Summer in the City

A mini journalism scandal erupted not long ago when a sports reporter wrote a story about a game he didn’t attend – I don’t remember the details because frankly I thought two things: 1) it was a minor infraction from a well-respected writer and it did not involve any intended deception or fabrication. I think it was more a matter of going with the advance lineup and not hearing about a substitution, or something like that. And 2) I would never do anything like that, even in a pinch. Weeeelll, maybe not, but I came close enough to see how it could happen.

Last night, sitting at home on the left coast, I thought I’d get a head start on today’s blog entry. I figured I knew pretty much how my trip would be, what kind of reception I’d get at this end, so why not write the draft and then edit in a few details if need be and post? It would just take a few minutes that way, and I was bound to be tired.

This is what I wrote last night:

Thanks to JetBlue’s new nonstop service from Burbank to New York, I was spared the hassle of getting to, and through, Los Angeles’ main airport (LAX for short). My flight left at 7 AM, a tad early, even for me who usually arises around 6. My husband was kind enough to drive me to Burbank and we left the house at 5:30 — those of you who know him well know that we arrived in no-time flat. Security was thorough, but less uptight than at LAX, and I had plenty of time for a cup of Starbucks to rev my own engines.

The flight was smooth and I spent the time thumbing through a 400+ page catalogue of the Luther Henderson archives that I will be visiting tomorrow, and at the recommendation of Rifftides, reading The Shadow of the Wind, which I had ordered a few weeks ago and had been saving for this trip.

New Yorkers typically escape the city on summer weekends, and I knew that arriving at JFK on a Sunday afternoon would mean a lot of traffic heading back into the city. Luckily, the taxi fares from JFK into the city are flat rate, and the cab was air conditioned.

I’m not sure who was happier to see me, my mom or Django, who, though four-footed and only 25 pounds, is perfectly capable of knocking me over. (Dad’s still on tour in Europe.) I am posting this from my parent’s living room, using my mom’s computer and cable modem as the library with free wifi is closed on Sundays.

So there you have it. I have arrived and will be blogging from New York for the next two weeks.

And this is what really happened on the way to the airport:
My husband wanted to leave at 5:30 and I was running a few minutes late, no big deal. We got about 3 blocks from home and I realized I forgot my glasses, so back we went. Still nothing to really worry about, with my husband behind the wheel, we only live about 15 minutes from the airport (20 when I drive). We’re cruising along, traffic light and moving swiftly….until we rounded the bend onto the Golden State Freeway and everything came to a complete stop. Nothing was moving at all, and we couldn’t see what was causing the problem. It was five minutes before six, my flight was at seven, and I had luggage to check. I turned on the radio, couldn’t find the traffic report, and realized that it didn’t matter what the cause was — nothing was moving. I got on my cell phone and calmly called the airline to see if there is a later flight, which there was, but showing only one seat open. Should I grab it? I asked about LAX, still not awake enough to remember that Jet Blue does not fly out of LAX. “Four seats on the 10:30 out of Long Beach” the lady was saying just as a few cars began to inch forward. I said “thank you” and hung up. Just a minute longer and the traffic was moving as if nothing had happened. I don’t know whether that got my adrenaline going or stopped my heart. We pulled up to the terminal at ten minutes past the hour, I checked my bag, got through security, and as I apporached the gate, they announced boarding. No Starbucks. Thankfully, the flight was smooth and uneventful. I got throughthe first 300 pages of the archives catalogue, but I haven’t started reading The Shadow of the Wind yet.

My husband always teases me about being outgoing; he says I can get on a elevator and know everybody’s life story before we get to the lobby. He’s right,and I say that you never know who you’ll meet. Just yesterday we hired a building contractor to repair our roof – I met the contractor while on jury duty last year; he had been talking about his company and I liked what I heard and took down his number. I didn’t have any jobs in mind, but you just never know. Anyway, waiting on a long line to get a cab from JFK Airport, I got into a conversation with a fellow ex-New Yorker/California transplant. In a sleeveless tee-shirt and blue shoes, he didn’t look like a litigation attorney, and he had sense of humor, too. Turned out his destination was within about four blocks of where I was headed so we shared a taxi and exchanged email addresses — you never know when you’ll need a good lawyer. The taxi was air-conditioned, but the traffic wasn’t bad at all.

My reception was as anticipated, but now it’s after midnight and I am using my own laptop connecting to the Internet via telephone modem. I never could have imagined today’s events, so it’s a good thing I didn’t post last night’s pre-written account. “One never knows, do one?”

“Picture” by Lillian Ross

Older paperback coverOne of my goals as a narrative nonfiction writer is to make my readers to feel as if they are there, seeing the events about which I am writing. In order for that to happen, I have to evoke the readers’ interest and convey to them a sense of my reliability, letting them know that either I was there observing (and now they can watch through my eyes) or at least that I did thorough research. Lillian Ross is a master in this genre and I often try to analyze her work in search of techniques that I might employ. Her ability to capture dialogue without aid of a tape recorder is truly amazing (and something I may never be able to do as skillfully as she), but there are a few techniques I can emulate.

Get out of the way. Ross uses the words “I,” “me,” and “we” only a few dozen times throughout the entire book. Her presence is thoroughly established in the opening chapter, where we readers are most acutely aware of her presence and participation in the scenes with John Huston and Arthur Fellows at the hotel suite and restaurant outing. After that, Ross uses only the occasional I/me/we to re-orient and reassure the reader that the knowledge is first-hand.

Tell the story, without bias or judgment, as if talking to a friend. At the end of the very first paragraph, Ross clearly defines herself as an observer who wishes to learn about “the American motion-picture industry” by following the process of the making of this one particular movie. This implies the role of both student and reporter, roles that are inherently unbiased and nonjudgmental (at least they were at that time). What she doesn’t state directly, and indeed it is not necessary to state, is that what she really is interested in is not so much the industry, but the people in the industry. She never verbalizes her/our questions, but by laying out the answers, the questions are implied throughout the narrative. It is as if she is a friend telling me about this movie project, and I can hear myself saying, “You’re kidding! Then what happened?”

Juxtapose and illuminate seeming contradictions to give a fuller picture. Her choice of what to include/exclude belies her fairness and compassion. There are no moral interpretations or judgments, just the facts and enough narrative to place actions and words within a full context. Ross juxtaposes Huston’s physicality with his sensitivity, perception, and intelligence. He’s 6-foot-2 with “long arms and long hands, long legs and long feet,” he drinks hard, plays hard, lights his matches with his thumbnail, and “the bridge of his nose is bashed in.” Yet he adopted an orphaned boy and knows that 12-year-olds are more intelligent than they are given credit for, he loves the quality of the dusk light, and he sees Audie as a “little, gentle-eyes creature.”

Descriptions become sharper and more memorable with the use of contrasts and comparisons.
Ross uses contrast as a descriptive tool throughout – for example, contrast between a person’s inner and outer characteristics, and between one person and another. Similarly, she uses comparison, but it is never overt. By putting two characters/descriptions within proximity she ‘invites’ the reader to see the deeper contrast. For example, when Spiegel arrives during filming at the ranch, we see Huston, “his face blackened by smoke and his shirt and trousers stained with sweat and grime” being greeted by Spiegel who was “immaculate in brown suede shoes, orange and green Argyle socks, tan gabardine slacks…”

When many characters are involved, introduce each on his turf and include as much action as possible. Picture begins with a series of scenes, each of which introduces the main characters in appropriate locations. First John Huston in New York, then producer Gottfried Reinhardt in his office full of status details, then MGM’s production VP Dore Schary at Chasen’s Restaurant, and finally Louis B. Mayer in his huge cream-colored office. Keep up momentum and variety throughout the book. The next scenes take us around the studio lot which keeps us in motion as we continue to meet other players and discover the commissary, projection room, wardrobe, casting, and other dept offices, all the while getting back story and details about the movie process. The longest sustained scenes throughout the rest of the book tend to be the shooting scenes, but the pace is varied by the many other shorter scenes, brief conversation snippets, and reprinting of primary source materials such as memos and letters.

A little detail goes a long way. The moviemaking process can be tedious; full of retakes and long waits. To recreate the process fully yet not bore the readers, Ross compresses time without losing content. For example, she covers a few hours of rehearsal time with one single paragraph, but this conciseness is balanced with details of magnitude (“ten thousand five hundred lunchboxes would be served at a cost to Metro of $15,750—one of the smaller items in the picture’s budget”) and details of minutia (prop man asks Huston to choose which one of the three small, squealing pigs is to be stolen from the farm girl).

And last but not least, the story must be about more than the specifics – good stories address broader issues and themes. On one level this is the specific story of the making of one movie, “The Red Badge of Courage” based on the Stephen Crane novel about the Civil War, and of the individuals involved. On a second level it is about the world of movie making – we learn a bit about music scoring, recording the music to film, dubbing sound, filming, cutting/editing, and even the preview process. On a third, much broader level, the more abstract message is that the more things change, the more they stay the same…and life goes on.

Note: Da Capo Press published a 50th anniversary paperback edition of Ross’ “Picture” in June 2002.


Sunday’s New York Times piece, The Rise of the Winner-Take-All Documentary by A. O. Scott is about film, but it applies just as well to print, and to me, that’s a problem. Here’s an excerpt from the first graf and a half:

…For a screenwriter in search of third-act drama, the climactic sports showdown is a surefire winner. And also, of course, a cliché. Even in movies based on real-life sports figures and events – “Cinderella Man,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Seabiscuit” are some recent examples – the big game can feel a bit rigged. And yet, even if we know what’s coming – or, for that matter, what really happened – we can’t help succumbing to the rush of suspense and emotion that the spectacle of high-stakes, winner-take-all competition brings.

Why should documentaries be any different? Perhaps the biggest challenge in nonfiction filmmaking, as in some forms of journalism, is the shaping of cluttered, contingent experience into a coherent story. The world supplies an abundance of interesting personalities, important subjects and relevant issues, but narratives of a momentum and clarity sufficient to sustain 90 minutes’ (or $10) worth of attention are harder to come by…

Scott mentions journalism, and I draw a parallel between documentaries and narrative nonfiction. In fact, the movies “Seabiscuit” and “Friday Night Lights” were based on narrative nonfiction books of the same titles.* My problem is that I like to write about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, and more often than not, there is nothing momentous at stake. As a nonfiction writer seeking to be paid and published, I must now look for narratives of a momentum and clarity sufficient to sustain a long feature, if not a book, because interesting personalities, important subjects and relevant issues are, in and of themselves, no longer enough.

There may be those who argue that those elements never were sufficient, but the climate has changed. I am deeply disturbed by the mass appeal of reality tv where everything is a contest, even finding a spouse and landing a job. The humongous prizes add components of upward mobility for the winner, devestation or at least serious disappointment for the losers, transformation, and maybe, just maybe, some self-revelations along the way. All the narrative elements are there, the stories are true (albeit manipulated), but I don’t want to buy into the life as a winner-take-all sport.

*Note: The screenplay for the movie “Cinderella Man” appears to be original, and not based on any of the books with that title; the hardcover by Jeremy Schaap and an upcoming paperback by Michael DeLisa (an historical consultant for the movie) were based on Braddock’s life, and the paperback by Marc Cerasini was based on the screenplay.

Describing Real People

“The people will bring the places alive.” So says Bill Zinsser, author of the classic On Writing Well, Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz, Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs, and American Places, to name just a few. He said that while teaching a nonfiction writing course he calls “People & Places.” It’s been more than a few years since I sat in Zinsser’s classroom, but I remember him, and the room, quite well.

The wood strip coat racks that line two of the walls have jutting protuberances on which to hang one’s garments — some straight out like nails with super large heads, others at upward angles like single handle water faucets. They are all bare due to the temperate weather of a pleasant Fall evening. The walls appear pale gray, either because they are, or because the florescent lights overhead cast a dingy shadow on aging off-white paint. There is the faint hum of a fan; the air is dry, odorless. Zinsser is spry, trim, with glasses sporting square-ish lenses. His brow is furrowed, perhaps from editing too many student pages filled with passive and not so passive clutter. He is wearing a green striped jacket, white shirt, dark grayish-blue slacks with a brown belt, dark socks, and tennis shoes. Putting down his canvas bag with blue trim, he loosens his blue polka-dot tie to get comfortable. By way of introduction, he tells us that he’s “a fourth-generation New Yorker with roots deep in the cement.” His mother was a “mad clipper” of newspaper articles, so perhaps it should not be surprising that he always wanted to be a newspaperman at the Herald Tribune, and thought that the Herald was put out just for him. “I set out to get an education and have an interesting life,” he tells us.

It was in Zinsser’s class that I first began to really appreciate short but revealing people sketches. Here are a few descriptions, read or re-read in more recent years, that I like a lot. (If the first one sounds familiar it’s because I quoted the first sentence earlier this month.)

Mrs. Reed in Walt Harrington’s At the Heart of It: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives:

At ten in the morning, heading out the front door, Mrs. Reed is a vision of vitality in slow motion. She wears a simple blue-flowered dress and a white spots jacket, opaque stockings, white flats (she wore short heels the other day and vanity cost her a strained muscle that hurt so bad she could barely walk until she doctored herself with Ben-Gay), and a pretty turquoise beret, beneath which she tucks her short dark-gray hair.

Four of the workers in Gay Talese’s The Bridge

Cicero Mike, who once drove a Capone whiskey truck during Prohibition and recently fell to his death of a bridge near Chicago…
Indian Al Deal, who kept three women happy out West and came to the bridge each morning in a fancy silk shirt…
Riphorn Red, who used to paste twenty-dollar bills along the sides of his suitcase and who went berserk one night in a cemetery…
the Nutley Kid, who smoked long Italian cigars and chewed snuff and use toilet water and, at lunch, would drink milk and beer – without taking out the snuff…

Mrs. Clare in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood:

Her celebrity derives not from her present occupation but a previous one—dance-hall hostess, an incarnation not indicated by her appearance. She is a gaunt, trouser-wearing, woolen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-colored, gingerly-tempered woman of unrevealed age (“That’s for me to know, and you to guess”) but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration.


This public forum gives me a strange sense of connectivity; I’m having a conversation with you, but, except for a few, I don’t know who you are. That feeling takes me back thirty years to the nights when I hosted a midnight radio jazz show on WCUW, 91.3 in Worcester, MA. Save for the occassional call-in request from a fellow Clark University student, I had no idea if anyone was listening.

I suppose that is a sensation shared by writers, painters, and all creators of works presented in absentia, so to speak. Even musicians have no idea what feelings they evoke for people listening to their recordings, but at least they also get to perform for live audiences.

John Coltrane is reported* to have said:
It seems to me that the audience in listening is an act of participation, you know. And when somebody is moved as you are…it’s just like having another member of the group…the emotional reaction is all that matters.

As potentially inspiring for the creator as live performance might be, it is not something to which I aspire, for I am prone to stage fright. I vaguely remember my mother telling me about a preschool dance recital where, afraid to go on, I danced my part in the wings, and I clearly remember a few childhood piano recitals that left me quivering, if not cowering. I don’t quiver or cower too much these days, but butterflies still visit me prior to facing any live audience.

[*The Coltrane quote came from Frank Kofsky’s Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, but I read it in Neil Leonard’s Jazz: Myth and Religion (Oxford University Press, 1987).]

Milestones & Quotes

Well, this is my fiftieth post on DevraDoWrite and the end of my seventh week as a blogess. I hope you enjoy reading my posts as much as I am enjoying writing them.

Apropos of everything and nothing, but especially recent postings on the writing life, here are two quotes:

“…the power isn’t in the memory of the story; the power is in the telling of the story. The telling is what holds the moment, makes it immortal.” — Walt Harrington, The Everlasting Stream

“…the essayist-the creative nonfiction writer-must also be a thinker, a critic, and a social commentator.” — Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction

The title of chapter eight in Gutkind’s book is also a phrase worthy of contemplation: “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

P.S. I’m off to hear a wonderful trio led by bassist Ron Carter with Mulgrew Miller on piano and Russell Malone on guitar. If you live in the greater Los Angeles area, you’ve got to get to The Jazz Bakery to hear them — they’ll be there through Sunday.

Life Is What You Make Of It

As I have been wrestling with ideas for a memoir (earlier memoir musings here), I found it of particular interest when Cup of Chicha took exception to a piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer titled “Confessions of a writer who didn’t pen a memoir.” She wrote:

I have no problems with D. Parvas’s disdain for “wasted youth” memoirs (Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, Rolling Away: My Agony With Ecstasy), but I’ve a number of problems with Parvas’s plot-based prescription for the genre…
As one who reads for thoughts and language and rarely plot, I’d like to suggest that the boring and insignificant among us can sometimes write worthy memoirs, too….

Although I don’t think that anyone is boring or insignificant, I basically agree with her in that it’s not necessarily what we’ve done that is of value. Vivian Gornick may have said it best in the foreword to “Living to Tell the Tale,” by Jane Taylor McDonnell:

“…what happened to the memoirist is not what matters; it matters only what the memoirist makes of what happened.”

The rant against memoir is an old one. In October of 1997, Vanity Fair ran James Wolcott’s article titled “Me, Myself and I,” wherein he denounced the “me-first sensibility” of memoirists, calling them “navel gazers.” Of course myopically self-involved and/or insufferably solemn writers who confuse honesty with confession do exist, and I won’t be reading their words. But as Lee Gutkind points out in his own memoir Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather

there’s also an explosion of altogether brilliant nonfiction prose being written today by people who can reveal their feelings or the feelings of the people about whom they are writing while communicating compelling information and striking some sort of universal chord.

Universality seems to be the key. So what compelling information have I to share, and what universal truths can I tap? I must discover the answers to those questions before I can craft a reader-worthy tale. The memoirist’s job is “to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape the experience, transform an event, deliver wisdom” (Vivian Gornick) “such that the minutia of living becomes the meaning of life” (Walt Harrington, The Everlasting Stream).

No Man Is An Island

In Culture in the Age of Blogging (read it in Commentary), Terry Teachout writes of

…stand alone journalists,” a term that refers to self-publishing, self-supporting professional journalists who are unaffiliated with the MSM [main stream media].

He then takes the discussion beyond the blogosphere and goes on to write:

In an analogous development, professional artists have started using the web to market their wares without resort to distributors or other middlemen…

and cites Maria Schneider’s recording project via ArtistShare as an example of how it can be done.

The phrase “other middlemen” led me to think about another issue, one that, while not directly on point vis a vis the Teachout piece, is no less important. If you read my recent posting about ArtistShare then you know that I am a supporter of this business model and I love the idea of focusing on the creative process instead of the final product. I will not lose any sleep or shed any tears when distributors and rack-jobbers become obsolete — I haven’t set foot in a record store in many years and my trips to bookstores grow fewer and fewer — but I do worry about a different group of middlefolk: sound engineers, graphic artists, text editors, and others whose skills add value to an artist’s original creation. No artist should go it all alone, unassisted, although many think that they can, and therein lay my misgivings about this do-it-all-yourself-with-technology age in which we live.

A few versatile artists may be supremely talented on multiple fronts, but culture consumers beware when singers and musicians and writers start mixing their own audio, designing their own packages, and editing their own words. The idea of self-sufficiency brings with it feelings of power and control; it can be quite intoxicating, and it can save you money too. I myself am not immune to the lure, and have been giving a lot of thought as to how I might apply such a model to my own writing career. But hopefully artistic considerations will prevail over commercial concerns. Before I sign on to become my own chief cook and bottle washer, I will take a good look at my own skill set and ask myself if I am really the best one for the job. More likely than not, the answer will be “no.” Besides, technology-enabled fissiparous tendencies be damned, creativity benefits from collaboration, and I can use all the help I can get.

Serendipity and a Grazing Addendum

Okay, so last night I didn’t state the most obvious linguistic connection between writing and breathing — inspiration, derived from French inspirer and Latin in+spirare, to breathe. It’s so darned obvious that I didn’t even think about it. Then this morning, using a few free minutes as I always do to click on a blog or online journal I haven’t seen in a while (it’s just not possible to keep pace with all of them all of the time), I stopped in at Speakeasy to see the Spring issue, clicked on an essay by Jim Heynen titled Faith in My Writing and found the following (emphasis added):

“…In faith, I wait for the gift of inspiration, the gift of an idea, the gift of an insight, the gift of the right word at the right time, even the gift of clarity. To be inspired means to breathe in the spirit. I can live with that notion of openness and receptivity. With faith, I wait for the gift, for what D. H. Lawrence called the wind that blows through us.
“Like most writers, I don’t know when that breath will come. I don’t even know if it will come unpolluted, free from depleted conventions and clichés. I can’t force inspiration. I can’t determine it (though I do have my little rituals), and when it does come it is like a gift that I hope will be worthy of readers.” (read the whole piece here)

If I believed in time warps and parallel universes and other such Star Trek realities, I would think that Heynen and I had been having a conversation, or that at least he had read my last night posting. But, being the pragmatic sort, I just believe that the universe I know is sending me a message. Especially when shortly thereafter I found myself reading an article about The Twin Cities in Publishers Weekly (June 6th) and see that the number one person on a list of leaders on the literary scene there is Linda Myers, longtime executive director of the Loft Literary Center. Significance? Speakeasy is a literary culture magazine published by The Loft. When all roads lead to Rome…


I’ve been grazing on the pages of Bartlett’s Quotations and came across this from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” (an undated letter)

When I think of swimming under water, which of course necessitates holding my breath, it evokes the sensation of a long journey, pushing through resistance to get to a destination where you can once again find some air. Engaging in this activty requires perserverence plus a measure of faith that your breath will be sufficient to get you there. Writing sometimes feels that way too.

On the other hand, I think there is a correlation between holding one’s breath and keeping strong emotions (especially the bad ones) at bay. Deflecting emotions such as sadness and pain might be useful as a survival tactic, but it can also lead to lackluster life and dreadfully dull prose. Quite simply, one must recognize pain in order to appreciate joy, let alone write about either. Or, as Alfred North Whitehead put it:

“Intellect is to emotion as our clothes are to our bodies; we could not very well have civilized life without clothes, but we would be in a poor way if we had only clothes without bodies.” (Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead – ch 29, June 10, 1943)