Following the side trips: Four Questions with Lane DeGregory

Interviews
Lane DeGregory

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

 Listen and look around.As a young reporter, especially, I was so focused on gathering all the information I needed that I didn’t pay much attention to things I thought didn’t matter, or take down details like the color of the clouds or the timber of the coach’s voice. Shutting up is hard for me, and I had to train myself to really savor the quiet, note the unanswered questions, and follow the meandering side trips that subjects take you on. I realized that sometimes the seemingly meaningless details open windows into a person’s head or heart.

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

The biggest surprise of my writing life — truly — was: Winning the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.I never ever imagined, or even aspired to, that. It seemed so out of reach, I never even considered the possibility, and was floored when my editor told me they had entered my story as one of three features for the Times. I worked on that story for six months, and had 24 other bylines during that time. I didn’t travel or incur expenses or do anything differently than for any other longer-form feature. And I wasn’t even a finalist for the prize, just one of the top 10 who got “moved into contention by the jury.”  Before that, my biggest writing surprise had been in 1998, when I moved from a tiny bureau at the Virginian-Pilot to the downtown office and instead of covering three news stories a day, I started writing narratives, about one a week. One of my first was about an ice cream truck driver — pretty standard. But a copy editor stopped me in the hall to tell me how much she enjoyed MY WRITING. Not the story, or the information, but specifically MY WRITING. I cried in the bathroom. And knew then that I never wanted to be an editor.

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

The best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me was from Ronald L. Speer, who was my editor at the Virginian-Pilot when I was a young cub on the Outer Banks. He, and this piece of advice, turned me from a reporter into a writer: Put away your notes. The story isn’t in your notebook. It’s in your head. And heart.

I still stash my notes in my car or kitchen before I sit down to write.

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

Ok, I have two metaphors: One from me, another from the girlfriend of former Times’ writer John Barry.I would say, as a writer, I’m like a praying athiest. I’m too jaded and cynical to truly believe in the goodness of humanity, or some benevolent god, and I’m surrounded by ugly, often evil people in the news. But I’m still holding onto the hope that there is such a thing as universal truth and light, so I’m constantly searching for it, especially in the shadows.
John Barry’s girlfriend once told me that my stories reminded her of Lucinda Williams’ songs. I don’t know if I’m really anywhere near that realm, but it’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten: To be able to write gritty, lyrical, earthy ballads that give voice to every day people — stories of folks struggling, surviving, and saving each other.

Lane DeGregory is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Tampa Bay Times who prefers telling stories about people in the shadows. She went to work with a 99-year-old man who still swept out a seafood warehouse, hung out with a boy trying to buy his first Valentine, followed a photographer taking portraits of dying children.

Lane grew up near Washington, D.C., and her parents read the newspaper to her every morning. At age 5, when the Watergate scandal splashed across the front page, she decided she wanted to be a journalist.

She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she was elected editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily student newspaper. Later, she earned a master’s degree from the University of Virginia in rhetoric and communication studies.

For the first decade of her career, Lane wrote news stories for the Charlotte Observer, Daily Progress and Virginian-Pilot. In 2000, she became a features writer for the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times).

Her freelance stories have appeared in Readers’ Digest, High Times, Working Mother and Our State magazines. She wrote one travel book: The Insiders’ Guide to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. 

Lane has been included in four journalism textbooks: Telling True Stories, Newswomen, Feature Writing, Always Get the Name of the Dog. Her stories are featured in four editions of America’s Best Newspaper Writing: 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2008. And a 2018 story is included in that year’s volume of Best American Newspaper Narratives.

She has won dozens of national awards, including twice winning Scripps Howard’s Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing and has been recognized eight times by the National Headliner Awards and eight times by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In 2011, she was named a fellow by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Lane has taught at more than 100 colleges across the country, been adjunct faculty at the University of South Florida, sold-out webinars at the Poynter Institute, recorded YouTube videos on reporting and writing and spoken at journalism conferences around the world.

In 2017, she started a podcast, WriteLane. Each month, listeners on iTunes download an average of 4,000 episodes — on topics from coming up with ideas to finding features off breaking news to telling ghost stories.

Lane is married to a drummer, Dan DeGregory, and they have two sons in college, Ryland and Tucker. She also has a crazy cattle dog named Taz.

The Victory of Failure

Craft Lessons
Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

We celebrate the winners of elections. Cheer Super Bowl victors and the rising stock market. 4.0 grades and 800 SAT scores get our attention and praise. So do bestseller lists, the National Book Awards and the Pulitzers.

In our success-driven culture, it’s hard to accept that failure, not triumph, is a routine part of the writing craft, a constant in a writer’s life.

Sometimes we get lucky and the first draft is the final one. Sometimes the fates shine upon us and the first lead we write sings. Sometimes the agent or the editor says yes. 

But on the journey to make meaning with words, we often stumble. The draft is a jumble, the language sinks rather than soars. Rejection follows submission, sometimes so frequently, it’s easy to lose heart, to give up rather than try and lose. Failing is never fun, but it’s essential for those who practice the craft of writing, indeed any art form. 

I’ve been giving failure a lot of thought recently after discovering “The Fail Safe,” a new podcast devoted to writing and failure. Its creators aim to explore “how today’s most successful writers grapple with and learn from failure.” If you’re feeling like one, its guests offer a bracing dose of reality, as well as a modicum of comfort. 

”Being an artist depends necessarily on a  great tolerance for failure. It’s impossible to make art unless you give yourself permission to fail every day.“ That’s Garth Greenwell, author of the best-selling, critically-acclaimed, novel ”What Belongs to You” speaking in the inaugural episode. 

In the second, novelist and short story writer Chris Boucher spoke about the decade it took to write his first novel, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.” “If there wasn’t daily failure there was almost-daily failure for a long time,” he said. Boucher didn’t have a plotline for two years. A recent short story went through more than 30 drafts before it was published. “There are so many dead ends, so many false starts,” he said, “that I consider it part of the practice.”

.

Samuel Beckett “came to believe failure was an essential part of any artist’s work, even as it remained their responsibility to try to succeed,” Chris Power wrote in a Guardian essay about the revered modernist novelist and playwright. Beckett couldn’t find a publisher for his first novel. Sales for the short story collection he plundered from the book tanked.

But Beckett refused to surrender to the despair that accompanies failures. 

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter,” he famously wrote in his short story  “Worstword Ho.” “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Failing better eventually brought him success, including a Nobel Prize for literature.

When I consider my own failures— the rejected stories, the elusive prizes, the novel abandoned and the play that I never sent out because I was afraid of rejection — it tends to make me more anxious than depressed. Will the writing well run dry?  Will I ever achieve all my dreams? What I took away from the first two episodes of “The Fail Safe” is that failure and anxiety are strands in the DNA of the artistic life. But there is a way to combat them. 

“The only strategy for making that anxiety bearable,” said Greenwell, “is showing up every day to do the work. Whether the work shows up or not is out of your hands, but you can show up for the work to happen.” After that, he said, the rest is all luck.

These writers have helped me redefine the nature of failure. It is not losing out on prizes or even publication.

“What failure means for a writer is to stop writing,” Greenwell said. “The only thing we have control over is showing up to do the work.” 

“And that,” he added, “means giving ourselves as many possible chances as we can to be lucky.”

So I’ll give myself more chances to be lucky and hope you’ll do the same by doing what successful writers do no matter how many failures they face. They show up and do the work. They court failure every day, hoping for victory.

Day by day: Why writers should keep a diary

Craft Lessons
Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash

I started the day in the usual way, dressed and took my dog for his morning walk, brewed a cup of sweet Black Irish tea, quickly scanned the news and then opened a file labeled “Diary 2020.”

I wrote for about ten minutes. 

Jan. 21. 44 degrees this morning. Arctic by Florida standards, Parka, watch cap, gloves to walk Leo. Didn’t blow smoke but the wind cut like a knife through butter. Strange dream last night, David M., lanky, ginger nasty piece of work, tricked me into going to NYC with Neal, only Neal didn’t come and it turned out we were going to help someone move. Met the mother who told their kids they could have “a doughnut and three hot dogs for breakfast.” The work was overwhelming and I tried to quit but he kept tricking me into more. Finally, he stole my shoes and that was it. I ditched him. Only problem, when I looked up, I didn’t know where I was. NYC was foreign territory of high brick buildings. Wanted to go home but felt I should visit the art museum. Found myself in a maze of a mall. Fortunately, Leo’s barking woke me up. Having trouble with the novel. Still keeping to daily sessions but having trouble writing a page a day. Need to follow the advice in today’s post — answer the six questions to drive plot. For some reason, am having trouble switching from pantsing. The sky is a wintry, pale blue. The trees wave slowly, like a monarch parading through commoners in a gilded coach. Axios reports cell phones are banned during the impeachment trial. They’ll be twitching like a junkie jonesing for a fix. Today’s task: draft post about the importance of keeping a diary. 

If you haven’t already guessed, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to keep a diary. It’s not the first such promise. I have at least a dozen notebooks, dated early in the year. But soon the entries peter out and the diary’s forgotten.

The other day,  however, I stumbled upon a quote that made me think I needed to start anew this year.  In a Paris Review interview, the late British novelist John Fowles says, 

“I am a great believer in diaries, if only in the sense that bar exercises are good for ballet dancers: it’s often through personal diaries—however embarrassing they are to read now—that the novelist discovers his true bent, that he can narrate real events and distort them to please himself, describe character, observe other human beings, hypothesize, invent, all the rest. I think that is how I became a novelist, eventually.”

More than one writer agrees with Fowles, I found, thanks to an entry from Maria Popova’s excellent blog, “Brain Pickings.”

Keeping a diary, writers cited by Popova reveal, is an essential part of a writer’s life.

It’s a daily task that exercises the writing muscles, an early morning foray into the unconscious journeys of dreams and observations that can surprise and inspire further writing.

Today’s entry, for example, gives me a description of a departure from Florida’s sunny climate, a caustic take on a high school classmate I could use in the novel I’m composing. What I would do with that bizarre breakfast I don’t know. but I have it stored for future retrieval. 

But a diary’s prose need not be polished. “The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice,”  the English writer Virginia Woolf said. “It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.”

Looking over today’s entry, I cringe at the cliches, the gaps that make the stories within incomplete. But I like, “lanky, ginger,” as a way to describe this high school classmate and the addict metaphor for the U.S. Senators denied their cellphones. There are seeds that might sprout someday.

I’m comforted if this post, flawed as it is, inspires you to launch a diary. Brenda Ueland, author of the writing advice classic, “If You Want to Write.” advises writers to “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary…You will touch only what interests you.”

The act of keeping a  diary, what Popova called “this private art,” is an essential discipline. Madeleine L’Engle (“A Wrinkle in Time“) has three rules for aspiring writers: Read, write and keep a diary or a journal as some refer to it. 

John Steinbeck kept a diary while he was writing “Grapes of Wrath.” The opening was prosaic for a novel that would win the Pulitzer Prize and was cited prominently when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

May 31, 1938: “Here is the diary of the book and it will be interesting to see how it works out.” he wrote in an entry published in “Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath.”

Later, when he shifted to writing “East of Eden,” Steinbeck began each day by writing a letter to his editor, Pascal “Pat” Covici,”a practice chronicled in “Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.” It was a warm-up exercise that the author used a baseball image to describe–“a way of getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game.”

“If you want to write,” L’Engle says, “you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.”

Thanks to these writers, this year I’m sold on the idea. I hope to make it a part of my morning routine, along with walking the dog and sweet tea. I urge you to consider doing the same, keeping it slovenly, headlong, impulsive and honest. Not a bad way to start a writer’s day.  

Switching from nonfiction to making things up: An Interview with Greg Borowski. Part Two

Interviews
Greg Borowski

Last week, I posted the first part of an interview with Greg Borowski, longtime watchdog editor for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. who every year for the last quarter century has written a short story keyed to the Christmas holidays.

His offering this year was “The Christmas Boxes,” a poignant story about a woman who connects with her dying mother suffering from dementia when she opens a box of Christmas decorations, each with their own memory.  

Borowski’s yearly departure from nonfiction holds important lessons for writers ,whether they’re writing true stories or making them up as I learned when I interviewed him recently for  Nieman Storyboard. Borowski is the author of “First and Long: A Black School, a White School and Their Season of Dreams.”

In this installment, he talks about whether writers of fiction need to report their stories, the differences and similarities between fiction and narrative nonfiction and the lessons nonfiction writers can learn from trying their hand at fiction.

Here’s the second part of our conversation, reprinted with permission.

You oversee projects and investigative stories? Do you hope the journalists you supervise will take inspiration for their own narratives from stories like this one?

I think writers get better by writing, but also by reading good writing. And good writing can be found in all sorts of places. 

Inspiration can come from anywhere.

The key: Don’t read a great story and think “How could I ever do that?” Instead, approach it as: “How did they do that?” The former makes fiction seem like an unattainable form of art, the latter positions it as the craft it is.

We can all get better at our craft by practicing it.

The story is peppered with dialogue. How important is that?


I think the dialogue is vital. I usually start out with too much and realize some of what is being said should be part of an expository paragraph, and some is just extra words and does not belong at all. I find reading the dialogue aloud helps, and reading it quickly. That forces you to say it as you’d say it, not as it is written, which helps make it feel more authentic. In some respects, the dialogue is the most intimate part of a scene — you’re not just watching what is happening from afar, you’re listening to a conversation. So, a little bit can go a long way.

How does your work as a journalist influence the writing of this story?

Many of the same rules apply: Hook the reader with a strong lead — not just the lead at the start of the story, but the lead for each of the sections. Same goes for the endings. Provide hooks throughout that pull the reader along. Pare back your prose. Never be boring.

Really, the biggest advantage is the discipline any veteran reporter has to just get something on the screen to work with — and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, to polish your way to the strongest verbs and tightest sentences and crispest dialogue. 

Good reporters know the stories that resonate most with readers are the ones that speak to deeper themes and ideas. You always have to be able to answer the question: “What is the story about?” 

In this case, you can answer it by saying it is a story about a woman who dies on Christmas Eve and her estranged daughter who arrives at her bedside. 

Or you can answer that it’s a story about: Loss. Forgiveness. Memory. Love.

The first answer — the plot — is just a means to illuminate the second, the theme.

Did you draw anything in the story from life?

Lots of things. Part of the original concept came from the experience with my late grandmother. Like the character, her name was Susan; her husband was Leonard. As a kid, I used to get tasked with helping my grandmother make ornaments — those kits that require precise beads and sequins. And, yes, she got to press the pins in while I put the beads on in the right order.

The living room belongs to a great aunt, though there were plastic runners on the floor instead of plastic on the couch. I remember visits as a kid where it seemed like there was nothing you were allowed to touch. The trio of ceramic angels were heirlooms on my mother’s side, though I got one of the instruments wrong. (Why would angels have cymbals?). 

Usually, I tuck in the names of nieces or nephews, or children of friends. My daughter, Annaliese, is in every story — not by name, but usually a referenced age or, in this story the sixth-grade.

I don’t write the stories from life, but there are always pieces of life in the stories.

The story is full of textbook examples demonstrating the power of show don’t tell. Instead of saying her soldier father died, perhaps in a war, you write, “On the end table was a photo of her father, his Army uniform ever pressed, his smile ever easy, his eyes ever bright. Lauren had never met him — she came along three months after he passed — but knew the story well: Her mother was expecting a Christmas Eve phone call, but got a knock on the door instead. The flag, precisely folded, was in a case on the mantel.” Why did you compose it this way?

One practical thing that has strengthened my stories, I think, is the need to keep them short enough to be printed out with Christmas cards. They must fit on a piece of legal paper, landscape mode, four columns of text on each side. This enforces some discipline on the process, and requires me to develop sharp themes and crisp scenes. 

The paragraph you cite is typical of at least a few that come up each year, where I need to tell a lot in a few words. Here I was trying to describe the living room, give a backstory for the characters and encapsulate the conflict that needs resolution. At the same time, I wanted to convey a feeling of wistfulness.

Do you think journalists should try their hand at fiction?

Yes. I think writers of all stripes only get better when they try new things and push their own envelopes. Likewise, writers of fiction would probably learn a lot by trying their hand at narrative nonfiction, as it would force them to work on a different set of related skills. 

In recent years, I have become a runner and know you don’t get better just by running. You have to do cross-training, too, to strengthen different muscles. The same applies here.

You can read the entire story here.