a fancy philosophical debate but a tactical necessity. Coles was once an apostle of poet and physician William Carols Williams, and he describes the way Williams entered the homes of his patients, back in the days when doctors entered the homes of their patients, and how Williams had a poet’s methodology for gathering clues to the meanings of their lives.
“I try to put myself in the shoes of others,” Williams said, mundanely enough. But then he went on: “We’re completely lost in our own world — egoists! Or maybe we’re locked into ourselves, and even though we want to break out, we can’t seem to do it. It takes someone else to help us, a person who breaks in or has a way of letting us out. Or we stumble into some moment, some situation, that wakes us up, gets us enough off track to open up our eyes our ears, our musty minds!”
Coles argues that Williams was unknowingly describing the task of the psychiatrist, sociologist and anthropologist — and, I’d add, the task of the intimate journalist. Coles asks, “How do we place our mind (and heart and soul) in a position — a place both literal and symbolic — that encourages our eyes and ears to pick up what we might otherwise miss?” He answers his question with a remark from Williams: “I’ll go on my rounds, and some days I’m behaving like an automaton! … I’m as impatient as I can be with anyone who tries to get in my way. … On the right day, though, I’m all eyes and ears. And I go even further — I stop myself in my tracks, and I talk to myself, and I say ‘Try to be a fly on the wall, or try to disappear into the crowd so you’re not right smack in the middle of things, and people are responding to you,’ because when that happens it doesn’t always mean they’re being themselves …!”
On those right days, Williams arrived at the tenement apartments of the poor in Paterson, N.J., with a different mental pose. Before entering he wrote on his clipboard: “Things I noticed today that I’ve missed until today.” After each house call he added to his list — an unusual phrase a patient used, what the family was cooking, any new furniture, curtains or glassware, a newspaper article cut out and posted on the wall, playing cards or a game of checkers left on the table.
On those right days, Williams got down on the floor and let the children listen through his stethoscope to their own heartbeats and to his. He let them use his neurological hammer on his knees. He pulled out Hershey’s Kisses, put them on the floor and let the children find the nerve to pick them up — and then he asked if he, too, might have just one or two for himself. He asked the children if they wanted to give him any advice. This ritual wasn’t meant only to get his subjects to relax so that he — or we, as reporters — could maneuver and manipulate them into telling their secrets but to help Williams listen to and hear not only himself but the people around him, his subjects, his characters. Here are a few lines from “Paterson,” the epic poem Williams eventually crafted from those random jottings on his clipboard:
Plaster saints, glass jewelsand those apt paper flowers, bafflingly
complex — have here
their forthright beauty beside:
Things, things unmentionable,
the sink with the waste farina in it and
lumps of rancid meat, milk-bottle tops: have
here a tranquility and loveliness …
To keep ourselves open to what is before us, we must not become too obsessed with asking ourselves, “What’s the story here?” — and thus fall victim to the reporter’s paranoia that we’ve got to produce something out of this mess and we better figure it out fast. That undermines our ability to grasp the story, because it means we’ll inevitably fall back on well-worn themes and observations — interpretive cliches — and not give ourselves the time or frame of mind to see anything beyond that. Williams was trying to avoid that trap, to do a better job of collecting the human facts he needed to be a better doctor and a better poet.
That’s why an intimate journalist must approach his or her subjects with an open heart. It’s not a matter of hard or soft journalism but a matter of creating a place within ourselves — a “place in our mind (and heart and soul),” as Coles writes, where we can see and hear what people are really saying. It’s not a luxury but a necessary tactic of intimate journalism reporting, a mental posture at once arrogant and humble. In the words of documentary photographer Walker Evans, “It’s as though there’s a wonderful secret in a certain place and I can capture it. Only I, at this moment, can capture it, and only this moment and only me.”
All of this, finally, ties into interviewing. Because all the detail and dialogue and scene will add up to froth without some human heft behind them. That comes from interviewing. The most obvious difference between straight news and intimate interviewing is that in intimate interviewing you try to avoid the idea that the story is the interview. Many subjects, especially those written about before, will think this.
It’s necessary to break that expectation by making your subjects realize you expect far more from them in return for a story that will do far more. I usually exaggerate what it will take from subjects just so I know they are committed to the job. I make it clear that an intimate story is a cooperative project between reporter and subject and it can’t be done without a subject’s enthusiastic involvement. I try to define their role as one of helping me to tell the story. In the case of the homicide detective, you would make it clear that you expect to ride in the cop car, eat what he eats, stay out all night when he stays out all night, interview his friends and family, as well as sit down and do formal interviews with him.
My own preference is that sit-down interviews occur before you get very far into reporting. I try not to think of these as interviews but as conversations. I never have a list of questions but usually start out with, “So where were you born?” My goal is to let people simply ramble on about their personal histories and see where it goes, because you just don’t know yet what’s important. See what rises forth.
It’s important to remember that a lot of detail in stories also comes from interviews — in the form of anecdotes. But to make these anecdotes fit the documentary feel of the material you are gathering in contemporaneous scenes, it’s necessary to do a kind of invasive interviewing — stopping the subject often and asking him or her the year or day some event occurred, perhaps the time of day, the weather that day. You have to fill in the material that you will need to make an anecdote into a scene.
After a couple of rambling interviews, the themes of the subject’s life often emerge. It was in these interviews that the homicide detective talked about how he was for the first time afraid on the streets, how he now felt out of his element with the new brand of criminals, how he was being torn apart emotionally by the murders and murderers he was confronting daily, how sometimes he even broke down and wept as he rode home late at night. But in the story, this information is woven into the narrative so it seems as if the subject is thinking it at that point in the story.
In intimate interviewing, it’s often important not to ask a question only once and let it go at that but to ask the same questions over and over in different ways at different times. You will be writing your story, not just quoting your subjects, and to fill out the depth of their attitudes and beliefs you must go back again and again. Often you will glean a new insight each time.
In interviewing and in spending time with your subjects, I suggest you be yourself — if you don’t like blood, admit to the cops that you don’t like blood and let them laugh at you. Make yourself a real person, talk about your background, your friends, your wife or husband, kids, father and mother. This is strictly my intuition, but I think people are more open with those who are being open with them, that people are more willing to show their vulnerabilities to those who reveal their own vulnerabilities.
Try to use your emotional experiences as a vehicle for unlocking those of your subjects. If you’re a mother interviewing a woman about having had a baby, share the emotions you felt in childbirth to spur her recall of her own emotions. If you’re doing the Delmars, share the memories you have watching TV as a child to help Mrs. Delmar recall her own memories. The key is always maintain a natural tone, to be yourself, to be genuine.
One of the hardest things to do is to remember that, if you are to later write your story as a narrative, you must discover or create threads that will help move your story through to a conclusion. This is separate from a story moving through time, as in a day or a week in the life of someone. You must also look for ideas and tone-setting scenes that you will later pull like threads through your story. In the case of Mike Sager’s piece on crack, it’s the beginning scene in the youth’s bedroom that is brought back around at the end, the novel idea that these kids were better off before crack when they were killing each other in gang retaliations and the surprising twist that even Big Gato, who hates that young guys have lost their pride, will succumb to crack. In Jon Franklin’s piece on the brain surgeon, he repeats the exact time and the constant “pop, pop, pop” of the heart monitor.
Finally, before you start writing, try to take time to find a work of fiction or artful nonfiction that helps you get in the right frame of mind for writing your story. For “true Detective,” I read mystery novels, which made me recognize the gritty, tactile feel I wanted my story to evoke. For “When Daddy Comes Home,” I read Doris Lessing’s novel “A Good Neighbor,” one of the few books that eloquently describes the horror and perilous dignity of old age. For “The Shape of Her Dreaming,” I re-read Alan Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams,” which so beautifully captures the precise yet dreamy sensation I hoped to capture in my story.
Remember that imitation is flattery and that James Agee borrowed and changed the poetry of Hart Crane to describe the pages of his sharecropper’s family Bible as “leaves almost weak as snow.”
Remember that most artful journalism is craft.
And that most artful journalists are craftsmen.
The poet and novelist Ishmael Reed says, “Writin’ is fightin’.” I’d also add that writing is thinking. Because the greatest challenge for any artful journalist is to get his or her mind wrapped around a story before beginning to write, and then to keep control of the material at the same time the material is allowed to take on a life of its own, to shape itself, emerge in the process of writing — in the same way that poet Rita Dove tries to listen to what her poem is telling her as she is writing it. As the afterword remarks of the writers collected here show, you won’t know what you think about a story entirely until after you’ve written it — or, sometimes, until it has written itself. In stories that are supposed to evoke the sensation of felt life, it’s necessary for the writer to first feel the story before he or she can make other people feel it. When Paul Hendrickson said that hearing and watching Bill Snead describe the Speed Graphic camera was like poetry, he was feeling his story. He wasn’t trying only to think his way through his story.
Sitting down to write is probably when the only smidgen of magic in intimate journalism really comes into play. It’s the one place — other than a required natural ability to be comfortable and relaxed with all sorts of people — where craft takes a momentary backseat to the role of intuition, your intuition. Sitting down to write is at once the hardest and the most exhilarating part of what we do. Nothing is scarier than staring at a blank screen and trying to see your way through all the junk you’ve collected to find not a lead but a story. It’s a moment of supreme arrogance, because it’s when you sit down and decide what you have to say — what you’ll put in, leave out, emphasize or downplay.
It really is an act of creation.
I’ve mentioned the need to get yourself into a frame of mind that helps you conceptualize and report stories, and finding the proper frame of mind may be even more important in writing. Let’s say you’ve imagined your story and that you’ve reported it, keeping in mind and trying to gather — depending upon the story — scenes, physical detail, dialogue and emotional facts gleaned through in-depth interviewing. I’ve mentioned the importance of keeping in mind during reporting what might end up being the theme or themes of your story and watching for devices that might serve to bring resolution to the tensions that people in your stories are facing. Now you’ve got to select your themes and tensions.
To help do this, you’ve got to step outside the mind-set of straight reporting. I suggest you stay at home one morning, pour a cup of coffee, put on classical music or gentle jazz, whatever your preference, sit down in a comfortable chair, stack all your notes to one side. On top of one legal pad, jot the word “themes” and atop another write “facts, quotes and details to use.” Then start reading your notes, your transcripts of interviews, anything else you’ve collected — read from start to finish. List under “facts, quotes and details” what you’re pretty sure you’ll use.
As possible themes strike you, write them down. Remember that the best themes are simple themes: basketball as a stand-in for war as the symbolic male act in Crow culture in Gary Smith’s “Shadow of a Nation” or the beauty of one’s life reflected perfectly in the life of another in Jeanne Marie Laska’s “Each Other’s Mirror.” The eternal verities are, well, eternal.
Now, this may sound a little wacky, but as you read, try to let the material wash over you in the way, if you happen to be a Catholic, that a Christmas midnight mass might wash over you. Or, if you are a mother or father, in the way that rocking your child to sleep late at night in a dark and quiet house might wash over you. Or, if you are a lover of jazz, in the way that hearing Sarah Vaughan live at Washington, D.C.’s Blues Alley amid the cigarette smoke and the clicking of ice and whiskey glasses might wash over you. Make a sensory and emotional connection with your story.
Search for “felt life.” If you have taken photographs, examine them with a magnifying glass — look at how people fold their hands, at the books on their shelves, at the expressions on their faces. If you have borrowed your subject’s photo album, take a few minutes to study the pictures. If you have collected private letters, read them — and examine the handwriting, the twirling flourishes or the staid block lettering. Imagine your subject writing them. Whatever you feel when you are going through this ritual — sadness, joy, a bittersweet blending of both, anger, affection, disgust, whatever — try to get that feeling in your story. Try to envision the tone that grows out of the feeling because it’s likely that tone is fitting to your subject — pure joy, pure sadness, bittersweet emotions, a slow and gentle or a wild and raucous voice. Then try to write your story in that tone.
I once did a profile of actress Kelly McGillis as she went through the process of creating a Shakespearean character for the stage, and while doing the article I learned something about what I do as a journalist that had never gelled for me. In following her, as she let herself go and tried to become her character, as she searched within herself for emotions that she could use to imbue her character with emotion, as she finally tried to forget all the self-conscious tricks of technique and craft and methodology and enter into an intuitive frame of mind with herself and her subject, I was struck by how similar McGillis’s needs and methods were to my needs and methods in trying to portray her.
When I wrote that on stage at her best she was like a child at prayer, like Faulkner in a conversation with his characters, like Joe DiMaggio at bat — at that place where intuition resides — I was drawing on my own less profound but real enough experience of feeling as if I’m off somewhere else, not exactly here, when the writing is going well. It’s a bush league version of what I feel when I read, say Cormac McCarthy’s novels, “Blood Meridian,” “All the Pretty Horses” or “The Crossing”: When I read McCarthy’s books I have the strongest feeling that McCarthy isn’t with us when he’s writing, as if he’s crossed over and entered some ethereal domain — the place where intuition resides.
While doing the McGillis story, I took to joking about “method journalism,” after her method acting. But in the joke, I was half serious. I’m not sure you can do memorable intimate journalism if you aren’t the kind of person who becomes obsessed with your story as you reach the writing stage — if you don’t think about it unwillingly when you should be thinking of other things, if you don’t dream about it at night, if you don’t do the right-brain, left-brain crossover. I don’t believe for a minute that this is any kind of gift. It’s simply an emotional and cognitive dimension of our craft. Just as working from what I called an open heart is a necessary tactic of intimate journalism, this method journalism is a tactic to get in touch with your material.
In his book “Solitude,” about the links between solitude and creativity, psychiatrist Anthony Storr talks about the role mental “incubation” plays in creativity — it’s a kind of simmering that takes place in our brains after all the reading and the studying and that occurs not only consciously but unconsciously. All the writers in this collection talk about how important it is that they take time after their reporting is done to let their material simmer. Storr says that time is a necessary prelude to creative “illumination” — the instant when people suddenly see clearly what was unclear before, when they’re hit with that flash of insight. I’m talking about trying to create for ourselves a preparatory writing ritual and a frame of mind that maximize the chance that insight will befall us, so that our minds will, even unconsciously, connect the seemingly unconnected dots.
After trying to soak up all your material, you’ll still find sometimes that nothing will come out of your head. At those times, sit down and read sections from favorite books or articles that capture a tone similar to the ones you hope to capture, to get yourself in the mood. The African American painter Allen Stringfellow once said, “I work by music — religious music when I’m doing religious things and jazz when I’m doing jazz pieces. They arouse in me the same inner feelings. They’re both inspiring.” One of Kelly McGillis’s acting coaches once taught her to listen quietly to Chopin before she came on stage to perform particularly difficult scenes — to let the music help unlock her intuition, to put her in the mood, to inspire her.
Read these lines from Jeanne Marie Laska’s story on the twins: “Isobel and Betty wear identical clothes, hairdos, eyeglasses, wrist-watches. They are pretty women with deep chocolate eyes, black cherry hair and creamy complexions; distinguishing between the two is not easy, at first. After awhile, though, you might notice that Isobel has a slightly narrower face, a slightly tilted smile, and that Betty often holds her hands on her hips, that Isobel often fluffs up her puffed sleeves, and then, later, you might graduate to the finer details: Isobel has a glimmer of irony in her eyes, a way of twisting the world into a wholly humorous place. Betty is innocent, soft. Isobel is Lucy Ricardo. Betty is Ethel Mertz.”
Or these lines from Richard Ben Cramer’s “How the World Turns in West Philadelphia”: “In the dark living room, Mrs. Monroe called to Rusty … She held her arms out to him and he climbed onto her, wrapping his arms tightly around her neck … Fifteen minutes later, a bleach commercial threw a shaft of bright white across the room and for a moment lit Mrs. Monroe’s face as it leaned lightly against her child’s warm head, her brow smooth, her lips just parted, her eyes, like his, now closed.”
Or these lines from my own “When Daddy Comes Home”: “The reverend sits in a tall, flowered wing chair … He crosses his thin left leg over his right leg at the knee, adjusts his wooden cane against his side, plants his elbows on the chair’s armrests and steeples his fingers. He rubs his palms together softly, barely touching, then plays with the change in his pocket. For a moment, he taps his cane with the nail of his finger, then lightly rubs his thigh with his right palm. He does not squirm, but rather makes each move with a methodical, self-conscious elegance. He holds his hands at his chest and rubs them together slowly, as if working lotion into his skin. The hands are large, with long, expressive fingers that curl upward after their middle joints. On the bridge of each hand is a spider web of wrinkles that seems to record his many years like the rings of an old tree. But his palms are as smooth and glassy as pebbles drawn from a running creek.”
Read. I promise. It will put you in the mood.
With all this done in anywhere from a few hours on a small story to a few days on a huge story, try one last metaphysical trick before getting down to the rock-breaking job of writing. Sit down at the computer, put up your feet, close your eyes, think about your story and see what flashes to mind. Far more often than not, whatever image or scene I see at that instant turns out to be my lead. I tell myself that the flashing image is me talking to myself, that whatever flashes in my head after all the hard work is probably the strongest single image I’ve go to offer.
Sadly, that’s where the magic ends and the craft again takes over. Everybody does it differently. David Finkel elaborately indexes his notes and then tacks all the pages up on the wall over his desk. Susan Orlean must write her story through from the beginning to end, her first draft nearly her last draft. Jeanne Marie Laska will write a middle section, then the end, then the beginning — then she’ll move them all around. Richard Ben Cramer will sometimes write for days before he finally sees the story he wants to write. As for me, I never know where my story is going until the lead and foreshadowing sections are written. Then I briefly outline and jot down ideas or images I’ll want to come back around on before the end of the story. But however you do it you have to write your story — get in the flow of it. Don’t stop and spend half an hour digging out a fact or a quote when you are on a roll. Get it later. Keep writing, trying to find the rhythm of your story.
So much of what we do now is the carrying out of the assumptions we made during reporting — write in scenes, don’t run from quote-to-information, quote-to-information, don’t quote for quote’s sake. Keep out tangential quotes and characters that lend only traditional authority. Usually, be aware of moving your story through time through your scenes — and, as Mark Kramer has written, tell the rest of your story as digression.
Introduce tensions early that will be resolved by the end. If possible, let your subjects seem to gain insight and self-awareness in the course of your story. This sounds impossible, but with proper in-depth interviewing it happens much of the time. Of course, it won’t just happen if you haven’t anticipated and chronicled this growth or change while reporting.
Sometimes resolution is real, and sometimes it is an imposed dramatic device. In Madeleine Blais’s “Zepp’s Last Stand” the resolution is obviously real — the old guy wins his honorable discharge. But if he hadn’t, Blais would still have found a way to bring dramatic closure to her story — perhaps she would have argued that by not getting his name cleared, Mr. Zepp continued to have a reason to live. In David Finkel’s “TV Without Guilt,” nothing is resolved but you have the feeling of resolution, of a turning-point insight, when Finkel reveals Mrs. Delmar’s deep fears of life beyond TV — the tip of all she is perhaps keeping a bay. Always remember: Scene, detail and narrative bring a story to life, while theme and meaning imbue it with a soul.
The best journalism stories — intimate or otherwise — have ideas that organize and drive them, that make sense of the material and that give us a scale for measuring the significance of various facts and details, a scale for weighing their importance in the story, for even deciding what to use or what not to use in your story. Remember the words of Cormac McCarthy in “The Crossing”: “For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale … All is telling. Do not doubt it.” A story should be like a funnel — it begins at the wide end raising questions and inexorably leads the reader through a narrowing passage to insights and conclusions. The best story is a subtle argument. By its end, readers should be convinced.
There are, naturally craftsmen’s tricks:
Pacing. Especially in longer stories, it’s often necessary to speed up or slow down the pacing from section to section, the way a roller coaster ride is arranged with slow climbs followed by wild descents. A scene moves gently and poetically — followed by digression, followed by a scene that zips along.
Remember to shift from long shots, sweeping impressionistic descriptions, to tight shots in which you stop-action, freeze-frame in the way that the camera slowly shows us the sled named Rosebud in “Citizen Kane,” in the way that James Agee describes a line of mules with precise grace in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”: “The mules loiter in a hooved muck of tattered water in a tract of brownlighted shadow slivered with sun, a sapling grove licked leafless within their reach, the trunks rubbed slick: very naked-looking and somehow shy without harness, as if they had not quite the right to nature, they stand, they drift, they wait, they glide, and lift back their cynical heads like flowers as the men who master their days lift open the gate and advance toward them.”
Voice. It is the hardest thing to talk about because I fear that people must find whatever is their own natural voice. Different stories demand different tones but unifying that difference is always a writer’s own natural voice. My voice tends dangerously close to the melodramatic. David Finkel’s tends toward gentle irony. Madeleine Blais’s is gentle and a touch fantastic. Mike Sager’s is hip and edgy. Garry Smith’s is like a whisper.
The challenge is to mesh your voice with your story. The only practical suggestion I have for that — other than trial and error — is to read, not necessarily deeply but widely, being on the lookout for the other kind of voice that speaks to you. When I was young, for instance, I admired the New Yorker and the John McPhees of the world for their method. But their voice, that casual, distanced voice, which I believe implies that we can think our way to understanding and insight, just left me cold while the more dramatically structured, visual and emotional journalism of Esquire spoke to me. You have to find your own path.
Think of your stories as pieces meant to be read out loud. Nothing can reveal the flaws in a story quicker than reading it out loud to yourself — looking for words that don’t roll off the tongue, rhythms that clash, cliches that must be rephrased, language that is encrusted with the made-up words of bureaucrats and social scientists, attributions that give long, meaningless job titles instead of conversational descriptions such as “she runs the place,” interest-group words such as “hearing-impaired” or “visually challenged,” touching human stories that call people by their last names, ages given as if from a police blotter — “Little Joe Blow, 9, found his mother dead in a dumpster late last night.”
Try to use implied attribution. When you’ve reconstructed dialogue that two participants confirm — or if one guy’s dead and his remarks aren’t controversial — leave out the attribution. When you have events that are undisputed among several participants, write these events as scenes without attribution. Wherever you can, layer in material that doesn’t come from subjects but from your reporting — the temperature on the day little Joe Blow found his mother’s body in the dumpster or the color of the dumpster or the width of the alley that holds the dumpster.
When possible, write from inside the heads of your characters. This often meanings turning long quotes from subjects into your own prose. Remember to try to keep your subjects talking to each other or seeming to think their quotes, rather than having them make their remarks to you, the reporter, unless you’re a character in the story — as Pete Earley is a character in “Missing Alice” and as Susan Orlean is in “The American Man at Age 10.” This helps ground a story within itself, creating a world readers can enter and where they can become momentarily lost.
Try to embellish your facts to help set an interpretive and poetic tone in your piece — not by changing the facts but by giving them an occasional tweak. You can say the sky is blue — or you can say the sky is so blue it looks as if it’s going to disappear into itself. Or you can say the sky is so blue it looks somehow unreal, like a painted dome. Or take a trick from nature writer Edward Abbey who will say a flower or a cactus looks “like a swan” or “like a maiden” — or he’ll add a touch of interpretive, personifying life to a sentence by describing a certain vegetable as “humble.” Or, as Madeleine Blais describes Edward Zepp’s 83 years: “He is at the age of illness and eulogy.” But remember that if this isn’t your thing, nothing is necessarily lost: As Mark Kramer has written, literary journalism is defined by a “plain and spare” style, meaning a little flourish can go along way.
Remember, reading is still the key to finding your voice, style and manner: classic nonfiction books, classical magazine literary journalism, naturalistic novels and short fiction, first-person memoirs and oral histories, documentary writing, nature writing and travel literature — all of which employ in different ways the approaches and techniques I’ve mentioned.
But don’t read only for tone or voice but also to de-construct how Smith, Blais and Finkel do what they do. Before writing “The Shape of Her Dreaming,” I re-read Madeleine Blais’s “In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle.” I didn’t want my readers to be reminded that Rita Dove was talking to me, the reporter. I wanted to create the illusion that she was thinking this story out loud. So I studied how Blais had managed to quote her subjects with almost no attribution — as in “she says” or “he says” — and realized she had introduced most of her quotes with colons, allowing her to eliminate the attributions. I shamelessly cribbed the technique.
Don’t read stories; study them. How did he get that particular piece of information? How did she use dialogue to break up runs of information? How did he combine quotation and description? When you read Cormac McCarthy’s fiction, ask how you could report his scenes as nonfiction. In “All the Pretty Horses,” McCarthy has a hauntingly simple scene set at a rural Mexican barn dance: “At the band’s intermission they made their way to the refreshment stand and he bought two lemonades in paper cones and they went out and walked in the night air … The air was cool and it smelled of earth and perfume and horses … They sat on a low concrete watertrough and, with her shoes in her lap and her naked feet crossed in the dust, she drew patterns in the dark water with her finger.”
As an intimate journalist, ask yourself: Where would I have had to be physically to have reported McCarthy’s barn dance scene as a piece of journalism? What techniques would it have taken for me to have become the third-person nonfiction narrator and tell the same story? What details would I have had to collect? What would I have had to see, hear, smell? Which conversations could I have overheard and which could I have later reconstructed in interviews? In short, read to beg, borrow and steal.
A Final Thought
If you yearn to do this kind of journalism, I suggest you demand it — of your newspapers and magazines, editors and reporters — but mostly of yourselves. That’s what’s so empowering about print journalism. You don’t need elaborate equipment — no lights or cameras or sound booms. You don’t need great resources — no grants or big advances. You often don’t even need permission from The Powers That Be. You can go and assign the story. Or if you’re a reporter, you can go report and write the story. Each time you do, the depth of the response from your readers will amaze you, your confidence will grow and you will want to do it again because this kind of journalism is simply closer to human truth than what most journalists do. You will feel that closeness when you accomplish it. And once felt, you’ll want to feel it again and again.
Read these stories. Then go see for yourself.[For a more complete discussion of what’s called New or Literary Journalism, see Tom Wolfe’s introductory essays in “The New Journalism” (1973), edited by Wolfe and E.W. Johnson; two books edited by Norman Sims, “The Literary Journalists” (1984) and “Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century” (1990); a book edited by Sims and Mark Kramer, “Literary Journalism” (1995), particularly Kramer’s introductory essay; a book edited by Ronald Weber, “The Reporter as Artist” (1974); and my own list of suggested readings at the end of my book “American Profiles” (1992).]
[Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared as the introduction to “Intimate Journalism: The Art and Craft of Reporting Everyday Life,” by Walt Harrington.]
© 1997 Sage Publications