A choice, not a gift: Four Questions with John Woodrow Cox

Interviews
John Woodrow Cox

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

So much about the way I approach stories has changed since the start of my career, but one lesson I learned early on has remained constant: Nothing matters more than the reporting. The most meaningful words in any story are the ones journalists earn before they ever sit down at a keyboard. I sometimes wish that wasn’t true, because capturing a revelatory detail or scene never gets easier. In a way, though, I also find comfort in that reality. I’m not the most naturally gifted writer I know, but the best reporting days are, more than anything, a product of hard work, and working hard is a choice, not a gift.

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

My obsession with structure. It’s inconceivable to me today, but there was once a time when I didn’t outline anything before I wrote it, and I’m sure readers could tell. Now, I start thinking about a story’s potential architecture well before I’m done reporting it.

I just finished the draft of my first book, and it felt like I spent as many weeks working on structure as I did on writing. A blueprint of openings and endings — for the whole book, the chapters within it, the sections within them — migrated from dozens of notecards, spread out across the floor, to two massive sheets of paper taped to the wall in my home office. The journalist I was in college could never have imagined that scene.

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

Get out of the way. In other words: don’t overwrite; let your reporting do the work; cut the superfluous, whether that’s the unnecessary turn of phrase or the repetitive detail. I don’t know who first gave me that advice — or, rather, order — but I’ve heard some version of it from many great editors through the years. It’s always true.

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

I don’t use many metaphors in my writing and am reluctant to apply one to myself now, but I guess I could go with woodworker? A good woodworker, from what I gather, invests in his raw material. He fixates on small details and cares about precision. He plans before he builds. And, in my case, he works for a wise forewoman who knows just what to do when he saws the leg off of a chair.

John Woodrow Cox is an enterprise reporter at The Washington Post, currently working on “Children Under Fire,” a book being published by HarperCollins imprint Ecco. It will expand on his I series about kids and gun violence, a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.

He has won Scripps Howard’s Ernie Pyle Award for Human Interest Storytelling, the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma, Columbia Journalism School’s Meyer “Mike” Berger Award for human-interest reporting, the Education Writers Association’s Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting and the National Association of Black Journalist’s single story feature award. He has also been named a finalist for the Michael Kelly Award, the Online News Association’s Investigative Data Journalism award and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. In addition, his stories have been recognized by Mayborn’s Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest and the Society for Features Journalism, among others.

John previously worked at the Tampa Bay Times and at the Valley News in New Hampshire. He attended the University of Florida, earning a bachelor of science in journalism and a master of science in management. He has taught narrative writing at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications and currently serves on the Department of Journalism’s Advisory Council.


Bookbag: The value of not writing

Craft Lessons

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Mike Tinnion/unsplash

I want to make a sacrilegious argument. If you want to be a better writer, don’t write. At least, not for a while. 

How can that be? How can you improve if you’re not consistently practicing your craft, day in and day out?

If you’re like me, every day that passes without a word, a line, a paragraph written, seems like a day wasted. It brings to mind the French writer Simone de Beavuoir’s observation that I recently quoted: “A day in which I don’t write leaves a taste of ashes.” Not to mention that the motto at the end of my newsletters is “Never a day without a line.”

But there’s also something to be said, some writers argue, for letting the well of creativity fill up again after you’ve finished a story. 

Whether you’re writing full time or on the side, as many do, fallow periods may be just what you need, these writers say. Journalists and freelancers dependent on constant output may not have this option, of course, but they can take mini-breaks if they intelligently manage their time.

There’s an agricultural analogy that supports the argument of not writing. For a while at least. 

It’s not uncommon for farmers to plow their fields some seasons, but leave them unsown in order to restore their fertility.

The notion is reassuring because I’m suffering from an on-and-off spell of writer’s block. The days when I work productively on a fiction project are sadly outnumbered by those where I’ll do anything else. Incessant checking of my Twitter feed is a diverting substitute. Days have slipped by without my fingers touching the keyboard, except for producing my newsletters. The fog of self-doubt lifts some days, but even then my word count has amounted to just a few lines or scribbled phrases in my daybook.

As writers, we agonize over writer’s block, that occupational curse that holds our words at bay. But in “Maybe the Secret to Writing is Not Writing,” a provocative essay for Lit Hub I stumbled upon the other day, Kate Angus makes a persuasive case for taking a break. 

“These days I’ve come to believe that it’s natural for many of us to go through periods when we put words to the page and times when we can’t. Maybe we can accept that we aren’t blocked at all,” she writes, “and that resting might just be part of our process.”

That’s what Roy Peter Clark, the influential writing teacher and my former colleague at The Poynter Institute, has been saying for decades. He turns the notion of procrastination on its head by urging writers to eschew negative self-talk when the writing machine spins to a halt.

 “Turn your little quirks into something productive,” Clark says in “Writing Tools,” his best-selling guidebook. “Call it rehearsal or preparation or planning.” 

It’s a potent solution, one that removes the stigma of writer’s block, replacing it with something positive. 

Clark’s got a point. Your mind doesn’t shut off when you’re not writing. You’re still observing, an actor rehearsing a role, watching people and soaking up insights into the human condition — the subject matter of all great literature. Your mind still teems with story ideas, echoes with dialogue and creates possible characters. Like police officers, the writer is never really off-duty.

Angus quotes poet t’ai freedom ford (cq), who says there are “large swaths when I’m not actually writing, but I am doing lots of things to stimulate my muses and so I count it as writing. In that way, I don’t really believe in writer’s block, because when I consider the elements of my process, I’m most always writing (even if it’s only in my head).”

There are some who take the merits of not writing even further.

Ada Limón

Poet Ada Limón feels ‘like there should be a permission slip for writers. Something you can sign for someone that says, ‘You don’t always have to write,’” she says in the essay. “You have permission to just be in the world and grieve and laugh and live and do your damn laundry. Writing comes when it comes, and it’s not the most important thing. You and all the little nuisances and nuances of life are what matter most. Don’t miss this gorgeous mess by always trying to make sense of it all.”

Taking a break isn’t without its risks. Ceasing regular writing may make it difficult to restart the habit. 

Part of my problem is that I put aside my project while I finished a long short story besides my regular compendia of writing advice. I found it hard to regain my momentum, especially in the times of trouble we’re all living through. It’s hard not to be distracted and depressed by the steady drumbeat of tragic news, the pressures of pandemic and the gnawing uncertainty of life under quarantine even if, like me, you’ve been lucky enough to be spared personal loss. For those who haven’t please accept my deepest sympathies.

To deal with the fact that I’m writing less than I want or should, I’m reading more. 

I’m savoring the acclaimed “Collected Short Stories of John Cheever,” 61 stories by the 20th-century master stylist called the “Chekhov of the suburbs.” Rarely does a page go by when I’m not copying out phrases, sentences or whole paragraphs to cherish, learn from and try to imitate. Reading generates writing. It amounts to a slow re-entry. I recommend it highly. 

I may not generate hundreds of words at a stretch right now, but on walks with my dog, Leo, or by myself, I’ve been trying out scenes and staging imaginary plot points. They circulate in the back of my mind where I hope they will grow into something potent. 

After reading Angus’s essay, I’ve been trying not to beat myself up if I deviate from my writing schedule, even though I still fear I’ll lose velocity and, heaven forfend, give up. 

In the meantime, I’m learning to trust my subconscious. And I think it’s paying off. In recent days, I have found myself writing again, feeling excitement and energy rather than despair and inertia. The other morning I woke and couldn’t wait to start writing. I soon hit my daily word count and then nearly doubled it. And for the first time in a long time, I liked what I saw. Even a short break had topped off the tank of my creativity. 

I think Angus and Limón make a valid point. Eventually, that farmer who lets his field go fallow for a season or more will plant again. With the soil replenished by time and the cattle and horses who graze upon it, the crop will be greater, richer. Who’s to say that won’t be the case if you set aside your writing, to soak in the “gorgeous mess” of life? You’ll have a wealth of material to draw on when you return to your desk and the chance for a harvest far greater than what came before.

The details write the story: Four Questions with Susan Ager

Interviews
Susan Ager

Susan Ager is a prize-winning journalist of many years, now freelancing for National Geographic. Getting her start at the Associated Press, in Lansing, MI and San Franciso, for a quarter century she wrote and edited for the Detroit Free Press. She worked as a full-time coach, at the Free Press and dozens of other papers. For 16 years she wrote a thrice-weekly column and traveled the state of Michigan for a popular project she called “Tell Susan Ager Where to Go.” Her 1992 book “At Heart” is an anthology of her early work. She is a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, in part for pioneering coverage of the spread of HIV in her state. She lives in northern Michigan with her husband, Larry Coppard.

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

The details write the story, and the details only get better the more time you spend with your subject or topic. Even on daily stories, a second phone call never hurts. Repeat interviews with profile subjects provide exponentially more insight and info. (I have often been quoted as instructing writers I’m coaching, “Go to the bathroom,” which means take time off to think about what you’ve got and your next step – but you never know what you’ll learn from the shower curtain or the magnets on the mirror.) Immersion journalism is, of course, my favorite: Live with your person or live in the place. If you live by these principles, you will know so much that you can write your story from memory, without checking your notes, leaving XXXs where you’ve forgotten a small detail. This is tremendously freeing.

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

That it gets both easier and harder. It becomes easier to craft sentences and paragraphs once you understand how readers consume words and ideas. It becomes harder to think through how a complex story should best be told. Which details to leave out is always challenging: You don’t want to over-spice your stew.

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

A great writer – a status I occasionally achieve – seduces readers. Take a walk with me, even though you don’t know me. Hold my hand. Let me lead you down a path you’ve never walked before. You might feel wary, or tired, or feel the faint beginning of boredom, but take another step with me, and another. Haven’t I surprised you with almost every step so far? I’ll take care of you. I’ll make sure the path is easy or, if challenging, at least worth the effort. In the end, you’ll be glad you trusted me, and will want to spend more time with me again.

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

“Write from memory,” mentioned above. And, “Just vomit.” Clean it up later. All that advice combined freed me from a bad habit of writing slowly, rewriting my first sentence three times, then rewriting the first paragraph endlessly — then flipping through my notebook and changing it all again. I tell writers now, “Get the clay on the table then shape it into the story you want.” Don’t check your notes until you’re done, then be cautious about including anything you had forgotten to include the first time. If it wasn’t important enough to remember, why add it now?

Get It On the Damn Page: Four Questions with Paula Span

Interviews
Paula Span

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

Just get it on the damn page.  Once you spit some stuff out, you can mess around with it and improve it.  An editor can advise you (sometimes a mixed blessing, I admit).  Other folks can read it and help make the work better.  If it’s all in your head, where of course it’s perfect, and you therefore delete every sentence you write because it’s imperfect, then you can’t make it better and nobody else can help you. It’s a recipe for paralysis.  Start writing.

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

That I still take pleasure in it. It has been, no lie, 50 years that I’ve been a reporter and writer. I can’t claim to have loved every story or every minute, but I still take satisfaction in producing a decent sentence, a well-wrought column or an essay that says what I want it to say.  Maybe I’ll get tired of this work when I’m 80, but maybe not. 

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

Let me turn this around (since one consequence of being at this for 50 years is, who remembers what someone told me back when?) and share a bit of what I advise my journalism students: a) Strong, active verbs. (It’s not incorrect to say, “He was a cab driver.”  It’s just better to say, “He drove a cab.”) b) No sludge. (Sludge: using more words than necessary to convey your meaning. You don’t have to point out, “She held a microphone in her hand.” How else would she hold it? If she were gripping it with her toes, you would have said so.)c) Avoid groaners like “journey” (unless describing treks across the tundra), “dream” (unless referring to visions during sleep) and “passion” (reserve for actual sex). 

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

Oh god, I don’t know. Maybe a mule. Not glam, not fast, kind of inflexible but gets there eventually. 

Paula Span is an alumna of the alternative press and the Washington Post and has freelanced for a raft of newspapers and magazines. The author of “When the Time Comes,” a book on eldercare, she now writes the New Old Age (https://www.nytimes.com/column/the-new-old-age ) and the Generation Grandparent (https://www.nytimes.com/column/generation-grandparent )  columns for the New York Times . She has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 1999. 

Five ways to build memorable characters

Craft Lessons
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

What makes a character unforgettable? A classic novel provides a handful of critical answers

A distant husband, father to two flighty children. A businessman with dubious ethics. A Loyal friend. A man who longs for a life with greater meaning than an existence he finds increasingly empty.

He could be someone’s father, uncle, husband, brother, a memorably flawed human being. 

But he is actually a character, George F. Babbit, a figment of a writer’s imagination, in this case, that of Sinclair Lewis, who wrote a series of closely-observed satirical novels that won him the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes.

I first read his 1922 novel, “Babbitt” in high school and have returned to it many times since. It’s been literature as comfort food. “Babbit” is nearly a century old and admittedly outdated in many, ways, but it remains a classic of literary realism.

Although he wrote fiction, Lewis brought to his novels a journalist’s attention to detail while researching his novels. From it, I learned many things, about style and satire and America in the early 20th century.

But most of all, Babbit teaches valuable lessons on how to create a believable character, so vivid that I can tell you, even though I haven’t cracked its pages in several years, what happens to him over the course of several months that constitute the novel’s trajectory. How he: 

  • embraces a boosterish, patriotic and xenophobic middle-class business community 
  • gleefully rips of clients and his employees
  • Ignores and cheats on his long-suffering wife
  • comes to doubt and ultimately doubt his beliefs and existence; 
  • engages in a misguided and humiliating affair and then, chastened by ostracism, renews his tragic allegiance to his culture and community. 

How did Lewis create a narcissistic character that lingers so deeply in the mind? And what can writers of fiction and narrative nonfiction learn from his methods that they can bring to their own stories? 

How did Lewis manage to create a character, on one hand, an odious human being, while at the same time, as English novelist Hugh Walpole wrote, “without extenuating one of his follies, his sentimentalities, his snobbishness, his lies and his meannesses, he has made him of common clay with ourselves.” Babbitt, the man and the novel, are a triumph of the imagination and the writerly gifts of his creator.


Strong characters are a mosaic of many features. Here are five principal ways, with examples from my Kindle edition of “Babbitt”, that Lewis relies on to create a believable figure. (You can read the book for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg.)

  1. Physical description
  2. Status details
  3. Dialogue
  4. Action
  5. Primary goal

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

What a character looks like creates a mental picture in the reader’s eye. Otherwise, he is a cipher. Lewis introduces Babbit in the opening pages as he sleeps:

He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay. His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry. His face was babyish in slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red spectacle-dents on the slopes of his nose. He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket was slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; 

What does my character look like, sound like, smell like? Will readers be able to visualize him or her?

STATUS DETAILS

Status details are realistic and revelatory items that bring characters to life in fiction and creative nonfiction. In The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe defines status details as:

“the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behavior toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene. Symbolic of what? Symbolic, generally, of people’s status life, using that term in the broad sense of the entire pattern and behavior and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be. The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose. It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”

For Babbit, the details are the contents of his pockets, totems of his career and station in life. 

He was earnest about these objects. They were of eternal importance, like baseball or the Republican Party. They included a fountain pen and a silver pencil (always lacking a supply of new leads) which belonged in the righthand upper vest pocket. Without them he would have felt naked. On his watch-chain were a gold penknife, silver cigar-cutter, seven keys (the use of two of which he had forgotten), and incidentally a good watch. Depending from the chain was a large, yellowish elk’s-tooth-proclamation of his membership in the Brotherly and Protective Order of Elks. Most significant of all was his loose-leaf pocket note-book, that modern and efficient note-book which contained the addresses of people whom he had forgotten, prudent memoranda of postal money-orders which had reached their destinations months ago, stamps which had lost their mucilage, clippings of verses by T. Cholmondeley Frink and of the newspaper editorials from which Babbitt got his opinions and his polysyllables, notes to be sure and do things which he did not intend to do,

…But he had no cigarette-case. No one had ever happened to give him one, so he hadn’t the habit, and people who carried cigarette-cases he regarded as effeminate.

What status details are evident in my character’s life; from the car she drives to the contents of his wallet? What do they reveal about her?

Cover of French edition

DIALOGUE

How people speak to others and past them and to themselves within scenes reveals their character. In this exchange with his wife, we hear the kind of blustery monologue that characterizes Babbitt’s solipsistic personality and witness a Man Child on full display.

“I feel kind of punk this morning,” he said. “I think I had too much dinner last evening. You oughtn’t to serve those heavy banana fritters.” 

“But you asked me to have some.”

“I know, but—I tell you, when a fellow gets past forty he has to look after his digestion. There’s a lot of fellows that don’t take proper care of themselves. I tell you at forty a man’s a fool or his doctor—I mean, his own doctor. Folks don’t give enough attention to this matter of dieting. Now I think—Course a man ought to have a good meal after the day’s work, but it would be a good thing for both of us if we took lighter lunches.” 

“But Georgie, here at home I always do have a light lunch.” 

“Mean to imply I make a hog of myself, eating down-town? Yes, sure! You’d have a swell time if you had to eat the truck that new steward hands out to us at the Athletic Club! But I certainly do feel out of sorts, this morning. Funny, got a pain down here on the left side—but no, that wouldn’t be appendicitis, would it? Last night, when I was driving over to Verg Gunch’s, I felt a pain in my stomach, too. Right here it was—kind of a sharp shooting pain. I—Where’d that dime go to? Why don’t you serve more prunes at breakfast? Of course I eat an apple every evening—an apple a day keeps the doctor away—but still, you ought to have more prunes, and not all these fancy doodads.” 

“The last time I had prunes you didn’t eat them.” 

“Well, I didn’t feel like eating ’em, I suppose. Matter of fact, I think I did eat some of ’em. Anyway—I tell you it’s mighty important to—I was saying to Verg Gunch, just last evening, most people don’t take sufficient care of their diges—

 His speech also reveals his cultural and social influences in the manly but cartoonish banter with his friends over lunch at the Zenith Athletic Club. 

“Oh, boy! Some head! That was a regular party you threw, Verg! Hope you haven’t forgotten I took that last cute little jack-pot!” Babbitt bellowed. (He was three feet from Gunch.)

It unveils his needs and desires in his pathetic attempts to woo a neighbor at a dinner party.

“Anybody ever tell you your hands are awful pretty?”

What does my character talk like? What does the way he talks to others reveal about him or her?

ACTION

Babbit is a series of set pieces, built on scenes that show Babbit in action. A boisterous lunch at his club. A boozy convention with a disastrous visit to a brothel. A fishing trip in the Canadian woods with his best friend, the reticent and artistic Paul Riesling. A bitter labor dispute in which he inadvisedly takes the side of the workers. His dealings with real estate clients. His brief love affair with a widow and his involvement with her alcohol-sodden friends. They show Babbit’s likes and dislikes, his interactions with other characters and his goals in life. 

How do my characters behave? How do their actions drive the plot and reflect the theme? 

PRIMARY GOAL

More than anything, Babbit wants to belong, to be part of a community that embraces and admires him even as he desires another life that enables him to be free of his family, his companions and his work. But even when he rebels, his actions and those of others thwart those desires. He cheats on his wife only to feel trapped by that illicit relationship as he is in his sexless marriage. He befriends a Socialist in a labor dispute, betraying his class in a final act of rebellion which causes his friends and fellow Boosters to reject him. It is only after his wife falls seriously ill that his friends rally round him. Defeated, he rejoins their company, rejecting his dream life. The tragedy is complete.

What does my character want more than anything in life? Wealth? Respect? Victory? Love? 

That goal will play into everything we learn about the character.

I could have chosen other examples from my bookshelves and among the movies I’ve seen with equally memorable characters. 

The quirky obsessed comic industry creators in Michael Chabon’s best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”

Feisty Erin Brockovich in the eponymous Academy Award-winning film about a lowly legal clerk who takes down a polluting corporation. 

Mitchell Stephens, the haunted lawyer in Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter,” a novel set in a small town reeling from a school bus accident that has killed most of its children.

The brutally up-and-down boxer Floyd Patterson in Gay Talese’s classic profile, “The Loser.” 

John Updike’s “Rabbit,” a series of 20th-century novels about a car salesman whose realistic approach and themes echo the life of Babbit.

For that matter, I could have chosen from Lewis’ other novels: “Main Street,” his breakthrough novel about an idealistic young woman suffocated in a narrow-minded village; “Arrowsmith,” about an idealistic scientist,” or “Elmer Gantry,” which eviscerated a huckster evangelist. All are triumphs.

But I chose Babbit,  not only because I am so familiar with him, but because I wanted to know why he is so unforgettable so that I can develop characters as memorable as those Lewis created.

Since writers read twice—once to enjoy, the other learn—dissecting one of your favorite books or stories as I did can be a valuable exercise. If you want to create a memorable character, study how one is made. 

Craft Query: Who are the most memorable characters you have encountered in fiction or nonfiction and what made them linger in your mind.?

May the writing go well!

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