EDITOR’S NOTE: “A Place Called WriterL” is a new collection of some of the listserv discussions about narrative journalism held in the late 1990s through the early 2010s. In a previous post, nonfiction author John Clayton writes about the enduring lessons captured in those conversations. Today, co-editor Stuart Warner revisits the origins and end of the listserv. A version of his essay is the forward to the book.
By Stuart WarnerBack before the turn of the century, before Facebook, Twitter and Zoom, nonfiction writers from around the country gathered around their computers on email message boards to discuss their craft, often referred to then as literary journalism.
One of these message boards was called WriterL, run by two-time Pulitzer-winning journalist and author Jon Franklin and his wife, mystery novelist Lynn Franklin. An article in The New York Times likened the site to the “Paris of the 1920s.” Discourse was passionate and stimulating — if mostly distant and served without alcohol. Alas, the process was slow; it often took a few days to get your thoughts posted and see the response from fellow members.
In addition to the Franklins, the group included a number of outstanding nonfiction writers, editors and educators. Among them: Pulitzer-winning editor and writing coach Jack Hart; Pulitzer-winners Connie Schultz and Sheri Fink; award-winning authors Michael Capuzzo, Caitlin Kelly, Don Obe, Mark Kramer, Harriett Washington and Mark Pendergrast; author, educator and former Washington Post magazine senior writer Walt Harrington and Poynter Institute writing guru and author Roy Peter Clark.
Their discussions could go on for days, weeks, even months. Some debates, like one about the value of first-person writing, lasted years.
The Franklins began the site when Jon was a professor at the University of Oregon in 1994. He and Lynn lived on about 50 acres in a rural county with little contact with writer friends.
And therein lies a tale of how WriterL got its name.
An early email community
The Franklins wanted to find a way to share their thoughts about nonfiction writing and hear from others. The internet was still fairly new, so Jon went to one of the university’s information technology folks and asked if it were possible to set up some kind of electronic message board where writers could converse through emails.
Within hours, the IT guy came back with a listserv program that could be shared with a group. Back then it was common to name such programs with an L for the type of listserv it was. Like DogL for canine enthusiasts or KitchenL for cooks.
So naturally the technician called the Franklins’ listserv WriterL.
“I hated the name,” Jon recalls.
But Jon’s reputation — two Pulitzer Prizes and his seminal book on narrative nonfiction, “Writing for Story” — quickly drew writers to the new site.
“After we had gotten it up and running, we asked people to suggest ideas for a new name,” Lynn says. “And that created an uproar. People loved the name.”
So WriterL it was forevermore. Or at least the next 15 years.
Back to the future
The Franklins originally intended the site for newspaper journalists, but it found a much wider audience among all descriptions of writers — nonfiction and fiction authors, freelance magazine writers, children’s books authors, educators, etc. To weed out participants who weren’t serious, the Franklins charged a $20 annual fee, and most gladly paid.
The electronic conversations, which included several hundred writers over the years, continued through the Franklins’ move to the East Coast but finally came to an end in 2013 as the news industry continued to disintegrate.
That might have been the last of WriterL but during a moment of boredom during the pandemic, I scrolled down to the end of my AOL.com email basket just to see what was there.
I joined the group in 2002. For some reason I had saved a couple dozen WriterL posts from 2005. Curious, I read through them. The emails contained a fascinating discussion on the vision of nonfiction writers: Could you teach vision? Did nonfiction writers actually have the same kind of vision as artists in other mediums? If so, did art make good journalism?
That particular discussion lasted from early June through the end of August of that year. I wondered what the contributors’ comments would sound like if I arranged them as if the writers were sitting around a table with Jon or Lynn, debating the issue in real time, while making sure not to take any of the posts out of context.
That thread led to a 10,000-word piece on what is now the first chapter of “A Place Called WriterL,” our book collecting some of those cyber-conversations: “Oh, Say, Can You See the Writer’s Vision?”
I asked Jon and Lynn if they had saved any more WriterL posts. Lynn dove into her computer drives and found posts from seven more years. We didn’t have everything but we had at least a million words from some of the country’s best writers. The posts may have been 15 to 20 years old but the collective wisdom had only been enhanced by time. Why not a book about the WriterL discussions?
Collecting and curating craft wisdom
It seemed like a daunting task … a MILLION words? But as I began to sift through the digital files I realized that Lynn had edited them so well and organized them so efficiently with appropriate topic labels that I easily could pull together the threads with simple document searches.
From there, I worked with the Franklins to distill 16 dialogues from the digital vaults of WriterL to produce “A Place Called WriterL.”
I tried to present the conversations as if several writers were sitting around a café table, with either Jon and Lynn leading the discussions. Among the topics that were debated (often heatedly):
- What do musicians and writers have in common?
- Can the psychological interview put readers in your character’s head?
- Did Tom Wolfe’s masterpiece have “The Right Stuff” of literary journalism?
- How do you make your nonfiction characters three dimensional?
- Is first person the right person to tell your story?
I still wonder, though, how many more great conversations we could have reconstructed from the other eight years of WriterL discussions or if the site hadn’t shut down in 2009, which turned out to be a fateful year for narrative nonfiction and newspapers.
Jon and Lynn weren’t the only ones trying to pitch the power of storytelling to reticent editors back then. Mark Kramer, also a WriterL regular, began one of the most successful nonfiction writing conferences in the country at Boston University in 1998. Three years later, as the crowds continued to grow, he moved it to Harvard University, where it was renamed the Nieman Foundation Narrative Writing Conference. It regularly attracted 1,000 or more writers who bathed in the words of the likes of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Tracy Kidder.
But Mark kept hearing complaints from many writers that they returned to their newspapers filled with enthusiasm, only to be stonewalled by traditional editors who didn’t want to hear about such literary concepts as foreshadowing, character development and denouement. So he expanded the program in 2003, inviting a group of editors along with award-winning writers to the first Nieman Narrative Conference for Editors.
That conference ignited my passion for more narrative writing. The keynote speakers included Mark and Jon and WriterL regulars like Jack Hart and Walt Harrington along with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jacqui Banaszynski and Pulitzer-winning editor Jan Winburn.
Among the attendees were some of the best narrative editors and writers in the country, including editors like Maria Carrillo, Marla Henson and Tom Huang and writers like Barry Siegel, Ken Fuson and Cynthia Gorney. The long talks at the bar at the end of the day were as illuminating as the sessions themselves. I left believing that literary journalism could save newspapers. So did many of the others.
We were wrong.
A snapshot of an era
Fast forward to September of 2008. I was one of 10 keynote speakers at what would be the last Nieman Narrative Conference for Editors. I was the only speaker who was still employed by a newspaper. And it was my last day. I had just accepted a buyout.
A few days later, the stock market crashed and the recession began. Newspapers were never the same. Neither was narrative journalism.
Harvard held the last Nieman Narrative conferences in March of 2009. By the end of the year, Jon and Lynn had stopped publishing WriterL five days a week. It limped along for another few years, finally fading away in 2013.
“It hurt to end it, but journalism was such a mess, and people didn’t have time,” Lynn says. “I was writing almost all the posts. But it was a painful decision. People became like family.”
The discussion among journalists writers is fragmented now, as is journalism itself. But for those of us who worked through a certain time, “A Place Called WriterL” serves as sort of our family album, remembering the best of times.
Stuart Warner spent 50 years as a newspaper writer and editor. He supervised the team that won the 1994 Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service for a series about race in Akron, Ohio, edited Connie Schultz’s Pulitzer-winning columns and was the lead writer on a team that won the 1987 Pulitzer for its coverage of the attempted takeover of Goodyear Tire and Rubber.