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Hemingway, Plimpton and Cuba

Cuban revolution museum poster

Among the many stories from Fidel Castro's death is one from James Scott Linville about the time he tried to get George Plimpton to publish excerpts from Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries. Plimpton tried to brush him off. When Linville persisted, Plimpton told a story about his visit to Ernest Hemingway right after the Cuban revolution, and what he saw there: "In the twenty years I knew him, this remained the only time George refused to look at a piece of writing."

On reporting about youth suicides

Face in shadows

Katie Johns interviews Hanna Rosin about her Atlantic story on suicides at a Palo Alto, Calif., high school, how she struggled to find the right balance in her reporting, and the reactions she got: "A sister of one of the guys that killed himself said, 'Thank you, this is finally a discussion we needed to have.' Other people were like, 'How dare you come in and blame school pressure for this? Suicide is very complicated. You can’t blame it on school pressure.'"

Leonard Cohen and his writing process

Leonard Cohen

Maria Popova marks the songwriter's death with thoughts from Leonard Cohen on melding darkness and light in songs like "Anthem," and the mystery of good writing: "It’s just as hard to write a bad verse as a good verse. I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines."

Writing about cancer from the numbers

Pair of dice

Joanne Silberner annotates a George Johnson story and interviews the author about science and statistics in the "War on Cancer." Silberner writes: "I was taught early on that people can’t hold more than a couple of numbers in their heads, and I agree. Johnson’s story uses numbers to illustrate the idea that the reason people think there’s a cancer epidemic is in large part that more folks are living longer lives, and thus to the age when cancer incidence is higher."

One newsroom tries to shorten stories

Printer's type

Washington Post editors are trying to stop story bloat via rewards, Benjamin Mullin writes: "Editor-reporter duos who turn in a front-page enterprise story under 1,000 words are awarded the 'Brevity Cup,' a distinction that comes with drinks out with a managing editor. The first winners, reporter Ann Marimow and editor Mary Pat Flaherty, won for a front-page story about a court battle over a D.C. gun ban." Also, Roy Peter Clark on writing short.

Famous writers confront the blank page

Blank laptop screen

Maria Popova collects writers' quotes on the difficulty of getting down to work, including this from Philipp Meyer: "I don’t think 'writer’s block' actually exists. It’s basically insecurity — it’s your own internal critic turned up to a higher level than it’s supposed to be at that moment, because when you’re starting a work — when the page is blank, when the canvas is open — your critic has to be turned down to zero … The point is actually to get stuff on paper."

What dialogue does in a narrative

Roosevelt and Churchill in conversation

Book coach Jennie Nash breaks down a passage from Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl to show how dialogue "slows things down in a narrative. The author is not making broad generalizations, or sweeping past hours, days, or years the way they do when they write, 'the next day' or 'three years later … ' They are sharing specific information about a specific moment that is playing out in real time. As readers, we lean in and listen, and that naturally makes the reading slow down."

A Robert Caro "lightbulb moment"

Robert Caro

The biographer of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses tells a Pulitzer Centennial audience how an early map of Moses's Northern State Parkway led him to discover how wealthy landowners had influenced the route to the detriment of small farms: "To this day I don’t know why I suddenly decided to find out those names, and to try to find any of the owners who were still alive, and to see if they had any stories to tell about the construction of the Northern State Parkway."

The downside of success as a writer


Maria Popova has quotes from Pulitzer-winning novelist Jennifer Egan on her fear that fame will ruin her. Getting a Pulitzer, Egan said, "is exactly the opposite of the very private pleasure of writing. And it’s dangerous. Thinking that I’ll get this kind of love again, that getting it should be my goal, would lead me to creative decisions that would undermine me and my work. I’ve never sought that approval, which is all the more reason that I don’t want to start now."

On reconstructing a lost life

Homeless person on street

Starting with a vague obituary, Cynthia Hubert pieced together the life of a woman who died at 77 on a Sacramento street. Maria Carrillo talks to Hubert's editor about the story's conception and challenges: "It goes back to the elements of that obit notice. The age. The alley. The sleeping bag. How is it a woman of that age was living on the streets? Who had written the obit? If she were loved, how is it she came to die alone in an alley?"