New York Times sportswriter John Branch is best known in the journalism world for “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” His gripping long-form narrative, which reconstructed a fatal avalanche in the Washington Cascades, was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Because of its creative multi-media approach, it also is credited with advancing the aspirations of storytelling in the digital age.
In “Children of the Cube,” Branch again reveals his signature writing style: rich with detail, never flowery, and built on scenes that make the reader feel they are right there with him. But this time Branch takes those readers into a far different world – that of “speedcubing,” where young people with blazing fast minds and blazing fast fingers compete to solve Rubik’s Cube-style puzzles.
He also does something that is rare for him and, he says, uncomfortable: He turns his notebook inward, weaving first-person into his narrative to write about one of the cube competitors – his 16-year-old son, Joe. The cubing story, published Aug. 15, 2018, in The New York Times Magazine, is introduced this way in a subhed:
My son and his cubes have been inseparable for years. Like hundreds of other children, he found his tribe at the CubingUSA nationals.
Branch then takes readers through the USA Cubing national championships in Salt Lake City, introducing us to the heroes and hopefuls of a passionate subculture, and to the many parents who stand by, amazed. The lede starts a bit ambiguously, drawing readers in with the usual set-up of a sporting event until, at the end of the third paragraph, Branch hints at what’s to come: his son is in the audience.
SALT LAKE CITY — There were three worthwhile vantage points for “Max Park vs. the World,” an exhibition featuring seven of the globe’s fastest speedcubers. That’s the moniker for the growing faction of people who solve Rubik’s Cube-style puzzles at mind-bending speeds. Six of them formed a relay against Park, an autistic 16-year-old from California who is breaking most of their records.
One good spot was from the audience, joining hundreds of (mostly) young people gazing up at the celebrities of speedcubing the way N.B.A. fans crowd sidelines to watch Stephen Curry warm up.
Eyes and phones were up. Mouths were open. My son was in the crowd, somewhere.
Even when readers know Branch has a personal interest in the event, they aren’t immediately aware of the deeper story he has foreshadowed. They can envision the scene playing out in front of one of those “worthwhile vantage points,” but they don’t yet know what they are really watching.
Before Branch takes them there, he pulls back with meticulous research to provide necessary context. He explains the history of the 44-year-old cube without getting bogged down with particulars, and introduces the rise of competitive speedcubing. That sets up the next portion of the story — the focus on competitors. By introducing international cubing phenom Max Park, he works his way towards the story’s deeper understory.
Max Park’s parents, Schwan and Miki, knew something was different with their son when he was a baby. He seemed to live in his own world. For a time they wondered if he was deaf.
Doctors told them it was autism, the developmental disorder that can show itself in a range of symptoms from a young age — among them, the delayed use of spoken language, a lack of eye contact or interest in engaging with others, repetitive sounds or mannerisms, a hyper-focus on certain activities.
Another issue can be fine-motor skills. Max’s therapists and parents put the boy through all kinds of exercises to improve his dexterity — picking up coins and placing them in a slot of a bank, for example. When he was 7 or 8, Max was handed a Rubik’s Cube.
“He fell in love with it,” Schwan Park said at a competition in Berkeley, Calif., a couple of months ago. “And he practiced all the time.”
The Parks were just glad to find therapy that did not feel like a chore. Soon, Max could solve a 3 by 3 cube in about the time it takes to read this sentence aloud.
Branch uses details to paint scenes and evoke mental imagery. Quotes are spare and purposeful. But there are some gems, as this from a national cube retailer and competitor who is talking about Park:
“He is breaking cubing,” said Phil Yu, 28, chief executive of the Cubicle and still a world-class competitor. “He is physically really strong. And his turning speed is out of control.”
Branch doesn’t use much attribution – no staccato “he said, she said.” He relies on his own voice and inner dialog to pull the reader forward, and in.
The piece takes some time getting to the actual national competition. Before he gets there, Branch finally introduces us, more fully, to his son:
He is 16, straddling the moat between childhood and adulthood. He has spent most of his years trying to fit in but usually being pushed out. We learned he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in kindergarten, and some symptoms often associated with autism continue to vex doctors and psychologists as he approaches his junior year of high school.
His biggest issue remains socialization. Joe’s a smart and tenderhearted kid, but like the cubes he carries everywhere, he can be hard to decipher and solve. Most don’t give him the time.
When not at the skate park, he’s usually home at the piano, practicing the Mozart pieces he learned on YouTube, or studiously putting together jigsaw puzzles, or practicing his cubes with a timer. I forget the last time he was invited somewhere.
Yet there he was, fitting in as never before. Like everyone else, he held a plastic cube, both a security blanket and a badge. He had a lanyard around his neck, identifying him as one of about 600 competitors, a special collective.
Built around Joe and others like him, “Children of the Cube” is ultimately about outsiders – young boys and surprisingly few girls – who have found a place they fit, solving puzzles that confound just about everyone else. It is a a story about striving and competition. But even more, it is a story about community, and ultimately about a father and his son. Here is Branch’s ending, after the competition is over:
On the plane ride home, he tried solving a 3 by 3 cube blindfolded, one of the many hard-to-fathom variations of speedcubing. He stared at a scrambled cube and examined the pattern of the colors. After a couple of minutes, he covered his face with his hat and took a deep breath.
I watched as my son’s fingers rotated the layers at an incomprehensible speed. They paused sometimes as his brain tried to conjure the current position of the colors, to tell his fingers what to do next. I quietly recorded with my phone.
In a minute, the six sides of the cube went from kaleidoscope to nearly solid. He opened his eyes. Only a couple of pieces were in the wrong spot.
So close, I said, amazed and proud.
He smiled. “We can go again next year, right?” he said.
After studying “Children of the Cube,” students had a Skype interview with John Branch. Their conversation is lightly eded for length and clarity.
What was the genesis of this story? How did something from your family life become this remarkable first-person account?
It didn’t start out as a story. It started two or three years ago when my son started to get into the cube. He had a growing collection of cubes, and at one point — probably two years ago — said, “Dad, I’d like to go to this competition over in Berkeley,” which isn’t too far from where I live … So, I took him — why not? I thought it was fascinating, but I didn’t really think of it as a story. I was just happy for him and interested to see this cultural genre.
Fast-forward to last spring sometime, and I mentioned to an editor at The Times that my son was really into these things, and he just could not get enough information from me. He was like, “Oh, my God, this is fascinating — I mean we all know what Rubik’s Cubes are, but I didn’t realize this world existed,” and kind of planted in the back of my head that may be there’s a story there.
Joe, my son, qualified for nationals, and I told my sports editor I was going to take Joe to nationals and thought there was an interesting story there. We talked about the idea of maybe trying to delve into the brain of some of these people that do this very well — maybe it is a science story, maybe it is a culture story. At The New York Times, we’re not shy about expanding the definition of sports. We don’t always stick to the four major sports. So he said just go and we’ll see what happens.
I came back and wrote about it and the first version had a little bit of first person. I think what made this not just a typical story of a subculture – in the past I have written about things like the yo-yo world championships, I’ve written about lumberjacking, I love these kinds of stories anyway – but the fact that I had this personal connection to it.
The New York Times doesn’t usually have us write in first person. But the editors sent my draft back and said, ‘We love the personal connection. Do more of that.’
How many drafts?
Probably two. There was a long version and then the suggestion to make this more personal. I have a tendency to write long, so I knew what I could get away with (on the rewrite). The second version is probably pretty close to what you saw as the final version.
Describe the editing process.
Really –and this is how I do a lot of things – I open up a Google doc file and start writing and I don’t worry about how long it is getting. Then I self-edit it down to something I think I can get away with. On occasions I will send out a cry for help and say, ‘I am kind of stuck.’ I am happy to have somebody else look at this and just chop out pieces they think should just be chopped out. I am to the point where I am just rearranging furniture; I am not really editing. Then I will have my editor take a look at it and he or she will usually come back with ideas. The Times, interestingly enough, does not edit real heavily – maybe they should on my side – but I do not get a lot of heavy edits; it is more big picture concept things. In this case, it was to get more personal and lose some of the nuts and bolts of cubing. My first instinct was to make this more about speedcubing and this interesting little world, and they said, ‘Keep that in there, but just enough. Do not go too many paragraphs without talking of you and your son. Keep this pretty personal.’
On occasions I will send out a cry for help and say, ‘I am kind of stuck.’ I am happy to have somebody else look at this and just chop out pieces they think should just be chopped out.
Was it hard to write in first person, to get personal?
I am very much a proponent of the fly-on-the-wall aspect of traditional newspaper journalism. I do not write first person very often, but for some reason I have done it several times in the past year. I think we started this trend toward in the last few years, but I am not a huge fan of that personally; it is not my natural writing style. It was a little weird, especially in in this case because of just how much to reveal about my son.
He’s still going through struggles and it is a big part of our lives … As I was writing this, I was talking to a friend at The Times and said, ‘I am really struggling to figure out how much to reveal about him.’ How do I describe my son in just a few sentences to give people the idea that yes, he has some issues, but without people who might Google his name 10 years from now … I do not want to hamstring him in the future. I want to be fair to him and to his future, but I also want the reader to fully understand that this is a different kind of kid.
My friend said, ‘John, you do that in every story you write, but it is just with strangers.’ He was exactly right. Why am I so tied up because it is my son when, without a whole lot of thought, I will describe somebody I have just met in one or two flip kind of sentences.
It really hit home how much responsibility we have when writing about other people.
It really hit home how much responsibility we have when writing about other people. We owe it to them to really nail down those words very precisely and be very, very fair and very, very accurate.
Did you guys talk about it with your son?
Not really. My son saw a late draft of it, and he was just like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I think he sort of liked the idea that I was writing about him. I think it was a boost in esteem for him in a strange way. My wife and I talked about it, but she did not read it until it was edited, and I think she trusted me. We didn’t dive too deep or get too philosophical about it. I think I am pretty good about having a natural sense of what is right and what is wrong and where the boundaries are.
Do you not like first person because you feel it is not as effective?
It is just not my style. In the last 10 years, online publications have encouraged it – some of which I absolutely love – but it seems like there is a trend of ‘Let me tell you about my experience living through this.’ I would much rather read a story by somebody who has a little bit of distance from what they are reporting about — you know, the fly-on-the-wall. I would rather stick in the background and not be a part of the story … Sometimes I start to read stories where if they say ‘I’ in the first sentence I give up on it. That is probably not fair, but I do not think everything that we do personally is the most important thing in the world.
Do you think this story would have been more effective if it was not written in first person?
I doubt it. I think my editor’s instinct was probably right on. Like I said, I have written a lot about these different kind of subcultures — I am always looking for a fresh angle. My goal is to write stories people have not read before, and so I try to find the corners of the sports world and see if I can stretch the boundaries of what we can write about. I have written a lot about climbing, for example – sports that aren’t traditional sports. I love those stories, and so I think speedcubing is a fascinating story in in its own right.
I don’t think I should do that every time — you know, I am not sitting here thinking, ‘Let’s talk about some of the hobbies of my daughter.’ I think that was kind of a one-off.
Your stories are full of keenly observed details — little things that help paint a full picture. Did you have to train yourself to be a good observer of detail?
Yeah, in fact, I work at it. I’m one of those guys who loves sitting in airports. I’m the one who is not playing on their phone because I’m sitting there watching everybody else, and I often think to myself, ‘How would I describe this situation? How would I describe Gate B-49 right now? What is happening? There is a person over there yelling at the person at the counter, there is somebody over there playing on their phone, there is a kid out of control, there is somebody clipping his nails. How would I would describe the situation?’ I like to think it is a strength, and that our obligation to readers is to take them behind the scenes. We have the power and the opportunities they don’t have. So our obligation to them is, ‘Let me bring you here and tell you what it looks like, what it sounds like, what it smells like.’