BOOKBAG: Deconstructing the Writing Process Behind “The Sopranos”

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One of the treasured books on my shelves is a copy of The Sopranos: Selected Scripts from Three Seasons.” published in 2002.

It reproduces shooting scripts of five episodes of the award-winning HBO mob drama, which was destination TV between 1999 and 2007, and which continues to be a long-running cable rerun hit.

 Its sterling cast was led by the late James Gandolfini, whose nuanced performance as depressive, violent Tony Soprano was peeled away by therapy with psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi, achieving the impossible: sympathy for a homicidal crime boss. Gandolfini’s bravura anti-hero performance is considered one of the most powerful in television history.

Among the scripts is my favorite: “Pine Barrens”, about the hapless adventures of Tony’s underlings Christopher and Paulie, after an “errand,” aka mob hit, targeting Valery, a Russian gangster who works for money launderer Slava, goes sour and they have to dispose of his body in the thickly-wooded forest that blankets more than seven counties in New Jersey.

The pair spend a bone-chilling night in the Pine Barrens hunting for the victim who turns out to have nine lives. In this excerpt, static over cell phones between the pair and Tony lead to an elliptical hysterically profane and funny mix-up, one of the dark humor through lines that makes the series so unexpectedly appealing. Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher, said, “That episode was like a little one-act play. Like a different version of Waiting for Godot.” 

EXT. STREET – DAY

Tony walks down the street outside Slava’s, talking on his cell phone as he heads to the Suburban.

TONY

(through some static)

It’s a bad connection so I’m gonna talk fast!

The guy you’re looking for is an ex-commando!

He killed sixteen Chechen rebels single-handed!

PAULIE

Get the fuck outta here.

TONY

Yeah. Nice, huh? He was with the Interior Ministry.

Guy’s like a Russian green beret. He can not

come back and tell this story. You understand?

PAULIE

I hear you.

EXT. WOODS – DAY

Paulie clicks off, looks at Christopher.

PAULIE

You’re not gonna believe this.

(off Christopher’s look)

He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator.

CHRISTOPHER

(amazed)

His house looked like shit.

You can watch a 10-minute clip of from “Pine Barrens.”

Beside offering complet scripts that are invaluable role models for any student or practitioner of scriptwriting is the four-page introduction by David Chase, creator of the multiple Emmy Award-winning series.  In it, he reveals the writing process behind “The Sopranos,” a series that reflects Chase’s love for “the foreign films I loved as a young adult for their ideas, their mystery and their ambiguity…”

From Chase’s intro, I’ve boiled down the show’s formula, a step-by-step run-through of the journey that Chase and his fellow writers took to produce a series that ranked first in Rolling Stone’s 2016 list of the 100 greatest TV shows of all time.

1. Outline story arcs or “touchstones.”

Touchstone is Chase’s term for what journalists and many other writers call the “focus,” or theme, that is, what the story is really about. As the show’s creator and executive producer, these are his call. “The main theme of season 2,” Chase explains, is “plateau therapy — it deals with what Tony discovered and acknowledged in therapy during season one and the feelings these insights evoked.”

2. Fill in the outline.

The touchstone will play out over the season’s 13 episodes, each of which features three to four story “strands — What we call an A, B, (the main storylines) C, (a less major strand) or even D storyline, usually a comic runner.”

As a template, Chase uses “The Happy Wanderer” episode, the one where gambler David Scatino loses at high stakes poker and pays off Tony with his son’s SUV: “The A strand of the story is the spider-fly relationship between Tony and David and how they both behave according to their true natures … The B story is the relationship between Meadow and Eric Scatino (the two men’s teenage children) … The C strand is Tony finding out he has a retarded uncle, and the D story is the funeral for the father of Tony’s brother-in law.”

3. Flesh out the story

In the writing room, Chase and the show’s other writer/producers “flesh out the story for each episode, listing the ‘beats,’ i.e. scenes, for the A-D stories, one story at a time, on a wipe-off board. Each strand has a beginning, middle and end and could stand alone as films.”

That explanation helped me understand why the Sopranos, unlike almost all other TV fare, so often delivers the narrative satisfaction of a feature film, that sense that characters have reached a resolution, if not a final stop. At its most frustrating, as with the infuriating finale, episodes stopped frustratingly short of a satisfying ending.

Each episode has about 35 beats; with the main A and B strands each getting 13 scenes. The C strand gets 5 or 6 and the comic runner D plays out in “just a few beats.”

4. Cut and (Scotch) Tape

The scenes on the board are typed up and then “literally cut apart with scissors” and then “married” together with Scotch tape in the order of the complete script. “For example, a scene from story A could be followed by a scene from B, then back to A, then C and so on,” Chase explains.

Once the writers are satisfied with the scene order “aka story” the taped pages are retyped and voila: an outline that the writer, whoever he is, must faithfully follow.

5. Writing and Whacking

Scripts may go through 10 drafts, revised with notes from Chase and other producers, before they’re seen by any of the cast or crew. And even after filming, Chase may spend months in the editing room, generating “many cuts all the way to the final — which could include reordering and omitting scenes.”

“I firmly believe,” Chase says, “that the more time a filmmaker has to edit, the better a piece will be.”

What impressed me about Chase’s deconstruction was the way the process mixes creativity with mechanical procedures, equal parts brainstorming and Scotch tape. Even the most creative enterprise involves a measure of tedium. 

You can read the entire bootlegged script for “The Sopranos” pilot, the only one I could find, to see these elements at work.

Meanwhile, as fans waited for the the next episodes— Will Tony sleep with the fishes? Will Carmela run off to Italy with Furio? Will Christopher stay off smack? Will Meadow find her own mob man? Will Dr. Melfi get Tony back on Prozac and into the witness protection program?–thanks to HBO (subscription required), they can still watch reruns of all and watch as each strand of “The Sopranos’” stories weaves a dramatic experience that compelled millions of law-abiding Americans to turn a stone-cold killer into a star.

The story-behind-the-scripts is  a fascinating process, and one that I think any storyteller can profit from studying. I’m grateful to David Chase for revealing it.

Displaying a refreshing humility for someone who’s achieved such success, Chase concludes his essay by paying homage to a legendary Japanese filmmaker and an attitude about craft dedication that he clearly emulates.

 “I remember Akira Kurosawa saying at age 80-something that the great thing about filmmaking is you’re constantly learning. He was still learning, he said.”

And despite the Sopranos’ critical and commercial success, Chase said, “We’re continuing to learn.”

Modern Love: Cracking the personal essay formula

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The “Modern Love” column is one of the most popular New York Times features and a much sought-after credit for freelancers. Attaining that goal isn’t easy. Just one out of every 100 “viable essays:- “meaning essays that are reasonably well written and targeted to the column” are chosen for publication, says its editor Daniel Jones.

“Modern Love” is not just a writer’s prize. It’s the personal essay in its purest form, universal stories of “love, loss and redemption” told with uncommon skill and grace.

 On Twitter, Facebook and Q&A, Jones has generously shared the requirements he’s established for serious consideration. Writer Laura Copeland has tracked these down and generously collected them in a Google Doc. 

I was thrilled when I found this resource. I’m a huge fan of the personal essay, having published several over the years. I’ve taught it in numerous seminars, helping shepherd many into publications, and persuaded teachers to add the assignment to their curriculums. Jones’s observations and recommendations constitute a master class, rich with advice, much of it applicable no matter what form or genre you work in. It’s worth your attention but as it’s long, I’ll present a sampling here and recommend you read all of Jones’ good advice, linked below.

Remember why people read stories

“To find out what happens,” Jones says.

“Don’t underestimate the power of a reader’s curiosity, whether you’re writing a short story or a personal essay. Too often people give everything away at the start. In newspaper articles, you’re supposed to put all the important information at the top, right?”

Modern Love essays, like good fiction and narrative nonfiction, should unfold “a dramatic arc, with mystery and surprise. If the surprise in your story is the fact that your unlikely relationship led to marriage, don’t say in the first line: “I met my future wife at a cocktail party…” 

Be generous with the reader…..but GRADUALLY.

Cliche alert

In the many essays Jones reads every month, the same words, phrases “or stylistic tics” appear again. In other words, the worn-out use of cliches. They’re not just annoying, “they signal trouble with the writing to come.”  Ever use any of these? Don’t if you want to avoid rejection.

  1. I’ll never forget
  2. I’ll always remember
  3. If I had to do it all over again
  4. Literally
  5. A. Sentence. With. A. Period. After. Every. Word.
  6. I curled up in a fetal position
  7. I curled up with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s

Submission guidelines

If you’re prone to touting the power of your essay, “describing its plotline or listing your degrees and writing credits” in a cover lettter, don’t bother, Jones says. “I pay little attention to someone’s writing background when I read an essay. I don’t even have time to read a cover note that’s more than two sentences long…I judge a submission solely on the writing before me.” A perfectly suitable cover note will say nothing more than: “I wrote this essay with your column in mind. I hope you enjoy it.”

More than one at a time:  

When I started freelancing in the 1970s, simultaneous submissions were frowned upon. The North American Review said it would never again consider a writer who sent a story to another publication. It was unfair. Writers could wait months for a reply only to get a rejection and have to start over. Considerate editors like Jones no longer have a problem with writers sending their essays to places other than the Times. With that in mind, I recently submitted a short story to a dozen publications.

But if you’re lucky enough to get accepted, let the other editors know immediately. There’a chance they’ll be impressed and look for your work in the future. One thing is certain, if you wait and waste their time they going to be “really annoyed.”

When the answer is No

Rejections hurt with any story, but hearing no about your personal essay has a special sting.”You may feel like it’d you being rejected,” says Jones, who’s been on the receiving end, too. What you may not know is that the editors are looking for a different mix, a fresh voice, a compelling angle,  or heeding a suggestion to shift topics from their boss. As someone who once considered laminating his desk with rejection slips, I find his bottom line comforting: “There is no bar of quality to clear that then ensures publication in any particular column. Other factors will always be in play, and you can’t know what those are, so try not to let any one rejection paralyze you or even set you back.”

 Further reading

Jones recommends two books for those interested in mastering the personal essay::“The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative ”by Vivian Gornick and “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction” by Tracy Kidder and Kidder’s longtime editor, Richard Todd.

For models you can study, Jones has edited “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss and Redemption.”

You can read Copeland’s entire compilation here

In praise of slacking

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The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil 1874
Edouard Manet 

For decades, economists, labor activists and researchers have lobbied for the four-day workweek. Companies are now beginning to listen.

How about a four-hour workday?

For years, I’ve been reading interviews with authors, full-time authors chiefly — who have described that or thereabouts as their limit.

That’s why I so much enjoyed “Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too, a fascinating article in “The Nautilus” which dissects the work habits of successful scientists, musicians, and authors.

While their workdays were short, writer Alex Soojung-Kim Pang found, their achievements were huge.

“Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus.”

Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they spent only a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work.

The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking.

Their creativity and productivity, in other words, were not the result of endless hours of toil. Their towering creative achievements resulted from modest “working” hours.”

Pang clocked their workdays:

Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who wrote more than 30 novels: 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., put in after his day job as a civil servant. He took Fridays off.

Stephen King, more than forty novels, most best-sellers: a thousand words a day, in the morning. More than that is a “strenuous day.”

Some writers stretched their workday, but not by much. Ernest Hemingway put in six hours as did Gabriel García Márquez. But among these literary luminaries, the eight-hour day was absent; three to four hours seemed to be the average.

Ernest Hemingway writing at a campsite in Kenya/National Archives and Records Administration

These writers weren’t lazy. They understood their limits, either instinctively or through experience, and knew that by working longer days they risked burnout, a creativity killer.

Clearly, this approach isn’t going to work in many fields. Can you imagine a newspaper reporter telling his editor, “Boss, I’m only going work four hours a day from now on?” Or telling your department chair you’re going to do the same? You’ll probably be shown the door. Consider showing them this article which is adapted from Pang’s book, “REST: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.” The piece shows that brief daily sessions, focused with deliberate attention will improve your chances of success.

Let’s face it. We waste a lot of time during the day: chatting (gossiping) with colleagues, procrastination. Subtract all that and the workday sounds like those of successful writers and musicians.

Pang gets support from Robert Boice, a psychologist, who prescribed “brief daily sessions,” writing 10-60 minutes at a time, no more than 3-4 hours a day, followed by “comfort periods,” such as rest or other activities. This is the case even when writing is your “full-time” job.

The objective: to establish “regular work related to writing,” he wrote in the pricey cult classic “How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: a Psychological Adventure,” which chronicles his work with blocked academics. “Be quick, but don’t hurry,” Boice said. “That is the secret to good writing.” His research found that binge writers produced far fewer pages than writers who followed his method.

Writing with full attention

Two factors determined the success of successful “slackers” profiled by Pang. They recognized the importance of rest to recharge their creative batteries and they were masters of time management. When it came time to work, they gave it their full attention. (Of course, as several commenters noted, they also had wives who took care of family and home responsibilities, freeing them to write and take long walks.)

Writing, like the mastery of a musical instrument, demands “deliberate practice,” Pang writes, “engaging with full concentration in a special activity to improve one’s performance.”

This is possible even if you have a full-time job and can devote only part of your day or week pursuing your writing dreams.

It may take longer to finish your projects this way, but if you burn yourself out with long work sessions, chances are strong you’ll quit anyway.

How well do you manage your time? Do you work with relentless focus or fritter the time away, stopping to surf the Web, or heading to the break room to learn the latest office gossip when you’re stumped?

Or when you’ve put in a productive stretch of work, do you decide to keep working or do you hit save, take a walk with the family, or read a good novel or essay just for the enjoyment of it?

Go ahead. You deserve it.


Writing for Story: A look back at Jon Franklin’s masterpiece

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In 1986,  two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Franklin put all of his knowledge about writing narrative nonfiction into a book. Three decades later it stands the test of time

In 1979, Jon Franklin won the first Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” a dramatic rendering of a brain operation that focused on a surgeon who fought and lost a battle with a tumor. 

Six years later, in 1985, Franklin won his second Pulitzer, this one for explanatory reporting for “The Mind Fixers, “a seven-part series about the new science of molecular psychiatry.

A year later, he published “Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize winner.” Three decades later, it remains one of the finest handbooks available to the budding writer of narrative nonfiction.

The book still succeeds because Franklin is not just a superb writer, but a reflective practitioner and willing teacher who shares the lessons of his craft with clarity and generosity. He describes his methodology as a “step-by-step cookbook approach.” If you follow it, as I learned, you can write successful narrative nonfiction. 

I purchased the book shortly after it appeared, put its lessons into practice, and can testify to its power. To prepare for a new writing project, I recently dove back into my copy.

I was pleased to see that it was just as instructive and inspirational as I remembered.

Here are some of the most cogent lessons, mostly in Franklin’s own words,  that jumped out at me as keepers; consider it a sort of Cliff Notes version of a book that deserves a spot on every storyteller’s bookshelf.

 Franklin presents a coherent, easy to follow (if challenging to achieve) formula to build a story that can produce compelling stories.

He based his prize-winning theories on his study of short fiction, specifically the stories of Ernest Heminway, John Steinbeck and other writers that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and other popular magazines of the 1930’s and ‘40. These publications, he said, amounted to “the universal school for writers.”

The fiction they published rested on a simple but elegant formula: a complication, plus a body (or) development) and a resolution.” Franklin applies and expands the lessons of that form to the nonfiction story.

Among the highlights:

  • “A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” 
  • “A complication is any problem encountered by any human being; it’s an event that triggers a situation that complicates our lives…” For instance, a surgeon confronts an intractable tumor or ‘Joe loses his job.”
  • “To be of literary value, a complication must be not only basic but also significant to the human condition.”
  • “A resolution is simply any change in the character or situation that resolves the complication.”
  • “Most newspaper stories are endings without beginnings attached.” You can find story ideas by finding a good ending and reversing the order. 
  • You implement the formula by writing the complication, developments and resolution on three by five cards.
  • You must cast them in three words and in terms of action: “Cancer strikes Joe.” “Joe overcomes cancer.”
  • Avoid static or passive verbs: has, had, were, was, is, be, am, being been. Verbs must be action verbs.
  • “Once you’ve stated your complications and resolution in terms of clear action, identify the actions your character takes in his attempts to overcome the complication… using three-word active statements, you should be able to form a chronological chain of actions that lead either directly or indirectly from the complication to the resolution. This composes the development of your story. The complication, the action events that flow from it, and finally the resolution compose the backbone of the true story. A fiction writer would say you now have your plot.”
  • Outlining is essential. “With an outline you can think your story through, quickly and without great effort. Massive structural problems will stand out, and you can solve them with the stroke of a pen. You can think the story through, time and again, very quickly, and still retain the energy, enthusiasm and freshness you need to do a good job when it comes time to actually write the story.”
  • An outline might look like this
    • Complication: Company fires Joe
    • Development: 
      • 1.  Depression paralyzes Joe
      • 2. Joe regains confidence
      • 3. Joe sues company
    • Resolution: Joe regains job
  • The story must adhere rigorously to the facts. You can’t make up anything to fit your focus.
  • “If all else is done properly, The most dramatic aspect of any story is growth and change in the main character. The growth and change should be made the central part of the outline, so that it will emerge as the backbone of the story. 

In addition to the craft lessons, Franklin also reproduces “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” which won the Pulitzer, “ and his series, “The Ballad of Old Man Peters,” both of which he annotates.

Although the rest of the books contains more information about structure and revision, the lessons I itemized are the most vital for anyone contemplating a piece of narrative nonfiction.

I bought the book shortly after it appeared when word of its publication was spreading among narrative and would-be-narrative writers and their editors. I decided to try and put its lessons into practice as soon as possible. 

By chance, a call to theSt. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) reached me in the features department where I worked as a staff writer. 

The caller was an elderly man named Bert Mudd who had an interesting, but dubious, story to tell. Mudd said his older brother Thaddeus had been murdered  in his home in Viginia. Bert Mudd was going to find his murderer. With my marked up copy of “Writing for Story” staring at me from my desk, I asked if I could tag along.

Once I returned, with bulging notebooks and several audio tapes, I set to work.

It took a while before I could match Franklin’s formula, but eventually, I came up with:

Complication: Brother hunts killer

Resolution: Brother identifies killer

In between, I sketched out Mudd’s the developments: his travels north, fruitless encounters with authorities, his indefatigable sleuthing that led to a chance encounter with the man who would be charged, along with another man, with  his brother’s killing. Because I’m working from memory here, I can’t replicate what I wrote on the cards that charted the development of the story between the complication and the resolution, but the three-word complication and resolution are tattooed into my brain.

The story, “His Brother’s Keeper,” was splashed across the front page of the features section. That day, I received two phone calls. One was from the editor of a local magazine who offered me a freelance assignment. The other came from an English professor at the University of Tampa. She invited me to give a reading of the story.

The other day, I asked Franklin to what he attributed the staying power of the lessons in his book. He replied:

“I think the lessons had power when I was able to channel our forbears.  Adapt the things they knew, re-digest it and recast it for the modern reader.  It also dovetails into things we are just discovering about the brain and behavior.

I first discovered complication resolution from that wonderful book, “The Professional Story Writer and His Art.” But the authors got it from Chekhov, and I’m sure Chekhov stood on the shoulders of giants.  So in my own way I was sort of writing literary history.

‘These ways of conceptualizing story go back at least three thousand years — and may be genetically controlled.  Certainly the anatomy of story mirrors the anatomy of the human brain. Catch the harmonics of that and you will hold fire in your hands. (That from John Steinbeck.)

I was half biopsychologist even back then.”

If you’re interested in writing narrative nonfiction, you owe it to yourself to get Franklin’s book, either by buying it or borrowing it from your local library. It’s formulaic, to be sure, but the formula works. I recommend you also take a look at “Jon Franklin and “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,”” a 2012 Nieman Storyboard article by its editor, Paige Williams, who interviewed Franklin and reproduces the annotation found at the back of his book. In her introduction, Paige, now a staff writer at The New Yorker, said the story “never fails to captivate or instruct.”

The same can be said for “Writing for Story.”

Gay Talese’s Writing Life

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Gay Talese is generally considered one of the pioneers of today’s narrative nonfiction movement.

In the 1960s, Talese, then a reporter for The New York Times, and later as a contributor to Esquire magazine, began producing a series of singular stories — among them a seminal portrait of Frank Sinatra that redefined the profile — credited with helping to launch a literary journalism movement that continues to this day.

I recently read “A Writer’s Life,” Talese’s 2006 memoir that takes readers behind the scenes of his most famous stories. It’s also an autobiography that traces his development as a writer. For fans of the New Journalism and Gay Talese, it’s a bounty of revealing information and inspiration.

His recollections of the stories he’s covered, from the famous profile of an aging Frank Sinatra (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”) to the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, display his trademark devotion to detail and dialogue and a richly woven style of the finest fiction writers.

Little wonder. As an ambitious young sportswriter at The New York Times, Talese “nevertheless continued to read and be influenced primarily by writers of fiction,” he writes. Reading literary supplements and The New Yorker, the son of an Italian immigrant who made bespoke suits would go on to make his name as a writer of celebrated nonfiction.

He describes a seminal moment in his development: a short story by John O’Hara about court tennis that presaged the standards of his own work as a daily journalist, magazine contributor and author.

“…it did not seem to matter in this case whether or not O’Hara was writing fiction; insofar as he had  woven into a story the facts and details about the club and the game, he had met the demanding standards of accuracy as upheld daily by the desk editors in the Times sports department.” 

What impressed Talese most was the good fiction writer’s ability to place the reader there , which is what he would go on to do in his own work. Immersing himself in the lives of his subjects became his method for putting readers into the lives of his subjects. Today, it’s common practice for narrative journalists. Back then, it was revolutionary.

Above all, Talese was a reporter who trafficked in facts, but would not be limited by them.  In that way, “A Writer’s Life” is a master class in drawing the distinction between the two.

“Without faking the facts, my reportorial approach would be fictional,” he writes, “with lots of intimate detail, scene-setting, dialogue, and a close identity with my chosen characters and their conflicts.”

“Without faking the facts, my reportorial approach would be fictional, with lots of intimate detail, scene-setting, dialogue, and a close identity with my chosen characters and their conflicts.”

Gay Talese

The memoir is replete with descriptions of a writing habit that revolves around painstaking handwritten drafts and endless revisions that set an example for any writer who dares imitate him. 

And for those fascinated, as am I, by the rituals of successful writers, Talese doesn’t disappoint. 

“When I am writing, each morning at around 8 I’m at my desk with a tray of muffins and a thermos filled with hot coffee at my side, and I sit working for about 4 hours and then leave for a quick lunch at a coffee shop, follows perhaps by a set or two of tennis. By 4 p.m. I’m back at my desk revising, discarding, or adding to what I had written earlier.”

At 8 p.m. he’s enjoying a numbing dry martini before dinner.

For decades, his writing instrument of choice was a manual typewriter which he lavished with obsessive care.

“Although my portable Olivetti manual typewriters purchased during the 1950’s are dented and wobbly after my having hammered out more than a million words through miles of moving ribbons (I have also secured several loose letters to their arms with threads of dental floss) I nonetheless continue to use these machines at times because of the aesthetic appeal of their typefaces, their classical configuration imposed upon each and every word.”

Eventually, he succumbs to the computer age (Macintosh), but for most of his writing, he now reverts to the instruments that predate the digital recorders of thought or even the banging of his beloved Olivettis.

“I was now reconciled,” he says, “to accepting what I had experienced throughout my working life; Whatever serious writing I was capable of doing would be done most likely in my own handwriting, on a  yellow lined- pad, with a pencil.” 

You can’t but hope some of Gay Talese, his precise vocabulary, the contrast between short sentences and winding ones that transfix, rubs off on your own work. “A Writer’s Life” can certainly help.


Talese is definitely a quirky guy. He keeps twins of everything he needs to write in his Manhattan and summer home:  computers, printers, typewriters, photocopiers, wastebaskets, pencil sharpeners, fountain pens, even clothes.

Emulating Marcel Proust’s cork-lined bedroom, he covers his home office walls with Styrofoam panels, “each Panel 10 ft long, 2 feet wide, an inch thick;” not, apparently, to deafen distracting sounds, but to attach his notes and manuscript pages with the tool of his father’s  trade: dressmaking pins, “or, on those rare occasions when my work is flowing, the many manuscript pages filled with finished prose that dangle overhead like a line of drying white laundry, fluttering slightly from the effects of a distant fan.” A single phrase that makes visible the joy of reading his style.  

Talese devotes most of the book to the stories behind his stories—his coverage of the Lorena Bobbit case, a closely chaperoned visit to China, his many stories of the boxer Floyd Patterson, and the actor Peter O’Toole.

I would have liked to have heard about how he wrote “Mr. Bad News,” a fascinating portrait of Alden Whitman, an obituary writer for The York Times,” which I first encountered in 1972 in his early collection of nonfiction, “Fame and Obscurity: A Book About New York, a Bridge and Celebrities on the Edge,” when I was a young reporter for a small daily newspaper with dreams of writing fiction. I treasure my dog-eared, autographed copy.

Talese turned my attention, like many writers of my generation, to narrative nonfiction. To better understand the birth and demands of the form, “The New Journalism,” an anthology edited by Tom Wolfe, himself an early master of the form, and E.W. Johnson, should be read as a companion piece to Talese’s memoir.

Wolfe’s introduction is a semester’s worth of training while the stories demonstrate what is possible using Talese’s methods. The book was instrumental in my development as a narrative writer and many others I have known.

Mr. Bad News,’” which Esquire thankfully keeps in print as one of its classic nonfiction articles, showed me that the tools of the fiction writer — scenes, dialogue, detail, conflict, complication, climax and, above all, voice — could be employed in writing nonfiction narrative. His decades-old stories remain great reads. The best of these encounters are contained in “The Gay Talese Reader.”

In the memoir, he trains his attention on the 1950s proving ground of dubious journalistic methods unheard of today. Listen to his description of the ethical standards when he was rising in the Times newsroom: 

“We were courtiers, wooers, ingratiating negotiators who traded on what we might provide those who dealt with us. We offered voice to the muted, clarification to the misunderstood, exoneration to the maligned. Potentially we were hornblowers for publicity Hounds, trial balloonists for political opportunists, lamplighters for theatrical stars and other luminaries. We were invited to Broadway openings, banquets, and other Galas. We became accustomed to having our telephone calls returned from important people, and being upgraded as airline passengers through our connections with their public relations offices, and having our parking tickets fixed through the influence of reporter friends who covered the police department. Whatever we lacked in personal ethics and moral character we might rationalize by telling ourselves that we were the underpaid protectors of the public interest. We exposed greedy landlords, corrupt judges, swindlers on Wall Street. But nothing published was more perishable than what we wrote.”

You can’t but hope some of Gay Talese, his precise vocabulary, the contrast between short sentences and winding ones that transfix, rubs off on your own work. “A Writer’s Life” can certainly help.

Coping with literary rejection

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Photo by Matt Jones on Unsplash

Whenever I received a rejection letter for a short story I’ve submitted to a magazine or literary journal I have had this fantasy.

After receiving theirs — “Thank you for your submission. We are sorry that it does not meet our editorial needs at this time.” — I would send back one of my own boilerplate replies:

“Thank you for your rejection. I’m sorry that it does not defeat my literary dreams at this time.”

Over the years, I’ve been a student of rejection, having experienced my share over the years. Pitches repulsed. Stories that never found a home. Books that didn’t sell. So I’ve taken perverse pleasure learning from this list of the “Most Rejected Books of All Time (Of the Ones That Were Eventually Published)” that even famous and best-selling authors heard no — over and over.

But in “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year,” Kim Liao goes beyond the numbers to capture the paradox of the writer’s life.

“Yes, we should be unswerving in our missions to put passion down on paper, unearthing our deepest secrets and most beautiful bits of humanity. But then, later, each of us must step back from those raw pieces of ourselves and critically assess, revise, and—brace yourself—sell them to the hungry and unsympathetic public. This latter process is not only excruciating for most of us (hell, if we were good at sales we would be making good money working in sales), but it can poison that earlier, unselfconscious creative act of composition.”

Liao, an essayist and fiction writer, recounts how her experience with rejection and the advice of a friend led her to shoot for 100 rejections a year. 

By actively seeking rejections, her perspective has changed in a way that should help anyone wrestling with the pain of turndowns of their work. 

“Now, I see rejection as a conversation: for every piece that is rejected, at least one other person read it, thought about it, and really considered whether it would be a good fit for publication. What’s more, it’s a conversation between two minds that truly love literature, as the financial margins of journals and small presses are slimmer than the sheaf of pages that I carry with me each day to revise before going to my day job.

It’s a witty and wise essay.

It should take the sting out of your next rejection and prompt you to send your story out in the world once more hoping for the joy of acceptance, or, at the very least, the muted pleasure of an encouraging rejection letter.

May the writing go well!


Robert A. Caro and the value of analog

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Smith Corona Electra 210, the electric typewriter Robert A. Caro uses

Eminent historian Robert A. Caro has been at work on his acclaimed multi-part biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson for decades. Now in his early 80s, he’s working on number five. 

“Today everybody believes fast is good. Sometimes slow is good.”

ROBERT A. CARO

Caro is a former investigative reporter who long ago learned the power of “turning over every page” in the archives he haunts. 

He describes his methodology in a new book, “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing.” but if you want a Cliff Notes version, Popular Mechanics has published a fascinating interview with him.

Robert A. Caro by Jay Goodwin/Wikimedia Commons

It’s a surprising venue, until you realize the publication is fascinated by his electric typewriter. It’s a Smith Corona Electra 210.

Caro wrote his first book, “The Power Broker” on one. He likes them so much he bought seventeen of them when the manufacturer ceased production of the model decades ago. Nowadays, some people keep them around mostly to address envelopes and for short notes.

I’ve read lots of interviews with Caro; this conversation, which focuses on the value of analog vs. digital in his research and word processing, is one of the more interesting. 

Top quote: “Today everybody believes fast is good. Sometimes slow is good.”

Summoning inspiration

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I’m always on the lookout for stories about inspirational people. The finest ones introduce me to women and men and ideas that I’m not familiar with and which deepen my knowledge of the human condition.

Often, and this is the best part, they end up inspiring me to take action or to look at life in different ways.

It’s Personal: Five Scientists on the Heroes Who Changed Their Lives“, from the science magazine Nautilus, is one such story. It teaches resonant lessons about discovery and the inspiration that draws someone to their life’s work.

It features five pre-eminent scientists—Alan Lightman, Hope Jahren, Robert Sapolsky, Priyamvada Natarajan, and Caleb Scharf—writing about the individuals who helped them find their calling.

I like reading about science, neuroscience especially, but as a generalist, I find much science writing hard to decipher. I admire it when scientists can talk about their work or themselves in accessible fashion. And I admire writers who can help scientists connect with the lay reader.

The article by the five scientists reminded me of a conversation I had with Amy Ellis Nutt, of The Washington Post and one of the best science writers working in journalism today.

While at the Newark Star-Ledger, she wrote an award-winning series, “The Seekers,” which explored five of the biggest unanswered questions in science by focusing on the scientists trying to answer them.

In an interview for “Best Newspaper Writing 2003,” I asked Amy how she was able to get her cerebral subjects to talk about the beginning of their passion.

“‘Was there a moment, a time in your life, when it sort of all came together for you, when you realized what you wanted to do?’” Almost all of them had a moment. (Astronomer) Wendy Freedman said it was out on the lake looking at the stars with her father. Almost all of them had that, and it was beautiful.”

Amy Ellis Nutt

“It sometimes took a little coaxing,” she told me. She succeeded by asking each one the same question.

“‘Was there a moment, a time in your life, when it sort of all came together for you, when you realized what you wanted to do?”

“Almost all of them had a moment.” Nutt said. “(Astronomer) Wendy Freedman said it was out on the lake looking at the stars with her father. Almost all of them had that, and it was beautiful.”

If you’re profiling someone, it’s a great question to ask?

“Was there a moment in your life when you realized that you wanted to be a teacher/nurse/investment banker/programmer…?

It’s the kind of question that can crack an interview wide open.

Each of the five stories in this collection is beautiful. These scientists are also gifted writers. They summon their mentors to the page with vivid imagery.

Physicist and novelist Alan Lightman described how his mentor looked 50 years ago:

“The photo shows a man in his late 20s, about 5 feet 6, slight in build, dark hair beginning to thin, dressed in a button-down shirt and blue sweater, and a Mona Lisa smile.”

Their disciplines can be mind-spinning. Hope Jahren studies stable isotope biogeochemistry, but when she writes about the influence of Helen Keller, she speaks a language of the thrill of discovery that writers familiar with that joy can grasp.

“Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen?

If there’s a better description of what it feels like to wait for the mass spectrometer to spit out the first data point of a brand new experiment, I can’t imagine what it would be. However, that passage wasn’t written by a chemist, or a physicist, or a biologist … it was written by a 20-something woman who could neither see nor hear.”

Lessons about science, learning, teaching, and heroes imbue these five stories.

Reading them will leave you with a question: who inspired you to become a writer?

May the writing go well.

Photography by Fabian Møller courtesy of unsplash.com