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When happiness is quitting the staff job

Woman on hamster wheel image via Shutterstock

Devon Maloney gave up the freelancing life for her dream job as a pop music editor at one of the nation's biggest newspapers. Four months later she quit. Maloney writes that she isn't second-guessing her decision: "When I left, I had little to no nest-egg to live on. I had a few prospects, but nothing sustainable. Now I’m up to my ears in credit-card debt. I haven’t received a paycheck in weeks. I also can’t recall a time in my adult life when I’ve been happier."

Virginia Woolf on a writer's self-doubt

Virginia Woolf painting

Maria Popova examines "the artist’s universal and necessary dance with fear" via a quote from Woolf's novel Orlando: "Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished."

How a story can be a life form

Neil Gaiman

Maria Popova quotes from a lecture by author Neil Gaiman on what makes stories last. Gaiman argues that the best stories can live for millennia: "Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes."

Writing about the disaster yet to come

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Michelle Nijhuis interviews Kathryn Schulz about her New Yorker story, “The Really Big One,” on the risk of a major earthquake from the Cascadia subduction zone off the Pacific Northwest coast: "When you first think about this story, you might think, 'Oh, what could be easier? People love natural disasters, this thing’s going to write itself.' But what I realized almost right away is that it’s very difficult to tell the story of something that hasn’t happened yet."

John McPhee on the art of omission

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The New Yorker legend calls on sources from Shakespeare to Hemingway and Trillin, as well as his younger self, to explain how a writer decides what to leave out of a story: "The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed … It’s as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train — or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for reasons of aesthetics or plant pathology, not to mention size."

What makes a "report" into a "story"

Journalists use the word "story" for most of their articles, but Roy Peter Clark argues that many are just "reports." The difference? "A report hangs on a set of reliable questions that go back more than a century: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. A story converts these elements and sets them in motion, so that Who becomes Character, What becomes Scenic Action, Where becomes Setting, When become Chronology, Why becomes Motive, and How becomes How it happened."

Doctorow on the virtue of making it up

E.L. Doctorow

Nieman Reports recounts a 1977 visit to Harvard by novelist E.L. Doctorow, who died in July, and who thought journalists should embrace fiction: "I wish Bernstein and Woodward had not stuck to the factual detections of investigative reporters … With the highest scruples of investigative reporting, they ran into the limits of the form. If they had taken off from what they knew they might have gotten a greater, more comprehensive understanding of exactly what happened."

Aldo Leopold and a fierce green fire

Aldo Leopold's trip to the Rio Gavilan

In later years, Aldo Leopold would write about seeing a "fierce green fire" in the dying eyes of a wolf he had just shot in an Arizona canyon. Leopold traced his radicalization to that moment, but Lance Richardson writes that the truth wasn't that simple: "When he writes 'My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die,' he is conflating decades of evolving thought, in the same way somebody might summarize a turbulent courtship as 'love at first sight.'"

On sourcing a public figure's life

Michelle Obama image via Shutterstock

On Nieman Storyboard, Peter Slevin discusses writing his biography of Michelle Obama, including how he built a network of sources who gave him insight into the First Lady's early life: "The outreach to prospective sources seemed endless, and it did not always bear fruit, but it forced me to crystallize my thinking. What was it again that I was hoping to accomplish? Where, exactly, did this person fit into the narrative? What was the most valuable question I could ask?"

A journalist reviews his first decade

Dan Zak reflects on his progress from nervous intern to veteran reporter in an essay that is part how-to, part confessional: "There were times when I stayed in my car instead of getting out to face the uncomfortable, or when I left a community meeting without talking to a person that I really should've talked to. That's a special kind of journalist shame. I was young. And in that way I am still young sometimes." Reaction from Mike Feinsilber.