Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Show and Tell

I read a lot of New Yorker and New York Times profiles ranging from Taylor Swift to Michelle Obama to Paul Higgis and Scientology. None of the profiles really gave me a sense of the "real" person behind the fame, which is something that I look for in a profile -- a deeper sense of the subject.  So I kept looking for something else and stumbled upon "Notable Narratives" from the Nieman Storyboard website. From 2006 to 2010, the Nieman Narrative Digest featured "outstanding examples of narrative journalism drawn from newspapers, magazines, radio and television." I pulled a few articles here and there and finally found one that hooked me.

"Remember His Name" by Gary Smith was published in Sports Illustrated in 2006, about Pat Tillman's service/death in the military told through the lens of Tillman's friend Russ Baer. Tillman played in the NFL for the Cardinals and enlisted in the Army after the 9/11 attack, and was killed in friendly fire in 2004 that was covered up by the military.

What I finally found in Smith's story, that I couldn't find in the profiles I had read, was a sense of character. Smith really uncovers the complexity of Tillman -- he wasn't your average red-blooded patriot that you would expect from someone who leaves a lucrative football career and joins the army. He was an atheist, and he didn't always (if ever) agree with the political situation in Afghanistan. This article isn't the best piece of narrative that I've read -- at times it can be a little jarring as it is told through the lens of Tillman's friend, and it is quite long -- however, the sense of character is incredibly strong and well done. Smith always does a good job in recreating scene weaving in elements from Tillman's past, military involvement and Russ's present situation.

Although using Russ as a lens was at time a little confusing, as I mentioned, I also thought that it was a really interesting way to frame the story. The beginning and the ending are strongly linked and I really enjoyed the overall setup. I always struggle with ledes and how to enter in to in article and Smith has really given me a lot to think about. 

Here's the link in case you want to check it out:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Events of October Reading Response

I first read The Events of October when I was a freshman in Karyn Boatwright’s Introduction to Psychology course. She told me I reminded her a lot like Maggie, she even called me Maggie once by mistake. The comparison Karyn made really threw me off. It just felt so odd to be compared to a girl who had been murdered, but even more strange to actually identify with her -- of course, that’s credit to Gail’s writing and her strong presentation of character. I had completely forgotten about all of these mixed feelings until I read the book again. But beside it’s emotional triggers, I found that I read and appreciated the book in a whole new light.

Writing my own profile, and also reading the texts in this class, has helped me understand what a tremendous accomplishment Gail’s novel is. The countless interviews, endless research, and the soul searching Gail herself had to do, is unbelievable. I’m really interested in the timeframe behind her work -- how long the interview process took, how long the writing/editing process took, etc. I was lucky enough to take Victorian Lit with Gail last spring, her last quarter on campus. From the 10 weeks in class, I know what a warm and open person she is, so it’s not a surprise to me that she was able to make grieving parents, friends, and teachers comfortable enough to talk with her.       

Besides the incredible amount of research, and the brilliance of her writing style, I’m most moved and impressed by how Gail recreates the post-murder scene. I loved that she included what other people in the same dorm were doing the moments leading up to and after the murder-suicide. The varying descriptions of what the gun sounded like -- “like pots or pans or dishes hitting the wall” (106), “a sound like a dresser falling over” (105) -- helped to paint the panic and confusion that occurred that night. The recreation scene was impeccably written, again credited to Gail’s tireless interviewing.

I think more than anything, what I appreciated was that Gail really tried to understand Neenef. Not as a killer, but as a person struggling with his ethnic identity and a daunting family life. By talking to his close friends, and delving into his personal, social and academic life, it created a complex character that at times, I found myself empathizing with. I wonder how Gail wanted Neenef to be understood by readers. It seems to me that she wanted to challenge this conception of cold-blooded patriarchal murderer, but at the same time, I wonder if it was difficult --emotionally -- for her to do so.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Week Seven Response

Between now and Wednesday I have a lot of work to do on my profile. I have all the information/reporting that I need, it's just a matter of structure, or so I thought. Part 5 gave a lot to think about. There are so many different aspects to an effective profile: character/character development, scene reconstruction, setting the scene, sequencing, portraying a unique and strong voice and countless others. Although I think I'm doing all of this to an extent in my current draft, I can be doing it more and I can do it better. I found Hochschild's "Reconstructing Scenes" to be helpful. Atmosphere is crucial to my profile, especially in the beginning as I try to highlight the Gospel Mission's area and its importance to the homeless, low-income and those that suffer form mental illness. Hochschild says: "For your readers to experience the scene, you must do more than describe how things looked. Sounds, smells, temperature, and even the textures of objects are all important" (132). Too often I focus on what can be seen, so this was an obvious, but important reminder for me. 

He also talks about dialogue which I really need to work on. I ended up taking a lot of my dialogue out in this draft.. I really don't know how that happened.. so now I need to put it back in and avoid a lifeless narrative as Hochschild calls it. Kramer's section "Setting the Scene" was also an important section for me. He advises writers to create a sense of volume, "to array details and events so that readers experience the location in three dimensions" (137). I think that this can be very effective in my profile as location is such an important element. Orlean's section on voice was also very helpful. She talks about the importance of understanding your voice as a writer, but I'm not sure I'm there yet. "You can't invent a voice. And you can't imitate someone else's voice.." (158). That sentence really resonated with me and my hope for the final weeks of the class is to work on developing/understanding my voice.

Story Pitch

For the next assignment I've been thinking about doing a profile on Ministry with Community and their work with the homeless, specifically those with mental health issues. However, in my last article I had problems getting a lot of information, and the people I interviewed did not want their picture taken. So I'm thinking I may get more information/photos if I do a profile on Henderson Castle. It's a historic landmark in Kalamazoo and I know that there has been some legal disputes with the new owner over the last few years so it might be interesting to do some more research. Thoughts?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Profile Process

I struggled immensely in putting this profile together. I conducted many many interviews (there are 5 other interviews with people who sleep at the Gospel Mission that are not included), and spent a lot of time at both the Gospel Mission and Ministry with Community. I gathered a ton of observations and quotes, and really don't know how to weave it all it into a cohesive piece under 2,000 words (right now I'm almost 500 words over).

Unfortunately, I did not have a ton of time to observe the daily processes of the Mission. The Mission itself was not easy to work with, and did not provide me with the kind of access I was hoping for. Also, other than attending classes and meals, the clients who stay permanently in men and women's shelters are not really around during the day, which also made things difficult. Therefore, I'm wondering if my piece is "narrative" enough. Also, while I was writing my piece, I thought about the New Yorker presentation we read for last week's class. MacFarquhar talked about how introducing oneself into the piece as a writer was jolting and somewhat problematic. Therefore, I decided to distance myself in writing this piece and did not use "I." I'm wondering if that makes the piece interesting, or if I should maybe put myself more in the piece.. Thoughts?

The piece as-is is very problematic. I'm struggling with how I present the Mission. While my narrative piece is biased based on how I feel the organization handles religion, I also do not want to take away from the good work the Mission does, and all of the people they help. I'm wondering if it comes off as completely anti-Mission.. I would also like to include a little more about Ministry with Community as a kind of alternative look at how other organizations that help the homeless and abused handle the concept of religion. Ministry with Community is really an excellent organization, but given that my main focus is a profile on the Mission I'm not sure if there's a place for it in my article.

Overall, I'm pretty clueless as far as what to do with this piece, so I look forward to hearing all of your suggestions!