The future of narrative writing lies not in high-powered writers’ conferences — as good and important as they are — but in the newsrooms of small to mid-sized newspapers throughout the country.
There, small groups of reporters are challenging the existing culture that too often says the only way to tell a story is with an inverted pyramid and nut graph that must appear as close to the top as possible.
In those newsrooms, reporters are growing and pushing themselves to improve, often with too little support. As much as we look to award-winning journalists as role models, it’s also important to hear — and learn from — writers who operate under the radar.
So let me introduce you to Jenny Jones, a 23-year-old reporter with the Madison Courier, in Madison, Ind. She’s been there since she graduated from college. Like most journalism students, she was schooled in traditional ways of reporting and writing a story.
But just recently, she decided to write her first narrative story. What she learned holds an important lesson for every writer who wants to try something different.
“I never really made a conscious effort to (write narrative) until now,” she wrote me. “Narrative writing being with training your mind to think differently about story topics and not being afraid to include your own perceptions of the environment.
“But I think the most important thing is to be open to trying new things and to be willing to step out of your comfort zone to challenge yourself,” she continued. “I know it will take me a while to get the narrative approach down pat, but the most important thing is to try. I love taking on challenge when it comes to my work.”
Jones said she learned several things while reporting and writing her story. They are lessons that apply to all of us.
She learned that stories can entertain as well as inform readers. Too often, we forget that. Readers want to laugh and cry and feel something when they read a story. A story is more than just a grouping of facts. I’m not talking about a how-news story, but a story that aspires to be more than just a rundown on what the city council did last night.
Narrative writing, she discovered, is going to be a journey filled with trial and error. There is no template to follow from story to story. It is a journey filled with frustration. You master the opening and the middle falls apart. Or the ending trials off. You try again and again on the next story and the next.
She learned to be flexible. She heard about a man who made guitars, and she was going to do a standard feature. But as she talked with him she realized that the story was really about a man finding his passion late in life. The best narrative stories touch on universal themes.
“I could have stuck with the original idea,” Jones told me. “But my mind shifted when I was talking with him. Here was a 50-year-old man who found his passion. I realized that a lot of people are trying to find their passion in life. That’s what I wanted the story to be about.”
Jones learned that a different kind of reporting was required, far more than just getting quotes and a name spelled correctly.
“I discovered I had to pay more attention to my surroundings,” she said. “I wrote features in college and have done feature writing at the paper. But this was different. I studied what his shop looked like, how the smell of wood filled the room.
“Sometimes I got so caught up in the interview that I forget to pay close attention to my surroundings,” she said. “I guess it’s just one of those things I need to work on. That will be my goal for the next narrative or feature I write. I do that. I like to set goals in my mind so I can eventually add all these layers of accomplished goals together and one day write the kind of stories I know I’m capable of producing.”
Best of all, Jenny Jones learned that the feedback that matters comes not from editors or fellow reporters, although that is always important, but from readers.
“I met people for dinner the night the story was out, and people were telling me it was so different than what they usually see in the paper,” she said. “It was a story, a real story.”
Here is her opening:
Clint Bear looks around his workshop, his eyes shining with pride as he scans the dust-control duct system, the large woodworking machinery and the newly erected walls that occupy the space that was once a garage. At 55 years old, Bear has finally found his life’s passion — hand-crafting guitars — and he has gone to great lengths to convert his garage and his home in ways to accommodate his desire to be a luthier.
He just wishes he would have found his passion 30 years earlier.
Inside the house he and his wife, Nancy, built over 26 years, Bear stands between workbenches that are covered with too many woodworking tools to count and plucks the strings of the classical guitar he made for himself.
Bear’s playing is short and somewhat broken. Although he loves the instrument, it has been years since he has really played. When he was in high school, Bear was in a band that rocked out tunes from groups such as the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. In college, he played in a soul-music group. Then, he was in a soft-rock band, followed by a bluegrass ensemble.
But, like things have a tendency to do, Bear’ musical ambitions faded with time.
Here is how she ended the piece:
This is where his passions are freed, and this is where eras of his life come together for the future.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do till I was 50 years old,” said Bear, who still works as a rural route carrier. “I found it.”
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian.