Editor’s note: We are trying out a new feature. Call it writing practice (with a nod to Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones,” where I first encountered the term). Or virtual workshopping. Or maybe simply shop class. The goal is to break down the work that goes into creating stories, and offer prompts or small suggestions to help you practice that work.
Two weekends ago, as an eclectic band of writers headed to an archipelago in Lake Superior, the skies let loose. A radio station trumpeted “thousand-year rains.” Roads across northwestern Wisconsin flooded or washed away in chunks of concrete. The five-hour drive from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Bayfield took eight hours through detours and backtracks. And the greatest of the Great Lakes – so vast and deep it has a tide and an oceanographic institute, so fierce it has been known to devour really big boats (more accurately called ships) – was churned up like a small pond. Satellite images still show red-brown sediment coloring the south shore in ways never seen before.
Yet come the new dawn, Superior had returned to its most seductive self – glassy, beckoning, so cold and clear that whole shipwrecks remain intact and visible to the naked eye.
And the writers – gathered for a week at the Madeline Island School of Arts – set out on a field trip to the water’s edge. Their assignment: to see beyond first sight. To sit long enough in one place to get past surface impressions and personal projections, and try to see what more lie before them. To draw on their other senses: sound, smell, taste, touch. Finally to see even beyond those physical senses to memory, metaphor, history and emotion.
In other words, to see the possibility of stories. To notice, question, wonder – and write it all down.Journalists aren’t often encouraged to sit that still or look that closely. What does seeing through the prism of memory have to do with the event unfolding in front of us? How does indulging our senses square with detachment and the much-misunderstood notion of objectivity? And even setting aside the woo-woo factor, where do we find the time?
The easy answers would be: Nothing. It doesn’t. We don’t.
Those are legitimate challenges, and important to heed in the fast-break world of hard news. Our primary jobs are to gather facts, not impressions. To provide information, not experience.
But when we wade into narrative, we are no longer just recorders, or even quick-minded observers. We move past distance to become near witnesses. We seek and question, describe and explain. We must never veer from the foundations of factual journalism, but can’t get stuck there. Just as investigative journalists see beyond what is stated in a budget or a court document to probe the misuse of power, narrative journalists need to see beyond the surface of place, people and events to unravel the more nuanced and personal stories that linger there.
How do we do that? As with anything, through purpose and practice. Which takes us back to the field trip on Madeline Island.We drove a quick mile up a forested road to a cove where the trees gave way to the expanse of of Chebomnicon Bay. (The place names in the Upper Midwest are, in themselves, doorways to stories.) The writers had 30 minutes to
sit, look, wander, wonder and write. No direction or expectation beyond that. They went in confused and uneasy. They came out with insights like this:
I grew up on the ocean, and never realized how different a lake is.
I know the words for things. Lake. Sand. Sky. Rocks. But there are all kinds of meanings behind those words.
I started by looking across the sand to the lake. Then I turned around and the sand was different. It glittered.
The lake is constant. But after awhile I started to see all the motion, and think about the passage of time.
And maybe my favorite:
Writing is different than just thinking. You learn and discover things as you write.
Every one of those small epiphanies holds big lessons for the journalist. Don’t assume. Dig deeper. Change your perspective. Consider context. Report beyond your assumptions to a fuller awareness.As I sat on a bulky rock watching the writers do what writers do – which looks like a lot of nothing – I noticed that the boulders scattered around me were wildly different shapes, textures and colors. Some were rounded and smooth, others black with edges sharp enough to cut. I was drawn to an especially fat one that stood out because of its dull but distinct orange.
The confident naming came from workshop participant Shirley Rieven, a PhD geophysicist. I turned, as I most always do, to questions: Why is it red? Where does it come from? How did it get here? Soon half our group was gathered for an enchanting lesson on rocks. We learned about the extruded igneous rock called basalt, and the famous local sedimentary rock known as Jacobsville sandstone. That the whitish dents in some rocks, which look like patches of lichen to me, are remnants of gas bubbles once trapped inside. (“Each one of those has a story,” Rieven said.) That the sand on the beach once belonged to rocks – but is also forming new rocks in a process called the “rock cycle.”
“It has to do with their birth and death,” she said.
Then she pointed out the gentle ridges in the sand under the incoming shallow water. Specialists can read them for evidence of changes to lake levels, which add to our understanding of climate change. “Geology is nothing but history and story,” Rieven said.
In our workshop later, we talked about the uncomfortable boundaries between science and story, and the risks of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. Yet back on that beach, by discussing the foreign world of rocks in the familiar language of human experience, we could relate and learn.
Nonfiction master John McPhee understood that when he wrote “Rising From The Plains” and so many of his object-based stories. Your conceptual reach may not rival McPhee’s, but no matter your field or topic or passion, you can train yourself to see beyond first sight. To notice, wonder and question. And to fill your notebook with the raw and sometimes glittery material that transcends stenography and becomes the stuff of story.