From the “Why’s this so good?” archives, a handful of great reads about, or by, brilliant, brave, inspiring women, featuring Joan Didion, Rita Dove, Calvin Trillin, Julia Barton, Edna Buchanan, Ben Yagoda, Walt Harrington and Jennifer B. McDonald:
In No. 47, The New Yorker‘s Calvin Trillin hangs out with Edna Buchanan, who, in the 1980s, burnished short, punchy crime writing in the Miami Herald:
“Covering the Cops,” like all of Trillin’s work, is journalism in the form of essay, or maybe it’s essay in the form of journalism. On the journalistic side, it is grounded in (very) deep reporting. On the other hand, it indulges in none of the egregious conventions of magazine profiles: present-tense scenes; gratuitous insertion of the author’s opinions and activities; catchphrases and clichés; and breathless, breezy, false or self-satisfied language. As I suggested about the lede, it has a faint but pervasive comic tone. This too is true of all Trillin pieces (even his own sober murder coverage, collected in the superb Killings). The tone emerges from his observation that in the world, things often do not turn out the way humans plan or expect, and also that odd and unexpected things frequently end up next to each other.
Pair with this video of Buchanan talking to a pair of enthusiastic Miami International Book Fair interviewers in the “Meeting Up With” author series:
In No. 43, Julia Barton on Radio Diaries and teenage drama, about a young boxer and Olympic hopeful, with plenty of bonus craft material on approaches to radio narrative:
Producers who do unscripted work tell me there’s a certain joy in trusting their interview subjects that much. And that trust is clearly reciprocated in the stark, truthful moments that often appear in these stories. Producers Ann Hepperman and Kara Oehler once spent two weeks interviewing people in Chattanooga for an unscripted NPR story about homeless people who live along Main Street, resulting in a moment like this from a man named Ernest:
“I’m ashamed of it, but it don’t change nothing. I’m a drug addict. I’m going on a drug run. Honesty is what y’all are looking for in this, right?”
When audio storytellers disappear behind their narratives like this, they give the world a gift. In “Teen Contender,” by the time we hear Claressa actually fighting in the Olympic trials we’ve been living in her rough world for a quarter of an hour. We step into the ring with her. We want to see her make it to the Olympics. We want Flint, Mich., to watch her in the Olympics. My palms were actually sweating as the story built to its finale with suspense and grace and the hard exhalations of this teenage girl.
Pair with the trailer:
And with this video, with scenes from Claressa Shields’ gold medal bout, and the interview that followed:
In No. 38, Walt Harrington on the poet Rita Dove, with a breakdown by the Oregonian‘s Anna Griffin, who writes:
Dove’s notes gave Harrington his structure: a chronological narrative starting at 5:35 p.m. on Feb. 5, when she printed out the first draft, and ending on March 26 at 1:43 a.m., when she finished the final version. That overarching simplicity − beginning, middle and end with a few quick digressions for background − allowed Harrington to get complicated elsewhere. That basic structure let him take his time talking about the meaning of poetry, the reason certain words and lines didn’t work and why something as seemingly concrete as written language can prove so tricky and abstract when put to creative use.
The lines make Rita shiver in the way she once shivered when she wrote, “He used to sleep like a glass of water/held up in the hand of a very young girl.” That feeling. So much of writing a poem is less like saying a prayer than it is putting together the weekly shopping list. Then comes a sacred moment … For Rita, these lines are a fish to keep − a rare poet’s epiphany in the muck of craft: “I don’t know where it came from. It just came.”
Pair with this 9-minute video of Dove, with President Barack Obama, at the White House Poetry Evening:
In No. 57, Jennifer B. McDonald dissects Joan Didion and her classic “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” writing:
Setting is foreshadowing, and this is a diabolical patch of ground: a site where serpents multiply, where sins will be committed, where, according to law enforcement officials, Lucille planned to “spread gasoline over her presumably drugged husband and, with a stick on the accelerator, gently ‘walk’ the Volkswagen over the embankment, where it would tumble four feet down the retaining wall into the lemon grove” – into the greenery of nightmare – “and almost certainly explode.” In Didion country, burning bushes become burning Volkswagens. People are delivered not into a land of milk and honey, but to the side of a dark and lonely road, where they’re roasted to a crisp.
Pair with this New York Public Library interview with Didion, from 2011: