Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day Two, A.M.

The Keynote session to kick off Day Two was a discussion with author and writer for the New YorkerJon Lee Anderson.  To me, it seemed like a little too much fawning over Anderson.  Felt like I was watching “Inside the Actor’s Studio”…  Despite that, I did take away a few morsels of value from Anderson’s talk.  

First was the idea that he often learned a lot about the meaning of his own life’s experiences through the act of writing itself.  

Second, he talked about “going the distance” as a reporter.  By that, he meant that you have to keep researching, keep interviewing, keep talking to people, even when you’d rather quit and take a shortcut.  If you feel like there is still more to try and unearth, you have to pursue it.  His example was illustrative:  when researching his book on Che Guevara, he almost didn’t bother to interview an old Bolivian military officer, but dragged himself over to do it.  That man, at the end of a long interview, admitted to Che’s murder and revealed the fate of his body, which had long been a mystery.

Following that, I sat in on “From the Ordinary to the Extraordinary: Mining narrative gold in the everyday” (perhaps the longest title for any session at the conference).  Interesting, well-organized panel on how three writers — Katy Butler, Louise Kiernan, and Victor Merina — developed feature articles, selecting scenes, developing structure, and spending time with their subjects.

Moderator Christine Larson kicked off the discussion with a great analogy comparing the writing process to romance. You fall in love with an idea, and fall even deeper in love with the story as you report it and talk to people and collect material for it. But then when you take it home to try and write it up, the romance fades away and you’re stuck in a troubled relationship with something that drives you crazy. I’m not doing justice to Larson’s entertaining set up, but you get the idea…

Some important ideas I took away from this session:

  • Kiernan talked about the importance of being “willing to embrace the gray” in our storytelling; that is, be willing to accept and write about complexity. It’s easy as writers to try and tidy up reality into a nice package, but sometimes, reality is ambiguous and unresolved, and our job is to present that in all it’s maddening grayness.
  • Merina described his process of visualizing his stories on paper and mapping them out, literally, so that you can step back and look at them, seeing where themes and content overlap, and where there are clear holes and missing spots that need to be filled.
  • Butler explained the idea of looking for turning points and key moments in your stories, then walking backward from those spots to construct a compelling narrative structure
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