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

Over lunch, a bunch of strangers and I tried to figure out how to save the newspaper business. We didn’t succeed in finding a solution, but the brownies were quite tasty.

For the first afternoon session, went to “Conversation on Craft” on Magazines. The conversation focused on this powerful feature story from the New Yorker: The Last Tour by William Finnegan. Interesting session, from which my biggest take away is that William Finnegan is a hell of writer.

The second afternoon session was a tough call. I wanted to attend five of the seven sessions, but ultimately wound up in Tom French’s talk on “getting organized, mapping a story, finding a structure.” This handout is a great summary. Again, I was really impressed with Tom French. A few interesting tidbits you won’t find on the handout:

  • Cover of 'D.C. Comics Guide to Writing Comics'The best book on structure, according to French, is the D.C. Comics Guide to Writing Comics. Seriously.
  • Readers are smarter and more open to new approaches than we think. Reader are often ready for a lot more than editors and writers expect. The conventional wisdom about what they read or won’t read is often wrong. Sometimes, you can bury the lede and the world wont come to the end…
  • Even great writers often think their work sucks, especially when their working on it. It is common, he says, to be frequently “fighting off panic and terror.” “It’s good to be scared,” French says. “That means that you’re pushing yourself.”
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Nieman Conference: A Public Service Announcement

The More You Know IconAfter two days, it seems clear some attendees are a little hazy about questions. A question, as I understand it, is supposed to be a brief query directed at a speaker or a panel. They aren’t:

  • Long, rambling speeches with no clear purpose
  • “Observations”… followed with a faux question like “what do you think about what I just said?”
  • Three or four questions that take two minutes to unravel

Seriously, people… (You know who you are!) Let others have a chance to ask a question. Save the storytelling and contemplations for your writing…

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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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

Heading to Boston

Tomorrow morning I’ll head up to Boston to attend the Nieman Conference on Narrative. I attended last year and was thoroughly impressed with the quality of the panels and speakers. Roy Peter Clark, Adam Hochschild, Tom French, Lane DeGregory, and Jacqui Banaszynski were all amazing. Most of the attendees at the conference are working journalists. A few, like me, are students or freelancers. It was both inspiring and humbling to attend.

This year, the climate may be a bit different, with the seeming implosion of the newspaper industry. The theme of the conference this year, “Telling True Stories in Turbulent Times,” dives right into the fact that the nation, as well as the business of journalism, faces a daunting, uncertain future.

Grim as it is out there, I’m excited to be going back. I hope to post a few thoughts from the conference along the way. This year, I’m going to try and be a little less introverted and force myself to network more. It’s a conference full of writers, after all. No one should be at a loss for words…

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.