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Narrative writing in a Twitter world: Part II

Joel Achenbach recently wrote a piece for the Post's Style section about the survival of long-form narrative writing in our time-starved era of short attention spans; he called it The Vestigial Tale.

Story Lab team member Brigid Schulte wanted to know more. In this second part of their conversation, Joel asks Brigid how narrative writing can he sustained in a time when fewer and fewer writers are being paid for their work:

Brigid: Hi Joel, I don't know the answer to that. I certainly hope there will still be room for people to make it their life's work to tell stories. I know stories--even if they're around the watercooler at work, around a fire at a party, on a camping trip, in emails or in our chatter on the phone - are simply the way human beings have always tried to make sense of their world. So, story, I have no doubt, will survive in some form. Professional storytellers? We'll have to see, right? Like you quoted Sims, "This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it's expensive."

What about Gary Smith? You opened your piece with him sitting at his teak picnic table in Charleston, S.C. with a view of fruit trees in his backyard, writing four 8,000-word pieces for Sports Illustrated a year. (Nice work if you can get it.) How did you find him? (I like how he talked about the net being almost like the remote - you click, you scan, you move around, you digest snippets. But but you still want movies, right? Long, involved, moving stories that will so utterly take you into another world, you don't notice 90 minutes or two hours passing.)

Joel:Brigid: I once met Gary Smith in Miami, along with journalist Cal Fussman, who knew our friend and colleague Jeff Leen. I dimly recall we had dinner on Miami Beach, but it all fades into Pleistocene fog. I don't remember what Gary was working on, but I do remember that Cal was writing some kind of big think piece on Miami, and that his editor -- Terry McDonnell, maybe? -- kept telling him, "Cal, Cal, Cal: You need to swim in the deeper water." That stuck with me all these years.

030626_SN_GarySmith.jpgGary Smith has a tremendous piece on Native American basketball players in the anthology "The Art of Fact." It's called "Shadow of a Nation" and appeared in SI in 1991. I used that piece in a course I taught some years ago. And so naturally, in thinking about narrative journalism, I called up Gary and got his input. He is, like you, optimistic about narrative surviving in some form or other, but just doesn't think it works on the computer screen. That's an argument for the survival of print, or at least of some medium that isn't link-based and doesn't offer you, as a reader, endless opportunities to get off track or have a conversation or dive down a wormhole into an alternative narrative. (FYI, I turn off all the various IM-type software on my laptop because I don't really want that open door that allows someone to barge in at any moment. But then I'm a deranged loner, so never mind.)

Best,
Joel
The conversation continues tomorrow right here in the Lab.

By Brigid Schulte  | December 9, 2009; 10:22 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

I often feel like the only great narrative writing I'm reading lately is sports journalism. Could it be because only sports writers are allowed to anymore?

Anyway, here because JA mentioned Story Lab on the A-blog. Good to see the editors query returning (mentioned above) and I'll check in now and again to see if this blog has legs.

Posted by: frostbitten1 | December 9, 2009 8:51 PM | Report abuse

I think narrative is part of the human condition. We need stories to help us to explain, organize and obfuscate what we see and experience around us. (Did I use obfuscate correctly? Some things we'd rather hide.) Stories and the ability to tell them, the need for them are what separate us from the animal species of the planet. Its all about the ability to be abstract.

Note: the above is a frequently pondered but not scientific thought.

Leave the journalists explore the art of writing. Publishers? Let's send publishers back to school to figure out how to get the content profitable.

Posted by: --dr-- | December 9, 2009 11:24 PM | Report abuse

I am pleased that Joel recommended this blog. It certainly deals with a topic that I am keenly interested in.

I work in a part of the executive branch that attempts to make sense out of the world. As a result, we often feel a sense of kinship with journalists and the challenges they face. And in the training that we take, special emphasis is given to the power and danger of "The Narrative."

Creating the coherence and internal consistency that characterizes a successful interpretation of facts is, essentially, story telling. Just as those in the world of journalism must resist the desire for terse summaries, so too must we in the government. Busy and important policy makers, the argument goes, don't have time for so many words. But this, of course, is a mistake.

For when abstract facts are embedded in a compelling narrative they suddenly make much more sense. Causal relationships and common themes are revealed. Further, we respond to a good story on a very primal level. Stories move us in a way that a cold and disjointed presentation of "key points" simply cannot.

But here's the danger. Facts and data can always be interpreted in many different ways. Because there are so many ways to interpret reality, there is a profound temptation to abuse the power of the narrative. The story that is told can sometimes be the one that the writer finds most interesting or, perhaps, the one that the writer knows the reader will find pleasing. Resisting these biases and subtle (and sometimes not subtle) influences is crucial to prevent slipping into propaganda or spin.

All of which means that sometimes the real challenge is not telling a good story as much as determining which story to tell.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | December 10, 2009 8:40 AM | Report abuse

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