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.)

The need to listen: Four Questions with G. Wayne Miller

Interviews
G, Wayne Miller

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

Listen. Meaning several things:

First, in non-fiction, let the subject speak, putting yourself on the sidelines until absolutely necessary (I still struggle with this). Second, whether non-fiction or fiction, listen to a good editor or someone else you respect who will read drafts and give an honest critique. Third, listen to your characters; real-life or fictional, they will guide you as you write and rewrite. And a few more lessons, if I may: feel for others, get up early, write every day, fail, and never stop.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How it has brought me to so many actual and imagined people and places, in the process opening the doors to storytelling forms including journalism, fiction, filmmaking, podcasting, screenwriting and screen production. Writing is at the heart – is the start — of them all.

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

Wow, wonderful question! Never been asked this or even contemplated it beyond the tired old “ink-stained wretch,” which frankly I never really bought.

I thought first of some sort of bird, and then a mirror, and then a small little river, probably in Maine, that meanders from a spring in a foothills through woods and past villages, reflecting what it passes on its way to the sea.

But I’ll go with a camera, one you can bring with you into a dream.

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

I heard this first from Joel Rawson, former editor of The Providence Journal) actually, although others before him (Faulkner, Stephen King, etc.) also have said it is great advice:
Kill your darlings.
And it IS the best advice. I still struggle with it!

G. Wayne Miller is a Providence Journal staff writer, filmmaker, screenwriter, podcaster, visiting fellow at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, and co-host and co-producer of the Telly Award-winning weekly national PBS TV and SiriusXM Satellite Radio show “Story in the Public Square.” He is the author of 10 books of non-fiction, five novels and three short-story collections. His latest novel, “Blue Hill,” was published in October. He is also the author of “Kid Number One: A story of heart, soul and business, featuring Alan Hassenfeld and Hasbro.” Visit him at gwaynemiller.com or facebook.com/GWayneMillerNews/

Sacrifice Flies: Four Questions with Larry Welborn

Interviews

Larry Welborn

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

A million correct words do not balance out one incorrect word

Words written carelessly can unintentionally hurt good people even if they are correct and true. Words written carefully and intentionally can often say the same thing, but cause no harm.

  What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

I am surprised how much I still enjoy reading the Dead Sea Scrolls … I mean my daily newspaper. I will grieve when I can no longer walk out to the driveway and find that daily miracle. Okay, I’m a dinosaur. Call me Tyrannosaurus Rex. But a story on the newspaper page still feels more real and more authentic than the same words on my laptop. Maybe it’s in the ink?  

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

Can I use a simile instead? My writing is like a freshly cut, unadorned Christmas tree. It’s plain and trustworthy. Like news consumers, tree buyers aren’t looking for anything fancy – they’re looking for solid and reliable. That’s what makes a good Christmas tree and a good piece of journalism.

Or.

There is a baseball term for a lazy fly ball to an outfielder that’s deep enough for a runner to tag-up and score from third. A sacrifice fly. There’s nothing pretty or spectacular about the easy out by itself, but it gets the job done. Once in a while I might hit a home run, and frequently I strike out. But there are a lot of sac flies in there too.

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

Early in my career, an old school editor told me to get out of the way and let the story unfold. Only he didn’t say it that politely. What he actually said was “quit trying to write like F.  Scott  f * * * ing Fitzgerald and just tell the damn story.”

Larry Welborn spent 44 years as a staff writer at The Orange County Register, much of that time on the courthouse beat, where he covered more than 500 trials and chronicled the 60 most notorious criminal cases in Orange County history. Larry spent 31 years researching the odd circumstances surrounding the 1974 death of a Linda Cummings before writing the award-winning 8-part “Murder by Suicide?” series in 2005. He is now turning that journey standing up for an absolute underdog into a book. Larry was president and chairman of the board of the California Scholastic Press Association and is now chairman emeritus. He also was the Dean of Register U, the newspaper’s in-house training program, where he was in charge of the annual National Writers Workshop, co-sponsored by The Poynter Institute. When he’s not writing, Larry golfs erratically and plays with his four (soon to be five) grandkids. He and his wife Annie have been married for 46 years. 

The rewards of discipline: Four Questions with Matt Schudel

Interviews
Matt Schudel

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

To search for the emotional core, or the emotional truth, of a story. Particularly when you are writing about people, there should be an animating purpose, a one-sentence core emotional truth (sometimes not explicitly stated in a story) around which everything else revolves. This is not the same as a nut graf, but it’s more of a Rosebud moment. The best stories are built on a foundation of facts, but the best stories connect with readers through their emotional resonance.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The biggest surprise to me as a writer is that deadlines can be a good thing. Samuel Johnson said, in another context, that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

The same could be said for the kind of writing most journalists have to do.

I want to state, right off, that I hate deadlines. But without them, I tend to dither away my time, not getting anything down on the page (or computer screen). I often say that I can’t think unless my fingers are attached to a keyboard, and there are times – especially on deadline — when a kind of flow kicks in, and the story drives itself.

It is pointless and self-indulgent to wait for “inspiration” to strike. Inspiration comes from the practice of writing itself, from “applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair,” as an annoyed editor once told me.

Discipline is its own reward. Just write down anything, even seemingly random words, and soon those words will coalesce into thoughts, ideas, sentences, paragraphs and, if you’re lucky, a story.  

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

I’m hesitant to assign a metaphor to myself. So, at the risk of sounding a little crazy or arrogant, let’s say jazz improviser.

In an earlier journalistic life, I was a jazz critic, and to this day I often listen to instrumental jazz when writing. In some ways, musicians such as Bill Evans, Clifford Brown, Stan Getz and John Coltrane have filtered into my approach as a writer as much as, or more than, other writers have.

Classic jazz is all about the discipline of structure pushing against the freedom of improvisation. In a typical jazz tune, you begin with established chords, harmony and melody – the song’s grammar, so to speak. Then, as the song goes along, the musician will improvise off the melody and harmonic structure to create something new. The framework of the original tune is still there as a guide, but in different players’ hands, the improvisations can go in any direction. There are an infinite number of ways to develop a solo – it can be slow, fast, contemplative, humorous, furious – and *all of them are right.*

When working at the highest level, a soloist is inspired by the musicians around him, as they work together to create a spontaneous work of art.
It’s about being alive to the art of possibility. In jazz, you have to understand the harmony and the rhythm – the basic framework of your art – but then make it your own. The music takes you where it needs you to go.

The same can be true of writing. Keep your tools sharpened, including grammar, vocabulary and — especially for a journalist – your storehouse of facts and quotations. Be attentive. Have an idea of where you want to go.

Then put it all together on the keyboard, sort of like a pianist who blends all those years of practicing scales with the inspiration of the moment. When it’s done right, it sounds exciting, surprising, a little daring – and somehow exactly right.

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

I once heard an interview with the British rock performer and songwriter Nick Lowe, in which he described his style of songwriting: “Bash it now, and tart it up later.”This is the musical equivalent of your advice to get words down on paper (or on a computer screen), even if they’re almost random or seemingly irrelevant, then trusting that your thoughts will give them shape, coalescing into a readable sentence, a coherent paragraph and, with any luck, a memorable piece of writing.I think this advice touches on two major elements in producing nonfiction writing: Don’t wait for inspiration; just get to work. Then, once you have some ideas fleshed out, concentrate on editing and polishing those initial thoughts into something persuasive, powerful and emotionally true. It’s the craftsman approach to writing, rather than the stroke-of-genius approach. The genius, if there is any, comes out in the end, after sweating through the initial struggle to get words on paper, then editing them into a finished work. 

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida. In addition to writing obituaries, he has been a feature writer, magazine writer, jazz critic and art critic. He has won more than 30 regional and national writing awards and is the co-author, with photographer Flip Schulke, of a biography of Muhammad Ali’s years in Miami.

Do no harm: Four Questions with Jan Winburn

Interviews
Jan Winburn

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

First, do no harm. What I mean by that is with every story I read as an editor, I want to first find something to like. Even the novice writer, or the experienced one struggling through a bad patch, will produce at least one thing that sings — a riveting passage, revealing description or unforgettable snatch of dialogue. I want to begin our conversation by talking about that high point in the writing (or reporting) before sharing more critical thoughts. It breaks the ice, and it also says, this is what works, I want more of that. I’m not talking about being disingenuous. I’m talking about trying to call upon my most generous self. That often creates in the writer an openness to hearing more, even if it’s critical.

What has been the most important surprise of your editing life?

That I would get to live vicariously through my writers, that they would let me into their processes so completely and willingly share their adventures. I am grateful for the amazing journeys they have taken me on.

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

What I aspire to be is a magician whose contribution to the storytelling is invisible to the reader and regarded by the writer as a welcome act of wizardry.

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

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

(Lary, by the way, was the legendary one-time editor of Tropic Magazine at the Miami Herald before founding Northeast in the heyday of Sunday newspaper magazines.)

Jan Winburn is a fan of artful storytelling, kickass reporting and the powerful melding of the two. She spent more than four decades working in newsrooms as a narrative editor, writing coach and investigative editor and now teaches in the University of Georgia’s MFA program in Narrative Nonfiction. She edited Lisa Pollak’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, and the Dart Society recognized Winburn’s career work with its 2009 Mimi Award  given to editors “who encourage journalistic excellence.” Her writers have won many of the top prizes in journalism, including a Peabody Award, a Murrow, The Livingston Award for Young Journalists, the Ernie Pyle Award, the Al Neuharth Award for investigative journalism, the John Jay College Award for criminal justice reporting, the Wilbur Award for religion coverage, and the Batten Medal for public service. She led reporting teams at CNN, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. She is the author/editor of “Shop Talk and War Stories: Journalists Examine Their Profession” and co-editor of two e-books,“Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism 2013” and 2014.

Where Stories Are: Four Questions with Tom Hallman Jr.

Interviews
Tom Hallman

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

Read. Everything. Constantly. If you don’t read, you can’t be a writer. Want to be a musician? Then you have to listen to music. I often ask writers what they are reading. They tell me what TV shows and movies they watch, but struggle to come up with anything they are currently reading.
Books, magazine pieces, short stories and news stories need to be part of a writer’s ongoing curriculum. 
Working on a moody crime story?
How would Elmore Leonard handle it?
Trying to tell a historical story?
Look at what William Manchester did with Winston Churchill.
Want to grab a reader?
Get Harlen Coben, Stephen King or Lee Child. 
Learn from others.
If you work at a newspaper, get out of the office. Stories don’t exist there, but out in the world. Stay in the office and you will be re-writing press releases or covering news events that every TV station has already covered.
Want originality? Get out there where people are living.



What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The ability to continue to grow and learn. I feel like am always in grad school, learning how to be a better interviewer, better storyteller. I like the process of storytelling. There is no finish line. I want to get better with each story.
I remember my first big story in my career. I thought I’ll never get a story that good again. I was wrong. I just had to go find it.


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

A cat.
I’ve been around Hells Angels, surgeons, cops, kids, teachers, loggers, drug dealers, gang members, nuns. I’ve watched a baby die. I never act like I am better than anyone else. I never judge anyone. I act the same around people whether that is a CEO or a janitor.
Most days my lunch hour consists of me walking around downtown Portland. I’m curious, like a cat. 
I overhear conversations. I wander into places. I talk with strangers – usually people who rarely get noticed.
A few months ago, I was walking to work early in the morning when I saw this man reading a book in his truck. I stopped and asked him what he was reading.
He held up a book: The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941.
This was a scruffy looking guy, the last person you would ever imagine reading that book.
I asked him why.
He said he loves to learn by reading books about all subjects. He was on a break, which means he was working while the rest of us were sleeping. He told me his job is cleaning the city’s public toilets.
No higher education.
Yet every morning he reads in his truck, his classroom.
That’s how you find stories.

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

The tip came from Jack Hart, my editor on some of my best work: Read a story out loud. Such a great way to hear the flaws in a story.
My tip is this: When I have something long, be it for the paper, or a book or a piece magazine piece, I always make a hard copy. I edit that. I always end up cutting about 20 percent from what I thought was a completed story.


Tom Hallman Jr. a senior writer for The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, including the Pulitzer Prize, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. A common thread in all of Hallman’s stories is the exploration of the character’s heart and soul. 
He is a frequent contributor to Readers Digest. He is the author of four books. His book, “Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask,” was published in 2002. He writes a column on writing for Quill Magazine. Hallman has been a speaker at National Writer’s Workshops and at papers across the United States. He has taught at USC, Notre Dame and Brown University.




May the writing go well.


.

Mastering the Other Side of the Story: Four Questions with Bill Marimow

Interviews
Bill Marimow/Elizabeth Robertson, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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

On stories about a controversy or a subject of sensitivity, do whatever is required to master the other side of the story. This is especially critical in investigative stories. Not only is it the right thing to do, journalistically, but it also will prove very valuable if you’re ever sued for libel. It would be very difficult for a plaintiff in a defamation case to prove that a reporter has written a story “with a reckless disregard of the truth” if the writer has done everything possible to master and communicate the other side of the story. Equally important, once a writer has secured both sides of the story, it will lead to writing with more nuance and authority. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

Writing about how civil service exams for aspiring police commanders were compromised, I received dozens of phone calls from officers who had taken the sergeants, lieutenants and captains tests, explaining in detail what I had missed and pointing out specific test takers whose results were highly suspicious. The callers offered dozens of leads and thanked me for exposing what appeared to be a pattern of preferential — and illegal —  treatment for some officers. These stories were published just a few years after my colleague Jonathan Neumann and I had written a series about criminal violence by the Philadelphia police, and we were considered “public enemies” by the mayor Frank L. Rizzo, a former Philadelphia police commissioner. A typical call from one of the police tipsters began this way: “Marimow, I never thought I’d be calling a newspaper. Especially not The Inquirer. And especially not you. But, pal, you’re telling it like it is, and the Police Department wants to thank you.” Before ending the call, the tipster would often supply the names of specific officers who had failed the civil service tests in the past and were suddenly ranked in the top handful of more than 5000 cops who had taken the sergeants test.

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

A Haverford Township sanitation engineer, a job that I had one summer in college for $1.80 an hour: Like an editor, I took pride in my work; I got to know my colleagues and the people who lived on my route. I’ve always tried to focus on the fulfillment of a job well done — whether making a difference through our stories or hauling trash on the streets of Havertown. In the case of my summer job, the fulfillment came in knowing that the trash was off the streets until the following week; I was getting into excellent physical condition, and I learned that everyone — especially my full-time colleagues on the sanitation crew — had great life stories to tell.

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

I think the best advice I ever got about writing was from Gene Roberts, who used to say that every good story should be brimming with “color, quotes and anecdotes.” As I recall, one of Gene’s first editors at the Goldsboro (NC) News-Argus was blind, and he demanded that Gene’s stories make him see. And as with all Gene Roberts’ kernels of wisdom, he delivered it in his inimitable North Carolinian drawl.

Bill Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, has led three news organizations — The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Baltimore Sun as editor in chief and National Public Radio (NPR) as the vice president of news.    As a reporter at The Inquirer, Marimow received the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1978 for stories he wrote with a partner on criminal violence by Philadelphia police, and again in 1985, for his investigation of the Philadelphia police K-9 unit.  In addition, Marimow received two Silver Gavel Awards from the American Bar Association and two Robert F. Kennedy awards — the first, for his work as an Inquirer reporter and, the second, for his work as vice president of news at NPR.      He was editor in chief of The Inquirer from 2006 until spring 2017– with one year off teaching at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University. He is a 1969 graduate of Trinity College from which he received an honorary doctorate degree. Marimow studied First Amendment law at Harvard Law School as a Nieman Fellow.   After retiring from The Inquirer in January 2020, Marimow joined Brian Communications as a senior adviser to Brian Tierney, the former publisher of The Inquirer.

A benevolent machete: Four Questions with Maria Carrillo

Interviews
Maria Carrillo

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

Listen much more than you talk.

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

How many jobs are actually rolled into this one: teacher, coach, counselor, therapist.

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

I  really struggled with this, so I asked my three reporters.

Here’s what I got back.

One said:  “How ‘bout a benevolent machete, cutting away the stuff we don’t know we don’t need. And at least part therapist.”

Another: Mary Poppins: Fun, firm, kind, punctual, polite, collaborative, innovative … able to wrangle naughty children (and their parents) and make them want to please you … administering spoons full of sugar with each bitter dose of medicine … with all kinds of tricks in your bag

The third: My brain headed to plants for some reason. I feel like you nourish us to grow, making the conditions best so the most beautiful plants can flourish. You trim us exactly how we need it and give us darkness or sunlight depending on how we are doing. You fertilize us with a great writing road map, clearing away the overgrowth so we can stand straight up.  Reporters can grow awful healthy under those conditions.

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

A lot of things raced through my head thinking about this question, but I think the advice that has stayed with me the most wasn’t specifically about editing— in terms of handling copy — but about managing people and it came from Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maria Carrillo is senior deputy editor/enterprise at the Tampa Bay Times, where she oversees a team of reporters and works with journalists across the newsroom on ambitious stories. She was previously enterprise editor at the Houston Chronicle and, before that, managing editor at The Virginian-Pilot. She has edited dozens of award-winnings projects, frequently lectures on narrative journalism, co-hosts a weekly podcast (WriteLane) about storytelling and has been a Pulitzer Prize juror five times. She was born in Washington, D.C., two years after her parents left Cuba in exile. She now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with her husband, and they have two grown children.

Riding a Ferris wheel: Four Questions with Tommy Tomlinson

Interviews
Tommy Tomlinson
Photo by Jeff Cravotta

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

It’s all about the reporting. We don’t write with words — we write with information. Every time I get stuck in writing a story, it’s because I don’t have the information I need and I’m trying to write around it. But fancy writing won’t patch the potholes. Make the extra call. Read the extra clip. When you’ve got the goods, the writing will be a whole lot easier.

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

How much people don’t stop and think about their own lives. I’ve written a bunch of stories where the subjects told me later that they learned things about themselves. What I’ve learned from that is that most of us spend most of our energy just getting through the day, and don’t step back to dwell on where we’re headed and why. I’ve realized that I’m not good at this, either.

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

I think of the job sometimes as riding a Ferris wheel. You’re in this constant loop of diving down low to the ground, then rising up to look from a higher vantage point. It’s the text and subtext — what’s happening in the story and What It All Means. I spend a lot of my time circling up and down, from text to subtext, trying to make sure the reader stays along for the ride.

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

I don’t remember who gave me this advice — I suspect I learned it by osmosis from watching some very good reporters. But here’s the advice:
If you hang around people long enough, eventually they become themselves.
At first, everybody a reporter talks to is likely to put up a front — some people suck up, others are mean and try to run you off, still others are fearful about the whole process. It’s hard for your first interactions to be authentic. But not many people can put up a front forever. If you stick around long enough, you’ll see the real person.


Tommy Tomlinson is the author of the memoir “The Elephant In the Room “(Simon & Schuster), about life as an overweight man in a growing America.He is also the host of the podcast “SouthBound” in partnership with WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR station. He has written for publications including Esquire, ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Garden & Gun, and many others. He spent 23 years as a reporter and local columnist for the Charlotte Observer, where he was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. His stories have been chosen twice for the “Best American Sports Writing” series (2012 and 2015) and he also appears in the anthology “America’s Best Newspaper Writing.” He has taught at Wake Forest University as well as at other colleges, workshops and conferences across the country. He’s a graduate of the University of Georgia and was a 2008-09 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.