Ten went on the road this month to Anniston, Ala., where former New York Times national correspondent, Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer and bestselling author Rick Bragg shared his advice about storytelling to a group of reporters from newspapers across the southeast. “They Call Us Storytellers … A Celebration of Narrative Writing” was presented March 6-8 by SPJ, The SDX Foundation, The Anniston Star, The University of Alabama and the Knight Foundation. Rather than ask the typical 10 questions, we let Rick, who is a professor of writing at the University of Alabama, tell the stories. Here are some of his tips for narrative writing.
Better than driving a dump truck
I wanted to be a UPS driver because they get to wear short pants and drive as fast as they want to and park, by God, wherever they choose. But that was not creative work…
I entered my newspaper career through the sports page. (He had taken six months of college courses at Jacksonville State University). The sports page is just enough of a toyshop. If you can cover high school Friday night football games you can write anything. Instead of starting with council meeting and obits and this drumbeat of damned misery that is often a beginning job at a paper, I was covering Richard Petty and Bear Bryant. Sports allow a certain amount of creativity. You have to write well in the sports department because it’s the same damn game.
I wanted to go work in the feature department … but found myself in the newsroom. So here’s what I did. I volunteered to do the color piece if there was one to do. If a tornado came, I volunteered to go cover it.
At what point in your career did you decide to write creatively?
I don’t think I had any choice. I didn’t have any investigative skills. If you send me down to the basement to go through files I’m going to get bored in about the time it takes to walk down the stairs. I’m not gonna find much. I didn’t have any insights into government or the legal system.
I didn’t want to be on the feature page because if I were on the feature page, I would miss a good bit of the world spinning by. So I had to create a place and created a hard news feature job. (Stories he covered included the trial of Susan Smith, who was convicted of drowning her two young sons; the trial for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; turmoil in Haiti; and the Oklahoma City bombing.)
Selling narrative to editors
Your color, your imagery, your detail — make it sharp, make is short, make it poignant, make it strong. It’s harder for an editor to cut a lean piece of color than something graphic and flowery.
Don’t save any of your good stuff for your kicker. Use your good stuff up high. There’s always going to be a kicker. If you top-load your story with your strongest stuff, editors will be less likely to mess with it.
And editors, have a sense of humor. If my editors hadn’t had a sense of humor about me, I would be driving a dump truck right now.
Understand timing and compromise. You can’t reason with someone who’s got six more stories (to edit) just before lunch. You’ve got to catch them when they have time.
If you’re not getting support
Get your good six clips — a good six clips will set you free, you all know that. Go do it somewhere else.
On writing narrative leads
Leads are the keys to the castle. Leads are the can opener you use to get noticed as a good writer. (At The Anniston Star) I covered a plane crash, but you couldn’t really see anything or get very close to the crash site. I had the same thing as everyone else. So I wrote something like, “The clues to the cause of the crash of the military jet here in mountains of Alabama are scattered in the leaves.” That’s not great, but it’s better than straight.
The most hateful thing about writing is a blank screen. The lead is brutally hard. I think I write pretty good leads, but it’s brutally, brutally hard for me.
Dabbling in excess
Good writing is not like good reporting. Good reporting is either you get it or you don’t. That’s not subjective. Good writing is subjective. What I really love you might not care too much about.
I love to be excessive. I love the idea of metaphor and simile; they’re the chocolate cake of any newspaper diet. You need to notice the people who do it well.
What do you read for inspiration?
Anything by Eudora Welty; Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove;” Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian;” and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” If those are not at hand, I’ll let my mind drift along my favorite lines.
The thing that shakes me loose if I’m stuck is to read a few pages of somebody I like. It’s like priming the pump. You have to soak up pretty writing and good writing. I know you guys are grown-ups and have deadlines and all these things but it really has filled my mind up with good things. I never thought once that (reading) detracted from anything else.
Rick’s interviewing tips
Don’t pull your notebook out right away. Just talk a bit. I’ll talk about anything: the grass in their front yard; their ugly rat dog; their hair-do; pictures on the piano.
If you want people to talk to you, make them believe that what they have to say is important, that their words have value to others.
Some questions that have served well in difficult stories
Tell me about the best day of your life? Some will try to speak in clichés; don’t let them — ask why, what happened, walk me through that day. It won’t take 10 to 15 minutes to answer. That is a beautiful question.
What do you dream about?
What was the worst day of your life?
What day would you do over? That speaks to genuine regret, not self-serving regret.
What are you writing now?
I love doing magazine work now because I get to pick and choose. But I keep bumping into limits on space, and that’s the wonderful thing about books. I’ve got a two-book contract with Alfred A. Knopf (Publishers) for one more nonfiction book. This one is about my father. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written, but I would not want to die and not close the circle on that subject. The other is for a novel, and I’ve never done that before.
I always thought writing should be like screaming. Why in the hell would you ever write anything in a closet? Do it so the most people can see it. That’s how “All Over but the Shoutin’” came to be.
What do you tell your students about preparing for a career in journalism?
I teach magazine writing. Teaching is an unexpected pleasure. It’s not as hard as roofing, but it’s hard. We’re preparing students for their job down the road because a majority still want to work for a newspaper. They want that, but increasingly they realize they’re going to have to do some of the things like (carry digital recorders).
They have to be lean and quick and adaptable. If they are going to devote themselves to journalism, get another language or two. Be willing to adapt to Internet publishing of some kind.
Read first and foremost the local newspaper. Listen to local radio to get a feel for the community. If you’re gonna be in a place, get to know it.
If you aspire to write for the big papers, then read them. Look at how reporters put things together. Mostly I tell them to read books and magazines. Magazines are a bridge between the newspaper world and the book world.