There Are No Great Stories in the Newsroom (or on Twitter)

jmu cover1HARRISONBURG, Va. — They had just returned from mostly unpaid internships, two or three months of working for free. The managing editor told me she posted to her student newspaper’s website between assignments at the entertainment weekly where she worked. A diner in town had closed, a James Madison University institution, and she’d read about it on Twitter, then posted a brief story to the site.

My talk was supposed to be a back-to-school pep talk for the editors and page designers at the student newspaper, The Breeze, to remind them why journalism matters. I was about to turn in the revisions on my 110,000-word book, “Factory Man,” and I was incredibly tired of sitting at my computer for 12 hours at a stretch. When it came time to prepare my PowerPoint for the talk, it hit me that I could avoid technology (sort of, if you count scissors, tape and a phlegmy sounding scanner on its last leg) and get my main point across at the same time.

I love technology and use it all the time. Especially Command-F on my Mac desktop when sifting through my 530-page manuscript for some hard-to-find detail.

But my main message to the neophytes is that you can’t truly provide the  civic connective tissue that your readership deserves if you only talk/Facebook/tweet with the same people you already know. Too many reporters, young and old, rely on technology as a crutch.glue

Technology bridges geography and time zones, but it is no substitute for wandering around a community you don’t already know. Talking to a grieving mother about her son, who overdosed on heroin, then talking to the mom whose son is about to go to prison for selling him the drugs.

“You have to be there,” says the master, Gay Talese. “You have to see the people. Even if you don’t think you’re getting that much. … One of the problems of journalism today is how we are narrowing our focus and becoming indoors in terms of internalizing our reporting. The detail is what I think we’re missing.”harry

I’d all but finished my book reporting on the hollowed-out factory community of Martinsville and Henry County when a friendly source took me on one final tour. I’d already written about the demolished factories, but it wasn’t until I actually saw Harry Ferguson on his backhoe, burying the last literal chunks of the last factory in Bassett, that I understood it viscerally: “If you’d told people in Bassett 10 years ago that I’d be up here today burying this factory, they’d have said you were a complete fool,” he said.

So I attended my own makeshift factory funerals. I journeyed by kayak down the Smith River, the reason the factories were built where they were. I trounced through an overgrown, chigger-filled cemetery searching out the overturned graves of slaves-turned-sharecroppers-turned-furniture factory finishers. I talked to dozens of the 20,000 people who’d lost their jobs to globalization and offshoring over the past 15 years, and still had a palpable, almost desperate desire to tell me what it was like trying to live on $8.50-an-hour part-time jobs with no benefits, and the indignities suffered in line at the VEC.

Get away from your damn Smartphones and computers, I told the budding journalists — some of whom were live-Tweeting my talk! — and go back to the basics: paper, scissors, real people. Be the glue, as the great reporter Mary Bishop once taught me, connecting stranger to stranger, if only for an instant.mentors

Find mentors at every stage in your career. Feed the friendly photog, who is your extra set of eyes and the best on-the-scene collaborator you’ll ever have. (My book would not exist without the keen eye of freelance photographer Jared Soares.) Seek out the kind of tough editing we all require and deserve and that secretly drives us crazy; that red pen-wielding hardass who sends you back to your subjects again and again — until, finally, you understand what it is you’re trying to say.

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When a student wanted to know how to show diversity among the largely white, upper-middle class population at JMU, I told her about my first tough editor, Wendy Zomparelli (we called her editing sessions Zomp Stomps), who used to send my features back to me if they didn’t accurately reflect the diversity of our city’s population, down to one-quarter of  our sources being African-American to reflect Roanoke’s 25 percent black population. Every single time. It was the greatest training a young reporter could have.

Stories are everywhere around you, and things aren’t as simple — or as lily white — as they look on the surface, I reminded her. What about the men and women serving your lunch in the gourmet cafeteria? What about the student down the hall whose parents are renting out their newly spare room to pay for your $20,000 state tuition and room and board? What about the uptick in college drinking, opiate abuse in the suburbs, campus rape? Subjects that are all grist for digging beyond the obvious, life-is-good Twitter/Facebook feeds. Ask around. Be genuinely curious. Be friendly. Be skeptical. Above all, keep digging.the book process1

It’s the trust-building and context-layering that require the most attention, I added, showing them the holy mess that turned into my 28-chapter book  — complete with a brick from the demolished Bassett furniture factory that Harry Ferguson handed to me. Between all those arrows and statistics; between the numbers,  timelines and literally hundreds of interview notes — that’s where the magic lies.

Focus on the people, especially those whose voices aren’t typically heard.

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The Book Slog Blues (Part II)

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture's rub room in the late '20s or early '30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture’s rub room in the late ’20s or early ’30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

The more I learn for my book-in-progress, the more I am humbled by how stupid I was when I wrote my proposal for “Factory Man.” I actually told my editor at Little, Brown & Company that I was halfway through my reporting, when in fact that figure was probably closer to 5 percent.

I wasn’t lying when I said it. I had just forgotten the central tenet of good writing: It’s all about great reporting. The more you learn, the more you realize you didn’t know anything before.

What do I wish I’d known before I started writing my book five months ago, after 20-some years of pining to land a book contract?

The connection-making mind needs frequent breaks. It needs mid-afternoon walks up Mill Mountain and breaks to make chili verde, and it craves any help and inspiration it can unearth along the way.

So I tape things to my computer, and atop the notebooks I carry with me on interviews. I write down nice things my book writer pals say to me, such as these aptly incongruent affirmations from Roland Lazenby: “You’re fucking fearless” and “Don’t be scared.”

I read and reread things like this partial paragraph from a profile of hip-hop pioneer Ahmir Khalib (Questlove) Thompson, written by New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger:

 . . . He had an unending appetite for pop culture, a prodigious memory for dates, and a compulsion for cross-referencing them. He can tell you, for instance, that Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE headquarters on May 13, 1985; that Tony Orlando guest-starred on “Cosby” that month, and that “Soul Train” was a rerun that week.

Stand back and look at the contextual heavy-lifting accomplished in just two sentences. Marvel at the astonished, easy tone. Count the status-defining details — where the subject lived, what he watched, who he listened to and what it meant to live inside his brain in the spring of 1985.

John Updike once said we like characters like Becky Sharp and Mr. Quilp because “what we like is life — and if the character is alive, we don’t apply any other criteria.” That’s another inspiration I’ve clipped, with thanks to Martin Amis, who recalled it in an interview with Vanity Fair writer John Heilpern.

The deeper you dig into a subject’s history, the tougher the material-culling will be. I’ve never spent this much reporting time focusing on one industry through one person and, the truth is, we might both be suffering from interview fatigue.

In a one- or two-shot interview, you save the tough questions for the end. But what do you do when the interviews are spread over more than a year? You spread the tough stuff out and hope for the best.

I’m not writing a hagiography, I remind my main character. I’m not writing a biography. So let’s put an end to the embedding jokes about Paula Broadwell and General Petraeus right now!

I’m writing a book about globalization in which he is a heroic main subject but he’s not a saint because, let’s face it, he’s colorful, he’s clever, and he seems to genuinely care about the plight of his factory workers. But he ain’t a saint.

When I worry that maybe I’m stirring up stuff that should remain hidden in history’s dusty archives, I turn to the new U.S. poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, who said this in a recent interview:

It is better if we grapple with [history]. Openly and honestly. And include parts that are difficult. … When the Birmingham church bombing convictions came down, people on the radio were saying, why open old wounds? The problem with that thinking is assuming those wounds had healed. Some bones broken will forever be weak. They will ache and cause pain. The best we can hope for is acknowledgment. What drives me crazy is when people don’t want to acknowledge!

I try to keep central in my mind: I may be writing about wealthy CEOs, but I’m also writing about their impact on tens of thousands of displaced factory workers whose stories are too rarely told.

“Factory Man” contains both history and current events, encompassing a decade of double-digit unemployment in Martinsville, Va., the recent sweatshop fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and what life was like for a bunch of hardscrabble sawmillers in 1902. The subject is as deep as it is wide and meandering, and that’s what keeps me awake so many nights because I know that finding exactly the right narrative, and the right tone to tell it in, are crucial.

So I write and, like the old sawmillers-turned-furniture men, I try to cull the good wood from the bad. I talk to people on the phone and I visit people, and then I talk to them again on the phone. I’ve driven from nursing homes to trailers to communities so exclusive that they purposely don’t show up on GPS.

I read through court transcripts, annual reports and simplistic old newspaper clippings.

I love, love, love the librarians and the curators, especially Pat Ross at the Bassett Historical Center, and Bill Bishop, the genius at the International Trade Commission who returns my late-night emails — by 6:45 a.m. And people like Bassett barber Coy Young, who just happened to have a stack of archival photos from Stanley Furniture during the Depression.

I really love, love, love my across-the-street neighbors Scott and Jean, who just yesterday brought me a mixed CD and homemade chicken soup to cure my strep.

My husband, Tom, is so patient with all my non-cooking and non-hygiene, he’s the real saint of my book. My son Will comes into my office at the end of his school day and still, at age 14, beams, “Hey mom, how was your day?”

Same as it ever was. I practice Ass In Chair and, for several hours a day, I try as I type to weave story from facts. I rarely take showers or leave the house, except to walk the dog up the mountain. I haven’t seen my hairdresser in six months and it shows.

I worry because I know what Robert Caro says is true:

There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts, and the more facts you manage to obtain, the closer you will come to whatever truth there is.

 I was lucky to stumble into coffee not long ago with Internet journalism guru Clay Shirky, whose parents live in Roanoke and who very kindly offered to read my draft and give feedback. Just as I’m lucky to call on writers like Roland, Annie Jacobsen, Bret Witter and Andrea Pitzer, who advised me to “start recruiting readers now!” — among many other useful things.

Such has been the ongoing lesson I’ve learned from this project, this career, this life: The more exceptional the individual, the more generous they tend to be in sharing what they know.

It had been awhile since Shirky’s heralded book, “Here Comes Everybody,” was published by Penguin, and initially Clay said he had no advice to offer. Then he remembered a tip, a nuts-and-bolts editing suggestion that is applicable to both writing and life.

When the publisher’s copy editor sends his or her edits, simply click “ACCEPT ALL.” It saves time in the long run, and if you stumble on a change you don’t like as you’re reading, you still have time to make that sentence sing.

I’m not sure my ego will let me ACCEPT ALL blindly without previewing the changes first, but if it gets my butt out of this chair a moment sooner, it could be just the thing.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They're all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They’re all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.

A** in Chair, Audra and Advice from the Other Side of Publication (Part I of II)

ImageMy friend Audra Ang came to visit recently. She’s a former Beijing correspondent for the Associated Press, and a fellow Nieman who is as committed to eating good food as she is to getting the story exactly right. We were happy those two things converged when she came here to read from her brand-new book, “To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China” (Lyons Press, 2012).

In the spring of 2010, I witnessed the moment when the idea for the book first floated from her mouth, at a brainstorming session that was part of a book publishing conference organized by our narrative writing teacher, Connie Hale, at Harvard’s Lippman House. (Connie wrote a wonderful post about her own book tour trials here.) So it was fitting that Tom and I hosted Audra’s first reading, a gathering that probed everything from the wonders of hotpot to the paranoia of reporting in a society where the press isn’t exactly free.

The audience was rapt, especially when she read about covering the earthquake.

The audience was rapt, especially when she read about covering the earthquake.

A Western-educated Singaporean of Chinese descent, Audra is someone who makes everything look easy, from her “dude”-peppered speech to her Michelle Obama arms. It’s also one of the wonders of reading her book, which flows seamlessly from scenes of her walking over earthquake rubble in Sichuan, knowing that dead bodies lie beneath her, to choking up as she shares a meal with earthquake survivors. For people who don’t know much about the world’s most populous nation and its next superpower, her book is a fantastic introduction to all things Chinese.

Now halfway through my own book project, I had hoped to suction some lessons from my Nieman pal since she’s a year ahead of me in the process. What did she wish she had known in the beginning that she only came to learn through 12 tactile months of Ass in Chair days that usually began when she awoke at 2 in the afternoon and went to sleep at 8 the next morning, with food and yoga/kickboxing breaks in between?

“Dude, writing a book aged me,” she said. Hauling around seven years of notebooks on multiple trips between the Bay Area and Singapore didn’t help her back, either.

Then came the worst news of all from the Other Side of Publication. Audra suggested I back up my material up on multiple spare hard drives as well as in the cloud. (Yep.) Keep copious track of my copious notes. (Yep, I was doing that already, too.) And find early readers who are brutally honest about what works and what doesn’t. (I’m  jealous that she had Ted Anthony, AP’s feature writing guru, to call on for help — though I’m grateful that journalist-writer friends including Clay Shirky, Andrea Pitzer and Leigh Anne Kelley have already volunteered their red pens.)

It was my worst fear realized. There are really no real magic bullets beyond sitting my ass in my chair, followed by more Ass In Chair, interlaced with copious amounts of hand-wringing and back spasms. And remember the way the old-fashioned typewriter used to sound when you dinged the carriage that final time on an article? (For you young folks, you know, like the secretary babes do on Mad Men?)

Duuuude, it’ll be a year before you even get to imagine hearing that sound. (I’m not sure what Audra did for her sore back, but I recommend those peel-off icy/hot pack stickers and, if you have one, a nightly hot tub accompanied by a book that has nothing to do with what you’re writing about so you won’t find yourself dreaming about, in my case, legal transcripts from the International Trade Commission.)

I read on a hand-me-down Nook my aunt gave me, which is backlit — great for night-tubbing — and mostly impervious to steam, as long as you hold it an inch or so above your head. Sadly, this does not take the place of a daily shower. There was a week not long ago when I wore the same sweaty yoga pants for four days.

Writing her book on the heels of a rigorous six-year reporting stint in China wiped Audra out so much that she’s happily taking a break from journalism, working as a senior development writer at Duke University — and still eating unseemly amounts of food in a single setting, though the potstickers and pork belly have given way to buttermilk biscuits and Cajun-infused deep-fried turkeys.

She's not joking when she says she eats unseemly portions in a single sitting. Where does it go?

She’s not joking when she says she eats unseemly portions in a single sitting. Where does it go?

We had the privilege of introducing our foodie pal to our favorite restaurant in the world, a hillbilly-Asian place that is a tiny speck of funk in the rolling hills of Tazewell County. Cuz’s Uptown BBQ co-owner Yvonne Thompson took us on a serious food bender that included Rappahannock oysters, crab cakes with chili hollandiase, Thai seafood curry, plate-sized prime rib and coconut crème brulee — and that’s literally only about half of what we ate. When we left our Cuz cabin the next morning, we carried baggies of leftover country ham.

Dude, welcome to the South!

Audra claims she’s stuck a fork in her storytelling career. This, from a reporter who once offered to cut off her arm in exchange for a tour of an illegal noodle-making operation. But that’s her story right now, and she’s sticking to it.

(I’ll post Part II of my Advice from the Other Side of Publication — featuring more advice I’ve been collecting from  writers — in a few days. Meantime, if you have your own book-writing tips to share, please chime in.)

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