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.

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:

Megacrap
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.

Examples:

  • 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: Dancing through a clouded life

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

The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort Of) Rattled the Scientific Community by Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine

The most quotable piece I’ve read recently, this story examines the culture of cloud-loving in a way that observes science, philosophy, and love of life. There’s reflection (from the people involved, as well as the author), education (a healthy serving of cloud facts), history, and the impact of the Internet. Great piece.

Gotta Dance! by Elizabeth Gilbert, originally published in GQ, republished on Longform.

Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for her bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love. This piece is from her previous work as a magazine writer. It’s a profile of a former swing dance icon who, when war service removed him from the limelight, became just a postman until he was “rediscovered” in the 90s’ swing dance revival. Cultural commentary and a fun personality, with Gilbert’s satisfying sentences, make this piece well worth your time.

How a Son Survived Being Injected with HIV by His Father by Justin Heckert, GQ

Twenty-four years ago, a little boy was betrayed by his father in a despicable act of malice. The title says it. But what it doesn’t say is what surrounded the betrayal and what followed the injection. Twenty-four years later, the boy has grown up and, against all odds, survived. Read it.

In a Perpetual Present by Erika Hayasaki, Wired

Imagine living today and forgetting it tomorrow. This woman’s life is basically Adam Sandler’s 50 First Dates and this story considers whether or not memory-less life could be a good thing, a counter-intuitive step forward, rather than the backward declension it at first seems. Bizarre.

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: Life and the giants we face

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

No two people live identical lives. No two people face all of the same hardships and challenges. Every life has its own giants.

Each story recommended below is about an individual (or individuals) who face or avoid their giants in unique and powerful ways.

The Doctor by James Verini, The Atavist

A Catholic doctor in Southern Sudan is the only surgeon for thousands of miles. Every day, he rises for mass and then works for hours upon hours, treating patients whose bodies have been torn apart, limbs blown off. The doctor could leave, he could go anywhere else to treat patients, but he stays. This piece answers the question of why.

Inheritance, Frontline

If you’ve heard of the Frontline documentary series, My Brother’s Bomber, you’re probably familiar with the story line of this multi-media piece. This piece uses audio recordings, music, video, photography, and the written word to tell Ken Dornstein’s story of wrestling with the loss of his older brother in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing of December 1988.

The Truth About New York’s Legendary Mole People by Anthony Taille, Narrative.ly

Don’t be distracted by the somewhat clickbait-y title. This piece is a work of literary reported art, rich with detail and fact. All about the hidden population that have made New York’s underground their home, this piece takes the reader into the world beneath, introducing the young mother who’s trying to get her feet under her so she can get her own place and get her daughter back, the woman in her 50s whose underground lair is piled with bags full of recyclables — her livelihood — the father who, when his child comes to visit, rents an apartment for the week so he won’t look like a bum.

What have you read lately that moved or inspired you?

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.