July 17, 2013

It is an honor to kick off the Poynter Excellence Project with Rosalind Bentley’s elegant and insightful profile of America’s poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. Bentley’s profile appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution as part of Personal Journeys — an innovative weekly feature “for readers who like good writing and good storytelling.”

Read the profile first, followed by my commentary, or use this essay to guide your reading. The goal of this project is not only to show you something worth reading, but also to inspire conversations about why it is worth reading. In addition to comments about the piece, I will include things I’ve learned from a recent telephone conversation and email exchange with the author.

What makes a great profile

In an age of celebrity journalism, we have lost the art of the great profile, or at least I thought we had until I read Bentley’s profile of poet Natasha Trethewey. Any great profile takes time to report and write and space to display, so it’s easy to understand why newspapers have ceded the ground to magazines. Beyond the content of her specific story, we can thank Bentley for reminding us what a good profile looks like and how it works.

So what is a profile? A dictionary definition says it is a “concise biographical sketch.” The word “sketch,” of course, is a metaphor from drawing, and it reminds us that in the visual arts, the profile only shows us the head or face from the side view. What we see (in words and visuals) we see intensely — but with the knowledge that a lot has been left out.

The subject is not looking us straight in the eye. The savvy profile writer must build a sense of the person from the accumulation of revealing elements: detail, observation, history, reading and research, creating a kind of literary pointillism. Notice, for example, how Bentley creates the big picture of the poet’s life by stringing together a litany of narrative fragments. We see these details from a distance until they form an image:

The shorthand of Natasha’s life reads like words plucked from a free verse poem:

Native Mississippian. Black mother. White father. Poet father. Poet daughter. Atlanta and DeKalb public school student. ‘A’ Student. UGA head cheerleader. Trauma survivor.Big sister. Decatur resident. Meticulous housekeeper. Proud wife. Exacting professor. Historical poet. Nobody’s pushover.

Along the way, Bentley pulls at several of these threads, especially as we come to understand the full implications of “trauma survivor,” how her mother was abused, stalked, and brutally murdered by her stepfather. While this crime is described in the profile, it is not overemphasized, as it might be in the hands of a clumsier or less-experienced writer. There is restraint here — and proportionality.

Think of the best profiles you’ve ever read, and you are likely to remember a feature that made a point, that was sharply focused rather than rambling, that strove for some keen understanding of one key manifestation of a person’s life. I remember, even now, a 1979 profile that Cynthia Gorney wrote for The Washington Post about Dr. Seuss.

Given the rich creative life of her subject, Gorney had many choices about what she would describe. In the end, she chose to marshal evidence of Seuss’ perfectionism: how he displayed in his home a 1902 rifle target his father had used for perfect shooting practice, how he rejected 60 shades of green to draw a parrot because not one was “parroty” enough for his liking.

What makes Bentley’s profile stand out

Rosalind Bentley

Bentley has been schooled by editors who believe the writer and reader benefit when the author can describe in just a few words — maybe one word — what the story is really about. Evidence can then be gathered from voluminous notes to prove a point. She describes this as “boiling things down.” The Trethewey profile, she says, is about “self-definition.”

If you read this profile with that hyphenated word — self-definition — in mind, you will begin to admire the discipline required to stick to it. Trethewey will not permit anyone else to define her — as a person or as a poet. Not her admirers or critics. Not her teachers. Not other poets. Not even her beloved father.

In an email message, Bentley described her process this way:

At first I thought the boil-down word was ‘exacting.’ But after a first pass at my lead, I realized that no one would want to read a story about someone who was simply exacting. After another attempt at a lead I realized that she was [controlling her image] because throughout her life so many people had sought to define who she was, from her race to her professional ambitions. Her struggle had been a battle against labels. She knew who she was, even if that image ran counter to what the rest of the world thought that image should be.

As you read through this profile, here are some other things to make note of:

1. How the subheads — “In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi” — and the bold-faced year markers help index the story for the reader, creating a sense of coherence and progression. The big parts fit together and they point us down the road. Bentley wrote these subheads herself so they reflected the structure and tone of the parts of the profile.

2. Notice the clever way in which Bentley uses the lives and dates of earlier poets laureate to connect with aspects of Trethewey’s life.

3. Notice the selected pieces of poetry throughout the profile. These excerpts work on more than one level, giving the reader not just a feel for the poet’s writing voice, but also aspects of her life story.

4. Notice how Bentley uses the present tense to narrate scenes from the past, creating a sense of immediacy — that “you are there” feeling.

5. Notice the savvy selection and use of details: from Trethewey’s licking the soap as punishment for lying to the civic celebration of her honor occurring in the town square of Decatur, adjacent to the old courthouse, “where the mother’s killer was sentenced.”

How Bentley keeps all her materials organized

Bentley’s story tote.

All writers struggle at keeping their materials together so they can find what they need when they need it. It was a delight and relief to know that Bentley solves the problem by storing her working materials in a canvas “story tote.” The one for this story was a cream-colored canvas pouch with blue straps. She agreed to share some of the contents with us:

  • Seven filled reporter’s notebooks.
  • One legal pad (not all filled) with lists of questions for various interviewees and a handwritten first draft of the story.
  • Numerous print-outs of the story with her editing marks.
  • Copies of all AJC stories written about Trethewey’s mother’s murder in 1985 and subsequent stories about Natasha written once she moved to Atlanta. (“I like to hold stuff in my hands and mark it up, which is why I like paper print-outs,” Bentley said.)
  • Copies of key emails with Trethewey, a copy of a speech she gave about her writing practices, and other documents.
  • A copy of “A Narrow World Made Wide” — a profile of former poet laureate Rita Dove, written by former Washington Post writer Walt Harrington.
  • A printout of “The Meaning of Work,” by David Finkel of The Washington Post. (“Sure, he has written many, many great stories, but that one just gets me every time I read it,” Bentley said.)
  • Sharpie highlighters to emphasize quotes in her notebooks.

Bentley describes herself as analog and tactile when it comes to the strategic use of her working materials. She reads her notebooks to “relive the interview and visualize what I saw.” Names get highlighted in pink. Salient quotes get marked in yellow. Really good quotes and things that get to the heart of the story get underlined in red pen and marked with a giant scrawled star.

Bentley told me:

One of my former editors said this to me years ago and it’s so true: report, think, then write. Many reporters will skip the thinking phase. I used to skip it and I’d struggle. But you just can’t skip the middle. Even if the thinking stage is three minutes or three hours or three days. That’s the phase where you’re really refining your argument and rehearsing your story, so when you sit down to write you know where the guardrails are.

She went on to say:

Part of that thinking process, for me, is talking with someone I trust, someone who is much better than me, someone who knows how to laser in on the essential truth of a story. This helps me see where the holes are in my reporting, helps me to make sure that I’m not getting distracted by elements that might be very glittery, but ultimately not very revealing for the reader or good for the story. By then end of one of those conversations, if I can’t articulate the heart of my story then I know I’ve got to do more work.

The Poynter Excellence Project highlights excellent journalism and explains why it works so well. We will feature all types of journalism — videos, interactives, radio interviews, written stories and more. We’d like to highlight projects that Poynter.org readers nominate, so please email nominations to ExcellenceProject@poynter.org. If we use your nominations, we’ll give you discounts on courses and Webinars at Poynter News University.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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