Narrative Journalism: Ride the River, Scan the Banks

August 2, 2002
Category: Archive

Chip Scanlan, Poynter’s Reporting, Writing & Editing Group Leader, made this speech earlier this month at the Boston University conference, “Aboard the Narrative Train III.”


CAN YOU REMEMBER the book that made you want to be a writer?


I can.


It’s Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk, probably better known as the author of The Caine Mutiny. Published in 1962, it was a bit of a potboiler about a young writer’s rise and fall based on the life of Thomas Wolfe. That’s Thomas Look Homeward Angel, You Can’t Go Home Again, NOT Tom Right Stuff, Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby Wolfe.


How Wouk’s novel came into our house or what compelled me, a 12-year-old boy impatiently waiting for puberty to kick in, to pick it up, I don’t know.


But after the first paragraph — “Have you ever known a famous man before he became famous? It may be an irritating thing to remember, because chances are he seemed like anybody else” — I was hooked. Over the next several days I devoured the book. It kept me up late into the night, engaged in what my three daughters refer to nowadays as “sneak reading,” flipping the pages while everyone else in the family slept.


When you’re a kid trying to read an adult’s book, what my kids call “a chapter book,” you soon learn that it’s an endurance test of not only your eyes but also your upper limbs.


Youngblood Hawke is 783 pages long. It weighs two-and-a-half pounds.


After a while it weighs heavy on your hands, so you shift positions. The book goes on the floor and you, the reader, assume a prone position on the bed with your head leaning over the edge of the mattress. But after a while you realize the limitations of this approach as the blood in your arms drains into your hands, which grow heavy and then begin to tingle. You sit up, trying to shake off the pins and needles, and resume the supine position.


Please tell me I’m not the only person who is familiar with this approach?


In any case, by the time I finished reading Youngblood Hawke, my life was changed. I would be a writer, someone like him, a poor kid who would become rich and famous and pursued by women, although back then I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do if caught. Most of all, I would tell stories that would keep other people up late at night, unable to stop turning the page.


That to me is the essence of narrative’s power. It’s what draws all of us here this weekend, the love of narrative’s trance and the passion to weave the spell ourselves by telling stories.


Story.


It’s a word that echoes in a newsroom on an average working day.


“Great story today.”


“Chief, I need another day/week/month to finish that story.”


“Hey, when are we going to see that story?”


“Sheesh, how the hell did that story get on the front page? (This, by the way, always refers to another reporter’s work.)


And of course, the old standby, “Story at 11.”


But what journalists mean when they say “story” is usually something else. We call them stories, as Jack Hart, writing coach at The Oregonian, draws the distinction, but most of what appears in print are articles or reports. Articles present information about an accident, a public meeting, a speech, a Presidential election recount, if you can imagine anything so ridiculous. It’s a fine form, a convenient structure to convey information in a clear, readable, concise, accurate way.


But please, let’s not confuse them with stories.


Now articles have their place, but late at night your kid will never say, “I can’t sleep. Tell me an article.” No, they beg to be lulled into slumber or diverted from the terrors or boredom of the day’s end by the story with its suspense and setting, its theme, that core of meaning that drives everything: its characters, its plot, its complications, its suspense and climax.


Instead, in much of newswriting, we provide few if any of these.


Instead of settings, we give readers an address.


Instead of characters, we give people stick figures, a title, “Goldilocks, 7, of 5624 Sylvan Way,” sometimes not even an age that would help us make a connection with this person on the page.


Instead of suspense, we give the ending away at the beginning.


Instead of climax, we drift away or get lost in a thicket of confusion.


Of course, I’m preaching to the choir here. I like stories. You like stories. We all like stories.


So what’s the point of all this? Where is this headed? And where the hell is Rick Bragg, anyway?


Okay, so I’m not Rick Bragg. I don’t say things like, “Ah know Ah sound like Ah just fell off a peech tru-uu-ck.”


Rick has great war stories. At The Poynter Institute where I teach, we look for guest faculty who can draw on a storehouse of experience. But I always caution them: people love to hear war stories, but they’re also hoping to get some battle plans. They want to hear tales of gutsy, tenacious reporting and dazzling writing, but they also want some tips they can apply to their own work.


So I plan to keep the war stories to a minimum. One reason for that is that I fought my last newsroom battles seven years ago when I left the Washington Bureau of Knight Ridder Newspapers for a five-month visit at Poynter that has become a seven-year-long and counting stay. Also, I’ve never forgotten the remark from an editor about folks like me: “So many war stories. So few wars.” If I do share them, I’ll keep it brief and offset the ego trip down memory lane by marrying them with a battle plan that I hope will help you improve your craft, which is the reason we’re all here anyway. We belong to what Ken Fuson of The Des Moines Register calls “the tribe” of news storytellers. It’s the tribe that gathers here this weekend, will congregate next spring in Hartford and six other cities around the country for the annual National Writers Workshops.


I’m honored and thrilled to be among such a large group of kindred spirits and in such august company, and grateful to Mark Kramer, Boston University, and everyone who helped make this event possible, for the chance to rub shoulders with so many of my heroes of narrative journalism in hopes that some of what they’ve learned about our craft leaves a trace on me.


How do you do it?


How do you do it as well as Rick Bragg, or Anne Hull, or Donna Britt, as Tracy Kidder and Adrian LeBlanc, as well as the outstanding writers and editors in the audience today?


That’s what drives most writers I know, including myself. That’s what led all of us to blustery Boston on a weekend when we could easily spend the day in bed comfortably watching the saga of Hurricane Chad play out on MSNBC.


How do you do it? That was my question when I set down that copy of Youngblood Hawke.


I wasn’t sure, but back then I was convinced the answer lay in fiction. The problem was I could never find a classified ad for “Best Selling Novelist. Will Train.”


That all changed — not the classified ad part — in the summer of 1972. Fresh from a lonely year as a Peace Corps volunteer in French West Africa, I was broke, unemployed, and couldn’t even finish the short stories I labored on. Through a friend who worked as a reporter for the Bridgeport Post, I got a tryout with The Milford Citizen, a small daily in a suburb of New Haven (6,000 circ., 7,200 Sunday). Around town, it was known town as “The Shitizen.”


The city editor, understandably, was dubious. I had no experience, no clips, not even (gasp) a journalism degree. But my friend twisted his arm and I was presented with a four-paragraph story from The Stamford Advocate, 20 exits down the New England Turnpike: a Milford man had been found dead in the Sinai Desert. Localize it, kid.


Later, they told me they expected me to call up the funeral home, maybe get a quote from a relative, and rewrite the wire story. Two takes. Tops.


But all those years of reading novels and short stories had paid off, I guess. I looked at the clip and found myself thinking, “How the hell does a guy from Milford, Conn., end up dying in the Sinai desert?”


The answer was “Death in the Desert,” an opus that not only appeared on the front page of the Sunday Citizen. It was the entire front page.


Can you blame me for turning my back on the Great American Novel and becoming a reporter?


They mispelled my last name in the byline, but it didn’t matter. Based on extensive interviews with the dead man’s friends, family, and co-workers, and a ton of library research, my first publication was produced in a white heat, a caffeine-fueled marathon of writing and rewriting. By the time it was done, I was hooked.


At the time, of course, I would have sneered if anyone had said I had just started working at a job that would consume me for the next 22 years. But even before the story appeared, the die was cast. In “Death in the Desert,” I’d found a way to achieve that boyhood dream of writing stories. Whether my readers would keep turning the page remained to be seen.


What I learned that day and in the years that followed was that there was a place for stories in the newspaper.


THE FACT THAT we’re here for Aboard the Narrative Train III, the third annual conference on narrative journalism at Boston University, and the fact that there are 600 of you in this audience who tell these stories, edit them, work on them, dream of telling them demonstrates to me that the place of narrative journalism is secure.


Okay, that’s good news, but again, neurotic writer that I am, I return to the central question, How do I do it?


Last Wednesday morning, the day after Mark Kramer let me know I might be filling in for Rick Bragg today, I woke up thinking about the task and — all right, I admit it — the Presidential election. Actually what I thought about was What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer’s portrait of the men who would be President in 1988.


And a headline appeared, as it sometimes will, just above my eyebrows:


Narrative Journalism: What It Takes.


What do I need, I asked myself, to keep writing, to keep learning how to tell stories so that readers will keep turning the page. On good days, writing approaches art, but at its core writing is a craft that requires lifelong dedication. If I didn’t believe that my best writing is ahead of me, I’d be a pretty miserable person. I still have so much to learn. As Geoffrey Chaucer put it, not to me, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”


Right now, I’ve got two projects going: a novel set in a military psychiatric hospital at the tail end of World War II where doctors try to help battle damaged fliers do the impossible — remember the horror of war because only by remembering can they be healed; and a memoir of three generations of flawed Irish-American fathers, two of whom are dead, my father and his father.


Obviously because one of these is a historical novel and the other a work of narrative nonfiction, I’ve been doing a lot of reporting, interviewing people, researching, the same kinds of stuff I did as a reporter. I realized recently that these subjects chose me because I am at heart a reporter, addicted not only to the shaping of stories but to their construction with the building blocks of detail, dialogue, scene that can only come from asking questions, listening to the answers, and looking very closely at life.


Because writing — journalism — in my view, is a craft, attitude matters more than talent. Now that’s not true if you’re a brain surgeon. Frankly, I don’t care if my neurosurgeon is a total jerk as long as she doesn’t kill me. But in a business in which we come in most days not knowing what story I’ll be writing, whether people will talk to me, whether I’ll have the brains to shut up and listen to them, whether I can collect all the material I need to write a story, and then of course can I pull off the writing, often under impossible conditions and pressures, then my attitude — how I’m going to handle all these intellectual and emotional challenges — is the key. Of course, I need to remind myself of the craft lessons, from the resonant power of the status detail and exchange of detail, the vivid scene, the authoritative voice. But I’d like to share with you another set of lessons I need to keep reminding myself about, as a reporter, as a storyteller.


I think of these as the paradoxes of the writing life. Lately I’ve begun collecting these seemingly contradictory statements, the way some people collect stamps and actually the way I collect vintage fountain pens.


Because they help me get the writing done. (Scanlan’s 10 Lessons)


Now, I want to confess that I don’t always follow my own advice. Sometimes I don’t even remember it. The writer’s toolbox is huge. And I’m not saying that you have to follow it, either. Many of you are doing just fine without my two cents. And fortunately there is a legion of terrific writers and teachers who will be doling out their own spare change.


This weekend you’re going to hear lots of things, and my advice to you is be a sponge, be a duck. If it sounds good, soak it up. If it doesn’t, let it roll off your back. But keep an open mind. I find articulating these thoughts in a kind of loop of self-talk gets me past the frustration, self-doubt, and impatience that has always been my worst enemy.


All of us have to find our own path.


One of my favorite writing quotes is a Spanish proverb: “Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.”


At The Milford Citizen, I learned that you could be a storyteller for newspapers.


We need storytelling more than ever. Technology, ironically has put us back around the campfire hanging on the storyteller’s words. We get the news on the radio, on cell phones and Palm Pilots, via the alphabet soup of 24-hour cable. But it’s not enough. As Jack Fuller, the chairman of the Tribune Company — a newspaper suit to be sure, but one with a Pulitzer Prize and several good novels to his credit — says in his thoughtful and thought-provoking book, News Values: Ideas for an Information Age, “People come to a newspaper craving a unifying human presence–the narrator in a piece of fiction, the guide who knows the way, or the colleague whose view one values. Readers don’t just want random snatches of information flying at them from out of the ether. They want information that hangs together, makes sense, has some degree of order to it. They want knowledge rather than facts, perhaps even a little wisdom.”


Sounds like a story to me.


We tell stories to survive as an industry, as a species. If there is light at the end of the coaxial cable of 21ST century communication, it’s in narrative. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


Case in point: Some of you may remember the story a few years back in Miami. Early one morning, a deranged man hijacked a school bus full of disabled school kids. This was the ’90s, so naturally every news chopper, every eye in the sky took flight into the South Florida skies. They fed a live stream that went out all over the state, the nation, and, thanks to CNN, much of the planet. So imagine that you’re the one who has to write the story for The Miami Herald, a piece that won’t appear until the next day. What do you do when everyone with a TV has seen the story live, or on instant replay?


Do you write: “Police shot and killed a man who hijacked a bus and held 13 disabled children hostage Tuesday morning after a tense low-speed chase through rush hour traffic.”


Not unless you want people to stop reading after the third graf.


No, what a smart writer does is to turn to narrative, to tell a story with revealing detail, scenes, dialogue based on exhaustive reporting. That’s what Martin Merzer of The Miami Herald did. Rather than summing up what readers already knew, he took a risk, gambling on a vivid, edgy reconstruction that opened this way:

A waiter fond of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson attends morning prayers at his church, steps across the street and hijacks a school bus. Owing $15,639.39 in back taxes, wielding what he says is a bomb, Catalino Sang shields himself with disabled children.


Follow my orders, he says, or I will kill the kids. “No problem, I will,” says driver Alicia Chapman, crafty and calm. “But please, don’t hurt the children.”


The saga of Dade County school bus number CX-17, bound for Blue Lakes Elementary, begins.


Would you keep reading? Judges for the American Society of Newspaper Editors said they would, and they gave the story the Jesse Laventhol Prize for Deadline Reporting and $10,000. If anyone is looking for an argument for storytelling on deadline, there’s a pretty good one.


If that’s what it takes to create narrative journalism, here’s what it can do.


It can tell you what it’s like to leave your home in a Mexican village behind and try to make a better life, as Anne Hull did in “Una Vida Mejor: A Better Life.”


It can help readers understand how a teenage girl and her boyfriend could kill the girl’s mother by injecting her with bleach as Hull and her colleagues Tom French and Sue Carlton did on deadline.


It’s what Tracy Kidder, John McPhee, have been doing for years — taking us inside the lives of strangers and revealing their humanity.


It’s the way we bridge the gap that separates us, with words providing the planks of memory, emotion, knowledge.


As I’ve said, journalists often misuse the word story. So let me leave with you one of the simplest, but for me one of the most powerful definitions I’ve ever read. It was written by Bill Buford, fiction editor at the New Yorker and a literary journalist in his own right.

Of the many definitions of story, the simplest may be this. It is a piece of writing that makes the reader want to find out what happens next. Good writers, it is often said, have the ability to make you keep on reading them whether you want to or not — the milk boils over, the subway stop is missed … But stories also protect us from chaos, and maybe that’s what we, unblinkered at the end of the twentieth century, find ourselves craving. Implicit in the extraordinary revival of storytelling is the possibility that we need stories — that they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives: the beginning, middle and end of our personal and collective trajectories. It is possible that narrative is as important to writing as the human body is to representational painting. We have returned to narrative-in many fields of knowledge-because it is impossible to live without them.


AT THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL, where I spent eight years and which remains one of the places where narrative journalism is alive and well, we wrote stories. Our editor, Joel Rawson, said he wanted us to cut a new stencil. We’ve done a good job writing extraordinary stories about extraordinary people, he said. Now I’d like to have us write extraordinary stories about ordinary people. That, I believe, may be the highest purpose of narrative journalism, stories that focus on what Rawson described as the true subject of journalism: “the joys and cost of being human.”


Not everyone agreed..


One morning I was sitting at my desk in the newsroom when a colleague, a newsroom veteran whose reporting and writing talents I greatly admired, approached. The day before the first part of a narrative series that focused on life in a single Rhode Island neighborhood had appeared. “Read your story,” he said.


I looked up, eyes alight.


“Yep, I think it’s a perfect example of what’s going wrong with this paper.”


Crushed, I sought solace from my buddy Mark Patinkin, a columnist at the paper. He was sympathetic, but the comment stung and I wondered if writing stories that focused on people’s lives, that sometimes had no other value other than they were a good story, was the right course. The next day he came up waving a story he had clipped out of The Boston Globe. It was the obituary of Will Durant who with his wife Ariel produced shelves of books on history and philosophy. Mark had spotted a quote in the piece that might be a balm for my wounded ego.


“Civilization is a stream with banks,” Durant had written. “The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.”


Journalists are pessimists, too, I believe, because they ignore the banks for the river. But as the writers whose work is represented at this conference demonstrate, some of the finest stories emerge when someone pays attention to the story of what happens on the banks. Writers who use narrative have, I believe, an advantage. We can ride the river, reporting the news, and scan the banks, looking for the stories of our time. I hope to see you there.