Friday, October 10, 2008

More Gary Smith -- but this is too good not to post

I posted some thoughts from magazine writer Gary Smith a couple weeks ago, taken from a New York Times story, but I have to do it again, this time from an online Q&A he did that is published on Poynter's Web site.

He is talking here about themes we have discussed in our focus on storytelling, and, to me, he is establishing ways of working and thinking that we should aspire to, particularly with our narrative stories and enterprise pieces. It's not easy, we don't always do this and we may not succeed every time out, but if we are aiming this high, we will get better, closer.

Q: How does a story's theme become apparent? What are you looking for?

Smith: I try not to look for anything too much because I might miss something that's emerging right in front of me. One critical thing to me is staying as wide open as possible and seeing what emerges and then thinking about it a lot. Thinking about what that has to say about human beings in general. There are themes that touch on universal things. That really helps to determine whether the piece is going to work or not.

When you do get into that soil that's more universal, readers then have a stake in the character because they have felt or experienced some of those things as well. Then the person isn't exotic or up in a cage somewhere. He or she is one of us and going through things we all go through, whether they're issues with our parents, how we're raised, things we're scared of, things we hunger for, things we move away for, what makes us comfortable.

Q: Journalists are taught to look for the conclusion. What I notice about your pieces is you don't feel the need to make everybody comfortable by wrapping things up.

Smith: If you're going in looking for the conclusion, then you've just short-circuited the whole journey. [You have to] trust what you find and trust the process to bring you somewhere, but not want to wrap it up prematurely at all. ...

The other thing I've found is that ambiguity is where the reality lies. It's much more honest. When you inspect yourself about what's pushing you to make one decision or another, it's usually this whole flux of things that are going on inside of you, a whole mixture of things weighing and leaning on the choices you make. It's not that clean. So writing in a way that just irons out the wrinkles and gets you more to the black and white mode of human nature is really kind of dishonest.

Welcome ambiguity and the complexity because it's a lot closer to the truth. ... There's a gold mine there if you don't try to skirt it.