Archive for February, 2009

Janet Flanner and writing with details

February 26, 2009

Janet Flanner writes with a breathless, declarative certainty that would be hard to emulate. But her accumulation of details and her organizational approach are well worth emulating.

The details come from reporting. She read everything she could find, including 500,000 words of Mein Kampf, and ended up with just a paragraph (but what a paragraph!) describing it. She covers all the big generalizations about the man in detail. Why is he a vegetarian? Is he homsexual? Was he genitally wounded? Who are his friends? What does he wear? How does he live? What is his taste? What is the protocol of the Hitler salute? She looks at his school boy drawings and judges them. The details pile up and up. That’s what you’re looking for in your own writing.

Sometimes a detail that seems trivial can open up a world of emotions. Hemingway once observed of a World War II battlefield that he was surprised at how much paper there was. Buildings full of records had been blown up, and the papers were scattered everywhere. That detail has stuck in my mind for many years. It said something about how war blows up the mundane work of life, and subtly suggests that the lives of human beings can be scattered and torn up like so much paper. 

As you’re writing your piece, see what details you can bring into the writing. The big ones, of course, need to be included. But also see what you can do to pile up the little details. For example, that depressed football player who wants to drink himself to death. He keeps his beer in the trunk of his car because hot beer gives a better buzz. That detail shows how serious he was about drinking himself to death.

One other detail. See if you can find at least one really strong quote for your piece. Something that sums up what the story is about. The Hitler profile has only two quotes by the main subject. In one he compares himself to a salesman of soap. The other comes near the end: “I knew how to talk!”

That quotation captures Hitler’s narcisissm perfectly.



February 18, 2009

Everyone has a story idea, though some seem better refined that others. The next step is to write some background and description about your main character. Write 500 to 700 words, and get it to me by e-mail Friday  February 27. Write what you have. 

Next is an outline describing the four parts of your story.  Give that to me by e-mail by  Friday March 6.  I’m not looking for a Roman numerals. Just write four paragraphs that describe the elements of each section with some details that make it vivid, details that let me know you’ve got some reporting behind the outline.  For example, if in the first section you show the character in action, then describe the action in some detail. 

The rough draft is due after spring break, Friday March 27.

There will be no class meetings the week of March 30 to April 1. Instead we’ll schedule hour-long conferences on revising the draft. It is very important that you get the draft done by March 27 so we can have a good conference. 

That gives us a month for revisions. The final draft will be due at the very latest, Wednesday May 13.  You can submit by e-mail. This is when we would take a final exam if we had one. I absolutely must have your revised draft then in order to submit grades on time. You are welcome to turn it in earlier. I plan to have more conferences with you again during the revision phase.

How narrative television works

February 17, 2009

Tonight Frontline tackles last fall’s financial meltdown. The program airs on Channel 8, the PBS affiliate and will probably be on line afterwards.

Here’s a link to a very interesting trailer about how the producer makes such a narrative video. He starts with a thousand page (I’m not kidding) “time line” and goes from there.

This is worth checking out.