Holding fire in your hands: Four Questions with Jon Franklin

Interviews
Jon Franklin

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

That it’s all about psychology . . . Yours, the reader’s, the characters’.  As time passes, literature and psychology may well merge.  Modern psychology grew from literature, after all; people forget that.

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

John Steinbeck once wrote that he’d held fire in his hands, and I figured it was his right to use any metaphor he damned well chose.  Then, ten years later, I did a series of things right and, holy damn, I held fire in MY hands.  I think it has to do with focusing a lot of human experience into a small number of words.  Under certain circumstances, the writer as well as the reader can experience a momentary transcendence.
The point is that the magic is there, but reaching it requires a lot of technical skill as well as the inspirational kind.  I had not really been expecting magic.

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

I’m a science person, in the end.  That is, I believe in rationality.  But my sciences are literature and psychology, both of which are close to my central interest, the human condition.  After all, journalism can and frequently does become art.
All this is to say my own work is very science-like, but the universe it explores is literary.  For example, I once used a computer program to pick out the overlapping rhythms of steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
But I think I like “naturalist”, to describe me and my work.  Writing is part of the real world, and as such is subject to observation and experiment.

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

 My first editor, G. Vern Blasdell, said that if you find the heart of a character and you’ll have your story; find the story, and it’ll point to your character.  Sort of like yin and yang.  Each is the backside of the other.
Vern also introduced me to the idea that modern literature is mainly a reiteration of the stories the Greeks told.  Don’t look for a new story, you’ll fail.  Find an ancient one in new clothes — they are everywhere, and they never wear out.
And then, of course, the only way you learn to write is liberal application of ass to chair.  
Did you know about a condition known as writer’s ass?  If you sit on your tail bone too long, the tiny vessels in your coccyx become occluded and die.  The result hurts, aches, throbs, sometimes for decades and sometimes forever.  That’s why Thomas Mann and Ernest Hemingway, among others, wrote standing up.  I discovered that when I was diagnosed with it.  Talk about hurt!

Jon Franklin is a pioneer in creative nonfiction. His innovative work in the use of literary techniques in the nonfiction short story, novel, and explanatory essay won him the first Pulitzer prizes ever awarded in the categories of feature writing (1979) and explanatory journalism (1985) for his work at The Baltimore Sun. His books include: “The Molecules of The Mind,” “Writing for Story,” “Guinea Pig Doctors,” (with J. Sutherland) “Not Quite a Miracle, (with Alan Doelp) and ” Shocktrauma, (with Alan Doelp). He spent eight years (1959-1967) as a journalist in the U.S. Navy, and, finally, as a staff writer for All Hands Magazine. He taught at the University of Maryland College of Journalism from and was then professor and chairman of the Department of Journalism at Oregon State University and director of the creative writing program at the University of Oregon before joining the Raleigh (NC0 News and Observer as a narrative writer, special assignments editor and writing coach. In 2001, Franklin returned to the University of Maryland as the first Merrill Chair in Journalism. He retired as an Emeritus Professor in 2010.

The Stone Wall Builder: Four Questions with Anne Fadiman

Interviews
Anne Fadiman/Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney

Anne Fadiman’s most recent book, The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir, was an NPR and Library Journal Best Book of the Year, won the Readable Feast Award for Memoir & Food Writing, and was chosen as one of The Guardian‘s Top 10 Culinary Memoirs of all time. The former editor of The American Scholar, Fadiman is also the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction, and two essay collections, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale.

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

My friend the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, who died in January, visited my writing class almost every year since I started teaching it in 2005. In her own writing, she always embraced whatever subject lay at the center of her life, however difficult or unpleasant—mental illness, addiction, breast cancer, the discovery in her forties that her father wasn’t the man she’d been told was her father. And she always wrote in a voice that sounded exactly like her: funny, bitchy, contrarian, grumpy, warm, brazen. 

She told my students to be themselves, too.

One year, when the students around our seminar table introduced themselves to Elizabeth, one of them said he came from “a suburb of Chicago.” 

“What’s the name of it?” asked Elizabeth.

“Flossmoor.”

“You don’t come from a suburb of Chicago! You come from Flossmoor! Always say you come from Flossmoor! Be proud of it!”

As we become better writers, we may become deeper, more skilled, or better versions of ourselves on the page. But we should never try to become different selves. The moment we stop sounding like ourselves, we should remind ourselves that we come from Flossmoor, and we’re proud of it.

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

That anyone would want to read about me. 

I spent nearly twenty years as a reporter before I started writing personal essays. I’d always assumed that my own life—both exterior and interior—was too small to be of interest to anyone but myself, so I figured I’d gain some height by standing on the shoulders of people more interesting than I was. Hence, reporting. Then, at age 40, I was stuck in bed for eight months during a problem pregnancy. I started writing personal essays only because I could do them horizontally.

The essays were enormous fun, and some people actually wanted to read them. The baby turned out fine and is now a writer.

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

A stone wall builder.

I tried writing fiction in college, but I was terrible. I’m a nonfiction writer through and through. I’m decent at recognizing which stones are beautiful, and how to fit them together, and in what sequence I should lay them in order to build something that won’t fall down. Those suckers are heavy! I’m willing to grunt and sweat as I pick them up. But if I tried for a million years, I could never make the stones themselves.

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

My husband, George Howe Colt, who is also a writer, once said, “The difference between a good piece of writing and one that’s absolutely as good as you can make it is all the difference in the world.”

Insecurity travels with every keystroke: Four Questions with Jacqui Banaszynski

Interviews

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

There are no small stories. Every story is important to the people it’s about, and every story should respect the people it’s for.

An extension of that: Don’t confuse the size of the masthead, the circulation or the assignment with the value or quality of the work. People in a small community deserve the same level of journalistic care as those in the big-dog markets — and they probably need it more. And the only real limit to your aspirations is you.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing (or editing) life?

As a writer: Good writing comes from good reporting. Great writing comes from great reporting. This came as a happy surprise that revealed itself over years of struggle (late-night tears and insecurity that would have been debilitating if not for my belief in answers to No. 1 above and wiring for No. 3 below.) I have never been, and am still not, an easy or eager writer. Insecurity travels with every keystroke. But I’ve learned to let that be, and trust that if I have the right goods in my notebook, and am determined to communicate clearly and effectively with readers, I can find my way through the writing.

As an editor: No one wants me to be the editor I had always wanted or needed; they want me to be the editor they want or need — even if it’s not me. And nothing much good comes of pulling punches. (See reference to “brickbat” in No. 3 below.)

As a teacher: I can’t teach anyone anything. All I can do is put knowledge in their path, try to light the way and clear the rocks a bit, but then accept that they will — or won’t — pick up that knowledge when they need it to go forward.

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

I don’t trust that how I see myself is how others see or experience me. Isn’t that why we resist the one-interview profile? So I crowd-sourced this one. (It was a small crowd.) Responses ranged from Fairy Godmother to Story Whisperer to Story Doctor to Xena Story Warrior to Brickbat. For now, I’ll go with one that I hope is true:

ER doc. Which means (I hope) I am calm, focused and effective under pressure. I care about the patient — or why would I do this work? — but don’t fold in the face of blood or chaos, and don’t indulge in my emotions to the extent it gets in the way of the work that needs to be done — which is never about me. (The same person, who knows me well, says I could probably land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier in rough seas. I think he said this knowing we would never have to test that theory. He also knows I love to fly, and have always wanted to be in the cockpit. Alas, both metaphors are challenged by the reality that while I’m OK with blood, I puke at the smell of puke. And I get seasick.)

A funny variation on the above: An editor-boss once told me that one of the reasons he valued me was because “You’ll do dishes.” The feminist in me bristled — but I knew him well enough to know it was meant as a compliment: He could count on me to do what needed to be done and not feel I was above the mundane work. That allowed me to push back a bit for a discussion on what higher-level work I could/should be doing, and how he could support it.

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

Two things:

  1. Every story prepares you for the next story. So quit obsessing over the story someone else is doing, and give your best to the story in front of you. (Longer backstory here, but that’s a large part of how I did “AIDS in the Heartland,” the project that won a Pulitzer. I couldn’t have done that series 10, or even two, years before I did.
  2. Hit the send button. This wisdom came to me back in the early ’80s, when I was busting deadline as I obsessed over some basic civic story, probably from a planning commission meeting. So many planning commission meetings! The AME (Thank you, Steve Ronald.) stopped by and told me to put a period at the end of my next sentence, peel out the process BS, and hit SEND. The story was going inside the B section no matter how it was written. And it needed efficiency and clarity — not gothic prose.

The second answer above may seem to contradict the first. But it doesn’t. What I learned from this is to pay attention to the purpose of a story, and let that purpose guide the prose. An informational story needs to be just that: direct and utilitarian. It can open the door to follow-up enterprise pieces, but it shouldn’t ask the reader to wade through my writerly ego. And it shouldn’t ask the copy desk to wait through my angst.

This taught me not to fall in love with “creative” structures when the best thing for the reader is a quick list or Q&A or, yes, inverted pyramid. It also helped me get more efficient, and save time and creative juice for the stories that called for them.

That lesson has informed all my writing, editing and teaching — and reminded me of one of my mother’s many no-nonsense wisdoms: Don’t dress up a pig. Bacon is fine on its own. (If she were alive today, she would scoff at the trend of bacon bits in muffins and ice cream. She wouldn’t be wrong.)

After more than three decades in newspapers, Jacqui Banaszynski is now editor of Nieman Storyboard, a global website which celebrates and examines the art and craft of narrative journalism. She is an emerita professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and faculty fellow at the Poynter Institute.

Her reporting career took her to all seven continents, including three trips to Antarctica. She has written about corruption and crime, beauty pageants and popes, AIDS and the Olympics, dogsled expeditions and refugee camps, labor strikes and political strife, traffic fatalities and family tragedies. While at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, her series “AIDS in the Heartland” won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.  She was a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer in international reporting for coverage of the Ethiopian famine and won the nation’s top deadline sports reporting award for coverage of the 1988 Olympics.

Banaszynski has edited numerous award-winning projects, including on that won ASNE Best Writing, Ernie Pyle Human Interest Writing and national business and investigative prizes.  In 2008, she was named to the Association of Sunday and Features Editors Features Hall of Fame.  

Cultivating a Sense of Wonder: Four Questions with Stephen Buckley

Interviews
Stephen Buckley

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

It’s tempting to think that good writing just calls for us to stitch together the fine tips and techniques we find in newsletters like yours.  The tips and techniques are awesome, but they are no substitute for thinking deeply about a piece of writing. What’s the story about? What’s the theme? What’s the focus? What’s missing? Am I being intellectually honest? What am I really trying to say? Doesn’t matter whether it’s a piece of fiction, a column, or a longform newsfeature: The deeper the thinking, the more original and compelling the writing. This takes patience, which I don’t have much of these days. So I find that I have to be savagely intentional about not cutting intellectual corners. But, in the end, that’s the only way to find my way to clarity and meaning.


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

I’m going to cheat and give you two surprises:   One is that cynicism kills creativity. When I was younger, I equated cynicism (which I think of skepticism poisoned by hopelessness) with sophistication. But the best writers cultivate a sense of wonder that only grows with age. It’s not that they are Pollyannas. It’s just that they see the world at odd angles, are generous and openhearted, and are always asking impertinent questions. They’ve trained themselves to be surprised. And as a result, their work gleams with beautiful simplicity and insight.    The other is that writing doesn’t get any easier. After 30-plus years of writing professionally, I can’t get over how much I still have to learn. It’s like a marriage: attention must be paid. And I haven’t always paid attention to my writing. Growth is humbling—and more than a little painful sometimes. Which is why I’ve finally accepted that writers need community—virtually or in person, informal or formal. Because meaningful growth almost always occurs in community.


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

Gosh, this one is tough. None leaps to mind. If anything, I’d say I’m an owl. I always think of owls as being the best observers and listeners in the animal kingdom (I have no idea if that’s true), and I think that’s the writer’s first duty: to take in the world as it is and then transport readers to that world. As the late James J. Kilpatrick said in The Writer’s Art: “We must look intently, and hear intently, and taste intently….” He said that’s the only path to original, precise language and images. And I agree.

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

I got a lot of good advice over the years, but two thoughts come to mind. The first was from Roy Peter Clark, who taught me that how we order words can enhance or dilute their impact. I think about this all the time, particularly given how impatient readers are today. Their attention always feels brittle, tenuous. And so, beyond insights and clarity, I feel like I can tug them along with language that’s precise and compelling—especially at the end of a sentence or paragraph. And I often think of something John McPhee says: Writing is selection. I find this oddly liberating, especially if I’m writing a long piece. McPhee’s advice frees me to just lay everything on the screen before I go back and slash away, and reorder, whole sections. Don’t get me wrong. Selection is hard. Sometimes really hard. But it’s also fun, even exhilarating, especially when it yields writing that’s both clean and muscular.

For most of the past decade, Stephen Buckley has taught journalism, communications, and leadership in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, the United States and Asia.  He began his career with The Washington Post, where he spent 12 years as a local reporter and international correspondent, based in Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro. He later worked at the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times), where he was a national reporter, managing editor and digital publisher before turning to teaching. Stephen served as the Dean of Faculty at the Poynter Institute and has conducted workshops at numerous writing conferences.  Stephen won the International Reporting Award from the National Association of Black Journalists in 1999 for his coverage of Africa, and in 2002, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors named him the state’s best reporter.  He served as a Pulitzer Prizes juror four times. In  2015, he joined the faculty of the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications in Nairobi where he served as an associate dean in charge of professional and executive programs. He is now a media consultant based in Nairobi.

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.


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. 

When a newspaper shutdown hits close to home: An interview with Graig Graziosi

Interviews

It was an all too familiar story. Another American factory closed down, the latest in a long line of declines in manufacturing battered by foreign competition and automation. This time it was the giant General Motors plant, the mainstay of Lordstown, Ohio. For Graig Graziosi, a reporter for The Vindicator in neighboring Youngstown, it was yet another example of what he calls the “hollowing of the American dream” in America’s Rust Belt.

Graziosi’s editor assigned him to cover the last days of GM Lordstown, little knowing as he worked the story that his employer, the Vindicator, was about to suffer the same fate. This past August, a few months after his story ran, the presses of the 150-year-old Vindicator ran for the last time, a victim of anemic circulation and vanishing advertising. 

In a highly personal longform essay, “When My Newspaper Died,” Graziosi chronicles his last days there while deftly twinning the paper’s demise with the end of a sprawling factory that gave its workers a middle-class lifestyle and created vibrant communities teeming with activity and rich with history. Youngstown is Graziosi’s hometown, and his story powerfully captures “a cycle of death and exodus” he’s witnessed over the years.

I interviewed Graziosi, now a freelance writer in Washington D.C., about the story, which was co-published by The Delacorte Review and Columbia Journalism Review., for Nieman Storyboard, This excerpt is reprinted with permission.

We talked about his approach to reporting about others through the prism of others, the challenge of first person narrative and whether he has lost faith in the newspaper he loves.

Here are excerpts from our conversation.

You do a masterful job writing about others through the prism of your own story. How and why did you choose to approach the subject this way?
Thank you. As a journalist, I’m most at home telling other people’s stories, so I think I naturally trend toward writing about other people even when I’m writing about myself. When I think of my time out west, for example, I think about the other people I lived with and their experiences as crucial elements of my time there. I couldn’t divorce their stories from my own and still tell the truth about that time of my life. Likewise, I couldn’t tell the story of my final weeks at the Vindicator without talking about the workers at Lordstown that dominated my life just before it happened.

I also wanted people to relate to my story. You mentioned earlier that there’s a risk in a piece like this of it becoming self-indulgent. If I just wanted to write about myself, I have a journal. For something I’m creating for mass consumption, I want it to serve a greater purpose than simply a place for my thoughts to bounce around. I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, so I tried to use the stories of those who could sympathize with my situation to strengthen the piece and give it a more universal appeal.

After a career in a business where “I” can often be a dirty word, why did you decide to write a story in the first person? What were the challenges? The rewards?
The story was always going to be a personal essay, so the first person perspective was pretty much built in from the start. I find most of the ways reporters try to write around the first person to be clunky and distracting. “This reporter” is just a bizarre way to communicate.

I’m pretty hostile to the distaste for the first person that we have in our business. I understand why we don’t write general news reports in first person and I’ve participated in endless conversations about language and objectivity. But first person writing is gripping, and intimate, and if I’m going to put myself out there, I figure I should just go for it and really try to bring the readers into my world as I’ve lived it.

In terms of challenges, the only one that stuck out was pacing. It can get boring quickly if you just have graph after graph of a writer pontificating, so you have to find ways to break it up. That’s why we jump across time periods or will momentarily shift the focus away from me to the UAW workers, or the Lordstown mayor, or the Jamaican immigrant for a moment. It’s like a relief cut when you’re woodworking.

What was the difference and/or difficulty between writing about yourself versus about others?
Writing about yourself can be tough because it’s not always clear what information is worth including. Moments you think are relatively mundane can be mined for gold and moments that are very defining in your mind sometimes just don’t fit. If you ask me what about the last several months was more world-changing for me — beginning a relationship with my girlfriend or sitting in a diner in Lordstown for an hour and eating a grilled cheese sandwich — I think it’s obvious I’d say my relationship. Yet that only gets a brief mention in my story, while my visit to the diner is like five graphs long.

I think it’s easier to write about other people for the simple reason that you have more emotional distance from the events being described, and can use that distance to exercise editorial judgment over which parts are critical to the narrative.

I admire your use of metaphors and analogies. “It felt as though we’d gotten a call from the hospital alerting us that a terminally ill loved-one was nearing the end. We knew it was coming, but it didn’t make the news any easier to hear” and “My parents and I knew different cities. They knew Youngstown when it was alive and so mourned it in death. I knew only after it had been taxidermied and forgotten in the attic.” Compared to how you wrote for your newspaper, is this your natural style or did you feel you had more emotional access to your own story?
I try to be careful with metaphors because it’s obviously easy to mix them and muddle your meaning, but I do think they’re powerful tools for helping build emotional familiarity with a concept. When I was writing for the newspaper I only wrote like that on a few occasions. But I would absolutely say the style you see in the CJR piece is indicative of my style when I’m left to my own devices.

Any skill I have at metaphor I have to credit to the many hours I spent listening to sermons back when I was a very active church-goer. Pastors almost always utilize some parable to segue into their weekly message, so I had weekly exposure to good and some not-so-good examples of how to weave a personal story into a larger message. During those days I used to lead a Bible study and would often try to replicate that style. It influences my writing to this day.

You can read the entire story and interview here.

Where words sit: Four Questions with Michael Kruse

Interviews
Michael Kruse

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

Humility.

This spring, I’ll have been doing this for 20 years, making my living by reporting and writing, and it isn’t getting any easier. The better I get, the harder it gets. I try as hard as I try so I can to be better than I actually am.

But maybe that’s not quite what you mean. In that case, this: Writing isn’t typing. Typing is just typing with your fingers what you’ve already written with your head. And writing is structuring. The right structure lets words work. Words work not because of how they sound but because of where they sit.

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

That I’m writing about politics and politicians. My journalism entryway was reading the all-star sports section of the Boston Globe as a boy. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a sportswriter, and I was, in the beginning—covering college basketball, covering recruiting, covering Major League Baseball. But before long, I decided I wanted to think about other stuff, too, and so I covered small towns in New York and business and courts in Florida and ultimately earned my way onto the enterprise team at the St. Pete (now Tampa Bay) Times. Even then, though, I really pretty seldom wrote about politics or politicians. I had a lot to learn when I started at POLITICO five and some years back. Still do! Always will! But I guess that’s also just the thing. Write what you know? No. It’s the other way around. The job is to do what you need to do to know what you need to know to write what you need to write.

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

I don’t know—a beaver?

Unfussy worker. Structure, structure, structure. Keeps growing.

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

I’m struggling to come up with just one thing from just one person. But from Terry Egan and the late Mike Levine at the Times Herald-Record in New York … to Mike Wilson and Kelley Benham and Tom French and Lane DeGregory at the Times in Florida and Bill Duryea at the Times and still at POLITICO … to good pals, competitors and peers like Ben Montgomery, Tom Lake and others, a composite of lessons learned, I suppose, might be this: 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 is a senior staff writer for POLITICO and POLITICO Magazine, where he mostly writes about the president and the people who want to be the president next. A winner of awards from the American Society of News Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Foundation, his work has been anthologized in “The Best American Newspaper Narratives,” “Out There: The Wildest Stories from Outside Magazine “and “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.” A native of the Boston area and a graduate of Davidson College, he lives in North Carolina with his wife, two daughters, two dogs and a guinea pig.

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.