SciWriteLabs 7.3: Long-form narratives, crappy first drafts, and the importance of wasting time

[Note: I discovered this morning that this piece had mysteriously disappeared from my site. I have no idea how that happened. It was initially posted on February 1; I have no way to recover previously submitted comments.]

It’s been two weeks since the previous installment of my three-part conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Amy Harmon; today, finally, I’m posting the concluding chapter in what has been a fascinating discourse (for me, anyway). These discussions have focused loosely on “Navigating Love and Autism,” Harmon’s latest story in an ongoing series she’s working on titled “Autism, Grown Up.”

Today’s entry focuses on the peculiar challenges of writing long-form journalistic narratives.

Note: The first part of Harmon and my Q&A, which looked at neurodiversity and some of the issues that arise when writing about autism, is here; the second part, which examined what it means to be a science writer, is here. These interviews are part of an ongoing project called #SciWriteLabs, which examines topics related to science writing and journalism. Of related interest is a recent roundtable I conducted about autism with a group of self-advocates, parents, and writers; the first part of that discussion is here, and the second part, which ran on The Huffington Postis here. Finally, an obligatory mention: The Panic Virus, my book about the controversies over autism and vaccines, is out now in paperback.

SM: Over the past several weeks, one theme we’ve kept coming back to is the amount of work that’s required for long-form narrative projects. People who don’t work in the industry might not realize just how laborious it is to produce a 5,000 or 6,000 word story – and in an era of shrinking news budgets, just how at-risk these types of projects are. Can you talk a bit about what happens before your stories end up in print?

AH: There are different types of long-form narratives, so maybe it’s worth explaining first that I tend to do what are sometimes called “story narratives.’’ They have a plot and they are told through scenes and dialogue. They also have an argument, or at least a point, embedded in them, but it is often not explicitly stated, or perhaps only stated briefly in two or three “nut graphs” near the top. Like in a novel or a movie, the payoff comes at the end, so you need to make readers care about what happens to these characters, and if you can’t, you’re kind of screwed, because you then you have nothing.

These are different from explanatory narratives, which weave a story together with direct commentary by the reporter and/or experts the reporter has talked to; or essays, where you strive for a provocative argument; or profiles, where the point is to provide insight into an individual at a particular moment; or investigations. (Nieman Storyboard had a great interview recently with Jack Hart, a former narrative editor at The Oregonian, in which he distinguished between these genres.)

SM: That reminds of a presentation I saw last week by Deborah Blum. She and David Dobbs were speaking about story structure, and Deborah had a series of examples of ways writers can structure a story: By building a pyramid, or an inverse pyramid, or a diamond, or a circle; by weaving a braid, or creating a rainbow, or fashioning a wave. All of those can work – but the key, in every case, is to have the material that makes a reader want to find out more.

AH: Wow, I need a re-do of that presentation. I think that’s true, and the challenge for a story narrative, regardless of the structure, is that you’re relying exclusively on the scenes and characters to build that suspense.Jonah Lehrer’s essay in The New Yorker last week about how to foster group creativity, for instance, made me keep reading because the point he was making was intriguing and the way he argued it was engaging. With my stories, though, if I stepped out of the narrative to directly explain things, it would sound preachy and annoying. So even though I have an implicit argument  –“with the right kind of support, it’s possible for autistic youth to achieve a level of independence that previous generations have not,” say,  — I’m trying to always “show” not tell. I don’t think this type of narrative is any better or worse than the other kinds – I mostly do them because I’m not that good at the otherkinds. But they do require a different kind of reporting.

SM: What goes into the decision to do this specific kind of narrative?

AH: I think a lot ahead of time about whether I have the right character through which to illuminate whatever the broader cultural trend is that I’m trying to get at.  What is the key conflict, how is it most likely to be resolved? How much of it has already happened and how much of it will play out as I watch?

SM: Can you describe what that was like for these stories about autism?

AH: In the first one, “Autistic and Seeking a Place In An Adult World,” I wanted to show what I knew was a growing tension for many families and communities as more young adults like Justin seek jobs and a foothold in their communities. When I started following him, he had 18 months to find a job, and I thought it was a good bet that he would land one. “Navigating Love and Autism,” the story about Jack and Kirsten, took about two months to do, and I was very nervous about finding a good ending. I got lucky when they decided to get a cat.

SM: Jack’s father, John Elder Robison, noted in a comment how much commitment the “Navigating Love” piece took. What, exactly, was involved in that story?

AH: That was so nice of John to say. I did spend a lot of time with them. Between mid-October, when I first spoke to Jack and Kirsten on the phone, and mid-December, when I last saw them, I visited five times for two or three days each time — and when I wasn’t there, I talked to them on the phone pretty much daily. We also emailed and IM’d. (At one point I even invented a character in Eve Online, the Internet game Jack is semi-obsessed with, so that I could talk to him in the game, but it crashed my computer so I had to give up on that.)

There was one Saturday near the end of my reporting that I spent in Philadelphia, where John and Jack and Kirsten were giving a day-long workshop to a group of autistic teenagers and their parents. They drove down from Amherst the day before in John’s car—about a six-hour drive—and when I called ahead of time to ask if I could ride back with them, John said, “I don’t see why you would want to do that.” But to me, those six hours were a gift: I used every minute of that car ride to construct the detailed chronology I needed before I could start writing.

SM: When you’re interviewing someone, are there times when you know you’ve just found a perfect scene for some part of your story?

AH: One of my two favorite narrative journalism quotes is from Gay Talese: “I waste a lot of time. It’s part of my occupation.’’ He was being facetious, but he was also making the point that if you are trying to capture some truth about people’s lives, you have to be there for long stretches where not a lot happens. I pretty much take notes on everything, just in case, and when something really perfect happens, even if I’m not consciously thinking “I’m going to use this,’’ I know it because my note-taking suddenly becomes frenzied.

It wasn’t until the very end of that day in Philadelphia, for instance, that an anxious mother whose teenager has autism asked Kirsten and Jack if they were going to stay together and get married. That question, and Kirsten’s answer, turned into a crucial scene in the story:

A mother who had slipped into the room put up her hand.

“Where do you guys see your relationship going in the future?” she asked. “No pressure.”

Kirsten looked at Jack. “You go first,” she said.

“I see it going along the way it is for the foreseeable future,” Jack said.

One of the teenagers hummed the Wedding March.

“So I guess you’re saying, there is hope in the future for longer relationships,” the mother pressed.

Kirsten gazed around the room. A few other adults had crowded in.

“Parents always ask, ‘Who would like to marry my kid? They’re so weird,’ ” she said. “But, like, another weird person, that’s who.”

It shows how Kirsten and Jack’s struggles are relevant to other young adults with autism, and also, I thought, how universal those struggles are. It also speaks to why Kirsten and Jack persevere with each other despite their difficulties. So that was one of those times when I’m just typing furiously, as fast as I can, because I’m worried about missing one crucial word and I’m cursing the fact that I don’t have a recorder on, which I never seem to at the most important moments.

SM: I find the writing process to be much more painful and difficult than reporting, which is the part I actually enjoy. Is that also true for you?

AH: I like the very beginning of writing, when you have the illusion that it’s going to go really fast, and it’s been awhile since you last wrote, and you’re kind of remembering that you enjoy playing with words. And I like the very end, when you’re not really writing, you’re polishing, and it feels like it’s getting better with not much effort.  In between, it’s torture. I mentioned my first favorite narrative journalism quote already – my second is from John McPhee. In an interview in The Paris Review, he talks about how he gets in at nine, and basically procrastinates until five – not by surfing the Web, or anything, just sitting there and TRYING to write.  And then at five, he starts to write, and then at seven, he goes home. “So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing?’’ he says. “Because I need those seven hours of gonging around.’’

I think of that pretty much every day at 5:00 p.m. when I am writing, to try to make myself feel better. When I was stuck and totally miserable on the “Navigating Love’’ story, Dean Baquet, the Times’s managing editor, instructed me write what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.’’ I hated that idea — but he’s the managing editor, and I felt like I better do what he said.

So I wrote this awful first draft — and it was kind of a revelation. Making the shitty first draft better was much more fun than trying to write a perfect first draft. Also, on that story, I started writing it on Dec. 5, the day after they got the cat, and I basically did not look up until it ran on Dec. 27. For me, that was very fast, and I think just working straight through the weekends helped, because it’s always hard for me to start writing again after I stop for a while. But I probably can’t do that too often and maintain cordial relations with my family.

SM: I had a similar experience once, but the editor telling me to stop being so precious was my mother. I was complaining about having writers block, and she made the point that I didn’t actually have writer’s block — I hadn’t forgotten how to write. I was just obsessing about every word I wrote being perfect. Ever since then, I’ve been aware of how much more comfortable I am revising something that’s already on the page than I am starting something new — even if revising really means taking something I was working on and completely rewriting it.

Switching gears: The Times has had a great website for a longtime — but this story really seemed to highlight some of what the paper is trying to do in terms of adding value to stories online. What was involved in putting together the video clips and images that accompanied the piece?

AH: What I loved about the pop-up video clips and images that we used in these stories is that the technology really grew out of the needs of the story. No matter how I tried, I could not convey in mere words how Justin sounded, how he moved, all the subtle—often totally endearing, sometimes off-putting—mannerisms that make people think “he is different.’’  And we didn’t HAVE to rely on my words, because we had this great video footage that had been taken to accompany the story. It was when we were viewing the video for that first story, which was going to run as a mini-documentary alongside the piece, that the idea emerged to make the video and pictures PART of the story, rather than just running in parallel.

To go back to your first question, all of that requires a lot of work by a lot of great and talented people. I’ll just list some so you get the idea: Kassie Bracken shot the video, Patrick Farrell edited the video, Fred Conrad shot the pictures, Josh Williams created the technology behind the “quick links,’’ Anne Leigh did the layout. I’m not even mentioning the editors in video, photo and multimedia. Then there were also MY editors: Barbara Graustark and Glenn Kramon, who spent many hours shaping the stories and making them much better, and Kayne Rogers, the copy editor, who polished them. It really is a big production, and I feel very fortunate to work at a place where I can do this kind of story and also have so many people make it better than I could ever hope to on my own.

SM: I think that about does it — at least until March, when you and Kurt Andersen will be up in Cambridge for the 10th Anniversary Celebration of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. Any last words?

AH: I’m now in the phase of looking for my next stories, and I’m remembering how important it is to find the right way to do it t at the outset.  Chris Jones, who has won a bunch of awards writing this type of story for Esquire, tweeted something the other day that made me feel justified in spending the time up front. “Idea, reporting, writing, editing. Each as important as the other, but harder to rescue the earlier you lose the string.” Scary and true. Wish me luck.

SM: Luck…

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