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.)

Rough drafts (Or, why it’s good for your stories to get peed on every now and then)

When I saw this photo, posted on Washington Post ace feature writer Hank Steuver’s blog, I had this feeling of nervous excitement, not unlike falling in love — or, maybe better, hate. It was there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I mixed with existential dread mixed with, “Damn straight; somebody really cares!”

The hands in this photo are President Obama’s. Those scratched-out and arrow-riddled words of type belong to his speechwriter, Jon Favreau. Obama’s been criticized in the press for being overly reliant on his Teleprompter — something you’d never know, judging from the smooth way he uses it — but I think this photographic window into his thinking, writing and editing says a lot more about his passion for, and his reliance on, just the right word.

I’ve been a teacher and a reporter for many years, though never a paid editor. I don’t have the temperament for the politics of it, I go crazy if I sit for 10 consecutive hours in stale office air, and I’m often more comfortable talking to strangers than to people I know.

I’m a firm believer in writing and rewriting and then rewriting some more. Very often I take print-outs of my stories to my backyard chaise lounge, with something like my sixth cup of coffee, and try to pretend like I’m scribbling on someone else’s work.

I have to admit, though, I’m not as eager to get those scribbles from someone else. One friend describes the editing process as having your work urinated on. The first time I had a major project returned to me from Carole Tarrant, our newspaper’s top editor, it was all I could do to shake my head, promise to go over the edits one at a time, and run from her office — before I burst into tears. I think it was the long row of ZZZZZZZZZs that did me in. In red ink. Snaking down a section I had spent literally two days crafting.

It was an eight-graph summary of immigration history in Roanoke — you try pulling that off! — culled from scads of yellowed clippings and a thorough reading of a 500-plus page city history.

I thought it sang, frankly. I thought it gave the piece heft and context.

But it put Carole to sleep, as many of our so-called babies do.

It’s taken me 20-plus years to figure this out, but I’ve learned to train myself to respond to red pen edits by taking a deep breath and, deadline permitting, saying nothing at all. The truth is, I’m not equipped to digest that much negative feedback on a project until I’ve had time to let it sink in and simmer — ideally, in private and overnight. Then I pick the edits off methodically, one at a time, working from the easiest fixes to the teeth-gnashers.

If it’s something I’m dead-set on stetting — stet is ancient copy editor-speak for “let it stand” — I try to get my arguments in line before we meet again. I write better than I talk, so I draft my stet arguments out ahead of time, carefully and with the utmost respect. If I really, really care about a line, I’m not above groveling. But I definitely pick my battles. No one likes a reporter who fights over every little nit.

I’m proud to say I have never shouted in anger, “Well, then, take my name off that story!” or threatened to quit (as others have, back when newspapers could afford to tolerate such behavior). I haven’t ever kicked an office trash can a la Bucky Martin, though I once threw a couple of pens at a page designer (sorry, Tim), and I have certainly cursed and groaned, which I consider my constitutional right. As Jeff DeBell is my witness, I have sometimes acted quite immature.

But many a time my butt has been saved by a quick-thinking editor. Brian’s a whiz at helping me ground my stories in data — a weakness of mine — and Carole drills down so deeply with questions that when she lands on the one I can’t answer, I know that’s where my next round of reporting has to begin. Edit sessions with my first editor, Wendy Zomparelli — whose “Zomp-Stompings” were legend — were so loud, long and full of fencing jabs that we sometimes had to close the door so as not to disturb the rest of the newsroom. She drove me crazy with her relentless drive for precision, but we laughed a lot, too, and I have to concede that she’s usually the editor in my head, and I’m better for it.

All of which is to say: Being edited can be angst-ridden and enlightening, challenging and sometimes even fun. The best editors put their criticism in a bun, as my teacher-husband calls it — that is, they find something good to say before and after the moment they throttle you with their red pens.