Friday, August 27, 2010

An oil-spill story you may not have seen

Tom Junod in Esquire writes about the 11 men who died in the Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion. This is really interesting because I'd had this thought several times: That the oil spill was a massive tragedy for birds, marine life and people who made their living in the Gulf, and when is BP going to stop the damn spill, how can it possibly keep going on for so long ... but wait, didn't a bunch of people die in the explosion? Good lord, it was embarrassingly easy to forget.

I had neither seen nor read a story about those men, until now. Junod starts out writing about the sympathy shown the pelicans, then cuts to the people who are mad that the pelicans (literallly and symbolically) are getting so much attention. Then:

The people who say these things are not lacking in sympathy or pity. They like pelicans. But they loved their husbands and they loved their sons and they loved their fathers and they loved their fianc├ęs and they loved their friends, and they have suffered the experience of having them taken away. They were taken away when the oil rig they were working on fifty miles from shore in the Gulf of Mexico exploded on the night of April 20, and then they were taken away again when the tragedy of the environmental apocalypse — the environmental judgment — unleashed by the explosion outstripped the tragedy of their loss. They were taken away when our loss, as a nation whose health is dependent on the health of our oceans, was deemed greater than the loss of those whose individual worlds were obliterated. They have been taken away every time the story has been told, and the story has been told endlessly. There were eleven of them who died on the Deepwater Horizon. They died on the black ocean, in the black night, far away from our eyes or our interest, in untrammeled obscurity.
 He's captured it beautifully, I think.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

This never gets old

"This American Life" is so popular now that it's easy to come across stories or videos featuring Ira Glass talking about what makes a great TAL story. Nevertheless, I'll read or listen to them every time, hoping to internalize what he's talking about.

 Here's such a piece in The Seattle Times. In it, Glass talks about the need for surprise in a story, something that's unexpected buy key to what happened. I was drawn to this quote: "Even stories of life-changing, traumatic events can lack surprise," Glass said.

How many times are we attracted to stories of people who have overcome an illness, or experienced a traumatic event, or something like that, and we think that's enough? It's not that those can't be good stories. But the best stories, as Glass knows, are ones that are at least a little bit unpredictable. Find those stories, and tell them.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Katrina 5 years later: Great multimedia from USAToday

USAToday used a lot of cool ways to tell the story of Katrina 5 years later -- virtual neighborhood tours and computer-animated explanatory videos of what's been done to the levees and waterways, for example. You can spend a lot of time on this, but it's worth it.

Joy and pain

This piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is a really good read, an emotional narrative about what happens when the happiest day of two peoples' lives, their wedding, also becomes one of the worst. It's a true narrative -- nothing is given away before it needs to be; even the hed and cutlines cooperate. It's well-done throughout, and I thought the ending struck the perfect note.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Storytelling on a postcard

Anonymous comments rightfully have a bad reputation these days. But a guy in Maryland created what amounts to a storytelling project by asking for just that.

Frank Warren passed out self-addressed postcards with a request that people write a secret on the postcard and mail it back. The response he's gotten is a fascinating look inside each person's life. Some secrets are simple and declarative -- "I could be homeless next month" -- and some are mini-stories -- "I'm jealous that my brother got to save someone's life. I hoped that she would stop breathing again so I could have a turn saving her life."

All are evocative, and visually, too, because people paste or draw pictures, or create a little work of art on the back of the postcard. The project's website is here, where you can see lots of examples.

And in the small-world department: I found out about this because Frank Warren's former mailcarrier is married to one of my brother-in-law's brothers, and she blogged about the backstory of PostSecret here (she and her husband are now living in the UK for three years, as his job took them there, and I've been checking out her blog). And then I was on the PostSecret website, and scrolled to the bottom where it says 826,661 people like it on Facebook, and pictures some of those people, and one of them is Joan Concilio. Nice call, Joan.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Here's an easier way to read long stories online

 A tweeter's link to a long-form journalism site -- -- led me to something called "Readability," which is a way to read an online story without all the web-page stuff that comes with it. And it's amazingly easy to use.

If you go to the link above, you just drag the "Readability" button on to your bookmarks toolbar. When you come across a long story you want to read, click that "Readability" button and it will convert the page into a format that's easier to read. Basically, it strips away all the ads and web-page accessories and gives you a bigger type size while keeping the art. The story is much more suitable for printing, too.

That site, by the way, posts narrative stories that you can convert and read on an iPhone or iPad (or Kindle, or web) using its Instapaper program, which also allows you to save stories to read later. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Funny words, just because

In checking the dictionary for a word, I discovered that waesucks is a word. Now, that is a cool word. It originated in Scotland and means 'alas!' So one might say, "Waesucks, he loves me not," or "Waesucks, we have no beer, we will have to drink water."

This discovery of waesucks follows Jeff Frantz and I chortling over the (proper, not joking) use of the word muumuu. He found that the NY Times mag did a story Sunday on the difficulty plus-sized women have in getting high fashion. It included this graph:
Given the fit challenges a plus-size customer faces, the shift to a virtual space where nothing can be tried on can seem alienating to her - a directive to wear a muumuu. She may not particularly like muumuus, and she doesn’t want to be regarded as someone for whom muumuus are a reasonable choice.
Three times in 54 words! That's fantastic.

That got Jeff and I thinking about a contest for best use of the word muumuu in a story. (I dare you to get 'waesucks' in outside of a quote ... although if you tracked down a Scotsman and got him to say that, you'd have to use it.)

 Or maybe there's another odd/weird/funny word we should find in a story and acknowledge the author somehow? What's your favorite? What's the best word like that you've ever actually seen in a story?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Pictures spawn stories

 I started looking through these pictures -- color photos of Depression/war-era America, from a photo blog at -- and with each one, my mind started racing to fill in a story.

Who was this person? What's happening here? How did these people come to be in this situation in this place? What happens in the next frame, and the one after that?

It's a great mental exercise to start to fill in the blanks, and then think about the interviewing you'd want to do to get the facts to tell the real story that's behind each photo.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

My 45-minute commute is totally worth it when ...

... I get to listen to 45 minutes of Gene Weingarten on The Bob Edwards Show on satellite radio.
 Weingarten has collected stories and columns in "The Fiddler in the Subway," and talks to Edwards about how his stories came about, about writing, about editing and all kinds of cool stuff. Anyone who's read Weingarten's pieces about violinist Joshua Bell playing for change in the subway, or people who've left their children locked in cars in hot weather, or 'The Great Zucchini,' will eat this up.

 Edwards asked him how the idea of finding the "armpit of America" came about. "The impetus for that one is that I'm kind of a jerk, a congenital smart-ass," Weingarten said. He had wondered about the many places people refer to as the armpit of America, and wanted to find the "real" one.

He also had a fascinating observation on writing, drawn in part from a long-ago story he did about a terribly inefficient sewage treatment plant in Detroit that basically wasn't treating sewage. His lead traced sewage from points around Detroit to the collecting point -- the plant. "And then it hits the fan," he wrote.

He used that example to say that the most important words aren't the ones you write, they're the ones that you don't write -- the ones you make pop up in a reader's head. By doing that, he said, you change the reader from a passive receiver of what you've written to an ally.

 You can download Bob Edwards shows here for $2.95. This one's worth it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

This is what happened

Go pick up "Zeitoun" by Dave Eggers and read it. I keep thinking about the argument du jour in journalism of whether you should (or can) be objective or, as some journalists believe, tell "the truth." I always think: Just tell the story. Journalists who talk about telling "the truth" are usually talking about their truth, how they think you should receive what they're reporting.

 But in this book, Eggars stays pretty clear of that, even though it's obvious he (or another author) could have laced it with politics. Instead, he trusts the story: He just tells you what this guy Zeitoun did after Hurricane Katrina, and what eventually happened to him.

He lets you figure out the rest. I love that.