Pale Wire (Popscene)

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Feel Good Inc.

After pulling an all-nighter at Steak and Shake, today I finished up The New New Journalism, a collection of interviews with 19 of America's top long-form journalists conducted by Robert Boynton.

This isn't an anthology. And it isn't for a general audience. But it should feel like God's gift to any would-be writer. Boynton digs underneath his subjects' fingernails, asking each author to answer a series of questions seeking the dirty details of how they do what they do.

Boynton does an admirable job exploring the what of New Journalism (or Literary Journalism or Narrative Non-Fiction or whatever you want to call it) in his introduction. But it's in the how that his book shines.

Need to know who inspires Alex Kotlowitz? Ever wonder how William Langewiesche starts his day? Curious what sort of notepad Richard Ben Kramer uses? Like to know when Richard Preston knows he's done reporting? Desperate to find out where Susan Orlean gets her story ideas? If so, this is the book for you, my friend.

And if, like most writers, you suffer from a deep-seated insecurity, the voices in this book should also provide a little reassurance.

Leon Dash, author of Rosa Lee and winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Writing is always painful and slow. I always need the help of a good editor.

William Finnegan, longtime New Yorker writer and author of Crossing the Line and Cold New World.
Reporting can be lonely, boring, depressing. But writing is definitely harder.

Jonathan Harr, author of A Civil Action
I have a very well-developed self-censoring mechanism, which has proven to be a great impediment, sort of like being a fat marathoner. I choose a word and immediately think, “No, that’s wrong.” I rework a sentence endlessly to make it clear, to make it flow. I spend hours on a sentence, or days on a paragraph. I go back every day and make changes, which makes me feel like I’ve done something that day.

I make myself write only when I’m forced to by the panic of imminent failure. I write when I know that I’ll fail if I don’t get it done by a certain point, and that all of the work I’ve done up until that point will be lost. Panic is the great motivator.
Jon Krakauer author of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild
I am not a good writer. … The first sentence is agony, and I rewrite the goddamn first sentence from the beginning every single day for weeks.

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family
I love reporting and I dread writing…I obsess over the first paragraph for days.
Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball
When I start writing, I always have the horrible feeling that I’m doing it for the first time. It never feels easier than it was before. I’ve always written with the feeling that I’m under some kind of onerous deadline.

Susan Orlean, New Yorker writer and author of The Orchid Thief
When I sit down, I always feel that I don’t have anything to write.

Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event
Writing is far more difficult than reporting…I do have a regular method, but it is painful, if not chaotic. I’m not proud of it. It seems to work, but I hate it….I begin by writing a lead, which I can spend weeks on. At first, it is too complicated, wooden, dull, windy, aimless. There have been times when I’ve rewritten a lead anywhere from thirty to forty times. I write the lead and throw it out. I write a slightly longer lead and throw that out. Eventually I decide it sucks and move on to the middle phase of the piece…(When I finish a draft) I print the whole thing out and read it. I’ve usually convinced myself it’s more polished than it really is. So it’s quite a shock when I finally read it on paper. I think, “Oh my god! I have no talent. I must have had a silent stroke, I’ve lost my ability with words. I’m a fraud! Just look at this stuff.” My first drafts are terrible, and I don’t show them to anybody—especially not my editors. When I have shown my drafts to editors, they tend to panic.