Monday, October 7, 2013

The Deep Freeze

About a year ago, the then-editor-in-chief of FAU’s student publication, the University Press, switched formats from a tabloid to a glossy magazine. As the adviser to the publication, I was only too happy to help in the endeavor, as literary journalism is what I love and what I’m best at, and the new format signaled a focus on narrative writing. So, last summer when the switch was made, I held a workshop on the subject for the reporters at the paper. Wanting to keep it simple, I narrowed my advice down to three main points: Good transitions, interview techniques, and when to write. 

On good transitions, my main point was that the average reader is looking for any excuse to put down your story. It’s up to you to force the reader to read on. Your words are competing for their attention with every TV show, video game, or other distraction available, and here in the 21st century, those distractions are more varied and numerous than at any other point in human history. Each paragraph should end with a reason for readers to keep reading. Each paragraph should start with a reward for their having done so. Transitions are key.

On interview techniques, I sort of broke the rules of narrative journalism, but only because of the time crunch we have at a weekly newspaper. Long-form writers for big, feature-friendly magazines such as Esquire or Vanity Fair spend months with their subjects. We did not have that sort of time. But as a stopgap, I encouraged the students to meet with their subjects at least three times, and only one of those should be a true, sit-down interview. In the other two, the reporter should just be a fly on the wall and watch the subject in situations in which he/she is most comfortable. Maybe hang out with the subject and his or her friends, take a look around the place where they live, and so on. Get some color.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I told them this: Never, ever write cold. Some people would argue this point. Take a night to sleep on it after conducting an interview, they’ll say. Get some distance between you and the subject. But these people – or at the very least, these handy straw men I’ve just created – are wrong. Before I came to FAU, I wrote a music column for a local alternative weekly publication. Most of the time, the majority of the column was written at the very event I was covering. As soon as a concert started, or even before, I had already taken down a bunch of notes on the scene. Once the music played, I essentially wrote a journal of what was happening around me. With a judicious amount of rewriting, those notes became the column 95 percent of the time. If you “sleep on it,” you will forget things. Wonderful bits of color will creep out of your mind and into your dreams before being lost forever. You’ll forget about the time your subject flinched as you mentioned a name, or the smell of a place as you entered. Never write cold.

And yet, here I am in Nonfiction Workshop, not just breaking this rule but shattering it. For my first piece in the workshop, I’m trying something a little more humorous, but my second piece will be a first-person account of a rather dark moment from my undergrad years. Only problem with that is that I graduated in 2000. Trying to step back in time more than a decade is a difficult problem, one that I’m attempting to surmount by talking to old friends, getting their recollections, and trying to piece together a fuller narrative from these jigsaw pieces. Couple those recollections with some newspaper accounts from the time, and hopefully, I’ll arrive at something like the truth. Rules are made to be broken, so I guess I don’t have too many reservations about writing not just cold, but in a deep freeze. Still, the story would have been more colorful and easier to write if I had just gotten something on paper when the events occurred.

Turning my notes directly into my articles when I was a columnist led me to also take copious notes about my personal life, but that journaling came too late to help me with the story I’m writing now. (And, to be perfectly frank, my journaling has fallen off as I’ve gotten busier. Tough to write about your day when your 3-year-old walks out of his bedroom demanding one more story or a glass of water.) So, please allow my story to serve as an example of what not to do. If you intend to write memoir, you’d better be taking notes.

Dan Sweeney is the staff adviser to Florida Atlantic University's student newspaper, The University Press, and an MFA student in the Creative Nonfiction program. Prior to coming to FAU, he worked for 11 years as an editor and columnist at alternative weekly newspapers in South Florida, and has freelanced for numerous national and regional publications.

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