Early this month, an all-star pack of North American storytellers flew halfway around the world, to Romania, to talk about narrative journalism. They took the stage before a sold-out audience and one by one talked about stories. They got into fear, hope, death, courage, insecurity, and a dozen other things, but above all they talked about love. Love for their subjects; love for ideas; love for truth; love for ambiguity; love for a profession that shape-shifts by the day. The audience filled an auditorium at the Pullman Hotel/World Trade Center in Bucharest and lapped up insights from Pulitzer winners Jacqui Banaszynski and Alex Tizon, Esquire writers Chris Jones and Mike Sager, The Atavist’s Evan Ratliff, Radiolab’s Pat Walters, This American Life’s Starlee Kine, Frontline’s Travis Fox and Intimate Journalism author Walt Harrington.
But forget about the Pulitzers, the National Magazine Awards, the business deals, the titles. The visitors were storytellers – they knew magic. The listeners wanted the secrets, and Cristian Lupsa wanted to give them those secrets, with the conference as his medium. Lupsa, who edits the quarterly magazine Decât o Revistă, started “The Power of Storytelling” a year ago in hopes that his narrative obsession will take hold in the hearts and minds of journalists across Europe. He was kind enough to share with Storyboard this year’s absorbing, inspiring and often irreverent keynotes.
Today, read short excerpts from some of the talks. (For each speaker, you can click through to Decât o Revistă‘s compilations of full bios, quotes and story lists.) Tomorrow and next week, we’ll run full texts: Banaszynski on the future of storytelling, Harrington on keeping the “non” in “nonfiction,” Jones on why stories matter, Kine on theme and story forms, Ratliff on moving from magazine writer to digital entrepreneur, Sager on the wisdom of shutting up, Tizon on telling your own story and Walters on the beauty of ambiguous endings.
Check back tomorrow for the first of these, plus photos and audio and a special introduction by Banszynski.
Until then, some highlights:
In my mother’s obituary I wrote of the afghans, the blankets that she crocheted and knit as wedding gifts. Everybody in my family has a blanket from my mother. And a cousin of mine, who was an ordained minister, led the services at my mother’s funeral, and while she was leading the service she held the blanket that my mother had knit for her own wedding, 30 years earlier. Held it in her arms and built her service around the notion of being wrapped in the comfort of God, in the comfort of community and in the comfort of family in times of grief. All because I had mentioned in a story that my mother knit blankets for people’s weddings. I would encourage you all to think, what is the story you would tell about your mother or someone you love? And then, how do you bring that same care and the same sense of storytelling in everything you do? — Jacqui Banszynski, winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing
Truth may be many things, but it is not nothing at all. When a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, it still makes noise. This kind of real, objective truth exists—despite the philosopher’s ponderings. Words spoken were spoken whether or not we can reconstruct them correctly. Events occurred in a certain sequence whether or not we can discern it. Sisters can remember differently just how big was the old oak tree in their backyard. But there must at least have been a tree! Otherwise, as Jonathan Yardley said, it’s fiction. — Walt Harrington, author of Intimate Journalism
I think a lot of writers have been taught by traditional journalist or journalism schools that you’ve supposed to be objective. That there’s supposed to be a distance between you and what you’re writing about, so that you cover it like you’re neutral, like you’re a star in the sky, looking down on the world. I’ve always taught that that is a really strange, crazy idea. It’s like asking someone to be a robot. — Chris Jones, Esquire
If there’s an idea I like and I don’t get around to doing it really quick, it tortures me because I feel that the idea can’t leave your head; it’s stuck in there. I honestly picture them like orphans, the ideas that I don’t get to. They feel like orphans that are just getting older without being adopted and they never go outside and they’re, like, fighting over who sleeps where and showing each other the chore wheels. Their little faces are pressed against the glass, and they’re never going to go outside. So I try to get my ideas out. — Starlee Kine, This American Life contributor
Two of the lessons that I’ve learned doing this are: First, if you start to pursue something like this, you say “This is the thing I love: I love narrative journalism, and I’m going to see if I can find a way to make some.” You can find other people who will join up with you, and whatever they want to do, you should take them on, particularly if you find someone skilled in ways that you aren’t. We wouldn’t exist if it was just me because it really required someone who was willing to have the same love for creating that I had, and spend hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of unpaid hours putting this sort of thing together. — Evan Ratliff, founder, The Atavist
If you don’t yell back at the TV at that politician that you hate, you’re gonna hear what they’re saying. If you let that person act like a male chauvinist pig maybe you’ll understand a little of their motivation. It doesn’t make it right, but the world is full of people that form what I like to call the different constellations of reality. They put shit together, and they fucking believe it. They believe that you’re going to Heaven and that you’re going to play the harp. People believe that. People fight over that. We all think that we know the truth. — Mike Sager, Esquire
I love betrayal. Betrayal gets me going. Triumph. They don’t all have to be sad, right? They don’t all have to be like shame. Your themes don’t all have to be sad. I happen to like sad. I mean I’m one of those people that actually wouldn’t be turned off by someone saying they’re writing a book about shame. Actually I would think that’s when the conversation just got interesting. Talk about shame! Yeah! I want to hear your shame! I want to share my shame with you! — Alex Tizon, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting
When you’re writing keep in mind the end of your story; look back and think. Stare at the scenes and the dialogue and the images that you’ve collected and push back against the conclusions that you’ve come to. Find the ambiguity. Find a moment that questions what you think your story is about. — Pat Walters, Radiolab