Write Past the Fear: 4 Questions with DeNeen L. Brown

Interviews

DeNeen L. Brown joined the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism faculty in 2019 after more than three decades at The Washington Post.

Since coming to UMD, she has continued to write for The Post, including a series of stories on the deadly 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which led to the city’s mayor reopening an investigation into suspected mass graves.

Among other jobs at The Post, Brown has covered police, courts and education, and was a foreign correspondent. She was a staff writer in The Post’s Metro and Style sections and a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine. Brown has earned national recognition for writing narratives about the middle class, the homeless, culture, race, Black history, urban gentrification, poverty and the environment.

As The Post’s Canada bureau chief from 2000 to 2004, she traveled throughout the Canadian Arctic and Arctic Archipelago to write about climate change, melting permafrost, receding glaciers, indigenous populations and cultural erosion. She also has written dispatches from an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage, and covered stories from Greenland and Haiti.

She’s won national feature-writing prizes from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Association of Black Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, as well as regional awards from the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Press Association. In 2006, Brown’s story titled “Mr. Wonderful” won first place and the best-in-show award for daily writing from the Virginia Press Association.

Brown is a former Knight Fellow and Washington Post Media Fellow at Duke University. She has taught writing seminars at Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism and has been a guest lecturer on narrative writing at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida.

She’s taught writing at National Writers Workshops around the country and at the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors conference. She was also an adjunct journalism instructor at Georgetown University.

Her essays about writing are published in “Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide.” Her award-winning narratives are published in “Best Newspaper Writing 1999: The Nation’s Best Journalism.”

Brown holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.


What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Phillip Dixon, a great city editor at The Washington Post, once told me, “Evoke the soul of the story.”   I was a young reporter then. I remember walking away from the city desk thinking he was a curiosity. I had no idea what he was talking about. I went to my desk and re-wrote the story. But, again and again, he would send it back with the mysterious instruction: “Evoke the soul of the story.”
Over time, I came to understand what he meant. “Evoke the soul of the story” meant to report so deeply inside a story that you understand the story and the characters perhaps better than they understand themselves. 

Evoking the soul of the story means, “Don’t just tell me what so and so said and what so and so did. But tell me what so and so said and meant to say and why he said it and what brought him to this point in life that would make him say what he said or do what he did. What motivates this character deep inside?” 

Evoking the soul of the story means that writers should reveal a character’s deepest fear and desire. Who are they when no one is looking? Long-form narratives are made richer by immersive reporting. The best stories are not about the writing, but about what is revealed in the reporting.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
My biggest surprise in my writing life came when I found out just how a great story has the power to change someone’s life. A story, reported deeply and written with an authentic writer’s voice, has the power to move readers. I’ve seen readers respond in droves to help a homeless woman who rode a bus as her bed. I’ve seen powerful stories move institutions. Words have that kind of power. I’m still a bit in awe of the power of words.


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer what would it be and why?
When I sit down to write, I feel like a composer. Though I am not a musician, I go through the steps that a musical composer might take in creating music. Composers and writers are both creating something out of nothing. We look at a blank page and fill it with something that lives.
In the writing process, I often imagine flipping my coattails before sitting on an imaginary piano bench, the way a composer might. I imagine the computer keyboard is my piano. The words come like songs out of nowhere. They have rhythm. I hear the stories as I write. The cadence and the spacing are important to me. The way words are arranged on the page are like notes.
I think good stories, like any good song, have a rhythm. Like a good Aretha Franklin song, they have soul. Like a Miriam Makeba song, the words ebb and they flow. Like James Brown, they repeat themselves. They grunt and grind. They rise and they fall. And sometimes they just shout.

What is the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Margaret Atwood once told me that writing is like diving into a black hole. The writer dives into an abyss and emerges hours or days later with a story.
I will never forget that afternoon with Atwood. I had gone to a café in Toronto to interview her. I read most of her books in preparation. But instead of talking about her latest book, we talked about life and writing.
I asked her where she got her confidence as a writer. She told me she had none, that each blank page scares her. The trash can, she told me, is her friend. She explained how certain books drive her and how some of her characters live in her writing desk drawer until they are ready for her to write their stories.
So many years later, when I face a blank screen, I think of Atwood telling me to write past the fear, dive into the void and fill up the blank page with story.

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