BEWARE, WILD BEASTS: FOUR QUESTIONS WITH BERKLEY HUDSON

Interviews

Photo by Tom Rankin

Of himself, Berkley Hudson says:

Born, Columbus, Mississippi. My Daddy ran Main Street Service Station, “Don’t Cuss. Call Russ.” Three restrooms: Ladies, Gentleman, Colored. As a white boy, I learned to listen for stories when 4-County Power linemen pulled up for gas, with dead snakes hanging from back of their trucks. My mother’s family ran Sanitary Laundry & Dry Cleaners. (Clothes Dirty? Dial 630!). Left Mississippi after Ole Miss undergrad. Went straight to Columbia University journalism school. Worked 25 years as staff and freelance journalist, first at The Bulletin, Bend, Oregon; then, Providence Journal, and later, the Los Angeles Times. Late-bloomed media history & folklore PhD @UNC Chapel Hill. Long-time professor at Missouri School of Journalism where I edited Visual Communication Quarterly and chaired the Race Relations Committee in time of turmoil. Received National Endowment for Humanities grants to support four decades of research into photographs made in the Jim Crow-era of my hometown, also known as Possum Town. In 2022, UNC Press with Duke University’s Documentary Studies published my O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
To focus and set boundaries: whether it’s writing a scene with dialogue. Or describing the physicality of a person, place, animal or object. Or interleaving a tight summary of the news. Or knowing when to stop reporting, writing, and revising. As a journalist, I enjoyed a free-range chicken approach. I’m an omnivore. I go where I’m compelled to go. Or where an editor sends me. Even today, I can have focus problems. An addictive love of winding narratives, my own and others, is a blessing and curse. See James Agee’s letter to his mentor Father Flye: “Without guidance, balance, coordination, my ideas and impressions and desires, which are much larger than I can begin to get to paper, are loose in my brains like wild beasts of assorted sizes and ferocities, not devouring each other but in the process of tearing the zoo to parts.” To avoid such chaos, I’ve posed three questions since the 1980s: What’s the story? What’s the point? What’s the news? I ask myself that today, as when I worked with a writer named Chip Scanlan and our job was turning out, on deadline, cinematic and newsy narratives at the Providence Journal. In every situation, I stay alert to William Faulkner’s admonition about “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
Jane Yolen’s book “Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft” inspires me to say this: More than a half-century after my Mississippi days as a teen-aged editor of my high school newspaper, of laying out inky hot-type of words and pictures in metal trays, I remain delighted by the joy of writing. Yes, there are frustrations, troublesome situations and challenges. But I love that reporting, research, and writing allows me to discover the world around me, at once miraculous, scary, and sublime. As a journalist, with biologists, I uncover bears in snow dens in Maine or track endangered frogs in California’s San Gabriel Mountains. I hike Springer Mountain in Georgia or Mt. Katahdin in Maine. I investigate New England mobsters, write about the Ku Klux Klan, or listen deeply to stories of Hmong refugees who’ve lost relatives to “midnight death syndrome” in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
As a documentarian/archivist, I interview with my storyteller wife Milbre Burch, tellers in Hawaii or on the Navajo Reservation or in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As scholar, I write book chapters on magazine history and photography; encyclopedia entries about Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo and New Journalism, civil rights icon Medgar Evers and composer William Grant Still, and essays and book reviews. I continue to write because I must, must explore subjects that intrigue me, must tell others the stories I discover. Through writing, I can have the transcendent experience that Gabriel Garcia Marquez invokes:
“Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.”


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

Marathoner. In my case, Marathon Man. Since the 8th grade, I’ve considered myself a runner, albeit now a slower jogger than earlier. I’ve run marathons, half-marathons, 10Ks, 5Ks. About 5 years ago I adopted Olympic marathoner Jeff Galloway’s approach: warm up, run, take short walk break, run some more, take another short walk break, and so on. That’s how I finished my marathon in Los Angeles, March 2022. That dovetails with lessons from Don Murray: “revision is a process,” and from poet William Stafford: “lower your standards until there is no felt threshold.” Revision follows drafting. In running, I trip on a root at night on a woodland trail when I’ve forgotten to wear my headlamp. On a hot day, I don’t carry enough water to drink and hit a sidewalk crack and fall, bloodying my forehead. Or I slip on a moss-covered rock near a stream. Elbows and knee get scraped and bruised. Another day, I go too many miles and fracture a foot bone. As with writing, I rest, recover, resume. It’s a process: reporting, researching, thinking, writing, revising, drafting, revising more, and resting.

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

Count words. As a teenager and college student, I counted words in my ledes. But Don Murray taught me more word count recipes. Yes, count words in first sentence, first paragraph, last paragraph, all paragraphs. Use your finger or pencil to touch each word. Slow down. Count words in scenes, dialogue, story chunks, to reveal proportionality of beginnings, middles and ends of sentences, sections. See the writing anew.
Word counts can measure daily activity, without particularly judging what you wrote on any given day: 750 words. 1,500 words. 20 words. Word counts reveal writing as a process, not product. How many words did you write today? Nulla dies sine linea. Never a day without a line.
Doesn’t matter if you wrote on a computer, typewriter, or used a pen, pencil, crayon to write on a restaurant napkin or legal pad. How many will you write tomorrow?
Connected with word counts, print out drafts. Write the counts on drafts in red, green, any bold color. Place pages on floor as a way to look at from above. Tape them onto walls, windows, or whiteboards. Use old-school TIME magazine approach with index cards or with a storyboard approach: paragraph by paragraph. (On the wall of Rowan Oak, his home, Faulkner painted in red the outline of his novel, A Fable.) Cut drafts into sections. Reorder paragraphs. Make
discoveries about structure, voice, focus, scene, beginning, middle and end. What’s missing? What needs to be trimmed? Expanded?

Start Writing: 4 Questions with Ava Kofman

Interviews

Ava Kofman is a reporter on ProPublica’s national desk. She joined the newsroom in January 2019, after working as a contributing writer at The Intercept, where she covered algorithms, artificial intelligence and surveillance technology. In 2020, she reported with colleagues on toxic air pollution across the United States. Their award-winning work on America’s “Sacrifice Zones” was credited with helping spur reforms.  Kofman previously edited The New Inquiry. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, and The Atlantic, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles. @AvaKofman

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

Revise. Revise again. Then one more time. Apologize profusely to your editor for all of the tiny changes you are making. Continue to make them. Some of the most lively moments in a story come from second-guessing and last-minute additions, cuts and tweaks. The story will need to be published eventually, but until it is, consider it unfinished. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

It only gets harder! I suppose this is an open secret, but I’ve been continually surprised that the more I learn (or try to learn) about writing, the harder it gets. Thomas Mann puts it this way: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” 

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

I once heard that there are two ways to approach a first draft: as a diamond polisher or as a garbage compressor. I tend to do both. I start with the latter technique, ingesting and processing vast amounts of material and refuse. The writing in this phase feels like a lot of trash that would be unreadable to another person (and that I sometimes can barely understand myself). Eventually though, the pressure and heat starts to produce some ideas, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. I would hesitate to call these gems, but they are durable enough to begin polishing. 

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

Start writing! And start earlier than you think. The longer you wait, the harder it gets. You can always do more reporting later. Even if you’re just writing a memo, or “fake writing,” or pretending to write, start putting something down on the page. (Plus, the more material you produce, the more you’ll be open to revising it.) I wish I could attribute this to a single wise source, but this advice has been given to me a thousand times by a thousand wise people. (Thank you to all of them).  I regret how often I fail to follow it.

Write Past the Fear: 4 Questions with DeNeen L. Brown

Interviews

DeNeen L. Brown joined the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism faculty in 2019 after more than three decades at The Washington Post.

Since coming to UMD, she has continued to write for The Post, including a series of stories on the deadly 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which led to the city’s mayor reopening an investigation into suspected mass graves.

Among other jobs at The Post, Brown has covered police, courts and education, and was a foreign correspondent. She was a staff writer in The Post’s Metro and Style sections and a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine. Brown has earned national recognition for writing narratives about the middle class, the homeless, culture, race, Black history, urban gentrification, poverty and the environment.

As The Post’s Canada bureau chief from 2000 to 2004, she traveled throughout the Canadian Arctic and Arctic Archipelago to write about climate change, melting permafrost, receding glaciers, indigenous populations and cultural erosion. She also has written dispatches from an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage, and covered stories from Greenland and Haiti.

She’s won national feature-writing prizes from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Association of Black Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, as well as regional awards from the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Press Association. In 2006, Brown’s story titled “Mr. Wonderful” won first place and the best-in-show award for daily writing from the Virginia Press Association.

Brown is a former Knight Fellow and Washington Post Media Fellow at Duke University. She has taught writing seminars at Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism and has been a guest lecturer on narrative writing at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida.

She’s taught writing at National Writers Workshops around the country and at the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors conference. She was also an adjunct journalism instructor at Georgetown University.

Her essays about writing are published in “Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide.” Her award-winning narratives are published in “Best Newspaper Writing 1999: The Nation’s Best Journalism.”

Brown holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.


What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Phillip Dixon, a great city editor at The Washington Post, once told me, “Evoke the soul of the story.”   I was a young reporter then. I remember walking away from the city desk thinking he was a curiosity. I had no idea what he was talking about. I went to my desk and re-wrote the story. But, again and again, he would send it back with the mysterious instruction: “Evoke the soul of the story.”
Over time, I came to understand what he meant. “Evoke the soul of the story” meant to report so deeply inside a story that you understand the story and the characters perhaps better than they understand themselves. 

Evoking the soul of the story means, “Don’t just tell me what so and so said and what so and so did. But tell me what so and so said and meant to say and why he said it and what brought him to this point in life that would make him say what he said or do what he did. What motivates this character deep inside?” 

Evoking the soul of the story means that writers should reveal a character’s deepest fear and desire. Who are they when no one is looking? Long-form narratives are made richer by immersive reporting. The best stories are not about the writing, but about what is revealed in the reporting.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
My biggest surprise in my writing life came when I found out just how a great story has the power to change someone’s life. A story, reported deeply and written with an authentic writer’s voice, has the power to move readers. I’ve seen readers respond in droves to help a homeless woman who rode a bus as her bed. I’ve seen powerful stories move institutions. Words have that kind of power. I’m still a bit in awe of the power of words.


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer what would it be and why?
When I sit down to write, I feel like a composer. Though I am not a musician, I go through the steps that a musical composer might take in creating music. Composers and writers are both creating something out of nothing. We look at a blank page and fill it with something that lives.
In the writing process, I often imagine flipping my coattails before sitting on an imaginary piano bench, the way a composer might. I imagine the computer keyboard is my piano. The words come like songs out of nowhere. They have rhythm. I hear the stories as I write. The cadence and the spacing are important to me. The way words are arranged on the page are like notes.
I think good stories, like any good song, have a rhythm. Like a good Aretha Franklin song, they have soul. Like a Miriam Makeba song, the words ebb and they flow. Like James Brown, they repeat themselves. They grunt and grind. They rise and they fall. And sometimes they just shout.

What is the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Margaret Atwood once told me that writing is like diving into a black hole. The writer dives into an abyss and emerges hours or days later with a story.
I will never forget that afternoon with Atwood. I had gone to a café in Toronto to interview her. I read most of her books in preparation. But instead of talking about her latest book, we talked about life and writing.
I asked her where she got her confidence as a writer. She told me she had none, that each blank page scares her. The trash can, she told me, is her friend. She explained how certain books drive her and how some of her characters live in her writing desk drawer until they are ready for her to write their stories.
So many years later, when I face a blank screen, I think of Atwood telling me to write past the fear, dive into the void and fill up the blank page with story.

A Team Sport: Four Questions with Stephen Robert Morse

Interviews

Stephen Robert Morse is s a two-time Emmy-nominated filmmaker and the Managing Director of London-based Lone Wolf Studios, bringing lean production methodologies to the film industry. He loves combining creativity and business and has now worked on a dozen successful film projects. The first major film he conceived and produced was “Amanda Knox”, a Netflix Original that earned him a Primetime Emmy nomination. He holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of Oxford. He was nominated for a Best Writing : Documentary Emmy for “In the Cold Dark Night” about the racist murder of Timothy Coggins in 1983. 

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

The first draft is just a first draft: and you’ll likely need many more eyeballs on it and many more drafts before it’s perfect. Sure, a few individuals may write excellent first drafts, but everything needs improvement. Writing, like most activities, is a team sport. And behind every great writer, there’s a great editor ready, willing, and able to critique them. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
The biggest surprise for me has been how much I formerly loved newspapers, magazines, and printed books — yet how infrequently I use them now. I truly love audiobooks and articles these days, especially when they’re read by the author. The second biggest surprise is that people write documentaries: you can so easily change the structure and balance and intent of a story simply by adding or cutting characters, adding a snippet here or cutting a snippet there — this was not the type of symphony I intended to create yet I love the process… and it’s always a process. 

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

As my mom always said to me, “You’re a jack of all trades.” In documentary, what you can “write” depends on what people say in interviews and what archive you have access to. This could be limiting for many people, but I attempt to treat documentary writing like I’m writing an essay: with a thesis statement established early and evidence to support my thesis — while also sharing counterpoints and arguments that I may not personally agree with. 

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

Perhaps I’m a traditionalist, but I’ve long subscribed to George Orwell’s six writing rules: 

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Nailing the Structure: 4 Questions with Line Vaaben

Interviews

Line Vaaben is a prize-winning writer and editor for Politiken, the largest daily newspaper in Copenhagen. Her work has been published in several textbooks, and she teaches narrative and longform journalism. She is also the author of a book about femicide in Denmark.

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

Working with structure. When I was young — and more arrogant I guess — I thought I didn’t have to do outlines. But I was so wrong! The past ten years or so, I have worked intensively with structure, and it has made my writing process faster, less painful and my stories so much better. I use a one-word theme and Post-Its to do my storyboards and it has made a huge difference.

I wrote a piece about it for Nieman Storyboard: https://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/sticking-a-story-together-and-nailing-the-structure/

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
That I never seem to run out of stories to write. When I was new in journalism, I remember being worried about having enough ideas, or others writing the stories before I got around to them. I was much more in a hurry. But as time has passed I realize that life is so rich and full that writing about it in new ways is a neverending love affair between me and reality. No need to hurry. Stories are all around.


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
A squirrel comes to mind. For one, I am a very energetic and fast-moving human being. But also, I often feel that I am gathering material like nuts when I am reporting: As many details, scenes and bits of dialogue as possible, which I stack for later use, so that I have a lot of good bits to choose from, when I reach the writing process. Like a squirrel, putting aside lots and lots of good nuts with important energy for a long, cold winter.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Paying attention to the ending! Not only because it is so important, what you save for last, as it is the reward to the reader, for hanging on. But also because it has forced me to think much harder on the whole structure of my piece before I write. If you want a great ending, you must build up to it. Which means asking yourself what you actually want to say and what central question is driving the story. I owe this revelation to Tom French BTW, who really opened my eyes to the importance of endings.

Five More Questions with Maria Carrillo

Interviews

Maria Carrillo is a consultant and coach after spending 36 years in seven newsrooms. She was an enterprise editor at the Tampa Bay Times and Houston Chronicle and, before that, managing editor at The Virginian-Pilot. She has edited dozens of award-winning projects, frequently lectures on narrative journalism, co-hosts a podcast (WriteLane) about craft and has been a Pulitzer Prize juror six times. She is a board member of the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism and the National Press Photographers Association. Carrillo 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. Don’t miss Maria’s original 4 Questions interview.

Before your recent retirement, you edited narrative journalism for decades at several newspapers. What are the characteristics of an excellent narrative writer? What makes one stand out?

The best narrative writers I’ve worked with are amazing reporters. Some people think that it’s all about the quality of the writing, this incredible prose that narrative folks can deliver. But everything is driven by the reporting, by the heartbreaking and stark and emotional details that they come back with. 

So they must be great interviewers, empathetic and patient. They must be observant and also willing to make the extra effort to figure out what kind of tree that is, what the weather was like that day, what bus route the homeless kid took. They must be genuinely curious and not settle for someone’s first response but peel back layers. They must be driven by a desire to understand – and explain – the world around us. 

And yes, ultimately, the best ones know how to tell great stories. They know how to focus, to produce stories that go a mile deep and an inch wide. They know to be spare in the most dramatic moments. They know to deliver payoffs that make the journey worthwhile. 

But here’s the thing, too – the best narrative writers I’ve known are people who learned to do the work by spending time on craft. Many didn’t get these lessons in j-school or early in their careers. 

What advice would you give a journalist interested in writing narratives, but whose daily assignments keep them tied to breaking news? Can you do both?

You can, but you have to learn to look for narrative possibilities, and you have to have the courage and determination to pursue them. Those stories take more effort. 

I teach people to report as they normally would during breaking news, taking in everything and interviewing everyone they can. But then they should consider whether they can tell a narrative off the news. Is there someone available at that moment, a stakeholder whose story you may be able to tell quickly. If you find that person, go deeper. Report for narrative. 

For instance, at the scene of an accident, it might be a witness who is willing to share what they saw, and you weave the “news” into their account. Others involved may take months or years to tell their story. The same applies during event coverage. A festival story might be a bore, but maybe there’s someone there who has a compelling backstory and the moment means a great deal to them. 

In every case, you can’t force it. There has to be something compelling that drives the story. That witness, are they sharing information that provides deeper meaning to what just unfolded? Is it a story that many people can relate to or could be moved by? If not, let it go, turn in a standard story and try again the next time.

And don’t forget – let your editor know what you’re doing. Don’t spring a daily narrative on her if she’s expecting something traditional.

What do you love about narratives? Why are they so important?

As a young journalist, I found myself quickly uninspired. I learned to put together basic stories, using the inverted pyramid, and occasionally veering off into something deeper. But I didn’t feel challenged or motivated.

I became a journalist to be a storyteller, but often, we didn’t tell stories. We conveyed information, nicely written, perhaps, and in clear form, but they didn’t often move people. I wanted to make people care – about another person or an issue that deserved attention. Once I discovered narratives, I came alive. 

I remember a story where I spent time with an elderly couple, and the husband had Alzheimer’s. This was in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and it was a topic that was then generating lots of scary, generic headlines. But getting to know these folks personally, seeing what the wife was going through, sharing that pain, having readers react. Wow. 

People often read narratives to the end. They come away inspired or sad or angry, but they come away with emotion. They learn, maybe something they didn’t even realize they needed to learn. They connect with the human experience, and that’s so important, especially in times like these, when we’re always taking sides.

As journalists, we have a responsibility to answer questions, and daily, we tackle the who, what, when and where. But narratives are often the best way to answer the why and how, which are more complex and revelatory.

What are the most glaring mistakes writers make when crafting narratives and how can they avoid them?

The story must dictate the form, and that’s where I see the biggest problems.

Reporters sometimes try to force narratives – write a chronology without meaning. There has to be a reason we’re going on this journey, and if that’s not clear, then don’t try to write a narrative.

A narrative has to have a singular purpose, a defining theme that can be summed up, ideally, in one word. If you can’t do that, again, you probably don’t have the right ingredients for this story.

It’s important to have accessible characters, people willing to open up. They can be imperfect but need to be cooperative. There should be opportunities for scene-setting, either something observed or retold. There must be tension, something that’s being overcome or tackled in the story. Imagine The Sound of Music without Nazis?

Other common mistakes: Trying to compress the reporting instead of being selective. Make the hard choices. Don’t include too many characters. Don’t share a scene that has nothing to do with your theme. Don’t fall in love with the first words you wrote (again, they may not be serving the greater purpose). 

You remain an active coach and teacher. What’s the most important lesson you’re trying to impart about narratives to writers and editors?

Our industry believed for too long that readers would be drawn to our work just because it was important. But as we’ve learned, we need to earn those readers, to make them see value in what we do. 

Narratives can help save us.

They inspire readers, to fix problems, to connect with neighbors, to care.

They drive loyalty to certain newsrooms and favorite writers.

They are worth the time and effort.

Maria Carrillo is a consultant and coach after spending 36 years in seven newsrooms. She was an enterprise editor at the Tampa Bay Times and Houston Chronicle and, before that, managing editor at The Virginian-Pilot. She has edited dozens of award-winning projects, frequently lectures on narrative journalism, co-hosts a podcast (WriteLane) about craft and has been a Pulitzer Prize juror six times. She is a board member of the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism and the National Press Photographers Association. Carrillo 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.

Before your recent retirement, you edited narrative journalism for decades at several newspapers. What are the characteristics of an excellent narrative writer? What makes one stand out?

The best narrative writers I’ve worked with are amazing reporters. Some people think that it’s all about the quality of the writing, this incredible prose that narrative folks can deliver. But everything is driven by the reporting, by the heartbreaking and stark and emotional details that they come back with. 

So they must be great interviewers, empathetic and patient. They must be observant and also willing to make the extra effort to figure out what kind of tree that is, what the weather was like that day, what bus route the homeless kid took. They must be genuinely curious and not settle for someone’s first response but peel back layers. They must be driven by a desire to understand – and explain – the world around us. 

And yes, ultimately, the best ones know how to tell great stories. They know how to focus, to produce stories that go a mile deep and an inch wide. They know to be spare in the most dramatic moments. They know to deliver payoffs that make the journey worthwhile. 

But here’s the thing, too – the best narrative writers I’ve known are people who learned to do the work by spending time on craft. Many didn’t get these lessons in j-school or early in their careers. 

2. What advice would you give a journalist interested in writing narratives, but whose daily assignments keep them tied to breaking news? Can you do both?

You can, but you have to learn to look for narrative possibilities, and you have to have the courage and determination to pursue them. Those stories take more effort. 

I teach people to report as they normally would during breaking news, taking in everything and interviewing everyone they can. But then they should consider whether they can tell a narrative off the news. Is there someone available at that moment, a stakeholder whose story you may be able to tell quickly. If you find that person, go deeper. Report for narrative. 

For instance, at the scene of an accident, it might be a witness who is willing to share what they saw, and you weave the “news” into their account. Others involved may take months or years to tell their story. The same applies during event coverage. A festival story might be a bore, but maybe there’s someone there who has a compelling backstory and the moment means a great deal to them. 

In every case, you can’t force it. There has to be something compelling that drives the story. That witness, are they sharing information that provides deeper meaning to what just unfolded? Is it a story that many people can relate to or could be moved by? If not, let it go, turn in a standard story and try again the next time.

And don’t forget – let your editor know what you’re doing. Don’t spring a daily narrative on her if she’s expecting something traditional.

3. What do you love about narratives? Why are they so important?

As a young journalist, I found myself quickly uninspired. I learned to put together basic stories, using the inverted pyramid, and occasionally veering off into something deeper. But I didn’t feel challenged or motivated.

I became a journalist to be a storyteller, but often, we didn’t tell stories. We conveyed information, nicely written, perhaps, and in clear form, but they didn’t often move people. I wanted to make people care – about another person or an issue that deserved attention. Once I discovered narratives, I came alive. 

I remember a story where I spent time with an elderly couple, and the husband had Alzheimer’s. This was in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and it was a topic that was then generating lots of scary, generic headlines. But getting to know these folks personally, seeing what the wife was going through, sharing that pain, having readers react. Wow. 

People often read narratives to the end. They come away inspired or sad or angry, but they come away with emotion. They learn, maybe something they didn’t even realize they needed to learn. They connect with the human experience, and that’s so important, especially in times like these, when we’re always taking sides.

As journalists, we have a responsibility to answer questions, and daily, we tackle the who, what, when and where. But narratives are often the best way to answer the why and how, which are more complex and revelatory.

4. What are the most glaring mistakes writers make when crafting narratives and how can they avoid them?

The story must dictate the form, and that’s where I see the biggest problems.

Reporters sometimes try to force narratives – write a chronology without meaning. There has to be a reason we’re going on this journey, and if that’s not clear, then don’t try to write a narrative.

A narrative has to have a singular purpose, a defining theme that can be summed up, ideally, in one word. If you can’t do that, again, you probably don’t have the right ingredients for this story.

It’s important to have accessible characters, people willing to open up. They can be imperfect but need to be cooperative. There should be opportunities for scene-setting, either something observed or retold. There must be tension, something that’s being overcome or tackled in the story. Imagine The Sound of Music without Nazis?

Other common mistakes: Trying to compress the reporting instead of being selective. Make the hard choices. Don’t include too many characters. Don’t share a scene that has nothing to do with your theme. Don’t fall in love with the first words you wrote (again, they may not be serving the greater purpose). 

5. You remain an active coach and teacher. What’s the most important lesson you’re trying to impart about narratives to writers and editors?

Our industry believed for too long that readers would be drawn to our work just because it was important. But as we’ve learned, we need to earn those readers, to make them see value in what we do. 

Narratives can help save us.

They inspire readers, to fix problems, to connect with neighbors, to care.

They drive loyalty to certain newsrooms and favorite writers.

They are worth the time and effort.

The Power of Sharing Stories: 4 Questions with Esmé E. Deprez

Interviews
Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Esmé E. Deprez is a California-based senior reporter on the Investigations team at Bloomberg News, specializing in long-form deep-dives into government policy, politics, economics and social issues for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Previously, Esmé was a breaking news and features correspondent for Bloomberg’s National Desk and based in New York. Her reported essay on the life and medically assisted death of her father was a finalist for the 2022 National Magazine Awards, and she was a finalist for the 2013 Livingston Awards for her story about the legislative assault on the business of abortion. She joined Bloomberg in 2009 and has since reported from 35 U.S. states and four foreign countries. She has an MS in Journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a BA in English from Boston College and was born and raised in Maine.

1. What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
How much you can touch people with just words. In the wake of writing about how I helped my dad hasten his death for Bloomberg Businessweek, I’ve been overwhelmed in the best way by the reaction: I’ve received more emails than I can count from people telling me how much the story moved them; from people spilling their guts to me, a complete stranger, about the awful way their uncle died or the way in which their mother clandestinely hastened death during a time when or in a place where it wasn’t legal; from people recounting how they’ve printed out the story to put in folders outlining their final wishes or how reading it prompted them to do end-of-life planning or have hard and uncomfortable but necessary conversations about death with their families that they wouldn’t have otherwise had an excuse to have. (One of my favorites was really short: it said simply something about the piece being the greatest love story they’d ever read. That one just about broke me.) I’ve written about a lot of controversial topics in my career so I’d tried to anticipate blowback prior to publishing. But to hear the helpful, positive impacts the story’s had on people has totally blown my mind, and I think it speaks to the value and power of sharing our stories and how universal a deeply intimate narrative can be and feel. 

2. What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

Nearly every time I go to write, imposter syndrome invades my psyche: I panic and question everything, including my ability to write a single sentence, let alone a whole story. I’ve been surprised and reassured to learn that even the best writers in the business feel this way too! Remembering that, and enduring this process over and over again (and eventually coming out the other side), has drilled into me that there is just no getting around just sitting your butt in your seat and staying put until you grind it out. 

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

I often feel, while reporting, like a person on a scavenger hunt trying to decipher clues and gather information. When I go to write and rewrite, I feel like someone trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. I think that’s because I tend to focus a ton on structure — it’s hard for me to even begin writing without knowing where and how the pieces will fit together. 

4. What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

My former editor Steve Merelman used to tell me to write without my notes: “Next time you have to write a big takeout, do the reporting. Then, write the first draft without looking at your notes. You put in placeholders for quotes and facts you know exist. You’ll remember the important stuff. Then, after the first draft, you go back and fill in details and flesh out the skeleton. This is a trick that forces your writing brain out of the thicket of facts and makes it assemble a coherent narrative, the sort you’d tell on a bar stool. It works.” I surely rolled my eyes when he first said this and in the years since it’s saved me every time. 

Beware of Finishing: 4 Questions with Kevin Sullivan

Interviews
Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Kevin Sullivan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior correspondent and associate editor for The Washington Post. He was a Post foreign correspondent for 14 years, then served as chief foreign correspondent, deputy foreign editor, and Sunday and features editor. He has reported from more than 75 countries on six continents. Sullivan and his wife, Mary Jordan, were The Post’s co-bureau chiefs in Tokyo, Mexico City and London. They won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their coverage of the Mexican criminal justice system. They, with four Post photographers, were finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for stories about difficulties facing women around the world. Sullivan, reporting from Saudi Arabia, was part of a Washington Post team that was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Sullivan and Jordan also won the George Polk Award in 1998 for coverage of the Asian financial crisis, as well as awards from the Overseas Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan and Jordan are co-authors of Trump on Trial in 2020 (updated and published in paperback as “Trump’s Trials” in 2021); “Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland,” a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2015; and “The Prison Angel” in 2005. Sullivan and Jordan contributed a chapter to “Nine Irish Lives” in 2018. Sullivan also contributed a chapter to “Trump Revealed,” The Post’s 2016 biography of Donald Trump.

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

Beware of finishing. I love to finish things, the satisfaction of accomplishment. That’s fine when you’re mowing the lawn, but it’s dangerous when you’re writing. I’m too quick to call something good. Good enough. Done. Mary Jordan, my wife and writing partner, doesn’t ever consider a piece of writing complete. She fixes and fixes, then fixes the fixes, then starts again. She’s taught me to beware of the cheap charm of the finish line.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The lifelong satisfaction of it. I stumbled into journalism because I loved to write and didn’t know what else to do with that fact. Writing has taken me and my family around the planet and into the lives of amazing people.  And they still pay me to do it.

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

A card dealer. I love sitting down to write with a cup of coffee, notes, thoughts, a plan. Then I start flipping cards in my head, looking for the words. Sometimes I bust. Every so often I hit a royal flush. I love the serendipity.

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

Don Murray, my college journalism professor and friend, said you can always measure the quality of a piece of writing by the quality of what you cut. No matter how much you love a phrase or sentence you wrote, or how hard you worked to land some key fact, remember that the piece may be sharper and more powerful without it. Simple and true.

Making Surprises: 4 Questions with Mary Jordan

Interviews
Mary Jordan writes about national political issues for The Washington Post. She spent 14 years abroad as a foreign correspondent and Washington Post co-bureau chief in Tokyo, Mexico City and London. She has written from more than 40 countries. She and her husband and Washington Post colleague, Kevin Sullivan, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their investigation of the Mexican justice system. Jordan has taught journalism at Georgetown University, and she spent a year studying at Harvard University on a Nieman Fellowship and a year at Stanford University studying Spanish. She has been on-site covering many of the biggest stories of our time, including women’s rights in Pakistan and the 2016 presidential campaign. After the election, she spent months talking to the voters who elected Donald Trump. She and Sullivan have written two books together: “Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland,” which was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2015, and “The Prison Angel” in 2005. Jordan is also the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump,” published in 2020. She also contributed to “Trump Revealed,” a Washington Post staff biography of Donald Trump published in 2016; and “Nine Irish Lives,” publishing in March 2018. She was the founding editor and moderator of Washington Post Live, which organizes current affairs forums and debates. In 2016, The Washington Post honored Jordan with the Eugene Meyer Award for distinguished service, based on the principles of the paper’s legendary former owner: Tell the truth for the public good and always be fair.

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

Good writing is clear thinking. It’s jotting down what you have learned.  Great writing is clear thoughts set to music – words and phrases and sentences with rhythm.  

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That some people actually enjoy writing. I find it hard, even after all these years.  I do love having written. Writing to me is like exercising. I find doing sit-ups and going to hot yoga hellish but appreciate their importance and enjoy the feeling when class is over.     

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

 A surprise-maker. Because the last thing writing should be is boring.  

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

If you are writing a book , don’t end the day when you hit a roadblock. Wrap up when you are excited about where you are going and see the path ahead. That way you start the next day with momentum.

Go. Do. See. Be Present: 4 Questions with Russell Working

Interviews
Russell Working

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

Go. See. Do. Be present. Participate. Observe. Make your writing more than a desk job. Make it a journey of exploration: Teddy Roosevelt up the Amazon, Ernest Shackleton on the frozen Weddell Sea, Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream, Tanzania. Don’t just imagine, don’t rely on the internet; go find the scenes you are writing about and talk to the people who can give you insight into your characters. Investigate the worlds you want to bring to light, whether it’s a corner barbershop or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

If you are writing a murder mystery, do you know how your villain’s firearm works? Have you loaded a pistol or a revolver and shot it on the range? If you are putting a sermon in the mouth of a preacher, have you listened to one lately, read the Bible or the Quran, played an audiobook version of Father Mapple’s stemwinder in Moby-Dick?

I tried to get at some of these thoughts in “Zola’s Horse,” a lecture I delivered at Vermont College of Fine Arts, later repackaged as an essay for Numero Cinq.

Man-on-the-street interviews are a genre that gets you out in the community. Yet working for a series of small and medium papers, I grew tired of gathering quotes on local issues from semi-informed everyday Joes. So I made a point of looking for people doing something that would be fun to describe. Get quotes about the city council’s new budget from the guy jackhammering the sidewalk or the panhandler tossing peanuts to the pet spider monkey he keeps on a leash.

Dave Barry revealed a mastery of this art in his Pulitzer Prize-winning piece for The Miami Herald, “Can New York save itself?”

“As Chuck and I walk along 42nd Street, we see a person wearing an enormous frankfurter costume, handing out coupons good for discounts at Nathan’s Famous hot dog stands. His name is Victor Leise, age 19, of Queens, and he has held the position of giant frankfurter for four months. He says he didn’t have any connections or anything; he just put in an application and, boom, the job was his. Sheer luck. He says it’s OK work, although people call him “Frank” and sometimes sneak up and whack him on the back. Also there is not a lot of room for advancement. They have no hamburger costume.

“Can New York save itself ?” I ask him.

“If there are more cops on the streets, there could be a possibility,” he says, through his breathing hole.”

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

Winning the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 1986, when I was twenty-six, the youngest winner of that prize. (The book came out a year later.) I was a reporter for a smalltown newspaper in Oregon, and although I was getting encouraging letters from The Atlantic and The New Yorker, I had never published a short story anywhere. When John Leggett, director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, phoned me with the good news, my heart was pounding so hard, I could barely gasp, “Really?”

He seemed to take this as a lack of enthusiasm, and said, “This is a very major award, you know.” I croaked, “I … I know.” He hung up, no doubt appalled at my ingratitude, unaware that I was now leaping about my apartment. Then immediately I told myself it couldn’t possibly be true. It was a prank! But who knew I had applied? Not my old college friends. Not my fellow reporters at the paper where I worked; I kept my fiction writing to myself, fearing they would consider it frivolous. My girlfriend had proofread the manuscript, but she wouldn’t be so cruel as to get somebody to punk me like this. The next morning I phoned the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the receptionist laughed at my doubts and assured me I really had won.

I told our managing editor that I had grabbed the award and would be having a book published. He said, “Type up a brief.” I had to admit I was lucky to get even this, there being far less interest in my little triumph than all those meth lab busts and forest fires and school tax base elections.

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

A knight errant in full armor on a bicycle (see Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). Why? My wife sees me as a lonely warrior, battling dragons when I get up at 4 a.m. every day to write fiction. (It helps that I’m an insomniac.) But there’s a ridiculous aspect to the whole enterprise, both in the audacity of imagining the minds of very different people, and in the graphomania that keeps one toiling for years on end for a lower hourly pay than convicts earn stamping license plates.

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

I had just graduated from college as an English major when I somehow talked myself into a newspaper internship on the Longview (Washington) Daily Courier. After a week of repairing my hopelessly roundabout stories, my city editor, David Connelly, sat me down in the morgue and said he was going to teach me how to write a lede. He got out a copy of the Wall Street Journal and pointed to the feature in the center column on page one.

Do it like that, he said. Grab the reader’s attention with the opening line, then drop in a quote, then add a “nut graf” telling the reader why the story was important. Of course, this would be too formulaic for fiction, but something about it connected with me as a literary writer. Establish a conflict right away. Add dialogue. Tell us the stakes—why this matters, what’s at risk for the central characters, why we should read it. Starting out strong is all the more important in the age of smartphones and streaming video. We are at war for readers’ attention. Strike quickly.

This editor also influenced my thinking in my answer to your first question. When Washington state passed a law requiring mandatory jail sentences for drunken drivers, Connelly came to me and said, “How’d you like to go to jail?” He had concocted a scheme to slip me in undercover; only the warden would be aware who I was. Cowlitz County Jail wasn’t Rikers Island, but I was terrified. Nevertheless, I said, “Sure.” I would spend twenty-four hours in cells that included burglars, wife-beaters, meth addicts, and a murderer. I emerged unscathed, and no doubt in far less danger than I imagined, but it made for a thrilling immersion into a criminal world unknown to me as a young writer.