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Pinned this week for your storytelling pleasure:
Recommended reading: We’re heavy on recommendations this week because there’s so much great stuff out there. Some of our favorites:
• “Beyond the Finish Line,” by Tim Rohan, a contributing writer at the New York Times. Rohan chronicles the recovery of Jeff Bauman, who lost both his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing and was made famous by a photo of volunteers rushing him to safety in a wheelchair. We’ll have more on this piece soon, but for now have a look at an excerpt from Rohan’s elegant, moving story:
It had been two weeks since the bombings, and the burns on his back were still healing. Much of the skin was bright red and a few patches were raw, and it stung if he rolled or shifted or turned the wrong way. The bedsheets also bothered his sutures. So at night, he tried to lie still, but his legs would spasm. The pain pulsated down his thighs. Sometimes, it felt as if someone were beating on his knees. Most mornings, he woke up sore.
On this morning, Hurley fetched his clothes and his toothbrush and climbed into bed with him. She had spent the night on the couch at the foot of the bed, as she spent most nights now. After a while, she kissed him goodbye and left for a run.
Bauman pulled his wheelchair alongside the bed and took the two-and-a-half-foot wooden plank from the chair’s back pouch. He laid the plank from the bed to the chair, and, pushing down on it, he lifted himself slowly and scooted across into the chair. This was his new means of moving around.
Now, for a fleeting moment, he was alone.
• “I Read Everything Janet Malcolm Ever Published,” by Alice Gregory, in Slate. In reading Malcolm’s corpus, including her recently published Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, Gregory imagined finding some flaw that renders the author unlikeable. But she doesn’t, writing:
… Malcolm never seems self-enchanted. For all her apparent skepticism about the possibilities of her profession, the fact is she has devoted her life to it, and—in nothing I could find at least—has she even once tried to defend her choice to do so. “We are certainly not a ‘helping profession,’ ” she has said. “If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they’re letting us take.” In The Crime of Sheila McGough, Malcolm writes that as a journalist, “You are only pushing a button, turning on a tap.” And in The Silent Woman, she compares biographers to burglars and describes the genre’s readers as voyeuristic. Later, she says of her own writing that the “pose of fair-mindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses.” What looks at first glance to be a condemnation, is in fact a confession. Throughout her career, Malcolm has unabashedly presented her own petty preoccupations (lost luggage, event-appropriate cookies), shallow assessments (of Sylvia Plath she writes, “All the photographs of her disappoint me”), and vain humiliations (after asking a naïve question of a group of scholars, she reports that she feels “like someone who has ordered a cheeseburger at Lutece”).
• “The Father You Choose,” by Mark Warren, in Esquire. Warren has been killing the dad beat, first with last year’s memorable “Daddy: My Father’s Last Words,” and now with this piece about his beloved father-in-law, a German immigrant and naturalized citizen named Dieter. The subhed is, “It wasn’t until I met the woman who would become my wife that I met the man who would become my father,” which tells you a lot. It’s a tricky piece given Dieter’s past: At age 10 he joined the Hitler Youth, and later fought in the war. The true tension in the piece, though, owes to the differences between fathers. Here’s Warren:
Somehow, in spite of it all, Dieter turned the brutality of his early life into its opposite, and created a life of exquisite tenderness. My father would choose instead to — or, more generously, would have no choice but to — pass along the brutality in daily parcels. When my father would make himself an outcast, when he would have everybody wanting to leave him by the side of the road, me most of all, it was Dieter who counseled patience and compassion. “Let it go, Marcus,” he’d say. “He’s so unhappy that he can’t help himself. Don’t you be unhappy, too.”
What would you do if you were given the opportunity to become another person—one whose life promised to be more glamorous and prosperous than your own? That was the question posed to Judith Patterson when, at age 33, she met the birth mother who had given her up for adoption as a child, who now revealed to her an extraordinary secret. Patterson, her mother told her, was the illegitimate daughter of a Texas oil mogul, one of the most powerful businessmen in the country in his day. The news sent Patterson on a two-decade search for the truth about her identity—and part of the fortune she believed she was owed. The only problem was that someone else had gotten to it first.
Patterson’s pursuit of the truth would grow into an obsessive personal quest laced with love, deception, and danger. In The Oilman’s Daughter, Evan Ratliff sets out to untangle a family drama that raises questions about the durability of identity, the slipperiness of truth, and the ways that greed can turn even the closest relatives into strangers.
It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest authors have been history’s greatest revisers. But that wasn’t always how it worked. Until about a century ago, according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions.
Then something changed. In a new book, “The Work of Revision,” Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century. It was only under Modernist luminaries like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf that the practice came to seem truly essential to creating good literature. Those authors, Sullivan writes, were the first who “revised overtly, passionately, and at many points in the lifespan of their texts.”
• Esquire launched a new pay-per-story model for “The Prophet,” by Luke Dittrich, about the troubling background of Dr. Eben Alexander, author of Proof of Heaven. Nieman Lab’s Josh Benton covered the model here. A snippet from Dittrich’s story:
From one point of view, the point of view that Fox & Friends and Newsweek and Oprah and Dr. Oz and Larry King and all of his other gentle interrogators have helped perpetuate, Dr. Eben Alexander is a living miracle, literally heaven sent, a man capable of finally bridging the chasm between the world of spirituality and the world of science. From this point of view, he is, let’s not mince words, a prophet, because after all, what else do you call a man who comes bearing fresh revelations from God? This point of view has been massively profitable for Dr. Eben Alexander, has spawned not just a book sold in thirty-five countries around the globe but a whole cascade of ancillary products, including a forthcoming major motion picture from Universal.
But there is another point of view. And from this point of view, Dr. Eben Alexander looks less like a messenger from heaven and more like a true son of America, a country where men have always found ways to escape the rubble of their old lives through audacious acts of reinvention.
By the end of our interview, there’s a note of unease in Alexander’s voice. He pulls out his iPhone and puts on the voice recorder. He tells me he is concerned that some of the stories I’ve brought up could be taken the wrong way by readers.
“People could definitely go way off the deep end about irrelevant stuff as opposed to focusing on what matters,” he says.
• Bronx Banter‘s Alex Belth ran a terrific piece on the origins of The Sound and the Fury and on William Faulkner’s ideas about success and failure, including this excerpt from Faulkner’s 1944 letter to Malcolm Cowley:
As regards any specific book, I’m trying primarily to tell a story, in the most effective way I can think of, the most moving, the most exhaustive. But I think even that is incidental to what I am trying to do, taking my output (the course of it) as a whole. I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world…I’m trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period. I’m still trying to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead. I don’t know how to do it. All I know to do is to keep trying in a new way. I’m inclined to think that my material, the South, is not very important to me. I just happen to know it, and don’t have time in one life to learn another one and write at the same time. Though the one I know is probably as good as another, life is a phenomenon but not a novelty, the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere and man stinks the same stink no matter where in time.
Tip sheets: You’ll find a how-to on oral history narrative from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, the video “How Ira Glass Gets People to Talk,” and 10 writing insights from Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, from their book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Three from that list:
For a story to have a chance to live, it is essential only that there be something at stake. A car chase is not required.
Try to attune yourself to the sound of your own writing. If you can’t imagine yourself saying something aloud, then you probably shouldn’t write it.
The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement. Only by rejecting what comes too easily can you clear a space for yourself.
For a growing number of people, their audio diet is representative of that, with a mix of radio programs and podcasts, news and features. In that scenario, the biggest question becomes what to listen to next. PRX Remix is one answer to that. “It’s a way to bring together what we’ve been learning in building mobile apps for media companies the last couple of years and apply it to something really close to our heart,” (PRX CEO Jake) Shapiro said.
While the app is rich in stories, it’s short on features — it’s mostly one big play button. Shapiro said that was a conscious choice in building the app. The main goal is to introduce people to new stories, give them ways to remember them, and share them with others. The app’s functionality allows users the ability to skip stories and also keep track of what they’ve listened to. One big benefit for the subway-riding crowd: The app will load up to an hour’s worth of audio for when you find yourself offline.
This should be enough to get you started for the weekend. Happy reading/watching/listening.