Archive for October, 2015

A long-form web site with a tough memoir that is worth reading

October 30, 2015

The Big Roundup is devoted to long-form stories and younger writers. Here’s a memoir about being a heroin addict. Notice how far back the writer is reaching. It’s 2015 and she’s writing about the early ’90s.  I don’t think this is a great piece, but still it’s a good one, and might be helpful just to read and see how it’s done. And a subscription to the Big Roundup is free for the taking.

Notice the title: Heroin: A Love Story. And the subtitle: An addict heads for the shelter of home. But she’s not read.

An addict heads for the shelter of home. But she’s not ready.

Good Morning, 

With each new story we publish we introduce a new writer. This time, we thought we’d let the author of Heroin: A Love Story, Lisa Whittemore, introduce herself, because, frankly, we tells her story far better than we can:

This is a photograph of myself and my son, Milo. Me, Milo, and dad live in a drafty shack by the beach in Orange County with a sneaky cat and a fat dog. In June 2015 I graduated from UC/Irvine’s literary journalism program. After years of keeping journals, reading mountains of books, and harboring dreams of being a writer myself, I had a revelation: that to spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about writing while reading like a fiend does not make one a writer. Sitting my ass in a chair and putting pen to paper, no matter what, does.

My recent projects have been published in the OC Weekly, LA Weekly, and Zocalo Public Square. I am currently working on a memoir. Ass in chair. Pen to paper. No matter what.


This story was seeping out of my skin. I feared implosion, which would result in sticky, messy shards of Lisa everywhere. I was tired of living my life in pieces. To gather and document the facts would help me to see things in a more cohesive, organized manner. To sort through my own memories would be cathartic, enlightening, and, at times, painful and embarrassing. To ask my friends and family to share their memories and interpretations of events would humble me in unforeseen ways, but I knew it was imperative and necessary. Because the written word is how I make sense of the world, how I maneuver in it, and how my truth is revealed. So, yes, much of what I have written is propelled by selfish motives; to figure me out. But my ultimate hope is that in reading about me, others may see themselves reflected and paralleled within my story and discover some of their own truths.


In writing this story, I learned that there is never only one side or one truth. That writing about oneself is often ugly, hilarious, and surprising. I refused to wait for this story to happen organically; there was no writing when I was in the mood or when the spirit moved me. I wrote because I absolutely had to. I forced myself to sit the hell down and write the words, make the calls, and listen to shit about myself I didn’t really enjoy hearing. And then I typed the words, which became paragraphs, which turned into pages. Because this is how the act of writing happens, it is a process. A process that can be at once freeing and revealing yet also evil and constricting. I learned that I do my best, clearest writing in the wee hours of the morning, before my mind has time to be cluttered with doubt and negativity. And I learned that I look like a jackass in earmuffs. But in order to drown out the voices that said I couldn’t do it or that it wasn’t worth it, I had to. 

Our very best,
The Big Roundtable team


One more thing: write a title and a subtitle

October 29, 2015

Create a working title. Examples

An Epidemic of Whiteness

Why Nigerian women are bleaching themselves with dangerous chemicals.

 Brother Love

How two teenagers survived Katrina

Elizabeth, Incapacitated

The most difficult thing for a father is to shape his daughter’s future.

Everyone should write a title and subtitle and send them to me. I want them for Maria Carrilllo. You need to have this together so that you hear about your story from an experienced editor besides me.

Story conferences: by phone and email

October 29, 2015

Some of you have done a great job with early drafts, Others are still in a preliminary stage. Although we won’t have class next week, you should communicate with me. Email is best. Send me something and we can talk on the phone or you can come in, though I’ll be gone Thursday and Friday.

Show me something. Don’t postpone. Don’t delay.

My office is 713-313-7528.

And don’t forget to read. Search out models for your stories. There is no shame in imitation. That’s how you learn.

Some elements for your story: a checklist for your reporting

October 29, 2015

You can’t write what you don’t know. This is why reporting is so important. For the next couple of weeks, focus on reporting reporting reporting. You need to know what to go after. Use the research questions from Blundell. Write down the topics you need to understand. Spend time with your characters. Get lots of face time or phone time. Face time is better, but phone time can work.

I urge you to make a list. Write down questions you need to ask. Don’t just carry it in your head. This is where professionalism comes in. The professionals don’t carry this stuff in their heads. They write out plans and outlines and lists and notecards. They are constantly thinking about the story.

An opening that sets the story in time and place. 

Show us a character or characters in action and tell us when and where this action is taking place.


How did things get the way they are? What is the essential background? Why is this story important? What are the implications if the trend goes on unchecked? What are the numbers, if any? What stories tell us about the background? Often the background is where you find The Story within the Story.


Do the characters and setting bear description? What visual details can you use that will move the action ahead? For example, the V spray painted on the door of the vacant apartments tells a story.


Lower in the story you need a chronology that goes back to the beginning and brings us up to the present, step by step, year by year.

No class next week, a visitor from the Chronicle on Nov. 12 and other matters

October 29, 2015

No class on November 5. I will be making an appearance for a panel discussion at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, where a film on the criminal justice system will be show. It’s called “The Guy with the Knife” and was done by Canadian filmmaker Alison Armstrong. It concerns a long story about a man in prison whose parole has been held up for political reasons. Here’s a link to the story I wrote about it on a criminal justice blog called Grits for Breakfast.

It’s not a great story, but is more of an essay. The film is more powerful. I hope I’ll be able to show it to you one week soon. I was interviewed for it and appear briefly. Very interesting though, to contrast what a writer can do in a few weeks and what a filmmaker can do in eight years.

So work on your reporting. Report report report. I think you all have topics that are workable. But do you have the reporting with which to write a story? I’m writing a separate post on that.

On November 12 the long-form story editor from the Chronicle, Maria Carrillo will visit the class and talk about writing stories and reporting. She is a very good editor, one of the best I have every worked with. She helped me put together a 4000–word story for the Houston Chronicle that appeared last Easter Sunday on the front page. This one is another criminal justice story about a lost appeal of a man I am completely convinced is innocent of capital murder.

Svetlana Alexievich: The enemy of the interview is banality

October 21, 2015

Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Laureate – The New Yorker

Well worth reading. Here are some of the best excerpts that might help you with your writing. The big enemy in the interviewing process is banalituy

This is oral history stripped down to segments so raw that it can stretch both credulity and the reader’s tolerance for pain. At the beginning of “Voices from Chernobyl,” published in Russia in 1997, a young woman describes watching her husband, a firefighter, die from radiation poisoning:

At the morgue they said, “Want to see what we’ll dress him in?” I do! They dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn’t get shoes on him because his feet had swelled up. They had to cut up the formal wear, too, because they couldn’t get it on him, there wasn’t a whole body to put it on. It was all—wounds. The last two days in the hospital—I’d lift his arm, and meanwhile the bone is shaking, just sort of dangling, the body has gone away from it. Pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I’d wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff. It’s impossible to talk about. It’s impossible to write about. And even to live through. It was all mine. My love. They couldn’t get a single pair of shoes to fit him. They buried him barefoot.

Alexievich told me, “We live in an environment of banality. For most people, that’s enough. But how do you get through? How do you rip off that coating of banality? You have to make people descend into the depths of themselves.” Announcing the award, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, credited Alexievich with inventing a new literary genre, which she called “a history of emotions—a history of the soul, if you wish.”

And here is a phrase about author instruction  that I’ll never forget.

She worked at a newspaper, wrote poetry and plays and screenplays, but kept looking, as she puts it, “to create a new text.” She drew inspiration from her mentor, the Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, whose genre was oral history, but she had less patience for authorial intrusions than Adamovich did. His best-remembered work, “The Book of the Siege,” written with Daniil Granin, a fellow Soviet-era liberal, is a people’s history of the siege of Leningrad, from 1941 to 1944. “There is this story of a boy and his mother, who share an apartment with a woman who steals,” Alexievich told me. “The boy and his mother are starving to death.” As Alexievich recalled, the boy knows that the woman’s stash includes half a meatball, and he struggles over whether to take it. “And suddenly there are three pages of ruminations on the nature of the Russian intelligentsia. The thing I always say is ‘Don’t put yourself next to the meatball. You’ll lose.’ ”

She wrote a book about women who had fought in World War II. (Dominique, I’m thinking you might get more from your mother than your father.)

When she started gathering material for her first book, she told me, she looked for women who had stories similar to those she remembered from her childhood and asked them “about the things I wanted to know.” She spoke to women who had been in the military. “I had no interest in how many people they had killed or how; I wanted to know how a woman feels.” She added, “I was young, so they told me stories as older women do to a younger one.” Focussing on women was a wise decision, Alexievich said: “Women tell things in more interesting ways. They live with more feeling. They observe themselves and their lives. Men are more impressed with action. For them, the sequence of events is more important.”

And here is a principle that she uses in books that could be used on a smaller scale in shorter pieces:

When she began writing down speech, around 1980, Alexievich realized that she could not take notes by hand. She needed to preserve the subject’s every word, including the silences. “When people talk, it matters how they place words next to each other,” she said. A tape recorder in Belarus cost about five hundred rubles, roughly three months’ salary, money that she borrowed from Adamovich and several other older writers. She developed a process that she still uses: she tapes conversations, has them transcribed, then writes from transcripts, longhand, often rehearsing the monologue out loud. A book takes between five and ten years and represents the voices of anywhere from three hundred to five hundred interview subjects. It contains about a hundred voices, of which ten to twenty are what she calls “pillars,” subjects she’ll interview up to twenty times each. “It’s like painting a portrait,” she said. “You keep going back and making calls, adding a stroke at a time.”

Recording speech is easy, but transcribing the recording is tedious. I wouldn’t recommend recording and transcribing for most pieces. But maybe if you have one person this could work. The key is to talk a long time and take a lot of time. You’ll end up using a fraction of it all. And you will learn to leave out the banality. The object is to connect to the soul. And that path leads through pain:

So what is a person? “Of course, you can never come face to face with reality—it is unknowable—but you can grab a solid substance, something.” Mostly, she encounters pain. Many of her subjects talk about “carrying” pain or “handing over” pain, as if that is how they understand their relationship with the interviewer—as the process of transferring their pain.

Come to think of it, if she had been able to interview the women who survived the Titanic disaster, we would have a very different story from that of the wireless operator.

Carnal knowledge

October 12, 2015

Mary Karr has an article in The New Yorker that is well worth reading about how to use the power of the senses in writing. Check it out. You might get something

For next week: read the new winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, a journalist

October 12, 2015

The selection of nonfiction writer Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus for the Nobel prize in literature is an important milestone for the consideration of nonfiction as art. Alexievich is from the former Soviet republic of Belarus, and most of us know little of that country except for a the terrible catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, about which she has written powerfully. She has a reputation as an artist of oral history. She interviews people, hundreds and even thousands of them, and weaves their stories into art. Here’s how the NY Times describes her work: 

The stories Ms. Alexievich tells are drawn from historical facts and oral histories, but have a lyrical quality and a distinct style and perspective. She is best known for giving voice to women and men who lived through major events like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, in which her sister was killed and her mother was blinded.

“What she’s doing, there’s a lot of art in it,” said Philip Gourevitch, a writer for The New Yorker who has called on the Nobel judges to recognize nonfiction as literature. “She has a voice that runs through her work that’s much more than the sum of the voices she’s collected.”

I wish I could say I have known about her work for years, but that is not so. After reading the announcement I looked her up and found an excerpt of her work on Chernobyl in the Paris Review. It’s very moving and also very tough. It reminds me a bit of the story we started out with, the voice of the wireless operator of the Titanic.

What her work reminds me though, is that if you can talk to people long enough and deeply enough, and get their stories, you are doing what writers do: give voice to people who aren’t ordinarily heard from: such as the people who call a run-down apartment building home, such as the 14 year old boy in the Superdome, the teenager who is coming out in a small East Texas town.

This is our art. Talking to people, listening to them and letting their stories speak through us. This is not a passive activity, however. If it were, anyone with a tape recorder would be an artist. You have to ask the right questions, and get the subject to open up, and reveal their stories. Empathy is required.

So go tot he link and pull this story down and we’ll talk about it as a guide for how to get a story out of someone.


October 8, 2015

I seem to have abandoned my earlier calendar for reading and writing. We need to get something going. I need a rough draft by October 15. You may not have it all, but we need an opening with background. At least a thousand words. More would be better. I must see some writing as soon as possible. We should probably set up some conferences. I’ll go into that tonight.

Also I realized what happened to my blog post from last week. It became a page instead of a blog post. It’s called “Digging Deeper.” and is under the pages section.

Point of view

October 8, 2015

Something to consider in any story is point of view. From whose point of view are you telling the story? For Jonah’s story about Katrina, he might move back and forth from his adult point of view to the point of view of the 14-year-old boy he was at the time.

“The One Left Behind” starts with the point of view of a man who was driving home to get drunk and stay drunk. The point of view of a man who had abandoned everything.

Point of view is a tricky thing to describe. What is the point of view of the character you writing about? What is her world view? Get us inside her shoes. How she sees the world. What she values most. What she is most afraid of.

What for example, is the point of view of the young transgendered person? Let me see the world through her/his eyes.