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

Interviews
John Woodrow Cox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The details write the story: Four Questions with Susan Ager

Interviews
Susan Ager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviews
Paula Span

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviews

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

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

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

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

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

Here are excerpts from our conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the entire story and interview here.

Where words sit: Four Questions with Michael Kruse

Interviews
Michael Kruse

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

Humility.

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know—a beaver?

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

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

I’m struggling to come up with just one thing from just one person. But from Terry Egan and the late Mike Levine at the Times Herald-Record in New York … to Mike Wilson and Kelley Benham and Tom French and Lane DeGregory at the Times in Florida and Bill Duryea at the Times and still at POLITICO … to good pals, competitors and peers like Ben Montgomery, Tom Lake and others, a composite of lessons learned, I suppose, might be this: Report, report, report, to earn the right to take charge, to make choices, to run a rope from post to post, stretched taut, taking and using what serves the story and moves it forward, from beginning to middle to end, while unsentimentally leaving behind what does not.

Michael Kruse is a senior staff writer for POLITICO and POLITICO Magazine, where he mostly writes about the president and the people who want to be the president next. A winner of awards from the American Society of News Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Foundation, his work has been anthologized in “The Best American Newspaper Narratives,” “Out There: The Wildest Stories from Outside Magazine “and “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.” A native of the Boston area and a graduate of Davidson College, he lives in North Carolina with his wife, two daughters, two dogs and a guinea pig.

Following the side trips: Four Questions with Lane DeGregory

Interviews
Lane DeGregory

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

 Listen and look around.As a young reporter, especially, I was so focused on gathering all the information I needed that I didn’t pay much attention to things I thought didn’t matter, or take down details like the color of the clouds or the timber of the coach’s voice. Shutting up is hard for me, and I had to train myself to really savor the quiet, note the unanswered questions, and follow the meandering side trips that subjects take you on. I realized that sometimes the seemingly meaningless details open windows into a person’s head or heart.

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

The biggest surprise of my writing life — truly — was: Winning the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.I never ever imagined, or even aspired to, that. It seemed so out of reach, I never even considered the possibility, and was floored when my editor told me they had entered my story as one of three features for the Times. I worked on that story for six months, and had 24 other bylines during that time. I didn’t travel or incur expenses or do anything differently than for any other longer-form feature. And I wasn’t even a finalist for the prize, just one of the top 10 who got “moved into contention by the jury.”  Before that, my biggest writing surprise had been in 1998, when I moved from a tiny bureau at the Virginian-Pilot to the downtown office and instead of covering three news stories a day, I started writing narratives, about one a week. One of my first was about an ice cream truck driver — pretty standard. But a copy editor stopped me in the hall to tell me how much she enjoyed MY WRITING. Not the story, or the information, but specifically MY WRITING. I cried in the bathroom. And knew then that I never wanted to be an editor.

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

The best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me was from Ronald L. Speer, who was my editor at the Virginian-Pilot when I was a young cub on the Outer Banks. He, and this piece of advice, turned me from a reporter into a writer: Put away your notes. The story isn’t in your notebook. It’s in your head. And heart.

I still stash my notes in my car or kitchen before I sit down to write.

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

Ok, I have two metaphors: One from me, another from the girlfriend of former Times’ writer John Barry.I would say, as a writer, I’m like a praying athiest. I’m too jaded and cynical to truly believe in the goodness of humanity, or some benevolent god, and I’m surrounded by ugly, often evil people in the news. But I’m still holding onto the hope that there is such a thing as universal truth and light, so I’m constantly searching for it, especially in the shadows.
John Barry’s girlfriend once told me that my stories reminded her of Lucinda Williams’ songs. I don’t know if I’m really anywhere near that realm, but it’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten: To be able to write gritty, lyrical, earthy ballads that give voice to every day people — stories of folks struggling, surviving, and saving each other.

Lane DeGregory is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Tampa Bay Times who prefers telling stories about people in the shadows. She went to work with a 99-year-old man who still swept out a seafood warehouse, hung out with a boy trying to buy his first Valentine, followed a photographer taking portraits of dying children.

Lane grew up near Washington, D.C., and her parents read the newspaper to her every morning. At age 5, when the Watergate scandal splashed across the front page, she decided she wanted to be a journalist.

She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she was elected editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily student newspaper. Later, she earned a master’s degree from the University of Virginia in rhetoric and communication studies.

For the first decade of her career, Lane wrote news stories for the Charlotte Observer, Daily Progress and Virginian-Pilot. In 2000, she became a features writer for the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times).

Her freelance stories have appeared in Readers’ Digest, High Times, Working Mother and Our State magazines. She wrote one travel book: The Insiders’ Guide to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. 

Lane has been included in four journalism textbooks: Telling True Stories, Newswomen, Feature Writing, Always Get the Name of the Dog. Her stories are featured in four editions of America’s Best Newspaper Writing: 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2008. And a 2018 story is included in that year’s volume of Best American Newspaper Narratives.

She has won dozens of national awards, including twice winning Scripps Howard’s Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing and has been recognized eight times by the National Headliner Awards and eight times by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In 2011, she was named a fellow by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Lane has taught at more than 100 colleges across the country, been adjunct faculty at the University of South Florida, sold-out webinars at the Poynter Institute, recorded YouTube videos on reporting and writing and spoken at journalism conferences around the world.

In 2017, she started a podcast, WriteLane. Each month, listeners on iTunes download an average of 4,000 episodes — on topics from coming up with ideas to finding features off breaking news to telling ghost stories.

Lane is married to a drummer, Dan DeGregory, and they have two sons in college, Ryland and Tucker. She also has a crazy cattle dog named Taz.

Switching from nonfiction to making things up: An Interview with Greg Borowski. Part Two

Interviews
Greg Borowski

Last week, I posted the first part of an interview with Greg Borowski, longtime watchdog editor for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. who every year for the last quarter century has written a short story keyed to the Christmas holidays.

His offering this year was “The Christmas Boxes,” a poignant story about a woman who connects with her dying mother suffering from dementia when she opens a box of Christmas decorations, each with their own memory.  

Borowski’s yearly departure from nonfiction holds important lessons for writers ,whether they’re writing true stories or making them up as I learned when I interviewed him recently for  Nieman Storyboard. Borowski is the author of “First and Long: A Black School, a White School and Their Season of Dreams.”

In this installment, he talks about whether writers of fiction need to report their stories, the differences and similarities between fiction and narrative nonfiction and the lessons nonfiction writers can learn from trying their hand at fiction.

Here’s the second part of our conversation, reprinted with permission.

You oversee projects and investigative stories? Do you hope the journalists you supervise will take inspiration for their own narratives from stories like this one?

I think writers get better by writing, but also by reading good writing. And good writing can be found in all sorts of places. 

Inspiration can come from anywhere.

The key: Don’t read a great story and think “How could I ever do that?” Instead, approach it as: “How did they do that?” The former makes fiction seem like an unattainable form of art, the latter positions it as the craft it is.

We can all get better at our craft by practicing it.

The story is peppered with dialogue. How important is that?


I think the dialogue is vital. I usually start out with too much and realize some of what is being said should be part of an expository paragraph, and some is just extra words and does not belong at all. I find reading the dialogue aloud helps, and reading it quickly. That forces you to say it as you’d say it, not as it is written, which helps make it feel more authentic. In some respects, the dialogue is the most intimate part of a scene — you’re not just watching what is happening from afar, you’re listening to a conversation. So, a little bit can go a long way.

How does your work as a journalist influence the writing of this story?

Many of the same rules apply: Hook the reader with a strong lead — not just the lead at the start of the story, but the lead for each of the sections. Same goes for the endings. Provide hooks throughout that pull the reader along. Pare back your prose. Never be boring.

Really, the biggest advantage is the discipline any veteran reporter has to just get something on the screen to work with — and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, to polish your way to the strongest verbs and tightest sentences and crispest dialogue. 

Good reporters know the stories that resonate most with readers are the ones that speak to deeper themes and ideas. You always have to be able to answer the question: “What is the story about?” 

In this case, you can answer it by saying it is a story about a woman who dies on Christmas Eve and her estranged daughter who arrives at her bedside. 

Or you can answer that it’s a story about: Loss. Forgiveness. Memory. Love.

The first answer — the plot — is just a means to illuminate the second, the theme.

Did you draw anything in the story from life?

Lots of things. Part of the original concept came from the experience with my late grandmother. Like the character, her name was Susan; her husband was Leonard. As a kid, I used to get tasked with helping my grandmother make ornaments — those kits that require precise beads and sequins. And, yes, she got to press the pins in while I put the beads on in the right order.

The living room belongs to a great aunt, though there were plastic runners on the floor instead of plastic on the couch. I remember visits as a kid where it seemed like there was nothing you were allowed to touch. The trio of ceramic angels were heirlooms on my mother’s side, though I got one of the instruments wrong. (Why would angels have cymbals?). 

Usually, I tuck in the names of nieces or nephews, or children of friends. My daughter, Annaliese, is in every story — not by name, but usually a referenced age or, in this story the sixth-grade.

I don’t write the stories from life, but there are always pieces of life in the stories.

The story is full of textbook examples demonstrating the power of show don’t tell. Instead of saying her soldier father died, perhaps in a war, you write, “On the end table was a photo of her father, his Army uniform ever pressed, his smile ever easy, his eyes ever bright. Lauren had never met him — she came along three months after he passed — but knew the story well: Her mother was expecting a Christmas Eve phone call, but got a knock on the door instead. The flag, precisely folded, was in a case on the mantel.” Why did you compose it this way?

One practical thing that has strengthened my stories, I think, is the need to keep them short enough to be printed out with Christmas cards. They must fit on a piece of legal paper, landscape mode, four columns of text on each side. This enforces some discipline on the process, and requires me to develop sharp themes and crisp scenes. 

The paragraph you cite is typical of at least a few that come up each year, where I need to tell a lot in a few words. Here I was trying to describe the living room, give a backstory for the characters and encapsulate the conflict that needs resolution. At the same time, I wanted to convey a feeling of wistfulness.

Do you think journalists should try their hand at fiction?

Yes. I think writers of all stripes only get better when they try new things and push their own envelopes. Likewise, writers of fiction would probably learn a lot by trying their hand at narrative nonfiction, as it would force them to work on a different set of related skills. 

In recent years, I have become a runner and know you don’t get better just by running. You have to do cross-training, too, to strengthen different muscles. The same applies here.

You can read the entire story here.

Switching from nonfiction to making things up: An Interview with Greg Borowski. Part One

Interviews

Every year for the past quarter-century, Greg Borowski, longtime watchdog editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writes a short story keyed to the holiday. His offering this year was “The Christmas Boxes,” a poignant story about a woman who connects with her dying mother suffering from dementia when she opens a box of Christmas decorations, each with their own memory.  

Writing fiction has profound implications for those trying to get better at narrative nonfiction. And vice versa.
That’s what  I learned recently when I interviewed Borowski for Nieman Storyboard.

Narrative writers like Borowski, whose credits also include “First and Long: A Black School, a White School and Their Season of Dreams,” call on the same tools to produce the verisimiltude that their fiction counterparts strive for: details, scenes, dialogue, drama and suspense. But there is a crucial distinction.

Here’s an excerpt from our interview, reprinted with permission:

Your story has all the elements of narrative nonfiction. How do you manage to write a made up story that feels so real?
I tend to fall back on techniques I learned as a journalist: Use only telling details. Make every word count. Cut anything that does not advance the story. Don’t use quotes/dialogue as exposition. Less is more.

With these stories, I try to write cinematically. That is, I can see the scene in my head — where people are standing, what the room looks like, every nod, gesture, voice inflection. When people are told to write descriptively, it can come off like an inventory of a room. When they describe action, it can read like stage directions. My goal is to have the reader feel like the scene is happening in front of them — for them to experience the story, not just read the story.

Beyond that, I try to do double duty with descriptions.

For instance, in the first paragraphs of the story, I wanted to get across the idea Lauren is a busy professional woman in a tough spot at Christmastime without saying any of those words. Likewise, I felt like I had a single paragraph to describe both the house where she grew up and what it was like to grow up without a father around.


Even though it’s fiction, do you have to report it?
As a rule, yes. But the stories I write generally focus on relationships between people, and often carry some magical Santa-esque element.

Rather than reporting out scenes and locations, I think of this more in terms of making sure the stories hold together within themselves. That is, does the reality they create — even if it’s something fanciful or magical — ring true? As I work through the drafts, I try to scrub them with that in mind: Is the character consistent throughout the story? Do the ages and timelines fit together properly? My wife, Katy, who is usually the first person to read them, is a good check on this. So is Jim Higgins, an editor at the Journal Sentinel who coordinates getting them published in print and online each year.

When they raise questions of reality or continuity, I sometimes want to reply: “Come on. It’s fiction. Anything can happen in fiction.” But that’s lazy and untrue. Instead, their questions are a sign I need to go back and rework something.

You’re an investigative journalist. How is writing fiction the same and dramatically different from narrative journalism?
The parts that are the same are easy. You need subjects/characters that are well-developed, a structure that includes conflicts or obstacles, strong dialogue and a resolution that is satisfying and true to the story. In short, something has to happen in the story and everything that is included has to drive the reader to that conclusion. Additionally, both forms require a steady hand from the writer. You’re taking the reader along for a ride, so the reader has to feel comfortable — not that they won’t be saddened or joyful along the way, or that there won’t be any twists or turns. Just comfortable that you, the author, know where you are going and can get them there.

For me, a major difference is that with narrative nonfiction you’re often trying to take real life, the ordinary, and make it feel special or magical. In my Christmas stories, I’m trying to take the magical and make it seem ordinary. That is, grounding it in reality. For instance, in this year’s story, I knew I needed a few touchstone family decorations as a plot device. I knew one would be a snow globe because, well, my daughter has several that come out at Christmas time and it seemed to fit.

It wasn’t until I typed out what was inside the snow globe — a winter scene with a church — that the next line of dialogue popped into my head:“That’s our church. That’s where I got married.” It wasn’t until I put the snow globe into the mother’s hands and allowed her to shake it, that I realized it was a metaphor for things being jumbled and then settling. And, really, that’s the arc of the story itself.


What lessons can writers of narrative nonfiction draw from writing fiction?
I think there are lots of lessons to be drawn simply from trying something different.

A major lesson, though, is that to truly resonate with readers, a story has to operate on multiple levels. You need the strong characters and cliffhangers and twists to pull you along, but what’s the deeper thing the story is really about? Redemption. Forgiveness. Healing.

Once you settle on that, it should inform and shape the structure, plot and dialogue and everything else that goes into the piece.

Next week: Part Two

Doing the Work: Three Questions with Bryan Gruley

Interviews

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

Do the work. That’s a variation on the familiar “ass in chair” exhortation, but it refers to much more than typing words on a screen. Mark Lett, my longtime boss at The Detroit News and later the executive editor of The State at Columbia, S.C., used the phrase often. “Do the work” means attending to all of the tasks—some more tedious than others—that lead to results. When I’m pursuing a non-fiction story in my day job as a feature writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, doing the work means, for instance, looking at every page of notes, documents, and other materials I’ve gathered in my weeks of research, even though only about 1 percent of what’s there is likely to make it into my story. As a novelist, doing the work is more about sitting at my laptop every morning and putting words to digital paper. Whether it’s 300 or 500 or 1,000 words a day, if I keep doing the work, I know I’ll eventually have enough in front of me that I can begin to see my way to the middle of a book and, finally, an end. I’ve heard writers say, “That story just wrote itself.” If only.

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

That people would profess to love something I wrote. I still get a thrill when a reader posts an online comment or sends me an email saying they liked one of my pieces or books. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m still disappointed when people dislike something I’ve written (which happens much more with fiction than non-fiction). My favorite comment ever is probably an email I received from one Evan Vetere, a Wall Street Journal subscriber. I had written a Page One story about a World War II lieutenant and the Jewish boy he rescued from Dachau. Mr. Vetere wrote me: “Your profession exists so people like you can write stories like this.” I’ll never forget it

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

Although it’s not entirely accurate, the one that pops immediately to mind is tortoise. I’m not a particularly slow writer, and sometimes, especially on deadline, I can be pretty fast. On September 11, 2001, I took 30,000 words of WSJ staff memos and turned them into a 3,000-word front-page story in under three hours. But I am tortoise-deliberate. I have a process that revolves mostly around elimination. In my non-fiction day job, I pile interviews, observations, documents and other stuff into big piles of clay that I then whittle away, getting ridding of stuff until what remains is my story. Fiction is different insofar as I have a lot more material I can use—virtually everything I’ve ever seen, heard, smelled, tasted, overheard, read, imagined, etc. I start by choosing what to put on the page. As the words multiply and the characters come more clearly into focus, the story actually begins to narrow because as I’m choosing where it will go, I’m also choosing where it will not, and the farther it goes in one direction, the less likely it’s going to go in infinite others. Then, when I’m rewriting, I’m doing a lot more subtraction than addition. Unlike some writers I know, I love rewriting, especially the tactile feel of using a pen to strike out words, phrases, and sentences. Eventually, I know that if I do the work and stick to my laborious process, I will give myself the best chance to produce something that someone will tell me they love.

Bryan Gruley is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of “Bleak Harbor,” which Gillian Flynn called “an electric bolt of suspense,” and his latest crime thriller, “Purgatory Bay,” which Michael Connelly says is “impossible to put down.” Gruley was nominated for an Edgar for his debut novel, “Starvation Lake,” the first in a trilogy set in a fictional northern Michigan town. When he’s not making things up, Gruley writes long-form features on a wide variety of topics as a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. He has won numerous prizes for his journalism, and shared in The Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Pam.

Making peace with your weaknesses: Three questions with David Finkel

Interviews

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

If reporting is always getting the name of the dog, writing is knowing when not to use the name of the dog.

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

The surprise is that I could even have a writing life, but that’s a lame answer, so let me go back to the first question. Another lesson I’ve learned is the importance of being methodical. Not that there’s one, perfect method, but the one that has worked for me is knowing my ending before I begin writing.  I used to get so lost in writing when I didn’t do this, as if magic, rather than method, would solve the day. Now, if I know my ending, and I mean the actual ending, down to the last sentence, even the last word, it means I know that my reporting is finished and I have a story to tell as opposed to, say, a caption to write. It also means I know the emotional tone of the piece and I can structure my material to get there as consistently and efficiently as possible. In every story I’ve done over the second half of my career, including my books, I’ve known my ending before I wrote the beginning.

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

I’m terrible at metaphors, so I’m going to pass on this one except to say part of writing is making peace with your weaknesses and avoiding them.

David Finkel is a journalist and author of “The Good Soldiers,” an account of a U.S. infantry battalion during the Iraq War, and “Thank You For Your Service,” a sequel that chronicles the challenges faced by soldiers and their families in war’s aftermath. An editor and writer for The Washington Post, Finkel has reported from Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, and across the United States, and has covered wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Among his honors are a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2006 and a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2012.  He lives in the Washington, D.C. area.