Category Archives: journalism

Noted: Jonah Lehrer’s downfall

Yesterday I got around to reading the New York Times Book Review’s full-page massacre of Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, and wished I’d been even more grudging in my own piece touching on the bestseller. Then later in the day the news broke that Lehrer had invented quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan, and I wished I’d mentioned my own reservations about the Dylan material, which appears early in the book.

They were these:

• Dylan’s use seemed gratuitous in that it was poorly integrated and not very illustrative. Dylan is shorthand for creativity writ large, granted. But a better example might have been Bruce Springsteen, with his creative process recently explored in a documentary about the making of his great album Darkness on the Edge of Town. (Springsteen is the subject of an exhaustive profile by David Remnick in the current New Yorker.)

• I disagreed with Lehrer’s interpretation of Dylan’s historic “gone electric” British tour. (Of course it occurred to me, with mingled pride and mortification, that I’ve been thinking about Dylan longer than Lehrer, thirty one, has been alive.)

• The quotes were not attributed, first seeming to imply Lehrer had gotten an interview—highly unlikely—and when it was clear he hadn’t I wondered about his source. Why not give credit, if only for historical reasons, as he would have had to do for The New Yorker where he was a staff writer? A big trade-press gloss on clunky journalistic technique, I supposed.

I couldn’t check my second bullet point, by using Amazon’s “look inside feature,” to recall what Lehrer said about Dylan’s tour or the songs he performed because like any manufacturer with a defective product, Houghton Mifflin has recalled it. (I’d gotten it from the library.) The other consequence of his “piping the quotes,” as old newspapermen used to say, is that Lehrer has had to resign as a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Googling Lehrer now turns up all kinds of stuff, like the post by Josh Levin on June 19 in Slate revealing that Lehrer has been “self plagiarizing”—recycling material in his New Yorker blog that he’d written for other publications. This passage by Levin was prescient:

For a writer as prolific as Lehrer, reusing a phrase every so often may be unavoidable. But why would a writer as accomplished as Lehrer become this much of a copy/paste addict? Because he has ceased to be a writer. With the success of his recent books How We Decide and Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer has moved into the idea business. This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product. For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand.

Contrast Lehrer’s busyness with elderly New Yorker staffer John McPhee, a far more conservative writer who has been faithful to the written word in two mediums, the magazine and some twenty-nine books—no blogger, he—and who has forged a style that makes a virtue of clunky transparency and self deprecation. In his current chatty piece in The New Yorker about editors he has known, McPhee works his persona: On my best day I wasn’t as smart or as colorful as these guys, my legendary editors. Kind of like Dylan’s claim that he’s just a tin pan alley song and dance man, but whatever.

Not just Lehrer but his editors seem to have been juggling too much. For a lapsed neuroscientist and Rhodes scholar, Lehrer was really dumb to pipe quotes about Dylan: there are too many Dylan fanatics to let that stand. Among a few others, John D’Agata recently has been defiant about his license to make up stuff in nonfiction. But once again, we see that readers and the publishing marketplace ultimately demand that writers try to be honest. Which resides partly in transparency—generally credit sources even if that’s clunky—and resides partly in the mythic, historic, and poetic vision of the writer as someone after truth.

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Filed under honesty, journalism, NOTED, teaching, education

Cheryl Strayed’s back pages

How Cheryl Strayed feathers her compelling backstory into Wild.

. . . I spun the backstory. I dole it out. The trail is a chronological report of my hike; what came before the trail is not chronological. I give you a scene from when I was seven and then another the year before [the hike]. I worked that pretty hard.—Cheryl Strayed in an interview

I have each of my memoir’s chapters broken into beats in my working table of contents. Different narrative threads are color coded, red for my father.

 The second time through Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I dog-eared the page each time Strayed launched a major flashback depicting an aspect of her life before the trail. There are scattered memory outcrops throughout, of course, but I was interested in how many significant backstory passages there are and how they’re introduced and where they occur.

I marked twelve, of various lengths, counting perhaps debatably a short passage from the scenic Prologue and yet not counting the book’s long expository opening that discusses Strayed’s pre-trail life. So this tally is subjective—yours would be different—but the point is that I was surprised there were not more digressions, because her backstory is such a compelling and memorable aspect of the book. Ten or twelve background passages aren’t so many, not stretched across five acts and 315 pages, though some of them are quite long.

Strayed transitions into them organically; that is, instead of backstory bits used as stand-alone passages that start a chapter (other than the first) or that begin as freestanding passages after a line break, they arise from what happens to her on the trail. Typical is how she gets into six-pages in the middle of the book on her mother’s death and the death of her mother’s beloved horse:

I made my way along the trail for twenty minutes until I came to a place where the trees opened up. I took off my pack and got down on my hands and knees with my headlamp to explore a spot that seemed like a reasonable place to sleep. I set up my tent, crawled inside, and zipped myself into my sleeping bag, though now I wasn’t even remotely tired, energized by the eviction [from a proprietary campground] and the late-night hike.

I opened up The Novel, but my headlamp was flickering and dying, so I turned it off and lay in the dark. I smoothed my hands over my arms, hugging myself. I could feel my tattoo beneath my right fingers; could still trace the horse’s outline. The woman who’d inked it had told me that it would stand up on my flesh for a few weeks, but it had remained that way even after a few months, as if the horse were embossed rather than inked into my skin. It wasn’t just a horse, that tattoo. It was Lady—the horse my mother had asked the doctor at the Mayo Clinic if she could ride when he’d told her she was going to die. . . .

This digression is interesting (we’ve not heard about that tattoo before) and compelling because we do know about her mother’s love of horses and her sudden illness. We remember an early scene of her mother asking the doctor if she could ride (he said that after her radiation treatments her spine would collapse like a cracker). So this passage rewards us for what we already know and it deepens the story. Strayed has withheld the tattoo until she needed it narratively.

Though Strayed’s backstory sections are presented as naturally arising occurrences, as memories provoked by current action, they appear rhythmically throughout Wild at fairly even intervals. How much artifice an author uses in mixing in such material—did she really remember that there and then?—doesn’t matter to me, if I trust her and it makes sense. Humans are so riddled with memories that coexist with or dominate our “actual” living moments that what’s truly not believable, a real violation of verisimilitude, are chapter-long chunks of freestanding backstory. (I previously noted Strayed’s sensible view of honesty in memoir.)

I’m trying to be less self-conscious in my memoir about how I transition into memories of my father. At the least I look for places where his experiences are relevant to what’s going on with me in the foreground. For instance, after a summer of almost biblical disasters on my farm—including heat, drought, storm, flood, and locusts (well, seventeen-year cicadas that everyone calls locusts)—I recall how Dad’s perseverance in the face of one of his own farming setbacks inspired me to go on. Which it did, always, and I think at that very time; in any case, my hard season epitomized how I always drew strength from his lesson. So the story of how he overcame his nursery’s salty well—its irrigation water was killing his plants—is true to my memory and to the connection with him that I need to convey there amidst my own disasters.

We are after Truth, the Big Picture, the granular bits in your interior landscape. There’s seldom a transcript to help you convey what it was like to be you—and I’m beginning to think that the more “facts” we have the harder it can be to bring the past to life. One would like some photos, some dates, sure. But I’m careful now about thinking that my experience as a journalist can help me find what’s vital in external records; I’ve had to cut so much of that, while so much of what I have discovered that’s useful has been in the process of writing.

I feel silly for seeing so many of the ordinary-but-important craft lessons within Wild so late, for being such a slow learner. But writing isn’t a hike up one mountain, it’s a journey through a series of ranges. There’s always more undiscovered country to see ahead of you as you stand there, atop one peak on the never-ending trail, looking out and catching your breath.

This and the previous two posts have run in abbreviated form as a single post on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

Next: The backlash against Cheryl Strayed and Wild.

 The interview quotes from Strayed in this and the previous post were taken from the excellent short video below, a discussion with Bill Kenower of Author magazine.

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Filed under craft, technique, honesty, journalism, memoir, MY LIFE, narrative, NOTED, REVIEW, revision, working method

Feeding the hungry writer

Guest Post by Janice Gary

Mavis Gallant, now 90, in her youth

While reading the latest issue of The New Yorker, I came across “The Hunger Diaries,” excerpted entries (March-June, 1952) from the journal of novelist and short story writer Mavis Gallant. From the very first sentence, the writing captivated me, plunging me into a world both exotic and maddeningly boring, a life narrated in cinematic detail by an unforgettable voice.

An armed guard in gray, a church, a wild rocky coast which rushes a steel sea… At Portbou, (I) leave the train…my luggage is inspected by insolent guards…I am caught between a quarreling French couple. Evidently, bringing the baby was her idea – he knew better from the start.

The entries in The New Yorker come from a period when Ms. Gallant was living “hand to mouth” in Spain, having left her husband, her journalism job, and her country to make a life as a writer in Europe. Her training as a reporter is evident in the way she records the sights, sounds and events taking place around her. But the hand of an emerging artist is also evident, both in the beauty of the prose and in the compelling material. This is more than a journal; it is a powerful piece of autobiographical writing.

You can almost hear the rumbling of Gallant’s stomach as she continues to stay the course, typing manuscripts, teaching English and selling her clothes for money. She perseveres, hungering not only for food but for the creative spark to sustain a new novel.

This novel, this bird in my mind, I have carried since Austria, suddenly alighted in Madrid. Sitting in the Café Telefonica, eating a dry bun, I saw one of those girls with the long jaw… and of course, that was the girl in the book.

The rollercoaster quality of the prose takes my breath away. Lyrical in one moment, down to the earth the next, Gallant constantly grounds her writing in the stunning power of the ordinary. The dry bun. The insolent guard. The quarreling couple.

The last few months have been a time of ups and downs in my own writing. The intoxication of being contracted for my first book followed by a disorienting lack of direction. There are long days when I do not write at all, which for a writer is a kind of starvation.

That’s why “The Hunger Diaries” speaks so strongly to me. This is a writer who, although famished most of the time, continues to feed herself with observations and insights. It makes me realize how anorexic I have been these last few months, stubbornly refusing to do what I can, write what I can, about whatever I can.

After reading the essay, I pull out my journal. I write about the unrelenting sun, the sharp cries of osprey circling the sky, the emptiness I feel when I’m not writing. Then I return to Mavis Gallant and devour her writing, awed by the strange and wonderful way we writers feed ourselves – and each other – with words.

Editor’s Note: There’s an interesting 1999 Paris Review interview with Mavis Gallant available online.

Janice Gary

Janice Gary lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Her book, Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, is due out from Michigan State University Press in 2013.

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The creator’s dilemma

For the businessperson you love . . .

I used to consider the use of test audiences as Exhibit A that movies are an inferior art form—talk about lowest common denominator! plus there’s no such thing as art by committee!—then it occurred to me that I and most writers do the equivalent. All our friends’ reactions, our workshopping at conferences, our submissions to editors and agents, and our use of prose doctors of various kinds amounts to exactly the same thing, a big fat test audience.

The movie folks’ practice is so much more efficient and focused. After all, each reader offers a writer advice that falls neatly into three categories: brilliant, maybe, and crazy. Getting all one’s test readers together at once would allow you to parse the categories faster and see what’s what. Okay, I admit it, the flashback in Chapter Two doesn’t work. Of course, what writers do is more like if the movie people had only other moviemakers in the audience, not a carefully chosen demographic of actual civilian watchers. Does writing, as a superior art form, need to be vetted by a guild before it’s offered to civilians? Probably. I think every art is first vetted by practitioners.

A collaborative art like film is vetted intensely during the making itself. Plus the script, the invisible heart of the visual spectacle, was surely doctored by a guild of writers, directors, and producers. I tend to envy the more collaborative art forms, especially drama and film, because they look like such fun compared to sitting alone in a room typing. Then this week I happened to read the recent story in The New York Times Magazine by Joel Lovell about writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me). Lonergan’s purported new masterpiece, the film Margaret, has been hung up and was almost destroyed by interference in the editing room by one of its impatient financiers. Love the devil you know . . .

But regarding fruitful collaboration, one of the interesting stories in Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, concerns an academic study of great musicals. It turns out that the smash hits during some golden period being studied were made by regular collaborators—creative teams, in effect, but which included a few outsiders with fresh approaches. The latter was key: unchanging teams couldn’t produce a Broadway hit any more than rookie teams could.

Related to this, Lehrer makes an obvious but true and always interesting point about writing, specifically revision: 

Although we live in a world that worships insiders, it turns out that gathering such expertise takes a toll on creativity. To struggle at anything is to become too familiar with it, memorizing details and internalizing flaws. It doesn’t matter whether you’re designing a city park or a shoot-‘em-up video game, whether you’re choreographing a ballet or a business conference: you must constantly try to forget what you already know.

This is one of the central challenges of writing. A writer has to read his sentences again and again. (Such are the inefficiencies of editing.) The problem with this process is that he very quickly loses the ability to see his prose as a reader and not as the writer. He knows exactly what he is trying to say, but that’s because he’s the one saying it. In order to construct a clear sentence or a coherent narrative, he needs to edit as if he knows nothing, as if he’s never seen these words before.

This is an outsider problem—the writer must become an outsider to his own work. When he escapes from the privileged position of author, he can suddenly see all those imprecise clauses and unnecessary flourishes; he can feel the weak parts of the story and the slow spots in the prose. That’s why the novelist Zadie Smith, in an essay on the craft of writing, stresses the importance of putting aside one’s prose and allowing the passage of time to work its amnesiac magic.

The weakness of Imagine, by the way, is the flip side of its strength, that it’s a collection of brilliant New Yorker magazine articles smooshed together into a book. Each story has its characters, its scenes, and its focus on the same topic, creativity, but there’s no overall cohesion, no narrative building across the book. I can see why such books are bestsellers—inherently interesting, short, digestible, surprising bits, with a self-improvement vibe—paint your room blue to be more creative!—and I enjoyed parts of it but found it very forgettable.

And yet, to be honest, I was trying to raid Imagine personally, and there’s a lot in it that I imagine businesspeople might make good use of. Such as the importance of water cooler talk, and therefore of office design; of bringing in outsiders with left-field ideas; of forgetting brainstorming meetings in favor of those in which new ideas are entertained, yes, but critically. The last like a short version of the long, slow bruising writers endure as they share their drafts.

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Filed under editing, film/photography, journalism, narrative, NOTED, REVIEW, revision, working method

Elizabeth Browne has wrung out the gems in the fascinating NYT story about Robert Caro and his working process.

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Review: P.F. Kluge’s ‘Master Blaster’

Guest Review By Lanie Tankard

The Master Blaster by P.F. Kluge. Overlook Press/Peter Mayer, 304 pp.

When fiction and nonfiction meet up, consideration of the resulting technique can be enlightening for anyone working in words. Journalist P.F. Kluge, writer in residence at Kenyon College, has combined in an intriguing way these two seemingly polar opposites in his new novel about an island.

Island. That word usually conjures up the image of a palm-fronded speck surrounded by water—tranquil and carefree. In The Master Blaster, however, Kluge paints a different portrait of one island: Saipan, capital of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Combining personal experience with superb writing, he constructs a shrewd plot set on an often-overlooked but increasingly significant location.

Many of Kluge’s previous ten books were set on Pacific islands. In his eleventh work, Kluge crafts a tale of three US visitors who arrive on the same plane—a professor, a travel writer, and an entrepreneur—plus a laborer from Bangladesh. (The travel writer, George Griffin, had roles in two of Kluge’s earlier novels and bears a strong resemblance to the author, perhaps existing as a verbal avatar.)  Each character embodies an outside force affecting Saipan: education, tourism, economic development, and cheap labor/immigration. To this cast, Kluge adds the Master Blaster, a secret town crier using the Internet to publicize wrongdoings on the island.

Reminiscent of the noir genre, the novel in its cynicism suggests danger around the next corner. And violence is definitely there, despite the beauty that’s a backdrop for the bleakness. Yet the entire tale is rendered with vitality and ingenious humor.

Chapters alternate voices, with preceding events outlined from a new angle by the next character. This technique moves the storyline along in an appealing way. Kluge weaves in history, geography, botany, anthropology, and biology as stories within a story.

A former Peace Corps volunteer on Saipan, he was part of a 1960s “mass media program” in what was then the United Nations Trust Territory of Micronesia, administered by the United States after World War II. Saipan was first colonized by Spain, which sold the island to Germany, which lost it to Japan in World War I.

The UN trusteeship of the “sea of small islands” dissolved in varying degrees among the six Micronesian districts about forty years after it began. CNMI elected its first delegate to the US House of Representatives in 2008, who was reelected in 2010. Delegates do not vote in the full House, but can vote in committees.

US presidential candidates now pick up convention delegates from CNMI. Familiar names like Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay both made headlines concerning Saipan. CNMI’s immigration policy came under scrutiny, but has undergone transformation. Many closets around the world, however, likely still hold garments made in former sweatshops there. (Check your labels.) Kluge weaves all these issues and more into The Master Blaster, a book closer to true life than one could ever imagine.

Many readers might have difficulty locating the novel’s setting on a globe—even his publisher, as the dust jacket places the story in “the wide expanse of the South Pacific.”  Saipan couldn’t be more NXNW. The far-flung nature of these North Pacific islands has always been a difficulty for Micronesia. If you mashed all 2,000+ of them together like Play-Doh, you’d end up with a landmass smaller than the smallest US state of Rhode Island, yet they’re strewn like marbles across a vast ocean area larger than the continental United States.

Novelist, journalist, Kenyon prof

Kluge arrived in Micronesia shortly after the US Department of the Interior and the military opened the shutters. For twenty-five years after WW II, the atolls and lagoons sat untouched, the detritus of war rusting in the backyards of people who had long called the islands “home.” Anyone who was there in those early years left profoundly affected for life by the experience.

The title of the novel seems to pay homage to Stevie Wonder’s plea for peace in his song “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” from Hotter Than July: “They want us to join their fighting, But our answer today, Is to let all our worries, Like the breeze through our fingers slip away. . . . We’re in the middle of the makin’s of the master blaster jammin’.” Two of the biggest blasters ever, Fat Man and Little Boy, flew to Japan from Tinian, Saipan’s neighbor. Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, was the site of atomic weapons tests.

The Master Blaster of Kluge’s novel is modeled after an actual blogger. Giving the website would be taking away part of the fun of traveling deeper and deeper into the Google labyrinth after reading the book to figure out just what’s going on. The Blaster is a social conscience.

Yet Kluge spares neither side in this morality play. His intelligent fusion of narrators from past literature about islands and colonies is splendid. Using a disembodied voice speaking offstage via the Internet, Kluge’s Master Blaster resembles the Remittance Man from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, as well as the anonymous narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and both the Master and the narrator in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae.

The title plays on film as well. In the third Mad Max movie, Beyond Thunderdrome, Master Blaster is two people: tiny Master carried by his large bodyguard, Blaster. The name draws symbolism even from sports. “Master Blaster” is the nickname of Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, batsman superhero. Such references are relevant to Kluge’s thesis.

Saipan is part of America, yet the distance from Saipan to Shanghai is one-third the distance from Saipan to Seattle. Kluge’s characters portray the location confusion, offering astute commentary through dialogue. One asks, “’It is America? This place?’” Another observes Saipan is “not real America,” while someone else says, “It’s a small place. It’s far away. Nobody cares.”

Readers sense themes: “A place belongs to people who love it….Could they go back to what they were?…Our history belongs to outsiders….The whole world comes here and we go nowhere….But there was no stopping America.”

Kluge returns to a powerful and poetic precept he published as editor of the Micronesian Reporter way back in 1969: “…it occurred to me that America’s opportunity to do right in the Trust Territory is immense, but if it should be impossible to do right there exists another possibility almost as great: not to do wrong.” He has held fast to this tenet over the years in various works, expressing perhaps its most clever articulation here. Even poor editing and proofreading couldn’t mar The Master Blaster. It’s an ingenious novel with global lessons.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, may have said it best in his poem Don Juan:

‘Tis strange,—but true; for truth is always strange;

Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,

How much would novels gain by the exchange!

How differently the world would men behold!

How oft would vice and virtue places change!

The new world would be nothing to the old,

If some Columbus of the moral seas

Would show mankind their souls’ antipodes.

 Plus, reading The Master Blaster is simply lots of fun. Figuring out how Kluge injected journalistic literature with humor to create biting editorial commentary just might make you approach your keyboard with a whole new frame of mind.

Kudos to Kluge!

Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. Tankard has taught English in Micronesia.

 

 

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Luis Urrea’s ‘The Devil’s Highway’

A horrendous story told with bitter skill, highlighting the whole sordid, greedy mess that attends illegal broader crossings.—Kirkus Reviews

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown, 256 pp.

Poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, journalist—Luis Alberto Urrea is the best writer I’d never heard of until I read The Devil’s Highway. Urrea, creative writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has published thirteen books. A 2005 Pulitzer finalist, The Devil’s Highway is about the suffering and deaths in a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. This tragic incident is deeply and palpably researched and fully imagined.

The book begins with the Border Patrol’s discovery of the dying refugees. At least fourteen of the Mexicans, most of them from Veracruz, a leafy tropical place, died in the desert, sunbaked—as maladapted as gringos to heat over 100 degrees, no shade, their scant water scalding and then gone. This part is written from the point of view of the Border Patrol, the writer having spent much time with its agents and environs. He also met with smugglers and illegals.

One of the book’s impressive feats is that readers experience how each group thinks, jokes, sees the world—and, surprisingly for Border Patrol’s image, we see their compassion for Mexicans who risk their lives for the most modest dreams; in their rough way the agents aren’t above playing jokes on them, and call them “tonks,” for the sound a cop’s flashlight makes hitting their heads, but the macho border guards labor daily to save them, too. Rushing to help this group, Urrea reports, they sustain twenty-six flat tires, and some drive on rims.

The cops and the illegals alone know the stakes:

 Death by sunlight, hyper-thermia, was the main culprit. But illegals drowned, froze, committed suicide, were murdered, were hit by trains and trucks, were bitten by rattlesnakes, had heart attacks. . . . The deaths, however, that fill the agents with deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their Coyotes.

The book’s midsection recreates the fatal trip from beginning to end. As the illegal crossing falls apart in the trackless Sonora, Urrea artfully cites official reports and interviews. He’d already earned my trust, and my pleasure here extended to his imagination. He recreates the wanderings of the delirious, splintered group, and riffs on what it feels like to be at the mercy of careless, incompetent smugglers and to die horribly of thirst and heatstroke. Forget sunburn and cracked lips: the skin blackens, the kidneys stop, organs break down internally.

In places, the prose becomes surreal and hallucinogenic:

The day tormented them. Thirst. Pain. Men crawled under creosotes, under the scant shade of scraggly mesquites. It was a dull repetition of the entire walk. As rote as factory work. Their hours clanged by like machines. They were in the dirt like animals.

Six o’clock in the morning took ten hours to become seven o’clock.

A week later, it was eight o’clock.

The temperature screamed into the nineties before nine o’clock.

They waited. They couldn’t even talk. They panted like dogs, groaned. Men put their hands to their chests, almost delicately, as if checking their own pulses. But they were barely awake. They were half in dreams and half in the day, and the day itself was a bad dream. Dry wings swished in the air around them. Voices, coughing. Far above, the icy silver chips of airplanes cut the blue. Out of reach.

Named a best book of the year by many publications and optioned by Mexican director Luis Mandoki for a film to star Antonio Banderas, The Devil’s Highway reflects Urrea’s long interest, heritage, and expertise. As a young writer for The San Diego Reader, he published pieces adapted from and shaped into his first book, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border. In a video interview on his web site, Urrea says of the brutal city desk editors of his newspaper days: “I had not been handled indelicately like that. I’d been rejected but not insulted. But they really fixed that book for me.”

I read The Devil’s Highway against the backdrop of rage about fabrications in various nonfiction books, and Urrea’s exhaustive but imaginative work makes shortcuts or fabrications seem lazy or puerile. Urrea is not nearly as button-downed as Tracy Kidder or John McPhee—at points he clearly imagines—but even without his long note explaining to readers his multiple approaches, The Devil’s Highway teaches itself and justifies itself in every line to anyone who reads it.

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Aaron Gilbreath’s post explicates the practice of a legendary New Yorker journalist whose exhaustive immersions allowed him to write with great freedom in reconstructing his subjects’ realities. My own views of Mitchell’s practice were influenced, like Aaron’s, by William Zinsser’s endorsement in On Writing Well, considered the gold standard for mainstream magazine journalism.

Aarongilbreath's Blog

As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.

In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.

When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages…

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Memories of me & Harry Crews . . .

Harry Crews: June 7, 1935 – March 28, 2012. Here he’s probably holding forth at the University of Florida, probably in the mid- to late-1970s when I was there.

. . . but mostly of me, 1973–1977.

For Tom.

I was a college freshman in 1973, and drove to school from our Florida beach town in a Triumph convertible with my eight-track blaring “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. I went airborne off the railroad tracks near campus.

Brevard Community College, Melbourne branch, was one gray concrete building, two plywood shacks, and a picnic table under some pines. In my speech class my teacher said I sounded country: “You say ‘fur,’ ‘gist’ and ‘git.’ ” We had to give a speech about a classmate, and a blonde girl with brown eyes interviewed me.

“So what are you going to major in?” she asked.

“Business,” I said.

“Why? You said you’re interested in writing.”

“That’s what my family does now,” I muttered.

I changed my major.

I’d never gotten over my father’s sale of our family’s farm in Georgia, and thought my hurt feelings and sense of exile were unique. A teacher wrote on one of my essays about Georgia, “You are a young, budding Truman Capote.” When I showed Dad, he handed the paper back to me without comment, and I realized he knew Capote only as a talk-show freak.

. . .

Although I was attending classes full time and selling clothes twenty hours a week at Belk-Lindsey, I spent every spare moment at “Andy’s” place, a little farm a few miles from campus. Andy was a pure Sicilian from Mississippi, thirty-eight years old; his day job was teaching school and his part-time work was growing orchids. Ducks and geese and guinea hens milled around his lath houses, and exotic breeds of chickens crowed and flapped and cackled in coops crammed everywhere.

Andy, circa 1974

Andy, circa 1974

The orchids supported Andy’s poultry habit; corsages were still popular, and China was decades away from taking over the potted market. You reached his place down a dirt lane overhung with gnarly oak branches, Spanish moss, and grapevines. Duck Valley, as Andy called it, was doomed to be surrounded by condos, but then it was a lost world. The little tin-roofed farmhouse had been built in the 1920s—ancient for central Florida—and its cypress boards were petrified. A breezeway connected it to a barn with stanchions for six cows. In the palmetto woods nearby was a sunken concrete tank, half full of black water, where the homesteaders had dipped cattle to kill ticks.

One day Andy and I were plucking ducks in the breezeway and listening to “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; I was a closet John Denver fan and had given him the tape. Gopher arrived in his dented blue Chevy pickup, his tawny pit bull, Skipper, in the bed. Gopher supplied Andy with hogs, wild razorbacks with long snouts and sharp white tusks. They overran the cattle ranch where Gopher worked. Skipper would sink his teeth in their tender noses and hold them until Gopher could tie them and throw them in his truck. While Andy was fattening the pigs for slaughter, if a chicken flew in their pen they ate it as soon as it landed.

“That a tape?” Gopher asked. He wore baby-blue jeans, a filthy yellow t-shirt, and a white nylon baseball cap with a Rebel battle flag on the crown.

“Yes,” I said. “You got a tape deck?”

“Yeah, but I don’t like it,” he said. “I can’t stand listening to the same songs over and over.”

You’ve got to own more than one tape, I thought. I might have said it, but wanted Gopher to leave. He was just there to moon over Andy’s game chickens.

One day I drove out to Andy’s at lunchtime. By then I had a key for the gate. Usually I came at the end of the day, just before Andy got there, and did his poultry chores. It was peaceful but spooky alone there in the middle of the day. I walked around and looked at the chickens. Andy’s homing pigeons strutted and cooed atop his farmhouse; wind sighed in the eighty-foot Australian pines in the farmyard.

When I returned in the afternoon to feed and water the chickens, I found the chain on the gate cut. Thirteen pens that had held gamecocks were empty.

“Gopher,” Andy said. “That son-of-a-bitch.”

“A chicken thief,” I said. “If I had to picture one, it would be Gopher. He’s going to fight them and get every one killed.”

“He’s already sold them.”

But all I could think was: What would have happened if I’d surprised him? He’d have put a bullet in my head. No, he would have cut my throat. Less noise. Gopher was stupid, not dumb.

. . .

Before I left for the University of Florida, Dad told me, “I don’t think writers go to college.” I majored in journalism, my compromise—you went out and got stories and couldn’t just bullshit like in English—but I mostly wrote poetry.

One day in my class on Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor, I wrote a lovesick poem, probably thinking of a girl named Jesse back in Satellite Beach:

Lament

I saw a white dove winging by

She made me think of you

Just a city pigeon, really

So call my memory rue

But it was not a bird I saw

Floating by so fast

Only the figure of a girl

Of love I’d hoped would last

At night I worked on an epic poem, “Clouds Like Blue Pancakes,” about a southern backwoodsman who’s coon-hunting one night and pokes out an eye on a dead branch. He stumbles into an old cow dip, breaks a leg, and drowns. The next day a pregnant girl—whom I stole outright from the character Lena Grove in Faulkner’s Light in August—boards a Greyhound bus. She’s carrying the world’s new Messiah, maybe, and she appears without apparent link  to Silas. But some cosmic equation is being worked out. The poem ends, Big changes coming.

Me at University of Florida, 1976

I labored to write a short story about Andy. Mostly it was about how Andy was a throwback to old southern values, how his farm was a time capsule of old Florida. How the air at Duck Valley smelled heavy with sweet citrus blooms all summer. How sunsets out there were operatic: cloudbanks, bruised blue, floated in the yellow sky above a glowing orange band. How the sandy farmyard glowed like a moon-smoothed river in the night.

Harry Crews was the famous writing teacher at University of Florida. I took a class from one of his graduate students and wrote a short story about a boy fishing with his strangely silent father. I never even thought of trying to take a class from Crews. He looked terrifying, and everyone told stories about how he was terrifying. He scared his own students to death. Or so someone said and we repeated. He looked like a man from a nightmare. Like an axe murderer from lover’s lane. Everyone nattered that the short story he’d just published, the one about a kid who has sex with his sister, was not only true, it was autobiographical. He was a real walking southern gothic, our bogeyman. And unlike us, he had material. Lots of it! Because he’d been lucky enough to have been born dirt-poor, with a violent alcoholic stepfather, among rednecks so ignorant they ate dirt.

I just noticed: Harry Crews was my poem’s Silas Tidewater.

Crews shows his tattoo: “How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy, Mister Death?”

We didn’t know that the wild man had hedged his own bets by getting a master’s in English education at UF. Or that, in reality, Crews had doggedly made himself into an artist. Now, having at last read and reviewed his great memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place I’d wager that his soul was gentle under all his bluster. Then again, he once expressed contempt for timid student writers, of which I certainly was, despite my bluster. Regardless of that, and of our student tales and the ones he told on himself and the ones he wrote about the world’s broken ones, I wish I’d taken a class from him.

Back then, I didn’t even think of myself as southern. After all, I’d been ripped from Georgia where I belonged and had finished growing up in a soulless Florida beach town. I didn’t notice that I hewed to certain southern stereotypes: I drove like a moonshiner, scorned scotch and drank bourbon—Wild Turkey, 101 proof—hunted and fished, listened to southern rock, read southern writers, and kept a rifle and a loaded shotgun under my bed.

Soon I was unhappy with my major of journalism but felt it was too late to switch to English. “How,” I asked a journalism professor, once a foreign correspondent, “do you get people to feel the way you do?” He stared for a moment at me, shook his head, and looked back down at the papers on his desk. Somewhere across campus, that’s what Harry Crews was teaching.

. . .

I finally turned my short story about Andy into an essay, what we’d call creative nonfiction today. Although it utterly lacked any narrative arc, it placed seventh as a profile in a national contest for student journalists. It did have a perfect first line, maybe the best sentence I’ve ever written, full of backstory and movement and gravid with mystery:

The wind had abated, leaving a stillness so complete we could hear the rasp of pigeons’ feet against the tin roof of the farmhouse.

But I left out Gopher.

Like many a young writer, I couldn’t see the life I’d lived and was living—and I wrongly elevated and feared what I was trying to be. I wish I’d seen myself more clearly. I couldn’t see my own material, let alone own it, or see how imagination might have used, extended, and transformed it. How I might have begun to learn the habits of art. I didn’t know that Harry Crews had written three novels and a roomful of stories before he hit his own subject one lonely night and started getting published.

And I never thought about how I’d been spared, how I’d cheated death that day at Andy’s, escaped a dark fate.

After four and a half years of hectic newspaper work in Georgia and Florida I moved north and married and raised children, lost touch with Andy, forgot Gopher, and quit following Harry Crews. I never wrote about that day at Andy’s farm. I never did.

My senior journalism class, Spring 1977, at The Gainesville Sun. That’s me in the middle, at the typewriter between the two computers. Three of us became reporters for The Orlando Sentinel.

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Filed under essay-narrative, fiction, journalism, memoir, MY LIFE, poetry, teaching, education

About John D’Agata

I believe in immersion in the events of a story. I take it on faith that the truth lies in the events somewhere, and that immersion in those real events will yield glimpses of that truth. I try to hew to a narrow definition of nonfiction partly in that faith and partly out of fear.  I’m afraid that if I started making things up in a story that purported to be about real events and real people, I’d stop believing it myself. And I imagine that such a loss of conviction would infect every sentence and make each one unbelievable.—Tracy Kidder, from his essay “Making the Truth Believable”

I’m a sucker for an art-for-art’s-sake stance, but given my background in daily journalism I cannot easily accept John D’Agata’s defense of changing facts in About a Mountain as his artistic right. He says art tricks us and that he practices art, not traditional essayistic nonfiction and certainly not journalism. Apparently he calls About a Mountain a book-length lyric essay.

But to reasonable people About a Mountain presents itself as a nonfiction inquiry that melds D’Agata’s righteous probe of nuclear waste disposal with details of Las Vegas’s strangeness and an account of his and his mother’s relocation there. He increases the perception that his book is journalistic by dividing it into these chapters: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, Why, Why, Why.

That stream of screaming whys is damn good, let’s face it. And, again, it reinforces the sense that like any good reporter D’Agata is a stand-in for us. He’s a stand-up guy on a quest to get at truth.

Maybe he’s playing with a journalistic approach to rub our noses in the shallow, obtuse nature of traditional journalism that preserves the status quo even as it ostensibly attacks it. But in doing so he’s also trading on the legacy of journalistic martyrs. From 1960s Mississippi to today’s Syria, reporters have endangered their lives to file their reports. They’ve died trying to get mere facts, like how many innocents were vaporized in a bombing. They’ve struggled to place those fatalities in a larger context, tried to show a brutal pattern asserting itself. They’ve suffered to assemble meaning from random shards. To give faces to the dead, to transcend mere facts, to carry the awful truth of human tragedy into our hearts.

It bothers me, to see anyone appear to mock that.

For instance, D’Agata portrays Congress debating whether to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a cheap Las Vegas hotel. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, novelist Charles Bock excoriated D’Agata for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). The book indicates that D’Agata worked hard in a journalistic way, collecting data and even visiting the boy’s family, but he changed things here and there, in this instance not only the boy’s suicide date but also the fact that at least one other person in Las Vegas took his life in the same way that day.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s decision to change the date, one of the few fabrications known at that time, before D’Agata’s recent admissions in The Lifespan of a Fact:

To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites—a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

I agree of course, and don’t see how using the boy’s actual date of death would have undercut D’Agata’s saying he emotionally associated it with another event—if that’s true and not another pose. The purpose of persona is to reflect and to reveal self and its reaction to the world, in this case Las Vegas’s and America’s damaged soul, thereby treating readers as friends or partners instead of as foes or stooges.

And besides, it just feels wrong to use that kid, poor Levi who solved his temporary problem permanently, as a narrative prop. To deny him the dignity of his choice to die on a particular day. Real journalism is far more humble than that; it says, I don’t know the significance of this fact, this date, this brand name, but maybe it will mean something to someone.

Maybe the day he chose to die meant something to Levi.

John D’Agata: a genre of one

Surely D’Agata is an outlier. But this flap has implications for how nonfiction practitioners are enculturated, especially since the rise of creative nonfiction as a popular major in English departments’ writing sequences. D’Agata himself teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa. It concerns me that kids who don’t yet know the original sin of assumptions—how hard it is to get the most basic facts right in the first place—might think they have license to make up stuff and to change facts, stubborn signifiers of objective reality.

Nonfiction has a plethora of subgenres, including reportage, literary journalism, criticism, classical essay, narrative essay, memoir, and the currently popular catch-all and mixed-bag label of creative nonfiction. Having an over-arching rule—don’t make up anything unless you tell the reader or it’s obvious—can make the genre seem lesser, since the only rule in fiction is that it work (not bore the reader). But the sonnet is the result of following rules, and fictions operate within rules the writer chose (such as the ramifications of point of view) and then had to live by.

When Lee Gutkind came up with the term creative nonfiction, I think he wanted to describe the genre’s writerly freedom to employ persona and the dramatic storytelling techniques now associated with fiction (point of view, scenes, dramatic structure). Gutkind is most famous himself for his work as an immersion journalist. Tom Wolfe, as the 1970s poster boy for the now-dated label New Journalism, famously expressed contempt for the mere essayist, calling him “the gentleman in the grandstands.” That is, someone too refined and timid to talk to people and report. Someone who misses the real story of what real people, civilians, are doing and saying and thinking because his gaze is directed equally between the oh-so-distant parade and his own fuzzy navel.

But while immersion is the hallmark of all great writing, some can produce art by immersing in themselves alone. And while Wolfe was a great reporter, personally I can tire of his persona: always aping the alleged point of view of his subculture subjects, whether Black Panthers, test pilots, or NASCAR drivers, who always sneered at the uninitiated in the same voice.

I enjoy seeing a real human put on his big boy pants, stuff a notebook in a back pocket, and wade into the impersonal world on some heroic, ennobling quest. That’s what I thought D’Agata was doing, and I admired him for it. There’s a self at work, and we see it grapple with everything that’s not-self, see its limits and its biases and its internal conflicts. But that self is trying to get the objective world right.

The master of this sort of fused essay and reportage was David Foster Wallace, and lately John Jeremiah Sullivan walks the same path. A milder master of reporter-with-persona is science and food writer Michael Pollan, who once told Nieman Narrative Digest, “Journalists often write as people who have mastered subjects and are telling you about them. That’s a real turn-off for readers. In my work I often begin as a naif. It’s a good place to start because it’s a lot closer to where your reader is. Instead of starting as someone who knows the answers, you begin as someone learning about something. That’s a good way to connect with readers.”

Restoring persona to reportage makes the process transparent and makes the reader an ally. The writer can be a blunderer who makes his fear and confusion and flaws a theme, but he cannot be an unreliable narrator, at least not in the same way that one in fiction can be. We must believe, whatever the charms of his damage, that he’s trying to get at truth through hard internal and external inquiry.

His character must stop short of being or appearing to be sociopathic.

Giving D’Agata the benefit of the doubt here—he’s so young, such a wunderkind—rather than institutionalizing him, and since he already is sequestered in academe, if I could I’d sentence him to three year’s hard labor on a small American daily.

Johnny D’Agata, cub reporter, would cover city council, two school boards, the cops, and, oh, all high school sports. Since I have magical powers here, I’d also put him under my scariest editor from my newspaper days.

It would cure John—if choleric Bill, forever seething and red-faced, didn’t strangle him first.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, essay-personal, fiction, honesty, journalism, teaching, education