BEWARE, WILD BEASTS: FOUR QUESTIONS WITH BERKLEY HUDSON

Interviews

Photo by Tom Rankin

Of himself, Berkley Hudson says:

Born, Columbus, Mississippi. My Daddy ran Main Street Service Station, “Don’t Cuss. Call Russ.” Three restrooms: Ladies, Gentleman, Colored. As a white boy, I learned to listen for stories when 4-County Power linemen pulled up for gas, with dead snakes hanging from back of their trucks. My mother’s family ran Sanitary Laundry & Dry Cleaners. (Clothes Dirty? Dial 630!). Left Mississippi after Ole Miss undergrad. Went straight to Columbia University journalism school. Worked 25 years as staff and freelance journalist, first at The Bulletin, Bend, Oregon; then, Providence Journal, and later, the Los Angeles Times. Late-bloomed media history & folklore PhD @UNC Chapel Hill. Long-time professor at Missouri School of Journalism where I edited Visual Communication Quarterly and chaired the Race Relations Committee in time of turmoil. Received National Endowment for Humanities grants to support four decades of research into photographs made in the Jim Crow-era of my hometown, also known as Possum Town. In 2022, UNC Press with Duke University’s Documentary Studies published my O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
To focus and set boundaries: whether it’s writing a scene with dialogue. Or describing the physicality of a person, place, animal or object. Or interleaving a tight summary of the news. Or knowing when to stop reporting, writing, and revising. As a journalist, I enjoyed a free-range chicken approach. I’m an omnivore. I go where I’m compelled to go. Or where an editor sends me. Even today, I can have focus problems. An addictive love of winding narratives, my own and others, is a blessing and curse. See James Agee’s letter to his mentor Father Flye: “Without guidance, balance, coordination, my ideas and impressions and desires, which are much larger than I can begin to get to paper, are loose in my brains like wild beasts of assorted sizes and ferocities, not devouring each other but in the process of tearing the zoo to parts.” To avoid such chaos, I’ve posed three questions since the 1980s: What’s the story? What’s the point? What’s the news? I ask myself that today, as when I worked with a writer named Chip Scanlan and our job was turning out, on deadline, cinematic and newsy narratives at the Providence Journal. In every situation, I stay alert to William Faulkner’s admonition about “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
Jane Yolen’s book “Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft” inspires me to say this: More than a half-century after my Mississippi days as a teen-aged editor of my high school newspaper, of laying out inky hot-type of words and pictures in metal trays, I remain delighted by the joy of writing. Yes, there are frustrations, troublesome situations and challenges. But I love that reporting, research, and writing allows me to discover the world around me, at once miraculous, scary, and sublime. As a journalist, with biologists, I uncover bears in snow dens in Maine or track endangered frogs in California’s San Gabriel Mountains. I hike Springer Mountain in Georgia or Mt. Katahdin in Maine. I investigate New England mobsters, write about the Ku Klux Klan, or listen deeply to stories of Hmong refugees who’ve lost relatives to “midnight death syndrome” in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
As a documentarian/archivist, I interview with my storyteller wife Milbre Burch, tellers in Hawaii or on the Navajo Reservation or in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As scholar, I write book chapters on magazine history and photography; encyclopedia entries about Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo and New Journalism, civil rights icon Medgar Evers and composer William Grant Still, and essays and book reviews. I continue to write because I must, must explore subjects that intrigue me, must tell others the stories I discover. Through writing, I can have the transcendent experience that Gabriel Garcia Marquez invokes:
“Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.”


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would
it be?

Marathoner. In my case, Marathon Man. Since the 8th grade, I’ve considered myself a runner, albeit now a slower jogger than earlier. I’ve run marathons, half-marathons, 10Ks, 5Ks. About 5 years ago I adopted Olympic marathoner Jeff Galloway’s approach: warm up, run, take short walk break, run some more, take another short walk break, and so on. That’s how I finished my marathon in Los Angeles, March 2022. That dovetails with lessons from Don Murray: “revision is a process,” and from poet William Stafford: “lower your standards until there is no felt threshold.” Revision follows drafting. In running, I trip on a root at night on a woodland trail when I’ve forgotten to wear my headlamp. On a hot day, I don’t carry enough water to drink and hit a sidewalk crack and fall, bloodying my forehead. Or I slip on a moss-covered rock near a stream. Elbows and knee get scraped and bruised. Another day, I go too many miles and fracture a foot bone. As with writing, I rest, recover, resume. It’s a process: reporting, researching, thinking, writing, revising, drafting, revising more, and resting.

What’s the single best writing piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Count words. As a teenager and college student, I counted words in my ledes. But Don Murray taught me more word count recipes. Yes, count words in first sentence, first paragraph, last paragraph, all paragraphs. Use your finger or pencil to touch each word. Slow down. Count words in scenes, dialogue, story chunks, to reveal proportionality of beginnings, middles and ends of sentences, sections. See the writing anew.
Word counts can measure daily activity, without particularly judging what you wrote on any given day: 750 words. 1,500 words. 20 words. Word counts reveal writing as a process, not product. How many words did you write today? Nulla dies sine linea. Never a day without a line.
Doesn’t matter if you wrote on a computer, typewriter, or used a pen, pencil, crayon to write on a restaurant napkin or legal pad. How many will you write tomorrow?
Connected with word counts, print out drafts. Write the counts on drafts in red, green, any bold color. Place pages on floor as a way to look at from above. Tape them onto walls, windows, or whiteboards. Use old-school TIME magazine approach with index cards or with a storyboard approach: paragraph by paragraph. (On the wall of Rowan Oak, his home, Faulkner painted in red the outline of his novel, A Fable.) Cut drafts into sections. Reorder paragraphs. Make
discoveries about structure, voice, focus, scene, beginning, middle and end. What’s missing? What needs to be trimmed? Expanded?

Chip’s Writing Lessons #86 Craft Lesson: 10 Resolutions for Editors by Steve Padilla

Craft Lessons

Steve Padilla is editor of Column One, the showcase for storytelling at the Los Angeles Times. Padilla joined the Times in 1987 as a night-shift police reporter but soon moved on to editing. He has edited a wide variety of subjects—including politics, international news and religion—and helped guide the Times’ Pulitzer-winning coverage of a botched bank robbery in North Hollywood in 1997. He serves as a writing coach and devotes his Twitter feed (@StevePadilla2) to writing technique. Before the Times, he was a reporter for the San Diego Union and editor of Hispanic Link Weekly Report, a national newsletter on Latino affairs. He earned his B.A. in print journalism and history from the University of Southern California.

Usually, Steve creates New Year’s resolutions for writers. For 2023, he devoted them to his fellow editors. He’s generously allowed me to reprint them here.

10 New Year’s Resolutions for Editors by Steve Padilla

No. 1: To read every word of a draft before making changes. (Yes, this is hard. But if time permits, a good practice.)

No. 2: To give your writers something good to read–to inspire them with fine style, structure or storytelling—and then to talk with them about it.

No. 3: To allow or encourage your writers to use a sentence fragment to emphasize a key point or to vary the rhythm. Just because. Really.

No. 4: To focus on structure before diving into the words.

No. 5: To give specific direction. If an anecdote dawdles, don’t say, “Speed it up.” Pinpoint the wordiness or say, “Start in the middle of the scene.” In a court story, must we say the judge walked in, sat down and banged the gavel? Start with the gavel.

No. 6: To remember that not all your edits work. That doesn’t mean, however, that the writer’s original wording worked, either. You’re probably right that something’s amiss even if you can’t fix it. Solution: Find a third way, preferably together.

No. 7: To set up a Slack channel in your newsroom devoted to writing. We have one at the @latimes.

No. 8: To remember that positive direction is often more productive than negative. Rather than say, “You buried the lede,” I like to say, “This is so good we gotta move it up.”

No. 9: To suggest your writers take the Padilla 30-Word Challenge. When they think their story is “done,” trim 30 words. Not 50, not 150. Just 30. It’s surprising how this habit gives a piece some extra snap, crackle and pop.

No. 10: To take care of yourself. And since editors don’t get thanked enough, let me thank you now. Speaking of thanks, hat tip to @mkballinger and @jaclyncosgrove for No. 1 and No. 4 of this thread. Happy New Year, folks, and may the words flow in 2023.

Start Writing: 4 Questions with Ava Kofman

Interviews

Ava Kofman is a reporter on ProPublica’s national desk. She joined the newsroom in January 2019, after working as a contributing writer at The Intercept, where she covered algorithms, artificial intelligence and surveillance technology. In 2020, she reported with colleagues on toxic air pollution across the United States. Their award-winning work on America’s “Sacrifice Zones” was credited with helping spur reforms.  Kofman previously edited The New Inquiry. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, and The Atlantic, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles. @AvaKofman

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

Revise. Revise again. Then one more time. Apologize profusely to your editor for all of the tiny changes you are making. Continue to make them. Some of the most lively moments in a story come from second-guessing and last-minute additions, cuts and tweaks. The story will need to be published eventually, but until it is, consider it unfinished. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

It only gets harder! I suppose this is an open secret, but I’ve been continually surprised that the more I learn (or try to learn) about writing, the harder it gets. Thomas Mann puts it this way: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” 

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I once heard that there are two ways to approach a first draft: as a diamond polisher or as a garbage compressor. I tend to do both. I start with the latter technique, ingesting and processing vast amounts of material and refuse. The writing in this phase feels like a lot of trash that would be unreadable to another person (and that I sometimes can barely understand myself). Eventually though, the pressure and heat starts to produce some ideas, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. I would hesitate to call these gems, but they are durable enough to begin polishing. 

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Start writing! And start earlier than you think. The longer you wait, the harder it gets. You can always do more reporting later. Even if you’re just writing a memo, or “fake writing,” or pretending to write, start putting something down on the page. (Plus, the more material you produce, the more you’ll be open to revising it.) I wish I could attribute this to a single wise source, but this advice has been given to me a thousand times by a thousand wise people. (Thank you to all of them).  I regret how often I fail to follow it.

10 reporting/writing lessons learned: The Pulse story

Esssays


Description should always carry some significance. Why do you want the reader to pay attentionto this detail?
Every section should serve a thematic purpose. A bio section isn’t just a bio section, it should drive the reader to a point you’re trying to make.
Even when doing immersion reporting, remember, there are big parts of the story you will have to reconstruct. Scenes are no more significant because you observed them.
Make sure you’re clear about what you want a reader to take from a story. A narrative may not have a traditional nut graf or bullets, but it always should contain what Mike Wilson used to call a “big idea” graf. He gave a brown bag about this 10 years ago; Ben Montgomery took notes and posted them on Gangrey. The “big idea” graf is about “closing the distance between fact
and meaning.” “Too many of our stories are just big bags of facts,” Mike said. The big idea is the result of us asking ourselves what a story means — what, universally, it’s about. “That’s not in your notebooks, guys. That’s in your head.”
When writing months later about a notorious event, the challenge is to make the scene everyone thinks they’ve already read feel different. This means playing with time and perspective. Try to narrow it down, slow it down, place emphasis on new details.
When writing about a traumatic incident, consult the Dart Center’s best practices. http://dartcenter.org/content/best-practices-in-trauma-reporting-23 “Portray victims and survivors of trauma with sensitivity and insight. Inform readers about the ways individuals react to and cope with emotional trauma. Avoid sensationalism, melodrama and portrayal of victims as tragic or pathetic. Emphasize victims’ and survivors’ experience rather than the traumatic event itself.”
Don’t rely on your subject to volunteer everything about his story, especially if he is not expressive. Put yourself in his shoes and think about how experiences might feel. If you notice that the rapid clicks of camera shutters evoke machine gun fire, ask if he thought that, too.
Don’t settle for the first answer to a question. Keep asking it over a period of time. We didn’t learn about the young woman who died in the stall until months into the reporting process. And we had to keep asking about her to get into depth about her impact on him.
Use hindsight to your advantage. Highlight the gulf between what a character said in a moment and how you know they truly felt.
Even if your story is an intimate tale of one person’s experience, seek as many sources as possible. Others in your life might portray a less rosy picture than you would about your own life.
Public records are your friend. Authenticity is key.

Photo Perspective
Finding and connecting with a subject: When you’re ready to give up on finding a subject, keep pushing. In the case of this story, I pushed and pushed unsuccessfully during the week I spent n Orlando following the shooting to make inroads with a subject. I knew I wanted to start telling more intimate stories than press conferences and vigils, but gaining access felt impossible because of how bombarded by media those affected by the shooting were. Additionally, it was
easy to find names of the deceased, but really hard to find names of the hospitalized. I saw a New York Times piece titled “How can Communities Prepare for Mass Shootings? Orlando Offers Lessons” that wasn’t about Angel, but featured two pictures of him. He’d let an NYT photog into his hospital room, but she was already back in New York and clearly not pursuing a story on him. So I reached out through an Instagram message, pitched the story to Boyzell and
Graham, and that’s where this started.
Photog/Reporter working as a team to maintain access: Angel was an extremely difficult subject to keep involved. We thought he was going to bow out of working with us at multiple points.
Working as a team with Kat proved instrumental in pushing for access to intimate moments while not losing him altogether. For example: I would ask Angel about the day he was going to be released from the hospital and if we could be present for that. He would politely decline, asking that we wait until he was settled in at home. I would counter that while I really respected his desire for privacy, it was that sort of hard, transitional experience that we really needed to
witness to tell his story. Then he just wouldn’t respond. So we’d give him a few days, and then Kat would get in touch, pull him back in, and we’d get back in. After Kat would finish a very personal, intense interview with Angel and feel like he needed a little breather from her, I would then be the one to text him about us going to his support group meeting. This tag-teaming approach felt exponentially more effective than working alone, or out of sync with one another,
when it came to getting as much access to Angel’s life as possible without losing him.

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.

Black Friday deal for writers

Uncategorized

Hello, my journalist friends and all others who embrace the writing life,
For Black Friday, my latest book, 33 Ways Not To Screw Up Your Journalism. is just $2.99 for the Amazon Kindle edition. That’s 40 percent off the regular $4.99 price. The offer is good through Friday. 

image.png

Buy now!

The book is a succinct, authoritative and encouraging handbook that Dan Rather called “excellent for journalists of all ages and experience.” It features 33 tools, techniques and values needed more than ever in our fractured and fact-tossed democracy. They include:

  • treating sources with respect
  • being aware of your biases
  • plagiarism
  • fabrication 
  • ethical decision-making 
  • not letting fear stop you
  • combatting writer’s block 
  • step-by-step guides to the writing process, interviewing, and revision

Happy Thanksgiving!
Chip

A Team Sport: Four Questions with Stephen Robert Morse

Interviews

Stephen Robert Morse is s a two-time Emmy-nominated filmmaker and the Managing Director of London-based Lone Wolf Studios, bringing lean production methodologies to the film industry. He loves combining creativity and business and has now worked on a dozen successful film projects. The first major film he conceived and produced was “Amanda Knox”, a Netflix Original that earned him a Primetime Emmy nomination. He holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of Oxford. He was nominated for a Best Writing : Documentary Emmy for “In the Cold Dark Night” about the racist murder of Timothy Coggins in 1983. 

 What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

The first draft is just a first draft: and you’ll likely need many more eyeballs on it and many more drafts before it’s perfect. Sure, a few individuals may write excellent first drafts, but everything needs improvement. Writing, like most activities, is a team sport. And behind every great writer, there’s a great editor ready, willing, and able to critique them. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
The biggest surprise for me has been how much I formerly loved newspapers, magazines, and printed books — yet how infrequently I use them now. I truly love audiobooks and articles these days, especially when they’re read by the author. The second biggest surprise is that people write documentaries: you can so easily change the structure and balance and intent of a story simply by adding or cutting characters, adding a snippet here or cutting a snippet there — this was not the type of symphony I intended to create yet I love the process… and it’s always a process. 

if you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

As my mom always said to me, “You’re a jack of all trades.” In documentary, what you can “write” depends on what people say in interviews and what archive you have access to. This could be limiting for many people, but I attempt to treat documentary writing like I’m writing an essay: with a thesis statement established early and evidence to support my thesis — while also sharing counterpoints and arguments that I may not personally agree with. 

4. What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Perhaps I’m a traditionalist, but I’ve long subscribed to George Orwell’s six writing rules: 

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Nailing the Structure: 4 Questions with Line Vaaben

Interviews

Line Vaaben is a prize-winning writer and editor for Politiken, the largest daily newspaper in Copenhagen. Her work has been published in several textbooks, and she teaches narrative and longform journalism. She is also the author of a book about femicide in Denmark.

What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned as a writer?

Working with structure. When I was young — and more arrogant I guess — I thought I didn’t have to do outlines. But I was so wrong! The past ten years or so, I have worked intensively with structure, and it has made my writing process faster, less painful and my stories so much better. I use a one-word theme and Post-Its to do my storyboards and it has made a huge difference.

I wrote a piece about it for Nieman Storyboard: https://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/sticking-a-story-together-and-nailing-the-structure/

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
That I never seem to run out of stories to write. When I was new in journalism, I remember being worried about having enough ideas, or others writing the stories before I got around to them. I was much more in a hurry. But as time has passed I realize that life is so rich and full that writing about it in new ways is a neverending love affair between me and reality. No need to hurry. Stories are all around.


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
A squirrel comes to mind. For one, I am a very energetic and fast-moving human being. But also, I often feel that I am gathering material like nuts when I am reporting: As many details, scenes and bits of dialogue as possible, which I stack for later use, so that I have a lot of good bits to choose from, when I reach the writing process. Like a squirrel, putting aside lots and lots of good nuts with important energy for a long, cold winter.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Paying attention to the ending! Not only because it is so important, what you save for last, as it is the reward to the reader, for hanging on. But also because it has forced me to think much harder on the whole structure of my piece before I write. If you want a great ending, you must build up to it. Which means asking yourself what you actually want to say and what central question is driving the story. I owe this revelation to Tom French BTW, who really opened my eyes to the importance of endings.