When Tom Hallman Jr. approached me last year about trying an experiment – a senior reporter training a mid-level editor on how to think like a narrative writer – it seemed like a great opportunity. I had long admired his work because his stories never drew attention to themselves with journalistic theatrics. They burned, instead, with a quiet intensity that drew readers in and made them care. I enjoyed them as a reader, and as an editor I was curious how he wrote them.
Most important, I wondered what I could learn from him. During our project, I had the chance to talk with my counterparts at smaller papers, and I realized that I’m lucky to work at a place that offers me numerous opportunities to grow.
When I come to work each day and deal with reporters, I try to think about the things I’ve learned from working with Hallman. This project has changed the way I approach editing. I now try to put the following into practice:
1. Editors have to be reporters – with their reporters.
A good editor must know how her reporters move through the world. Not every reporter wants to focus on the craft of storytelling. Not every reporter wants to learn the language of narrative writing. Not every reporter wants to work hard at developing new approaches to telling a story or take risks in his or her writing. But some writers do want to try narrative, and they need an editor they can seek out.
When I was a young reporter working in a suburban bureau at a mid-size daily, I knew of just a few reporters at the paper who regularly used narrative techniques in their stories. They had the “cushy downtown” jobs and ready access to the newspaper’s writing coach. It never occurred to me that this was something I could try. I was so busy simply filing stories every day. But I now see this would have been possible in my daily work. As an editor, I want to encourage the writers who work in my bureau and remain alert for stories where they can stretch and I can, too.
2. Editors need to be aware of narrative possibilities.
Early in my project with Hallman a story came across my desk that was written as a straight news-feature account. It was a perfectly adequate story. But as I read it, I thought about what Hallman had said about looking for meaning in stories and I decided to see if I could do something different.
The story focused on a 39-year-old woman who had been hunting with her father in eastern Oregon when she went off on her own and fell down a ravine. She injured one of her legs and was unable to crawl out. She survived for more than a week in freezing weather. Just when she was about to give up, she was rescued. In the hospital, she had to undergo the amputation of both legs below the knees.
I called the writer and told him what I was thinking, and he agreed to do another round of interviews, this time focusing on building up certain elements that would make it more of a “story.” I streamlined the piece so only the essential characters were mentioned by name. With fewer characters, the story’s focus became clearer. After the reporter had re-interviewed and rewritten, we had a compelling story of survival, hope and loss.
3. Narrative approaches are not appropriate for every story.
Some stories just need to provide information as quickly and straightforward as possible. But I also realize that storytelling doesn’t have to be confined to the three-part, 300-inch series. I’m focused now on finding small ways for my reporters to try narrative techniques and drop them into daily stories. Short stories, small victories. Narrative techniques – dialogue, setting a scene or limiting focus – can make mundane stories not only more readable, but more fun to report, write and edit. Learning how to use those techniques in small stories allows the writer and me to practice and gain the experience we both need when it comes time to tackle the series and projects.
4. To be an effective storyteller, a reporter needs to pay attention to his heart. His editor should do the same.
Beginning reporters have such a huge learning curve. They spend so much time just learning the basics of how to find a scene in a hurry, how to take notes as efficiently as possible, how to track down information, how to tell when someone is lying.
They learn to trust their heads, and they can be fairly successful by doing just that. But writers – and their editors – who truly want to grow, who want to reach readers and touch them, need to pay attention to what their hearts are telling them. They need to pay attention to what moves them and figure out how to make readers feel the same way.
5. A storyteller needs to use all the senses.
It sounds like a cliche, but I realize it happens less often than it should. Going on some interviews with Hallman reminded me of what it means to really look and listen and anticipate.
When we pressed the buzzer that opened the door to the lobby of Stanley Fafara’s transitional housing building, Hallman told me he was thinking of how that security feature echoed the Hollywood life that Fafara once had. He wondered if that contrast could somehow be worked into the story in a meaningful way. In the lobby, while waiting for Fafara to meet us, Hallman told me he felt the lobby was like something out of an Elmore Leonard novel. He pointed out the newspapers strewn about and the guys hanging out, and said those were elements that he knew he wanted to work into the story because they made the scene come alive. Hallman told me he wanted to watch Fafara come out of the elevator, to really focus on Fafara in ways that made him a character, not just a man with quotes. All of that made it into the story, “Changing Channels.”
The squat single-room-occupancy building sat on West Burnside Street in the heart of Portland’s Skid Road. To move in, the tenants must prove they’ve been straight for at least a month. Dealers peddle heroin just a block away, but door buzzers and locks keep the addicts out. Visitors must sign in and meet their hosts in the lobby.
“I’ll be down,” said the voice on the intercom, and the door leading to the lobby buzzed open. Inside, two men sat on battered sofas and shared a day-old paper scattered on an end table. Outside the window a bum pushed a shopping cart loaded with bottles down the sidewalk, and a woman nursing a black eye wobbled out of the Park Blocks.
The elevator door clanked open. A lone passenger wearing a rumpled black sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes ambled into the lobby. Short and stocky, he rocked with the swagger of the street. He wore his gray hair slicked back, carried hard knocks in his weathered face and had a scar that traced a small line along the outside of his left eye.
He extended his right hand. “Stanley,” he said.
His bright blue eyes flitted between the street and the lobby. “My room?” he asked, repeating the question. “It’s a mess.” He nodded toward the sofa. “We can talk here.” He looked at the two residents on the sofa. “Lobby lizards,” he muttered. “Come on.”
6. An editor needs to ask reporters probing questions about what they saw and felt on their interviews, and not just focus on what the person said.
I sat in a story conference with Hallman and his editor, Jack Hart, while they discussed the Fafara story. He and Jack brought different strengths to the conversation, but they both spoke the same story language. Sometimes they nearly finished each other’s sentences as they talked about scenes, focus and transitions. The conversation lasted just 15 minutes, but when they were done the story had a focus that both of them agreed made sense. I realized an editor plays a crucial role in these conversations not just by listening, but by offering thoughts that can trigger new story approaches.
7. Some of the most touching stories, I discovered, come when there seems to be no obvious story.
I went with Hallman to Level 3, a unit in a Portland hospital where the most critical premature babies are treated. When we walked into the unit, I was struck by how difficult it would be to find the story. Is the story the babies? Their families? One family? The nurses? The doctors?
After hours of interviewing, Hallman zeroed in on a handful of nurses, and, eventually, one in particular. He told the story through her eyes. I was struck by how much time and how many questions Hallman needed to find the story he wanted to tell. The sources themselves don’t know what the story is. His questions were intended to not just extract facts, but to build a relationship on the road to discovering the right person who eventually could reveal what the story is about.
I knew when that moment came during one of Hallman’s interviews with Fafara. At one point while they were chatting, the conversation took a reflective turn that allowed Fafara to reveal what was in his heart. “You want to know a secret?” he asked. “What’s more attractive and powerful than money is fame. Fame never runs out. I had fame. But that’s the myth. I wondered if my friends liked me because of who I was, or what I was.”
8. Good storytelling is rooted in reporting.
I learned that it is impossible to separate reporting from writing. It does no good to bang out the daily stuff that fills the paper and save the “writing” for the big stories. When we start talking about what we do in those terms, it starts to sound like writing is an exercise separate and detached from reporting. If the reporting is shallow, the story rings hollow or fake even if it is factually accurate. A piece of wonderful nonfiction writing flows from great attention to reporting.
By a fluke in scheduling, I was able to edit one of Hallman’s stories earlier this year. I was working a Sunday night shift. He had been working the day shift and had covered a routine story about two people who were killed when a fire swept through their mobile home. He talked with me about the story, using words and concepts that were no longer so foreign to me.
He would be telling a story, not filing a report or pounding out a brief. The news wasn’t the story; it was what Hallman felt at the scene. We had a short discussion, and I knew where he was going with the story. It made sense to me. Here is the top:
There was this brief moment Sunday morning when all was right in their world. A before, an after. A time when they were able to stand on the other side of the yellow line.
And then came this early-morning phone call that shattered the silence in their home. The boy’s grandfather was on the line, in a panic, asking Thomas Faull about a deadly house fire and desperately wanting to know if the boy was at home. Of course, he wasn’t.
Faull remembers hanging up and awakening his wife, Shirlien. They threw on clothes, anything they could find lying around their Fairview home, and ran to get Hannah, their 2-year-old, from her bed. Faull drove like a madman all the way to Milwaukie. As he turned onto the 3500 block of Southeast Concord Road off McLoughlin Boulevard, he saw firetrucks, police and crowds.
He parked his car and ran toward the mobile home park where his stepson, Shanan Vockrodt, had spent Saturday night with his wife’s aunt, Dolores Priest, a 73-year-old childless woman who lived alone. She considered Shanan, who just turned 11, her surrogate son, and he frequently spent the night with her. They both considered it a treat. As Faull ran down the street, his wife hurrying to catch up, he saw smoke coming from Priest’s home. When he reached the edge of the trailer park’s driveway, a cop stopped him.
You can’t come in here.
Our son’s in there.
The approach worked because it brought readers into the hearts of the parents. But Hallman was taking a risk by injecting a narrative voice into the story. It would have been much easier for him to write – and for me to edit – a straight news story, but it wouldn’t have been as memorable.
After working with him, I’m more comfortable encouraging reporters to take risks because I see the potential for the payoff.
Kathleen Gorman, 37, is an assistant team leader in one of The Oregonian’s suburban bureaus. From 1990-95, she worked as a reporter at The Hartford Courant, where her editors nominated her for a Livingston Award. A native of Ohio and graduate of Kent State University and Trinity College in Hartford.