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.



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.



Long-form narrative and the art of cooking slow food

In the Washington Post last week, Joel Achenbach wrote an interesting feature on the diminishing opportunities for long-form narrative nonfiction in the newspaper-death-spiral/Twitter/iPhone era.

As seems to be the case anytime that I read about trends in the magazine and news business world these days, the outlook isn’t promising.

There seem to be two lines of thought: one is that modern audiences don’t have the patience or the attention span for longer narratives, which is why they watch reality TV shows and love Twitter. The other line says that people still want good journalism and storytelling: the problem has to do with the business model of publishing, not with the demand for good narrative. Achenbach gets to the heart of the problem:

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

And that’s part of the challenge as a writer. There are lots of opportunities to deliver “fast food” writing: short, punchy pieces. Sidebars. Lists. Examiner.com would rather I write five short posts a week than one long, thoughtful one. Getting the chance to write good, long-form narrative is a big challenge.

For what its worth, call me a optimist. There’s no question that there are a lot of ADD Americans out there who lose interest after 140 characters. But most people still crave good stories, true ones or fiction. It’s in our DNA. I see it with co-workers who are counting down the days until return of Lost, gripped with “what’s going to happen next.” I see it on the Metro, with commuters nose down in Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer books. I see in in my 18-month old daughter when she begs me to keep reading to her at night.



The stories we tell

Nate, David, and Ruth in a screenshot from Six Feet UnderOne of my favorite shows of all time was Six Feet Under. What made the show so great was that, even though every once in a while something extraordinary happened, most of the drama came from every day life decisions: where to go to school, whether to stay in a relationship, or when to change careers. The show was compelling because the narrative of every day lives doesn’t lack for drama. We all make decisions that might not matter to the rest of the world, but matter a lot to us.

The more I read, study, and think about narrative, the less is seems to do with writing. Narrative is about storytelling, and storytellers are everywhere: sports announcers, radio talk show hosts, car salesmen, speed daters. Everyone spins a story – yours or theirs – and creates a narrative about what happened or what will happen. The Bears lost because they got sloppy. Obama won because he gave people hope. The new iMac will make your life easier.

And when we tell stories about ourselves, we reveal our character: who we are or how we’ve changed. People tell these stories all the time, consciously or not, to define themselves to others.

When I was still single, I would often tell my “worst date” story to women I was out with for the first time. The “worst date story” recounted a nightmarish date I had just one summer when I was still in college: I was invited to a woman’s home for dinner and I proceeded to accidentally drop and shatter her blender, destroy her telephone, and spill food all over her dining room floor. Afterward, I tried to make up for my clumsiness by taking her out for dessert. On the way, I stopped for gas. After filling up the tank, I left the nozzle in the tank of my car and drove off, breaking the nozzle. The cashier ran after me, screaming and flailing his arms like he was on fire. I didn’t have enough money to pay for the damage and didn’t have a credit card. This was before the debit card era, so the three of us – me and my date in the front, the Iranian gas station attendant in the backseat – drove a few miles down Wilshire Boulevard to my bank, where I took out $100 to pay for the broken nozzle. We returned to the gas station to drop off the cashier and get a receipt and sign a few papers. And then we got ice cream.

I loved to tell this story on first dates for three reasons: first, it made my dates laugh; second, it showed them I didn’t take myself too seriously and could laugh at myself; and third, our date was bound to be much better in contrast.

Often, people share one major, defining narrative, a story that they feel defines their lives. As John Barth wrote, “Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.”

The American defining narrative is simple: we were a bunch of scattered colonists living under British rule, but we came together and demanded freedom and independence. Our unity helped us not only to beat the British, but to grow into a large, prosperous nation. That founding narrative, boiled down to five words – we fought to be free – provides the backbone for much of American politics. Land of the free. Home of the brave. It defines what we think we are supposed to be.

My brother’s defining narrative – I’ve heard it many times over the years – goes something like this: when he and his wife got engaged, they decided to quit their jobs, move to San Francisco, and start a new life there. Their parents were shocked and told them it was reckless. They went anyway. No jobs. No place to live. No savings. Rising debt. But they believed in themselves. And soon, my brother found a great job and his wife opened a photography studio in their loft apartment. They were happy. Stressed, but happy. The job my brother found established his reputation as a dynamic, smart professional and helped him later become one of the youngest Senior Vice Presidents in the history of Disney. They moved back to Los Angeles, built a home and a family, richer from the risks they took.

Their story says the following: they weren’t afraid of risk and change, and in turn, they succeeded. It is a narrative that defines not only their relationship, but how they look at life. For them, as my sister-in-law likes to say, “change is good.” Risk is good. Believing in themselves brings success. It’s not just a story, it’s an outlook on life.

All of these examples remind me that the storytelling process is natural and intuitive. We tell stories every day, and our stories have underlying themes and meaning. But writers often go out of our way to make the process difficult and complicated. We tend to overthink things and try to invent new ways to do something that we already do all the time. We try a little too hard to construct “gotcha” ledes and memorable closing lines, rather than focusing more on the story that flows in between.

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.