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.
Have you read “Frank Sinatra has a cold” by Gay Talese?
Wow – I just started reading it yesterday! Guess it was a good choice.
Sometimes the best thing to do is (a) the exhaustive research you have already done, then (b) set every bit of it aside and concentrate on the essence of the (in this case) man. What hits you, underlined you, as the most interesting, profound, quirky, silly, doesn’t-seem-to-fit-the-image impression you formed after all that research? The facts (and sometimes chronology can also be your friend) will give you a photograph. The character, as revealed by small, telling details that others might miss, is what turns it into a Goya or John Singer Sargent portrait. In essence: go for the eyes.
Go for the eyes – that’s awesome. Thanks for your advice; I think the exhaustive research is the part I’m really lacking.
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