Editor’s note: This is the third piece covering this year’s “Power of Storytelling” conference in Bucharest. For the setup, and to watch Esquire‘s Chris Jones talk about the intersection of storytelling and magic, go here. To watch and read Tom Junod‘s talk, on the price of telling true stories, go here. Today’s piece comes from National Geographic and New York Times magazine contributor Cynthia Gorney*. Her setup: “Sometimes a journalist’s job seems utterly self-contradictory: writing clear, compelling narrative that conveys how very complicated things really are. If you’re assigned some topic as vast and multifaceted as ‘child marriage’ or ‘Cuba today,’ how do you find your way to a story that tries to do justice to its complexity? We’ll use both these actual examples, from recent National Geographic stories, to explore the process — from the first immersive learning to the decisions about how to report and when to zoom in.” You can watch her talk, or read the lightly edited transcript that follows. 

I am going to talk about a particular kind of story, which is one that I would imagine some of the people here have actually faced as work, and lots of people have thought about.

Let me back up a little bit. When we talk about storytelling in a nonfiction journalism sense, there are a bunch of different kinds and they’re all worthy stories. Sometimes I worry that in all this conversation about narrative, people get caught up thinking narrative is the only good way to tell a story or convey information to people. It’s not. The investigative piece, although it will certainly use elements of narrative when it works well, starts with a single premise: Something is wrong, there is a problem, I am going to go figure out what the problem is. A great yarn, maybe a profile, a story that you tell about an individual person, starts with your person.

What I want to do is talk about a kind of story that starts with a giant mess and you have to kind of funnel your way in to a story, from there. And I’ve done both kinds, but one of the interesting things right now about working for National Geographic (which I’ve done more of than anything else over about the last seven years — just because their stories take so long to do) is these “big mess, reverse funnel” stories, as I think of them. Because what National Geo does often, and they tend to do it a lot with me — I’m sort of jealous of the people who get told, “Go off and do a story about the mating habits of this weird honeybee, because we have some great photographs of it” — I don’t get those. I get what I think of as “the one word” or in some cases “two words” assignment. Three words: “the Mexico Guatemala borders.” Okay, that’s four words, sorry. Another example: “The Tarahumara Indian people, in northern Mexico. You go find us what the story is, go learn about it, find us what the story is, find us a story within that big topic and then we’ll take it from there.” Now this is not a complaint. They put an enormous amount of trust in their reporters, but what I want to do is kind of walk you through the process of taking a giant messy topic like abortion (which I ended up writing a whole book on) or child marriage or Cuba and show you a little bit about how, at least for me, that very daunting (always) process works.

One thing I want to say right at the top is I’ve been doing this for a lot of years. The one thing I am really sorry to tell you is it doesn’t get easier. You would think that this process, like building fine furniture, would become a little more automatic and a little simpler as you got some mastery over it. For most of the writers that I know, there are things about it that get easier, but the process itself, the writing itself, is just as difficult every single time.

One thing that you do develop is what I am going to talk about, which is a sense of what the steps look like.

Child marriage was assigned to me just like that. My editor calls me up and she says, “We think we’ve got a new story that we want you to do — child marriage.” End of assignment. And my first reaction was quite uncharacteristic for me, because I usually leap into these things. I said, “What is complicated about this? There is nothing complicated about this subject. All these people should be shot. This is very simple.” And she started laughing and she said, “I think you are going to find that it’s quite complicated and we want you to go figure out how to tell a story about it.” She, of course, was completely right.

So you start on a piece like this, on a subject matter that’s very complicated, with an extraordinary amount of what I call “immersion.” That’s going to be step one. And when I talk to my students at school they’re always kind of flabbergasted by what I mean by “immersion.” Right now, I am studying Arabic because I want to go to Saudi Arabia this fall. This may be a little over the top, but I actually know that it’s going to help me, not because I’ll be able to interview in Arabic, but because it will help expand my knowledge along with the reading that I’m doing.

How do you start with a topic as huge as child marriage? Well, you start by going to anybody who works on this. Now, I grew up as a reporter in the era pre-Google. So, there used to be a time when you would go to Reader’s Guide for periodical literature in the United States. And you look up everything that had been written in magazines about your topic, for the last 20 years. Now, I adore Google. It’s fantastic and, obviously, one of the things you need to worry about is will it steal you and drop you in an abyss from which you cannot recover?

But if, for example, you’re starting on child marriage, one of the first things you learn is that there are NGOs around the world that have made this their specific cause. So, No. 1 — you do a full cover. And when I say you go for the NGOs and the people that know about your subject matter, I don’t mean you just find them and look for people, I mean you read all the reports. And what always surprises my students when I tell them is that you actually have to figure out some way to narrow your search. The way I tend to do it is only articles over 1,000 words or if there is somebody in particular that I’m trying to find out about, only articles that pertain to them. But you read everything; you spend an enormous amount of time reading. One of the things you are doing in that search is looking for individuals, you’re looking for specific reports and you’re looking for places where you may want to then narrow that funnel. The first thing that you want to do, though, is to create some kind of a timeline so you have a grip on what your big subject  matter is, then figure out  who am I talking to, what am I going to read and where am I going to go? That’s sort of stage one.

Stage two — you start picking up the phone. This is a really important stage that a lot of reporters screw up. I used to screw it up; I don’t now because I learned how not to, but a lot of my students do. You start calling what I’d shorthand as “Big Hats,” which is a term I use when I talk about structuring stories. Big Hats are people who really know a lot about your topic. Your first call to a Big Hat — here’s how you screw up a call to the Big Hat: “Hi! I am so-and-so from such-and-such a magazine and I have got to do this piece on so-and-so. Do you have about 45 minutes for me to ask you a bunch of questions?” What Big Hat (thinks) is: “I, who have spent 25 years developing expertise in this topic, am now being asked to dump my brain into a reporter who’s too lazy to do his or her own homework.” That’s not what you meant to say, but that’s what they hear. And I have to tell you that having actually developed expertise on one topic — which is abortion, the history and development of abortion law and the conflict in the United States — I have been the subject of some of these calls, when a reporter or a student would call me and say, ” I need you to help explain the abortion conflict to me.” I’d be like: “Five hundred pages (of) book, six years of research. Go look at that, and then we’ll talk.” I get a little ticked, even though I understand what’s going on.

So your first call to your experts has to be what I would describe as, “Give me my homework.” What you want to convey is, “I understand that I’m ignorant to this topic, I am just starting out, you have a lot of knowledge, and I need some guidance in how to begin to be an intensive student. Where can I go learn a lot about magic before I even talk to you?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this.

One piece on which I had to do a kind of a funnel like this: I got assigned by the New York Times magazine to do a cover story about Rafael Nadal, the tennis player. I said to my editor, “No, no, no. This is a mistake assignment, you do not want me to do this piece.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Because I don’t play tennis, I don’t understand tennis, I don’t know the rules of tennis. I think I know that love means zero, but that’s the only thing and I don’t know why.” And he said, “No, no, no. This will be interesting. Do it! … It will be a more interesting piece because you speak Spanish but you do not play tennis. Most people do the reverse with Nadal.”

So I had to do what I am describing to you, on tennis, a subject which my across-the-street and next-door neighbors knew an enormous amount about. My nephew played tennis in a Division III school in the U.S. and what I had to do was to say to each one of them, “I am stupid about tennis; my editor thought it would be amusing to assign me to do a Nadal piece, help me start doing my homework.” Now if I had called a tennis expert and coach and said: “Please explain tennis to me,” you can imagine the reaction they would have had. But I called sportswriter friends and basically said, “Where do I start? How do I do my homework?”

And I did my homework. I read Tennis for Dummies. I started my way up through the tennis literature, which is pretty bad. That’s how I learned it. I apply the same principle on every one of these things: “What do I read?” So, after you have been guided by your experts, then you can call your experts back. They don’t expect you to have developed 25 years of expertise on their topic; they expect you to have shown the seriousness of purpose. That it merits their attention. And then they will say, “Okay, here is a place that you want to think about; here is a place that you want to go to; here are some of the big themes that you want to be looking at.”

In child marriage I started by learning which are the countries where the most activity is actually under way. It is a problem. It is a problem in Romania, it is a problem in the U.S. There are fundamentalist communities in the U.S. where they marry off their girls at 13. I had to tell my editors, “We are going to have to narrow down the number of places,” and we decided, because of a number of reasons — access, visuals, where the photographer had already been — to go to North India and to Yemen. I had to talk my editors into not sending me also to Africa, because the story was not going to be long enough to handle it. With Cuba I had a very similar situation. Where do I start? What do I read? How do I begin to understand the threads of complexity that are totally important to this story? How do I make sure that I am not just reading the pro-revolutionary literature, the anti-Castro literature? How do I get a good sense of both and who can I call to guide me in this regard? This is one of the points I am going to leave you with, when I wind this up. With a story like this, you are embracing the complexity, not running away from it. You have to understand it, in order to be able to tell the story well.

You have to understand the fight, or the argument, or the currents that are underway, in the story that you are telling.

You’ve figured out where you’re going to go, with the help of the people that you have learned how to cultivate, because you’ve called them in the right way, not in the wrong way. Normally, if you’re going abroad, it’s NGOs and also other kinds of scholars who have worked in the place, who are going to help you. But basically, the same principles apply if you are doing a big story in Romania on some aspect on Romanian life, which you were unfamiliar with, before: “How do I convey the complexity of this? Where do I go? Where is the best place for me on the ground?”

You hit the ground. (And I wish I had a good technique for helping you do this.) What you need to find – you all know this, who have tried to do stories like this – you need your people. And I don’t just mean your experts that give you perspective. Somewhere in this world that you are trying to explore, there are going to be people whom you are going to connect with and who are going to help guide you through the world. Experience and your gut will combine to tell you who these people are. What’s the guide? They’re articulate, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re educated. It means they know how to talk, they want to talk, you have some connections with them, and they have a story to tell. I’ve had to kill pieces because I found people who are articulate and they could talk but they were basically just talking heads. They did not have a story to tell. When I was asked to tell the story about modern conflict over the Tarahumara Indian people (which are a huge indigenous group in Northern Mexico, under various pressures), the woman I found with a story to tell was a clinic director who was half Tarahumara and half Mexican. And we went back into her town so that she could talk to me, because she was articulate, and because we connected about the conflicts in her own head about being part Mexican and part Indian and seeing the community from both perspectives. We spent a week there and it worked really well as a storytelling vehicle.

In Cuba, I had already been there for several weeks. I made three visits altogether to Cuba, and it was on the tail end of the first visit when I met the guy in Cuba that I call Eduardo. What I did in Cuba was drive around and talk to people over and over again, because Cubans are great talkers, and I find that every time you get into a private space, they would start open up about their complaints. And this guy’s complaints were so perfectly articulated, such a good condensation of what I’ve been hearing all over Cuba, that we talked and talked and talked. And finally, he pulled over the car (we were in a long drive in a countryside), and he said to me, “I have something that I want to tell you.” I said, “What?” He said, “I am building a boat. My friends and I are going to get out of here sometime in the next month, while people are distracted by the visit of the Pope.”

If you are a reporter, obviously your brain goes crazy and I said right away, “Can I talk to you? Can we really talk about this?” And we became friends and it was quite clear to me that his preparation (and ideally his journey, in the end) was going to be the narrative that would draw through all the complicated threads of the story that I wanted to tell.

Gorney’s lecture (photo by Catalin Georgescu)

Gorney’s lecture (photo by Catalin Georgescu)

How do you spend time with your person? Once you start figuring out whom your people are you have to learn how to probe, how to argue. One of the things I like to tell people, when they’re doing interviews of this kind, is to ask people, “What would you say to the person who…?” That’s a much more gentle and provocative way than just getting into an argument with somebody. In Cuba, no matter whom I was talking to, all over the place, I would say, “What would you say to the person who…?”

With Eduardo, I said over and over again, “What would you say to the government official who said to you that you’re bailing out on your country; you are the future of your country; you, young people, you have to be patient, look what we gave you, you do not understand how bad things are in the capitalist U.S.?” And he would respond beautifully articulately and vehemently, and of course I would be madly writing. When I talked to other people, once I had become friends with Eduardo, I would say, “Look, I have this friend who is 35 years old, and he is buying tuna and water right now to escape illegally from the island; what would you say to him if you could talk to him right now?” And that produced wonderfully eloquent and surprising responses from people. In Cuba I expected everybody to say “he’s a gusano – a worm, he’s bailing out on a revolution.” Nobody said that. And that added to some other insight I was able to add in to my piece: People were really sympathetic to those who didn’t have the patience to watch the revolution succeed.

Similarly, once I began finding my people exploring both India and Yemen – in the child brides story – one of my people in Yemen (in fact, it was my translator; and I was very sorry I had to write her out of the copy – for space reasons), passionate, articulated, complicated, understood me, took me to the place where I wanted to go. In India, I was fortunately enough to find young women. The young woman who sort of makes up kind of the bulk of the second part of that piece, whom I ended up helping pay for her to stay in college and who did – by the way — end up divorcing her husband, and is now working in India … we are still in contact, she’s grown into a perfectly lovely young woman, of some great independence, in India. It’s the minute I met her. I said: “OK. This is going to be one of my people, because she can talk, she’s complicated, because she’s drawn to her family, she understands vividly the ties that keep someone attached to their family. So, she is complicated, she is not simple, but she is articulate and oh, boy, does she have a story!

In India, many of the people who arrange for the marriages of their children at very young ages in these societies do it because they love their daughters intensely and because this is genuinely how they think their daughters will be most protected and have a better adult life.

So I went around India and I would say to people: “OK, I met this grandfather who was marrying off his granddaughter and was very proud of the fact that he had found a good family to marry her into and she would be with her aunt, so she wouldn’t be lonely and she would be on a good farm, not a bad farm, with a good provider.” And I would say to activists in India, “Talk to him through me, answer him.” And of course I’ve got these wonderful eloquent answers from people, which is the “on the ground application,” if you are going to have to throw a lot of those away. I got a heartbreaking pile of quotes – heartbreaking in the total crass reporter way, because I couldn’t use them in the piece. But what I also got from all those conversations was enough understanding of that perspective to be able to convey it in the piece.

So, what I basically want you to come away with is for you to think about what you want to do if your job is to take a very complicated story, a very complicated subject, find the story in it and make it work, for you and the reader.

No. 1: Totally immerse yourself, way beyond what you might have imagined. Take the magic lessons, read all of the books, learn the language if you can, or at least begin to do it, really get it as deeply as you can.

No. 2: Find the right people, once you’re on the ground. And by “on the ground,” as you all know, I can mean in another country, in that suburb of Bucharest where you’ve been asked to do your reporting.

No. 3: Embrace the fact that the subject matter is complicate; resist the urge to make it really simple. Resist the urge to write the piece that says that child marriage is brutality and oppressive to all children, because we know that. Resist the urge to say Cuba is breaking out and is dropping the shackles of communism and going capitalist, because that’s not true and it’s much too simple to describe what is happening in Cuba. Probe and argue. When you find your people, no matter who they’ll be, keep asking them, “What about this? What do you think? What would you say to the person who took argument with you?”

And, finally, find motion in your story. Find a way to have your character take you from the beginning through the end or in some way bring some direct action into your story, so that you have movement in there that helps describe the complexity. But the most important thing I want to say is: Keep it complex, while bringing it to life through storytelling.

One of the nicest things that I heard at the close of the Cuba story (for which I got a lot of really nice email from Cubans – both from those who’ve been able to write to me from within and from those outside) was, “This is the best piece I’ve ever read on Cuba, because it is complicated, because it embraces Cuba’s complexity.” And there was an editor at the magazine (and they were happy with the story at the magazine and treated it very nicely) who said, “I need a point to this story; I need it to make an argument.” And the other editor said, “No, the point of the story is that Cuba is very complicated; that is the point she is trying to convey and that is what we want to do, and that is what people like to hear about it.”

*We recently hosted Gorney at Lippmann House, as part of our Nieman Narrative speaker series. Check back for that talk and her conversation with some of this year’s Nieman Fellows. 

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