Writers and writing

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Writers and writing

Shane Bauer spent two years in an Iranian prison, then returned to the U.S. and reported on prisons here. His account of going undercover to work in a privately run Louisiana prison was recently published by Mother Jones and Davis Harper talks to Bauer about it: "I put in an application thinking, Why not? But I didn’t really think anything was going to come of it. If they Googled my name and found previous stories I had written, I thought that would disqualify me."

David A. Price finds a common thread in New Journalism icon Tom Wolfe's writing, and that thread is status and how people compete for it. Price quotes from Wolfe's work and includes excerpts from an interview that he conducted with the author in New York late last year: "'That has more or less been my system of approaching any subject,' Wolfe says. 'For instance, "The Right Stuff" is not a book about space, it’s a book about status competition among pilots.'"

Siri Carpenter talks to Apoorva Mandavilli about her Atlantic story on a mathematician's recovery from brain trauma, and how her friendship with the victim's wife affected her reporting: "It was really tough to figure out how to be honest about all of the things that have happened to him — and some of the things in there are very personal, like the sexual disinhibition and the aphasia and the panic attacks he’s had. I had to struggle with how much of that to include."

From a 1975 interview of Nora Ephron by legendary Chicago author Studs Terkel on "gender, politics, and the journalistic responsibility of ending the gaslighting of women," Maria Popova excerpts some of Ephron's thoughts: "I’ve never believed in objective journalism — and no one who is a journalist in his or her right mind does — because all writing is about selecting what you want to use. And as soon as you choose what to select, you’re not being objective."

Charles P. Pierce discusses a deadline courtroom story by Michael Brick, focusing on Brick's description of the defendant as he awaited sentencing for a murder that he maintained he did not commit: "Writing well and writing fast always has been what newspaper reporters have for poetry. If I had to guess, and if he was anything like me, I’d say Brick didn’t know how good that passage was until he saw it in the newspaper. The deadline is a muse well-camouflaged."

Nieman Storyboard's April Reese gives the annotation treatment to a Peter Baker story about a young man and his web site devoted to lonely people. She focuses in part on how the writer remained firmly neutral in his treatment of an often objectionable subject: "Baker acts as our guide to a subculture that’s difficult for many people to relate to: the world of 'involuntary celibates,' filled with men — and they are almost all men — blaming their loneliness on women."

Tracy Hahn-Burkett discusses lessons for writers from a book about the Broadway hit "Hamilton," written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show's creator, and cultural critic Jeremy McCarter, including this on the careful use of detail: "Hamilton flirted with his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler, via the placement of a comma in a letter he wrote her. Flirting via comma! This detail, so specific to the time and place of the story, blew Miranda away, and he made sure he used it."

Megapopular science author Mary Roach lists books by Dave Barry, Amy Poehler, and others among her favorite humorous books: "I’ll say that I consider myself a non-fiction writer who is sometimes funny, so I do associate myself with humor in that way, just in case your readers aren’t familiar with my work and are wondering why the hell someone who isn’t a humor writer picked humor books." Also, Roach talks about her latest, Grunt, reviewed here.

Tom Yulsman interviews Cally Carswell and annotates her High Country News story, “The Tree Coroners,” about climate change and dying forests in the western U.S. "It was definitely a challenge to figure out how to structure a story with no real central character, and with multiple settings. My editor, the one and only Michelle Nijhuis, suggested using scale as a structural device, starting with a local story, then going regional, then going global, then back to local."

Some writers never read their critics. Others take them to heart. Maria Popova writes that handling criticism is "one of the essential survival skills of the creative spirit" and quotes from a George Plimpton book with writers' advice on how best to achieve that, including this from Thornton Wilder: "The important thing is that you make sure that neither the favorable nor the unfavorable critics move into your head and take part in the composition of your next work."