Drowning in Material

A reader writes asking how to avoid drowning in one’s material. You’ve done a ton or research and now have a gazillion files on your computer that you need to hammer together into a coherent piece. Where to start?

First, you already missed the start. You should be thinking about the structure of the piece (article, book, report) you’re going to write as you’re researching it. Research is only at the very beginning a haphazard splash through documents and interviews. Soon — the sooner the better — you need an idea of what it is you are going to want to say with your article, book, report, term paper. Then you conduct interviews and dig up documents in an order that serves the end product you have in mind. 

I’m going to defer to a genuine genius of the structure: John Bennett, the editor to whom I was assigned at The New Yorker. 

I was working on my first story for the magazine. I’d paid one of Bennett’s students at Columbia Journalism School about $100 to photocopy an entire filing cabinet full of documents and newspaper clippings and ship them to me; it was from those that I needed to build my article. I was completely lost.

I sidestepped pride and took the advice I offer in this post and this one: I regarded my editor as a friend and partner, as eager for me to succeed as I was, and not as some kind of vengeful and judgmental god. I was completely honest with him and asked for his help. “John,” I said on the phone. “I’m drowning in material and can’t find the structure.”

“Dan, this is New Yorker. You can use any structure you want,” he said. “Just keep in mind that when I get it, I’m going to take it all apart and make it chronological.” And indeed he did. 

This is what he taught me: people are accustomed to hearing stories told chronologically. “First we did this, and that led to that. Afterwards, we did this other thing; one thing led to another,  and before we knew it the thing I’m telling you about what happened.”

The New Yorker practically makes a religion of telling stories chronologically. Notice how many of their stories begin not with some elegantly crafted anecdotal lede but with some variation of “On March 9, 2017…” New Yorker stories start at the beginning and tell the tale in order. They even have a word for one particular variation of a chronological tale: they call it a process story, in which the writer takes apart a process and follows it meticulously and in chronological order, using lots of vivid jargon. This is one process story I wrote for the magazine, about everything that happens to a wounded soldier in Iraq and this is another, about how the dead come home. 

I’d actually happened upon the chronological thing years before, when writing my first book — a political history of the so-called War on Drugs — and had then completely forgotten it. I intended to start the book with Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and follow the Drug War all the up until Bill Clinton’s first term as president, which was when I was writing it. I was hip deep in interviews and documents, racing toward my deadline, when I decided to stop and make order of chaos. I spent a week dividing everything I had into presidential administrations. I created folders called, Nixon 1, Nixon 2, Ford, Carter, Reagan 1, Reagan 2, Bush, Clinton then looked at every electronic file I had (interviews, pdfs, etc) and slotted each into one of those files. Then I did the same with papers I had; each went into a manila folder labeled with name of one presidential term.

The next time I wrote a book, I created all those electronic and paper folders as I started doing the research — labeling them by year instead of by presidential administration — and put files into them as they were generated. It saved me a lot of heartache. Ditto my third book;  I was structuring that one in my head, and even writing lines, as I was sitting with interviewees. My fourth was largely first-person; I told it as it happened.

If you’re in a panic now, splashing around in too much material with too little idea of how to tame it, stop. Take a long walk kicking a pebble and think about how you want this article/report/book to read. Does it lend itself to a chronological telling? Many more Big Topics can be told as stories than you might think. If yours really can’t be told as a tale, chronologically, what then? A series of profiles, perhaps intertwined the way did with Nine Lives?  By issue? (usually dull, but it may be what’s called for). Even if your deadline is approaching like a low-flying MiG, take a day to take inventory. What do you have? Then pick a way to organize your material in a way that makes sense to the point you want to make, and start moving your documents and interviews into folders. If you can tell it chronologically, do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Journalism School: no

Apologies for the long hiatus. I could explain, but none of us knows how long we have to live, and writing and reading the explanation could prove to have been, in hindsight, time-prodigal folly.

This is the season when young minds are applying to journalism school, or thinking of majoring in journalism, and I’d like to add my voice to the chorus that yells, “no!” unless there’s still room for me in the “fuck no!” camp. I must be careful here, because I am married to a j-school graduate (University of Michigan, 1982) and she disagrees with me on this point. But this is my blog, not hers, so here’s my take: 

Journalism is a craft. You learn it by doing it. To expend undergraduate time, or, heaven forfend, graduate-school time learning how to interview or do a records search, or how to write the inverted-pyramid or anecdotal lede would be wasteful of precious time and money. (Take it from a guy who freelanced for 30 years and then got brain cancer; you don’t know how much of either you have.) 

This isn’t to say that college or even grad school can’t prepare you for a career in journalism. If I were designing an undergraduate education for an aspiring journalist, I’d load up the curriculum with history, political science, economics, biology, art, music, women’s studies, black studies, foreign languages (Spanish in particular), physics, literature, and so on. You want to step from campus to the newsroom an educated person, firmly anchored in our country’s (and world’s) past,   peoples, and institutions, and familiar with sorting through opposing points of view, so that when you encounter, say, a laundress strike, a Federal Reserve policy reversal, a whale die-off, the derailment of a train full of Central American deportees, a world-famous painter or hip-hop artist come to town, or any of a million other possible stories, you’ll be able to reach down into that education and find some framework in which to place the current events, and enough study of our beautiful language’s fiction and non-fiction literature that you can tell your tale clearly and compellingly. (One undergraduate journalism class that might be worth taking, if anybody’s teaching it anywhere, would be the history of American journalism…. Knowing how we became the producers and consumers of our current news diet would be instructive.)

As for grad school, one might say that if you become a real expert in something, you can be the country’s leading journalist on that subject. Maybe. But for God’s sake, be careful. A friend of ours, wanting to be a writer, got a PhD in divinity and now teaches religion on the college level. She likes teaching and the college a lot, spends about a third of her time doing fascinating research in India, has lots of friends, and has written a book from her dissertation. It’s a great life. But she’s not a journalist, or the writer she set off to become. (My wife, Margaret, used journalism grad school to become familiar with the culture of the craft and to make connections that got her a series of good jobs, the best being the one at which I found her, as the Savannah bureau chief of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Writing about place A for readers in place B has always been my dream gig — covering the upper peninsula of Michigan for the Detroit Free Press, say, or — a job for which I applied but didn’t get — covering the maritimes, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire for the Boston Globe. Margaret had such a gig when I met her.) 

So yes, Margaret did get something out of journalism grad school. But I still maintain that the time would have been better spent skipping from newspaper to slightly bigger newspaper, to slightly bigger newspaper. I had five jobs in six years before going freelance, and I don’t regret a one of them.

I’m only one guy, of course. But now, when you hear of someone applying to journalism school, or the thought flickers through your head of majoring in journalism, you can snap your fingers and say, “Yeah, I just talked to someone who thought that was a real bad idea.”

 

Proof

I’ve been dragging this story out for too long. The point is that if you think you’ll never get a good journalism job because you’ve never had a good journalism job, you’re wrong. In 1982, I’d had exactly two newspaper jobs, one for a dreary energy-management weekly trade paper,  and one for The Anchorage Times, a genuinely wretched daily in a pretty interesting place. When we left off, I had just broken camp on a solo camping trip in the Chugach Moutains outside Anchorage because I could see a huge snowstorm coming to bury me alive. I’d raced back to Anchorage and cooked a big paella for Barbara, a woman in whom I was interested, and her adorable three-year-old daughter, Julie. Barbara was doing the dishes as the October blizzard pounded the cheap little condo I was renting. Julie and I were playing horsey on the rug. Cue the telephone.  

“Is this Dan Baum?” said a gruff male voice that sounded fed up. My first thought was: cop. 

I said I was Dan Baum.

“Yeah, this is Mike Malloy at the Asian Wall Street Journal* in Hong Kong,” the gruff voice went on, “I guess I gotta give you a fuckin’ job. I can’t stand looking at these fuckin’ red envelopes every week.”**

No discernible talent, no desirable experience, and I’d just landed my dream job at a high-prestige paper in an exotic part of the world. All it took was a stack of purloined red envelopes and a willingness to be a persistent nuisance for about six months. 

So if you’re whining that you can’t get a job in journalism because you lack experience, stop that now and get to work. 

*now called The Wall Street Journal, Asia edition.

**We’re still in touch. He asks me to retell that story every time we meet and, chuckling, always asks, “Did I really say that?” 

 

Alaska for real

One weekend in October, I parked at the bottom of the Chugach Mountains, just outside Anchorage, threw on my pack, and started up. The Chugach are largely covered by tundra, which is spongy under the feet and which turns out to be not one plant but be a salad of many tiny interwoven plants, each turning a different color in the fall and thus turning the tundra into an infinite Persian carpet. I didn’t have to lug that barbell of a rifle because I’d ditched it for a single-action .44 Magnum revolver as long as my forearm that rode my hip effortlessly.

Topping a gentle false summit, I found two big brown hummocks on the far slope, about fifty feet away. Then I noticed they were moving. Grizzlies. A sow and a yearling, blithely nuzzling berries out of the tundra. I put my hand on the big revolver. It was instantly obvious that it would be effective only if I was firing it while already in a bear’s stomach. A gust of cold north wind hit me in the face; what saved my life that day was that the wind was coming from the bears to me instead of the other way around. I backed away.

An hour later I made a nice little campsite on a north-facing cliff overlooking Persian carpet stretched out to the north horizon. Though I could think about nothing but bears, and kept looking around as though guarding my pockets on a subway, a more immediate threat loomed.  A heavy lid of charcoal clouds sat atop the far horizon, but strangely, the swirls of yellow, red, and light blue in the tundra below were not thrown into dark shadow; they appeared to be turning white.

That was a snowstorm out there, and as I watched it I could see its straight front edge galloping across the valley toward me. Ten minutes away, max.

That storm may have saved my life earlier when it pushed scent from the bears to me instead of the other way around, but if I stayed put, it was going to cover me with wet snow and, all alone up here and ignorant of Alaska’s ways, I could find myself in real trouble. As fast as I could, I dismantled the tent, stuffed the sleeping bag, and started quick-timing down the mountains. By the time I reached my car, I was fighting a full-on blizzard. On the way home, I stopped at a supermarket and used its pay phone to call Barbara and invite her and Julie to dinner. It’s fun to share bad weather.

It became the heaviest winter storm I’d ever experienced, and it was only mid-October. The wind whistled through the leaky windows of my cheap apartment, and snow drifted so deeply against my front door that about thirty pounds of it tumbled comically onto my floor when I opened the door for Barbara and Julie.

Paella was the fancy thing I cooked in those days, and I’d made a huge one for the three of us. We ate, drank wine, and while Barbara washed dishes, Julia and I played horsey on the thin, stained carpet.

The phone rang. I answered it.

 

Think you have nothing to offer? 4

This is part four of a series. Parts 1-3 are below. I suggest reading this series from the start. 

Being a reporter for The Anchorage Times turned out to be the way an airline pilot once explained his profession to me — hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of sheer panic. Most of the work was dreary small-city stuff: a new ice cream shop opening, a speech by a visiting Danish dignitary, school board…. For a place supposedly as wild and wooly as Anchorage, Alaska, the reality was pretty tame.

The “seconds of sheer panic” that punctuated the boredom were more like days of genuine adventure. My editors insisted I accept an Arco-funded junket to the North Slope, to write a story about  what life aboard an Arctic offshore oil rig was like. (The Times was the oil-industry shill, remember. We wrote the stories Big Oil wanted us to write.) Life aboard an arctic rig was amazingly deluxe, with a heated swimming pool and both steak and lobster on the menu every night.) The best part of that trip was suiting up for the helicopter ride out to the rig. They put me in a gigantic red neoprene suit made me look and feel like a Teletubby but that they said would keep me afloat, warm, and visible in the ice-punctuated sea for a few hours in case the chopper had to ditch en route. Finally, I was having some fun as a reporter in Alaska. But I kept sending those red envelopes Hong Kong. Every Friday, into one went my stories of the week with the same note: “I remain eager to be a reporter on your staff should an opening occur.” As it turned out, I could have been stuffing those red envelopes with toilet paper for all it mattered.

 

Nothing to Offer a Paper? 3

This is Part Three of a series. Parts One and Two are immediately below. If you haven’t already, please read those first.

It’s a long flight from New York to Anchorage, and upon arrival at about midnight, I walked outside, blinking and squinting, into sunshine and birdsong. It was about May 1, and the days were eerily long in the way I remembered from my time in West Berlin (which is about as far north as Juneau. )

The Anchorage Times newsroom, when I reached it at nine the next morning, wasn’t much bigger than that of Energy User News but it was jammed with male and female reporters who seemed uncommonly friendly toward the new guy. I sat among them and answered questions: Where had I worked before? Why did I want to work  here? 

“Well,” I said, Alaska is inherently interesting, and you won that Pulitzer Prize. Let me see the story. It must be quite something.”

A queer silence descended. Finally, a slightly older reporter broke it. “That was the other paper,” he said. “You want the Anchorage Daily News.” 

I had applied to the wrong newspaper. And now, having invested the time and money to move here from New York, I was stuck with the fruit of my mistake. 

How to Get a Great Job With Nothing to Offer 2

This is part two of a series. Part One is immediately below. If you haven’t already, please read that one first.

I didn’t really expect ever to hear from The Asian Wall Street Journal. Surely, I thought, so prestigious a paper is receiving resumés and clips from genuine grown-up business reporters at big-city papers. Still, since I had access to that stack of  red envelopes, I put one in the mail to Hong Kong every Friday, stuffed with my stories from that week’s paper, along with a neatly typed letter to Mike Malloy saying that I remained eager to work for him whenever he had an opening.

In the meantime, I kept scattershooting resumes and clips to mid-sized dailies in the hopes of getting the kind of job that might make me a candidate for the kind of job that might make me a candidate for the kind of job that might make me a candidate for The Asian Wall Street Journal.

Newsroom folklore had it that the daily paper in Anchorage had won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about the Teamsters’ stranglehold on Alaska. I couldn’t google it, of course — this was 1981 — so I trundled off to the New York Public Library and sat reading bound volumes of the Anchorage Times, Alaska’s largest daily. I never found the series, but being a reporter in Alaska looked like a lot of fun: grizzly attacks! bush-plane crashes! volcanic eruptions! shipwrecks! corruption!

My father Sy, lives by a sensible rule: Ask for the order. It’s not enough to explain to a buyer the superiority of your product; at a certain point you need to say, “Can I put you down for fifty cases?” I sat at my Selectric and typed out a letter to the editor of the Anchorage Times that all but grabbed the man by the knot of his necktie. After the usual inflation of achievements and other bland throat-clearing, I made myself turn to the main course. “I would like very much to be a reporter for the Times and believe I’d do a good job,” I concluded. “May I please have a reporting position on your staff?”

I put the letter, a resumé, and some recent clips in the mail — along with my weekly red envelope to Hong Kong.

A week later rang the big black rotary phone on my desk, and a bemused-sounding man said, “You want to work here that bad, come on. We’re not going to move you or anything like that, but if you can get yourself up here to Anchorage, I’ll give you a reporter’s job on the business desk.” Bada-bing!

“I couldn’t possibly be there until morning,” I said. He laughed.

“See you whenever you arrive,” he said. “Don’t get killed getting here. That happened to us once; starting reporter hit a moose on the Al-Can Highway on his way up from the Lower 48.”

Oh man; this was going to be fun.

Whooping like a banshee, I bolted for the door, stopping briefly at the supply closet to grab another stack of red envelopes.