Buzz Bissinger on being OK with sucky first drafts

Buzz BissingerI’ve always been a huge fan of Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, one of the best narrative nonfiction books I’ve ever read. His recent appearance on the outstanding Longform Podcast is a great listen. He covers everything from his classic book, to his more recent work, to his own personal and professional challenges, and what it’s like to struggle with doubt and confidence as a writer.

Towards the end, his answer to a question about advice for struggling writers (it starts at about the 1:29 mark in the podcast), is memorable, valuable stuff:

The creative act is so fraught with peril. You can do something wonderful and no one will pay attention to it You can do something terrible and everyone will pay attention to it. There’s an agony to it. There’s a remoteness to it. There’s an isolation to it. And confidence is the key… It’s the key to everything…

When I just tell myself: “you know what, just do it… Get it out on paper… Just get it out, on paper… Don’t attach all this ‘is it gonna be good?’… ‘is it going to sell?'”…

Just relax. Be disciplined enough to write for a certain number of hours per day… whatever you’re comfortable with.

There’s no worse feeling… then you look at the computer screen and its empty four hours later. That’s a terrible feeling. And that only makes fear worse. And the only way to conquer the fear is just do it. And I guarantee you, even if it sucks — and a lot of times is DOES suck — you will feel so much better because now you have something to work with; now you have something physical to play with, to change…

Now you have that first draft and it may suck… and — forget the negative — you’re going to see… it’s not so bad… A shift here, a scene here, a section here… Maybe I see a better way to tell the narrative… And hopefully you’ll hit that curve of delicious, euphoric, orgasmic confidence…

Once you have something palpable and physical, it’s going to make you feel better, and then it gets fun…

Check out the rest of the podcast here.

What I Learned by Reading 31 Longreads in 31 Days

Now that I’ve wrapped up my 31 Longreads in 31 Days challenge, here are some thoughts, observations, and takeaways from the experience.

1. Longform nonfiction is alive and well

With the collapse of the magazine industry and the shrinking newspaper business, many have suggested that longform nonfiction feature writing is a dying genre, with business models favoring shorter, “web-friendly” content.

But I kept finding evidence to the contrary. Magazines may be vanishing, but other sources are taking their place. I found excellent longform nonfiction stories at places that didn’t exist a few years ago, such as Buzzfeed, Grantland, and SBNation. Smaller publications like Seattle’s The Stranger and Dallas’ D Magazine had two of the best stories I read.

I wrote up 31 stories, but I read twice that many last month. Some stories were disappointing. Others just didn’t seem a good fit. Some I couldn’t finish. But I never lacked for options. I wound up with dozens of other fine longreads I didn’t get to. I could have I made it 365 longreads in 365 days, and still left plenty unread.

To find a wealth of fine stuff to read, my three favorite starting points are longform.org, longreads.com, and byliner.com.

2. There’s no substitute for a great story; but it takes a great writer to tell it well

Some of the pieces I read were clearly driven by an incredible underlying story: the fight for the life of Kelley Benham’s four-month-premature baby; Bill Fong’s shot at perfection; the deadly tornado that ripped through Utica, Illinois. But it took skillful, smart writing to elevate each of these articles into something memorable. Dry news stories could have been written about any of these subjects, but instead, the stories used the power of classic storytelling techniques: scene, character, point of view, and vivid, concrete details to bring each of these narratives to life.

On the other hand…

3. Great nonfiction stories can take something seemingly ordinary and mine it for rich, complex ideas

In contrast to #4… some of the best work I read focused on topics that were relatively mundane, but explored them to reveal depth and meaning. Nick Paumgarten looked at the issue of commuting and explored its cultural, sociological, and personal impact. Eli Saslow’s look at the day in the life of a Virginia pool salesman told a broader story about the struggling American middle class and the ongoing economic recession. Malcolm Gladwell looked at the unlikely success of a pre-teen girls basketball team in California and connected it with broader ideas about underdogs and insurgent campaigns.

4. It’s the scenes, stupid.

When I look back at all 31 stories, a common element in almost every one was the use of scenes; a dramatic moment (or moments) that revealed a lot about the subjects and themes of the stories and provided the dramatic context for larger ideas and themes. Regardless of the topic or the writing style, great scenes anchored these narratives and elevated them from the page.

5. Reading apps are awesome

If you’re not already using Pocket, Readability, or Instapaper, you should. I used to lug around stacks of articles and magazines in my bookbag; no more. Reading apps make it simple to collect articles to read and sync them across multiple devices, as well as make them easier and more enjoyable to read on small screens. I traveled a lot during December, and being able to keep dozens of stories on-hand without printing anything out was extemely helpful. My only gripe with all of these is that none of them offer a way to annotate stories. I’d love to see that feature in 2013.

While I’m at it, one new tool I’ve started to use is readlists.com: add in a bunch of links to stories you want to read and it will create a single .epub file to read on your kindle, ipad, or mobile phone. For starters, he’re a readlist I’ve created with my 10 favorite longreads from the 31 I read in December. You can grab it can put it on your favorite e-reader or tablet.

6. The New Yorker is still the best starting place to look for longform nonfiction

I found incredible work in GQ, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and a wide range of smaller publications. But again and again, I kept finding myself digging into longform stories from the New Yorker. As a designer, the magazine kills me; it looks like something for an old granny in Vermont. But week after week it delivers smart, thoughtful features and profiles that run the gamut of longform nonfiction. I can barely keep up with my subscription — I have a pile of unread New Yorkers in my office — but when I can steal the time to dig through them, I am rarely disappointed.

Speed Round:

7. Writers whose work I most want to emulate:
Nick Paumgarten. Malcolm Gladwell. Gary Smith. Gene Weingarten.

8. Writers whose work I admire like hell, but could never hope to replicate:
Julie Keller. Mike Sager. Kelley Benham. Tom Junod.

9. The best thing I read in 2012:
Never Let Go. Kelley Benham’s story is moving, thoughtful, beautiful, and extremely well written. Read it.

31

Dec

“The Loved Ones” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 31)

The best narrative nonfiction tells true stories with the crafts and elements of a short story, and that’s exactly what Tom Junod delivers in “The Loved Ones,” published in the September 2006 issue of Esquire.

It looks at the tragedy at St. Rita’s nursing home in New Orleans, where 35 residents died in the floods of Hurricane Katrina, and the charges of negligent homicide filed against the its owners, Sal and Mabel Mangano. It is a story rich with conflict, complex characters, and broader themes and ideas. It asks more than who was to blame; it considers the role we give to those who care for our elderly, the power and impact of mass media to distory the truth, and the cultural need for blame.

Abandoned wheelchairs and a flooded hallway at St. Rita's Nursing Home

Photo: The New York Times

Junod takes the time to make the people in the story vivid and real. Case in point: the Mangano’s if-he-wasn’t-real-you’d-think-Hollywood-invented-him defense lawyer, Jim Cobb. Here, he talks about one of the witness some think will send the Manganos to jail:

“Did you see Bertucci’s testimony?” he’s saying as he’s driving. “Was it good for my case? Fuuuuuuuck. It was awesome for my case. It was so good, I’m considering jerking off while reading it.” For one of the civil lawsuits against the Manganos, Cobb has just taken the deposition of Dr. Bryan Bertucci, the elected coroner of St. Bernard Parish and the man Cobb regards as the state’s star witness in its case against the Manganos. It was Bertucci, you see, who offered St. Rita’s two school buses for use in an evacuation, and Bertucci who told the world of the nursing home’s disastrous reply: No. “The state is trying to prove that Sal and Mabel were negligent,” Cobb says. “That means willful, wanton, reckless disregard. So I ask him, ‘Have you ever witnessed them treat their patients in a careless manner?’ ‘No.’ ‘In a negligent manner?’ ‘No.’ ‘In a reckless manner?’ ‘No.’ I mean, I’m practically reading from the statute, man. But wait, it gets better. He says, ‘No, as a matter of fact, in my opinion they ran the best nursing home in the parish.’ All right? This is their freaking witness.”

Later, we see Cobb in his own home, also mostly destroyed by Katrina. Junod does a fine job describing the scene. As Cobb surveys the destruction, he rages against the district attorney for prosecuting the Manganos:

There’s a lot of mold in Lakeview, indeed a lot of mold in Jim Cobb’s house, scavenging black mold with the characteristics of fire, stoked in the foul remnants of flood. Floodwater still fills his pool, still fills his crawfish pots and his turkey fryer, and he’s uncharacteristically quiet while he’s in his house, until he goes outside and starts walking toward the lake, where the vista opens to the wartime view: the black helicopters hovering static over what passes for a levee, the X’s spray-painted hastily on the doors of the houses, the occasional 1 or 2 mixed in with the zeros, noting how many bodies were found inside.

“You know who died in these houses?” Cobb says. “Old people. The storm wasn’t a black thing or a white thing; it was an old thing. Sixty-five percent of those who died were over sixty-five. Forty percent were over seventy-five. It was a complete fucking catastrophe for old people. And what does the attorney general do about it? Who are the people he arrests? Two senior citizens, Sal and Mabel Mangano. He arrests them for neglect while Michael Brown and Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco and Michael Chertoff and George W. Bush get a pass? No fucking way, man. They’ll have to kill me first.”

This is a story overflowing with anger. Anger from Cobb. Anger from the children of victims who drowned in St. Rita’s. Anger from talking heads on 24/7 news channels. Anger from the Manganos’ son, “Little Sal,” who rails against the lies repeated against his parents.

Junod paints a very sympathetic picture of the Manganos, detailing their attentive care of their residents, the extra efforts they made to care for those who didn’t have close family or relatives. He doesn’t excuse their decision not to evacuate the nursing home before Katrina hit, but he tries to understand why they decided to stay.

He recounts the harrowing and frantic events of the hours that water began to flood the home, and the Manganos’ desperate efforts to rescue their residents.

But he also paints a gruesome other side of the story, the perspective of Steve Gallodoro, who tried to return St Rita’s after the flood to rescue his father, and what he saw:

“I swam into the water,” Steve Gallodoro says. “I couldn’t open the glass door, so I had them bring me to the patio area. I climbed up on the patio; it had three feet of water, one of them glass doors was broken, and as I was walking to the door, I came across a body. I moved the body around to see sort of who it was, and it was an elderly female. I walked into a doorway, and as soon as I stepped in the doorway, there was another body floating. It was another female. I was in the TV room of the lobby in the north wing, and I came across another body about ten feet later, another elderly female. There was four feet of water or so, beds floating, furniture floating. It would have been impossible for me to walk any farther down the hallways. I hollered, ‘Fire Department, is anybody here, does anybody need help?’ and it just echoed.”

“The Loved Ones” offer no black and white answers, no easy-to-spot heroes or villains. It is a thoughtful, beautifully written look the moral complexity of a tragedy that was played for cheap melodrama on cable television. It underscores the depth and scope of loss in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Almost everyone in the story lost something in the water.

Junod seems to ask if there’s much more that can be taken from the Manganos that Katrina didn’t already wash away.

Read “The Loved Ones” →

30

Dec

“The Truck Stop Killer” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 30)

The Truck Stop Killer by Vanessa Veselka in the November 2012 issue of GQ is the account of a woman’s search to uncover the history of the death of a hitchhiker left in a truck-stop dumpster. The body may have been connected to a series of young women kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by a serial killer. Veselka, who herself had been a 15-year-old runaway at the same time, had a terrifying ride with a man who may or may not have been the same murderer. Nearly three decades later, she tries to find the identity of the girl abandoned in that dumpster, contemplates her own terrifying experience, and considers the incomplete or missing histories of other young runaways lost on the road.

A row of trucks at a truckstop

Veselka digs intro her own personal history and gives the story a rich sense of authenticity as she describes what it was like to be a 15-year-old woman drifting from place to place on her own as a hitchhiker:

I stuck to trucks because they were safer than cars. When you get in a truck at a truck stop, everyone notices. They chatter about it on the CB, and you are driving off in what amounts to a huge billboard advertising the name of the company. I needed visibility to stay alive. But it was also a dangerous form of brinksmanship, because if a trucker was going to cross the line, the higher stakes meant he was going to do it for real. There was a gap before that line, and most truckers wouldn’t take it that far. I lived in that gap…

I needed to find rides and usually couldn’t get into the restaurant. The general rule was that you were a prostitute until proven otherwise. And then you were still a prostitute. Waitresses were the first to kick you out. That forced me into asking for rides in the hallway by the showers. Over time, I learned safer ways of getting rides by having truckers navigate the CB radio for me. Women couldn’t really get on the “zoo channel,” as they called it then, because the sound of their voice would trigger twenty minutes of crass chatter. There was only one word for woman on the CB, and that was beaver. Even the guys who were trying to help had used it. They had to make up stories for me: “I got a beaver needs a ride to Flagstaff for her grandma’s funeral don’t want no trouble, c’mon back.” There was always a sick mom or dead grandparent involved, and I was almost always abandoned by my jerk of a boyfriend, who’d made off with all my money and my car.

Through these stories, I jumped from truck to truck. Like a lemur in a canopy of trees, I barely saw the ground. Even so, it still wasn’t safe to sleep. Adhering to my rule (that the only safe truck was a moving truck) meant I woke when a truck took an exit. I woke when it slowed for traffic. When it turned, when it downshifted, when it drifted toward the shoulder—I woke.

Early in the story, Veselka suggests that the truck driver who pulled a knife on her and demanded she go to the back cabin of the truck may have been Robert Ben Rhodes, a serial killer who kept a torture chamber in the back of his truck. He picked up runaways and hitchhikers at truck stops, kidnapped them, then typically tortured, raped, and eventually killed them. We was arrested in 1990 and sentenced to life in prison in 1992.

Veselka interviews former FBI agents who investigated Rhodes and Rhodes’ ex-wife to try and determine if he was the man who she rode with that night. She also gets insights into the depth of his sociopathic mindset. She tries to understand who he was and why he did what he did.

And as she tries to uncover more about his victims, it becomes increasingly clear that they have been mostly forgotten or erased from history:

The next morning, I drove to the Gateway Travel Plaza in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. I thought that maybe in a truck stop where known murders had occurred, people would be more forthcoming. Maybe they would remember something the others hadn’t. I parked in front of the family travel plaza, then walked back past a sign that read TRUCKS ONLY. The store for professional drivers was clean and quiet. I asked around until I found someone who had been there in 1985. It was a woman, probably in her midfifties. She came over and gave me an open smile. I asked her the same questions I was asking everybody: Did you ever hear about a hitchhiker in a Dumpster?

“No,” she said.

“Did you ever hear of anything like that at all, in other times, any other bodies of women found along this stretch of I-70?”

I was in the one place where I knew for certain women had been found, one less than a hundred yards away from where she was standing. “No,” she said, “I never heard of anything like that anywhere.”

Listening to her, it occurred to me that this investigation of mine wasn’t a detective novel. It was a ghost story.

This is a chilling, well-written story, and one that raises some troubling questions about how our culture overlooks or refuses to acknowledge people on the edges of society. It suggests that Rhoades got away with his crimes for years because, in part, his victims were largely invisible to society, that no one would miss them. He not only preyed on runaways as misfits, he depended on the indifference of strangers.

Read The Truck Stop Killer →

28

Dec

“The Trading Desk” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 28)

Michael Lewis is a prolific nonfiction writer, author of The Big Short, Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, as well as hundreds of articles for The New Republic, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times.

The Trading Desk, which appeared in the March 30, 2003 edition of the New York Times Magazine, was adapted from his book Moneyball, which would later be made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. But even if you never read the book or saw the film, this 8900-word feature article would stand on its own. It’s a great story about the changing business of baseball, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, and the players who get moved around like playing pieces on a board.

Billy Beane

Photograph by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

At the heart of the story is the way Beane defied conventional wisdom about how to evaluate baseball players and build teams. With limited money to spend and fewer star players to use as assets for trades, Lewis shows Beane to be gutsy and resourceful, relying on mathematics, data, and personal charm to do what he can’t with a large payroll.

Here, he frames the larger context for all the action in the story:

For more than a decade, the people who run professional baseball have argued that the game was ceasing to be an athletic competition and becoming a financial one. The gap between rich and poor teams in baseball is far greater than in football and basketball, and widening rapidly. In the middle of the 2002 season, the richest team, the New York Yankees, had a payroll of $133.4 million, while two of the poorest teams, the Oakland A’s and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, had payrolls of less than a third of that. A decade before, the highest-payroll team, the New York Mets, spent about $44 million on players, and the lowest-payroll team, the Cleveland Indians, a bit more than $8 million. The growing raw disparities meant that only the rich teams could afford the best players. A poor team could afford only the maimed and the inept, and was almost certain to fail. Or so argued the people who ran baseball.

But when you actually look at what happened over the past few years, you have to wonder. The bottom of each division has been littered with teams — the Rangers, the Orioles, the Dodgers, the Mets — that have spent huge sums and failed spectacularly. On the other end of the spectrum is Oakland. For the past four years, working with one of the lowest payrolls in the game, the Oakland A’s have won as many regular-season games as any other team except the Atlanta Braves. They’ve been to the playoffs three years in a row and twice taken the richest team in baseball, the Yankees, to within a few outs of elimination. How on earth did they do it? As early as 2000, Commissioner Bud Selig took to calling the Oakland A’s’ success “an aberration,” but that was less an explanation than an excuse not to grapple with the questions: how did they do it? What was their secret?

The story goes about the business of answering that question, using the example of one trade to reveal the thinking and strategy behind Beane’s maneuvers.

Lewis paints the big picture well, but he also zooms in to let us see Beane in action, wheeling and dealing:

He has two hours to find someone who will take Venafro off his hands. The Mets are a good idea. Beane picks up the phone and dials the number for Steve Phillips, the general manager of the Mets. A secretary answers.

“Denise,” Beane says, “Billy Beane, vice president and general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Denise, who is the best-looking G.M. in the game?” Pause. “Exactly right, Denise. Is Steve there?”

Steve isn’t there, but someone named Jimmy is. “Jimmy,” Beane says. “Hey, how you doin’? Got a question for you. You guys looking for a left-handed reliever?”

He raises his fist again. Yes! He tells Jimmy about Venafro. “I can make it real quick for you,” he says.

How quick?

“Fifteen minutes?”

Fine.

“I can give you names in 15 minutes,” Beane says. “Yeah, look, I’d do this if I were you. And I’m not [expletive] you here Jimmy. I’m being honest with you.”

Lewis’ work is great because he does two things very well: he’s a fine explainer, and he writes great scenes. He helps make sense of complex worlds of finance, professional sports, and business, but he doesn’t get buried jargon and acronyms. He doesn’t forget that ultimately, these stories are about people, and takes the time to give the reader a sense of who they are. He delivers a story about a big picture, but pays attention to the details of the people inside the frame.

Read The Trading Desk →

25

Dec

“A Life After Wide Right” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 24)

I’ve always felt in awe of field goal kickers at any level, when the game comes down to a final kick, the hopes of both teams hanging on the outcome of the swing of their leg. It’s hard to imagine the pressure they face, knowing that a thousands of fans are watching in the stadium, and, in college or the pros, millions more on television. One foot to the left or right… one yard longer… and everything is different. Hero or goat, decided in the smallest details: the wind, the angle of the ball, a tiny difference in the point of contact with the ball.

Scott Norwood misses a potential game-winning field goal at the end of Superbowl XXV

Photo by Phil Sandlin / Associated Press

Perhaps no one knows this better than former Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood, who missed the potential game-winning field goal in Superbowl XXV. His miss from 47 yards out is legendary. An article on NFL.com called it “the greatest choke in NFL history.” A Life After Wide Right by Karl Taro Greenfeld in the July 12, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated, examines Norwood’s life before and after that infamous miss.

The first thing that jumped out at me with this story is that it is mostly written in the present tense, which give everything a sense of immediacy. Each step in Norwood’s career feels invested with a urgency.

Structurally, the story starts at the end, showing the reader where Norwood is now, what he does for a living, and the notoriety he still carries with him. But then the narrative jumps back to the start, and we get to understand what it took for Norwood to make it to the Superbowl at all. Just to make an NFL team once seemed like the long-shot dream:

Every off-season, Scott comes home to Annandale. After every year at James Madison University, where he earns a football scholarship. And then, after he graduates with a degree in business in 1982, and Del and Scott blanket the NFL with videotape, and after he signs with the Atlanta Falcons—and is cut. After an upstart league called the USFL is formed and he wins a job with the Birmingham Stallions and kicks 25 field goals in ’83. After he tears some cartilage in his knee in his second season with the Stallions and is released. After successes and after failures, he comes back to work out with his father at the same old high school field. They never speak of what it feels like to be cut by an NFL team. Or how it feels to drive from Atlanta back to Fairfax County in the light-blue Riviera and move back in with your folks. Or what it is like to be a guy a few years out of college still practicing field goals with your dad. They never talk about how life isn’t fair, or how, no matter what happens, you keep showing up. Del will occasionally express displeasure with, the Falcons for cutting his son, or with the NFL or USFL for not appreciating what a good kicker they passed up. And then Del and Scott will jog down the field to retrieve the half-dozen balls and stuff them into the sack and drag them back upfield and set ’em up again, five yards deeper. And when Scott’s knee heels, they don’t talk about how excited they are when the Bills invite him to camp. He is one of 10 kickers they’re bringing in. That doesn’t matter, Del tells him. You just keep showing up.

The weather in Buffalo drives other kickers mad, but it suits Norwood. The wind, the cold, the rain, the spartan practice facilities. But Norwood has been through worse. He’s been cut, injured and overlooked, and compared with that, kicking in rain or a harsh wind blowing from the north is almost a pleasant diversion. He’s comfortable with the elements, and from his career as a soccer player he knows how to control the ball in inclement weather, to keep it down in the wind, to improvise. The other kickers are cut, one by one, and finally Scott shows up and looks around the locker room one morning and he’s the last kicker left.

All of this backstory isn’t just there to flesh out the narrative; it shows the reader what shaped Norwood, the adversity he overcame, and why that all of that would help him cope with the experience of being viewed by millions as a Superbowl choker.

The story shows us how his wife felt the moment the kick sailed right, what his coach said to him, and how his teammates tries to console him, and what it was like when members of the media mobbed him in the locker room:

Then the reporters are let into the locker room. They’ve rarely bothered to speak with Norwood. But today, of course, he is trapped in the incandescent TV lights and on the business end of three dozen microphones. His special teams coach, Bruce DeHaven, stands by him as he answers every single question from every single reporter. He will stay in the locker room a full hour after most of his teammates have gone. How does it feel, Scott? Were you nervous? Did you feel like you hit it good? What are you going to do now? What do your teammates think? How does it feel to miss that kick and lose the Super Bowl?

DeHaven asks him every few minutes, “Have you had enough? Do you want me to get rid of these guys?” And Scott shakes his head and replies, “I think I owe it to the fans to answer some questions.”

Sports psychologists will tell you that openness is the first step to healing from this sort of loss. They use words like process and grieving and cleansing, but Scott just sees it as his duty. His father would simply call it showing up.

Greenfield then shows us Norwood’s life after football and how that miss haunted him for a long time. The reporting here is excellent, because it’s not Norwood saying much about how it affected him, but the the observations of his brother Steve and his wife, Kelly:

Scott seeks to put his business degree to work selling insurance, mortgages, annuities and trusts. It’s hard work, especially the cold-calling, having to dial his way through a list of phone numbers every day and say, “Hi, I’m Scott Norwood, and I have a great opportunity today for you to take care of your family.” It takes weeks and months of cajoling to get a prospective policy buyer or annuity purchaser to write that check. For the first time in his life, he finds that just showing up isn’t enough.

Everywhere they go, to movie theaters, to doctor’s offices, to restaurants, Scott knows what everyone is thinking: He’s the guy who missed. “I would try to talk to him about other things,” Steve says, “but you just knew it was on his mind.”

“I saw him working through it,” says Sandra. “He would come and tell me, ‘This is real tough for me, but I’ll get through it.’ And we would all tell him, ‘Scott, it’s football. There are other things out there in life.’ “

In sports movies, the hero often has a second chance, an opportunity at redemption on the big stage. Real life isn’t often as tidy. Norwood’s life after that famous missed kick is less cinematic, but Greenfield provides a satisfying epilogue.

For many sports fans, Scott Norwood exists mostly as a trivia answer. But Greenfield’s profile reveals the a rich personal story behind the man and helps us understand what he learned after missing the biggest kick of his life.

Read A Life After Wide Right →

25

Dec

“Embedded with the Reenactors” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 23)

Longform nonfiction often answers the question: “Why do those people do that?” Embedded with the Reeanactors by Nick Kowalczyk, posted January 8, 2012 at Salon.com, takes a look at the thousands of Americans who dress up in period costume and re-enact old wars. Kowalczyk not only follows a group of men who re-enact the almost-forgotten French and Indian War, but dressed up himself and takes part in the the battle.

French and Indian War Reenactors

Photo by Salon.com

Kowalczyk’s story has a lot of voice; he doesn’t hold back on his bemusement with the whole thing. Unlike some writers who cover an odd topic with detachment, it’s clear that the exercise strikes him as a bit strange:

It’s not every 4th of July you get to be around nearly 3,000 people inhabiting an amalgam of time, and especially in a place as lovely as Fort Niagara State Park. The water in Lake Ontario actually was blue. And the fortification, now known as Old Fort Niagara, has been well-preserved even though it was built by the French in 1726 and took a 19-day pummeling in July 1759, when a few thousand British and Indians out-maneuvered 600 Frenchman sitting pretty in a big castle protected by cannons and stone walls.

But being on the battlefield exactly 250 years later, I couldn’t help but imagine the 348 people who died and the many others who were injured or suffered. When they trembled for their lives could they ever have imagined that a bloodless, G-rated recreation of their deaths eventually would become someone’s hobby?

The events in the story take place in 2009, not long after the election of Barack Obama, and Kowalczyk shows that the reenactors’ minds are in the present as well. Here, he observes some of their mix of history and modern politics:

“Now that the Democrats are in office they’ll fund every useless social program and gut the things that really matter, like the national parks system.”

Someone else said, “This battle here is the reason today we ain’t speaking French.”

And one re-enactor offered this insight: “We’re people with an appreciation for history. We don’t just take The New York Times and go glug-glug-glug.”

Very few, if any, re-enactors recycled their bottles and cans.

The story drops in a lot of dry humor like that, but remains respectful.

Kowalczyk spends much of the story with “Old Hickory,” a 60-year-old man who usually re-enacts as Andrew Jackson, during his fighting days, before he became the seventh American President. Hickory, a regular who goes to 20 or more reenactments a year, becomes the heart of the story, and through him, we get more personal look at a man who dresses and plays war in his free time. It’s clear that reenacting is his passion and his escape; and Kowalczyk leaves to the reader to determine if this seems depressing:

He bought clothes, a musket, and slept in his car at events. Some considered him “a suit” and “a mooch,” given his white-collar job and healthy diet, his constant requests for help and lack of handyman skills, but he paid those criticisms little mind. At events he was approached by the public, asked questions, even photographed. For the first time in his life he felt appreciated, like he had something to offer the world.

“Now when I’m in my street clothes I don’t feel like that’s my identity,” he said when I once asked him, Who are you outside of this?

In that conversation I drew a circle in my notebook and asked him to fill in the elements of his life — family, hobbies, friends, the job he’d quit, whatever — and to shade in the categories that involved reenacting. The exercise perplexed Old Hickory; he pushed my notebook away. “I don’t need to do that,” he said. “Reenacting is the circle. That’s it. There isn’t anything else anymore.”

This is a fine story, an effective mix of humor and good reporting. It’s entertaining, revealing, and, at times, a little sad.

Read Embedded with the Reeanactors →

23

Dec

“Battleground America” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 22)

2012 has been a horrifying year for guns: after the shooting of unarmed Trayvon Martin, the massacre at the cineplex in Aurora, Colorado, and the kindergarden shootings in Newtown Connecticut, Americans have refocused on the issue of gun violence.

Travon Martin

Travon Martin, family photo

Battleground America by Jill Lepore in the April 23 New Yorker takes a close look at the issue, underscoring the history and culture surrounding guns and the Second Amendment, as well as exploring the depth of the problem.

What makes Lepore’s story so strong is that it is viscerally close up in parts, but steps back and looks at the matter from a macro and historical level. It shifts between the personal and the policy sides of the story.

And the backbone of the story is the narrative of a single incident of a school shooting at an Ohio High School. As Lepore unravels the history and state of guns and gun violence in America, she dribbles out what happened before, during, and after one of too many gun massacres in America in recent years. With this, the bloody, personal toll of the issue is never lost on the reader, it feels urgent and horrifying:

At Chardon High School, kids ran through the halls screaming “Lockdown!” Some of them hid in the teachers’ lounge; they barricaded the door with a piano. Someone got on the school’s public-address system and gave instructions, but everyone knew what to do. Students ran into classrooms and dived under desks; teachers locked the doors and shut off the lights. Joseph Ricci, a math teacher, heard Walczak, who was still crawling, groaning in the hallway. Ricci opened the door and pulled the boy inside. No one knew if the shooter had more guns, or more rounds. Huddled under desks, students called 911 and texted their parents. One tapped out, “Prayforus.”

Almost as scary as the retelling of some of these incidents is the sheer numbers. She makes clear that this isn’t the problem of a few crazed loners, but a culture of guns and the deep proliferation of firepower across the nation. She lays out the facts about guns in America, putting the evidence on the table like a prosecutor:

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed.

As she delves into the history of the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association, she, like Adam Winkler in “A Secret History of Guns,” (which I reviewed a week or so ago) she reveals that the notion that every American in entitled to own and carry as many firearms as they’d like is a relatively new idea. Far from the recent arguments from the N.R.A. that the Constitution has made gun ownership sacrosanct since the the founding of the nation, she shows that American mania for personal gun ownership has really been much more of a recent development, rising most dramatically in the 1970s.

Lepore even goes to a gun education class and takes some shoots at a shooting range herself, to get a sense of how it feels to fire a gun.

But the story keeps coming back to the human cost of guns. The story never veers too far away from the personal nature of the issue. And she does it with writing that is very personal and haunting. She never lets the reader forget how many innocent men and women have been murdered with guns, and that they all had names and lives that ended prematurely:

Here she grimly details one such group of victims:

They had come from all over the world. Ping, twenty-four, was born in the Philippines. She was working at the school to support her parents, her brother, two younger sisters, and her four-year-old son, Kayzzer. Her husband was hoping to move to the United States. Tshering Rinzing Bhutia, thirty-eight, was born in Gyalshing, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He took classes during the day; at night, he worked as a janitor at San Francisco International Airport. Lydia Sim, twenty-one, was born in San Francisco, to Korean parents; she wanted to become a pediatrician. Sonam Choedon, thirty-three, belonged to a family living in exile from Tibet. A Buddhist, she came to the United States from Dharamsala, India. She was studying to become a nurse. Grace Eunhea Kim, twenty-three, was putting herself through school by working as a waitress. Judith Seymour was fifty-three. Her parents had moved back to their native Guyana; her two children were grown. She was about to graduate. Doris Chibuko, forty, was born in Enugu, in eastern Nigeria, where she practiced law. She immigrated in 2002. Her husband, Efanye, works as a technician for A.T. & T. They had three children, ages eight, five, and three. She was two months short of completing a degree in nursing.

Ping, Bhutia, Sim, Choedon, Kim, Seymour, and Chibuko: Goh shot and killed them all. Then he went from one classroom to another, shooting, before stealing a car and driving away. He threw his gun into a tributary of San Leandro Bay. Shortly afterward, he walked into a grocery store and said, “I just shot some people.”

This won’t be the last lengthly examination of guns we’ll see, especially in the light of the Newtown tragedies, but it will still be one of the most comprehensive and well-written stories on the issue.

Read Battleground America →

20

Dec

“Life of a Salesman” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 20)

One of my favorite forms of nonfiction work is a well-written profile, especially when the subject of the piece isn’t a celebrity or a politician. It’s not hard to get people interested in a profile on Rhianna or LeBron James, but when a writer can look at at an everyday person and tell their story in a compelling, meaningful way, that’s a beautiful thing.

“Life of a Salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized” by Eli Saslow in the October 7, 2012 edition of the Washington Post is a good example of this. Saslow spends some time with Frank Firetti, a Virginia-based small business owner and pool salesman, as he struggles to keep his business afloat in the struggling economy of 2012. Nothing shocking or dramatic happens in this story; there’s no life or death moments at stake, no critical conflict, no crime, no injustice, no tragedy. It’s about a man trying to sell a pool. More broadly, it’s about his dreams and his hopes as they come up against economic challenges. It’s a little story and big story at the same time.

Frank Firetti

Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount for the Washington Post

There’s a lot I admire about this story. Saslow pays close attention to the little details. As he shows us Firetti out on sales call, or back at his office, we get a very clear sense of what it looks and feels like in his space:

He loved being in the car, the one place that was his alone, where he could fortify himself against stress and negativity. There was Motrin in the center console for his headaches, hand sanitizer for germs and four empty bags of pistachios, because cracking shells occupied his hands and quieted his mind. There was classic rock on the radio, because he had changed the station when the host of his favorite conservative talk show started dissecting the economy, a word Frank couldn’t stand to say or hear, because he had come to equate it with “an excuse for failure,” he said. There was a Bible open on the back seat, because having it there occasionally helped seal the deal with a religious customer, but mostly because Frank was an ardent believer who liked to read and annotate the book when his faith needed restoration.

I like how that paragraph opens and closes with two broader themes: his need for solitude and his reliance on faith. But in between that, Saslow sandwiches a ton of detail: the Motrin, the hand sanitizer, the empty pistachio pags, the classic rock on the radio, the conservative talk radio, the bible in the backseat.

I also like how Saslow ties the profile to the broader themes of the middle class struggles in 2012, in particular, the idea of the swimming pool as a symbol of success:

But the more he learned about pools, the more he found them representative of something larger. They were carvings etched into back yards as a mark of ascent, commemorating a customer’s arrival in the upper middle class. They were a signal: You had a pool, you were an American somebody. Frank loved to visit his construction sites, exchange his few words of Spanish with the crew and then patrol the area with a digital camera. The crews sometimes found it peculiar, but Frank didn’t care. He wrote into each contract that he was allowed to take pictures and chronicle his creation. A black hole in the earth became a smooth bowl of white-and-blue speckled plaster, filled with water so calm and pristine that it offered a promise. Here was a place of undisturbed relaxation, of aqua blue and sandstone, a monument to luxury that could be owned. He hung photos of his favorite pools in the office and brought others home to show his wife. He wanted one.

It’s telling that he sells swimming pools to others, but he hasn’t built his own yet. He has sketches of this elaborate, gigantic pool for his next house, but he’s nowhere close to getting it yet. And the fact that swimming pools sales have been down for years indicates the toll of the recession. The middle class is struggling right now, and, as a result, so is Firetti.

And the story captures some small, meaningful scenes. In the middle of the story we witness a video chat exchange between Firetti and his Philipino wife, who is overseas visiting her family. We’ve already learned about the financial and business pressure that mounts on him, and the reader then finds out that his wife is hosting a 300-person party for family and friends in Dumaguete City. As he hints at the cost of the event, she can’t (or pretends not to) hear him:

“What are you doing today?” he yelled.

“Oh, we are still getting ready for the party.”

It was the one-year anniversary of Suzette’s mother’s death, and she and her sisters had planned an event for 300. As usual, they had paid for all of it.

“Free dinner on the Firettis?” Frank said.

“What?” Suzette said.

She pointed to her ear, indicating a problem with the volume, but Frank wondered if she was choosing not to hear.

One thing that bothered me about the piece is that Saslow despite doing a fine job showing us Firetti and his challenges, he didn’t seem to trust the reader enough to get it without hammering the point home. At several spots, Saslow interjects heavy language that frames the story in the wider context, and I don’t think he needed it. For example, there’s a nice scene between Firetti and his son (who is now living at home and struggling with two jobs) and they talk about his future. But then Saslow adds this:

They stayed out on the deck until the sun disappeared behind the townhouses. Frank went to bed just before midnight and awoke at 4. He always had been a sound sleeper, but lately he had been putting himself to bed with Tylenol PM and stirring awake to questions in the middle of the night. When had stability become the goal in America? What kind of dream was that? And in the economy of 2012, was it even attainable?

I like that paragraph until the last two sentences. Do we really need those two questions for the reader? At times, Saslow, gets a bit heavy with lines like that that seem to hammer home the theme of the story, but we don’t need it. He’s already done his job well enough already. Firetti’s story stands well on its own; the reader doesn’t need the author to explain it as explicity as he does as certain stretches in the piece.

But overall, this is a good read. Ten years from now, if someone wanted to read about what it was like for many struggling middle-class Americans a month before the 2012 election, this would stand up well as a snapshot of a time and place, and how one man struggled with the American Dream.

Read Life of a Salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized →

19

Dec

“Never Let Go” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 19)

I’ve read at least 50 longform stories to this point this month, and I’ve picked 18 to write about so far. But none of them have affected me as deeply Kelley Benham’s “Never Let Go” seres for the Tampa Bay Times. The series is actually three stories — Lost and Found, The Zero Zone, and Baby’s Breath — on the birth of her baby, born four months early, weighing 1 pound, 4 ounces, and the difficult decisions she and her husband Tom faced. Taken together, “Never Let Go” really one long story, woven with deeply personal moments, fears, and thoughts. It’s terrifying, inspiring, suspenseful, provocative, and deeply moving.

Juniper

Photo by Cherie Diaz for the Tampa Bay Times

I won’t bury the lede: this is the best thing I’ve read all month.

I cried as I read part one on a crowded Amtrak train, then again when I read part two at a coffee shop. I didn’t care.

So, without spoiling anything, why is this so good?

First, it’s honest and open. Right away, the reader understands the gravity of the decision she and her husband had to make:

Few doctors would insist on intervening. The choice was ours to make.

He went through the list of possible calamities, each with its own initials. IVH, PVL, RDS, CLD, ROP, CP. The magnesium sulfate burned through me, sucking the will from every cell. Blood in the brain. Hole in the heart. Respiratory distress. Chronic lung disease. Ventilator. Wheelchair. Blind. Deaf. Developmental delays. Autism. Seizures. Cerebral palsy.

Every part of her was underdeveloped, fragile and weak. Every treatment would exact a toll. She might live, but she would likely have, to use the medical term, profound morbidities.

Odds she would die, no matter how hard they tried: better than half.

Odds she would die or be profoundly disabled: 68 percent.

Odds she would die or be at least moderately disabled: 80 percent.

Second, the story is very personal. The reader is brought into the deepest hopes, dreams and fears between her and her husband. By the time I finished the first story, I felt all-in with the couple, fully invested in their long-shot hopes. The two of them had to often feel very very alone during this experience, but the story puts us right there, intimately with them each step of the way:

We had envisioned a similar path for our daughter — horseback riding, piano lessons and the dean’s list. All that was gone now, and we grappled with the fundamentals. Would we try to keep her alive? If she lived, would she walk or talk? Would she one day give us a look that said, Why did you put me through this?

People always ask me if I prayed. I prayed the way people in foxholes are said to pray. I prayed with every thought and every breath. And I prayed with the certainty that I had no business praying, that I hadn’t earned the right. I’d never been religious. Worse, I knew we had defied the natural order in our determination to have a child. Through so many in-vitro procedures, with so many tests and needles and vials of drugs, we’d created life in a petri dish. To be given a child just long enough to watch her die felt like punishment for our hubris.

Third, the story is simply well written throughout; it’s rich with scenes, details, descriptions, and characters. This story is powerful on its own, but Benham’s writing elevates it. The story is powerful and emotional, but nothing feels melodramatic or sentimental for cheap emotional impact; the story walks through the moments of their experience, and she re-tells the story as it happened. The story is very personal, but she also does the hard work as a journalist of treating it like someone else’s story, digging into research, interviews, and reporting.

The story itself is written a year after much of the events occurred, and Benham went back and talked with many of the staff and doctors they worked with, asking them what they were thinking at the time, what they remember. Benham reveals things she didn’t know at the time; secrets the staff kept from her. It’s also clear that she carefully went back and looked at the places in the story in order to describe them more fully. Here’s an example from early on in the first story, where she describes the hospital, and how it is built for both joy and tragedy:

The Baby Place at Bayfront Medical Center is designed for celebrations. The rooms are private, with sleeping couches and flat screen TVs. Sliding panels obscure all evidence of the mess and peril of birth. Mothers are wheeled out holding fat drowsy newborns, dutiful dads follow with the balloons. Every time a baby is born, the loudspeaker carries the tinkling of a lullaby.

It’s easy to pretend, in that cozy place, that all babies come wailing into the world pink and robust, and are bundled and hatted and handed to teary mothers and proud dads. But sometimes it doesn’t go that way at all. That’s why behind the sliding panels there are devices for oxygen, suction and epinephrine. That’s why there’s a morgue on the ground floor.

Finally, the story reaches beyond their personal experience and explores the broader ethical, societal, medical, and cultural issues it raises. It ponders the increasing impact of science on fertility and childbirth, on issues of abortion, on the perils of health insurance and whether the costs such interventions can be justified. Benham does a great job sharing not only her own experience, but, as a journalist, she puts it into a larger context that has meaning for millions of other parents.

I can’t say much else without spoiling the story, so I won’t. Just don’t miss it. This series is narrative nonfiction at it’s best.

Read “Never Let Go” →

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