For almost three decades, I’ve written mostly for newspapers — initially for The Roanoke Times but more recently pieces for The New York Times, from occasional book reviews to op-eds about everything from refugees to globalization to the tragic shootings of two Roanoke television journalists. When my first book, “Factory Man,” was published in 2014, I authored excerpts and magazine pieces in publications ranging from The New Yorker and medium.com to the Virginian-Pilot.
I’ve especially loved talking about how I go about “committing acts of journalism,” as my photojournalist pal Gary Knight calls the work we do. I’ve discussed the process in several Q&A interviews with a variety of outstanding journalists, including Dave Davies of “Fresh Air,” the Roanoke Times’ Ralph Berrier Jr., Chris Rugaber of the Associated Press, Neil Thompson of Omnivoracious, and Nieman Storyboard.
ON ESTABLISHING TRUST: I went back to [my interviewees] over and over again — to the displaced line workers, to the retired middle managers (who now held less of a stake in affairs), and especially to the leery executives. I showed them I was in it for the long haul. I sat in broken-down trailers in snaky hollows, camped out in the Bassett Historical Center for weeks on end, bought fried pies and homemade pickles at the farmer’s market and generally inserted myself into what was going on.
I especially love talking about the madness of organizing hundreds of interviews, archival photographs and historical documents, and transforming all the disparate threads into a single story.
ON ORGANIZING COPIOUS AMOUNTS OF MATERIAL: I set [my white board] on the right edge of my desk and, for the rest of my book-writing, I relied on that board as a way to hone in on the chapter at hand, a la John McPhee, who wrote about how liberating a tightly organized story structure can be.
McPhee’s advice was a boon, as my white board quickly became full of scrawls: dates and anecdotes, narrative threads and arcs. My author/newspaper buddy Ralph Berrier Jr. had told me at the start: “It’s just like one very, very long newspaper feature,” so I built each chapter the same way I would a narrative feature: around section ends and chapter kickers (marked below by A, B and C sections, and “KK” for the chapter kicker).
I love writing JOURNALISM ABOUT JOURNALISM: I’ve written several articles for Nieman Reports, Nieman Storyboard, Poynter Online and for American Journalism Review, but my favorite story about journalism by far is a September 2008 piece called “Notice What You Notice,” about finding inventive story ideas. It begins with an anecdote by New York Times urban affairs reporter Sam Roberts about one of his favorite stories — on the lowly semicolon. Not only had he witnessed one (used correctly) on a New York subway sign, but he noticed that he noticed it — and then thought to write a very charming story about it.
ON FINDING STORY IDEAS: For me, the best ideas usually come when I’m least expecting them, and they usually have an element of the underdog in them, of the outsider looking in.
The first in my family to go to college, I grew up poor. No matter how much money I make or how many awards I win, my worldview will always be colored by those facts. Once I figured that out and saw my past as something to embrace, not a source of shame, my job became easier.
I’ve also been published in a variety of national publications including Garden & Gun, American Journalism Review, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and the Christian Science Monitor . I’ve written for PARADE magazine as well, including this how-to guide for families trying to determine if loved ones may be the victims of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
During my 2010 Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard, I studied aging and long-term care issues at the Harvard School of Public Health. During that time, I followed a former story subject, Lynn Forbish, to her bittersweet end, culminating in this March 2011 O magazine story, “Before I Forget.”
My work for The Roanoke Times, where I worked off and on from 1989 to 2014, has been anthologized in “The Best Newspaper Writing” series. My winning story featured Rocio Ortiz, a woman who worked her way up from illegal immigrant and meat-plant assembly line worker to plant manager — but at great personal expense.
When my kids were little, I taught nights and did freelance writing while they napped. I wrote a series of articles on the erosion of need-based aid — all of it inspired by a fellow teacher’s off-hand slam against Pell grant students. (I had been a very grateful beneficiary of the grants myself, and plenty of my best students were also.) These stories appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon and the Christian Science Monitor, which called me “Pell’s Poster Child.”
Years later it hit me: I’m drawn to these stories not just by personal ethics, but also by a subconscious need to mine my own story — again and again. I don’t set out to write about outsiders and underdogs, but the truth is, those are always the stories I end up writing best.
I tell my students to figure out what moves them so they’ll more effectively move their readers, too.