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.

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.


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. 

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.

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.

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

Interviews
Moni Basu

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

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

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editing with Your Voice: Four Questions with Marc Lacey

Interviews
Marc Lacey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show Up: Four Questions with Helen Ubiñas

Interviews
Helen Ubiñas interviews schoolchildren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collaboration Pays Off: Four Questions with Jack Hart

Interviews
Jack Hart

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

The most important thing I’ve learned is that collaborative editing with writers at the front end of the story process pays off with time saved at the back end. (Not to mention much better stories.)

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

My biggest surprise was how critical structure is to great storytelling … and that even novice narrative writers who grasp the essentials of structure can produce national quality work. 

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

As an editor, I aspire to be a seagull, effortlessly soaring on rising air currents provided by the writer. 

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

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 is an author, writing coach, and former managing editor at The Oregonian, where he also worked as a reporter, arts and leisure editor, Sunday magazine editor, training editor, and editor at large. He has additional reporting experience at two other newspapers, holds a University of Wisconsin doctorate in Mass Communications, taught at six universities, and was a tenured associate professor at the University of Oregon, where he served as the journalism school’s acting dean. In 2012-13 he served as director of the school’s Portland campus, the George S. Turnbull Center.

At The Oregonian, Hart worked as an editor on four Pulitzer Prize winners and was the solo editor on two of them. He also edited national winners of the American Society of Newspaper Editors writing awards, the Ernie Pyle award, the Scripps-Howard business-writing award, the Overseas Press Club awards, the Headliners awards, and the Society of Professional Journalists feature-writing award. He is the author of The Information Empire, a history of The Los Angeles TimesSkookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest, A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work; Storycraft: A Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction (second editions forthcoming.)