Sunday
Oct192014

Chickens

Deb Olin Unferth in the November Harper's:

In nature chickens live in smallish groups in overlapping territories. They have complicated cliques and can recognize more than a hundred other chicken faces, even after months of separation. They recognize human faces too. They have distinct voices and talk among themselves, even before they hatch. A hen talks to her eggs and the embryos answer, peeping and twittering through the shells. Adult chickens have at least thirty different categories of conversation, centered around, to name a few, mating, eating, nesting, rearing, and warning, each with its own web of coos and calls and clucks.

According to the animal-studies professor Annie Potts, hens all have different dispositions. They have best friends and rivals. They are surprisingly curious. They play and bathe in the dust. A flock of chickens in nature resembles a lively village, with the males crowing and dancing around the females in courtship, the young ones sparring, most of them climbing into the trees at night to sleep.

Their eyes are especially ingenious. Human eyes work together and focus on one location but chickens' eyes work separately and have multiple objects of focus. A hen can look at a morsel on the ground with one eye and scan the area for predators with the other. When you see a hen cocking her head at you at different angles, she is getting a series of snapshots from different perspectives, studying you. If you study her back, she'll step closer and sit next to you. When I sit in a barn with a flock of hens, they come right over to me, hop up on my stool, poke at my pen, look into my face.

Sunday
Oct192014

Telling True Stories

29 things I underlined re-reading the 2007 book edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call:

1. Jacqui Banaszynski: I think that stories make us human. Only by telling them do we stay so.

2. Gay Talese: Curiosity is the beginning. That's not something we are going to get from the Columbia School of Journalism or the University of Missouri.

3. David Halberstam: Print journalists have to better than they used to be. With network television, cable television, the Internet, and even video games, it's tougher to compete for people's time. There are more and more sources of information out there, and they demand less and less intellectual energy. People work harder; they have less time. When I started as a journalist, 52 years ago, I operated in an age with a single-income middle class. Now it's a two-income middle class. The writer must get better and better, become a better storyteller.

4. Katherine Boo: We often talk about story-making as a two-part process: reporting and writing. This leaves out the third part: thinking.

5. Lane DeGregory: What's the big idea? I ask myself this because my editor always does.

6. Isabel Wilkerson: In journalism school, no one called the interactions between journalists and sources relationships, but that's what they are.

7. Anne Hull: Observation, the art of watching, is one of the most underrated elements of reporting, especially in newspaper journalism. The natural impulse is to ask questions. Sometimes that is wrong. It makes the reporter the focus of attention. Be humble. It honors the person you're trying to observe. Think like a photographer. Watch. Change location.

8. Tracy Kidder: I try to write down all the visible, tactile, smellable facts as well as what I hear.

9. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: Moments of enlightenment take time. People need time -- lots of time.

10. Jacqui Banaszynski: Your job as an interviewer is to turn the subject into a storyteller.

11. Alex Tizon: Every story has a protagonist who wants something, and must work through a series of obstacles to obtain it. Every good story, and every great profile, is a quest. The quest can be simple: to escape boredom, to get the girl, to win the money, to redeem oneself, to avenge something.

12. Katherine Boo: The best narrative isn't soft, and the best investigative reporting isn't only steel-plated facts.

13. Nora Ephron: Structure is the key to narrative.

14. Kelley Benham: Looking back at the stories I especially admired while growing up, I'm struck by how sparsely and carefully writers like Rick Bragg used quotes and dialogue. That's my first rule about including a subject's exact words: Do it sparingly. Using fewer quotes makes me a more disciplined and thoughtful writer. It forces me to think harder about my job and take better control of the story.

15. Jon Franklin: Good stories show how people survive.

16. Nicholas Lemann: The marriage of narrative and analysis is the fundamental project of journalism. Once you get past the realm of the purely entertaining or sensational, nearly all journalism is a promise to explain the world via narrative. Stories and characters have a powerful hold on the human mind. We translate the world into narrative form. That is why story, rather than datum, is the basic unit of journalism.

17. Bruce DeSilva: Readers devour narratives to discover how the problem will be resolved. Once they know, they stop reading -- so you had better stop writing.

18. Jon Franklin: Description alone isn't helpful. A reporter who doesn't understand a subject has no way of knowing what the details of the surroundings mean. To put it another way, information that explains motive goes into the piece. Everything else stays out.

19. Mark Kramer: Start your scenes at the last possible instant, cutting out all actions tangential to the main point, and end them as soon after the action as possible.

20. Tom French: Even in daily newspaper stories, I don't think about a lede, I think about an opening section. It is not useful to think about just your first paragraph, because you don't want the reader to stop at the end of it. The entire opening section must offer an experience that propels the reader forward through your story. Whatever you convey, it will be pointless unless the reader stays with you to the end. To make that happen, your story must get better as it goes. Open with something good. Build toward something even better.

21. Louise Kiernan: ... perhaps I do know how to answer that question about whether I am a features, investigative, or explanatory reporter: "Yes."

22. Walt Harrington: It is impossible to go intimately into people's lives without having to wrestle with what should be revealed.

23. Isabel Wilkerson: Authenticity comes from long conversations and then playing back to the person what you think you just heard.

24. Mark Kramer and Wendy Call: A great editor is a rare gift.

25. Anne Hull: Thinking is the most underused skill in the newsroom.

26. Tom French: The three most beautiful words in the English language are not "I love you" but "To be continued."

27. Jack Hart: Is there a protagonist? Is there a complication? Is there a sequence of events that leads to some kind of dramatic tension? Is that tension resolved? When the answer is no, we don't force it. It is better to publish no narrative writing than bad examples of it.

28. Lane DeGregory: Too much is written about people whose dreams come true. People facing failure or setbacks are far more fascinating. The tension is built into the story: Where do they go from here? How have the crises changed their lives?

29. Louise Kiernan: ... one important tactic is to report before you report.

Saturday
Oct182014

The age in which we live

A sentence in the Danielle Sacks piece on Bonin Bough in the November Fast Company:

Participating in the culture is like trying to hold on to the side of an ever-accelerating runaway train while making sure that everyone you pass remembers your name. It's not easy.

Saturday
Oct182014

Anthony Bourdain in Fast Company

"If you work hard at your job and do it well, even if it's a shit job, there is some kind of satisfaction in that, whether you're stacking plates, chopping vegetables, or just setting out a plate of food. There's this magnificent moment before a plate goes out to the dining room, for instance, when you know, and it's just for you. You think, Hmm, that's a pretty good fucking plate. And then it's gone." Click.

Thursday
Oct162014

Catching up on the New Yorker

Nick Paumgarten on GoPro in the Sept. 22 issue:

When the agony of missing the shot trumps the joy of the experience worth shooting, the adventure athlete (climber, surfer, extreme skier) reveals himself to be something else: a filmmaker, a brand, a vessel for the creation of content. He used to just do the thing—plan the killer trip or trick and then complete it, with panache. Maybe a photographer or film crew tagged along, and afterward there'd be a slide show at community centers and high-school gyms, or an article in a magazine. Now the purpose of the trip or trick is the record of it. Life is footage.

Friday
Sep262014

Tom Verducci on Derek Jeter

This paragraph in this week's SI in his cover story on "the most familiar player there ever was":

Jeter played his first game in 1995, two years after the Web browser was introduced; he won his first championship in '96, the year of the first high-definition boradcast; he was named to his first All-Star Game in '98, the year Google was founded; he was third in the American League MVP voting in '99, the year the commercial camera phone was introduced; he won the World Series MVP in 2000, as the Yankees began to form the YES Network; he notched his 2,000th hit in 2006, the first season with TMZ and Twitter.

Friday
Sep262014

Timely reminder from Jad Abumrad

"What is important is that you don't shut uncertainty down because it's uncomfortable. There is a place to stand between the idealism in your mind and the realism of the world you live in. Most people alive to doing new things are somehow able to stand in that gap. It's a place with a lot of doubt. Somehow you have to live in the real world or your dreams become dangerous and disengaged. At the same time, you have to follow your dreams or the real world becomes depressing." Click.

Sunday
Sep142014

Walter Mischel on his secret

"It's to keep living in a way one wants to live and work; to distract constructively; to distract in ways that are in themselves satisfying; to do things that are intrinsically gratifying." Click.