Roy Peter Clark

Roy has taught writing at every level--to school children and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors--for more than 30 years, and has spoken about the writer's craft on The Oprah Winfrey Show, NPR and Today; at conferences from Singapore to Brazil; and at news organizations from The New York Times to the Sowetan in South Africa. He is the author of "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer," the book and the blog.


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Fear not the long sentence

A year ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth.” It argued that authors express their most important ideas or dramatic moments in the shortest sentences. This turned out to be a popular piece, the most emailed of the day. Teachers and editors anointed the short sentence as the solution to many writing problems.

trainFrom my shot comes a rebound:  “If the short sentence is the gospel truth, then what is the long sentence?”  My best answer is metaphorical:  “It’s a journey on a westbound train.”

Editors advise, “When it comes to the long sentence, children, be afraid, be very afraid.”  In the common view, the long sentence too often spins off the tracks, a wreck on the road to comprehensibility. It is not an irrational fear. In almost every story I have written comes a moment when I must take that overly ambitious sentence and cut it in two.

When I fight this anxiety, when I advise writers to “Fear not the long sentence,” my encouragement inspires looks of alarm from teachers as if I were advocating taking all the garter snakes out of high school terrariums and replacing them with anacondas.

Care must be taken with the long sentence of course, the care of craft, because mastery of the long sentence is an arrow in the quiver of almost every writer I admire. As always, the exercise of craft begins not with technique but a sense of mission and purpose. By my count, there are three main reasons to cast a long sentence:

  • To take a journey through a physical or emotional landscape.
  • To create a catalogue or inventory.
  • To build a mosaic of logic or evidence.

Let’s test an example of each, beginning with this excerpt from one of my favorite novels, Herzog by Saul Bellow:

The wheels of the cars stormed underneath. Woods and pastures ran up and receded, the rails of sidings sheathed in rust, the dipping racing wires, and on the right the blue of the Sound, deeper, stronger than before. Then the enameled shells of the commuters’ cars, and the heaped bodies of junk cars, the shapes of old New England mills with narrow, austere windows;  villages, convents; tugboats moving in the swelling fabric-like water; and then plantations of pine, the needles on the ground of a life-giving russet color.

Think of yourself as riding northeast on a train through Connecticut, as is the protagonist in Bellow’s novel. You chug along slowly (with a seven word sentence); then accelerate (with 31 words); by the time you reach your highest speed  (50 words), you are rattling between the landscape and the seascape with the detritus of civilization flying by you. With that longest sentence, the author takes us on a journey. We see what he wants us to see in the order he wants us to see it.

There is a bit of an inventory in Bellow’s sentence, a list of things that fly by you on a moving train. That effect is magnified in this controversial sentence that begins David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

I describe this 88-word sentence as controversial because I have found it listed among the best and worst sentences ever written, and it does convey a look-at-me quality that some critics find self-indulgent. But make believe, for a second, that you love it. Take a ride across a symbolic American landscape, populated by (count them) 19 species of weed and wild plant – each with a wonderful name – all headed for the verb “invaginate,” DFW’s pregnant synonym for “enclose.”

Take a journey, review an inventory, or, if you prefer, follow the path of an argument. Consider this example from Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ describing a plan of action immediately after the Kennedy assassination:

No single gesture would do more to demonstrate continuity and stability – to show that the government of the United States would continue to function without interruption despite the assassination of the man who sat at its head – and to legitimize the transition:  to prove that the transfer of power had been orderly, proper, in accordance with the Constitution; to move, in the eyes of the world, any taint of usurpation;  to dampen, so far as possible, suspicion of complicity by him in the deed; to show that the family of the man he was succeeding bore him no ill will and supported him, than the attendance at this swearing-in ceremony of the late President’s widow.

Caro has proven countless times that he understands the power of a short sentence. His description of the second that changed LBJ’s life forever – and America’s — during the motorcade through Dallas is told in a single sentence, serving as a paragraph, just six words long:  “There was a sharp, cracking sound.”

Contrast that to the 115 words in the example above. Notice that it contains the two qualities we have already described as characteristic of long sentences. It takes us on a journey of sorts, not across a landscape now, but across a plan of action. And it contains an inventory, not of physical objects but of a set of purposes. It adds a final element though, and that is a body of evidence. The case is framed early and late in the sentence: that the best way to show the peaceful transfer of power in America was by the presence of Jacqueline Kennedy at LBJ’s swearing-in ceremony. Every word between those frames is designed to persuade.

From my study of the long sentence, I have concluded that:

  • It helps if subject and verb of main clause come early.
  • Use the long sentence to describe something long.
  • It helps if the long sentence is written in chronological order.
  • Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
  • Use the long sentence as a list or catalog of products, names, images – saving the most important for the end.
  • Long sentences need more editing than short ones.

By contrast to some famous sentences written in the 17th century – “sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness” as novelist W.G. Sebald described them — contemporary long sentences seem modest in their ambitions: to take the reader on a little journey of discovery amidst an endless sequence of 140-character bits of language. Read more

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HAMMERHEAD SHARK ON DISPLAY AT MANDALAY BAY RESORT IN LAS VEGAS

Shark-hunting for ‘Old Hitler’ reveals storytelling tips

When I arrived at the St. Petersburg Times in 1977, the first writer I bonded with was Jeff Klinkenberg. We were the same age. Our desks were side by side. We both had young families. Our oldest daughters became best friends. We played in a rock band together. You get the idea.

On Tuesday, Klinkenberg took a buyout from what is now the Tampa Bay Times. His announcement on his Facebook page inspired more than 500 likes and almost 400 comments. These fervent expressions of admiration and respect from readers and other writers did not surprise me.

There is pride in knowing that a great newspaper could sustain the work of such a talented feature writer for almost four decades, especially one who is so identified with a place and a culture and the odd and interesting Floridians who have created it. There is also some sadness attached to the realization that newspapers, weakened economically, find it so hard to retain and sustain such talent until they’re ready to leave.

But today I am focused on the pride, not the sadness.

It turns out that Klinkenberg was the first writer whose work I studied at the Times, and the first of many that I interviewed to learn their habits, values and best practices. Here’s an example. On July 21, 1977, this story appeared on the front page of the sports section of the Times. Here is the top:

Ron Swint moaned in the dark about the shark called Old Hitler, the largest shark in Tampa Bay, as traffic roared by on the Skyway Bridge. Somebody in a car shouted and Swint automatically winced. He has been hit by beer cans thrown from passing cars. A huge truck rumbled by so fast the bridge shook. Diesel fumes hung in the air.

The first shark to come along was not Old Hitler, but it was a big one, a shark Swint later estimated at 500 pounds, a shark that swallowed a three-pound live ladyfish bait and swam toward the lights of Tampa. The shark almost killed Swint.

Swint was pulling on the shark rod with all his strength when the line snapped. His own momentum carried him into the lane of traffic. The truck never slowed down, but Swint was quick enough to scramble back onto the sidewalk with his expensive rod and reel. Shaken, he said: “That’s why I never drink when I’m out here. You need all your faculties to fish for sharks. If I’d had a few beers tonight, I may not have been quick enough to get out of the way. I’ve almost been pulled in the water by sharks, but this was the first one that almost got me killed by traffic.

“And that wasn’t even Old Hitler.”

Four times Ron Swint has hooked the shark he calls Old Hitler and four times it has escaped. “Last year I wasn’t even a challenge,” Swint said. “Old Hitler ripped me off.” Last time Swint was ready. “Old Hitler took 1,500 yards of line and I turned him. I thought I had him. Then my line broke.”

Swint is obsessed by Old Hitler, the most intimidating shark in the bay. Old Hitler, Swint says, is a 22-foot hammerhead. Its head is 5 feet wide. Old Hitler, Swint says, weighs 1,500 pounds, easy. If Old Hitler is indeed that large, it is twice the size of the biggest hammerhead ever taken on rod and reel. The world record, captured off Jacksonville in 1975, weighed 703 pounds and was 14 feet long. Swint intends to catch Old Hitler and break the record. “That SOB is mine,” Swint said, voice rising in the night. “I’m gonna get him.”

I republished Klinkenberg’s story in a newsroom newsletter I named “The Wind Bag,” and introduced an interview with this text:

In this excellent story about shark fisherman Ron Swint, Jeff gives us a character sketch about a modern day Captain Ahab. Ron Swint engages in an obsessive hunt for a shark called Old Hitler. Jeff captures Swint’s peculiarities with effective description, interesting anecdotes, and lively quotes.

The lead paragraph reveals the power of active verbs to give prose precision and vitality. And Jeff makes his prose readable by varying the length and structure of his sentences. In the following conversation, Jeff discusses this particular article. He also touches on his “method” for organizing his stories and for making “specialized” topics accessible to all his readers.

[Note: Howell Raines, mentioned in the interview, was political editor of the St. Petersburg Times in 1977. He eventually became executive editor of the New York Times.]

RPC: Under what circumstances did you meet and interview Ron Swint?

JK: Howell Raines and I went fishing one afternoon on the Skyway. And while we were standing there on the bridge catching nothing, this guy came walking by with about 60 pounds of equipment. He looked at my puny stuff and said “You’ll never catch anything with that.”

Then he just launched into a monologue about how he was going to catch this shark “Old Hitler.” For a few minutes he talked about catching Old Hitler as if I should know who Old Hitler was.

I called him up about two weeks later, and I went back out there with him. We went out to the bridge about 6 p.m. and stayed until about 2 a.m., fooling around with sharks and ladyfish. I hoped that he wouldn’t be pulled off the bridge and leave me out there.

The next day I came into the office and wrote out my notes. I had three pages of single-spaced notes. I typed them out, underlined my best quotes, and organized my story from there. I started writing it that day and finished it up the next.

RPC: Is it a general method of yours to organize your story around the quotes you’ve collected?

JK: One of the things I’ve done when I’ve had the time: I’ll type them, and then I’ll assign different values to different quotes. My best quotes I’ll try to get up high in the story and then proceed in kind of a descending order. I’ll try to save a couple of good ones for the end. I think it’s a good way to organize a story.

RPC: What about the structure of the story? It’s blocked off into section by checkmarks [design elements]. Is that your doing?

JK: Sometimes I think it’s a good way to structure a story. It’s easier for the reader to handle. When you break up a story into anecdotes like this it gives each littler story more impact. They’re not lost 15 paragraphs down. You can use the checkmarks to introduce a new littler story.

RPC: Why did you choose to end with a short section…two or three short sentences? [“Last summer Swint says he lived four days on the Skyway. He slept during the day on the sidewalk. Old Hitler never touched his baits.”]

JK: I thought it was kind of a dramatic way to end it. And to punch home the fact that this guy was fanatical about the thing to spend four days on the bridge to track down a shark. I have some misgivings after I did it. Someone asked me if the story had just been chopped off at that point.

RPC: I notice at various points in the story you are careful to attribute statements he has made about what he can do with the sharks once he has caught them. Fishermen are notorious BS artists….Do you often encounter problems of credibility in the people you interview?

JK: No, but in this instance, some of the stuff he was telling me was so remarkable I had to protect myself a little bit. Many of the things he told me I double-checked and found them to be true. Things I couldn’t check I went with an attribution. And there are quite a few in this story.

RPC: Did you try to balance the dramatic story with news about fishing equipment and fishing techniques that might be of interesting to shark fishermen?

JK: The story needed some hard information. Some of the things he was saying were so sensational…you needed some hard facts about exactly what this guy does and how he does it. I think the secret, if there is a secret, to writing about any kind of special interest is to make it accessible to people who ordinarily wouldn’t give a damn about it. But at the same time you have to satisfy certain number of people who are looking for information. How do I improve my own fishing or whatever. But general that type of ‘how to’ information in my stories is incidental to the rest.

RPC: What techniques do you use to make the story accessible?

JK: Well I begin with some kind of personality sketch. Try to find a person to build the story around and kind of sneak in the facts…maybe after a quote. What makes outdoors writing bad in many newspapers is that the writer is writing for other experts in the field. The average reader finds it incomprehensible. Anyone who has done any fishing or hunting has a lot of personal experiences that he can’t wait to tell and embellish in many instances.

RPC: How about your lead? What were you trying to do there?

JK: I was trying to set the whole picture in three paragraphs. I also wanted to set the scene of the area that he fishes from. All of his problems: the cars going by, this Old Hitler that threatens to drag him into the bay. It establishes him as a character right off…This is what I call a can’t-miss story. You’ve got a shark. You’ve got Hitler in the same story. All I needed was a retiree and a dog and it would have been the perfect story.

It surprises and delights me how many of the themes and strategies raised in this interview 37 years ago continue to capture my attention: reporting and storytelling; developing characters; being on the scene; getting the voices of people in stories, beginnings, endings, and other structural elements; writing for multiple audiences; attracting non-specialists to a text and so much more.

It reminds me that I owe a debt to reporters and editors at the then St. Petersburg Times, who not only tolerated my presence in their newsroom as one of the first writing coaches, but who were willing to talk with me endlessly about the craft and about their sense of mission and purpose as journalists. Klinkenberg will have to stand in for all of them as I say, “Thanks, brother. Keep writing, man. And let’s keep talking.” Read more

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J.D. Salinger

For Banned Books Week: An X-ray reading from Catcher in the Rye

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel "The Catcher in the Rye" as well as his volume of short stories called "Nine Stories."  (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye” as well as his volume of short stories called “Nine Stories.” (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

Earlier this year the editors of American Scholar published a dozen examples of “best sentences,” passages from classic literature worth saving and savoring. I was inspired by these and offered my own interpretation of what made them memorable. Now I’ve caught the bug and there appears to be no cure. With the blessing of Robert Wilson, editor of AS, I have chosen a number of sinewy or shapely sentences for X-ray reading, trying to understand what a writer can learn from each. (We’ll be publishing these exemplars occasion, highlighting the writing strategies that created them.)

Since this is also Banned Books Week, I begin with the first sentence of one of the most celebrated banned books of all time: The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown, which also, I’m proud to add, happens to be my publisher. (Also thinking of moving to Vermont to become a recluse.)

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (63 words)
– J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Following in the footsteps of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger sacrifices his own language and mature insights (sort of) to turn narration of his novel over to a prep school student, Holden Caulfield, who came to represent the alienation of the post-World War II generation.

This is a carefully constructed text, of course, but it doesn’t sound that way. That’s the magic of it. It sounds like someone talking. How do you do that? You use the second person (“you”), contractions (“you’ll,” “don’t”), slang (“lousy”), intensifiers (“really”), verbal punctuation (“and all”), and mild profanity (“crap”). The cumulative effect is informal and conversational.

Of all his literary gifts, Salinger had a great ear for the spoken word and captures the idioms of his time in phrases like “how my parents were occupied” and “if you want to know the truth.” A double-edged razor hides in both phrases. The first one could mean (“what my parents did for a living,”) but “occupied” carries with it some negative connotations, as in the word “pre-occupied,” that is, distracted.

The second phrase “if you want to know the truth” is used mostly as filler in conversation, and yet the key word “truth” comes at the end, inviting the question of whether Holden is a reliable narrator about his own life story.

My favorite phrase here is “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” This feels like a mature literary allusion rather than the ramblings of an alienated teenager. Note the alliteration, the repetition of hard “c” sounds: Copperfield, kind, crap. Perhaps Holden sees himself as a Dickensian character like David Copperfield who experiences an endless series of traumatic events in his young life. Or, perhaps, the reclusive author is sending a secret signal: Just as David Copperfield is considered Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, Catcher contains, we now know, many parallels to the young life of J.D. Salinger.

I must note that Catcher remains on many lists of banned books. However mild the word “crap” appears to us, it signals to the reader the rougher words to come, including some f-bombs that excited students, but traumatized some parents and School Board members.

By the end of the novel, Holden reveals that he is in therapy and repeats a key phrase from the beginning: “If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it, ” that is everything that he has told us. There is a kind of group therapy feel to the language from the beginning, as if he’s answered a question from a shrink about his childhood and parents: “If you really want to hear about it….”

In summary, it takes skill to create prose that sounds like someone speaking directly to the reader. We have a name for that effect: voice. It’s hard enough to achieve when the narrator is the author. It’s even more challenging when the author turns over that task to a teenage boy who likes to wear a red hunting cap. Read more

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Will this go down (or up) as the year of the elevator story?

modern elevator

The year 2014 will go down as one marked by a series of troubling news events that just happened to occur on elevators, dark moments photographed on surveillance videos. Beyonce’s sister went after Jay Z in an elevator at a Met Gala party. There was a CEO of an arena concessions franchise, Desmond Hague, who lost his job when he was captured on video in an elevator repeatedly kicking a friend’s dog. And there was the most notorious and news-worthy event of all, when Ray Rice brutalized his fiancé in the elevator of a casino parking garage.

But this is not an essay about family rage, or animal abuse, or intimate partner abuse, all of which deserve public attention. No, this essay is about elevators – and the stories inside them.

I imagine that every family can tell a story about an elevator. My grandmother was robbed at knifepoint in an elevator in a New York City apartment complex known as Knickerbocker Village. Her son, Peter, was a police officer. He took days off to hunt down a local drug addict who victimized old ladies. The story goes that before my Uncle Pete arrested him, he “tuned him up,” that is, gave him a good beating. Even with that guy behind bars, I was afraid to ride in that elevator again.

And why wouldn’t I be. An elevator is a box of phobias:

— Claustrophobia – fear of being in closed places
– Acrophobia – fear of heights
– Agoraphobia – fear of crowds
– Triskaidekaphobia – fear of the number 13 (often skipped in the numbering of hotel floors).

Add to this list any extraordinary circumstances, like having the lights go out, or the power, or being trapped inside with a violent or obnoxious person, and the elevator becomes a kind of story container, a pressure-cooker of human courage and fallibility.

One of the most memorable stories from 9/11 was written by Jim Dwyer of the New York Times. At 8:47 a.m. that morning six men “boarded Car 69-A, express elevator that stopped on floors 67 through 74.” And then, “The car rose, but before it reached its first landing, ‘We felt a muted thud,’ Mr. Iyer said. ‘The building shook. The elevator swang from side to side, like a pendulum.’” There are lots of horror movies in which elevators do things like that, but this was not make-believe. This was one small consequence of a terrorist attack. Fortunately, one of the men on that elevator was a window-washer. The group used all the parts of his squeegee to break out of the elevator, through the walls of a restroom, and out to safety.

Dwyer’s story was about a group of strangers, one tool, and old-fashioned resourcefulness. That it took place in an elevator made the story, I believe, more memorable. I once rode in an elevator with my daughter Alison in that very building to a restaurant near the top. An elevator in one of the world’s tallest buildings is more than an elevator. It a kind of spinal cord, a line of energy, transportation, and potential danger.

I once had a friend named John who worked for Otis Elevators. Any time I saw him, I asked him the same question, and got the same vaudeville response:

“Hey, John, how’s business?” I’d say.

“Lookin’ up,” he’d say.

In the television drama, Game of Thrones, a hoisting device, a kind of primitive elevator, lifts watchmen to the top of a great wall of ice, a barrier that protects the world against terrible invaders from the north.

The elevator, I’ve learned from Wikipedia and other sources, preceded the invention of electricity and the Industrial Revolution that created cities filled with skyscrapers. By the late 19th century, the elevator had become an essential technology, especially in concrete urban landscapes. It actually reversed the social order. We now think that rich people want to live on the tops of buildings, penthouses that provide the most spectacular views. But before elevators, the rich wanted to live on the ground floors, absolved from the rigor of climbing all those steps. The poorest lived near the top.

In narrative terms, the elevator has joined a more ancient collection of enclosed spaces used to create conflict and suspense. In the beginning, there was the secret garden, the tower chamber, the cave, the labyrinth, the tunnel, the dungeon, the coffin, the ship at sea.

Those confined spaces still exist, but take different narrative forms: the classroom, the refugee camp, the bus or taxi, the bathroom or shower stall, the interview room in the cop shop, the courtroom, the subway car, the submarine, the frat house, the trailer. How about the trailer turned into a meth lab in Breaking Bad? How about the overpopulated toilets and showers in Orange is the New Black? Think of how many times in the past half century that 007 has had to escape from tight quarters?

I watched a rich collection of YouTube videos that featured elevators as dramatic or suspenseful containers. Particularly helpful was a watchmojo.com collection of 10 great movie scenes on elevators. Here are some of the strategies storytellers continue to use to good effect:

1) The interlude: People on an elevator may be moving from one stressful place to another. But for a brief interlude they are safe, calm, even distracted. The recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie may offer the ultimate example when those heroes escape from monsters onto an elevator and then improvise a cool percussion rap on the way down. (By the way, the word interlude is a great one. The Latin word ludus, means play, game, or song. So an interlude is something lighter than comes in between other darker or more serious elements.)

2) The tick-tock: The elevator is a kind of clock. The floors are numbered, so you can estimate how long it will take to get you from one floor to another. When the doors open, it takes so much time for them to close again, depending upon how many people are getting on and off. An elevator pitch is a proposal that has to be delivered quickly. When the doors open and you see someone you know, you have to blurt out a message for them.

The control of time creates suspense. When a couple tries to escape from a tall building, they often run to the elevator and hit the button. They wait for the car to arrive, hoping it will get there before the bad guy. They get on the elevator and hope that the doors will close before the hand of the murderer stops them. An analogous trope is when someone tries to escape in a car and the engine won’t start right away. Episodes of Law and Order often end with the closing of elevator doors, as if the curtains were closing at the end of a stage play.

3) Privacy and voyeurism: One time, years and year ago, my wife and I, a little tipsy perhaps, began to make out on an elevator. There is elevator romance, elevator sex, and elevator porn. On The Good Wife, after months of sexual tension, Will and Alicia, two of the top lawyers, finally get together, where else – on an elevator. Where the closing of the doors provides privacy, the imminent opening of the doors – or presence of surveillance cameras – offers both exhibitionism and voyeurism.

4) Danger and safety: In narrative terms, this tension may be the most important cinematic element to elevator-based narratives. Mostly, elevators go up and down, but for Harry Potter or Willie Wonka, they are more versatile vehicles. They can trap you, or help you escape. They give you altitude – even turn into a flying ship – or send you into subterranean underworlds. One character, safe inside a glass elevator, may have to watch a friend being murdered outside. The elevator can stop, turning into a cage. Or it can fall hundreds of feet at deadly speeds. You can be in an elevator, or on top of an elevator, or get crushed by an elevator, or hang on an elevator cable.

5) Microcosm: How strange we are on elevators. Chatty people suddenly clam up when others climb in. The rich and the poor find themselves haunch to paunch. People avoid eye contact, looking up at the numbers or down at their shoes. Who farted? Who smells like an ashtray? Is that an elevator music version of Stairway to Heaven? That woman has a nice butt – oh, wait, I think it’s a guy. You can put a motley crew of humans together on a pilgrimage, like Chaucer did. Or, it turns out, you can put them on an elevator.

Returning to the Ray Rice story, my Poynter colleague Lauren Klinger adds some real-life perspective:

You’re talking about stories having to take place someplace, right, and Ray Rice chose to have this happen in this place. Why? He is the actor here. He could have punched her in the hallway, but he chose the privacy of the elevator to reveal who he really was, what he really wanted to do in that moment. So he felt safe to do what he wanted to do in a place that was absolutely not safe for Janay. He chose to hit her, he chose to hit her there. Elevators and stairwells and hotel hallways and parking garages are spaces that can be terrifying to women (because the space isolates them) but they might be comforting to men (because the space isolates them.) Same feeling, but their power imbalance makes it different. Good men should be especially aware of how they might make women feel when they enter spaces like these.

Art imitates reality which takes its cues from art in a never-ending cycle of experience and creativity. It is as true for the journalist as it is for the screenwriter: stories have to happen in some place, spaces that often pressurize and define characters. Read more

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Statues of Socrates and Apollo in Athens, Greece

Ray Rice video sparks ethics questions

After a series of famous journalism scandals in the early 1980s, I was asked to kick-start an ethics program at the Poynter Institute. I felt fully prepared to be a writing teacher, but not an ethics one. So what would I do?

I read what I could; studied professional codes; consulted ethics scholars; became pals with the influential bio-medical scholar Arthur Caplan; and took part in countless conversations and debates about duty, truth, privacy, plagiarism, conflict of interest, and much more.

Perhaps my one contribution to the field was in the distinction between Red Light and Green Light ethics. In journalism, and in other fields, I expressed a preference for the articulation of what we should do (Green Light) over what we should avoid (Red Light).

That, as they say in the age of transparency, is where I am “coming from.”

Where, then, am I headed? At a time of seismic convulsions on the media landscape, I find myself leaning toward an approach articulated by public scholar Peter Levine in his book Living without Philosophy. What follows is not a summary of the book, but how I am using it as a compass.

At a moment when new codes of ethics are being drawn or revised, let’s begin with the inherent weaknesses therein. Codes, in my opinion, work the way early maps of the world worked: They provide you with the general shape of the cosmos. But they are of less use as a GPS system to get you from one specific place to another. Some elements are obvious (“Do not plagiarize”). Codes tend to put the onus of moral action on rank and file practitioners rather than on the owners and top managers of news enterprises. And they leave so much open for interpretation.

Legal scholar (and my college friend) Austin Sarat once explained at a Poynter seminar how unhelpful were certain codes of ethics. One might say “Lawyers must charge a fair price for their services.” Now think of the range of opinion and practice on the way to arriving at “fair.”

Beyond the codes, here is the other dilemma I learned from Levine: The history of philosophy (especially ethics) has left us with a series of “theories of justification,” ways of thinking designed to lead us to good decisions. To learn those, you study Aristotle, Jesus, Kant, Bentham, Rawls (John, not Lou), and Carol Gilligan. And you immediately confront a dilemma.

Say, for example, that a popular NFL Football player has beaten his wife in an elevator. Eventually, the video of that violent act and its immediate aftermath becomes available. You are the editor of a news organization. Will you show the video on your television program or website? How will you show it? And how often? And why? If only I had some ethics experts to guide me, you wonder. You are tempted to call up the folks at Poynter, but then think again. You reach higher. You roll out your Rolodex to Parnassus. You call on Aristotle, Jesus, Kant, Bentham, Rawls, and Gilligan.

Here’s the problem with those experts: Not only will they tell you different things; some of the most important things they have to say will contradict the others.

With apologies to anyone who has tried to teach me ethics, here are my thumbnail descriptions of these key theories of ethical decision making:

  1. Aristotle: My favorite Greek articulated the value of the “golden mean,” an approach to decision making that avoided the extremes and looked for some middle path. With Aristotle whispering in my ear, perhaps I would use the video of the crime, but use it just once. It’s first use would create a public clamor for justice and reform; but withholding it from subsequent use would prevent exploitation of the image and the victim. Or perhaps my middle path would be not to show the video itself but to describe in texts what it depicts.
  2. Jesus: From Aristotle to Jesus takes us from the golden mean to the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. The work of Carol Gilligan might lead us to a platinum rule: Do unto others as others want to have done to themselves. To accomplish this, you must escape the myopia of your own vision. You must go out and find out how the other person wants to be treated. The golden rule would have us identify with the victim (and to some extent with the abuser) depicted in the video and, through non-violent means, care and protect them.
  3. Kant:  When the Germans got in the act, they gave us the “categorical imperative.” That’s a big phrase, which may not be wise to throw around on deadline. Kant asks us to take our ethical decisions and be willing to turn them into universal laws. If we decide that lying is wrong, we must imagine it is wrong in all such cases. Let’s take someone who argues: No victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse must endure seeing her private life on public display without her permission. Or reporters should never use false identities in pursuit of the truth; or we will never use an anonymous source, even if we miss out on some important stories; or we will never ever pay a source for the story. That recurring word “never” is a sign that the author is on some Kantian wavelength.
  4. Jeremy Bentham: I associate Bentham with a school of ethics called “utilitarianism,” which offered, perhaps, the simplest moral algorithm: “the greatest good for the greatest number.” This, at times, requires using a person as a means. Within this frame, the privacy of the victim of abuse in the video must be sacrificed (or “utilized”) for some greater good. What might that be? The exposure of her pain brings to light the real experience of abuse in a way that motivates people to seek reform. Men and women are outraged. Crimes are prosecuted. Enablers of abuse lose their jobs. New rules and regulations are imposed. But what about that abused woman unconscious on the floor of the elevator? She needs John Rawls.
  5. John Rawls:  Rawls is considered one of the great scholars of politics and justice in the 20th century. In ethics, he is known for a process of decision making called the “veil of ignorance.”  The idea is to take all the potential stakeholders of a decision and place them behind a veil. Since the person who is most affected by a decision might be you, you are best off identifying with the most vulnerable stakeholder. By walking in the moccasins of the most vulnerable person, you protect the interests of most if not all parties.

    This model of thinking is an expression of what is often called “social contract” theory, that human beings make certain spoken and unspoken agreements among themselves to protect individuals and communities from harm. At first glance, it would appear, then, that the most vulnerable person behind the veil would be the abused woman. Publication of these images can be predictably embarrassing, hurtful, and damaging to her. She may, time and again, become a witness to her own humiliation, and the consequences to her and her abuser may feel destructive to her long-term interests. But wait! Perhaps this particular woman is not the most vulnerable stakeholder. Perhaps it is one – or any number – of unknown women who continue to be, or will become, victims of abuse because of the lack of reform.

  6. Carol Gilligan: In a critique of her teacher, who only used male subjects in his experiments, Gilligan argued persuasively that women would respond differently to ethical situations and case studies. While men tended to revert to law and other absolutes, women were more likely to take into account complex human relationships into their decision making. This is a philosophy of “difference,” that a diversity of perspectives will help enlighten stakeholders and lead agents to a better decision. Countless issues of race, gender, age, and social class, for example, are revealed in the circumstances surrounding cases of intimate partner abuse. When people argue for more inclusion in the discussion around such cases, they align themselves with an ethic of difference.

So what is a good journalist to do?

What has worked for me is to think of these various theories as tools rather than as abstract schools of thought. I don’t have to be a Kantian or a Christian in order to see the practical relevance of an idea or strategy from one of those ethics clubs. To help myself, and others, I have translated those theories into practical questions, what I might call, borrowing from the composition theorists, a process approach to ethics, especially on deadline. These questions have, shall we say, earned tenure at Poynter, being articulated, revised, adapted by teachers such as Bob Steele, Keith Woods, Kenny Irby, Kelly McBride, Aly Colon, and many others.

  1. What is my journalistic purpose in this case? What public good will it do? (Time to drag out Jeremy Bentham’s mummified body and raise a toast to the old man. There is a strong utilitarian stream in the thinking of journalists. While they might write about individuals, they imagine good things flowing through the social order)
  2. Who are the stakeholders and what are the likely consequences to them of publication? (A Rawlsian question, of a sort.)
  3. Are there any rules, laws, or standards that I should know about? (Kant is smiling.)
  4. Is there any way to avoid or minimize any harm that might come from publication? (Thank you, Jesus.)
  5. Whose voices would be a valuable part of the conversation? (Carol Gilligan)
  6. What are my alternatives? (Aristotle may point us to another way.)

In Living without Philosophy, Peter Levine suggests that good decisions can be made with a combination of common sense informed by practical conversations among practitioners and potential stakeholders. This appeals to me, but part of its appeal is to allow me to ask and discuss these questions, and to sort through, however quickly, the ideas that inspired them.

So here is my take on our case study.

  1. If the tape from inside the elevator was made available to me, I would view it, test its authenticity, take into consideration the biases and interests of the source.
  2. I would publish it in the public interest because: spousal abuse is a terrible social problem; because justice may not have been done in this particular case; because the abuser is a celebrity and public figure; because the events, however, personal, took place in a public place and immediately involved the intervention of public institutions; because he and others may have been enabled by people at the highest levels of his team and one of the world’s most powerful and profitable professional sports leagues.
  3. After initial publication, I would discontinue publication, even if other news organizations continued to make it available. This is an attempt, however insufficient, to minimize additional harm that may come to the victim and those closest to her.
  4. I would devote the resources I could afford to report and comment over time on this important issue. My Green Light sensibilities tell me to go, go, go; rather than no, no, no. My reporting would attempt to include as many key perspectives as possible, taking into account gender difference, race, social class, law enforcement, the judicial system, professional cultures, the status of children, and much more.

More questions: Would I pay to obtain the video? Would it be legal to obtain it? Are there ways to get access without payment? How would payment distort the reporting process in this case and others? Are powerful interests trying to prevent access or keeping it secret? As an occasional Kantian with escape hatches, my answer would be: “If I could afford to buy it, I would do so if I thought there was no other way to obtain it, and that it revealed enough information in the public interest that it would justify such a rare action.” If I bought it, I would disclose that to my audiences.

Finally, from an academic ethics point of view, what are the ethics of turning a person, such as the victim in the elevator, into a case study, where her name and image might exist in perpetuity for students and professionals to examine? I wish there were some experts around here to consult. Oh, wait….

Poynter’s News University has a free ethics course. It includes 20 questions for ethical decision making.
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Rosary Beads and Sensible Shoes: How to Help Someone Tell Her Story

The day after 9/11, 2001, I got to interview my cousin Theresa, who escaped from the 57th floor of Tower I after it was hit by the plane. Thirteen years later now, I have read the story I wrote for the Poynter website based upon that interview. It gave me chills, not because of the way it was written or constructed, but for the sheer drama and terror of the catastrophe it describes. In my lifetime I can think of no story, no breaking news event – not even the Kennedy assassination – that affected me so deeply, that changed the way I view the world.

Screenwriter Robert McKee teaches that every good story needs an “inciting incident,” that sudden, unexpected moment that rips through the fabric of normal life and changes almost everything. On Breaking Bad, a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, gets a diagnosis that he is dying of cancer. To make money for his family, he becomes a drug lord. As the pitch for the story described it: Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.

With a story as big as 9/11, some reporters decided to go small. Jim Dwyer of the New York Times, for example, decided on a series of stories that were hiding inside small objects from Ground Zero: a squeegee used by a group to escape from an elevator; a family photograph that fluttered to the dusty ground; a Styrofoam water cup given by one stranger to another. He based his technique on a strategy he learned from an editor: “The bigger, the smaller.”

When I interviewed Theresa, I was struck by her reflection upon the smaller details in the dystopian landscape her workplace had become: the grapefruit rolling back and forth in a cart after the plane hit the building, the rosary beads in her purse, her sensible shoes.

At some point I realized that the story should be told from her point of view, not narrated by me. This technique, often used in oral histories or “as told to” biographies, sometimes earns the negative name of “ghost writing.” But I believe it can be a special, even noble form of journalism, when expressed with transparent standards, and when it attends to the mission of giving voice to someone with an important story to tell.

I don’t have a list of standards I applied 13 years ago, or even if I had them in mind at that troubling time. But re-reading the story, I can see (and hear) some of the things I was doing. Here is a list of them, translated as standards:

1. Cut and clarify when necessary, but don’t replace your source’s vocabulary or voice with your own.

2. When helpful, translate the various scenes into chronological order.

3. Think of the eyes of your source as a camera. See what she sees and then pass those distinctive images along to others.

4. Interrogate all the senses. (I’m struck as I re-read this how alert were Theresa’s senses. In this fairly short piece, she recounts things she saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched.)

5. In addition to the physical senses, tap in to the emotional ones: confusion, fear, horror, friendship, gratitude, family.

6. Through your interview, lend your source the essential tools of storytelling. As described by Tom Wolfe, they are character details, scenes in a sequence, dialogue, and point of view.

7. As you tell the story on behalf of the source, read it back to her, or if your policy permits it, share a draft. On occasion you will hear “I didn’t mean that,” or “I wouldn’t say it that way,” which is a doorway to revision, correction, and clarification.

8. Talk with your source about why your think the story is important. In the best moments, you will be able to embrace a shared sense of mission and purpose, in this case, what it was like to survive an act of terrorism that changed America and the world.

(At least two of the characters in the story have passed away: Theresa’s parents, my aunt and uncle Millie and Peter Marino. I dedicate this piece to their memory and to all those we lost on 9/11.)

Rosary Beads and Sensible Shoes

By Theresa Marino Leone (as told to her first cousin, Roy Peter Clark)

I got to work about 20 minutes to 9. I told my boss I like to get to work a half hour early. But that’ll never happen again. I work in Building One, or what used to be Building One. I work for Lawyers’ Travel, and I’m attached to a law firm with offices on the 57th Floor.

I hadn’t had breakfast yet, just a cup of coffee, so I went to the cafeteria on the 57th Floor, saw my friends, said hello to everyone, and was just about to eat my English muffin.

We heard a loud explosion, and the whole building started to sway. We knew something had happened and it wasn’t good. I remember these grapefruits from a stand that were rolling back and forth, back and forth.

For years we’d had these fire drills, but at a moment like this, no one was sure what to do. I ran about 30 feet to my office and grabbed my purse. My cell phone, my rosary beads, my life is in that purse. I looked in the corridor and saw about eight people. We knew each other and headed for the staircase.

Now this is a big building with so many floors that when you take the elevator up, you go to the 44th Floor and then change elevators and take the local up to the 57th.

In the stairwell there was room for two people, so you could go down side by side. There was no smoke on the 57th, but there was a smell that I now realize was gasoline. Our staircase went down only as far as the 44th. We walked past two banks of elevators. I looked to the right and could see smoke coming out of one of them.

We went down the next staircase, and thank God, the lights were on, we could see, and talk to each other. Amazingly there was no pushing or panic or people getting trampled. Thank God, too, that He made me tall, five foot nine, because I can’t wear heels, only a pair of black, very sensible shoes.

Then above us, we heard these firefighters say, “Move to the right. Injured coming down.” This meant we had to get in single file and along the way I lost track of all the people I started out with.

When the injured walked down past us, you couldn’t tell if they were black or they were white. They were all charred with skin just hanging off their bodies. And the look on their faces, they looked like the walking dead. Remember, we didn’t know what had happened. Our cell phones didn’t work, but some beepers flashed and word spread that a plane had hit our building, and that a jet plane had crashed into the other building. It was such a beautiful day. At first I thought maybe it was an accident with a helicopter, but two commercial jets?

I didn’t know what we were going to face as we made our way down, a fireball in the stairwell, or what. I’m a 40-year-old Italian-American girl, so I took out my rosary beads, the ones I got at St. Francis of Assissi Church when my mother was sick, and said to God, “I don’t want to die in this building.” The lights were still on. But alarms were going off everywhere.

I hadn’t had breakfast, so my stomach was empty, and at one point I felt my knees buckle. I said to myself, “If I faint, I’m gonna die.” So I held on to my rosary beads, and I tried to turn to the girls behind me to make a little joke. At one platform there were five or six firefighters. “Here, take a drink of water,” said one of them, and I took a sip. “God bless you,” I told him. I now realize that those guys are probably dead.

When we got down to the 10th Floor, water began seeping down the walls and under the doors. As we moved down to the 8th and 7th Floors it was getting deeper and deeper, until we were walking through maybe six inches of water.

Finally, when we got down to the Concourse Level, the cops were pointing us down toward the stairs near the escalator. “Don’t look outside,” they said. The Concourse is surrounded by glass walls, maybe 50 feet high, and of course when he said, “Don’t look,” I looked. What I saw was something out of Beirut. Glass, debris, pockets of fire everywhere.

As we made our way down the steps to the ground level, we were soaking wet. We were walking in water up past our ankles, and water was poring down on us–like walking in a soaking rainstorm, but inside. Firefighters had to lift some women who had taken their shoes off over the broken glass. Thank God I had on my sensible shoes.

I saw my friend Indra, the cashier in the cafeteria. I grabbed her. We ran toward World Trade Five across Church Street toward Broadway. We were now physically outside. “Keep going. Keep going,” said a cop, “there may be another plane on the way.”

A couple of blocks away we finally stopped to catch our breath and looked up and saw that the building was on fire. We didn’t see any bodies, but we were starting to see people who were bleeding. I saw two ladies who are housekeepers in the building, Miranda and Teresa. My cell phone didn’t work. From the time we felt the crash, it had probably taken us 45 minutes to get out of the building. In 15 minutes it would fall to the ground.

We decided to walk another six blocks to my father’s apartment on the East River, at the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. We were buzzed in and took the elevator to the 23rd Floor. My father was standing in the hallway on the phone with my husband, Gary, who was frantic, up in the Bronx.

At least Gary knew I was safe. All the girls called home. “Come on,” my father said, “have a drink.” At that moment, anyway, we preferred his coffee to liquor.

The girls lived in Brooklyn and decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I had to go and see my mother, who lived about 10 minutes away in the apartment complex where I grew up, Knickerbocker Village. I knew she would be going crazy. When I got to Madison and St. James, I looked up and realized I couldn’t see the Twin Towers. All I saw was smoke. I didn’t know that they didn’t exist any more. I remember years ago looking out the window and watching as they were being built.

My mother wanted me to eat something. So what’s new. She’d make me cereal or an egg, but I settled on cold chicken cutlets from the night before. I had just lost 30 pounds and was on a diet, but who cares. You know, it was the best chicken cutlet I ever had.

I know it’s crazy, but I just wanted to go home, from the Lower East Side to the Bronx where Gary was waiting for me. I still had my sensible shoes, so I decided to start walking. I figured I could catch the train or the bus as I headed north. I walked to 23rd Street and then to 59th. Along the way there were nice people on the streets, nobody was trying to gouge you. They gave you a cup of water. Or a Handi Wipe. I stopped once and bought a pretzel, but I thought if I stopped walking I’d never be able to move again. I was just so happy to be alive.

It’s not my usual part of town, but I walked all the way to 125th Street. I figured that, all in all, I may have walked eight miles. I was ready to walk over the Triboro Bridge to the Bronx if I had to.

Thank God, the trains were running from 125th Street. I decided to get on the #6 train. A lady moved over for me. “I’m sorry for the way I smell,” I told her. “I walked from the World Trade Center.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I walked from 19th Street.”

When I got out of the station, I thought I couldn’t take another step. Just then, Gary turned the corner in our silver Chevy.

This is like a bad dream. When I see people I start to cry. I realize that my favorite picture of Gary and me that I kept at my desk is gone. When I see the news and understand what happened, I realize that I was 15 minutes from that building falling down on me. Today on the subway, I looked over the shoulder of a lady reading the newspaper, and when I saw the pictures, I started to cry.

My legs are pretty sore. But I’m a walker and will be OK. Gary and I went to Union Square Park where people are creating a memorial, leaving flowers and notes. One note said, “Now is the time when we should be so proud to be American.” And I thought, “You know that’s true.”

I know I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life.

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The new Ray Rice video reminds us that seeing is more than believing

This afternoon I decided to take a peek at the video, released by TMZ, of football player Ray Rice knocking out his fiancé (now his wife) in an elevator during what is euphemistically called a “domestic dispute.” Video had been available — and replayed endlessly — of Rice lifting and dragging his wife from the elevator, but this was the first public airing of the punch.

At first I was reluctant to look, but felt I might be asked to comment on the video either by Poynter.org or another news organization. The video I saw was gray and grainy and the blow went by in a flash, even in slow motion. Almost more disturbing was the view from inside of the elevator of Rice preparing to prop up the unconscious woman and drag her out.

So this is what spousal abuse looks like. I was glad I had watched it, however briefly, and I was not surprised by the subsequent news that Rice’s football team, the Baltimore Ravens, where he was a star running back, had released him.

Seeing is believing, it turns out. Seeing matters. It not only informs the public, but it forms it. It creates public outrage and outcry that pierces the shield of even such impenetrable institutions as the NFL.

Which got me thinking about the recent videos of ISIS beheading American journalists in Syria. I have not watched these videos, but I’m wondering now if I should. If it’s my duty as a citizen and a journalist. I know what the videos show, or at least I think I know. But are my inhibitions about seeing them or broadcasting them more widely a betrayal of the public’s need to know.

Imagine a scenario in which after midnight, when the kids were safe in bed, all voting Americans witnessed the brutal execution of one of those journalists? How would I feel? What would I do? What personal or political action would I take? More important, what would the consensus be? Would it just sicken us against involvement in another war? Would it demoralize us into isolationism? Or would it strengthen our resolve? Would we collectively demand of our President and Congress action against others who have lost the right to walk on the face of the earth?

These are questions, not answers. But seeing the new Ray Rice video has reminded me of the power of seeing something, not just hearing or reading about it. Seeing is not only believing. Seeing is also experiencing, which is a pre-requisite for empathy – and action.

My colleague Kelly McBride draws a key distinction: that the ISIS video was made as a work of propaganda, designed to be seen, calculated to inflame, provoke, and demoralize. The Ray Rice video was captured by a surveillance camera, which just happened to reveal an act of domestic violence that is almost by definition usually hiding behind closed doors. That smart distinction would certainly influence my decisions about whether to watch and broadcast, but would not determine them. Read more

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4 writing lessons from the comedy of Joan Rivers

Rivers. Credit: AP Images

Rivers.

The death of Joan Rivers has got me thinking about comedy, which would probably please her, especially about comics as writers and what we can learn from them. Jokes fly by. We can forget they are the result of a strategic approach to language, sequencing, and timing. Read more

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Snow-blind: The challenge of voice and vision in multi-media storytelling

winter snowy background blizzard, frost

There has been no American feature story more honored – or over-praised – than “Snow Fall” by the New York Times. I don’t want the key word in that last sentence – over-praised – to detract from the story’s historic achievement. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for feature writing; it set a standard for multi-media reporting at a time when we were wondering about the viability of that form of storytelling; and it attracted attention from far and wide, lending encouragement that journalism in the digital age has an exciting future.

Cheers to the writer, John Branch, to graphics director Steve Duenes, and to the team that created it.

Much of the original praise for the work was worshipful and, I believe, superficial. The dazzling visual effects were there for all to see and left potential critics, dare I use the term, snow-blind.

“Snow Fall” is many good things, but great storytelling is not one of them. I will argue that the innovative visual elements that brought it fame detract from the power of the narrative.

(Let me say that it is exactly this kind of work – impressive and innovative – that deserves our sharpest critical attention over time, the way that the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt received darts from critics such as Francine Prose and James Woods.)

The criticisms I bring to “Snow Fall” are mine and mine alone, which is not to say that I am a voice in the wilderness. After the critical euphoria that followed publication, a more sober reflection became possible only with the passage of time. That’s why I am weighing in now. It also provides an opportunity to articulate standards and strategies for what constitutes excellence in multimedia storytelling.

I began to hear tough questions about the “Snow Fall” story – its methods and effects – in coffee-houses where writers meet, at narrative conferences, in newsroom and classrooms. It did not come from jealousy or fear, but from an honest desire to know the strengths and limitations of such an approach.

Using the first section of the story as a kind of microcosm – and encouraging you all to read that much, at least – I offer the following critiques:

1. Most of the visual elements violate the essential credo of effective storytelling: Not to give away too much too soon.
2. Time and again the visual elements “step on the narrative.”
3. There is a “kitchen sink” feel to the visual aspects of the story.
4. The first section of text feels out of tune with the second.
5. Most of all, there is no harmony between what I would call the Voice of the story and its Vision.

Let me expand on these, in order:

1. Giving it away: Is “Snow Fall” a “what” narrative or a “how” narrative? It makes a difference. In a “what” narrative, the reader is driven to learn what happens next. In a “how” narrative, the reader may already knows what happened, but is eager to learn how it happened. “Snow Fall” can’t decide. As a result, there is no “engine” in the story, no driving force of curiosity, as in “who will live and who will die.” Early in the story, we are introduced to a video interview of one of the survivors. We see her whole and healthy, speaking from some unknown location, at a physical and temporal distance from the action described in the story. And yet here is the text beside her image: “Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.”

This feels like one of a number of instances in which the textual and visual elements are out of sync.

2. Stepping on narrative: The storytelling that begins “Snow Fall” is of high quality. It shows everything you would want from a narrative: intense scenic action, a dramatic setting, characters we might come to care about, and a cataclysmic inciting incident – an avalanche — so powerful that it transforms a landscape and the humans who enter it. The defining effect of narrative is to create a vicarious experience, to inhabit a world, to be there – on the snow and then in the snow and then buried by snow. The problem is that the narrative line is interrupted, time and again, by elements that are marginal to the storytelling. Embedded in the text are tiny icons that signify the visual tools: a video, a slide show. Every time I clicked on one of these, it took me away from the story. Instead of time moving, time was frozen, so to speak. Narratives are, by definition, linear (although they can contain more than one line). And it is possible to create narratives with multi-media components: text, visuals, audio, music and much more. We have a name for these. We call them movies.

3. Kitchen sink: I’m trying to learn the names for all the multi-media effects use in “Snow Fall.” There is a title page on a mountaintop, where the snow seems to be blowing; there is the way a text or image seems to surface from the bottom of the page before you’ve scrolled down to it; there are videos and slide shows; still photographs; a turning aerial view as if seen from a drone. It is the accumulation of visual elements that created the Gee Whiz response from admirers. But why all these elements? Perhaps a little selectivity was in order. It was Miles Davis, the jazz artist, who talked about how long it took to learn which notes to leave out.

4. Out of tune: Most of my argument is predicated on some sort of disharmony between the words and visuals in “Snow Fall,” but there is also a case to be made about dissonance in the text itself. Even without the visual elements, we would find interruptions in the narrative. The second part, titled “Tunnel Creek” feels as if written in a different voice from the opening scenes. This is a predictable and acceptable practice in all forms of journalism. One genre is called the “broken line,” a hybrid of narrative and informational reporting, the kind of news feature story that might begin with a narrative lead and be followed by a nut graph. Books by authors such as John McPhee, who tends to tell stories about people and their passions, move easily between explanatory and storytelling modes.

But I have a confession here. On three separate tries I was not able to navigate easily through the text of the Tunnel Creek section, which describes topography and history, not because the prose is insufficient, but because it felt like such a departure from the vivid style that begins the piece.

5. Voice and Vision: I believe I can summarize my critique in talking about two effects of creative journalism, one which I will call Voice and the other Vision. Each one can be perceived in a story, especially a work created through a multi-media approach. Each one is a collection of choices made by the writer and producer – in collaboration, one would hope.

Let’s start with Voice, and I’ll borrow my definition from Poynter friend and colleague Don Fry: “Voice is the sum of all the choices made by the writer that create the illusion that the writer is speaking off the page directly to the reader.” The reason you can identify – without bylines – the author of columns by Anna Quindlen and Maureen Dowd is all about voice. Even if the topic is the same, they SOUND different.
So what are some of those choices, the writer might make:

– The level of language, from slang to formal.
– The type of narration, from first person to third person.
– The story form, from experimental to conventional.
– The stance from neutral to partisan.

–The language, from plain to metaphorical.

Using Voice as an analogy, let me attempt a parallel definition for Vision. “Vision is that quality created by the sum of all the choices made by the designer or artist, the effect of which is a unified way of seeing, as if we were all looking through the same lens.”

So what are some of the choices the visual journalist might make that would influence vision?:

– The decision to use color or black and white.
– The development of a color palette consistent with the content and purpose of the work.
– The decision to use visual images as decorative, illustrative, or documentary in nature.
– The choice of visual platforms from still images to video to animation.
– The level of visual elements, from popular and commercial to high art.
– The choice of typefaces.

The more that the collaborators can discuss in advance the elements of voice and vision, the more they can channel their moves to fulfill the mission and purpose of the work, the more successful will be the experience of the audience.

Let’s take an example of another New York Times multi-media story that, in my opinion, offers a more successful marriage of Voice and Vision. The work is called Tomato Can Blues, written by Mary Pilon, and tells the story of a marginal cage fighter who fakes his own death because he owes money to drug dealers.

The tone of the piece, and the elements of the prose style, is reflected in the title. In the slang of the fight game a Tomato Can is a journeyman boxer who almost always loses and who takes a lot of punishment, getting beat to a bloody pulp – like the contents of a can of tomatoes. That slang, that grit, that working class lingo seeks its equivalent in the visual elements, which it finds in the comic book/graphic novel illustrations of Attila Futaki, who created them journalistically, based them on “police records, witness accounts, photographs and the reporter’s notes.” There is even an audio element that matches the words and visuals and is recited by Bobby Cannavale, an actor known for his work on gangland shows like Boardwalk Empire.

So there you have it, one work in which Voice and Vision seem slightly out of tune, and another where they work in close harmony. I look forward to the next experiment in multi-media storytelling by the New York Times and other media organizations. Read more

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Want to avoid procrastination? Impose an early deadline on yourself

When I wrote “The Glamour of Grammar,” I turned in the manuscript about three months late. Not a good feeling.

Friday morning, I turned in a finished draft of my next book, “The Art of X-ray Reading,” three months early. A very good feeling.

The key part of the word deadline, remember, is not the “line” part, but the “dead” part.

Now solve this riddle: When does a deadline become a lifeline?

The answer: When it is self-imposed.

I describe the process in my book Help! For Writers:

Many writers procrastinate until the deadline roars toward them like a train, the writer standing on the tracks. Pressing a deadline is a devil-may-care form of exhibitionism, a Houdini escape from a straitjacket, just in the nick of time, fueled by adrenaline. The literary daredevil may self-medicate with caffeine or nicotine to stimulate the writing, but adrenaline remains the writer’s little helper – and the drug of choice.

Spitting in the eye of a deadline is risky business for any writer. Beyond the dangers of self-medication, the writer can 1) have an anxiety attack, 2) be punished for getting the work in late, 3) leave no time for revision, and 4) leave no time for editors and other collaborators to do their best work. Not one of these comes into play when the writer sets an artificial deadline.

Author Jaipi Sixbear describes how writers working online can be both productive and punctual:

Remember to write your assignments two days ahead of their due date whenever possible. You can even trick yourself into meeting deadlines easily. Put an earlier due date on your outline. Chances are, you won’t have time to look up the actual date due. Your editor will be impressed with your promptness.

This process can work by the year, the week, or the day. If it is noon and your story is due at 6 p.m., impose a 4 p.m. deadline on yourself and use the extra two hours to improve the story.

For a big project, I like to use holidays as time targets. For “Help! For Writers,” I had a deadline around Christmastime, so I imposed a fake deadline on myself for Labor Day.

When the draft started to flow, I told myself, “You know, Roy, you could finish this by your wedding anniversary, Aug. 7.” I shipped out a completed draft just after the Fourth of July weekend, almost six months ahead of contract deadline. It may have set a Little, Brown record. Take that, Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger! You slackers. Read more

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