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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Perils of long form

One of the hazards of being a freelance journalist is that I tend to get carried away working on stories, even when I know they aren’t paying much. Thing is, I love research.

I love poring over books and articles about someone or something. I like finding that nugget of information that isn’t common knowledge. But the ratio of hours spent researching, interviewing, writing and revising compared to fees paid for articles doesn’t compute.

I’ve always thought it would be fabulous to have the luxury (time and money) to delve into one subject. To sit, for example, at the Edith Wharton archives at Yale University and hold her letters and manuscripts in my hand, to read her own handwriting and begin to have some sense of her creative process. Ah, what I wouldn’t give to completely immerse myself in a project, without worrying about whether or not it’s “worth” my time.

And so it was with great interest that I found this review of a new book about the New New Journalism. Though I wouldn't dream of comparing myself to the writers featured I am, like them, drawn to the power of passionate writing.

The article is a review of Robert Boynton’s “The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft,” which is an extension of discussions with his NYU magazine journalism students about working methods of top journalists. It’s similar in scope to William Zinsser’s, “Speaking of Journalism,” which grew out of a course he was teaching at the New School University in the mid-1990s. In both cases, top journalists discussed what they do and how they do it with students in what turned out to be an engaging dialogue. Would love to put something similar together on a small scale here in Cleveland.

Anyway, according to reporter Julia M Klein, Boynton defines the “new new journalism” as “reportorially based, narrative-driven long-form nonfiction” and lauds it as representing “the continued maturation of American literary journalism.”

The book contains the stories of writers who spend years searching through documents that could fill a three-story building; who conduct 1,000 interviews to understand what it takes to get to the White House or immerse themselves in drug culture simply to write with authenticity.

So lively were the resulting (classroom) discussions that he (Boynton) decided to expand the interviews into a book. Because Boynton is focused on craft, he tells us relatively little about the business of freelancing. But the stories of (Adrian Nicole) LeBlanc, (Jonathan) Harr, and others, however sketchy, make clear that practicing this kind of time-intensive reporting, even with a book contract, can lead to penury or worse. For every few who succeed, one imagines the talented many who do not, and must rededicate themselves to carpentry or cab driving or perhaps a newspaper job.

The reality is that most journalists — freelance and otherwise — have to find a balance between doing the bare minimum the story requires and going the extra mile to make it really sing. In order to keep working as a freelancer, you have to keep pushing harder and digging deeper than your staffer counterparts would or could. There’s an unspoken but palpable need to justify spending the extra money on you.

It’s not always easy to navigate those waters, particularly when you work alone. You dive deep and tunnel through piles of documents and interviews and quotes and sourcing and yet somewhere out of that mess comes a 1,200-word story. Those are the times when you simply must have a stable of trusted colleagues with whom to share your manuscripts, to ensure you GOT the story and didn't stray.

My desk is evidence of this mess right now. I’ve got books by and about a theologian I’m writing about for a Catholic newspaper, 10,000 words worth of interviews (with a handful more to go) and hours of writing and revising time ahead. I’m researching pitches and have court case citations, annual reports and newspaper articles cluttering another side of my desk. I have scads of summer catalogs from book publishers tagged with post-it notes awaiting a pitch to editors for reviews. And I’ve got the hope of being able to write a follow-up piece to a story I reported on last year that touched me deeply and should require travel to South America. Certainly I can interview the woman by phone, but it will be all the richer to describe her current living conditions, her appearance, her gestures and manner of speaking, whether or not she smiles easily or whether tears well up in her eyes…

In her review, Klein points out that only three of the 19 writers features in the book are women. LeBlanc, Shaker Heights native Susan Orlean and Jane Kramer. Certainly the argument can be made that the choices of journalists included in the book also reflect the voices in the great literary magazines of our day.

But why? Similar to the issue of female voices on the op-ed pages, I would argue that lack of female long-form writers defies any one reason, rather it’s a complex set of opportunities taken or not, time, resources, publicity, persistence, subjects covered, etc.

Here's Klein's take:

Is the culprit rank sexism? Male editors hiring their male buddies? Or else the magazine’s preference for subjects such as war and politics that draw more male writers? Do women writers, facing rejection, discourage more easily? (I’ve heard that thesis proposed.) Or, as devoted mothers and daughters and wives, are they simply unavailable to devote the months and years of zealous, almost superhuman effort required by immersion journalism? There is surely no single, and no easy, answer. But it would have been nice if Boynton, in this otherwise probing book, had thought to raise the question. Indeed!

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