Stories Are the Way We Connect: Four Questions with Glenn Stout

Interviews
Glenn Stout

Glenn Stout began freelancing in 1986 and became a full-time writer in 1993. The only Series Editor of The Best American Sports Writing over its 30-year existence, he is the author, editor or ghostwriter of 100 books. His titles include Young Woman and the Sea; How Gertrude Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Changed the World, now in development as a motion picture for Disney+, and, most recently, Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid: America’s Original Gangster Couple. A citizen of the U.S. and Canada, he grew up in Ohio, studied poetry at Bard College, and worked as a librarian at the Boston Public Library before turning to writing. He now lives in Vermont where he writes and serves as consultant and freelance editor on book proposals, manuscripts and longform features.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?

To learn how I write, not just word by word, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, but also to learn the process that works for me both before and after the words first go on the page. I think when we begin to write we often sabotage ourselves through comparison with others. We all want to write like writers we admire, but discover we don’t sound that way. Then we learn that writer “A” hews to a strict schedule and writes a thousand words a day… and some days we write and some days we don’t. We learn that writer “B” meticulously takes notes on index cards… while we scrawl in notebooks and create vast piles of pages of reporting. We learn writer “C” creates grand sculptural dioramas of every story in advance of writing it… while we an outline that could fit on the palm of our hand. It’s easy to look at our own words and methods and feel diminished, lesser than. But instead of beating ourselves up by comparison, better instead to learn to recognize those first few snippets that sound like ourselves and build from that, and find the methods that best work for ourselves. Not that we don’t learn from others; we do, but the lesson is that while there is no single best way to write, there are many ways, and each of us has to discover the way that best works for us.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

Realizing that stories are the way be connect with others, that they are the basis of communication and connection. For a long time I don’t think I was aware of this, but when I began working with other writers it suddenly became clear and I finally understood why I do what I do.

You may meet a stranger and exchange small talk, but at some point you start sharing stories with one another, and when you do that you begin to find a part of yourself in the story of another. That is how we connect, and why we connect, and that’s why we do this. Because, let’s face it, none of this, really, makes sense in terms of making a living. Writing can be isolating, it doesn’t always pay well, if at all, and most of what we do only speaks to a limited audience. It’s hard to make a living this way. If you look at it logically, there are thousands of reasons not to be a writer. Yet people do it all the time. And I think the reason for that is because we’re put on the planet to connect with others, and the only way we know how to do that is through the stories we share.

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

I always say I’m a laborer. When I was younger I was fortunate enough to work several years in construction, first as laborer, then form carpenter and foreman, working in concrete and steel. That experience taught me as much about writing as any workshop or conference I’ve ever attended. I learned that you can begin with a complete empty slate, a roughly graded empty lot, but that by dint of labor, showing up each day, staying at it, focusing on the job right in front of you, that six months or a year later, well goddamn, there’s a building. And then you can do it again. It’s the same way writing a story, or a book. You stay in the chair long enough, do the next task, and there it is. Writing is done in increments, one after the other. The result can be art, but the execution is mostly labor and effort, and that, in the end is all you can control. If you show up every day…

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

Listen to written words spoken aloud. My early background in writing was almost entirely in the writing and study of poetry, and I learned that sound is just about everything, that it is the sound of the words, as much as what they mean, that distinguishes writing. I believe that a work can be accurate and correct in every way, but if it lacks sound and rhythm and pace, I don’t think it sticks in our brains, the impact is blunted. Then we don’t occupy the work, it remains at arms’ length and we don’t experience and inhabit the story, and I think that is the goal: to be immersed in a story so that when it ends we are somehow changed in way large or small. I think sound is the key to that experience, where no part of the work pushes us away, or disrupts the experience. I’m not saying we read aloud always, but that by reading aloud we learn to hear, and by learning to hear we can also learn to write so others listen and hear us.

BEST WRITiNG ADVICE: A ROUNDUP FROM 50 ISSUES

Craft Lessons

Chip’s Writing Lessons celebrates its 50th issue today. To mark it, I’ve rounded up answers to a question I posed to writers and editors in their ‘Four Questions With” interviews: “What’s the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?” Here’s what ten of them had to share.

“At first, everybody a reporter talks to is likely to put up a front — some people suck up, others are mean and try to run you off, still others are fearful about the whole process. It’s hard for your first interactions to be authentic. But not many people can put up a front forever. If you stick around long enough, you’ll see the real person.”
Tommy Tomlinson

“Boil your story down to a sentence. If you can’t do that, your story is likely to ramble and lose its theme. If possible, boil the story down to a word. Write the sentence or word on a Post-It note and keep it visible until you’re done with the story. That always helps me stay on point.”
Rosalind Bentley

“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


“Resist the urge to start correcting the small stuff on your first pass through a manuscript. Instead, you should read the entire piece through thoughtfully, thinking hard about structure, theme, tone, and the other large questions that are far more important to reader impact than the easy copy-editing and polish corrections that can distract you on a first pass through a piece.”  
Jack Hart

“Lary Bloom, who I worked for at Northeast Magazine at the Hartford Courant, once said to me: “Don’t be the editor of the greatest unpublished work.” What that meant was take a risk to like something, to champion it and polish it and then publish it. You’ll never face criticism for the manuscripts you turn down; no one will see them. As an editor, you have to open yourself to scrutiny for what you choose to publish, and then stand behind it. That’s your job!”
Jan Winburn

“Report, report, report, to earn the right to take charge, to make choices, to run a rope from post to post, stretched taut, taking and using what serves the story and moves it forward, from beginning to middle to end, while unsentimentally leaving behind what does not.”
Michael Kruse

“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

“The advice that has stayed with me the most wasn’t specifically about editing— in terms of handling copy — but about managing people and it came from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Maria Carrillo

“I think the best advice I ever got about writing was from Gene Roberts, who used to say that every good story should be brimming with “color, quotes and anecdotes.” As I recall, one of Gene’s first editors at the Goldsboro (NC) News-Argus was blind, and he demanded that Gene’s stories make him see.
Bill Marimow

“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

You Have to Sit in the Chair: Four Questions with Sally Jenkins

Interviews
Sally Jenkins

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist and feature writer for The Washington Post. She was previously a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. She has been named the nation’s top sports columnist by the Associated Press sports editors four times and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. In 2013, she earned a first-place AP award for “Do No Harm,” an investigative series, co-written with Rick Maese, on medical care in the National Football League. She won the 2021 Red Smith Award for “major contributions to sports journalism,” the same prize her late father, sportswriter Dan Jenkins, won in 2013. Jenkins is the author of 12 books, four of which were New York Times bestsellers, most recently the No.1 “Sum It Up” with legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt. She is also the author of “The Real All Americans,” the historical account of how the Carlisle Indian School took on the Ivy League powers in college football at the turn of the century and won. Her work has been featured in Smithsonian, GQ and Sports Illustrated. A native of Texas, Jenkins graduated from Stanford and lives in Sag Harbor, New York.

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

That there is no such thing as writing without discipline and structure. Inspiration is almost a mirage. It’s not that it doesn’t exist; it does. But if it’s not married to method, regimen, it’s useless, it’s just a scrap of paper floating on a breeze, flying away from you. What makes something conveyable is the regular work. You have to sit in the chair for at least two to four hours for something worthwhile to happen. And it’s a stunning thing: if you will do that, if you’re willing to sit there fearfully but faithfully in front of a blank white screen and just try for a few hours, then you will produce a page or a few pages that are fixable, improvable, until they become coherent. 

       But then you have to revise. And then revise again. The difference between a first draft and a second draft is about a 35 percent improvement. And the difference between the second draft and the third draft is another 35 percent of improvement. So, if you’re doing the basic math, 70 percent of what happens comes after the initial inspiration. Those revisions are like eating day-old oatmeal. Frequently when I read over my first draft I feel like crying. Sometimes I do cry – because I’m a cat-in-yarn incompetent who can’t organize a simple sentence. But at the end of the second draft, I’ve at least untangled the string. And after the third, I’m not happy but I’m not mortified. And I know that I at least worked at it, so I can hold my head up over that. 

       And then, a lot of times, it’s published and other people tell me they like it, and I re-read it, and I think, “Well that was pretty good. I’m pretty proud of that because I know how I worked at it.” I have one strength and one strength only as a writer: I work at it. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

The things that come out of my head. That’s the biggest surprise of all. 

I am stunned at the words that come unlooked for. I mean stuff just appears – and you don’t have any freaking idea why or how. It writes you. That’s why you have to sit in the chair for four hours. Because you don’t know what will happen, when the invisible thing that really holds the pen or hits the keys starts moving. I have used words I didn’t know I knew.  

I’m also surprised at how everlastingly scary it is, to sit there and court incompetence and to take chances with words. You’re almost never punished for taking those chances. That’s surprising. If you take the chance – and revise with discipline – then the chance will reward you with quality. I read something once that the songwriter Paul Simon said. He said, I’m paraphrasing, there’s a point where you’re stopped and scared, and you have to tell yourself, what are you so scared of, and move past it. And then the good things come.  

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

I am a prisoner breaking rocks with a shovel. Like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, saying, “Yeah Boss,” while I chop at the ground.

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



Two pieces. One was from my Dad. “Don’t ever let a thing out of your hands until it’s as good as you can make it,” he said. He meant within the confines of a deadline, of course. But he also meant, you do your best every time out, don’t you ever mail it in. 

And then there was Tony Kornheiser’s advice to me as a young writer at The Washington Post. “You’re only as smart as the people you talk to,” he said. Which also stuck. You have to seek out smart people and you have to listen, and you have to store up all the information, as well as the thoughts and words, that come from that. 

Writing a naked memoir: An interview with Tommy Tomlinson

Interviews

A book with a canary-colored cover holds a place of honor on my bookshelf. It’s Tommy Tomlin’s 2019 memoir: “The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America.”

Tomlinson is brutally honest about his weight; at one point the scale read 460 pounds. He strips himself naked, literally, to describe what his morbidly obese body looks like and explores the addiction to food that began as he grew up in a fat, salt and carb-loaded Southern household. He talks about his sex life with his wife, Alix Felsing.

He balances his own story with the larger crisis of the county’s obesity epidemic, bringing to his reported memoir the journalistic skills honed during a career as an award-winning reporter and columnist for The Charlotte Observer and magazine writer.

Before I interviewed his last summer for Nieman Storyboard, I made a list of questions. “I wanted to know,” I wrote back then, “why someone who feels the stigma of obesity every day would expose himself so nakedly, to the extent that he describes how it affects his sex life. How did he weigh the honesty needed to tell a true story with the need to protect those who are part of that story? And perhaps most important when considering memoir—or any intense reconstruction that relies on the quirks of memory—how did he report the past with any assurance of its accuracy?”

These are the kind of intimate questions that anyone writing memoir, especially about sensitive topics, must confront. Tomlinson’s answers provide crucial answers.

Here are excerpts from our interview. reprinted with Nieman Storyboard’s permssion.

Of her memoir, “Hunger,” Roxane Gay said: “When I was writing it I was worried about exposing myself like this, and being this honest.” Did you feel the same way?

There are things in this book that I had never told anyone – my wife, my closest friends, anyone – before I put them on the page. But I decided early on that if I was going to do this book, I had to do it right. Other overweight people – or people with any other addiction, really – would be able to sniff it out if I faked it. Even more, I’d always know. So I kept pushing myself to be more honest, to tell the truth the best I could.


Your prologue starts with a very brief memory. Then the book launches, on New Year’s Eve 2014, with the bluntest of statements: “I weigh 460 pounds.” From there you spool out what that means in every part of your life in pretty graphic detail. How do you decide how far to go? And how do you walk the line between exposing and protecting yourself and others, like your wife and mother?

Tomlinson with his mother, Virginia, who died in January 2018
Tomlinson with his mother, Virginia, who died in January 2018 Courtesy of Tommy Tomlinson

I held to the same standard I’d hold any story I do: What are the details that tell the most? What’s necessary to tell the whole story? I don’t tell EVERY detail about my life, but I did my best to leave in everything that I thought mattered to the story I’m trying to tell.

I told my family I was doing the book and that they might be part of it. I also showed them the manuscript ahead of time – not something I’d normally do, but I think the rules are a little different in memoir. They all felt it was fair and true. My mom died in January (2018), but she got to see an early version. She thought it was good, except for all the curse words.

You write frankly about your sex life as a teenager and a married man and your inability to have a child with your wife. How do you balance the memoir’s demand for intimacy and honesty with respect for people you care about?

That was the hardest line for me to draw. Early on, when I read a section at a writers’ retreat, somebody asked me: “Is there gonna be any sex in the book?” It’s not the kind of thing Alix and I talk about with other people. But I thought it was important to give a glimpse into our private lives (and it’s only a glimpse) because one, it’s something people naturally wonder about, and two, it speaks to some of the consequences of my weight. As far as my sex life before Alix, it’s intentionally vague – I didn’t want to drag anyone into this book who didn’t want to be there.

When I interviewed you in 2004, after you won the ASNE award for profile writing, you said anytime you have a long story, you need a way to break it up. For your book, how did you decide to use a one-year time frame and the scale (your weight) as a structural device? And how did you decide to weave the story of the fattening of America – which is essentially an extended nut graf – throughout the book rather than deal with it in one place?

The calendar is always a handy way to frame a story, and it especially made sense for this one because everyone who has tried to lose weight measures at least month by month. So that made for a natural 12 chapters. The book is not really about how much weight I lost – it’s more about learning about yourself as a way to get ready to lose weight – but of course I was trying to lose along the way, so I marked the end of each chapter with how I did that month. And along the way I wanted to zoom out from my story into how this is a more and more prevalent American story, so I circled back to that idea several times along the way.

How do you report your own past? You vividly reconstruct scenes and remembered conversations from as far back as early childhood, your college and early newspaper years. How do you know these memories are accurate?

One role model for me was David Carr’s great memoir “The Night of the Gun,” where he went back and reported out his drug-fueled early life – there were a lot of things he didn’t remember. I remembered most of the things I wrote about in this book. But I did check out my memories with Alix, my family and friends. I wasn’t a reporter in quite the same way, because a memoir, at heart, is a really long essay. But I did check the facts.

One thing I made sure not to do is quote stuff from decades ago as if it was verbatim. I’m always skeptical when people remember long conversations from 30 or 40 years ago with such accuracy they can put it in quote marks. I don’t believe I have anything like that in the book. I do have a few moments where I remember the gist of what somebody said, and I might put that in italics.

Having said all that, there are some scenes in the book where I had to rely on my memory. There’s a scene early on when I’m 3 or 4 years old, playing in our front yard, watching kids on the other side of the fence play kickball. I don’t know who any of those kids are. But it’s a really vivid memory for me – in fact, it’s the first memory I have. So I went with it, hoping the reader will know that what I wrote is the best I can remember.

You can read the entire interview with Tomlinson here.


Craft Lesson: Writing with Your Nose

Craft Lessons

A nose for news. In journalism, the phrase means the ability to sniff out the newsworthy from the trivial. Good reporters have one. Give them a whiff of corruption and they’ll root it out like a pig diving for truffles. Narrative writers can ferret out the conflict in an event or situation that makes for compelling prose.

Write with the senses, editors and writing teachers demand. And most of us do that, providing our readers with vivid images and resonant sounds.  

But hunt high and low in stories for a sense of smell and some days you feel like a bloodhound who’s lost the scent. Tastes abound, but smells, the scents that get the salivary juices running, are often absent. But look hard enough, and they seem to be found in the best writing.

“Smell,” wrote the blind and deaf writer Helen Keller, “is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.”

Pick a smell and it will take you back to times past, remembered places. I need only catch a whiff of patchouli oil and it’s the ’60s again. Another scent catapults me back to my father’s wake when I was 10 years old. Bouquets of lilies and roses and sprays of mums and daisies surrounded his coffin, but the cloying, overripe scent of carnations summons that memory with its churning blend of grief, fear, and shock.

“Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences,” Diane Ackerman writes in “A Natural History of the Senses,” a sensory-rich journey. “Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”

“Mention a smell,” says novelist fantasy and horror story writer,” Rayne Hall, “and the scene comes to life. Mention two or three, and the reader is pulled into the scene as if it were real.”

Bob Kerr, former Providence Journal columnist and a Vietnam veteran, said that jungle war is captured for him in the confluence of two smells generated by the malodorous duty that required soldiers to dispose of latrine contents with fire: “diesel fuel and burning shitters.”

No one has written more powerfully about the senses than Ackerman, whose book catalogs the potency of sensory data. “Nothing is more memorable than a smell,” she says. Or as evocative. 

All of us have a lengthy catalog of smells that make us remember and feel. So why are we so reluctant to employ them in our writing? 

Ackerman makes the case that the problem is in our head, in the connections that link our sense of smell with the parts of the brain where language forms. She calls smell “the mute sense, the one without words.”

Try describing a smell to someone who’s never smelled it, she says, and you’ll see how our olfactory precision quickly diffuses. 

“The physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak,” compared with those “between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance.”

“When we see something we can describe it in gushing detail, in a cascade of images … But who can map the features of a smell?”

Emily Grosvenor is a journalist and essayist who has written extensively about scents in fiction (the nostrils of novelists and short story writers seem more sensitive than most journalists). She has an inspiring online collection of examples that she calls the “Best Smelly Writing.” In fact, she won the the Perfumed Plume Awards for Fragrance Journalism. (There really is one.)

She also produced an olfactory exegisis of Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train,” that is a guide for writers in search of acutely described smells that will inspire writers who want to employ that sense.

There is another novelist I’ve studied who writes powerfully with his nose: Richard Price, the novelist (“Clockers” and “Freedomland“) and screenwriter (“The Color of Money” and “Sea of Love.”)

The novels of Price reek, in the very best sense of the word. 

A close look at the way he uses the sense of smell in his novel, “Samaritan,” reveals a taxonomy of olfactory usage that any writer, of whatever genre or form, can profit from. (The italicized passages are from the novel.)

THE MADELEINE EFFECT 

“Straightening up, he was struck with a humid waft of boiled hot dogs and some kind of furry bean-based soup that threw him right back into tenth grade.” 

For French novelist Marcel Proust, taste was the bridge between present and past, captured in the legendary scene in “Remembrance of Things Past” when the act of dipping a madeleine, a small shell-shaped pastry, into a cup of lime-flower tea, enables the narrator to relive a moment from his past. In the gritty world of Price’s urban New Jersey wasteland, the smell of cafeteria food is an equally powerful time transporter.

SENSE OF SMELL AS PLACE  

Price repeatedly uses smells to evoke a sense of place:

“Outdoors again, she inhaled a low-tied stench, funky but evocative, coming off the conjunction of river and bay.”

“The lobby of his old building, as he’d expected, seemed smaller to him but the smell caught him off guard: a claustrophic stankiness — urine, old bacon grease.”

“A greasy aroma drifted down from the third-floor food court — spare ribs and Cinnabons…”

SMELL AS CHARACTER TRAIT 

Writers regularly use visual cues to distinguish one character from another. Price uses scents the same way, marking his characters with distinctive smells, like the tracks of a woman’s perfume and the effect it has on the hero. 

“Danielle then embraced Ray. She was sporting some kind of vanilla-musk body spray, the scent so dense that it made him dizzy.”

“Wearing dry-cleaned jeans and a white T-shirt under a red bolero jacket, she gingerly wandered about, lightly touching things, her perfume, that vanilla musk, laying down a heavy sweetish track wherever she went.”

SMELL AS MOOD

Make cookies, real estate agents advise home sellers who know the smell evokes a homey atmosphere. (Or just sprinkle a few drops of vanilla on a hot lightbulb to get the same effect.) Price evokes mood with descriptions of odors.

“It was cold, the city-borne breeze damp and acrid, still damp with dread after all this time.”

“This time around, the hospital smelled like terror; a pervasively astringent reek that set up house between Ray’s eyes and made the two-month-old ‘Entertainment Weekly’ spread-eagled between his fists flutter as if caught in a gentle breeze.”

“Each day,” Ackerman writes, “we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe — two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale — and, in that time, molecules of odor flood through our systems.”

“Unlike the other senses,” Ackerman explains, “smell needs no interpreter.”

But the twinned reflex of breathing described by scientists and the work of Richard Price suggests ways writers can use smell to convey information, memory, and emotion in their stories.

1. Breathe In. 

“Over time, smell has become the least necessary of our senses,” Ackerman says, quoting Helen Keller’s name for it: “the fallen angel.”

Our antiseptic age seems designed to rob us of smells or confuse our nose with synthetic concoctions that mask noxious chemicals with the aromas of the orchard. 

Cultivate your sense of smell by using it as much as you can. 

2. Name that smell.

Diane Ackerman says, “We can detect over 10,000 different odors, so many, in fact, that our memories would fail us if we tried to jot down everything they represent.”

During workshops I’ve asked writers and editors to help me develop a catalog of smells. Here’s a sampling: 

  • New wood
  • Lilacs
  • Horse manure
  • Dried seaweed
  • Stogies
  • After summer rain
  • Coffee with cream
  • Sea air

3. Describe the smell.

Modifiers can heighten a smell’s impact. Price regularly uses them in his olfactory details.

“The air smelled of sea funk and overturned earth; the only thing Ray loved about living in Little Venice, the raw and heady scent made him think of new beginnings, of second and third chances to get things right.”

Price also describes the nature of odors, a technique that adds to the muscularity of his prose.

“Then, reentering the apartment from the terrace, she gave the living room a fresh look. Minus the caustic reek of mothballs … the place had the same vaguely geriatric un-lived-in feel as Mrs. Kuben’s digs next door…”

Nerese found herself walking into a living room adrift in malt liquor fumes, her son and three of his high school buddies playing at being players, sprawled on the couch, throwing back forties and clutching their nuts, a porno video playing on the TV.

Simile and metaphor, the workhorses of poetry, can help convey a smell’s power to a reader. 

3. Find the Source.



Don’t just inhale the world. Identify and describe the smell and the memory or feeling it evokes.

Reading Richard Price and then noticing how few writers, myself included, take as full advantage of their sense of smell as he does, has made me more alert to the power of this sense. 

It also reminded me that a scent can provide a story’s most haunting moment. Decades ago, I wrote a story called “The Death of a Smoker” as part of a series on early efforts to sue tobacco companies for smoking-related illnesses and deaths. The smoker’s widow was showing me around the home she had shared with her husband before lung cancer killed him. In her bedroom, she paused and told me something that I used to end the piece.

“It feels like one big nightmare,” she says. “Maybe I will wake up, and he will be in bed with me. But I know it’s not going to be so. Would you believe it? I take his aftershave lotion and spray it on his pillow just so I can smell him. Just the smell of it makes me feel like he’s with me.”

Revision Is Your Friend: Four Questions with Rosalind Bentley

Interviews
Rosalind Bentley

A native of Florida’s panhandle, Rosalind Bentley is a Features/Enterprise writer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution focusing on culture, arts and sometimes food. A graduate of Florida A&M University, she received her MFA in narrative non-fiction from the University of Georgia. She has covered a variety of stories over the years from the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first Black president, for which she won first place in editorial writing from the National Women’s Political Caucus, to the important role of Black women who fed the civil rights movement. A two-time James Beard Award finalist, her AJC profile of U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey was anthologized in Best American Newspaper Narratives 2012. While in Minnesota, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for a special project on race relations. Also, during her time on the tundra, she learned what’s called hot-dish in the upper Midwest is actually a version of a proper Southern casserole.

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

It’s a tie between “Read, read, read,” and revision is your friend. You have to read the great writers and you have to read the not-so-great ones to learn what’s good and what’s not. This can be tricky because a well-turned phrase can seduce you into believing a piece is better than it is. But over time, you’ll develop a more discerning palate. The lessons from the great writers will find their way into your work: short declarative sentences; end a sentence on a strong word; avoid adverbs.

Revision helps you get there, as does reading your work aloud, but you have to know when to stop. At some point you’ve got to turn the story in.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

It doesn’t get easier. You stare at the screen. You decide you are, in fact, an imposter. You panic. And then you get on with it.

That said, if I’m really struggling with a piece, in all likelihood I haven’t done enough reporting. Solid reporting is necessary to write with confidence. So, I go back and ask more questions, or I do more research. The stage fright comes when I put too much pressure on myself to make a story “special.” (Imposter alert!) It’s at that point that I pace around the kitchen, make a cup of tea, then go back to the keyboard and write the piece as though I’m telling the story to a friend.

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

Oooowee. Let’s see. I’m a kid about to jump into a round of double-dutch. I watch the rhythm of the turning ropes, probably too long, then in I jump. My feet pump and pump and pump, until I stumble. I step to the side, watch the ropes turn again, pick up the rhythm, then leap. I do this over and over until I feel I can leave the game not with a stumble, but with a backflip where I clear the ropes and land on my feet. 

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

Boil your story down to a sentence. If you can’t do that, your story is likely to ramble and lose its theme. If possible, boil the story down to a word. Write the sentence or word on a Post-It note and keep it visible until you’re done with the story. That always helps me stay on point. 

Craft Lesson: Under My Feet: Why Writers Should Walk

Craft Lessons

I rise before dawn and dress in the dark, so as not to wake my dog. This is my time. I dress for the weather, step outside and begin my morning walk. A while ago, I slipped on a rain-slicked sidewalk and banged my big toe. It wasn’t broken, but seven days went by before I could walk without pain. I felt like an addict in search of a fix.

Healed now, I power walk for an hour through my tree-shrouded neighborhood, swinging my arms high, as the sidewalks under my feet pass in a blur. Some mornings I listen to podcasts or audiobooks, but the best times are when I shut off everything but my mind. As the house, gardens and yards on either side disappear in a blur, I think about stories, those I’m working on, dream about writing or are stuck on. As the sun begins to rise, sentences sometimes take new shape. Puzzling leads tease their way to fluency. 

During the day, more leisurely walks also furnish opportunities for inspiration as my dog Leo leads me along the alleys that crisscross our neighborhood. Only when I feel a sharp tug on his leash do I realize I’ve been lost in thought; ruminating about pedestrian seeds that someday may germinate a story or help with a bedeviling rewrite. 

Walks, many writers have found through the centuries, are fertile drivers of the imagination, summoning forth the stories they want to finish, ones they want to start or to reconnoiter through all of their senses, collecting plots, details and characters as they move through the world.

“Walking, like reading and writing,” says columnist Danny Heitman, “is an unending source of surprise.”

James Joyce was an inveterate walker, roaming the streets of Dublin to map out where Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom went about their lives in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses.”

Virginia Woolf, the English novelist, loved tramping through the Cornish countryside and the Bloomsbury section of London where her literary circle gathered.

Charles Dickens’ legendary long walks—fact-finding missions to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the streets of gritty 19th century London—usually measured 12 miles a day in two-and-a-half hours, his biographer Peter Ackroyd reports.

“Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing,” science writer Ferris Jabr says in “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” in The New Yorker

He quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s journal: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

Methinks he was right. 

Science reveals, Jabr says, that changes in our body chemistry explain why walking triggers our imagination. Our heart pumps faster when we walk, sending blood and oxygen not only to our muscles, but all our organs, including the brain. 

Among the many health benefits, walking improves our memory and attention, studies show, protecting the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped brain organ critical to remembering. 

Regular walks elevate “levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them,” Jabr says. Even mild exertion, like my walks with Leo, studies show, helps with memory and attention.

Since walking doesn’t require much conscious attention, our mind “is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre,” Jabr says. “This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.” 

That was true for Virginia Woolf. In “Moments of Being,” a collection of posthumously published autobiographical essays, Woolf recalled a special journey: One day, “walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, “To the Lighthouse,” in a great, apparently involuntary rush,” an epiphany cited by Rebecca Solnit in “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.”

In “Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking,”  Duncan Mishnull has collected 36 testimonies to the literary inspiration that walking provokes. 


“In a 1975 reminiscence about New York,” Michael LaPointe wrote in an Atlantic review of the book, “the novelist and essayist Edward Hoagland recalls how he stalked the streets of his hometown, first “to smell the yeasty redolence of the Nabisco factory” and then “to West Twelfth Street to sniff the police stables.”

The author was inhaling the raw stuff that would fuel creativity: “I knew that every mile I walked, the better writer I’d be.”

LaPointe also gives a satisfying summary of the salutary benefits of perambulation from “Walking: One Step at a Time,” by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, the first person to have completed the Three Poles Challenge (North, South, and Mount Everest) on foot, as well as underground journeys through the New York City sewer system. 

Kagge, who cultivates “inner silence” along the way, says he appreciates “a healthy stretch of [the] legs, a kick of endorphins,” his thoughts “bubbling between my ears, new solutions to questions that have been plaguing me.”

For writers who spend hours sunk into their chairs staring at a screen with an imagination deficit, a good walk, whether fast or slow, may be the best exercise to kick those endorphins into action and get your creative juices flowing. 

In a society dependent on cars for transportation and treadmills for exercise, a walk—long or short — gives writers the chance to stretch their imagination. The next time you’re wrestling with a story, or even a single paragraph, pull on your sneakers and go for one. 

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.