Good reads: Quests, real and hypothetical

Longform stories I’ve read lately and enjoyed.

Keepers of the Secrets by James Somers, The Village Voice
Step into the archives at the New York Public Library and meet “the most interesting man in the world.” He’s 39 and knows the archives more intimately than many parents know their own children. Those boxes of paper artifacts may look like tinder for your campfire, but this keeper of secrets knows they tell stories just waiting to be told.

My Journey to the Heart of the FOIA Request by Spenser Mestel, Longreads
FOIA. Freedom of Information Act. It’s the piece of legislation that makes government “secrets” available to the people. All you have to do is submit a request. And wait for the bureaucracy to handle it. This piece is an interesting look at the history and current state of FOIA, and the process required to receive a response.

Writer-in-Residence at a Homeless Shelter by John Cotter, Guernica
Join author John Cotter as he spends a month in a Colorado facility for the homeless, where he teaches a writing class and doesn’t go home at night. This is a moving, well-written consideration of homelessness and the people impacted by it. There are parts that brought tears to my eyes.

Dwayne Johnson for President by Caity Weaver, GQ
Last week, I dreamt that I completely forgot about an interview I’d scheduled for a story I’m working on because Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, was hanging out with my family in our living room. This piece may have helped The Rock invade my subconscious. It’s a fun introduction to Johnson, who is apparently a big teddy bear who works out a lot.

What have I missed? If you’ve read something excellent lately, tell me about it by commenting below.

Good reads: Magazine pieces you shouldn’t miss

Every month, week, day, I’m adding more stories to my to-read list. Here are a few favorites from the past few months:

What Bullets Do to Bodies by Jason Fagone, Highline
An up-close portrait of the work of Dr. Amy Goldberg, a trauma surgeon in North Philly who’s seen more bullet wounds in the past 30 years than one person should see in a lifetime.

“Sometimes You Have to Build a Wall Around Your Heart” by Robert Sanchez, 5280
Denver is no better off than the rest of the country in terms of today’s opioid epidemic. 5280 staff writer Robert Sanchez introduces readers to those on the front lines trying to do something about it and others suffering from addiction. Key characters: Colorado state Representative Brittany Pettersen and her mother, a heroin addict.

In the Shadow of a Fairy Tale: On becoming a stepmother by Leslie Jamison, The New York Times Magazine
A thoughtful consideration of our cultural narrative about stepmothers, from a stepmother fighting desperately hard to be a good one. Beautiful writing. Thought-provoking essay.

The Mysterious Death of a Muslim Marine Recruit by Alex French, Esquire
Raheel Siddiqui joined the Marines to pursue better life for his family. Not even two weeks into basic training, he died from a fall that no one who knew him believes was suicide.

How Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya is Winning America’s Culture War by Rob Brunner, Fast Company
The story of Chobani’s founder, an immigrant entrepreneur whose company is making positive impact in the United States and around the world. (Full disclosure: I’m biased toward anything involving Chobani because it’s brought economic growth to Upstate New York, where I grew up.)

How the World’s Heaviest Man Lost It All by Justin Heckert, GQ
The title explains it. The writing makes it real. Read the story.

Can We “Cure” the Men Who Pay for Sex? by Brooke Jarvis, GQ
In King County, Washington, a state-funded program seeks to rehabilitate men, all based on the premise that the men’s twisted ideas of sex prevent them from having healthy romantic relationships with women.

How the National Park Service is failing women by Lindsey Gilpin, High Country News
An investigative account of sexism and misogyny at varying levels within the National Park service.

Dr. Death by Matt Goodman, D Magazine
The terrifying true story of a doctor whose years of malpractice took far too long to catch up with him. Crazy story.

8 writing lessons I (re)learned through revision

I spent the majority of this week and last wrangling a story. The first 1,600-word draft — written to follow an outline I thought was solid and completed at approximately 6:30 p.m. last Friday (that’s 1.5 hours late to the weekend) — read like a list of events. No emotion, no thought progression. Just, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this, and then they got a cool letter. The end.

I’m not sure if the three-day weekend (Happy belated Memorial Day!) helped or hindered the revision process. I returned to the office on Tuesday, looked over Friday’s draft, heard Peter Parker’s editor in my head:

Spider-Man (2002)

And decided to trash it. Back to the drawing boards.

(Almost literally, actually, since my first outline evolved out of a color-coded mess of whiteboard notes.)

Here’s what I (re)learned through this particularly frustrating revision process:

1. If you begin in the wrong place, nothing about the draft will seem right.

When I sat down to write from my new outline, I realized my planned beginning was still wrong (cue fists slamming on the desk) and I couldn’t write anything else until I got that right.

Writing tips for when you're stuck on a story

One of my most-used pieces of writing advice (courtesy of Sarah Dessen) is:

When you’re stuck on a story, go back to the last place things were going well and take a different course.

I apply this to nonfiction on a regular basis and, when I can identify the stuck spot and devise an alternate route, it works like a charm. With this piece, devising an alternate route took more effort than usual, but once I figured it out, the wheels on the bus went round and round and the story got moving.

2. Be willing to go back to square one. 

I was annoyed that I’d written nearly 2,000 words of what I thought was unusable draft, and I was immensely frustrated that I had to outline all over again.

Once I have an outline, I’m usually convinced I have the story figured out. In this case, I was wrong and I was convinced I’d have to trash the entire draft.

But when I re-outlined and started writing, I found that I was wrong again: a lot of what I’d already written was usable — it just needed more narrative around it, more actual storytelling instead of just rehashing events.

Embrace the process. Go back to square one.

3. Get up close with your notes.

If you don’t know which page to flip to for that one quote or anecdote, you haven’t studied your notes enough.

I have this tendency — when a story involves talking to a lot of people at different times about the same thing — to think I know the material inside-out after I transcribe the interviews and read through, highlight, color-code my notes once. This tendency, I’m learning, is actually laziness I have to fight for the quality and integrity of my work.

I need to be as familiar with those notes as I am with my Bible.

When a quote comes to mind that could fit in this section about people’s perceptions of prison inmates, I need to know exactly where in my notes I can find it. If no quotes are coming to mind, I have a lot more studying to do.

4. Take the time to narrow your notes down, so you have a more concise reference that is tightly focused around the same things your story is focused on.

When you’re working with pages and pages of notes, it’s easy to get so overwhelmed by the information, you lose sight of the story.

When I sat down on Tuesday, I opened my notes — on paper and the same document on my computer — and, as I read through them, I copied and pasted what related to my story into a new document. This cut my active notes in half.

Doing this for investigative journalism will be more complicated, of course, but the principle holds regardless of what type of story you’re writing:

Cut your notes down to what is related to the story.

Remove anything you know you won’t use. If you’re so overwhelmed that you have no idea what you will or will not use, keep studying your notes and question whether or not you’ve done enough research.

5. Be patient, but keep pushing.

It’s okay to show signs of exasperation.


  • Slamming your hands on your desk
  • Muttering, You have got to be kidding me!
  • Crumbling every sheet of paper you’ve written on in pursuit of this story. Okay. Maybe don’t do that.

But whatever you do — unless you happen to be a verbal processor, which is rare for writers — don’t vent to people.

Venting turns into talking as if you hate the work. You don’t hate the work. You’re just frustrated that it’s not going smoothly. Channel your frustration into the work, and eventually things will move the way they should, even if the movement is slow and clumsy.

6. Kill your darlings. Or at least be willing to.

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard this advice countless times. Like most cliches, it’s been repeated over and over because it’s right.

When a draft is under revision, everything’s on the chopping block. In order to stay, it has to prove it belongs. If a beautiful line, scene, description, word, gets in the way of the story, the only choice is to cut it.

If it’s any comfort, remember this: being willing to cut something — laying that beautiful line on the chopping block — doesn’t mean it will actually be cut in the end. When my new draft started flowing, I was thrilled to discover that a scene I thought I’d lose actually got to stay (points if you can correctly identify it).

7. Keep pushing.

I repeat myself, because the push is a necessary part of the struggle. Without it, you’re not struggling, you’re accepting defeat.

If writing is your job (like it is for me — one post-college life win!), accepting defeat makes you a bad employee. If writing’s not your job, it just makes you a bad writer. Which if you’re actually a writer, you are not okay with. So push on.

8. When you finish the piece to satisfaction (which you will), celebrate the way writers do.

Read. Subscribe to another magazine. Buy a load of books off Amazon. Search for your next story.

And if you need some weekend reading, check out the piece that in some backhanded way inspired this blog post:

Five Thursdays in Prison

This spring, six exercise science students and their professor traveled to New Castle Correctional Facility to gather data for a research project. They left with more than numbers.

Comment if you find the scene I was afraid I’d lose — or if you have writing lessons of your own to share.

Photo credit: Notebook via photopin

Good Reads: Mental illness, segregation, and daredevils

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

The Real Story of Germanwings Flight 9525 by Joshua Hammer, GQ

Mental illness and airline pilots. I recently wrote a story about Taylor University’s Ethics Bowl team, and this was one of the ethics bowl cases. You see, if a pilot is honest about his struggles with mental illness, he’s likely to lose his job. But if he’s silent about it and goes untreated, he could go the way of Andreas Günter Lubitz, the young pilot who crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the Alps on March 24, 2015. This piece traces the story of the crash and introduces you to the other individuals impacted by the tragedy.

Mustang Green, Part One: A Season of Hope in a Segregated City by Michael Graff, Charlotte Magazine

The first of a three-part series, this piece introduces the main characters in the real life setting of high school football in a diverse — racially and economically — southern town. I’m a big fan of football movies. I just rewatched We are Marshall, and I practically have Remember the Titans memorized. The best football (and just sport) movies aren’t really about the sport — they’re about the characters. The sport is just a vehicle to get those characters moving. It’s a lot easier to write a story about events than it is to write one about characters and the depth of their emotions and struggles. It’s clear in this first part of the series, though, that the characters are what Graff is focusing on. Part Two builds on Part One.

This Will End Well: Our greatest daredevil stares down middle age by Katherine Laidlow, The Walrus

Will Gladd is an adventurer, a climber, a risk taker. He thrives on challenges, both physical and mental. Now, he’s staring a new one: age. It’s not common for individuals his age to still carry sponsorships up the side of cliffs. But he is. And he’s not planning on stopping anytime soon.

Photo Credit: Swiss alpine panorama I via photopin (license)

Good Reads: Life and death on the high seas

This post is part of a series recommending writing you should read — especially nonfiction.

Good writing can transport you to any time or place so seamlessly that you feel like you were actually there, actually experiencing those things. Since I learned to read at five years old, doing phonetic worksheets to a cassette tape in the kitchen and watching countless episodes of Come Read with Me, I’ve marveled at the ability of compiled shapes on a page to take me places I’ve never been.

Places like the high seas.

For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to nautical tales like Moby Dick and Treasure IslandTen Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was one of my favorite books in ninth grade and then, of course, there are the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, among various other seafaring films.

So when I found out about Nathaniel Philbrick’s book about the historical events that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick, In the Heart of the Sea quickly rose to the top of my reading list.

I would not classify In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex as narrative nonfiction — though the book is written well and it does follow the basic arc of a story. In the Heart of the Sea is very much a historical account. Philbrick goes into detail about the whaling industry, the growth of Nantucket, and various scientific and historical realities that relate to what the men of the Essex experienced before and after the whale plowed into their ship. It’s a dense book — there’s a lot of information to digest — but it’s not a long, slogging read. Philbrick’s writing keeps things pacing ahead.

Where In the Heart of the Sea falters are the places Philbrick takes editorial tangents. He at times overplays the contrast of Nantucketers as peace-loving Quakers on land and bloodthirsty killers at sea. He projects a twenty-first century sensibility on an island’s historical means of economic survival, which to me undercuts his credibility as a historian. (This treatment of cultures that kill animals to survive is, of course, nothing new.) This also doesn’t give the readers enough credit — we would make the connection ourselves as long as the contrast was demonstrated clearly enough. Part of the joy of reading is making connections the author intended you to make without the author telling you to make them.

On a five-star scale, I’d give In the Heart of the Sea three and a half stars, because the writing is solid and the subject matter is interesting. But if you’re looking for a book to send you on a journey, I’m not sure this one will do the trick. It’s more history than human narrative.

For more of a narrative experience, I recommend:

The Sinking of the Bounty by Matthew Shaer, The Atavist Magazine

This piece tells the true story of the Bounty, a real ship modeled after an 18th century ship by the same name (Mutiny on the Bounty ring any bells?), which sunk in the Atlantic during Hurricane Sandy. Tracing the steps and missteps of captain and crew, Shaer paints a vivid account of what happened bolstered by the backstory of ship and shipmates.

Have you read any nautical writing lately?

Good Reads: Dollar signs, technology, and government secrets

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens by Elspeth Reeve, The New Republic

The subtitle to this story sums it up best: “That feeling when you hit a million followers, make more money than your mom, push a diet pill scheme, lose your blog, and turn 16.” This story traces the online histories of several high-profile Tumblr users who figured out how to work the ad system to monetize their blogs to ridiculous degrees. Apart from the writing, which kept things moving quickly, I was struck by the web design and illustration of the piece. The background and sidebars images change with the content to reflect what you’re reading. Well done.

The Dragnet: How a man accused of million-dollar fraud uncovered a never before seen, secret surveillance device by Russell Brandom, The Verge

A prison sentence gives you a lot of time to fill. If you’re the main character of this story (who goes by many names), you use that time to find out how you got busted in the first place. A crime story, but who is the true criminal? This story raises questions of privacy and justice — something familiar in our world of rising terror.

The Secret to Getting Top-Secret Secrets: How a journalist with a dark past learned to pry info from the government — and redeemed himself in the process by Jason Fagone, Matter

FOIA requests are a journalist’s headache. Yes, it’s good the Freedom of Information Act is a thing and you can file with government agencies and whatnot for records that could lead to stories. But, let’s be honest, it’s a pain. And quick responses are practically nonexistent. If you’re Jason Leopold, however, FOIA is a lifesaver, because without it, who knows if he’d ever been back in the writing game.

Photo Credit: Seasons Greetings From the NSA via photopin (license)

Good Reads: Pieces from 2015 that are still worth your time

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

I know it’s already February and there are plenty of pieces with a 2016 timestamp to read and recommend, but here are a few pieces I read toward the end of last year that are each significant or touching in their own ways:

Unfollow: How a prized daughter of Westboro Baptist Church came to question its beliefs by Adrian Chen, The New Yorker

Megan Phelps-Roper used to man Westboro Baptist Church’s Twitter account. She was the teenager at the helm of the hate-spewing, so-called congregation’s online megaphone to the rest of the world. That’s where she began questioning what she’d been taught.

As a Christian who does not believe Westboro preaches the truth of the Gospel, it was hard for me to read this piece and see that Megan’s understanding of Scripture is still the twisted interpretation she was taught growing up — she no longer believes that interpretation is right, but that’s still what she thinks the Bible teaches. Still, reading about how she ended up leaving Westboro is powerful. It makes you wonder, if I were in a similar situation, would I have the courage to jump off the bandwagon?

What would cool Jesus do? by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ

This piece is an upclose look at Hillsong NYC, the church whose pastor Justin Bieber spent several weeks with. The church known for its Millennial crowd of “hipster Christians”. It’s an upclose look, but it’s an outsider’s perspective. The author is a non-practicing Jew who doesn’t really claim any religion. Through the piece, the reader gets a peek at not only Hillsong, its pastor, and its mission, but also a peek into the author’s life, as her process of uncovering the story forces her to reflect on her own beliefs.

Contrast Study by Leslie Kendall Dye, Vela

The title of this piece really sells it short — but pay attention while you read, because the title is more profound than you might assume. This piece is beautifully written in the first person and it’s about (basically) the author handling her mother’s dementia. There’s a lot more going on, but I don’t want to spoil it. Just read it. It’s worth your time.

One brief tangent: I keep track of what I’m reading (and liking) with the Pocket app. I have the app on my phone and the plugin attached to my computer browser. When I find something I want to read, but don’t have enough time to read it now, I save it to my Pocket for later. And then I read it later.

Apparently, I did this a lot last year because Pocket told me I was in the top 1% of their readers. Which is, you know, pretty cool. See the best of what I read last year.

Photo Credit: Reading the TV novels summary via photopin (license)

Good reads: Obscure, fascinating pieces of history

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

The Forgotten Internment by Eva Holland, Maisonneuve

You probably know about the Japanese internment that took place in the United States during World War II (if you’re like me, you learned about it through Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower). But did you know that the U.S. interned a tribe of North America’s native people in Alaska? Yeah, me neither. This piece by Eva Holland, a Canadian freelancer, tells the story from interviews she conducted with those who lived through it. Fascinating, thought-provoking history.

Frank Sinatra has a Cold by Gay Talese, Esquire

What’s a star like when he’s passed his prime, other pieces of life aren’t going his way, and he’s no longer “got the world on a string“? This piece (which has been on my list for a while — it’s probably the most referred to work of narrative nonfiction) paints a three-dimensional portrait of Sinatra on the downswing of his career. My favorite quote is from Sinatra’s son. See if you can find it.

How a Fake Typhus Epidemic Saved a Polish City from the Nazis by Matt Soniak, Atlas Obscura

This piece isn’t really narrative nonfiction, but it is an interesting, well-researched piece of obscure history. Good for stimulating thought, adding dimension to your understanding of World War II (slight theme here), and possibly inspiring some fiction.

And finally, a piece that contains no storytelling whatsoever, but involves storytelling as the priority of a discussion around digital books:

Future Reading by Craig Mod, Aeon

Craig Mod tackles the questions of ebook (and e-reader) design: why/where it falls short, what is blockading improvement, and whether or not ebooks will ever actually overtake print. A while back, Mod also wrote an excellent piece about digital publishing for magazines.

Good Reads: Some are born into craziness, others have craziness thrust upon them

This post is part of a series recommending narrative, longform journalism and nonfiction pieces.

The title of this post speaks for itself. Click, read, and be surprised by the stuff that happens in real life.

The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogota by Susan Dominus, The New York Times Magazine

Two sets of fraternal twins — one from the city, one from the country in Colombia — find out they’re each other’s identical twins.

The Wedding Sting by Jeff Maysh, The Atlantic

In the 90s in rural Michigan, a police force decides to bust a local drug ring by having a fake wedding.

A Long Walk’s End by William Browning, SB Nation

When he’s confronted about embezzling thousands of dollars from his employer, James T. Hammes runs away to the Appalachian Trail. And doesn’t get caught until six years later.

And because the main character of this piece is too quirky to not share his story:

The Everlasting Forrest Fenn by Taylor Clark, The California Sunday Magazine

A retired business-minded art dealer spices up life by hiding a 42 pound chest of priceless treasure and self-publishing a book that holds the key to its location. No one’s found it, yet.

Good Reads: Read this after watching Wall-E and you’ll think twice about buying the next iPhone

This post is part of a series recommending narrative, longform journalism and nonfiction pieces. Philosophers of story spend a lot of energy trying to nail down the purpose of storytelling. We know that people connect through stories, we know that stories mean more than statistics, we know that those who read a lot of stories tend to be more empathetic and gracious, but why do we tell stories in the first place? Is it just because they’re fun to tell, because we like stringing words together, because we’re trying to make sense of life? Yes, yes, and yes, but there’s more. Stories are meditations. On life, the workings of this world, the problems of humanity. They are attempts to glimpse the big picture, to see what perhaps God sees when He looks down on creation. They are collections of events and thoughts and feelings, and they seek to deepen our thoughts and feelings toward events. That last part — deepen our thoughts and feelings toward events — is what this first piece accomplished for me.

The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust by Tim Maughan, BBC

The title says a lot. I read this piece a day or so after watching Wall-E and the combination of disgust toward earth’s ruin due to pollution in the film and the sinking feeling from this piece has me seriously considering going off the grid, forget the Internet and writing for a living. The “lake” is in Inner Mongolia (as opposed to Outer Mongolia) and is the byproduct of processes related to manufacturing the modern world’s most cherished possessions: speedily outdated cell phones.

None Dare Call It a Conspiracy by Scott Anderson, originally for GQ, republished by Longform

If you want a taste of post-Soviet Russian intrigue that affects Russians’ lives today, read this piece and gain another angle from which to consider Putin. A story like this takes serious nerve to report, not to mention write and publish where the whole world can see it. If you’re into politics, curious about how Putin rose to power, or want to know about terrorism unrelated to the Middle East, read this and marvel at how little we hear or know of Russia.

Lincoln Like Me by Megan Fernandez, Indianapolis Monthly

A little Hoosier flavor to whet your palate. The author, a distant relative of Abraham Lincoln, shares her journey to find out why her side of the family doesn’t brag about their relation the way others do. In the spirit of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, explore the genetic side of the Lincoln story. More fun than deeply perplexing.

And as a throwback to winter and the Iditarod about a month ago, a piece from 2013:

Out in the Great Alone by Brian Phillips, ESPN

Not as much about the great sled dog race as it is about the author’s experience in aircrafts following the mushers’ route, this piece stands as an entertaining piece of nonfiction with humorous observations of humanity.