I was sitting in an auditorium last summer, listening to Andre Dubus III lecture on how fiction techniques can help the creative nonfiction writer. It was part of my university’s low-residency MFA program, one of the first craft sessions of the summer actually, and I was drawn to the event more because of its title—“Authentic Curiosity: The Most Neglected Tool of the Creative Nonfiction Writer”—than by Dubus’s celebrity.
The lecture was good. Dubus is funny and engaging, and I have no doubt he inspired the students to look at their nonfiction writing differently. But I was troubled by one thing: Dubus set up a dichotomy with journalism on one side and creative nonfiction on the other. Journalism, he said, gives readers facts, gives them information, while creative nonfiction gives readers an experience. The unspoken message was that journalism is boring and creative nonfiction, which on this day was synonymous with the memoir or personal essay, is exciting. Journalism equals facts while creative nonfiction equals truth.
This has not been my experience. Indeed, some of the best creative nonfiction I’ve read over the last five years was actually journalism, and by that, I mean stories written about the lives of other people, reported by people who know how to report and synthesize what they have reported, then craft a story that captures a place, a time, a person—sometimes all three—to give readers an experience they won’t soon forget, one that reaches truths which fiction and memoir strive for but often fail to reach.
Now, had Dubus said that journalism’s inverted pyramid is the opposite of creative nonfiction, I would agree. It is formulaic and boring and built on the premise that readers want to stop reading as soon as possible. But journalism is not relegated to a single form, much like poetry is not relegated to one structure. The journalism I am talking about is the in-depth narrative journalism being produced on a monthly basis in national glossy magazines like Esquire and Sports Illustrated, among others, and also increasingly in daily newspapers.
CHRIS JONES is a writer at large for Esquire and the back-page columnist for ESPN: The Magazine. He has won two National Magazine Awards for Feature Writing. Follow him on Twitter @mysecondempire.
THOMAS LAKE is the youngest senior writer for Sports Illustrated, where he has won the Henry Luce Award for story of the year among all magazines of Time Inc. His work has been anthologized in three editions of Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter @thomaslake.
BEN MONTGOMERY is an enterprise reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and founder of the narrative journalism website Gangrey.com. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting and won the Dart Award and Casey Medal for a series called “For Their Own Good,” about abuse at Florida’s oldest reform school. Follow him on Twitter @gangrey.
MATT TULLIS (moderator) is a journalism professor at Ashland University and regular contributor to Cleveland Magazine. Before joining academia, he worked as a daily newspaper reporter, most recently at The Columbus Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @matttullis.
You can find links to much of this type of work on the website Gangrey.com. One of the first stories the site took me to was “Kennel Trash” by Kelly Benham, which was published in the St. Petersburg Times, since renamed the Tampa Bay Times. “Kennel Trash” was about dog shelter employees who, after a major dog-fighting operation was raided, had to put down more than one hundred dogs and puppies. Benham begins the story this way: “It got dark. Out came flashlights. They still hadn’t gathered all the dogs. They didn’t know what to do with them all, and they didn’t know how many they would have to kill.”
Gangrey helped me realize that there are a lot of journalists who feel the same way I do, who spend more time thinking about story structure and narrative engines and character than they do about the inverted pyramid.
I wanted to talk about this kind of journalism as a legitimate form of creative nonfiction, so I gathered three of the craft’s best practitioners for a long email discussion. —Matt Tullis
TULLIS: First things first: Is narrative journalism a sub-genre of creative nonfiction? Should it be considered a form of creative writing? Is it idiotic to try and put labels on things like this?
MONTGOMERY: I’m not really concerned with how we categorize it or what we call it. Seems like there’s a new name for it every year. In the end, it’s a stack of facts and reported detail and dialogue ordered to give life to a story. It’s journalism. Narrative journalism seems redundant.
JONES: I feel a little uncomfortable using the word creative to describe what we do, because that sounds a little too much like creative financing or creative accounting, which really means “cooking the books.” And yet, I suppose there are elements of creation in a really good nonfiction story, because you’re taking something that doesn’t really exist—a story doesn’t exist until someone tells it—and turning it into this tangible thing. It is an act of creation in the truest sense.
Still, I don’t much like it.
I can see that labels are tempting, even within journalism; because it’s such a broad field, it feels necessary to draw some distinctions. We need labels to distinguish between, say, aggregating content (the journalistic equivalent of shit shoveling, if you also stole the shit) and writing books like Robert Caro’s. I’d rather that the more elaborate stuff just be called narrative nonfiction, because I know what that means and, again, because in this instance, I fear that someone might take creative the wrong way and think that it means something it does not mean. I think we live in an age where the line between fiction and nonfiction has been blurred enough already. I think whatever terms we use, they should be unambiguous. Really, I’ve never had a problem understanding just journalism. Can we keep that and not worry about the rest?
LAKE: I prefer the term narrative journalism or, perhaps, narrative nonfiction. That’s what we do. We find true stories and we tell them. We (usually) start at the beginning and proceed through the middle and stop at the end. We might use some of the same writing techniques or devices that novelists and short story writers use, but we must invent nothing. We must not create anything except a faithful rendering of the truth. Maybe, in this sense, the difference between a short story and a work of narrative journalism is like the difference between a painting and a photograph.
Good writing will save newspapers. … The newspapers that value quality, interesting work will survive. Those that refuse to fund it and settle for less will fail. –Ben Montgomery
TULLIS: Ben, can you talk a little about Gangrey.com and how it came about? How important is a website like Gangrey for pushing journalism to a more literary aesthetic? Is that what will save newspapers?
MONTGOMERY: Of course it is. Good writing will save newspapers. (By good writing, I also mean good subject selection and good reporting and good presentation and all the things that bring a story to life.) The newspapers that value quality, interesting work will survive. Those that refuse to fund it and settle for less will fail.
Gangrey started in 2005 because I noticed a lack of places that highlighted good daily storytelling. “Dirty narratives,” we sometimes call them. Stuff achieved by people working on a daily or weekly deadline. How important is it? I think, at best, it gives folks striving for this kind of work a place to swap ideas and diagnose stories and learn, and, perhaps, it helps us remember that we’re not alone out there.
TULLIS: When did you three know you wanted to be journalists? Why journalism? Why not write novels or essays or poems?
MONTGOMERY: I wanted to be a farmer. Still do. I needed an English credit in college and wound up in a feature writing class. I nailed an early assignment, and the professor read my lede out loud to the class. It was an incredible experience, and in some ways, I’m still chasing that feeling. I do essays occasionally, and I’ve started a few novels, but my reward is making something with immediate impact.
LAKE: It might have been my senior year at Gordon College, in the hallway outside a classroom, with a professor named Steve Crowe. We were talking about news writing, and I was musing on Associated Press style, the inverted pyramid and that sort of thing, and I must have been telling him that kind of writing didn’t excite me too much, and he said something like, “Well, you know, there’s this new thing called narrative journalism.”
JONES: I came to the game pretty late. I’d always written, mostly for myself, and mostly true stories. Why not those other things? Because I’m not good at them. My wife makes fun of me because I really do only two or three things with my life because I only like to do things that I’m good at and I’m not good at many things. I pretty much stay in my pocket. (I actually lost the English prize in high school because I refused to write a poem that was worth ten percent of our final mark. I was like, Why would I do that? It will suck. Some girl won after writing some shit about dolphins.) Anyway, I always wrote, but I never really thought of it as a profession, as a way to earn a living, until I was in grad school, taking urban planning, and the headmaster at my college took an interest in what I was writing late at night. He got me on my way. But I’ve never really veered from a pretty narrow path, even after all these years. To be honest, I marvel at people who can write more inventive things, but I have no imagination. I need facts to launch from. I’m writing a script at the moment, and even it’s a true story. Not based on; it’s totally true. There’s no way I could invent anything from scratch. I just don’t have that kind of brain.
TULLIS: Do any of you read literary journals? Have you ever tried to publish in literary journals? What was the result?
MONTGOMERY: I don’t. Those I’ve looked at I’ve found sort of dry and self-important. This may be a horrible assessment. I would like to look at more.
LAKE: Lately, I’ve been enjoying the work in n+1, the journal edited by Chad Harbach. I loved Chad’s writing so much in his novel, The Art of Fielding, that I figured his journal had to be pretty good. And it is.
Never tried to publish my own work in a literary journal, but I’ve tried very hard to find the right home for a 5,000-word essay by my mother, Elizabeth Lake, called “Death Comes for the Lizard King.” It’s a brilliant and haunting piece of work by a major undiscovered talent. If you know an editor who’d be willing to take a look, please introduce us.
JONES: I don’t, and I haven’t. I hate questions like this—not because you asked it, but because they make me feel dumb. I was doing an interview recently with a very well-read subject, and every reference he made, I had to admit that I didn’t know what he was talking about. There are whole worlds out there I know nothing about.
TULLIS: What do you like to read?
MONTGOMERY: I read a lot. What I like to read depends on my mood. I’m reading a lot of Harry Crews lately.
JONES: I read mostly nonfiction, although in the last year or two, I’ve read a few novels. I just bought my first graphic novel, and I think I’ll dive pretty deep into them for a bit. I’m a really slow reader because if I like something, I usually try to figure out why I like it, what works, and what doesn’t. Anyway, right now I’m reading Bob Barker’s autobiography.
LAKE: I read the best stuff in magazines and a few nonfiction books, but I prefer novels. They’re my nutritional intake when it comes to writing. I need those voices floating around my head when I do my own writing. Annie Proulx, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Tea Obreht, Jonathan Franzen, Ernest Hemingway, Lev Grossman, Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates. They make stories come alive in a way I wish I could.
TULLIS: One reason I love journalism, especially the kind you guys do, is because it shows the world how it really is. And it can do that because you have reported the stories. Buzz Bissinger said something similar in a previous issue of this magazine. He said, “You can’t write any type of nonfiction without reporting in it. To me, it’s the reporting that makes the nonfiction—that’s what makes it resonate.” What do you guys think of this?
JONES: I think, well, of course. I know it’s trendy to aggregate and opine and sit on your couch and bloviate, and I guess that stuff falls under the realm of nonfiction (and I should point out that I’ve done my share of it), but true nonfiction, the sort of nonfiction that might last and has a chance to matter, is built on a foundation of reporting. And not just a little reporting. Whenever anyone asks me what I do, or whenever I have to fill out a form that asks for my profession, I usually answer “reporter.” A writer can be any number of things. A reporter can be only one thing: a finder of facts. That’s what I love most about my job, that’s what I think I’m best at, and that’s what I most want to be. I want people to read my stuff and think, That guy’s a reporter.
LAKE: Yes, I’m a reporter. Always will be, I think. It’s half and half. You need to be a great writer, and you get to be one through lots of writing and lots of reading great writing, but in order to have something beautiful and true to write, you need to learn how to find it. I had no idea of this in college. The tools for finding the story, for being an investigative reporter, those take years to acquire. And they are indispensable for writing good nonfiction.
MONTGOMERY: Absolutely. And what lots of people don’t realize is how much harder the reporting is. You can’t just write narrative nonfiction. The stories don’t come at the keyboard; they come in the field, when you decide to hang around a little longer, to go back for one last conversation, to put yourself in the right place to witness a dynamic scene. Without reporting, you have a bunch of words on a page.
In order to have something beautiful and true to write, you need to learn how to find it. … The tools for finding the story, for being an investigative reporter, those take years to acquire. And they are indispensable for writing good nonfiction. –Thomas Lake
TULLIS: How does one draw the line between regular everyday journalism and journalism that is written with literary intent?
LAKE: That’s a terribly difficult thing to do. Some daily journalism is, in fact, written with literary intent. Mine usually was, and the results were sometimes disastrous. (But also entertaining, I hoped.)
Maybe this is part of the problem. For at least a century and probably several centuries, certain ink-stained wretches of journalism have aspired to do work that would somehow last beyond the day’s news cycle, that would be remembered alongside the work of great authors. But none of them would admit to that because it would open them to ridicule. This is still true. Oh, you think you’re better than the rest of us? You think every word you write is a jewel? You think you can get all “literary” with that cops brief? Get over yourself.
So, you have all these reporters who want to be Writers, with a capital W, but they can’t say that, so they have to do it in a sort of sneaky way, and they have to speak out against “pretty writing” and all that fluff. But secretly, they hope someone will say something they’ve written is pretty.
Most journalists would say it’s presumptuous to call your own work “literary.” You might think it is, you might hope it is, but you have to wait for others to apply that label. And this takes a long time, if it happens at all.
MONTGOMERY: The beauty of working at a newspaper is that people read it and throw it in with the recycling. It’s my mission to extend that shelf life, in a drawer or on the coffee table or held by magnets to the refrigerator. You can’t do that by just writing shit down. It’s an effort you want readers to notice. There’s the line. The moment they notice.
JONES: I guess for me it’s the difference between a simple presentation of the facts and a beautiful presentation of the facts. Like the difference between a phone book and In Cold Blood.
TULLIS: Can you talk about your reporting process once you decide to do a story.
JONES: Well, reporting really is a two-step process: find your sources, and then mine your sources for material. I usually try to make a list of the people I want to talk to. That list will change because it’s useful to ask the people you talk to who they might talk to if they were writing the story, and they will give you names that you’ve never heard before. And then I talk to people, a lot. I don’t do a lot of reading or research before unless I’m writing something historical, which I don’t do very often. Mostly, I like to see places and talk to people firsthand, find the story out myself, and I tell them I might ask about things they’ve talked about before, because I want to hear them say it directly. I want to get it from them. The older I get and the shittier reporting standards have become, the less I trust what I read. So most of the stuff in my stories is the product of firsthand reporting. And I’m lucky enough to work for places that will give me the time I feel I need to tell the story confidently. Great stories have a confidence in them; you can feel it in the very first few sentences—an authority over the material, almost a mastery of it. That’s the product of thorough reporting. That’s the only way to get it, which means I try to report in a way that gives me the best chance to find that confidence.
I guess for me it’s the difference between a simple presentation of the facts and a beautiful presentation of the facts. Like the difference between a phone book and In Cold Blood. –Chris Jones
LAKE: I usually start with Nexis. I try to read almost everything ever written about the thing or the person before I talk to them for the first time. I want my questions to flow from that knowledge rather than from ignorance. Ultimately, the story is not based on my readings from the Nexis database, but that reading helps me maximize my time with every source because we have a common frame of reference.
MONTGOMERY: I look for stories everywhere: on drives, on walks, at the pub, in the papers, on bathroom walls. I think most of my waking life is a process of sifting for stories. Thousands fall through the screen, and I stew over the ones that are left until I get the energy to pluck one and go forward. Those are typically stories with a central driving question that I want desperately to answer. And when I go after it, I cast a very wide net. I sit down to write when I can answer all of my own questions.
TULLIS: When do you know to stop reporting?
LAKE: When you see the story in your mind, from beginning to middle to end, and you can write down that structure on a blank white sheet of paper and there are no gaping holes. I should clarify: This does not actually mean you stop reporting. What it means is you can start writing. But you keep reporting as you write because the act of writing reveals these little pinholes in the reporting, these places where you don’t know quite as much as you should. So you keep making phone calls right up to the end. You solidify, you deepen, you seal all the leaks. You may never actually be done until the thing shows up in print.
MONTGOMERY: When you can answer your own questions. When your curiosity is completely quenched.
JONES: I actually really like Tom’s answer here. There does come a point when you’re ready to write, but for me, writing is just reporting interrupted. I almost always find those holes Tom is talking about, and before I finish an interview, I always ask the subject whether I can call when I’m in the middle of writing, in case I find one and need a bit of plaster. They never say no. I don’t call if I don’t need to, but I have made many of those phone calls. In my ideal world, I report until I can basically tell the story from start to finish out loud—like, if Tom and I were at a bar, I could just tell him the story. People who read me would probably know this: I’m not a very fancy writer; I don’t use a lot of narrative tricks or structural devices. I pretty much just tell the story. I just talk into my computer. I mean, there’s more to it than that—I edit a lot, for starters—but really, I’m just telling other people’s stories for them. That’s my principal job. I’m definitely a reporter first and a writer second.
TULLIS: Recently, on Gangrey.com, Ben posted a photo of the binders that Wright Thompson, a writer for ESPN.com, used to organize his notes for a story about the high school basketball impersonator, Guerdwich Montimere, and it generated a pretty good discussion. How do you organize your notes?
LAKE: I don’t have a single repository the way Wright does. My field notes are in 4-by-8 reporters’ notebooks and digital audio files captured with an Olympus recorder. My notes from phone conversations and books and crime reports and court records and online research are in a series of Microsoft Word files kept together in a folder specific to the story I’m working on. Usually, one file is larger than the rest, and it can easily stretch to five hundred pages. Once most of the reporting is done, I write an outline on paper, by hand. That’s how I organize my thoughts and isolate my main themes.
MONTGOMERY: I’m far more disorganized than that because I’m often working on seventeen stories at once and stuff gets mixed together. I’ll have notes from five stories in the same notebook, hopefully titled correctly on the cardboard front. I outline from memory. I write a draft based on the outline from memory. Then I go in search of the material I know I have to fill the holes.
JONES: I’m the same as Ben. I have a bunch of notes and digital audio files. I usually have a rolling Word document filled with contacts and ideas and sentences that have popped into my head. I don’t outline, but like Ben, I write from memory first. I don’t go back to all that stuff until after I have a first draft. Then, I go back and correct my mistakes and find plaster for the holes. Otherwise, I get too bound up, reading back over everything. I want my story to feel natural, not constructed, if that makes sense. I always felt weird about doing it that way until Gene Weingarten told me he does it the same way. I figure if it’s good enough for him. . . .
TULLIS: Can you talk a bit about the ethical standards you adhere to when reporting. What will you do/not do? Talk about the relationship with the subject. So often you find things out that must be reported that will not reflect kindly on your subject. How do you handle that?
There is a spectrum of sin. Some people will run farther along it than others in pursuit of a story. I know how far I’ll go. Part of becoming a reporter, a writer, is figuring that out: What will you and what won’t you do? –Chris Jones
JONES: Generally speaking, I don’t do anything that makes it hard for me to sleep at night. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that cause me to be sleepless. If I do something morally bad, it will cause me anxiety, and I’ll be unhappy with myself. At the same time, if I don’t go full out in the reporting of a story, then I will also be anxious and unhappy. That means I have to find that sweet spot where I’m working hard—and, in a competitive situation, trying to write the better story, to win—and yet not doing anything ugly. This can be difficult because I am capable of ugliness and I know this about myself.
I have, for instance, trespassed. I have gone places where I was technically not allowed. I have looked at files that I probably would not be invited to look at. I have asked sources not to talk to other reporters. I have bribed quite a few people. I have bought deadly poison on the street to see if I could. I have sometimes not been as good a husband or father as I might have been because I’ve been preoccupied with a story.
Those are all sins, to one degree or another. But for me, in each instance, the worse sin was not getting the story. So I made that choice.
However, I have never lied in pursuit of a story. I have never told a source something that wasn’t true. I have never hidden my intentions. I think if you went back and talked to every source of mine, every subject, you wouldn’t find one who would tell you that I’ve ever been anything but honest. I don’t think you’d find anyone who felt betrayed. They might not all be happy, but I don’t think they could accuse me of betrayal.
For me, there, I’d rather not get the story if it means committing those particular sins.
And that’s it, really: That’s my relationship with my sources. They can trust me to be honest and open, and to do my best to get the story right. That’s true whether I like them or not. Nothing in the story will be false, either way. And that’s how I live with perhaps disappointing a subject. I tell myself that if it’s true, if they said those things or those things happened, and if I saw or heard them and everything was on the record, then they really have no argument.
I’ve written and spoken a lot about not believing in objectivity. I spend enough time with my subjects that I will not be objective about them. That’s just human nature. I love and admire Roger Ebert and Ricky Williams. But even someone I’ve really gone after—like Tiger Woods, for instance, or John McCain, when he became someone he was not—they could read my stories and know, I believe, that they were totally factual and that I never pretended to be someone I am not. Again, they might not like the story, but they wouldn’t be able to say anything in the story was untrue.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, there is a spectrum of sin. Some people will run farther along it than others in pursuit of a story. I know how far I’ll go. Part of becoming a reporter, a writer, is figuring that out: What will you and what won’t you do? Some writers would find me morally suspect, I imagine; others would think I was limited by my code. But I’m where I am on that spectrum for conscious reasons. These are choices I’ve made. When it comes right down to it, every ethical dilemma comes down to a choice; they are willful. I will continue to make mistakes, but I try my best to make choices that allow me both to get the best story I can and to feel as though my soul has the fewest possible pinhole burns in it. Of course, in trying to find that perfect balance, I’ve sometimes not written the best story, and I’ve sometimes set myself on fire.
For instance: the best compliment I’ve ever received was from Roger Ebert. He wrote a blog post in response to my story on him, and in part, it read: “He arrived at the appointed hour, and he did an excellent job of describing everything that happened subsequently.” I have already asked that this be my epitaph. That, for me, is the essence of reporting, and for Roger to write that about me meant the world.
But to do that, to accomplish the simple task between those quotation marks, sometimes you have to do eyebrow-raising things—not unethical things, hopefully, but questionable things. There is a scene in the movie Capote—one of my favorite movies—in which Truman Capote looks into the caskets at the funeral home to see the Clutters and their bandaged heads. When I saw that movie in the theater, a woman behind me gasped and said, “Nobody would do that.” And the whole time I’d been watching and willing him to open the caskets.
LAKE: I’m not averse to a little trespassing under the right circumstances. I find that there’s an art to it. Interests must be balanced. Private property runs on a spectrum. What if a helicopter crashes on private timberland? I will drive my car on the timber roads to find the crash site until someone tells me to go away. This has happened. Someone told me to leave, and I did, right along with the pictures and notes I’d taken. What if a murder takes place behind the gate of a gated community? I will find a way around the gate. There are ways. What I will not do: I will never go into someone’s backyard without being invited. I grant myself license to walk up a person’s driveway and knock on the door, moving with due haste, not lingering or loitering or staring too much. I will stand at the door, waiting for an answer perhaps as long as a minute, possibly taking notes about the house during that time, and then I will leave for public property. I might open a screen door to knock if the door behind it is closed. I will not open the screen door if it is the only closed door.
I’m not averse to a little trespassing under the right circumstances. I find that there’s an art to it. –Thomas Lake
What if the driveway has one of those gates at the front, and you can’t get to the front door without opening the gate? This is a hard call. I would rather not open that gate, especially if I see a large dog behind it. Maybe I’ll come back later, hoping to see someone in the yard. At all times, I will try to appear as nonthreatening as possible. My hands will remain visible. After I knock on the door, I will take two large steps back from the door to give us all some breathing room. If a child answers the door, I will not say anything to the child other than, “May I speak to your mom or dad?” If I arrive at the home by car, I will never park the car in the driveway unless invited to do so. I will park somewhere along the street. If the resident tells me to leave, I will leave without protest or delay.
MONTGOMERY: I want to be a slave to the truth primarily, and then fairness. I try to approach stories with the same energy, accuracy, and fairness I’d expect if the roles were reversed. Occasionally, I’ll have conversations with sources that gently draw attention to the fact that I’m going to see things with a fresh set of eyes. The source is not always going to recognize himself, and I want to put him at ease with that.
I tend to talk through my stories with sources. I won’t show them the story in advance, but I will go over material that may be controversial.
TULLIS: Ben, you mention that you want to be a slave to truth. So often that is the reasoning some “nonfiction” writers site for changing facts and even making things up. They do it to get at a larger truth, which is, to me, utter bullshit. Of course, the most obvious recent example of this is John D’Agata and his book, The Lifespan of a Fact.
MONTGOMERY: Facts can’t be changed. There can be no fictionalized scenes or composite scenes or characters. Period. No exceptions.
The facts are the facts. The art of nonfiction is writing a compelling narrative out of only true material. That’s the deal. You want to change facts to get to the larger truth, go write a fucking novel. –Chris Jones
JONES: The facts can never be changed. I’m trying to think of an instance when that might be acceptable, and I can’t. I mean, at its core, every story is a collection of facts. You can choose to include certain facts and omit others. You can change the order of the facts as you found them (so long as you make it clear that you’re doing so), and you can structure the facts in a way that might lead you somewhere that a strict, chronological accounting of those facts might not. But the facts are the facts. The art of nonfiction is writing a compelling narrative out of only true material. That’s the deal. You want to change facts to get to the larger truth, go write a fucking novel.
LAKE: It’s not cute or clever what John D’Agata did. It’s not cutting-edge or advanced. It’s cheap and lazy. To me, there is no debate. It degrades all of us who claim to be telling the truth.
TULLIS: Would you report differently if you were writing, say, a personal essay? Should you? Are people who haven’t been trained or worked as journalists at a disadvantage when they try to do reportage? How? Why?
JONES: I abhor the idea that people who do this for a hobby can do it as well as people who are professionals. That probably reads as fearful or petty, but really, I find the idea totally insulting. I am better at this than I was ten years ago, and ten years ago, I was still a professional reporter. How the hell does someone just decide to do this and do it well? It boggles my fucking mind.
That aside, if you’re writing about yourself, I think you need to report your life as thoroughly as you would someone else’s. For instance, I once got the date of losing my virginity wrong. I knew it was the night the Blue Jays won their first World Series, which I remembered, and had always remembered, as having happened on October 27, 1992. And I wrote that. Well, the Blue Jays won their first World Series on October 24. I should have checked that, and I didn’t because I thought I knew it. Now, that was just a factual detail, but the same principle applies to our entire perception of ourselves. What we think we know, we’re not always right about. I wrote a story about my dad once, and he told me after that he was disappointed I didn’t capture how “happy-go-lucky” he is. If you asked a hundred people who know my dad to describe him, happy-go-lucky wouldn’t even enter their minds. But that’s how he sees himself. My dad’s a very honest man, but he would write the most warped memoir ever, and I don’t think he’s the only one.
LAKE: Chris is right in the sense that you have to verify the verifiable things about your own life. Double-check old family legends with other members of your family to make sure you remember it the same way. But a lot of the raw material in a personal essay comes from the depths of your own mind. The truth or falsity of that material lives and dies with you. So whatever you write is as true an account of that thing as anyone will ever have, no matter how true it actually is. The same extends to certain interviews you have with other people when you’re reporting a regular story. I’ll give you an example. When I wrote about a kid named Max Gilpin, who died of heatstroke at football practice, I interviewed his girlfriend. They’d had their first kiss earlier that afternoon. Now, this encounter was not videotaped. It was not audiotaped. Nobody was taking notes. As far as I know, nobody else saw it. One of the two people who experienced it was now dead. Which meant, as far as I was concerned, that the way the girlfriend remembered it was the way it happened. As long as she didn’t say anything factually impossible, which she didn’t, she would be the final arbiter of the facts of that encounter. If she said it happened that way, then it did. The only place that story still lived was in her memory. The end.
MONTGOMERY: I do essays quite frequently now. For me, an essay can take on two forms. One form is to make an argument. I think of the Thoreau piece as that kind of essay. Even the title makes an argument and has a point of view. The other I think of as the “What does it all mean?” essay. Examples include a piece on the Aurora, Colorado, shooting and one on the inventor of the treadmill. Both forms are reported. Whether it’s talking to people or reading or both, I’m trying to comprehend a subject inside and out, to achieve a level of understanding, so I can say something new about it or show you why you should feel the way I feel.
TULLIS: I’ve been interested lately in how two reporters can tackle the same subject material (Jones’s and Chris Heath’s stories on Zanesville come to mind) and come away with two very different yet very good stories. That tells me that we all carry a bit of ourselves into the stories we write, even when we’re writing from the third person. How do you carry your own life into a story and not ultimately make that story about you? On a related note, how, if ever, do you decide to add yourself as a character in the story?
MONTGOMERY: You’re taught in j-school to distance yourself from the story and to strive for objectivity. I’ve never found those two things mutually exclusive. I let go of the idea that “I”—even in the form of the dreaded pronoun—shouldn’t be in my stories. My argument: I’m the one doing the telling. I’m the one asking the questions. I’m the one deciding where we go, what we witness. I think it’s intellectually dishonest to pretend that’s not the case or to try to trick readers into believing that you’re an emotionless robot.
I’m in every line of every story I write, even if the story has nothing to do with me, because I’m doing the telling. It’s no different than if I were telling you a story at a bar. That’s the level of intimacy I want my stories to achieve.
I’m in every line of every story I write, even if the story has nothing to do with me, because I’m doing the telling. –Ben Montgomery
JONES: This is a hard question for me to answer because I’m in the middle of an internal debate about this stuff. I like to think of myself as being pretty absent from my stories. I rarely use the first person in my feature stuff, mostly because my boss at Esquire, David Granger, thinks it’s a plague and I want to keep my job. But I was reading through Twitter not long ago, and two guys were talking about my stuff and how I’m always in my stories, often to their detriment. They were talking about Zanesville and a story I wrote about Robert Caro, both of which had rival stories land at the same time. And in each case, the writers of the other stories were in them explicitly; they had used the first person. I had not. But to these two readers, I was the guy who was in the story. It made me wonder whether I’m more heavy-handed than I think I am—that even though I’m not “in” my stories, I’m too present in them. I don’t know. But for sure, we all see stories through a particular prism. We all like certain openings or certain endings or certain language. The longer the story, the higher the chance that you’ll slip through the cracks in it and expose your little quirks and preferences.
LAKE: I’ll draw a line here between stories I’ve felt and stories I haven’t. I’ve written thousands of stories for newspapers and magazines. Many of them I couldn’t feel. They were about property taxes or school budgets or development authorities. I gathered a few facts and presented them as objectively and non-boringly as I could. To be honest, it did sometimes feel robotic. That’s not the worst thing in the world, I guess, as long as I properly conveyed the new millage rate.
But when I feel the story, I’m in the story. When I wrote “Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?”, that story was almost as much about me as it was about Jordan. I knew what it was like to play my heart out at basketball tryouts and still get cut from the team. It happened to me at two different colleges. So you look at that first section, about the boys waiting to find out if they’ve made it, and you’re reading my autobiography.
TULLIS: I’ve noticed as I’m getting ready for an introductory media writing class that one of the key points consistently hammered into students’ heads is that they must write with clarity, i.e., make sure the reader understands everything. But recently, Wright Thompson said in an interview with Nieman Storyboard that he constantly reminds himself that “clarity is not god.” Is that something you all struggle with when writing long form or narrative?
Clarity is crucially important to me. I want the reader to know what I mean, pretty much exactly, all the time. This wasn’t always true for me, but it is now. I’ve gotten more and more literal with age. Tell what happened, and tell what it means. –Thomas Lake
LAKE: Only God is God, I guess. But I happen to disagree with Wright on this point. He and I have talked about it recently. Clarity is crucially important to me. I want the reader to know what I mean, pretty much exactly, all the time. This wasn’t always true for me, but it is now. I’ve gotten more and more literal with age. Tell what happened, and tell what it means. Spell it out. This doesn’t mean you give everything away immediately. You can still keep suspense. You can still temporarily withhold certain details and let the story gradually unfold. But the reader should never be left to flounder in uncertainty or confusion. The purpose and direction of the story should be clear. The reader may not know all the answers at any given time, but she should know the questions. The reader should always be convinced that her questions will be answered in due time, and she should always be right, except when nobody knows the answer, in which case that mystery should be explicitly acknowledged.
JONES: I agree with Thomas here. I think clarity’s important. I want to challenge readers with my themes—say, with ideas about life and how to live it—but I don’t want to make reading my stories hard work, I don’t think. I like the idea of rewarding the diligent reader, and I’m definitely not advocating writing for the lowest common denominator. But I think you can write an intelligent, important story without its structure or language turning into some kind of endurance test.
MONTGOMERY: This is a question about audience. Who are you writing for? And the answer is different for every story, if there is an answer. How’s that for clarity?
TULLIS: It seems like this is a place a good editor can help, too. Which brings me back to Bissinger. In a talk at the Nieman Foundation, he said, “One of the things that I don’t miss about papers is the constant—you guys know—it goes up the food chain, one editor after another after another after another, and what I think happens is I think it loses its voice. Everyone takes a shot at it. It’s like making a bad movie. It’s better if you stick with one editor.” Can you talk about the importance of an editor, of finding one editor who really gets you and your work? How did you find this person? How did you manage to keep this person?
LAKE: It’s true. A good editor is great treasure. I’ve had some very good ones along the way, including but not limited to Drew Davis at The Press-Sentinel in Jesup, Georgia; Linda Halfrey (now Corcoran) and Karen Andreas at The Salem News in Massachusetts; John Timpe and Marilyn Young at The Florida Times Union; Mike Moscardini and Patty Ryan at The St. Petersburg Times; Rebecca Burns and Steve Fennessy at Atlanta Magazine; and now Chris Hunt at Sports Illustrated. Without them, I would probably be living on the streets.
MONTGOMERY: I’ve dealt with a wide variety of editors at the five papers I’ve worked for, and while Mr. Bissinger has a strong point, I think we control our own fate. When I’ve found myself working with someone who I feel is harming the story or trying to rub out the voice, I’ve found ways to get out or work with someone else.
You have to find a way to operate in your system, or get out. And I’ve done both.
I worked my ass off for the opportunity to land under a great editor, Kelley Benham. I love her, and I tell her that. I knew her work and reputation long ago, and so I made it my goal to work for her.
JONES: It’s one of the most important things, if not the most important thing. I’m not sure I could ever articulate how important my editors are and have been. I’ve really been blessed from the beginning with great editors and those men have made all the difference in the world.
When you’re writing long stories, involved stories—stories that feel like a real investment—your editor has to wear so many hats to help get you through. My editors are filters, reporting coaches, therapists, cheerleaders, sounding boards, hecklers, and apparitions in my sleep. They’re also plain old editors. And I need editing. I want to be edited. I think if you aspire in your writing, if you’re striving for something, then you almost always will go too far and need someone to bring you back.
I don’t want to slight any editor I’ve worked with because I’ve been very lucky to work with many good ones, but Peter Griffin has been my editor at Esquire for nearly ten years, and no one has had a larger impact on my career. We came together almost by accident, but pretty early on, it just felt right to me, the same way you might talk about a marriage. We just established what, for me at least, was a very comfortable rhythm. (Peter might say that working with me is torture; I have no idea.) Love is not too strong a word; deep down, the whole relationship is based on trust. Peter trusts me to do good and thorough and accurate work, and I trust him when he says no to an idea or makes a cut or suggests some change to a story’s architecture. I can’t think that Peter and I have ever had an argument. We’ve certainly never raised our voices with each other, which is something, because we’ve worked intimately together for a long time and I can have moods. What Buzz is talking about happens, and it’s happened to me elsewhere—where you feel as though your story has been tossed into a room with six guys, and they all take their turns with it, like it’s some kind of horrible gang bang—but at Esquire and now also at ESPN: The Magazine, everything I write has a single direct editor (Peter and Ed McGregor) and a single overseeing editor (David Granger and Chad Millman). That’s it, and that’s how it should be. I’ve been accused of being narrow-minded, a universalist, but I don’t care: That’s the best system, and there is no question in my mind. That’s how the best stories come out the other side.
How do you find that editor? Pure luck. How do you keep him? Do good work, and don’t be a dick.