Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mr. Rogers in words 10 years later - by Tom Junod & others

I earlier today saw on Twitter two posts from Esquire Magazine writer Tom Junod that struck me as powerful and sent me off in search of more about Mr. Rogers as the subject...

"Fred Rogers died ten years ago today. I've only met two or three great men in my life, and he was one of them." 

"Fred Rogers used to bring crowds to tears by asking them to be silent for a minute, and to think of someone who made them who they are. RIP."

Just captivating words from Junod and they reminded me of how I previously had seen the profile "Can You Say... Hero?" he wrote on Rogers. Published by Esquire in 1998, I read it last year linked to from Oregonian writer Anna Griffin and her blog of great writing. I didn't write about the Junod piece at the time, but seeing the depth of feeling conveyed in these tweets from Junod compelled me to read it again this morning and it really is a powerful story about Rogers.

In addition to the tweets and actual profile (which isn't on the Esquire site anymore as the profile included in the 80 Greatest Esquire Stories eBook- hence the odd site linked to), I found several other compelling pieces about Mr. Rogers both by Junod and related to his profile written. For the Nieman Storyboard series on great writing done, Susannah Breslin wrote "Why's This So Good? Tom Junod on Mr. Rogers and Grace" and I found noteworthy the following passage from Breslin...

"The story works because it speaks to you as if you are the child you once were. It refuses to be snarky and dares to move you."

Going back to Rogers himself were two other pieces of writing that reinforced the depth of caring in the man. The first was by Junod again with his 2003 "Remembering Mister Rogers" and the second was by Brendan Vaughn in 2006 for the New York Times. Titled "Rogers and Me", it's about the book I'm Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan and an interesting story on Madigan and his relationship with Rogers if for reason other than it's from someone in addition to Junod writing about who Rogers was.

To this point, video of the 1997 Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award speech by Rogers that Junod references was compelling (and not just to see the hairstyles worn then) and insightful about the man, what he tried to do with others and the impact that had on people...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Writers on writing - Jones, Montgomery, Lake, Tullis, Lamott & Gilbert

I frequently post about writers on writing and there's been a few recent compelling pieces about writing from three different sources to note here.

The first was "Getting the Story: A roundtable discussion", an e-mail discussion from the magazine Creative Nonfiction moderated by Matt Tullis with writers Ben Montgomery, Thomas LakeChris Jones. Topics covered all dealt with nonfiction writing and while the entire piece had some great content to it, below are some of the notions that stood out the most to me:

From Tullis on whether creative nonfiction and journalism operate on different ends of the nonfiction writing spectrum...

"Some of the best creative nonfiction I've read over the last five years was actually journalism, and by that, I mean stories written about the lives of other people, reported by people who know how to report and synthesize what they have reported, then craft a story that captures a place, a time, a person—sometimes all three—to give readers an experience they won’t soon forget, one that reaches truths which fiction and memoir strive for but often fail to reach."

From Montgomery on the question of whether the right term for this type of writing is "creative nonfiction" or something like "narrative journalism"...

"I’m not really concerned with how we categorize it or what we call it. Seems like there’s a new name for it every year. In the end, it’s a stack of facts and reported detail and dialogue ordered to give life to a story. It’s journalism. Narrative journalism seems redundant."

From Jones on the import & process of reporting...

"True nonfiction, the sort of nonfiction that might last and has a chance to matter, is built on a foundation of reporting. And not just a little reporting. Whenever anyone asks me what I do, or whenever I have to fill out a form that asks for my profession, I usually answer “reporter.” A writer can be any number of things. A reporter can be only one thing: a finder of facts. That’s what I love most about my job, that’s what I think I’m best at, and that’s what I most want to be. I want people to read my stuff and think, That guy’s a reporter."

"Reporting really is a two-step process: find your sources, and then mine your sources for material. I usually try to make a list of the people I want to talk to. That list will change because it’s useful to ask the people you talk to who they might talk to if they were writing the story, and they will give you names that you've never heard before. And then I talk to people, a lot."

From Lake on when to stop reporting...

"When you see the story in your mind, from beginning to middle to end, and you can write down that structure on a blank white sheet of paper and there are no gaping holes. I should clarify: This does not actually mean you stop reporting. What it means is you can start writing. But you keep reporting as you write because the act of writing reveals these little pinholes in the reporting, these places where you don’t know quite as much as you should. So you keep making phone calls right up to the end. You solidify, you deepen, you seal all the leaks. You may never actually be done until the thing shows up in print."

From Jones on writing a story...

"I usually have a rolling Word document filled with contacts and ideas and sentences that have popped into my head. I don’t outline, but like Ben, I write from memory first. I don’t go back to all that stuff until after I have a first draft. Then, I go back and correct my mistakes and find plaster for the holes. Otherwise, I get too bound up, reading back over everything. I want my story to feel natural, not constructed, if that makes sense."

Excellent content from this piece for Creative Nonfiction Magazine and another interesting piece on the subject of writing was from Gretchen Rubin who wrote the self-help bestseller The Happiness Project. On her Happiness Project blog Rubin posted "14 Writing Tips from Anne Lamott" with wisdom from Lamott's book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. The tips from Lamott that Rubin passes along are very solid and reminded me of reading and reviewing Bird by Bird last year.

Final piece on writing to note here was from Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, with her essay for the website Bookish. Gilbert offers a response to novelist Philip Roth who spoke of how writing an "awfulish field" to work in. Roth is a renowned author of many books, including The Plot Against America that I enjoyed quite a bit, and it's certainly his prerogative to be down on the field of writing, but was also interesting to read Gilbert's thoughts in support of writing as a profession. The part that struck me the most was the following...

"Writing is a voluntary act. Becoming a novelist, then, is not some sort of dreadful Mayan curse, or dark martyrdom that only a chosen few can withstand for the betterment of humanity. Writing is just a thing. It is a lovely thing, mind you, and it personally means the entire world to me, but I still recognize that it is just a thing. It is a thing that you can choose to pursue with your life because it excites you, or because you have a flair for it, or because it seems more rewarding than toiling away in an office. Sometimes it even works. Not always, but sometimes. If you're lucky, you might be able to make a small living out of this thing. If you're exceedingly lucky, other people might come to appreciate your gifts. If you are phenomenally lucky, you might become lionized in your own lifetime, like the great Philip Roth himself."

Some really great material on writing and the producing of it from these three sources.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Best writing linked to in 2012

Rather than repeat the lateness of my post that went up on Jan 7th, 2013 titled "Best Writing Linked to in 2011", I'm noting here my favorite writing linked to in 2012 less than two months after the year over! With that preamble...

Best writing on writing linked to in 2012

"Writing" by Scott Raab for his personal blog. Written on and linked to in Jan 2012.

"Some thoughts and musings about making things for the web" by Matthew Inman for his site The Oatmeal. Written on and linked to in Nov 2012.

Best writing on adventure linked to in 2012

"The Ballad of Johnny France" by Richard Ben Cramer for Esquire and reposted to the site Alex Belth's Bronx Banter. Written on and linked to in Jan 2012.

"Why Noah Went Into the Woods" by Mark Sundeen for Outside Magazine. Written on and linked to in Apr 2012.

"The Devil on Paradise Road" by Bruce Barcott for Outside Magazine. Written on and linked to in Sept 2012.

"Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek" by John Branch for the New York TimesWritten on and linked to in Dec 2012.

Best writing on sports linked to in 2012

"Mourning Glory" by Chris Ballard for Sports Illustrated. Written on and linked to in Oct 2012.

"Stand Up, Speak Out" by Gary Smith for Sports Illustrated. Written on and linked to in Dec 2012.

Best other writing (longform) linked to in 2012

"How One Response to a Reddit Query Became a Big-Budget Flick" by Jason Fagone for Wired MagazineWritten on and linked to in Mar 2012.

"The Hazards of Growing Up Painlessly" by Justin Heckert for the New York Times Magazine. Written on and linked to in Nov 2012.

Best other writing (short) linked to in 2012

"John Hickenlooper's Long, Hot Summer" by Robert Sanchez for Esquire. Posted on and linked to (along with an excellent Elon Musk profile by Tom Junod) in Dec 2012.

"Are You John Lennon?" by Jimmy Breslin for the New York Daily News and reposted to the blog Ralrika. Written on and linked to in Dec 2012.

"Running and Hoping to Find a Child Safe" by Jim Dwyer for the New York Times. Written on and linked to in Dec 2012.

So much great writing linked to last year and there was of course a ton of excellent pieces I've overlooked, but these stood out as particularly well-written and ones that seem worthy of this (highly arbitrary) "Best Writing" designation.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Compelling sports stories - by Wright Thompson, Greg Bishop & Ryan O'Hanlon

My favorite pieces of sports writing come across recently were three that stood out for wildly divergent reasons.

The oldest was one a few weeks back from Outside Magazine and (perhaps logically given the source) really less of a sports piece and more of an adventure travel one which came about because of sports. "Soccer in the World's Most Violent City: The Great Mall of San Pedro Sula" was written by Ryan O'Hanlon and is a tremendously interesting riff on his time in Honduras for the U.S. Men's Soccer World Cup qualifying match. Just a different world there than most people in America familiar with.

A second excellent piece was done a week ago by Greg Bishop with "A Leg Rebuilt, a Life Renewed for Jay Williams". Written for the New York Times, it's a profile of the former Duke basketball star who was selected second in the 2002 draft by the Chicago Bulls and then saw his career all but ended by a motorcycle crash following his rookie season. Bishop wrote a thorough look at Williams and his life that certainly still carries a measure of what could have been, but at the same time seems to be on a really solid path.

The most recent story to note here was an ESPN feature by Wright Thompson posted Friday. "Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building" is just an incredibly well-done look at Jordan, his life and psyche as he turns 50 on Sunday. Jordan is by many accounts not a terribly nice guy and heavily driven by his grievances and resentments over slights both real and perceived (as detailed in a Thomas Lake feature for Sports Illustrated) and Thompson portrays this side of him, but also shows how the public life Jordan has led (including his father being killed as a result of Jordan's fame) makes his life so far apart from others. Thompson has done some tremendous pieces of writing for ESPN I've previously seen and one of the things that made this story exceptional was how it revealed so much detail on Jordan, but still left it to the reader to evaluate him as they may.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Time Magazine pieces - by Lev Grossman, Mark Thompson & Austin Ramzy

Time Magazine has had some really interesting pieces from the last few months to note here... and which are available online to anyone with a username and password on the Time site.

The one that stood out the most was the Feb 11 issue cover story "Drone Home" by Lev Grossman. Really a fascinating piece about aerial drones, with the most well-known being the Predator Drone used by the U.S. military, but there now being a host of civilian-use drones here in America. Additionally, the same military use drone technology used by the U.S. could be adopted by any number of other countries and Grossman raises the compelling and plausible idea of a foreign power someday following the U.S. military path of using drones to strike at enemies, but doing so on U.S. soil.

The oldest Time piece to mention here was also by Grossman, but from the Dec 19 Person of the Year edittion of Time. "Runner-Up: Tim Cook, the Technologist" was on the Apple CEO and while the entire piece an interesting one, what stood out to me was mention of the hours put into his job. Remarkable anecdote from Grossman on Cook with "He wakes up at 3:45 every morning (“Yes, every morning”), does e-mail for an hour, stealing a march on those lazy East Coasters three time zones ahead of him, then goes to the gym, then Starbucks (for more e-mail), then work."

The other two recent pieces of note from Time were both well written, but actually stood out to me as reminders of past articles I've linked to and written on about similar topics. In the Feb 7 Time issue Mark Thompson wrote "Killer. Healer. Victim." on the shooting death of former Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle (who wrote a bestselling autobiography covering his time in the military). Kyle was active in trying to help other veterans cope with leaving the military and was gunned down at a shooting range by a someone someone struggling with mental illness and returning home. Really a sad story that reminded me of a 2012 blog post I did which linked to a number of pieces by Thompson and fellow Time writer Nancy Gibbs about veteran mental health troubles and disconnect with society.

The final Time story to mention here was by Austin Ramzy from the Feb 18 issue. "Precious Holdings" is about mining for Rare Earth metals and what's occurred in the market since the Chinese government in 2010 decided to dramatically limit exports of the commodities needed for technology including weapons, electronics and vehicles. Interesting piece that brought to mind a 2011 blog post I did on a Businessweek feature about Rare Earth mining in Alaska.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Writing on athletes off the field of play - by Chuck Culpepper, R.A. Dickey & Chuck Klosterman

There's been three pieces of writing I've seen recently that dealt with professional athletes attempting to accomplish things that go way beyond wins and loses.

For the website Sports on Earth, "The Gay Super Bowl" was by Chuck Culpepper and about his experience as a gay sports writer. Heavily featured in the piece is gay-rights advocate and NFL player Brendon Ayanbadejo (profiled a few months ago by Gwen Knapp) and Culpepper wraps up the story with the following exchange he had with Ayanbadejo...

"You don't know me," I said, and he grinned at that, "but you have done a lot for me," and his eyes told me he knew what I meant. "And I just want to tell you that I am so grateful. You are a good man." Whew. There. I had spit it out. With reasonable concision, even. As we let go of our handshake, he said simply and unemotionally, "It's the right thing to do, plain and simple," whereupon I mustered a closing, ''Thank you." Wary of bothering him any further, I turned around and practiced my penchant for fast walking, relieved that I had spoken, amazed that my unusual life could have intersected with such an unusual linebacker.

Another recent piece of writing about an athlete doing important work was actually by the athlete himself, MLB pitcher R.A. Dickey (who was profiled in a Dec '12 Sports Illustrated cover story by Gary Smith). Along with sports writer Wayne Coffey, Dickey did for the New York Daily News a story about his recent time spent in Mumbai, India. The setting brings to mind Katherine Boo’s book that I read last month about the slums there and this Daily News piece details Dickey being there with his two daughters to see work done by a charity he supports, the Bombay Teen Challenge which aids victims of human sex trafficking.

The final piece to mention here also very much showcased a pro athlete who works on behalf of a cause, in this case one probably more difficult to define than gay-rights or combating human trafficking and one the athlete himself actually a part one. Houston Rockets player Royce White suffers from diagnosed Anxiety Disorder and for the website Grantland, Chuck Klosterman offers a fascinating profile with "The White Album". Sections of it are written in a Q&A format and while unconventional, it seems appropriate as it helps let the reader decide how they feel about White and his views.

The first-year NBA player actually hasn't appeared in a game yet this season as he and the Rockets have disagreed on expectations of him and it's just tremendously interesting reading about White's views of how mental illness should be treated in the workplace. He makes some solid arguments both on behalf of himself and others by extension, but at the same time it seems like a functioning workplace (NBA team or otherwise) might not be quite so functioning if some of White's ideas were carried out. Whether someone fully agrees with White or not, it's certainly a subject that affects many in society today and bears the type of examination Klosterman provides.

"The Lost City of Z" by David Grann

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann was a pretty compelling read about famed English explorer Percy Fawcett, his search for a mythical city supposedly deep in the Amazon and those who later searched for Fawcett and information on what happened to him.

It was a well written book on some fascinating subjects and while it perhaps could have been shorter, the ending was well worth waiting for. There was some really excellent material from Grann that brought to present day some of the goals of discovery, challenges faced and cultures encountered by Fawcett close to a century ago.

Thinking of books I've read in the past, the subject of exploration brought to mind the excellent A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts on blind explorer James Holman. Also, after reading The Lost City of Z, I found a very complimentary and thorough (perhaps best not read until after for someone who intends to read Grann's book) New York Times review "An Explorer Drawn to, and Eventually Swallowed by, the Amazon" written by Michiko Kakutani.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Stories of the amazing - by Mike Dash for the Smithsonian & Robert Worth for the NYT Magazine

There's two different magazine pieces I saw last week that stood out as amazing true stories that were written well.

For the Smithsonian Magazine, Mike Dash provided "For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II." As incredible as the title would indicate, the story told is of a Russian Orthodox family that entered Siberia in 1936 to escape religious persecution and remained isolated from the rest of civilization until a chance encounter with geologists in 1978. The details as described by Dash are remarkable and bring to mind another Smithsonian piece of his that I posted on and linked to a year ago, "The Mysterious Mr. Zedzed: the Wickedest Man in the World."

The other recent piece that struck me as telling an amazing true tale was "The Spy Novelist Who Knows Too Much" on French author Gérard de Villiers. Written by Robert Worth for the New York Times Magazine, it details de Villiers and his 200+ spy thrillers described by Worth as being "gruesome and decadent" books. In terms of readership, the de Villiers S.A.S. series is said to have sold some 100 million copies, but what's most striking in this piece is description of the level of inside or classified information the books are said to contain. Worth details how a de Villiers book will have detail around military and intelligence operations simply not seen anywhere else. In fact, it's noted in the piece how de Villiers in his books has at times presaged historical events with him having written novels that covered events to come in both Benghazi and Egypt.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Adventure writing - by C.J. Chivers, Steven Rinella and A.G. Sulzberger

There's been some great writing I've come across lately that trafficked in the fairly wide-ranging subject of outdoor adventure.

The most recent piece was "Two Men, One Sky: A Flight to the Finish" for the New York Times. Written by A.G. Sulzberger, it's on the remarkable 10 hour hang gliding solo flights of Jonny Durand and Dustin Martin as they simultaneously went from the border of South Texas to the North Texas Hill Country 438 miles away. It's a well done story of amazing achievement by both men who at the same time were striving to see whose record-breaking flight would be longer.

Additional great writing lately was found in two outdoor focused magazines. I originally saw it last April, but was recently reminded of a Field & Stream piece by frequent war correspondent C.J. Chivers"Operation Thresher: Fishing for Monster Sharks off The Shores of Rhode Island" was an aptly named story of preparation, adventure and time spent between a father and his sons. Really great writing from Chivers in this story.

The final two pieces to note here were each from Outside Magazine and both written by Steven Rinella. From the Jan 2013 issue was "The Joys of Cabin Living in Alaska" and the essay is one of those works of writing that's just lyrical in it's descriptions and ability to pull the reader in. The other Rinella Outside story that I enjoyed recently was a larger feature from 2009 titled "Me, Myself, and Ribeye" on time the author spent searching out and enjoying what's purported to be some of the best steak in the world, that in Argentina. Perhaps not as profound as the essay on time with family at his Alaska cabin, it's nonetheless an entertaining tale of gastronomic adventure.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Solid sports writing - by Jones, Wickersham, Merrill & Price

There's been a few excellent pieces of writing I've seen recently from both ESPN and Sports Illustrated.

The Feb 4 issue of ESPN the Magazine featured "The Book of Coach" by Seth Wickersham. Written about Bill Walsh and his 550 page thesis on coaching, Finding the Winning Edge, it's compelling reading about both the book (with new copies going for $799+ on Amazon) and man himself (with his compulsion to be perfect). It was just fascinating reading within the piece about the sports writer that put together the book with Walsh and how he was treated by the 49er coaching legend.

From the same issue of ESPN was an excellent back-page column by Chris Jones. Titled "Keepers of the Cup", it's on the now concluded NHL lockout and has the subtitle "The bloated, broken NHL doesn't deserve the best trophy in sports." Solid piece from Jones that brings to mind for me the start of season NHL marketing slogan of "hockey's back"... and really, the NHL is back, but hockey never left.

Also by Jones for ESPN the Magazine was his Dec 2011 column "Watershed Moment" on surfer Garrett McNamara. It's excellent writing that's timely now with McNamara recently surfing what may well have been a 100-foot wave off the same Portugal coast that Jones wrote about just over a year ago.

The final ESPN piece to note here was by Elizabeth Merrill a few days ago for the website. "Are You a Ray Lewis Believer?" is about the Ravens linebacker as he prepares for his final NFL game in the upcoming Super Bowl. It was definitely an interesting approach that Merrill took in how she put the story together and the subject of Lewis brought to mind two really good S.L. Price pieces on Lewis for Sports Illustrated with "The Gospel According to Ray" from 2006 and "The Force of His Nature" after Lewis announced he would retire at season's end.

Esquire writing - from Lichtenstein, Chiarella & Jones

There's been a couple of Esquire pieces I've read lately that struck me as particularly remarkable, with one published in the Feb 2013 issue, one for the web last week and one a website post from 2010 that I linked to last year.

The magazine feature story was by Jesse Lichtenstein with "Do We Really Want to Live Without the Post Office?" It's writing that's both on an important subject and incredibly detailed. In this regard of how much included and the reporting that likely had to go into it, Lichtenstein's reminded me of a piece I linked to in Sept of last year, Justin Heckert's Esquire feature "How to Build an American Car" on the 2012 Cadillac ATS.

In the Esquire writing of profundity category lately were two different pieces published on the website. Tom Chiarella wrote "The Happiness of Aaron Swartz" about doing a eulogy at the memorial of the internet pioneer and open source web advocate. The essay by Chiarella touches on the themes of achievement and fear as well as friends and family and struck me as an example of just how powerful words can be when describing something of great import.

The final Esquire piece to note here is one from a few years ago that I previously included as part of a post on writing about fathers & sons, but I came across it again recently and is great writing that also reminded me of the essay on Swartz in the depth of feeling conveyed. "Autistics" was written by Chris Jones for his Esquire blog back in Sept 2010 and is about the writer's four year old son and his diagnosis as mildly autistic. It's a short piece and just struck me as really fantastic work.