Someone who understands that impulse is Greg Borowski, deputy editor for news, business and projects and a longtime watchdog editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Every year for the last quarter century, he’s honored Christmas by writing a short story keyed to the holiday. At first he simply included them in cards to friends and family. Then his employers, first the Lansing (MI) State Journal and then the Journal Sentinel, began publishing them. A dozen are collected in two books. This year, his paper published number 25: “The Christmas Boxes: A story about love and loss, mothers and daughters.” It’s a tightly-written, poignant tale about a woman who connects with her dying mother suffering from dementia when she opens a box of family decorations, each with its own story.
Narrative writers like Borowski, whose credits also include “First and Long: A Black School, a White School and Their Season of Dreams,” call on the same tools to produce the verisimiltude that their fiction counterparts strive for: details, scenes, dialogue, drama and suspense. But there is a crucial distinction.
When you write nonfiction, Borowski says, “You can control how the story is told, but you can’t control the story itself.”
Fiction writers get to decide the outcome. Like Borowski, I’ve written both genres and agree with his characterization of the genre’s appeal to journalists. “You don’t have to settle for almost the right quote,” he told me, or think: “Geez, if only this had happened instead of that, it would be so much better.” Even so, he says writing fiction “definitely takes a leap out of the comfort zone.”
The process behind Borowski’s fiction is iterative and instructive for anyone considering trying their hand. Throughout the year, he scribbles concepts and scenarios, character names and themes, capturing them on sticky notes and in notebooks and then storing them in a running idea file on Google Drive. “The best ideas, of course, seem to come when you are not at the keyboard,” he says.
As the holiday approaches he trolls for anything that grabs his attention. At the beginning of many stories, all he has is “a beginning, an end and some sort of complication to resolve.”
Like much fiction, “The Christmas Boxes” can be traced to personal experience: when Borowski’s grandmother was in a nursing home, she said she could see her late husband at the end of her bed. What if? That question — the yeast of fictional inspiration — started fermenting. Initially, he thought it would be a story about a son or daughter who spots a look-alike at the hospital and “sends them into the room to let their mother know it is okay to let go.”
But Borowski set the idea aside for years — “it seemed too blatant a play for emotions” — until this year when he merged it with another idea from his cache: an Angel Tree where cards don’t contain the standard list of a family’s needs, but a message for the reader. The story is too special and worth a read to give away more than that.
Storytelling in a journalist’s DNA
It doesn’t surprise Borowski that so many journalists turn to fiction.
“The crafting of news stories can become less challenging over time, so they want to try something different. While narrative nonfiction is often celebrated, there still is the idea that fiction is somehow a higher form of art. (After all, people dream about writing the Great American Novel, not the Great American Newspaper Article.) And, frankly, many reporting beats can become pretty dreary, so fiction provides an escape.”
Nonfiction writers have an edge in the fiction game: storytelling theory is part of their DNA. More important, their reporting skills give them an ear for dialogue, the eye and nose for telling details and the tools needed to craft a scene. Spotting a lone skater on the downtown rink one year led Borowski to imagine she was was skating with someone. When his parents moved into a new house, he bought them a small Christmas tree to plant in the yard. “It made me wonder,” he says, “what would happen if a person did that every year.” He watched a young girl get out her own money and buy an expensive toy. “The twist I imagined: She was giving it to charity. That concept drove another piece.”
Borowski tries to follow the advice he gives young reporters: “Notice what you notice.”
“I tend to draw a few things each year from my own life, but mostly it is a matter of being a trained observer. When you are, with a little imagination, you can find ideas everywhere.”
Storyboard reached out to Borowski to learn how and why he writes fiction, the differences between his day job as a journalist and creating fictional stories, and why he believes more journalists should try their hand at the form. Our interview has been edited for length.
Your story has all the elements of narrative nonfiction. How do you manage to write a made up story that feels so real?
I tend to fall back on techniques I learned as a journalist: Use only telling details. Make every word count. Cut anything that does not advance the story. Don’t use quotes/dialogue as exposition. Less is more.
With these stories, I try to write cinematically. That is, I can see the scene in my head — where people are standing, what the room looks like, every nod, gesture, voice inflection. When people are told to write descriptively, it can come off like an inventory of a room. When they describe action, it can read like stage directions. My goal is to have the reader feel like the scene is happening in front of them — for them to experience the story, not just read the story.
Beyond that, I try to do double duty with descriptions.
For instance, in the first paragraphs of the story, I wanted to get across the idea Lauren is a busy professional woman in a tough spot at Christmastime without saying any of those words. Likewise, I felt like I had a single paragraph to describe both the house where she grew up and what it was like to grow up without a father around.
Even though it’s fiction, do you have to report it?
As a rule, yes. But the stories I write generally focus on relationships between people, and often carry some magical Santa-esque element.
Rather than reporting out scenes and locations, I think of this more in terms of making sure the stories hold together within themselves. That is, does the reality they create — even if it’s something fanciful or magical — ring true? As I work through the drafts, I try to scrub them with that in mind: Is the character consistent throughout the story? Do the ages and timelines fit together properly? My wife, Katy, who is usually the first person to read them, is a good check on this. So is Jim Higgins, an editor at the Journal Sentinel who coordinates getting them published in print and online each year.
When they raise questions of reality or continuity, I sometimes want to reply: “Come on. It’s fiction. Anything can happen in fiction.” But that’s lazy and untrue. Instead, their questions are a sign I need to go back and rework something.
You’re an investigative journalist. How is writing fiction the same and dramatically different from narrative journalism?
The parts that are the same are easy. You need subjects/characters that are well-developed, a structure that includes conflicts or obstacles, strong dialogue and a resolution that is satisfying and true to the story. In short, something has to happen in the story and everything that is included has to drive the reader to that conclusion. Additionally, both forms require a steady hand from the writer. You’re taking the reader along for a ride, so the reader has to feel comfortable — not that they won’t be saddened or joyful along the way, or that there won’t be any twists or turns. Just comfortable that you, the author, know where you are going and can get them there.
For me, a major difference is that with narrative nonfiction you’re often trying to take real life, the ordinary, and make it feel special or magical. In my Christmas stories, I’m trying to take the magical and make it seem ordinary. That is, grounding it in reality. For instance, in this year’s story, I knew I needed a few touchstone family decorations as a plot device. I knew one would be a snow globe because, well, my daughter has several that come out at Christmas time and it seemed to fit.
It wasn’t until I typed out what was inside the snow globe — a winter scene with a church — that the next line of dialogue popped into my head: “That’s our church. That’s where I got married.” It wasn’t until I put the snow globe into the mother’s hands and allowed her to shake it, that I realized it was a metaphor for things being jumbled and then settling. And, really, that’s the arc of the story itself.
You oversee projects and investigative stories? Do you hope the journalists you supervise will take inspiration for their own narratives from stories like this one?
I think writers get better by writing, but also by reading good writing. And good writing can be found in all sorts of places.
Inspiration can come from anywhere.
The key: Don’t read a great story and think “How could I ever do that?” Instead, approach it as: “How did they do that?” The former makes fiction seem like an unattainable form of art, the latter positions it as the craft it is.
We can all get better at our craft by practicing it.
What lessons can writers of narrative nonfiction draw from writing fiction?
I think there are lots of lessons to be drawn simply from trying something different.
A major lesson, though, is that to truly resonate with readers, a story has to operate on multiple levels. You need the strong characters and cliffhangers and twists to pull you along, but what’s the deeper thing the story is really about? Redemption. Forgiveness. Healing.
Once you settle on that, it should inform and shape the structure, plot and dialogue and everything else that goes into the piece.
How does your work as a journalist influence the writing of this story?
Many of the same rules apply: Hook the reader with a strong lead — not just the lead at the start of the story, but the lead for each of the sections. Same goes for the endings. Provide hooks throughout that pull the reader along. Pare back your prose. Never be boring.
Really, the biggest advantage is the discipline any veteran reporter has to just get something on the screen to work with — and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, to polish your way to the strongest verbs and tightest sentences and crispest dialogue.
Good reporters know the stories that resonate most with readers are the ones that speak to deeper themes and ideas. You always have to be able to answer the question: “What is the story about?”
In this case, you can answer it by saying it is a story about a woman who dies on Christmas Eve and her estranged daughter who arrives at her bedside. Or you can answer that it’s a story about: Loss. Forgiveness. Memory. Love.
The first answer — the plot — is just a means to illuminate the second, the theme.
Did you draw anything in the story from life?
Lots of things. Part of the original concept came from the experience with my late grandmother. Like the character, her name was Susan; her husband was Leonard. As a kid, I used to get tasked with helping my grandmother make ornaments — those kits that require precise beads and sequins. And, yes, she got to press the pins in while I put the beads on in the right order.
The living room belongs to a great aunt, though there were plastic runners on the floor instead of plastic on the couch. I remember visits as a kid where it seemed like there was nothing you were allowed to touch. The trio of ceramic angels were heirlooms on my mother’s side, though I got one of the instruments wrong. Why would angels have cymbals?
Usually I tuck in the names of nieces or nephews, or children of friends. My daughter, Annaliese, is in every story — not by name, but usually a referenced age or, in this story the sixth-grade.
I don’t write the stories from life, but there are always pieces of life in the stories.
The story is peppered with dialogue. How important is that to the story?
I think the dialogue is vital. I usually start out with too much and realize some of what is being said should be part of an expository paragraph, and some is just extra words and does not belong at all. I find reading the dialogue aloud helps … and reading it quickly. That forces you to say it as you’d say it, not as it is written, which helps make it feel more authentic. In some respects, the dialogue is the most intimate part of a scene — you’re not just watching what is happening from afar, you’re listening to a conversation. So, a little bit can go a long way.
The story is full of textbook examples demonstrating the power of show-don’t-tell. Instead of saying her soldier father died, perhaps in a war, you write, “On the end table was a photo of her father, his Army uniform ever pressed, his smile ever easy, his eyes ever bright. Lauren had never met him — she came along three months after he passed — but knew the story well: Her mother was expecting a Christmas Eve phone call, but got a knock on the door instead. The flag, precisely folded, was in a case on the mantel.” Why did you compose it this way?
One practical thing that has strengthened my stories is the need to keep them short enough to be printed out with Christmas cards. They must fit on a piece of legal paper, landscape mode, four columns of text on each side. This enforces some discipline on the process, and requires me to develop sharp themes and crisp scenes.
The paragraph you cite is typical of at least a few that come up each year, where I need to tell a lot in a few words. Here I was trying to describe the living room, give a backstory for the characters and encapsulate the conflict that needs resolution. At the same time, I wanted to convey a feeling of wistfulness.
Do you think journalists should try their hand at fiction?
I think writers of all stripes only get better when they try new things and push their own envelopes. Likewise, writers of fiction would probably learn a lot by trying their hand at narrative nonfiction, as it would force them to work on a different set of related skills.
In recent years, I have become a runner and know you don’t get better just by running. You have to do cross-training, too, to strengthen different muscles. The same applies here.