No Magic, Only Hard Work: Four Questions with Nancy Ludmerer

Interviews
Nancy Ludmerer doing the crossword with Sandy

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

Over the past year or more I have shifted from writing mostly flash fiction to longer works. During this time, I have worked with a wonderful fiction writer and writing coach, Karen Bender. When I show Karen a story, she often asks me a series of questions. Why am I telling the story? What’s important to me about it?  Where does it come from? What’s at stake for the characters? Sometimes I can’t answer these questions at the time. Sometimes it takes weeks or months to get to an answer. There is no magic, only hard work. But when I finally get there, the story will begin to come to life.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I.B. Singer described art as escape: “a means of forgetting the human disaster for a while.” In the past I’ve escaped through reading, but not writing, which always seemed too hard and deliberate to be a way of forgetting anything. Recently, though, in the midst of the pandemic, my husband and I had to say good-bye to our beloved cat Sandy. The guilt and regret I experienced afterwards was worst at night, when I couldn’t fall asleep, or when I woke up at 3 a.m., heart pounding. I found that if I focused on the short story I was drafting, writing new scenes in my head, it helped. This is different from my usual writing process, in which I sit down to write with a purpose or plan, whether working on a scene, starting a new one, deepening a character, etc. Writing fiction is generally not an escape for me (I’d probably take a walk or a nap to escape from the writing!) so I was surprised and gratified to discover it could be.

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

How about an egg?  Specifically, a double-yolker: when a chicken releases two yolks into the same shell. Sometimes the hen is a young, inexperienced egg-producer; sometimes she’s near the end of her reproductive life; I feel like both at times. Then there’s the doubling in my writing: dual story lines, doppelgangers, and twins. I’ve been fascinated since childhood with doubling. My favorite classic was The Prince and the Pauper; my favorite movies and TV shows featured twins or identical cousins; my most-loved doggerel poem was Henry S. Leigh’s The Twins, which my dad and I would recite together until dissolving in laughter at the final verse: “And when I died the neighbors came and buried brother John.” I have a yet-to-be-published chapbook (essays and flash fictions) called Some Things Happen Twice. The effect of this metaphor on my writing (and life) is double-edged: it can foster indecision and regret, but is also about trying doubly-hard to get things right. 

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

Many years ago, I took a writing workshop at my local YMCA with Sonia Pilcer. Sonia assigned weekly prompts and, on the first day, wrote on the blackboard: WRITE. WRITE STUPID. WRITE UGLY. WRITE. Along with Sonia’s advice, the number of stories required in week-long intensives led by terrific teachers like Nancy Zafris and Pam Painter (who sometimes demanded two stories a night), dispelled the notion that you must produce something good every time. I still find it nerve-wracking to be among a new group of writers, especially writing to prompts. What will they think? But I cling to that initial advice. Writing is a craft you get better at by doing, even doing badly.

Nancy Ludmerer has fiction in Kenyon Review, Carve (where her story “A Simple Case” www.carvezine.com/story/spring-2020-ludmerer was the fiction winner of Carve’s 2019 Prose & Poetry Contest), Electric Literature www.electricliterature.com/so-gentle-you-dont-feel-it-nancy-ludmerer, the Saturday Evening Post www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2020/11/a-summons-to-england, Litro, and other places. Her flash fiction has been reprinted in Best Small Fictions, translated into Spanish, and read aloud on NPR-affiliated radio. Most recently, her flash fiction received honorable mention in Gemini Magazine’s annual flash contest www.gemini-magazine.com/ludmererbreakfastwithhenry.html and first prize in Streetlight Magazine’s contest. Longer stories have won prizes from Masters Review and Pulp Literature and will appear in Spring 2021. Her short memoir “Kritios Boy” (Literal Latte) was cited as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2014. She practiced law for over 30 years before turning to writing full-time. She lives in NYC.

CRAFT LESSON | A BLUEPRINT FOR BUILDING COMPELLING SCENES

Craft Lessons

Scenes are the building blocks of powerful fiction, narrative nonfiction and screenplays. An effective scene stands on its own—a taut episode featuring characters, dialogue, description and tension that is one part of a mosaic that reveals the action and themes that make up the entire work. With them, you have an engine that drives your story. Without them, you’re stuck with writing that is nothing more than a lifeless encounter between characters. 

By way of definition, a scene is a single dramatized event, uninterrupted by summary and a change in setting. 

Many writers have trouble writing scenes. As a young writer, I found that much of my fiction and was told in summary rather than dramatic narrative. “Telling a story,” I found, took much less effort than “showing” and my stories suffered as a result. It wasn’t until I learned how to write scenes that my stories began to be published. 

Of course, summary narrative has its place, to describe characters and bridge passages of time, except in scriptwriting, which relies exclusively on scenes, since scriptwriters generally don’t have access to those two tools (with the rare exception of voice-overs or a soliloquy.)

To write successful fiction, the writer must learn how to “intuitively or deliberately build their scenes,” says Albert Zuckerman, a book doctor who has shepherded two dozen novels onto best-seller lists and taught playwriting at Yale, and has important things to say on the subject.

“Somewhere in the first few lines or paragraphs (or carried over from an earlier scene) a question is subtly (or not so subtly) raised,” Zuckerman says “In Writing the Blockbuster Novel.” That question must be answered with a climactic moment. Zuckerman offers important advice to these writers. Take your manuscript and select two or three substantial scenes. Does anything in the text “raise a question that sets up suspense that is then dealt with or resolved in the scene’s climax.” If not, decide on what your climax should be, “write it, and then find a way to prepare for it.”

The same holds true for narrative nonfiction, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Franklin writes in his essential handbook, “Writing for Story.” “In the realm of structural construction your concern will narrow to the practicalities…of scene-setting and building, pacing, action sequencing and the other techniques that will allow the reader to slide easily through your story,” Franklin says. 

Film can be an effective teaching tool for writers learning to craft powerful scenes in narrative nonfiction. Katie Engelhart is a documentary film producer who has written a powerful new book about assisted dying, “The inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die,” that focuses on people with terminal illnesses, mental anguish and dementia who want to end their own lives even though in many state’s it’s illegal. Barred by law, hospitals and hospice, some rely on sympathetic doctors and activists willing to help them make a peaceful final exit. 

“I think that working in film has helped me to see things in scenes, when I’m reporting — and then, later, to string those scenes together in a way that feels vivid and motivated,” she told me in a recent interview. “Other writers know how to do this instinctively, but I’m not sure I’m one of them. I needed to learn.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

A superb example of scenes in a film can be found in the screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” based on Mario Puzo’s novel; it’s a sequence of scenes that asks the question whether Michael Corleone will summon the courage to murder the family’s rival mobster, Virgil Sollozzo, and the corrupt police captain who broke Michael’s jaw after Don Corleone was ambushed in the street by Sollozzo’s thugs. In an earlier scene that foreshadows what’s to come, Michael arranges for a gun to be hidden in the bathroom of the restaurant where he and Sollozzo are to meet to discuss a truce. 

Later, on a moody dark night, Sollozzo picks him up outside for a ride to an Italian restaurant. In a brief moment of foreshadowing, Michael tells his father’s rival, “I’m going to straighten everything out tonight. I don’t want my father bothered anymore.” Sollozzo believes a truce is in the offing, but Corleone knows better. Then, in perhaps the film’s tensest scene, an obviously torn and frightened Michael excuses himself to the bathroom and returns with the gun. But facing the two men, he hesitates as he wrestles with the morality of what he is about to do before making up his mind. The story reaches its climax when he shoots them in the face, drops the gun and flees to a waiting car. You can watch the sequence of scenes here.

What People Are Willing to Share: Four Questions with Mark Johnson

Interviews

Mark Johnson

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

The greatest lesson I’ve learned is that writing is an endlessly humbling enterprise. I didn’t go to journalism school, so I tried to learn journalism by reading the best stories I could find. Before the Internet, I wrote away to great writers to get copies of their best stories: David Finkel, Anne Hull, Wil Haygood, Paul Salopek, Tom French, John Camp, Jacqui Banaszynski, Barry Bearak, Hank Stuever, Dan Barry, G. Wayne Miller, and on and on. I still do this if I can’t get access to a great story. The first step was reading these stories and figuring out what the writers did and did not do to make their stories great (what you cut turns out to be hugely important). The second step was trying to do in my own work what these great writers were doing, which was very difficult. But the real lesson came in seeing that as my writing improved, so did everyone else’s. The bar got higher and higher. I widened the universe of writers I tried to learn from: J.M. Coetzee, E. Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Svetlana Alexievich (the great Belarusian journalist). As my writing has inched forward I’ve seen the horizon stretch farther and farther away, which is both exhilarating and humbling. That’s been the greatest lesson I’ve learned. You never really arrive at your destination.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I’m constantly surprised at how much people will share with you if you are willing to have a real conversation — in other words, to listen and share things about your life too (without making the interview about you). We all carry secrets. After a while the carrying becomes a heavy burden. People look for someone they can share the burden with, usually just someone who will listen for a few hours. They don’t expect a reporter to solve their problems. I think they want us to be intensely interested and empathetic. When we do those things, there seems no limit to what people are willing to share. Early in my career, I had a young woman tell me that she lost her virginity on the basement steps of her high school (her school was not pleased to learn this). Recently, I had a heart surgeon tell me the vivid recurring nightmare he has — he is in a cabin in the forest trying to perform heart surgery on his son on the kitchen table using ordinary silverware. As a side note, I always ask people about their dreams. It’s fascinating how our thoughts and experiences play out while we’re asleep.

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

I think what I’m trying to do is build a nest. I have to get this collection of odds and ends to fit together into something solid. I don’t want too many bits sticking out. I certainly don’t want the thing to collapse and take others down with it. In the end I hope to make something that is inviting, warm, comfortable to settle into. It may sound a bit strained as a metaphor, but it’s the best I can come up with.

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

The piece of advice I’ve gone back to again and again over the years has been one I received from G. Wayne Miller at The Providence Journal. Though a total superstar, Wayne was always very generous with me, looking over story drafts and offering advice. Once I was working on a story about a man who got shot in a bar. He was a regular at the bar and that night happened to be sitting in the stool where the owner usually sat. Earlier, the owner had tossed some young men from the bar who had made threats. The young men returned and fired shots from outside the bar through a window, hitting this guy who was sitting where the the owner usually sat. The wound paralyzed this man.
I thought the sheer horrible luck of the shooting would be enough to make the reader feel enormous sympathy for the victim. Wayne read my lede and said “The reader has to care about your main character BEFORE the character gets shot”. That probably seems like such an obvious thing. I embarrassed to say it had not been obvious to me at the time. The fix was relatively simple. I mentioned that the guy who got shot was a used car salesman and father of three who visited the bar most days after work. I should probably have said more. But at least the reader could see this man — a guy with a job and a family just relaxing at a bar, not having any reason to fear for his life. That little extra information helped to ensure readers would not switch off their empathy simply because the victim was drinking at a bar. So often in long narratives I think of two rules for the opening:

  1. The reader should have an almost immediate sense of why this is important (somewhere between the second graph and the sixth).
  2. The reader should care about your characters before things happen to them and before they do things.

Mark Johnson is a health and science reporter at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel where he has worked since 2000. Previously he worked in three bureaus at The Providence Journal Bulletin. In 2011, he was part of a team in Milwaukee that won The Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. On three other occasions he has been part of teams that were Pulitzer finalists. Before becoming a health/science reporter, he covered general assignment, driving to New York to cover the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks and flying to Houston to cover the space shuttle Columbia disaster. He is co-author of the book “One in A Billion: The Story Of Nic Volker And The Dawn Of Genomic Medicine.” He also played guitar in the Rockford, Il. punk band, The Bloody Stumps. He is married to writer/editor Mary-Liz Shaw. They have a son, Evan, who composes music — not punk.

Bookbag: “The Writer’s Book of Hope”

Bookbag

Let’s be honest, all writers hope for success, for publication, for riches and fame. But many days we drag ourselves into a chair, open a blank screen and forge our way through doubts and despair that keep us from writing. 

But there is hope for writers in “The Writer’s Book of Hope: Getting from Frustration to Publication” by Ralph Keyes.

Keyes is a master writing coach and indefatigable student of the craft who has written a collection of useful and inspiring books about the writing craft. For me, “The Writer’s Book of Hope,” is his most inspiring. My copy is littered with checkmarks signaling the passages and sentences that speak to me in its 190 pages.

Keyes draws on hundreds of real-world examples of writers writing, failing, getting up and trying again and ultimately succeeding. These anecdotes are the basis of hope that every writer can seize upon, especially at those moments when all seems lost.

“Frustration is the natural habitat of writers at every level,” Keyes says. “I’ve felt it… So does anyone who aspires to write.” He describes speaking at writing courses and conferences that sounds familiar, as I’ve done the same.

“Participants worry about lacking talent. Their submissions get rejected. Inspiration wanes. It all seems so futile. Why keep going?”

He reassures these fledgling writers with tales of other hopeless writers. . 

Did you know, he tells them, that Samuel Beckett’s first novel was rejected by forty-two publishers? Or that a dozen agents chose not to represent J. K. Rowling? Beatrix Potter had to self-publish “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” “These are good grounds for hope,” he says, “There are many more.” It’s striking. and comforting. how many successful writers wrestled with hopelessness as they struggled to write despite constant disappointment. Hope, that urgent desire for something good to happen, is the answer, even though it’s often in short supply.

” Hope is the essential ingredient, as crucial to a writer as similes and semicolons,” Keyes says.
“A simple nod of reassurance can keep us going when every nerve ending says, STOP! ENOUGH! I SURRENDER! We can write without a computer, typewriter, desk, pen, or even paper (some excellent writing has been done in prisons on matchbook covers and toilet tissue). The one thing we can’t write without is hope. Hope is to writers as oxygen is to scuba divers. No writer can survive without it.

Besides discipline, what writers, even the greatest, need is encouragement. For Saul Bellow, a Nobel laureate in literature, “every book is his first book,” his longtime agent Harriet Wasserman recalled. “And he is always the first time writer welcoming reinforcement.” 

Keyes describes a conversation with William Zinsser, author of the classic “On Writing Well.”. At work on his latest book, however, Zinsser confronted a manuscript returned by his longtime editor with several pages of suggested revisions. “Zinsser was taken aback,” Keyes recalls. “He searched in vain for any words of reassurance in his editor’s commentary. Did this man like the manuscript? That was the first question Zinsser put to his editor, followed by remonstration for not including any encouraging words in his critique. “Don’t think just because I’ve been doing this so long I don’t need encouragement,” said Zinsser. There’s a lesson there for every editor who may not understand how deeply writers crave a morsel of encouragement along with necessary calls for changes.

What’s the hardest part of being a writer? It’s not getting your commas in the right place, Keyes writes, “but getting your head in the right place. Where help is really needed is in the area of countering anxiety, frustration, and despair.”

That means doing the work and reading the stories of writers like you that are found in abundance in “The Writer’s Book of Hope.”

It’s replete with examples of desperation, not from aspiring writers, but successful ones like mystery writer Sue Grafton, short story master Alice Munro, who writes short stories compared to Anton Chekov despite constant despair, and even the 19th century master Gustave Flaubert, who endured daily torments that nonetheless produced “Madame Bovary.”

In Keyes’s book, hope comes from the inspiring examples he assembles of successful but often hopeless writers who, despite their fears, pushed onward, even if the day’s output was but a sentence, like novelist and essayist Gail Godwin.

“Simply staying there when more than anything else I want to get out of that room,” she says. “It sometimes means going up without hope and without energy and simply acknowledging my barrenness and lighting my incense and turning on my computer. And, at the end of two or three hours, and without hope and without energy, I find that I have indeed written some sentences that wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t gone up to write them.”

A crucial way to locate hope, Keyes says, is to avoid what he calls “discouragers.” These are the teachers and guidance counselors who throw cold water on an aspiring writers’s dreams. They’re the friends and strangers who ask “Yeah, but what do you really do?” or “Don’t quit your day job!” They are often the enviers who wish they had a creative passion. 

Instead, look for what Keyes labels “encouragers.” These include family, teachers, colleagues, mentors, agents, writers groups, editors, readers. Inspiring examples of these relationships abound in “The Writer’s Book of Hope.” “Finding the right encouragers at the right time,” Keyes concludes, “is one of the developing writer’s most important tasks.” Encouragers, whether it’s a spouse, brother or sister who tells you you’re a good writer or that you can finish your story or an editor or agent or gives you the tools to finish a project, these supporters help make you the writer you want to be. 

In five decades as a writer, I have been fortunate to have many encouragers who gave me hope: a supportive spouse, herself a talented writer and editor, siblings, editors and readers. It took time, but I also learned to avoid discouragers. I’m sure there are encouragers in your life. You may have to search for and locate them, often through trial and error. Along with writing and submitting your work despite your doubts, finding people who believe in you are the best ways to locate hope, that elusive ingredient that separates the would-bes from the writers who keep trying. 

“Hang in there,” Keyes urges. “You’d be surprised by how many successful writers were once discouraged ones.” 

You can be one of them. Don’t give up. I have hope in you.

Write what you see in front of you: Four Questions with Moni Basu

Interviews
Moni Basu

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

I am still learning every day. So, can I list more than one important lesson? First: You can’t ever write what you don’t know. In other words, you have to report the hell out of a story in order to tell it well. Second: Good things come to all those who wait. We, as journalists, are programed to break news and often, we are not paragons of patience. But slowing down and giving your characters breathing space can yield gold. Third: I used to think I had to travel the world to tell a compelling story. But stories are everywhere. You just have to look in the right places.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I had hoped (foolishly) that writing would get much easier with age and experience. I was wrong and it was a rather unpleasant surprise. I thought this profession was like many others – that the more you do it the less daunting your job becomes. I have certainly become a better writer after 37 years in journalism but with that improvement, the bar has been set higher.

I still feel trepidation when trying to making sense of the story I just reported. I am terrified of not doing my characters justice. But perhaps fear is a good thing in that it keeps hubris at bay.

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

Fabulous question! I am a chef who gathers interesting ingredients to prepare a delicious dish but never follows a recipe.  

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

When I was covering the Iraq war and felt overwhelmed, my editor, the great Jan Winburn, told me: “Just write what you see in front of you.” It was her version of E.B. White’s advice: “Don’t write about man. Write about a man.”

Moni Basu is the Michael and Linda Connelly Lecturer in Narrative Nonfiction at the University of Florida. She prefers Prof B. Basu worked as a reporter and editor for 35 years before becoming a full-time professor. She still writes as a freelancer and her most recent work has been published in the Bitter Southerner and Flamingo magazine. She is also a distinguished professor of practice in the narrative nonfiction MFA program at the University of Georgia. She loves terrific storytelling. Her 2012 e-book, Chaplain Turner’s War (Agate Publishing) grew from a series of stories on an Army chaplain in Iraq. A platoon sergeant gave her the name “Evil Reporter Chick” and she was featured once as a war reporter in a Marvel comics series. Basu’s work has been recognized with national and international accolades, but she is most proud of her latest award: the 2020 University of Florida Teacher of the Year. Born in Kolkata, India, Basu grew up straddling two cultures, which explains her interest in exploring the complexities of race, ethnicity and identity. English is not her first language and she has never taken a class in journalism.

In praise of private records

Craft Lessons

   

Savvy writers know the value of public records—police reports, courthouse files, meeting transcripts and the myriad other documents generated by government agencies. Public records provide detail, authority, libel protection and the occasional smoking gun that often makes for powerful journalism and narrative nonfiction.

But there’s another, less obvious record type that smart writers use to add unforgettable ingredients to their stories.

You won’t find them in a government filing cabinet or database or discover them with a Freedom of Information request.

These are private records, the documentation that people create and keep about their own lives or others, the kind buried in a box in the attic, hanging on the refrigerator door or inside a photo album or yearbook.

This class of documentary evidence can strengthen your reporting and bring a new level of intimacy and depth to your stories, shedding light on a person’s character or a time in history. They don’t require a FOIA or hours toiling in a courthouse basement; by simply asking sources to hunt in their attics and basements and memory boxes, writers can locate records that reveal a character’s inner life and history.  

I’d never really thought about the distinction between public and private records until I heard Louise Kiernan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Chicago Tribune, talk about their value at a writing conference years ago and and a later meeting with a group of my students. 

“Whenever you’re working on a story, you ought to be thinking about what documents can help you,” she advised these young reporters. To take advantage of public records, she says, “everyone should know how to search a court record and file a FOIA request.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is an ideal place to learn about these skills.

But don’t ignore the value of private records, said Kiernan, who now is editor of ProPublica Illinois, a nonprofit investigative project. 

 Among them: baby books, high school and college yearbooks, playbills for student productions, teacher evaluations, diaries, journals, letters, photos, and videos. She described how a Tribune colleague used teacher evaluations to profile a dying professor, the students’ comments opening windows into their teacher’s character. In a long-term project about postpartum depression Kiernan used excerpts from the journal of a woman who had committed suicide. 

After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, The Wall Street Journal used private records to reconstruct the last hours of five victims.

NEW YORK — The alarm on Moises Rivas’s nightstand went off at 5 a.m. on Sept. 11.

He had been up until 2 a.m., playing slow salsa on his guitar. He shut off the alarm, snuggled up to his wife, and fell back to sleep. It wasn’t until 6:30 that the 29-year-old cook raced out of the two-bedroom apartment, already late, and headed for work on the 106th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. 

It would be a busy day. A big corporate breakfast meeting was about to begin. Mr. Rivas wore baggy black bell-bottoms that morning, but he could change into his crisp white chef’s uniform when he arrived at the Windows on the World restaurant. 

His instructions for the day awaited him, taped to a stainless-steel pillar in the restaurant. “Moises,” said the handwritten note posted by the banquet chef the night before. “The menu for Tuesday: B.B.Q. short ribs, roast chicken legs, pasta with tomato sauce. NOTE: Please have the butcher to cut the pork chops. Cut the fish. Cut, Dice Carrot Onion Celery. Cubes of Potato for the Stew. Cook one box pasta. See you later and have a nice day.” 

How could the Journal writers know what that handwritten note said, since the Windows on the World restaurant vanished when the north tower collapsed? According to a sources note appended to the story’s end, the reporters based it on a “handwritten note to Mr. Rivas: reconstructed by Windows on the World banquet chef Ali Hizam from notes written to himself in his notebook.”

The reporters also used a store receipt to document the price of a pair of sneakers purchased by a survivor whose feet were sore from fleeing down 92 flights of stairs in heels. The note revealed that a private record bolstered the narrative detail. “Source: Shoe shopping: $43 price from Baldini credit-card receipt.”

In October 2019, a team of ProPublica Illinois journalists under Kiernan’s direction used an unusual private record in an investigative narrative that exposed the human impact of a clinical drug trial of children with bipolar disorder by a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Following an investigation by reporter Jodi S. Cohen of flawed clinical trials at UIC, Cohen, and engagement reporter Logan Jaffe, who managed a call-out to hear from families who participated in the study, obtained the online journal kept in late 2010-early 2011 by a woman named Aline*. In it, she records the disastrous side effects experienced by her 10-year-old son Wilson* (*middle names were used to protect their privacy) while participating in one of the UIC studies. Then, in an unusual, innovative move, one, Kiernan said, “that breaks the ‘rules’ in all the right ways,” they let the mother and son tell more than half the story. Together the reporters crafted a digressive structure that shifts from Cohen and Jaffe’s contextual narrative — based on the traditional tools of documents, interviews and research — to the private record of a family’s torment, what one colleague called “an emotional piece of evidence.” In addition to the mother’s journal, they also persuaded mother and son to reflect now on the devastating impact of Wilson’s treatment. These were used as real time annotations linked to Aline’s 8-year-old reflections and paired in a scrolling interactive presentation. The reporters and Kiernan unpacked their approach in a story I wrote for Nieman Storyboard. (The passage above first appeared there.)

I’ve used private records to report and write a memoir about my father, who died when I was 10 years old, particularly the impact of his father’s involvement in a government corruption scandal in 1932. 

Perhaps the most important was one of the documents included in a packet of materials his prep school’s alumni office provided. I described my findings in “The Only Honest Man,” an essay published in River Teeth, a journal of nonfiction narrative:

“There is another document that I have studied as carefully as my grandfather’s testimony. It is a single piece of paper, about the size of a 5 x 7-inch index card, divided into columns that are filled with typewritten figures. It is my father’s report card from the Canterbury School. It charts his academic career from his entrance in 1929 to his graduation on June 10, 1933.

“He was ranked 8th in a class of 17, far from the weakest student. Still, there seems little doubt that something happened to my father towards the end of high school. His freshman year, he earned middle and high Bs. By his junior year, his marks had nose-dived to a dispiriting collection of low Ds and just barely-Cs. There may have been other reasons, but I can’t help but notice that his poor performance in school dovetailed with the period that legions of New York City newspapers were painting his father as a Tammany Hall grafter.”

TIPS

Begin by thinking about private records in your own life. If someone were to write a story about you, what might they learn from your yearbook, the letters or cards you’ve kept, your journal entries, photo albums, videotapes?

Ask sources for private records. Investigative reporters know to always ask for public records. Ask for private records as well: the yearbook, the photos, the letters that a source might have. Be alert to the possibility that private records might exist. 

As Louise Kiernan observed, “People record their lives in all sorts of ways and often what they write or is written about them is more true than what they tell you…what people make and keep for themselves.”

Editing with Your Voice: Four Questions with Marc Lacey

Interviews
Marc Lacey

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

We all have a writing voice and I’ve done my job well not if I’ve imposed mine on a reporter but if I’ve preserved theirs while making the piece clearer and more compelling than when it was filed. Every piece of journalism we produce should transport the reader, take them on a journey, make clear that the dateline means something. I want detail. I want color. I was dialogue. Boilerplate writing bores.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

My most consequential editing is done with my voice, not my fingers. Giving good feedback at the start and precise recommendations on how to make a piece sing is as important, or even more important, than chopping the prose or moving the paragraphs myself. I was frankly amazed the first time I told a correspondent how to fix a story in a brief phone conversation and shortly thereafter saw it return transformed.

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

I’m a conductor. As national editor, I lead an orchestra, a world-class one, but one that requires every last member to play beautiful, pitch-perfect notes.

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

When I was a foreign correspondent in another time zone, I had an editor who would send me my edited stories by email. She always included the line “Let me know if I’ve done any harm.” I appreciated the humility, her acknowledgment that editors are not infallible. She was invoking a sort of Hippocratic Oath for editors about avoiding harm to the copy.

Marc Lacey is a longtime correspondent and editor for The New York Times. He has been based in Washington, Nairobi, Mexico City, Phoenix and New York. He is currently the National Editor.

Craft Lesson: Gulp. And Go.

Craft Lessons

Journalism demands courage.

Or as Melvin Mencher, the legendary Columbia J-school professor put it: If you’re going to be a reporter, you have to be counterphobic.

Counterphobia, defined in an online glossary of psychiatric terms: “Deliberately seeking out and exposing onself to, rather than avoiding, the object or situation that is consciously or unconsciously feared.”

One of the scariest parts of being a reporter is the challenge of approaching strangers. Beginners, and even some veterans, fear rejection, an angry reaction or worse. The fearful mind can create dark fantasies.

The same holds true for writers who fear starting, or finishing, a story, an essay or screenplay, anxious that it will reveal their incompetence. Journalists aren’t the only creative types that fear failure.

When I was teaching student journalists, the first assignment I gave was to head out to their beat and ask five people what news they considered important but had not appeared in their local paper. Many students admitted later they were afraid to do it, but the experience changed their minds.

“I was surprised the most by the fact that I was able to get over my fears of doing the actual reporting,” wrote one student, Steve Myers, now enterprise editor at USA Today. 

Whatever it is that scares you, be afraid, but do it anyway.

“No matter how the writing of the story turned out,” Myers said, “in my mind it was secondary to the fact that I knocked on all 18 doors on 56th Avenue S. I felt a little bit like an encyclopedia salesman, but I got over the nausea in the pit of my stomach by the fourth or fifth house.”

Even the most experienced journalists feel that fear.

“It would astound you to know how many reporters, whose job it is to talk to people, are painfully, horrifically shy,” Monica Hesse, a Washington Post columnist, once tweeted from a Presidential campaign trail. “I’m here in New Hampshire and I get to eat one M&M every time I successfully interview another human.”

What may help is knowing that many people are terrified of journalists. Although it may be hard to believe, most people will be more afraid of you and the power you wield as a reporter than you are of them. Consider what J. C. McKinnon, a burly, stern-faced St. Petersburg police officer, once confessed to a group of my students: “I carry a can of pepper spray, a Glock pistol and 51 rounds of ammunition. But you’ve got something that can destroy me: a pen and a notepad.”

If you’re avoiding doing something—making the phone call, knocking on the door, visiting a part of your community you’ve never been to before —remember this about human nature. People love to talk about themselves. To share their opinions. They appreciate the attention.

Assertiveness reflects a belief in yourself. You have the right to ask questions, to approach someone for an interview, to request information, to write that short story or begin your long-delayed novel or script.  Of course, bear in mind that people have the right to say no, but don’t let that deter you. Just try someone else.

Be counterphobic. 

After all, as a savvy editor once said, journalism is all about one thing: Gulp. And go.

Acknowledge that you’re anxious and then go do it. When I’m really paranoid, I make a point of writing in my journal whatever my fear is, what I expect would happen, and then report back the outcome. Invariably, the feared result failed to materialize. On those rare occasions when it did, I found that I handled it or accepted the outcome.

Whatever it is that scares you, go ahead and be afraid, but do it anyway.

Just gulp. And go.

Photograph by Jon Tyson courtesy of unsplash.com

Show Up: Four Questions with Helen Ubiñas

Interviews
Helen Ubiñas interviews schoolchildren

Helen Ubiñas is an award-winning columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. Ubiñas was a longtime reporter and columnist for the Hartford Courant, where she was awarded numerous honors, including a team Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 1999. In 2000, she became the Courant’s first Latina news columnist. In 2007, she was one of 12 US journalists awarded the John S. Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford University. She won first place in column-writing at the 2014 Keystone Press Awards. In 2017, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists awarded her top honors for her columns. In 2018, she was the recipient of the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence for a series of columns on gun violence and its impact on Philadelphia teenagers,

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

Show up. It might sound instinctive, but it isn’t always —especially when you’re pressed for time and resources, as we all are, and it just might be easier to make a couple of calls. It’s about getting the story, obviously, with the kinds of details that I don’t think writers can get in any other way other than being present. But it’s also about showing the people and communities who remain underrepresented that I’m not just some faceless byline. I’m a person, a fellow citizen, sitting right across from them, sincerely interested in hearing and telling their stories, and in building the kinds of relationships it takes to make a real impact in the communities we are supposed to cover. Plus, I can’t count the times I’ve shown up for one story and left with ideas for many others. Always a win-win.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I like to think that the columns I write make an impact, but I’ve been really touched to see young people —especially young people of color — genuinely excited to see themselves reflected in their local paper. Years ago, they’d cut the article out of the paper, maybe their parents would put it up on the refrigerator. Nowadays they share it on social media, and I still get a huge kick out of it. It reminds me of how unheard and unseen so many people feel. It reminds me of why I got into journalism, and why as hard as it sometimes gets, I’m still all in.  

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

A police officer once called me a honey badger, and while I’m not sure he meant it as a compliment, I chose to take it as one. According to the limited information I have on my apparent spirit animal, they’re thick-skinned diggers who fly solo. Once I get into a story, I want to get to the bottom of things; I want some resolution. I don’t want to leave my readers hanging. Why didn’t those ex-offenders get paid for the work they did for the city? Why hasn’t the city ever evaluated questionable gun violence prevention programs they pour millions into? Why isn’t there a support group for paralyzed survivors of gun violence? Often that means following a topic or subject for years, and I’m OK with that.  Honey badgers are apparently relentless, and I guess so am I.  

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

I can’t remember who told me or if I maybe told myself: Be yourself. Write like yourself. Read other writers, admire other writers. Learn from other writers. Love Jimmy Breslin and Steve Lopez  and Dan Barry – and omfg I do. But write like only you can, tell stories like only you can. The world already has/had a Breslin and Lopez and Barry. There’s room for you too – a Puerto Rican little girl from the Bronx who somehow grew up to be one of not that many Latina newspaper columnists in the country!