Amy Ellis Nutt
Nieman Class of 2005
A longtime enterprise writer at the Newark Star-Ledger, Nutt won the 2011 Pulitzer in feature writing for her narrative series “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” about the mysterious and deadly sinking of a commercial fishing boat. She was a finalist in 2009, for “The Accidental Artist,” a series about a chiropractor transformed by illness into an obsessive, prolific artist. “A chiropractor who had a stroke and woke up with, essentially, a compulsion to create art was just a story that I had to tell,” she once said. Nutt turned that series into Shadows Bright as Glass, a book that a New York Times reviewer described as a “freewheeling, admirably accessible discussion of how the brain works and how it survives damage.” Nutt, a poetry devotee with a background in philosophy, pushes toward the literary in all of her work. Her sentences often dance with the cadences of a reporter immersed in the possibilities of language. Listen to this one, from a story about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy: “Up and down the abandoned beaches, a fringe of snow and ice, like the frayed hem of an old wedding dress, sketches the edge of the last high tide.” She once told Storyboard, “I think that my background in poetry, which is a lot of what I studied in college, along with philosophy, helps. … Thinking in larger metaphors and images very much helps in narrative writing.”
—“The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” about a doomed scallop boat, a suspicious cargo ship and loopholes in maritime safety laws. Don’t miss our Annotation Tuesday! treatment of the series, in which Nutt goes line by line on her reporting and writing choices. A “Lady Mary” excerpt:
Around 5 a.m. something happened to the Lady Mary. Arias wasn’t sure what, but he jerked awake. The boat had shuddered, lurched hard to the left, and nearly catapulted him from his middle bunk.
“Come on, José, the boat’s sinking!” Timbo shouted as he dropped from his upper berth on the other side of the room. In emergencies, the crew is drilled to go to the wheelhouse on the upper deck. Arias and Smith were in the bow of the ship, the farthest point from the bridge.
They scrambled out of the bunk room and up the steps into the galley. The water was ankle-high as they sloshed across the kitchen to the port-side passageway. Moving slowly down the narrow hall, they braced themselves against the wall. The freezing water was now up to their knees. Through the cut room and out the double doors they finally emerged onto the deck. The Lady Mary was now leaning harder to port and a third of the stern was awash.
Frankie Credle, dressed only in black boxer shorts, banged a piece of pipe against the metal steps and yelled something up to Bobo in the wheelhouse, but Arias, who speaks little English, did not understand what he was saying.
At 5:17 a.m., about 80 miles away the phone rang in Stacy Greene’s house. She was sound asleep, but her mother, Janet, a light sleeper, answered. The voice on the other end sounded like Bobo, but all she heard was, “Hey!” and then static.
“Hello? Roy?” she said, calling Bobo by his given name. When there was no answer, she hung up.
—Shadows Bright as Glass, the book based upon “The Accidental Artist,” about Jon Sarkin, the stroke victim turned painter. Excerpt:
Art did not lure Jon Sarkin here, but it saved him. When he first arrived thirty years ago, he was a young, ambitious chiropractor intent on building a career. That was before his future slipped away from him, before a tiny blood vessel deep in his brain inexplicably shifted a hundredth of an inch, and as quickly as the flap of a butterfly’s wing, set off a wave of events that altered him body and soul. A single cruel trick of nature, a catastrophic stroke, and a quiet, sensible man was transformed into an artist with a ferocious need to create.
For nearly two decades, he toiled in his studio painting and drawing without forethought or expectation, without plan or picture in his head, producing a storm of art that slowly increased in complexity and quality.
Yet always there was this question: Who was he? How had he gotten to this place? He was that rarest of individuals, a man dislocated from his own sense of self, a man who knew his brain had betrayed him and cast him out to sea. Recovered, it was as if he’d washed up on some alien shore, and he questioned who, and what, he was. How does a soul start over?
—Watch Nutt read the graceful opening of “The Accidental Artist” and then talk about how she found the story, and also about the enduring importance of stories. Then — bonus! — have a look at her TEDxPhoenixville talk on neuroscience and the human soul:
The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 in September. For more installments, go here.