Report from the Recent Nieman Conference
On Narrative Journalism, by Maria Stewart
My friend Maria Shine Stewart, a writer who teaches English at John Carroll University and maintains the blog Word Sanctuary Revisited, recently attended her first Nieman Narrative Journalism conference, at Harvard. We asked her to report on the experience, and she sent along this vivid dispatch.
From the window on the Sheraton’s eighteenth floor, I could see the sequined streets of Boston, the faint blue line of the Charles River, and the domed roof of the Christian Science mother church. The last discovery reassured me that I had done the right thing in leaving for a writers conference—the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism--in the middle of a busy semester. Encountering a symbol of a movement dedicated to healing made me realize how deep my need for inspiration was. When logic fails, leave it to the signs. It defies reason and pocketbook to fly away to explore “Storytelling in Many Voices, Many Media” for even a few days for someone as tied to home and classroom as I am. And we had just had one of those terrible Cleveland blizzards, with so much snow that the airport closed.
Adding flight anxiety to the list of reasons not to go, I reviewed conventional wisdom that it’s more hazardous on the ground—especially with piles of snow obscuring every turn while driving. And my coach-within reassured me that the weather would improve, my students and family would enjoy their freedom, and this conference featured first-rate speakers. Professionally, staying on the ground carries risks, too. Adjunct teachers don’t get sabbaticals; we must make our own time to recharge and reflect. Serving as muse to others is good. But can I still access my own creativity to write?
The flight was one of the most beautiful I have ever experienced: endless blue and white, sky and clouds, water and snow. And when I landed in Boston, inexplicably, I felt like I had arrived home. First Day Highlights: After resting the day I arrived, I ventured out before registration. My walk to the Boston Public Library yielded a view of the Muses on the second floor, not far from an exhibit about a long-standing free speech forum. Facing History and Ourselves program had an interactive display about telling one’s own story. I learned about a Cambodian refugee to the U.S.—Arn Chorn-Pond--whose his life and family were torn apart by the Khmer Rouge regime. Told in video and words, his story reminded me of the suffering of children of war everywhere: each perspective unique, each story universal. Beyond the library, I walked as far as my feet would take me … past a beautiful park, a historic cemetery … and would have gone further, but I needed to head back to the hotel; it was almost time for the conference to begin.
In the Welcome, Constance Hale, Nieman Center director, admitted: “Narrative journalism is an awkward Latinate expression …” More simply: Storytelling. Moving into the keynote speaker’s introduction, Hale said that John Hockenberry’s voice, as a public radio and former television journalist now serving at MIT in the Media Lab, is well known. Hockenberry shared stories from his professional life and a few private insights, too. He asserted that life in a wheelchair has added a parallel dimension to his reporting. He asked a question many of us might ask: “Where does my narrative intersect [the media narrative]?” During the first Iraq war, Hockenberry (carried by donkey) reported from perilous spots. “Reporters don’t really like to tell the back story,” he said, and reminded the group that colleges graduate three to four times as many public relations majors as journalism majors. He suggested that narratives are part of the internal culture of news organizations—influencing which stories are told and which are not.. And he offered the view that more “narratives find channels” in a multimedia environment.
The February 2008 issue of MIT’s Technology Review summarizes some of his views on mainstream media in an article titled: “You Don’t Understand Our Audience.” Hockenberry’s new public radio program The Takeaway will launch in April on PRI. I ducked out of the Q & A session when I sensed that the first questioner wanted to debate–or clarify--whether multiple narratives was the right term (used by Hockenberry) or if a word like subtext would be better. I decided to stretch before the first breakout session and buy the CD of all sessions so I would not have to agonize over which of the 38 to attend. CDs are available to others, too.
In “Putting the “I” in Writing” (about voice) magazine writer and memoirist Laura Fraser, author of “Losing It: America’s Obsession with Weight and the Industry that Feeds on It” and Mark Leibovich, national political reporter for the New York Times, talked about their work, with moderator Jeb Sharp. Fraser has had to shift voices for many audiences as a freelancer, “trying to develop my own voice while trying to be a chameleon.” She said that she only uses “I” when it sheds light on the “bigger story.” Leibovich said that he approached working at the Times with some trepidation—having worked for other papers--but that the “grand experiment” was working well so far. He stressed that, when reporting: “the situation is the star. I’m not the star.” “The Not-Dinner-Table Topics” (“race, religion, and other thorny subjects”) with Anne Hull, Alex Kotlowitz, and Marcus Mabry was moderated by Nell Lake and proceeded with professional examples of fine work. Mabry, international business editor of the New York Times (formerly with Newsweek), was raised poor and is African American and gay; he stated that this background gives him a certain “privilege” in approaching sensitive topics. He asserted that for narrative journalism “over-reporting is very important”—gathering more information than one needs, and then cutting back. Anne Hull’s comment that the topic of “gay marriage” is just as boring a topic as “marriage” drew laughter. An article she wrote about staying alive as a gay woman in the inner city required building rapport. Kotlowitz alluded to empathy as an important quality in writers—a topic he also explored in another session—but stressed that “I” has little place in the reporting he does. “If I’m in a Brooklyn deli,” he said, “channeling that subject so that their persona comes out [is the goal], not yours.” His book There Are No Children Here chronicles two young men living in housing projects; he said that he seeks out stories that otherwise might go untold.
Two words were curiously absent in these sessions: creativity and inspiration. Yet, the speakers clearly were talented people driven to explore and express. They are artists. I skipped the evening documentary sessions. Tired, I retreated to my room to write. A city view from the 18th floor is invigorating and tranquil. I got to call maintenance when the sink faucet wouldn’t stop running. (Just like home.) Kept writing.
Second Day Highlights: The first day I was surprised that attendees seemed to do little talking or networking compared to teaching and writing conferences I’d attended in the past. There seemed to be a collective retreat into cellphones and laptops at every break. The next morning I decided to seek out any friendly faces and intriguing nametags on Saturday morning and just start talking. The memorable Saturday-morning keynote “Creating an Investigative Narrative” (Walter Reed Army Medical Center) featured the teamwork of Anne Hull and Dana Priest on a story that broke in February 2007 in the Washington Post, exposing shocking conditions that some veterans must face. Priest stressed the importance of listening and patience while working on an investigative piece, gaining trust and access. She invited Hull to collaborate because she “looked like she was having more fun” as a writer. Their talk showed a complementarity that I suspect worked to their benefit. Their step-by-step description of what they did along the way is worthy of a chapter in a book on investigative journalism. Priest described the “the contrast between rhetoric and reality” of an institution like Walter Reed. “We tried to stay below the radar . . . [of] Army officials and editors alike,” she said.
My, My, Memoir: The Promise, Peril, and Peculiar Challenge of Self-Revelation, featured Marie Arana, Lou Ureneck and Ayelet Waldman and was moderated by Anne Bernays. Ureneck, author of Backcast—a memoir about a fishing trip in Alaska with his son—is chair of Boston University’s journalism department and a 30-year newspaper veteran; he said that perfecting voice is a key to a good memoir. Arana, book editor at the Washington Post, said that memoirs should follow a narrative arc. She added that a tension was at work in creating her own book, American Chica; to her Peruvian dad, privacy about one’s life is the norm, but for her American mother, openness was all right. Bernays described a memoir she knew of in which so much was deleted, it was as bland as oatmeal. “You have to write from where it hurts,” she said. Arana said that most successful memories are ones that will “teach the reader something.” Ureneck added that good life stories can be appreciated for their language. All seemed to agree that the best transport readers to another time and place. Favorites mentioned were Growing Up, October Sky, This Boy’s Life, The Duke of Deception, Fierce Attachments, One Writer’s Beginning, Borrowed Finery, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Lost in Translation.
Saturday afternoon I selected the session “Book Publishing, Soup to Nuts,” with Paul Bresnick (agent and former editor), Vanessa Mobley (senior editor, Penguin Press), Lou Ureneck (again), and Lissa Warren (publicist), skillfully led by Wendy Strothman (agent and former editor and publisher). It was a lively panel with a sample project making its way from book proposal to agent to editor to publisher to publicist. I thought I knew my fair share about book publishing--but this session focused on the marketing-oriented, strategic relationships every step of the way. More than a few in the audience had already had a book published, with varying sales. Key questions included: What am I uniquely positioned and qualified to write? Who should read it? How to market it? Ureneck mentioned the difference of being an author and a writer. He admitted that a long newspaper career did not prepare him for demands of book promotion. His own marketing has included a stand within L.L. Bean and a fishing convention. He is not afraid to take books with him on trips at his own expense to get word out. A simulated NPR interview showed him at work, plugging his memoir, Backcast.
Among the third day highlights: Early Sunday morning I continued my quest to connect with a few new faces. Soon we were ushered into keynote “Cyberintimacies/Cybersolitudes,” where Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at MIT posed questions like: “Does digital life leave us more alone or more together?” I enjoyed hearing of her research, which includes interviewing people about their relationships with technology—or, as she prefers to put it, “devices.” She startled us with the possibility that robots might one day take on roles of watching the very young and the elderly if we’re not mindful. She cautions against exposing children to computers at the expense of human interaction. I asked a question about what she thought of the ability of cyberspace to free inhibitions of people so much at times—even into rage. Her response took into account the question: what serves the common good, plus a reminder that in face-to-face interactions, there are consequences to pushing boundaries or aggression too far.
The last keynote was by Sam Pollard, professor and documentary maker, on “The Storytelling Impulse, from Shakespeare to Spike Lee.” Pollard revealed that he draws inspiration from reading and summarized his process of gathering over 100 interviews of people touched by Katrina, using no narrator or narrative in telling their stories but rather piecing together their words with powerful images and music. The excerpts he showed of When the Levees Broke were moving, a reminder that storytelling is also sharing history. Pollard is a warm speaker, one able to make you feel like he is speaking just to you in a crowded ballroom. The shortest farewell I’ve heard at a conference followed his talk; Constance Hale wrapped it up, simply saying: “Let’s get back to work.” Yes.
Before heading to the airport, I went into the Christian Science church for a quick glance beneath the dome and then to the Mary Baker Eddy library (regrettably, closed). But I did see letters swirling on the floor of the lobby. I was happy to see a dance of words, a play of light, just as I was about to depart this place of inspiration.