Long Narrative Articles

DevraDoWrite readers may remember the name Thomas French, a masterful narrative writer I admire. (Disclosure: he was my mentor in the Creative Nonfiction masters degree program at Goucher College.) I am delighted to find that OGIC over at About Last Night has recommended one of Tom’s long articles “Elegy For The King And Queen.” This is actually a short piece in the world of Tom French and was a precursor to his 9-part Zoo Story series that ran in December 2007.

(Maybe you already read “Zoo Story” as I mentioned it in my March 11th post Multimedia Enhanced Reporting)

One of Tom’s earlier series, “Angels and Demons,” chronicling the murder of an Ohio woman and her two teenage daughters on vacation in Tampa Bay, won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1998.

The online version of these narratives afford the inclusion of extensive audio and video extras, including interviews and commentaries from reporters and participants as well as many more photographs than ever get to run on newsprint. As a reader I love the extra photos and added perspectives, tho as a writer I sometimes chastise myself for this pleasure thinking that the idea of “a picture paints a thousand words” might encourage lazy writing — on my part, not in Tom’s case!

Other narratives by Tom include

    The Hard Road“, reports the case of an elementary schoolteacher involved in a hit-and-run accident.
    The Exorcist in Love” is a story about a mother of five investigating the paranormal.
    South of Heaven,” a 1991 series about a year with students at Largo High School, also became a book bearing the same title.

Sadly, this type of long-form narrative journalism, which was already a rarity in newsrooms across the country, is now being deemed economically unsustainable. Tom is no longer at the St Pete Times, but he is one of he lucky ones — lucky for him, and for us. As noted above, several of his serials found their way to full-length books, and such is the case for Zoo Story, slated for release later this year. Meanwhile, students at the Indiana University School of Journalism are also very lucky as Tom has joined their faculty.

Multimedia Enhanced Reporting

While I much lament what I feel is the demise of essential elements of journalism – shoe-leather and insightful reporting – I will not lament the loss of physical newspapers, should that eventuality come to pass. I remember my grandfather showing me how to fold The New York Times so as to manage the size and page turns, but I never learned to like the feel of newsprint nor the ink it left on my hands.

What I am enjoying these days is the online incarnation of some newspapers, particularly those that employ multimedia and narrative writing. One of my mentors, Tom French, has done several huge serial reports for the St Petersburg Times*, but the one-off stories such as the March 8th New York Times article Riding The Rails are just as inspiring and more easily consumable when pressed for time. rr_crossing_outside-boulder-co.jpgThis piece is an interesting short-form narrative, well-reported with occasional first-person interjections for that being-there-with-you feel. The multimedia portion includes images of the amazing landscapes seen while rolling across country and short video clips that allow us to meet some fellow travelers. Is it really just coincidental that only a few days ago I spoke of wanting to travel cross country by train?

* Series by Tom include A Cry in the Night and Zoo Story
zoostory.jpg tf_cry.jpg

Of course multimedia need not be reserved only for narratives. It is not surprising that art reviews are greatly enchanced by visuals. I still refer friends to the slides accompanying a review of Calder works at the Whitney — Calder at Play: Finding Whimsy in Simple Wire (October 2008).

More recently a March 5th New York Times article “The Unheralded Pieces in the American Puzzle” caught my attention, perhaps because last weekend I went to The Getty Museum for the first time in eons and found myself wondering how I might manage to visit there much more often (but that rumination is for another blog post). While the slides with this particular article are fewer and less intriguing to me than those of Calder, I did “discover” artists unfamiliar to me. My favorite is slide number 5, a 1911 painting by George Bellows titled “New York” with this description: “crowded with buildings, vehicles and people in the street, it is thought to depict Union Square in the snow, slightly reimagined and looking west toward the Sixth Avenue El.” ny_bellows.jpgApparently Bellows died young (age 42). His wikipedia entry says “Bellows’ urban New York scenes depicted the crudity and chaos of working-class people and neighborhoods, and also satirized the upper classes.” Had he been of our generations, I wonder what his canvases would portray of life today.

Can jazz save the planet?

Bill Strickland does not play a musical instrument but Dizzy Gillespie called him “one hell of a jazz musician.” Bill is the founder of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, and he has had 40 years of success leading a jazz life without playing a single note. The conversation with Dizzy took place almost 20 years ago. Bill had just taken Dizzy on a tour of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and when Bill looked puzzled, Dizzy explained. “This place is your instrument, man, and everything that happens here is your song.” Bill did not fully understand Dizzy’s meaning at that time, but as the years passed the words took on greater resonance and meaning.

In his new book, MAKE THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE: One Man’s Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary by Bill Strickland with Vince Rause (Doubleday/Currency; December 31, 2007; $23.95) Bill shows us that a successful life is not something you simply pursue; it is something you create, moment by moment….just like jazz. He speaks of the power of the arts to connect people from all walks of life and “the transformative power that comes when your work and skill and imagination result in the creation of a beautiful thing,” but his message goes beyond the literal making of music. He defines personal and professional success as “something you assemble from components you discover in your soul and your imagination” and explains life as an ongoing improvisation. “We all need to have the vision and flexibility to react, recover, and keep moving forward every time life hits a snag or throws us an unexpected curve. It is the way we respond to these improvisational demands — embrace them, and use them to further our lives — that defines us as musicians in touch with the melodies and harmonies of life.”

It was 1986 when the beautiful oasis in one of Pittsburgh’s toughest inner-city neighborhoods was built to house the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. In 1987 Bill hired Marty Ashby to head up the jazz program shortly after adding the world-class 350-seat concert hall; the stage of which has been graced by the jazz elite including Dizzy Gillespie, Dr. Billy Taylor, Marian McPartland, Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal, Jim Hall, Max Roach to name just a few. After the first season with rented pianos, it was Ahmad Jamal who accompanied Bill and Marty to the Steinway showroom in New York and personally picked out a 9-ft grand piano for them to buy. And it was in this environment where risks and creativity are nurtured that Pittsburgh-born bassist Ray Brown first conceived and tested his “superbass” program, an evening of music with three bassists — Ray with John Clayton and Christian McBride — and no additional accompaniment, that was later presented in concert halls and clubs around the world.

The MCG Jazz record label has released 20 CDs nationally and internationally and won four Grammy awards out of seven nominations. Today the jazz program, with its $1.2 million annual budget, presents a series of 40 concerts and hosts 20 additional educational activities, including master classes for high school and college musicians and lecture demonstrations for jazz enthusiasts of all ages. But the most exciting program might well be the hosting all 2,300 third graders in the Pittsburgh Public Schools – over three days they are exposed to short performances by local jazz educators, with audience participation components and a child-focused structure that provides a unique and successful formula for a memorable and meaningful introductory jazz music experience.

Bill did not accomplish all of this by himself, but he is the Maestro. He is a three-time Harvard Business School case study, a MacArthur Genius Award winner, has lectured at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and has served on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts. Over the last forty years Bill’s improvisations have changed the lives of thousands of disadvantaged urban teens, displaced steel-workers and welfare mothers with his world class arts centers and high level career training programs. Bill’s songs have become “standards” and other leaders across the country have begun to compose their own riffs. Today, similar centers have taken root in Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, and San Francisco with plans already in progress to open additional centers in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Columbus and Cleveland.

Bill’s jazz-based approach to life has been beneficial. As he told the business students at Harvard, “in the process, jazz has enriched the culture of our school, enhanced our reputation, and earned us new allies and a level of recognition that has opened the doors to unexpected opportunities for growth.” But beyond the application of his philosophy to the business world, Bill has a message for all of us: Jazz is a state of mind in which possibilities for innovation and discovery are revealed to you, and you are able to tap into deep reserves of commitment and passion. And by that definition, properly applied, jazz can change the planet.

ps. here’s what John had to say about the book:

First as a bassist and then as a personal manager, I have lived a jazz life for the better part of my 95 years, but it was not until I read Bill’s book that I truly understood the influence that jazz has had on my success. I traded my bass for the manager’s desk and have been privileged to work behind the scenes. I never regretted my choices and now I know why. Kudos to Bill who has not only put into words what I have always felt in my heart, but who has laid out a path that others can follow. – John Levy, NEA Jazz Master, manager of Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Joe Williams, Nancy Wilson, and many others.

I’ve Got Mail

Just heard from long-time friend Dick McGarvin. You may know him as a drummer and/or radio deejay. He refers to himself in this email as a bloggee, as in reader of my blog, me being the bloggER. He was writing to say that even though my posts are sporadic these days, he continues to check in– for which I thank him mightily, as I do Bill Crow who recently chimed in with a comment, and you too, whoever you are reading this now. Dick went on to say:

Anyway, what prompted me to write now was this from your blog:

I face many challenges in writing the Luther Henderson biography not the least of which wll be how to make the reader understand just what it is that a musical arranger does, where the lines between arranging and composing blur, and why these people are seemingly invisible when their role is so crucial to the success of the people we all recognize as stars.

It reminded me of a quote I like. Composer/Arranger John LaBarbera said, “Arranging is composing without the royalties.” If you go to his website and click on ‘Arranging’, you’ll see it’s listed first in his ‘Arranging Tips’.

Thanks, Dick. LaBarbera has provided a treasure chest full of little gems. (And while I am not prone to liking movies and such on home pages, I really like the animation on his front page.)

I mentioned Bill Crow’s comment above. If you didn’t see it, he was writing to tell us about Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz and Literature and I must say it looks fascinating. It comes out twice a year ($12 for 1 year) and the journal is also available at Barnes and Noble or Borders Bookstores. They don’t share any excerpts online but they do post a list of books from which pieces that were originally published in the journal. Definately worth a stop at the bookstore! Thanks, Bill.

Exploring Subcultures

I feel very privileged to be friends with so many talented people, many who are actually renowned in the fields of my two primary interests – jazz and non-fiction writing. The other day I mentioned author/mentor Marita Golden, and today I received news from another guru/writing mentor/friend named Lee Gutkind.

Some years ago, James Wolcott, in one of his writings for Vanity Fair, dubbed Lee “the Godfather behind Creative Nonfiction.” It was not intended to be a compliment, but Lee has made good use of the title ever since, founding the Creative Nonfiction Foundation that publishes a journal of excellent writings, and also directing the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers’ Conference, all while continuing to write amazing books that immerse readers in worlds they are unlikely to encounter otherwise — the world of heart transplantation, veterinary medicine, psychiatric institutions, to name a few, and now the world of robotics. Here’s he promo blurb on his latest book titled “Almost Human: Making Robots Think”:

The high bay at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University is alive and hyper night and day with the likes of Hyperion, which traversed the Antarctic, and Zoe, the world’s first robot scientist, now back home. Robot Segways learn to play soccer, while other robots go on treasure hunts or are destined for hospitals and museums. Dozens of cavorting mechanical creatures, along with tangles of wire, tools, and computer innards are scattered haphazardly. All of these zipping and zooming gizmos are controlled by disheveled young men sitting on the floor, folding chairs, or tool cases, or huddled over laptops squinting into displays with manic intensity. Award-winning author Lee Gutkind immersed himself in this frenzied subculture, following these young roboticists and their bold conceptual machines from Pittsburgh to NASA and to the most barren and arid desert on earth. He makes intelligible their discoveries and stumbling points in this lively behind-the-scenes work.
(For more information on Almost Human: Making Robots Think, visit the official website.)

When I am dreaming up book ideas, usually I am either intrigued by a desire to learn about a world unknown to me, or driven by a desire to show a particular world to others. As a reader, I love books that bring me into a new world, or show me sides of a world I thought I knew, in ways that allow me to identify with the people and or circumstances. I face many challenges in writing the Luther Henderson biography not the least of which wll be how to make the reader understand just what it is that a musical arranger does, where the lines between arranging and composing blur, and why these people are seemingly invisible when their role is so crucial to the success of the people we all recognize as stars.

Lee Gutkind, John McPhee, Tracy Kidder — to name just three — they are all masters of this craft known by many names: creative nonfiction, immersion journalism, narrative nonfiction. Wednesday, March 21 you can hear Lee Gutkind on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.” To find the stations nearest you that carry this program, go here.

Lee’s schedule includes a bunch up upcoming live appearances in and around Arizona, far closer to me than the Pittsburgh home of the journal, but I’m up to my eyeballs writing, so rather than travel I’ll have to make do with listening to him on the radio. In my neighborhood “Talk of the Nation” airs from 8-10 PM, but I’m also hoping that NPR will post the show online afterwards as they do with so many of their programs.

Love Me, Love My Mess

I was in New York City last week for the annual jazz educators conference and NEA Jazz Masters events. It was a busy busy few days, and now I need a vacation, but alas it’s not yet in the cards for me. Meanwhile, I received this tip from a reader:

Wondering if you saw the review in the Sunday (Jan. 7) L.A. Times that immediately made me think about your recent poem submission!!!

The book is called “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder” by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman.

It took me awhile to find the piece in question. Being in a hurry as usual, I jumped immediately to Sunday’s book section online and couldn’t find the review. Maybe my tipster meant The New York Times I thought, having been there this past weekend. Nope, not there either. I tried a search; nada. Back to the Los Angeles Times where a search for “A Perfect Mess” yielded nothing.

Duh! If I would slow down enough to read carefully, thoughtfully, I might have noticed the detail — “Jan. 7” — albeit in parentheses. Still, it took many more mouse clicks to find it, and that’s because it was not a feature book review, but just a squib in the brief reviews. Here’s what Susan Salter Reynolds wrote in her Discoveries column:

A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder
Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman
Little, Brown: 336 pp. $25.99

Good news! Organization is overrated. Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman offer studies and interviews revealing the tyranny of organizing, our unwarranted guilt about messes, the beauty of mess and how suited it is to the way the mind works. (“Our brains evolved to function in a messy world, and … when we insist on thinking in neat, orderly ways we’re really holding our minds back from doing what they do best.”) Einstein’s desk at Princeton was an example of “stupendous disarray.” Desk mess seems to grow with education, salary and experience. Whereas neatness “whittle[s] away at … quantity and diversity,” messiness “comfortably tolerate[s] an exhaustive array of … entities.” There are chapters on the history of mess (starting with efforts to control nature), our fear of domestic mess, the need for messiness in city planning and the Seven Highly Overrated Habits of Time Management. The authors rely heavily on data and methods of the burgeoning and amusing organization industry, including the National Assn. of Professional Organizers. Their book is thought-provoking, well-organized, badly needed.

Wish I had time to read it; sounds like good news, indeed.

In Context

“Such things…as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or a lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind — what else is there? What else do we need?”
–Edward Abbey

I saw this quotation in a magazine. Curious about the source, I turned to Google and found it. It’s from Desert Solitaire (1968). What I also found is the preceeding sentence.

“For my own part, I am pleased enough with surfaces — in fact, they seem to me to be of much importance. Such things, for example, as the grasp of a child’s hand …”

When I read the lines in the magazine, surfaces were the farthest thing from my mind. My brain connected the word surface to superficial and unimportant, completely contradictory to the thoughts evoked by images of sunlight and music and the grasp of a child’s hand. Now, even more context was required for proper understanding. Desert Solitaire is a narrative nonfiction book about Abbey’s experiences as a park ranger in Utah, and in nature, as in all art, surfaces are indeed beautiful. How pleasant to have my synapses redirected on a more positive pathway.

Animal World

I picked up a brand new book that I’m anxious to read, but priorities for existing projects are trumping my desires so it may be a while before I get to dig into “Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life Lessons at the World’s Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers” by Amy Sutherland. Who knew that California’s Moorpark Community College trained animal trainers? Well, I guess Ms. Sutherland knew. She spent a year following around the students and, I imagine, the animals. A blurb on the back says “Sutherland introduces us to the controlled chaos of a training zoo, wherein students and beats strive to maniupulate eah other.” These are the kind of books I love, narrative nonfiction — true storytelling — that give you a look inside a world you never knew existed.

I’ve Got Mail: Narratives, Full Circle

I received an email today from Carl Abernathy, proprietor of Cahl’s Juke Joint: A rock, blues and jazz blog that features reviews and meditations on an eclectic mix of music. When I first discovered Carl’s blog I remembered being intrigued right away that someone so into music and with such diverse musical tastes would list books by John McPhee and Tracy Kidder among his favorites — both authors are masters of the narrative nonfiction genre — but I had forgotten that Carl works days as a college newspaper adviser. Guess I’m not the only one to mix passions for music and narrative tales. Carl writes:

I like the Nieman narrative writing site, too. I’ve been using bits and pieces from some of the stories in seminars.

A few weeks ago, one of my former students sent me a link to another site that features narrative writing: http://www.gangrey.com/

I don’t like all of the work featured on the site, but it’s a nice resource, too.

Gangrey, “Prolonging the slow death of newspapers,” is a blog with postings by Ben that contain links to stories in various newspapers. As Carl said, some are better than others, but it’s a great way to serendipitously sample the fare in papers around the country. Thanks, Carl.

Most blogs have an About Me link, but no such link for Ben on Gangrey. I did find a link, however, referring to a story on which he had been working, a story, it turns out, that he wrote for the St. Petersburg Times Online/Tampa Bay. I couldn’t tell if he was on staff or a freelancer, but now that I had his full name, Ben Montgomery, I googled him. Guess where his bio blurb showed up! On Neiman’s Narrative Digest. And that brings us full circle to my post from yesterday that precipitated Carl’s email.

Neiman’s Narrative Web Site

The Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University has launched a new web site called Narrative Digest. While the site does feature lots of craft advice, definitions, bibliographies and such, anyone who enjoys reading true stories should check out the Notable Narratives section that contains links to some wonderfully written series running in various newspapers around the country. One of the most powerful of these stories is a 22-part series (“Through Hell and High Water“) running in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution describing “the saga of two hospitals and their staffs’ struggles to keep their patients alive after Hurricane Katrina.” In this month’s edition, the featured Notable Narrative is A Father’s Pain, a Judge’s Duty and a Justice Beyond Their Reach” — this is an article that I remember it vividly today, even though it ran in the Los Angeles Times five years ago. In addition to the article, you can also read an essay by the author, Why We Should Care: Writing well about endangered kids.”