Profile as story

I am working on a profile as a school assignment.  In my continuing quest to free my brain of magazine writing, as usual my brain is full of challenges and confusion.  I’m using reporting from the story I wrote for the Chronicle about Mormon missionaries, and when I sat down to work on the profile I immediately started combing through my notes looking for a good quote.  Then I realized that a profile doesn’t necessarily require direct statements from the subject.  I then tried to remember anything I might have learned at Emerson (working on my journalism MA) about profile writing.  I wrote one profile for my intro to reporting class, but I don’t have it anywhere and I can’t remember the feedback I got from my professor.  Basically, I’m starting fresh.

My process so far has relied heavily on copying and pasting from the first, extremely lengthy, draft of the Chronicle article, then adding some writing specific to the profile, then rearranging according to what seems like it might become a story, then cutting a whole lot that doesn’t belong there.  Right now the most recent version sits on my desk waiting for me to revise.

As I mentioned in previous posts, a month or so into this semester a light bulb switched on and I realized how different literary journalism is from traditional journalism.  So in addition to trying to remember how to write something about somebody that doesn’t rely heavily on quotes, I’m keeping an eye on how the profile might…unfold is the word, I guess.  There may or may not be an easily-identifiable story in this piece.  Certainly there’s a chronological story, but I learned at the residency that chronology can sometimes be the enemy of story.

This piece is a profile of one of the Mormon missionaries I wrote about.  There is indeed a chronological story (duh); he decided to go on a mission, he worked to save money, he came to Houston and served in his mission.  Fill that in with details and boom! you have a chronological story.  But is that the most interesting, most relevant, most compelling, most informative story?  There is also the story of how he has personally changed during the mission.  There is a story of how his mission reflects the Mormon mission program (hot topic now not just because a Mormon is running for president, but also because the LDS church just lowered the age limit for missions).  So how do I decide?  Part of it will just come out in the writing.  I still have much more reporting to do, so it may be too early yet to know what kind of story I’m writing.

I’m still looking everywhere for examples of story structure, in hopes of understanding how a piece can read like a page-turner.

This literary journalism is more difficult than I ever, ever thought it would be.  I think it was especially difficult because I had all that magazine work during the first month of the semester.  I’m sure I’ll work it out, and it will be a joyful day when I do.

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Can it be deep but not somber?

Today I read this installment of the “Why’s this so good?” series on the Nieman Storyboard site.  This post, written by Joanna Kaskissis, discussed Michael Paterniti’s account of the 2010 Haitian earthquake and how the author’s use of language made the story compelling.  It was a sad story, written with the depth born of insightful reporting.  But I’ve been thinking lately – must a moving story always be sad?  Paterniti wrote:

The wandering survivors, too, were caked and stunned. To pass one was to see your own reflection, some strange mix of horror and elation. Two houses in a row might have been leveled while a third might have remained untouched, the line between life and death a couple of feet.

Sad, horrifying, and brilliantly written.  Is there a parallel in writing about a day of joy?  This is a corollary of the thought I had about crime writing – crime is compelling.  So are natural disasters.  Is finding a happy story and telling it well a greater challenge than writing about something inherently sad or shocking?

Now that I’ve FINALLY gotten all the “commercial” articles done that I have had hanging over my head for two months or more, I can fully turn my attention to school.  And now I’m not sure quite where to start.  When I sat down and just let my fingers fly, I slid right into that somber tone.  It’s so easy.  But if I write about people, for example, whose lives are enhanced by religion, shouldn’t there be more joy than sadness?

I think I’m just thinking aloud here, but I wonder if I can sit down today and write several pages that are just about happiness.  I’m meeting with more Mormons this afternoon and maybe I’ll plan to write something literary based on my interview with them as soon as I get home.  I’ll see if I can “write happy.”

Should I even have a bed in my office?

Well, yes I do.  That’s the way the house is configured.  And yes, it is where I do my reading.  And yes, falling asleep occurs.  (Passive tense intended to avoid acknowledging responsibility.)  And that’s why I found this video pertinent.  Right now I’m playing the full White Album, the bed is as comfy as it always is, there is a stack of papers on my desk, and so the door is open to be lazy.  I finally replaced my laptop, so I will again be able to go to my satellite office – Panera – to work without the distractions, and build up my stamina.

A score for a book?

It occurred to me – is there a way in writing to reproduce the effect of a movie score?  For instance, the harmonica tune that floats through “Midnight Cowboy”; the movie wouldn’t be the same without that.  It doesn’t really impact the plot.  It enhances the viewer’s experience of the story.  So is there a way to achieve the same effect in a written story?  I have to think about that while I’m reading the next few books on my list.

Poems may repeat verses or rhythms.  When written well, that affects the poem’s impact on the reader.  But repeating phrases or sentences would be contrived in an essay or story.

Comedy also can effectively use repetition.  The book my MFA group is currently reading, Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, uses this technique. In the essay “The Joy of Sesquipedalians” she repeats the word “mephitic” first in the context of it being a strange word whose definition she must learn, then repeats it in quoting someone else, then uses it (for the first time without italics) in her own voice – for a comic effect.  But it’s not really comparable to a score – no, actually it’s not at all.  It’s just repetition; repetition of a word.

Of course a score has repetitive lines or melodies (honestly I’m not even sure what the right word is, but here’s what I’m talking about in Midnight Cowboy):

It evokes sadness and isolation – especially the latter.  The person who posted this on Youtube showed the melody at two different scenes in the movie to demonstrate (presumably) how it evokes those feelings just by playing.  I mean, it’s separate from plot.  How do you reproduce that in writing?  Can it be done?

If you don’t say no, you have to dig in

I couldn’t sleep most of last night thinking about the work I haven’t gotten done.  It was such a huge mistake to say yes to two Toastmaster articles, one Azizah article, one Islamic Horizons article and one Chronicle article all during roughly the same two-month period.  It can be done, but if one significant thing happens everything falls to pieces, it seems.  While I was at Goucher and planned to work, the computer I was using in the school library ate the work I did there, then my sister-in-law died, necessitating me leaving school early and flying out to California.  Then I spent five days at the SPJ conference, where I thought I would have access to a computer either in the hotel where I stayed or the where the conference was, but the only computer available was like 40 cents a minute to use.  Never having replaced the laptop that drank my coffee, I spent those five days getting nothing done.  And then the procrastination sets in.  And then the panic sets in.  And now I’m learning the rookie’s lesson that even if the editor accepts something way past the deadline, that project doesn’t necessarily end when you turn it in.  The edits on the Toastmaster article continue to come in – more than I got on the previous two I wrote for them.  So it’s kind of – not quite, but kind of – like they’re not done.  Today I will finish the last Toastmaster article and then wrap up the Islamic Horizons article as quickly as I can.  Now I don’t know if I should make the second formal pitch to the Chronicle as I planned.  I need to start writing for school, and reporting for school, and frankly I am so looking forward to having the time and freedom to do that.

And now I’m president of three clubs/organizations: Boeing Toastmasters, the new Speakers R Us Toastmasters and the Houston Pro chapter of the SPJ.  I want to be able to do those things.

I never read what I wrote

My first article for the Houston Chronicle – paid article, that is, versus the blogging I’ve done for them for six years – appeared online today and will be in tomorrow’s print version.  I was excited for it to be published but then I read it and hated it.  Well, right away I wasn’t happy with the edits to the first two paragraphs, but that’s par for the course.  Also, I’ve been writing for magazines all year and I’ve forgotten how short paragraphs are in newspaper writing, so some of it read a little disjointed.

But mostly I just hate it.  Because I hate my writing.  And over the last couple of months I’ve really messed myself up by having taken on so much work and then being late with it and I just haven’t given myself enough time to edit and edit and edit and revise and revise and edit like I would normally do.  If I don’t do that endless editing – I mean literally I could put hours into just re-writing – I feel like my work is seriously sub-par.  So I just don’t read what I’ve written.  Once it’s published it’s too late for any changes, and I’m always afraid I’ll read something that I could have easily corrected.

Lessons learned: Sometimes I just have to say no, as much as I don’t want to.  I always have to maintain deadlines, especially if I have more than one article going at a time.  Tomorrow morning I’m finishing an article and then just one left of that mess of five pieces I was doing at the same time.  I’m not sure I’ll know what to do with myself!  No seriously, what I will do is turn my attention to school.  Things are kind of unstructured this semester, since I just have a rough idea of what my final manuscript will be about, but next up is reporting on the witches.  I informally pitched an idea to the Chronicle editor of writing about witches around Halloween time.  She liked the idea and asked me to send her a formal pitch which she may forward to another editor.  So…as I did with the Mormons, I hope to be reporting on the witches and then writing about them professionally and then moving onto the next group, which I believe will be the Unificationists (AKA Moonies).  It will be wonderful to be free to be a student – like I was last time I was getting a masters degree – wandering the city looking for stories, developing relationships with interesting groups of people, looking for stories, and writing about them.

And it will be even better when I have time to re-write a kajillion times and I can really like what I’ve written.  I definitely learned a lesson over the last few months.  I’m looking forward to the rest of this semester.