What writers can learn from Kobe Bryant

During the first game of the 2010 NBA Finals, ABC showed a halftime feature on Kobe Bryant and how he spends hours studying game film of other players; not only contemporary rivals, but legends of the game: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan. He studies the nuances of their skills: their footwork, the timing their shots, how they moved to create open space to shoot.

Check out the ESPN.com story on Kobe’s film study, or watch clip below:

Here’s a 12-time NBA All-Star, a league MVP, and a five-time champion, with as much skill and talent as any player in his sport, and yet he still spends hours at home, studying game film from decades ago, watching, learning, borrowing techniques from other great players. His drive to improve pushes him to continually hunt down techniques and approaches that will make him better. And he’s not afraid to admit that he’s borrowing and stealing moves from other great players, dead and alive.

“There isn’t a move that’s a new move; there’s nothing that hasn’t been done before,” he said. “I’ve stolen all these moves from these great players.”

Watching this got me thinking about the craft of writing. The romantic notion of a “writer” suggests the image of some inspired, brilliant scribe, composing prose from some deep well of brilliance in his heart.

The reality, for most of us, is less magical: it’s about drafting sentences and paragraphs, organizing and structuring paragraphs, and tying together themes and ideas. It’s creative, but it’s also about craft and technique. Which is why Kobe Bryant has something to teach us.

One of the ideas my instructors at Johns Hopkins hammer home is the value of “reading like a writer” — looking at good writing not just for information or enjoyment, but with an eye for how and why it works. It’s pretty much the same thing the Kobe does when he studies game film: he’s looking for moves and techniques he can borrow. Writers can benefit from the same approach.

When I read Joseph Mitchell, I marvel at how he describes small little scenes throughout his stories; vivid little moments that bring characters to life. Rereading Bill Bryson, I note how his stories are peppered with small, concrete details that ground his narrative. Looking at Adrian Nicole Blank’s masterful Random Family, you can see how she uses powerful or dramatic quotes to close out a scene or a chapter. Malcolm Gladwell’s writing is often about big ideas and complex concepts, but what often gives his articles vitality is the way he slows down to describe the people he meets and interviews; they aren’t just quotes from faceless experts, they become characters that help tell his stories. Gay Talese’s profiles often find their insights not in big dramatic conflicts, but in small, telling moments he observes that reveal character, like how Frank Sinatra gets out of his car, or how an aging Joe DiMaggio’s hand shakes when he lights a woman’s cigarette.

Borrowing another writer’s words is plagiarism, but using their techniques is often a key to better writing. Like Kobe, we can learn a lot by looking closely at the work of great writers, studying their moves, and trying to steal as much as we can.

Nieman Conference: Wrap Up

Nieman Conference LogoI’m back from Boston now, after my second Nieman Conference. Overall, another really impressive, well-run event. Kudos to everyone at the Nieman Foundation for putting on a fine conference.

A few quick closing thoughts:

Books I want to buy now, based on what I saw in Boston:

A few overall impressions from the conference:

  • Journalists are in a rough spot right now. Issues involving the collapsing newspaper business and the seemingly shrinking prospects for good, meaningful journalism kept coming up. It was the elephant stomping through the Boston Sheraton. I will remember Connie Schultz‘s words to the people in the hall: “The business model is broken. You are not broken.”
  • I’m an experienced, professional web and multimedia designer who wants to do more writing. I found myself surrounded by lots of experienced, professional writers who want to do web and multimedia. Maybe we can meet in the middle someplace?
  • Most journalists and writers seems to genuinely love what they do. Often, they make financial sacrifices to stay in their careers, but few seem to regret it. A lot of conferences feel cold and formal, with people milling about, shaking hands, handing out cards, trying awkwardly to seem excited to be there. Not here. Most of the people I met were passionate and excited about their work, getting better, and learning from others. That’s the kind of people I like to be around.

I hope to be back in 2010…

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Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day Three

I kicked off day three in the session on “Animating History,” featuring a panel including Adam Hochschild, Jane Kamensky, Isabel Wilkerson, and Scott Martelle.

I loved the idea from Isabella Wilkerson that an important part about figuring out who to focus on for a book (or story) is the process of “auditioning” subjects through interviews, trying to find the right characters that will help carry a strong story. The interviews with the people you wind up not focusing on isn’t wasted; you often learn a lot about the background of the topic that you can later use. It’s still great research that can help shape your work.

Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild

Hochschild made a simple point that when choosing a subject for a big piece of historical writing, you need to “fall in love” with the topic. If you aren’t fascinated by it, passionate about it, it will be a lot harder to commit the long hours (maybe years) it will take to complete the work. “It has to obsess you,” Hochschild says.

Random side note: Hochschild is everything I’d like to be when I grow up… He writes, speaks, and teaches for a living. More fundamentally, he’s eloquent, graceful, passionate about his work…

From the world of exploring history through writing, I moved on to the session on modern-day writing for profit: “Freeing Your Inner Entrepreneur: Learning survival instincts in the freelance world” with Larry Habegger, Jennifer Kahn, Marci Alboher, moderated by Christine Larson.

The panel was very strong. All four speakers brought different perspectives to the business of freelance work. Kahn, a former astrophysicist, does long-form freelance science writing for major publications like Wired and New Yorker, often having months to work on each publication. Larson seems to have a more varied set of freelance clients, and does a lot of shorter pieces; her ideas focused more on the practical side of drumming up and sustaining business, as well as facing the cold, serious numbers involved in making a living as a freelancer. Habegger and Alboher were the entrepreneurs of the panel, each juggling multiple projects and ventures as freelancers. The panel showed that if you want to be a freelancer, there are a lot of different approaches.

Marci Alboher

Marci Alboher

Alboher’s idea of “slash careers” is an interesting concept, especially for someone like me, who does both freelance writing and design. One of my goals leaving the conference is to read her book, One Person/Multiple Careers. It’s refreshing to see someone embrace the idea that some of us aren’t crazy for feeling strange doing just one thing. Alboher also mentioned how invaluable having a small, regular “freelance group” was to her earlier in her career. She and some likeminded writers met weekly, swapping ideas, reading each others work, providing edits and suggestions. Seems like another great idea I want to run with after the conference.

Gwen Ifil was the closing keynote speaker for the conference. She seemed just as polished as she does on TV, but also showed more of a sense of humor than comes across on Washington Week in Review. One fun anecdote; She described how earlier in her career, she would typically be assigned to whichever candidate was doing the worst in the presidential primaries. If a candidate saw her at their event, they knew their campaign was in big trouble.

Following the official end of the conference, there were a series of “master classes.” I’d gotten into a session on writing profiles. The master class had a nice format: only about ten people, with one instructor, for a 90 minute session. Our instructor was Rose Moss. At first, I was a bit puzzled with her leading a session on profiles, since she seems to be primarily a fiction writer. Moss spoke slowly, but had some insightful things to say. When doing a profile, she advised, ask yourself “what does this person do that expresses who they are?” Following on that idea, she showed us a selection from a Tracy Kidder story in which Kidder walks along a cliff with his subject, who stops and says:

From here the amount of land the dam had drowned seemed vast. Still gazing, Farmer said, “To understand Russia, to understand Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Boston, identity politics, Sri Lanka, and Life Savers, you have to be on top of this hill.”

Moss suggested that when we write profiles, we try to find a similar spot for our subjects. As she put it, “Every person has something that crystallizes how they see the world, the lens they use to see the world.” The key to a great profile, she suggested, was finding that lens and writing about it.

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