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 = crazy true stories + great writing

Some of my favorite longform stories from the last few months.

The Girl Detectives by Marin Cogan, Topic
A student club at the University of Pittsburgh takes on unsolved, real world mysteries — and just happens to be dominated by women.

Escaping Kakuma by Louis Bien, SB Nation
I hadn’t read an SB Nation feature in a while, so I sought this one out. It’s an up-close account of soccer in a refugee camp where the sport seems like the most likely route to a better life.

The teenage whaler’s tale by Julia O’Malley, High Country News
When a celebratory post following an Alaskan teen’s successful whale hunt goes viral, it draws much worse than criticism. This story shows the other side: life in a remote Alaskan village, the necessity of the hunt, and a glimpse of the hunter as a young man trying to find his way in the world.

What Goes Up: The daredevil, his helicopter, the risk of flying too high, and the birth of modern news by Jack Hitt, Epic
Epic is one of those publications that you can always count on to deliver well-written, designed, and produced stories that provide you, the reader, with a textured experience you’re unlikely to forget. This story might by my favorite on this list. There are layers, lots of moving people, compelling characters, and broader questions that left me pondering. Read it.

My Family’s Slave by Alex Tizon, The Atlantic
This is a must-read for 2017 (and had it been published earlier, it should have been required for 2016). The author, Alex Tizon, opens up about the woman his family kept as a slave since before he was born. There’s a complexity in this story that you don’t often find in pieces involving such black-and-white issues. Tizon draws out the gray areas in this particular case, without white-washing the wrong or making excuses for his family. Beautifully done.

The Improbable Life of Paula Zoe Helfrich by Julia Cooke, The Atavist
I’ve never been disappointed by an Atavist story (that’s why I bought their book for my birthday last year — highly recommend), and this one stuck to suit. Paula Zoe Helfrich is not a woman who can be reduced to a few lines or words. What’s true about her? What’s not? This story tries to figure those things out.

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.

Everyone Leaves Behind a Name: True Stories by Michael Brick

This past spring, I ordered a copy of Everyone Leaves Behind a Name after hearing about the book and its author, Michael Brick, on Gangrey: The Podcast. I frequently listen to podcasts like Gangrey, which interviews working narrative journalists, but this episode was different because instead of interviewing the headlining writer, all 51 minutes were a conversation about Brick between three other journalists.

Brick died of colon cancer in February. The Gangrey episode was done in his memory. Everyone Leaves Behind a Name is a collection of his work from places like The Dallas Morning NewsThe New York Times, and Harper’s. Proceeds from selling the book benefit Brick’s family.

A collection of true stories

brickAnthology became my favorite word when I learned it in grade school. The idea of a bunch of stories mashed together into one book so you could easily carry a bunch of quick reads got me excited the way some kids get about candy. Anthologies are now some of my favorite things.

Everyone Leaves Behind a Name stands apart from many anthologies because . . .

– it’s a collection of true stories
– many of which were written for daily newspapers and
– could have been super dry, boring news writing, but
– actually breathe life into their subjects and
– make the mundane and everyday somehow profound.

Brick’s heart aspiration was to write music and his sentences often feel more like lyrics than prose. I had to read slowly to make sure I actually comprehended his work, because the words would pick me up and go and I’d finish a piece dazzled but unaware what the story was actually about (the irony: wordlover comprehension problems).

The pieces vary in length, setting, and subject matter, but all of them reach past the surface-level events and personalities into bigger questions about life and what it means to be human on this crazy spinning ball. The writing is dense with meaning, so a coherent brain is necessary for full comprehension. If your brain is like that right before bed, go ahead and curl up with it. I quickly learned I needed to read it during daylight with as little distractions as possible. Otherwise, my attempts to read were just disrespectful Brick’s work.

Brick’s writing is distinct from anything else I’ve ever read. A lot of narrative nonfiction goes in and out of narration for short bits of reflection, but Brick’s wove reflection into everything. His keen observation, not only of sensory action but of profound contradictions and character complexity, was present in every paragraph and sentence. It made me wonder if I’m as observant as I think I am. Would I pick up on those things or would I be too busy with my head down taking notes?

If you’re a writer trying to find your way in the written world, Everyone Leaves Behind a Name should be added to your reading list. Here is a man who stepped into reporting completely green, learned the trade, and put his own beautiful spin on writing for a beat. As an anthology, the book doesn’t require a commitment. You can pick it up for a few minutes, put it down for a few weeks or months, come back to it and not have to catch yourself up. It’s not an easy read — like I said, dense with meaning — but it’s rich and interesting.

(My favorite piece is “The Big Race”, one of the longer works which starts on page 123.)

 

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)