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To write the best story, sometimes you must get out of your own head

Dr E's amanuensis, Mr K, recently published this essay on Nieman Storyboard.
To write the best story, sometimes you must get out of your own head
scribble, scribble, scribble

by Dale Keiger

If you write for a living and stay with it long enough you will accumulate a bulging folder of journeyman’s work. You don’t renounce it and you don’t brag about it. It’s the work that working pros do.

You will also write a few portfolio pieces — stories that win praise, recognition, and gratitude from editors and readers, stories you re-read in occasional fits of vanity and think, That’s a good one. If you are gimlet-eyed about your own work — no easy task — even after 30 or 40 years your portfolio folder will not bulge. It might contain a half-dozen pieces. At best.

My first 10 years of post j–school, full-time magazine journalism now feels like an apprenticeship. I did some good work, did some hack work, won some admirers, made a few enemies, won a few awards, made some mistakes. I aspired to art while slowly — very slowly — learning craft. My teachers were practice, experience, trial and error, good editors and exemplars like John McPhee, Tracy Kidder, Edward Hoagland, Paul Theroux and Annie Dillard.

It took me about 15 years to achieve a level where every few years a fortunate convergence of the right subject, right editor, right deadline, right state of mind and right ability set me up to compose something that didn’t merely get the job done but had some voltage running through it.

I’d love to attribute those pieces to genius, but yeah, right. I think what happened is on rare occasions I was able to see not just the story that any professional knows how to construct, but sense the presence of a much better story waiting to be revealed. That is, if I could put my darting mind in neutral long enough to see it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.”

The key words there are receptive and unobstructed. With enough practice, it’s not that hard to pull a few hundred sentences out of our notes and arrange them in a coherent article. We do that all the time. We can do it in 45 minutes if we have to.

But a great story isn’t bolted together like an Adirondack chair. It’s received by a writer who had the time and awareness to let her reporting settle and speak to her about what to write. The best piece lurking in your notes usually doesn’t wave its arms like the friend you’re meeting on a stadium concourse. Instead, it makes brief eye contact but goes to no more effort. You’re either paying attention or you miss it. The story doesn’t care, which is maddening.

Welcome to the writing life.

Two examples might make this all a little less sketchy. In one case, to write the best story I first had to scrap one that was good enough. In the other, I had to turn my own intellectual shortcomings into a virtue.

For the first, I’d gotten a dream assignment: Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore was creating, from scratch, a full-length opera based on E.M. Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread.” I would have full access to everybody: the librettist and director, the composer, the conductor, the vocal coaches, every member of the cast. The librettist and composer generously gave me all their correspondence from seven years of collaboration on the book and score. My reporting began the day after casting and, over the ensuing six months, I spent so much time at rehearsal, talked to so many people and took so many notes that on opening night I discovered the company had listed me in the program: Dale Keiger—Chronicler.

After attending the performances, which culminated my reporting, I couldn’t wait to write the story. A 5,000-word draft came easily. I knew what I wanted to say. My editor praised it. All seemed promising when I took the manuscript in hand on a Saturday, eager to polish it and turn in the final on Monday.

But after reading three pages I felt a growing dread. After three more pages there was no denying it: The story I’d spread out on my desk was dead on arrival. “Leaden” would be a charitable assessment: no narrative drive, no creative energy, no spark, all the excitement of a five-inch metro section story on the county zoning board. How could I have gotten it so wrong?

Writing for a magazine, I had the luxury of time, but not much; I was only a few days from deadline. I went for a solitary walk, trying not to think about the story so I wouldn’t interrupt my subconscious thinking about the story. After a mile or so, I knew what was wrong.

Roy Peter Clark, writing scholar and coach at The Poynter Institute, says, “Reports give readers information. Stories give readers experience.” I would add: An article is generic; a story is unique. You can build your generic article and assemble your report — or you can find the one story that only you could tell. The story that unscrolled in my mind as I strolled down the street was of being in the audience on opening night, experiencing what everyone around me saw and heard but from the unique perspective of having witnessed months of extraordinary labor by dozens of smart, talented, dedicated artists. Anyone with a ticket saw what the musicians did; I knew how they’d done it.

I sat down and reworked my story scene by scene. First I presented a short vivid summary of what happened onstage, followed by an account how the librettist had tweaked Forster’s material, how the composer wrote a melody to honor his soprano wife’s beautiful high notes (she wasn’t in the cast but she was on his mind), how one of the tenors became a favorite of the ladies in the cast, how a young woman struggled with her part until she first donned the costume and everything came together. I borrowed energy from opera’s narrative and layered in the drama and tension present when artists go all in with talent, ego and insecurity to see what might be created.

“Making Angels” was structured like the play itself, in scenes and acts. The scene-by-scene synopsis presented the characters; the rest presented the people who brought the characters to life.

My second example arose from a much different assignment. “The mathematic mind of Emily Riehl” was  assigned as the profile of a rising star in an abstruse mathematical field called category theory. I had written enough pieces on particle physics, molecular biology, cognitive science, epidemiology and cybersecurity to know how to make recondite knowledge not just comprehensible but engaging. But mathematics? That presented a challenge of a higher order. I would have to translate equations I didn’t understand and theory I barely grasped into meaningful prose, and I had to get it right.

As novelist and essayist Paul Theroux once said about hearing Pashto for the first time, I felt like a dog listening to music. Not only that, I had to make readers care. I had to enter this austere, abstract world of symbolic thinking and come out with a human story that still did justice to the math and didn’t patronize the reader. (Math is hard, said the talking Barbie.)

Writing about science means humbling yourself about how little you know, and then writing the story in the authoritative voice of a tentative expert. But as I tried to work up a lead after many hours of conversation with my subject and other mathematicians, I had an idea: What if early in the story I made an admission counter to my customary I’ve got this science-writer attitude? I couldn’t really explain the math because prose is unavoidably imprecise and approximate in ways that math is not. Plus, because I can’t read equations, my own understanding was vague in its own way. Instead of mathematical precision, all I could offer was to sort of explain Riehl’s work.

In other circumstances that might be a lame cop-out. But on this one occasion it was a virtue because at the heart of Riehl’s work are all the ways that numbers and equations and meaning are not as concrete as commonly supposed. In her work, math could be as mysterious as metaphor. She explored a strange realm in which even an equals sign meant something different. That mathematical knowledge was fuzzier and more elastic than commonly supposed was not my problem — it was the point. As I wrote:

“Two” doesn’t seem to pose a deep and complicated question: two kids, two shoes, two peas in a pod. What’s so hard? But “two” itself is not a thing, it’s a mathematical object. It’s an idea that helps us think about other things. You can’t pick up a two, throw a two, or eat a two because it doesn’t exist. Yet it inheres in everything, everywhere that pairs exist.

The story worked, I think, because I could say to the reader, You know that unease you feel over almost understanding what I’m trying to say while at the same time sensing that the full meaning is eluding both of us? Mathematicians can feel the same way. That bafflement was there for Riehl, too, but for her it was a way into whole new realms and important new mathematics. I found the real story only when I saw that my struggle for comprehension and precise definition was congruent with how Riehl’s mind worked. Her math and my prose had more in common than I’d imagined.

Sometimes you must surrender the idea of steering the story toward a predetermined structure and destination. We all know how to do the latter, so it feels secure.

Letting the story find its own way takes faith in the process (and in yourself) and that can be hard. (Daily reporters usually won’t have the time, but much of their work answers to different demands, and those demands need to be honored.) But in work that goes beyond the article to the story — beyond the information to the experience — you have to get out of your head because, given half a chance, your head will suck the life out of creative work. Your head will always play it safe and cue up whatever worked the last time. And what worked the last time might get the job done, but it won’t produce something you can be proud of 20 years from now.

This essay first appeared on Nieman Storyboard. Thanks to editor Jacqui Banaszynski and the Nieman Foundation.