The Art of Writing the Tough Profile

Shigeru MiyamotoGay Talese’s famous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” is a legendary profile for many reasons, perhaps most notably because the iconic singer wouldn’t talk to him directly. Talese nonetheless delivered an incredible profile of Sinatra, without the benefit of a direct interview.

I thought briefly of Talese’s story when I read Nick Paumgarten’s excellent New Yorker profile of Ninendo creative genius Shigeru Miyamoto. What is clear from the story is that Paumgarten actually had very little opportunity to spend time with the elusive Miyamoto. The only scene in which he directly interacts with his subject is in a Nintendo corporate conference room, through the use of a translator.

And yet, Paumgarten still manages to make the most of that limited access. Here’s a snippet of his really effective use of observation, description, and vivid detail:

Miyamoto, dressed in a striped button-down shirt and black pants, regarded me with a wide smile. Up close, I could see that he had freckles and a few gray hairs. His upper lip sticks out a bit, like that of a character in a Matt Groening comic strip. He was carrying a beat-up and bulging old leather diary with a painted, hand-tooled relief of a horse on its cover. A friend had made it for him. It was where he jotted down thoughts and ideas. He said he was very busy: there was a deadline looming for the release of a new handheld device with a 3-D display that requires no 3-D glasses. Also, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Super Mario, and he was judging a competition in which thousands of players had used a Nintendo program to make and submit their own Mario animations. Miyamoto himself was to narrow these down to fifty finalists.

As Minagawa translated each of my questions, Miyamoto often buried his face in his hands or rubbed his eyes and frowned, as though Minagawa had misheard me and, instead of asking Miyamoto to parse the differences between entertainment and play, was telling him he’d gone broke. But it became clear, once he began talking, animatedly, with extravagant hand gestures and giggles of delight, that the apparent anguish was merely an expression of deep thought, a counterpoint to his ebullience in answering.

Paumgarten makes the most of a very constrained, limited interview. The doesn’t just get Miyamoto’s quotes, but we see him, hear him, and get a sense of his personality. He might be sitting in a boring conference room, but that doesn’t stop Paumgarten from still creating a vivid sense of his subject.

It’s a good reminder that we don’t always have ideal settings or opportunities to interview subjects, but that’s no excuse for doing a bad job telling the story.

Washington Post’s “Facebook Story”

As I’ve noted before, many modern web communications create natural narratives. “A Facebook Story” by Ian Shapira in the Washington Post is a powerful work of narrative journalism that follows the story of a pregnant woman’s journey through her posts and those of her family and friends. Most of the story is told through the status updates by Shana Greatman Swers, with some small narrative annotations by Shapiro:

screen capture from Facebook story, showing posts and comments

It’s a powerful, emotionally-wrenching bit of journalism, done in a very unconventional way. I read it this morning and can’t get it out of my mind. I’m not sure if the story strikes me so deeply because my wife and I have recently had two children, or because it’s set, mostly, in the same hospital where our girls were born, or simply because it’s a gripping story told in the primary characters’ own words.

Shapira doesn’t do much traditional writing in this piece, but he shaped and edited Swers’ facebook feed to tell the story, with minimal bits of his narrative to round out the feature. The editors and designers at the Post also did a good job making the online story interactive: when you click on some of the photos, they expand so that you can see them bigger.

This approach wouldn’t work for a lot of stories, but this piece illustrates beautifully how old and new media can come together to create powerful, compelling narrative nonfiction.

If you haven’t read this, you should.

For more, check out Shapira’s live chat on the Post, as well as an interview with his editor Marc Fisher at the Nieman Storyboard.

Read of the Week: “Comic Book Hero”

Browsing the cover story archives of the Washington Post Magazine, I came across this gem of a story, “Comic Book Hero.” by David Rowell. The story profiles Andre Campbell, a 44-year-old legally blind would-be comic book artist.

It’s not the story of how he succeeded in overcoming the odds and cracking into comic book publishing along side D.C. Comics and Marvel — he doesn’t. Instead, it looks at how one man’s dream, no matter how unlikely, has driven him since childhood.

Early in the article, it is clear that the story is about Campbell, not his business prospects as a comic book tycoon. Rowell accompanied Campbell to his first visit to an eye doctor in two years. Campbell is able to try out a “CCTV” device that would greatly improve his ability to read. He tests it out on a Hulk comic from his bag. Rowell captures the moment beautifully:

Garber kept talking, but Campbell was captivated by the eyeball, which belonged to Bruce Banner, who had spent his life trying to rid himself of the Hulk and who, in that moment, had just been hit by a cosmic blast. In the panel, he is laid out in a giant crater. Is he dead? Veins shoot out in little rivers of pale blood from the pupil, and his emerald eye, rendered, as Campbell could see now, with three shades of green, radiated a lifetime of failure and heartbreak. Campbell had never seen a piece of art so clearly, and he was lost in that single eye.

Rowell also closes with a fine scene at his son’s elementary school “Career Day”:

In the last class, Jason’s fourth-grade class, the kids were asking for his autograph — another first. Some had comics from National Free Comic Book Day — a publicity event dreamed up by the industry during more desperate times — and put those in front of him, and others handed him blank sheets of paper. Then others decided that he should sign their backpacks.

Here, no one asked him about his plans for distribution. No one wondered how much of his own money he had spent on Heritage or what he could do with members who didn’t show up for meetings. They didn’t criticize his dialogue or originality as an artist. They didn’t know how long he had worked to keep his dream alive, and they couldn’t understand that, in fact, it was on this very day, with them, that he had finally arrived. He couldn’t see the students clearly, but it was clear to Campbell how they saw him.

Great stuff, especially that closing line.

In addition to the story, the Post does a nice job with some bonus features, including a narrated slideshow, a video of Campbell drawing, a side feature about some of Campbell’s characters, a transcript of a live chat between readers, Campbell, and Rowell the day after thge release of the story, and a few final notes from the author. The beauty of the web is that while the article itself stands alone, all these bonus online features are relatively cheap and simple to add the story, yet add value to readers who want to explore further.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

What it’s all about

During Tom French’s session yesterday, he mentioned a Washington Post story by Anne Hull as an example of fine narrative journalism. It was about about a woman and her grandson walking down a road in the days after Katrina. I read it this morning and couldn’t agree more.  I doubt that many of the countless stories written about Katrina did a better job than this short two-page feature at showing the impact of the storm on the people of New Orleans.  Take a minute and read “Hitchhiking From Squalor to Anywhere Else

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.