Sunday, November 21, 2010

When first-person writing works well

At the PNA storytelling seminar last week, Marion Winik talked about personal essays and first-person writing; it's how she's built her career.

She's quite good at writing about events in her life. We hear someone like that and we come away tempted to do first-person writing. It's so alluring, and so different from what we usually do, and here's a nationally successful writer encouraging us to try, so we naturally start thinking about how we can do something like that.

I think it's a good idea to take that enthusiasm and keep it alive until the right story comes along. Most ideas won't qualify. Somewhere down the road, one will.

Here's an example of when it works.* I doubt anyone in our shop is going to go to Iraq and develop a relationship like this to write about, but this story, from Corinne Reilly in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot has what makes for a strong first-person story:

It's about something, as opposed to just relating some experiences. It tells a story -- it starts somewhere and goes somewhere and ends somewhere -- and (by design) it tells you there's more to come. It has a point of view, but it's never self-indulgent.

And for me, it had one of the best qualities of a well-written piece: I clicked on it just to see what it was about, not really intending to read the whole story, but it moved at such a good pace and was so seamlessly written that I read until the last sentence.

See what you think.

*Update: Broken link fixed. Thanks LeAnne.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Quick takes from PNA storytelling seminar

I'll post more from this seminar later, but for now, some things to get you thinking:

Marion Winik, author and NPR commentator: "The things you think you shouldn't do and can't do are the things you should do and can do."
 "Writer's block is simply a lack of typing. Sit down and type and then your writer's block is over."

John Luciew, Patriot-News enterprise writer, talked about his long investigative narrative "In the path of a serial killer," the story of how police first suspected the husband of a woman murdered by a serial killer: "I wanted all the key people in the story to be characters, not talking heads." So he did the reporting/writing that enabled him to make them characters in his story.

 Chris McDougall, author/freelance writer, who wrote "Born to Run," about a hidden tribe of people who are fantastic distance runners: "Human life is about movement." Same is true of stories, he said; something evolves, something changes. "What's the journey? What's the progression?"

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wondering out loud about David Simon, Treme and a confounding (to me anyway) storytelling question

I heard David Simon on the radio this morning talking about Treme, the HBO series about post-Katrina New Orleans. He was discussing how his series (like "The Wire") allow narrative, characters, situations and themes to develop over time, "to pay off when they're ready to pay off," as he put it.

Anyone who's watched "The Wire" can see how things that happened in the beginning came back around at the end, or provided context for what happened year-to-year in the series, or added depth to the entire series. But during the radio interview he also said that he doesn't know whether HBO will extend Treme beyond Season 2.

Here's my question: If you are writing/filming/producing a series in which you are purposefully patient, in which you do not intend to wrap everything up at the end of each season, in which you are using something in Season 1 to set up something in Season 5, how do you do that if you don't know that there will be a Season 5?

It would be like us writing a three-part series without any guarantee that parts 2 and 3 would be published. Don't know that there's an answer here, unless I can get this question to David Simon. But, like I said, I'm just wondering out loud. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Your writing voice isn't always right the first time. So, revise

Novelist Allegra Goodman (who, I discovered, has a lot of writing advice/tips on her blog) wrote about revising in a Wall Street Journal guest column. She talks about figuring out, as a young writer, the power of revising  your own work.Naturally she's approaching it as a fiction writer, but if you replace "fiction" with "nonfiction," what she says applies to what we do (and I think the last graf here really hits's why so many people write leads based on advertising slogans and think they're being clever):

"Starting with inspiration and some talent, you could work to be a writer. You could keep revising, and improve.

"Why was this idea so surprising and liberating for me? Like many literary teenagers, I believed that art was a matter of instinct—that the artist's first impulse is the most authentic, that revision is something you do to essays but hardly applies to poetry or fiction. I pictured revision as drudge work, spoiling all that was fresh and original. But what if revision actually improved ideas?  ...

"...We grow up hearing that we should just be ourselves, and listen to our inner voices. But what if your authentic self won't shut up? What if your inner voice is boring? In revision you cut excess verbiage. Revising, you can experiment with other voices.

"It's great to tap into your unconscious, but remember how impressionable the unconscious can be, how quick to absorb the tropes of television and romance and life-affirming or cautionary memoir. Revision means testing and questioning conventions, forging a path through the cultural clutter that we mistake for our own creativity."

Friday, November 5, 2010

On George/Sparky Anderson

Not just for baseball fans, this is a great read on Reds/Tigers manager Sparky Anderson by Joe Posnanski: Joe Blogs: George and Sparky.