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Category Archives: Good Writing. Read It.

Read and Learn: “The Jockey”

If you haven’t already taken the time to experience The New York Times’ latest epic of multimedia reporting, please do yourself a favor and put it on your to-do list. Writer Barry Bearak’s and photographer/videographer Chang W. Lee’s “The Jockey” is an exceptional work and if you read it as a writer, you’ll finish it exhausted, as if you just completed an intensive with a master teacher.

Highlights for me included:

-The choice and handling of subject: Bearak chose an obscure, overlooked subject and within that topical area, found a compelling figure to profile who was still more obscure (at least to people not in the world of horse racing). And yet, that compelling figure is so vanilla; his absolutely normal personality requires Bearak to rely upon his own narrative skills to create tension and interest in other ways, as the character alone doesn’t do it. This kind of management is easy if you’re a writer working with a flashy personality. It’s much more nuanced and challenging when your subject is so, well, ordinary.

-The perfect, evocative detail: There’s a metaphor Bearak introduces to give the reader a visual image of the jockey: a hood ornament. Not only is this metaphor completely novel, it’s also perfectly parallel; nothing about it is a stretch.

-The divulgation of process: I love learning about other writers’ processes, and Bearak does an incredible job of making unobtrusive yet critical revelations about his, particularly with respect to ethics.

And once you’ve done that, then read this blog post from the Times‘ public editor about who gets to create these types of resource-intensive pieces and what it takes to execute them.^

^I totally disagree with the critics of both “The Jockey” and the Times’ earlier multimedia showpiece, “Snowfall,” who wonder if these types of pieces “really matter.” I’d argue that they absolutely do.

Read and Learn

Text:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
Various deadlines loom this Monday morning, so I’m keeping this short.

Jeanne Marie Laskas has an incredible article about Joe Biden in the August 2013 GQ, and I urge you to read it, even if you could care less about politics… or Joe Biden.

Notoriously critical media analyst and journalism professor Jay Rosen gave Laskas high praise for the article via twitter, where he said that it was “almost” as good as the classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. I actually thought of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” when I was reading Laskas’ piece, too. Unlike Rosen, though, I didn’t think it was almost as good as Talese’s exemplar of new journalism.

Jay Rosen's public praise of Laskas' article.

Jay Rosen’s public praise of Laskas’ article.

I thought it was better.

Laskas’ Biden article is deceptively simple. She’s tagging along with Biden for months, gathering observations and information to write a profile piece about the vice-president. It’s not a particularly “deep” piece, by which I mean it’s not analytical. In it, Laskas spends a lot of time just quoting Biden (without actual quotes). But it’s in the particular style of telling the narrative of that experience that Laskas excels– and it’s in paying close attention to that style that other writers can learn a lot. Laskas’ sentence structure mimics Biden’s own speech and, we glean, his thought processes and personality. Sentences are rapid-fire; many aren’t even sentences. Laskas “gets” Biden. She has inhabited him and is able to put him in front of us as a result. She’s present, but she has disappeared. She has become Biden’s conduit.

It’s worth noting that this is not her typical style. Laskas is nimble, able to draw from a set of narrative skills that is both deep and broad, deploying different techniques for different topics (this piece about guns, for instance, is markedly different in style than the Biden piece).

Bottom line: Go read the article. Study it. Read it and learn from it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writers and Money

What Fitzgerald made on his essays. Read it and weep.

What Fitzgerald made on his essays. Read it and weep.

As I tend to do with all overly hyped things, I’ve been avoiding anything related to The Great Gatsby film… though I confess to having read the absolutely eviscerating review in The Wall Street Journal and A.O. Scott’s exceptional meditation on the movie and much larger themes in The New York Times.

Somehow, though, I found myself checking out a book of essays by F. Scott Fitzgerald this weekend. Actually, it wasn’t coincidental; I was trying to track down the full source of a quote I’d read recently. I wanted to read it within the context of the complete essay.

And so it was that I spent a lazy, rainy Sunday in bed, reading a pair of Fitzgerald pieces about money in My Lost City: Personal Essays, 1920-1940. First up: “How to Live on $36,000 a Year.” The essay is totally tongue in cheek, but as my mother has said to me over and over again throughout the years, “Many a truth are spoken in jest.” In this essay, Fitzgerald explains that he and his wife find it impossible to live on just $36,000 a year. They’ve moved out of NYC proper and into the suburbs, where enterprising city butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers have decamped to take advantage of the status-conscious nouveau riche. The Fitzgeralds must, of course, employ help. And they must make frequent trips back to the city they’ve left in order to remain cultured. At the end of each month, they find they’ve spent $3,000 and can’t rightly account for at least $1,000 of that sum.

Keep in mind, this was in the 1930s. $3,000 was a lot of cash. $36,000 was practically mogul money… especially for a writer.

The essay is funny but also likely to be uncomfortable for many writers, who are notorious for having “money issues,” for being resistant to budgeting (especially when it comes to denying oneself an expense that might produce a story), and for regularly cashing in the meager savings one has managed to accumulate. It’s also oddly poignant to see, through Fitzgerald, how much time we spend waiting to be paid, and how much we pin our hopes and financial plans, such as they are, on the expectation of a particular financial return (that, of course, rarely materializes) for a work that’s “sure to be successful.” At the end of the essay, Fitzgerald is not just broke; he’s in debt. Zelda suggests that “[t]he only thing you can do… is to write a magazine article and call it ‘How to Live on $36,000 a Year.’”

The article was, by his account, received so well that he believed (rightly) it was worth anthologizing. It also warranted a follow-up essay, “How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year,” because, of course, Fitzgerald is now broke and forced to economize.

Well, sort of… to economize in that New York City writerly sort of way, which is to say, subletting out your own home and moving somewhere cheaper for a season. Having heard about the affordability of the French Riviera, the Fitzgeralds pack their suitcases, withdraw $7,000 from the bank, and quite literally set sail. Living frugally on the Riviera, of course, isn’t any easier than living frugally on Long Island and to no one’s surprise but their own, they find themselves broke by the end of the summer.

If it all feels familiar, well, it probably is.

An appendix at the book’s end details the sums Fitzgerald was paid by each of the magazines that originally ran the essays included in the collection. What’s interesting (and disheartening for modern readers who are also writers) is that Fitzgerald really was making bank. Rates have hardly kept apace with what he made between 1920 and 1940… much less been adjusted for inflation and cost of living.

Bottom line: these essays are great. Spot on. Uncomfortably so. Get the book, read the essays, and then, maybe, think a little bit more about your own finances. How can you, as a writer, be more financially responsible?

I mean “me,” of course.

Writing Advice on Pinterest

After initial resistance to yet one more combination of user name and password, I have started playing around with Pinterest.

One of the nice functions for my purposes (and, perhaps, for yours) is the ability to share images, ideas, information, and inspiration for/about writing in a more organized way than, say, StumbleUpon or any of the other social media platforms I use.

I’ve just set up a “Writing Advice” board and will be pinning articles and other resources I consider worth sharing.

Have you read anything lately that has inspired you as a writer? Please share your recommendations in the comments.

Excerpt from Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Never in a Hurry”

“When my eye picked out a town named Nye on the map near Pendleton… it became suddenly imperative to visit it. Only twenty-eight miles off the interstate–I didn’t care how far it was….

I couldn’t stop imagining it. Maybe there would be a Nye Cafe. We could swivel on stools at the gleaming counter, ordering cocoa in thick white cups, or vanilla milkshakes. When people looked at us curiously–you here to visit someone?– we’d say the best thing possible to a lost little place in America: ‘No, we just came here to see the town….’”

The first thing my husband and I ever did together… was stare at a map of Texas and pick out a little village called Sweet Home. We drove there in the first excited flush of our togetherness, simply to see what could be at a place called that. All day we sat in a pool hall with the regulars, at a metal-topped table inscribed with the name of some beer. An older woman with a gravelly voice showed us her gold wedding band. ‘Lemme tell ya, I waited,’ she proclaimed. Waited?

‘Met Randolph back high school days, but wasn’t no way he was going to stick around this little old place after he was through. He took off, off, and I stayed here in Sweet Home, with my mama and daddy, all my relatives was here, did farming, my daddy fixed those kinda old tractors nobody uses anymore. I was just a small-town girl, ya know? But I don’t marry no one else, no matter who comes along, I keep thinkin’ a Randolph and I say to myself, Randolph’s the one fer me. Well he marry somebody else, up some bigger town by Houston, and they stay married all her life but God bless her she died. And one day last year Randolph come through here just to see how we all turned into nothin’….

Had Sweet Home changed much in fifty years? ‘Oh yeah. Went downhill completely. But we still love it.’

Cool projects

I’ve got at least a dozen irons in the fire right now and they’re all smokin’:

  • Matador, of course (the U, contests, pieces on Pennsylvania Wilds, and …);
  • A couple of forthcoming feature-length articles for magazines, each in various stages of being edited;
  • About six pitches circulating, two of them in stages of reconceptualization as per editors’ requests;
  • God knows how many ideas percolating related to upcoming trips to South Carolina, Puerto Rico, and Cuba;
  • the iPhone app project;
  • and short pieces for USA Today’s online travel section about Caribbean destinations, including St. Thomas, St.  Kitts, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.

Am I forgetting something?

Probably so.

Anyhow, I’m getting around to a few posts for Cuaderno–the $10,000 lesson I’m going to give you for free; a note about disembodied places (as inspired by the book flap of El Monstruo, a travel writer’s biography on Media Bistro, and a conversation with David and Sarah over email about writers’ relationships with places); and some quick notes on desk research vs. getting off your ass, into a car, and driving to a place (even when you know you’ll spend every penny you’ll be making on the article… and then some).

In the meantime, though, I thought I’d share some cool projects of other people with you. These sparked my interest for various reasons, none of which are necessarily worth blathering on about right now. Let’s just say the world is full of creative people.

  1. “The Thing, a limited-circulation quarterly that calls itself ‘an object-based publication.’”
  2. 48HR Magazine… though ridiculously threatened by CBS to cease and desist publication because the name of the magazine is similar to a CBS “investigative journalism” show, you can still view parts of this publication online. Matador Sports editor Adam Roy was one of 70 writers (out of more than 1,500) whose work was selected for inclusion in this first issue.
  3. “A Theatre in Times Square with Seating Just for One”

And two really wonderful–as usual–pieces from my friend, Elizabeth Eslami:

“Elegy for a Stillborn Story”

and

“No, Virginia, It’s Not about Porn”

Found anything worth sharing lately? Leave a link in the comments.

Indistinguishable Places: Some Notes on Adjectives in Travel Writing

Yesterday was my weekly review of the Matador inbox.

While it wasn’t pretty (only two of 22 submissions were forwarded on to section editors, and both with a semi-apologetic caveat), it was instructive.

Of the 22 submissions, I noticed a single common problem: almost every place being described was indistinguishable from any other place. New Delhi was Pristina, Pristina was New Delhi, and both could have been almost any other city anywhere else in the world. Two excerpts:

“If you’re afflicted with a deep sense of wanderlust, [insert city] is the perfect place to cure your ailment. A veritable traveller’s paradise, the capital city of [insert country] offers a rare combination of history, culture and big city delights. It is a jamboree of sorts, where street stalls commingle with high-end luxury brands and slums and rural landscapes lie parallel to sophisticated high-street constructions.”

and

“[Insert city] is a fascinating city. It’s vibrant, young, cheap, full of hope. [Insert country] should definitely be on the radar for anyone who wants to see a slice of [continent] that’s a bit different.”

These two particular examples set me to thinking about how we talk about place. Why do we write about cities as if they are all the same when we see and experience them in different ways? What makes conveying these differences in words so challenging?

I’d like to believe that the answer is deeper, more complex, than simple laziness, but I don’t know. It seems that our descriptions of people do tend to be more nuanced than our descriptions of place. Are we more willing to see people’s individuality than is generally the case with place, and more adept at conveying it?

I find this sad, maybe because I love cities so much and believe each is its own peculiar taxonomy, but mostly, I think, because I simply get tired of reading writing that doesn’t tell me anything new, that doesn’t prove to me that the writer has really been in a place and has trained his or her eyes to zoom in on the most quotidian details there, the details that change everything.

There are a couple writers who do this well, though, and we can learn a lot from them. I’ve written about Lida before and I’ll probably write about both of them again because I just admire their writing so much. Curiously, they both write about Mexico City. Here, a few fragments:

1. From David Lida’s First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century:

“I stumbled upon Plaza Garibaldi, the rowdy nocturnal soul of the city. Squadrons of musicians, mostly mariachis in skintight, tin-studded black suits, trawled for customers willing to pay a few pesos for a melody….In Garibaldi’s most humble cantina, La Hermosa Hortensia–which dispenses pulque, a fermented cactus beverage created by the Aztecs–a staggeringly drunken man offered me his wife…. I refused with as much courtesy as possible, after which the man removed from his neck, and gave me, a string that held an emblem of Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

Could this be anywhere other than Mexico City (or, at least, Mexico?) What strikes me about this passage is that Lida is in it. He’s not some third person omniscient narrator telling you to drop by one of Mexico City’s “many cantinas.” He’s David Lida, telling you that at the fantastically named La Hermosa Hortensia he was offered a woman by a drunk man, that that woman happened to be the drunk man’s wife, and that the man then gifted Lida with a Virgin of Guadalupe medal.

2. From John Ross’ El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City:

“Those who take rooms at the Isabel are a mixed bag: busloads of Costa Ricans on a Mexico City shopping spree and Tabasco farmers in town for an Alcoholics Anonymous jamboree and a few Mennonites in overalls from Chihuahua who have come to the big city to sell their cheese, but most are low-rent European backpackers.”

What I like about this excerpt is how it simply observes and documents who’s present in the scene. There’s no judgment, but each image has a very specific association and conveys an undeniable and unique sense of place.

Yes, I know these excerpts are from books, but that’s beside the point, really. Any portion of any of these books could be excerpted as an article. And I know this isn’t “travel writing” in the strictest sense, but maybe that is the point. Lida and aren’t trying to sell their readers on a place. They’re merely documenting it.

Maybe this, then, is what makes a place distinguishable from another, writing that doesn’t try to sell the place or an experience of it to a reader, but writing that simply observes the place and tells you about it. It doesn’t tell say something like “This is the ‘real’ Mexico City.” or “This is what you should do.” or “The city is this way or that way.” Instead, it says “This is one part of the city.” “This is what I do.” and “The city is so complex it has taken me years to even begin to understand it.”

If that seems self-absorbed, maybe it is, but their writing–and my reading experience– is better for it.  Their writing isn’t the “This is what I did on my summer vacation” type of writing (one reason being that they both have lived in Mexico City for many years); it’s supported by research and acute, astute observations that just can’t be confused with any other place.

And it makes me want to go there.

Do I want to visit New Delhi or Pristina? Not based on the articles I read this weekend. I’m waiting for someone to convince me.

Two exceptional–and absolutely simple–lines.

As much as I read, you’d think I wouldn’t say this, but: There are very few nights when I go to bed still thinking of two powerful lines I’ve encountered that day.

Tonight, I’m pleased to say, I can go to bed thinking of these exceptional and absolutely simple lines:

“She noticed a lady with a hem falling down.”- from Rosie Horner’s “Gracefully Becoming a Golden Oldie.”

and

“He looks like a war crime waiting to happen.” -from Christopher Vourlias’ “Fewer bombs, better beaches, and why I should have never left Burundi.”

Why are both effective?

They’re short. They’re simple. They convey a powerful image that drives home the point of the article in a totally fresh way.

Good stuff.

What lines have you read lately that stayed with you and struck you as effective? Share the line and where you read it below.

3 Things I’m Reading Right Now That Are Worth Sharing

Expanding on yesterday’s “What I’m reading now,” here are three articles that are worth sharing with other writers and editors:

1. Beyond Words: Five Writers Who Practice Other Arts, from Poets & Writers:

I don’t know what it means that I marked up this article as if it were an assignment, underlining phrases that resonated with me and making marginal notes.  I’d planned to send this issue to David down in Patagonia as part of my next special delivery package of reading material, but I might just have to buy another one for him.

The premise of this article is simple enough: writers who also practice some other art–cooking, painting, sewing. But the very self-aware ways in which the five writers describe their creative processes sparked all sorts of new ideas; I found Jesse Ball’s interview particularly fascinating; it helped me to think about visual art in a brand new way, as well as what it “means” to be a writer and what it “means” to publish/distribute your work. Here’s an excerpt:

While you were in college at Vassar you assembled your books and distributed them yourself.
When you write you don’t want to surrender to a publishing company the moment when a book is judged to be a book or not a book. You decide if it’s a book or not a book, no one else does. That’s your prerogative as the writer. If you imagine yourself in a postapocalyptic world where—somehow you managed to survive—you’re in this log cabin and there’s a little printing press there, you’re writing these books. You produce a book. Then it’s a book. You just made a book. That kind of agency you want to have always. Whether you’re in a postapocalyptic cabin or in your life now. You should never surrender that.

In terms of giving the manuscript out as a little book to people, for poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sometimes their audience was just the few friends they managed to pass the book out to. You’re no less a writer. As soon as someone makes a book and gives it to someone else, that’s the whole thing. There isn’t anything to be added to it.

2. “The case for graphic war images,” The LA Times:

I spend a lot of time thinking about what stories get told, how, and by whom. There are so many many stories in the world, and yet only a tiny percentage of them get told, often ad infinitum by the mainstream media machine, which chews ‘em up, spits ‘em out, and moves on. I’ve been thinking about this more than usual because of Haiti, because of Chile, and because of someone on Twitter who asked, “When will we start learning and caring about places before disasters?”

One of the answers to this somewhat naive question is “when our media start reporting from there.” Though it’s popular to say that our world is globalized, that it’s shrinking, that we’re all able to know about each other because of the Internet, I think this is both untrue and dangerous because it’s repeated so often that it’s essentially become canonized as fact.

This article from The LA Times looks at the issue of telling “prohibited” stories from a few different angles and it left me thinking about how we as readers/consumers of stories shape the kinds of narratives that are told and “allowed.”

3. “Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan,” ProPublica:

Speaking of untold stories, here’s another one. What about the mental health of civilian contractors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan? ProPublica is a vital resource for “alternative” news stories, and this article is representative of their astute investigative journalism and their constant effort to look for the untold stories overlooked by mainstream media.

Writing from Iraq

The apartment is quiet.
Francisco and Mariel are sleeping.

Though I want to be next to them in bed, listening to the way their breath has become syncopated, I have a list of things I want to write:

  • Jack Delano/Mercado
  • Darwin’s wife
  • Spanish phrases: Tengo ganas; mas alla
  • GNR’s poem

It’s cryptic, I know, the shorthand to-write list that makes no sense to you until it’s hammered out here.

But I can’t get to any of it, not yet.

*

Yesterday, while standing in an interminable line at the post office, I read two articles in an old issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review. Both were about the war and both left me dissatisfied. The more war writing you read, the more you realize how much sameness there is in it. Not in the experience being described–how can there not be a sameness?– but in the way it’s being described. There’s a certain predictability of the narrative style. Embedded reporters appropriate the language of soldiers, attempting, I guess, to be like them without putting their asses on the line in quite the same way. An example: “Mujahideen” in both articles became “muj”–the writers letting the reader know that they were insiders with this little semantic tidibit.

Then, tonight, when I wanted to write about Jack Delano or Darwin’s wife, I happened to come across the blog of a Matador member who’s serving in Iraq. The kid can’t spell, but boy, he can write. He’s writing with the rawness and urgency that few writers are in touch with… maybe because they’re not in raw, urgent situations like he is.

This is writing from Iraq. Take a few minutes to read it.

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