Friday, June 28, 2013

"The Innocent Man" feature by Pamela Colloff for Texas Monthly

The two-part magazine feature came out last fall, but I just this week finally read "The Innocent Man" (second part here) by Pamela Colloff.

Written for Texas Monthly, it's remarkably detailed journalism about Michael Morton, the Dallas area man wrongly convicted in 1987 of murdering his wife and who was exonerated and released from prison over two decades later in 2011.

The feature from Colloff won a National Magazine Award and in a Nieman Storyboard Annotation Series segment (split into two parts with the first here and second here), Colloff provides background on reporting and writing the story as well as commentary about certain sections of writing. One praise out of the Nieman segment by Paige Williams was just how understated the writing from Colloff was, with the story just laid out and events providing the drama.

The Texas Monthly page on Morton contains links to both halves of the 28,000 word story by Colloff along with a number of other related pieces, including stories about the eventual conviction of Mark Alan Norwood for the murder and criminal misconduct investigation into former District Attorney and now Texas Judge Ken Anderson.

It was a great feature from Colloff for Texas Monthly and Morton's story (including details about Norwood and Anderson) was also the subject of a recent a 60 Minutes feature...

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Wild Ones" by Jon Mooallem

Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem was an interesting book with the equally interesting and long subtitle A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.

Mooallem wrote early on of his four year-old daughter who possesses untold numbers of animal themed items and apparel and how when she's an adult, her exposure to animals as an adult may be different than ours with many species on the road to extinction. Mooallem in the introduction described Wild Ones as being about "finding yourself straddling those two animal worlds- a little kid's and the actual one- and trying to understand both." 

There were three main sections to the book with each focusing on efforts to save a particular species:

1. Bears - This was specific to polar bears, particularly the population of polar bears around Churchill, Manitoba and interesting from Mooallem was his description of how the polar bear became more of a symbol than anything else.

2. Butterflies - Also covered were conservation efforts around the Lange's metalmark butterfly which lives only in the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge in California. It was fascinating reading here of the efforts to preserve the species and how cause and effect often has led to unintended consequences for the Lange's metalmark.

3. Birds - The last section was on the whooping crane and an annual human-led migration from Wisconsin to Florida. It's in this section that Mooallem provides the most hopeful writing, but it's not really because the whooping crane will likely thrive (whatever the definition of thrive is) in the future, it's because of the efforts that Mooallem saw put in towards saving the birds. Quoted in the section was Brooke Pennypacker, a trike pilot (with this being an interesting part of the story) who told Mooallem “you can’t take humanity out of the equation. Humanity caused the problem to begin with, and so it’s very hard for humanity to solve the problem. Because it’s humanity! You know what I mean? We bring to the table all the same crap that was brought to the table to create this nightmare in the first place!” Mooallem wrote of being reassured by seeing these “achingly imperfect people, working to achieve something more moral than they are” and then quoted Pennypacker again with his statement “it’s not a bird project. It’s a people project. The birds are an excuse for doing something good.” 

Along these same lines of profiling efforts where many species are staying alive only due to our herculean efforts, Mooallem towards the end of the book told the story of Phil Pister, who in 1969 saved the Owen’s pupfish species from extinction (true, almost nobody has heard of the thing, but it was compelling reading on one guy saving a species from extinction).

The quotes from Pennypacker and story on Pister illustrate a point from the book about how it not a question of whether we're playing God in animal conservation efforts, but how far we want to go in playing God in relation to our intervention. Closely related to this is another key point (this the quasi-optimistic one) about how even if our efforts ultimately futile, there's something to be said for just doing something and trying to help.

Two additional things from Mooallem in the book that stood out to me as particularly interesting were around our perception of animal counts and young kids in relation to animals.

In relation to how many animals there should be of a particular species, Mooallem wrote about the concept of shifting baselines syndrome- basically creating a "new normal". In animal species count terms, you don't see many for a while, then you see a few so you feel that you've seen... a lot. His point is that especially when it's considered what things were like in the past, it's tough to say what the count of a species actually "should be."

Mooallem early on in the book wrote of his young daughter and makes the point that we as adults want to view kids as like animals, free and innocent, but one trait shared by kids and animals is that of self-interest. Referenced by Mooallem and quoted in the book was a social ecologist from Yale, Stephen Kellert, who wrote of how young kids aren't born with a relationship with the natural world and desire to preserve it. That mentality would have to develop over time and until it does, kids will see the natural world as simply something that provides, rather than has to be nurtured. It's a fairly brief and interesting part of the book that makes me think of how kids want what they want, we as parents don't have to give it to them, but we can't fault them for wanting or asking.

All in all, it's a solid book that Mooallem noted as coming out of his New York Times Magazine 2009 story "Rescue Flight" on the group featured in the whooping crane section, Operation Migration. Additionally, Mooallem wrote of first visiting Churchill, Manitoba in 2005 while at the UC Berkeley Journalism School and the back jacket of the book mentions him working with the tremendously interesting sounding San Francisco based Pop-Up Magazine, which has creative types putting together a 100-minute live magazine performance on stage for an audience.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Well done and interesting sports stories - by Davis, Sneed, Knapp & Adelson

There's a few recent sports stories to mention here that struck me for different reasons.

From SB Nation Longform came two excellent features with "The Prospect" by Brandon Sneed and "She Is Gone" by David Davis.

The feature by Sneed was about Montaous Walton, a 29 year old from Milwaukee who has consistently over the past decade fabricated stories of his baseball career, seemingly for the purpose of hoping to wish it into becoming true. It's a tremendously interesting read that walks through the details of Walton's life and lies and the piece inspired more than anything else a sense of pity for Walton and his never given up on dream of playing baseball for a career. Also interesting to me about the piece was both Walton's appearance in the comments attached to it and the note from Sneed about how he happened across Walton while doing research for an intended story on obscure baseball prospects.

The Davis feature for SB Nation also stood as a lengthy and compelling one that's really about two different topics, Dodgers baseball and the author and his family. A fascinating story in and of itself is detailed with how the home run ball hit by Kirk Gibson to win game one of the 1988 World Series hasn't been conclusively found. Beyond this, Davis writes about living in Los Angeles as a Dodger fan and his sister's mental illness and suicide two years prior to Gibson's famous home run. It's highly personal writing that would seem to be unrelated to the game of baseball, but Davis puts together two stories into a really great narrative.

Two other pieces of sports writing I saw about a month ago, but haven't yet linked to here weren't as long as the SB Nation ones, but each interesting. "Baseball's most entertaining fans" was by Gwen Knapp for Sports On Earth and about Oakland A's fans in the rightfield bleachers section 149 of the stadium. It's just a very nice look that contains some memorable stuff about positive interactions with opposing players like Jeff Francoeur of the Kansas City Royals. The final story to mention here was an update by Eric Adelson titled "Devon Walker shows strength in face of paralysis" for Yahoo Sports. It's uplifting writing about Walker and support received since his injury suffered last September while playing football for Tulane University.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Writing on fathers and fatherhood - by Mooney, Jones & others

I a few days ago came across a story on new fathers serving in the military and that got me thinking about some past great writing I've linked to that's at least somewhat related.

The piece I just saw for the first time was "On their first Father's Day" by Michael Mooney. He wrote it in 2007 as an intern for the Dallas Morning News and the story has the subtitle "On their first Father's Day, new dads serving in Iraq cling to sights, sounds of newborns, look forward to the day they'll meet face to face." It's an emotion-inducing piece that got me thinking about the story which more than any other started me regularly writing this blog some five years ago.

"The Things That Carried Him" was written by Chris Jones for the May 2008 issue of Esquire and in July 2008 I did a (very short) post on it and the book Too Far From Home also by Jones. As I noted back when, the Esquire feature is about the death of a U.S. serviceman (and father) Joe Montgomery and his return home and recently reading the piece again reminded me of how it's just incredibly well-done writing that leaves an impact.

On the more general subject of writing about fathers and fatherhood, there's certainly more excellent writing I've linked to than this, but what stands out in my memory are the books (both memoirs of sorts) and pieces noted below...

The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan - a book I wrote about here. 

Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis - a book I wrote about here.

"The Wheels of Life" by Gary Smith for Sports Illustrated on Dick Hoyt and his son Rick Hoyt - a story I linked to and wrote about here.

"You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!" by John Jeremiah Sullivan for the New York Times and "Buzz Bissinger on Raising a Special Needs Child" excerpted from his book Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son - both stories I linked to and wrote about here.

"Holy Ground" by Wright Thompson for ESPN and "Autistics" by Chris Jones for Esquire - both stories I linked to and wrote about here.

Definitely some great writing worth remembering in all of these works.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ruminations on creativity - by Sendak, Oswalt & others

A few different things I've seen recently that stood out to me around the creative process (which certainly includes, but is not limited to the writing process) included a post Patton Oswalt made to his website, an interview website I've come across recently and a Maurice Sendak video interview from 2011.

In addition to being a well know comedian and having a supporting role last season on probably my favorite TV show, Oswalt is an excellent writer and a few days ago posted "A closed letter to myself about thievery, heckling and rape jokes" to his website. It's pretty lengthy and contains I thought some very cool thoughts with one portion that stood out being how he's ok with turning off or upsetting some people... "As carefully as I've curated and cultivated my career, I’m now doing the same with my audience. Universality was never my goal as a comedian. Longevity and creativity are."

The interview website that I found recently is The Creators Call and it's a weekly podcast put together by Anthony Palmer, a Georgetown Law student, and Pete Barrett, a Gettysburg College student (who recently had posted to a story he wrote on Cardinals closer Edward Mujica).

There's thus far been posted to The Creators Call audio from five different interviews with creative types. The lineup so far has been excellent (each person I've previously linked to content from has their name hyperlinked) with people featured to date being Chris Brogan, Jeff Pearlman, Glenn Stout, Jeffrey Toobin and Matthew Cerrone.

The Sendak interview was conducted a year before his death last May and included I thought some really profound and worthwhile thoughts from the acclaimed writer of Where the Wild Things Are...

"The question is why bother? and I don't mean why bother to die. Why bother to get bored?"

"It's sublime, To just go into another room and just make pictures. It's magic time. Where all your weaknesses of character and all the blemishes of personality, and whatever else torments you, fades away. Just doesn't matter. You're doing the one thing you want to do and you know you do it well. And you're happy. The whole promise is to do the work, sitting down at the drawing table, turning on the radio. And I think what a transcendent life this is that I'm doing everything I want to do. And that moment I feel like I'm a lucky man. 

I'm trying very hard to concentrate on what is here, what I can see, what I can smell, what I can feel. making that the important business of life. Just looking out the window, the colors I see, reading Charles Dickens at night for an hour, little rituals I have, listening to Mozart. Learning how not to take myself so seriously.What I'm working on, what I'd like to work on, it's not earth-shakingly important. I'm not earth-shakingly important. I'm just clearing the decks for a simple death. You're done with your work, you're done with your life and your life was your work. 

I think what I offered was different, but not because I drew better than anybody or wrote better than anybody, but because I was more honest than anybody. And in a discussion of children and the lives of children and the fantasies of children, and the language of children, I said anything I wanted. Because I don't believe in children, I don't believe in childhood. I don't believe there's a demarcation with 'you mustn't tell them that, or you mustn't tell them that. You can tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it's true, if it's true, you tell them. I have adult thoughts in my head, experiences, but I'm never going to talk about them. I'm never going to write about them. Why is my needle stuck in childhood? I don't know. I don't know. I guess that's where my heart is."

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Wisdom on working - by Sager, Magary, Chiarella & Goldman

They're not all terribly recent, but four pieces of solid writing to share here have the common theme of providing wisdom on working (which I've previously posted on as a topic).

The May 2013 issue of Esquire had two of the pieces with "How to be gracious, and why" by Tom Chiarella and "How to start a business" by bakery entrepreneur Duff Goldman. The Goldman essay stood out to me because of the work he describes putting in to get his business started and I found reminiscent of a post I did on John Gardner writing about "being interested" a great section from Chiarella's short essay...

"Stand when someone enters the room, especially if you are lowly and he is the boss, and even if the reverse is true. Look them in the eye. Ask yourself: Does anybody need an introduction? If so, before you say one word about business, introduce them to others with pleasure in your voice. If you can't muster enthusiasm for the people you happen upon in life, then you cannot be gracious. Remember, true graciousness demands that you have time for others. 

So listen. Be attentive to what people say. Respond, without interruption. You always have time. You own the time in which you live. You grant it to others without obligation. That is the gift of being gracious."

The other two related pieces I thought excellent were essays written for those graduating from college (but which contained wisdom for those of all ages), with one for Esquire by Mike Sager and other for Deadspin by Drew Magary. The Magary essay definitely veers towards (nah... traffics in, nah... revels in) the profane and is extremely well-written advice that perhaps could be boiled down to telling grads to go out and have life experiences rather than simply plotting their career ascension.

The Sager essay is similarly great and also feels to pass on the wisdom of not getting too uptight about whether you're on the straight line to the top career path that you might have expected or might have been expected of you. Basically, just keep moving forward as best you can. In this regard the piece by Sager reminded me of a 2011 Esquire piece of his in which Sager wrote of dealing with adversity the terribly profound statement "how much can one man take? As much as need be."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Eli Saslow on the family of a slain Newtown child

Such a great story by Eli Saslow for the Washington Post a few days ago. "After Newtown shooting, mourning parents enter into the lonely quiet" was about Mark and Jackie Barden, parents of three children until their youngest, Daniel Barden, killed in his classroom.

Like others (well, at the least like one other shown below), I find myself thinking of the story in relation to some areas other than the overwhelmingly horrible loss.
The writing itself - Saslow is a someone who I've previously posted on and linked to ESPN pieces he's written and I'm sure there will be additional great analysis done on his Washington Post story, but two I've seen thus far were from the website Gangrey and by Paige Williams with a "Why's This So Good?" for Nieman Storyboard that features a breakdown of the story along with short Q&A with Saslow. As was noted by Williams and others I've seen commenting on the story, it just felt so incredibly restrained and created for myself as a reader the feeling of sitting and watching a family's life lived.

Other related writing - Two different post labels I've used on this blog are Newtown and Gabrielle Giffords and between them there's five posts that link to multiple pieces. The stories are by some great writers and run the gamut in terms of subjects and emotions. There's David Von Drehle on what happened in Tucson and why, Joe Posnanski on the loss of a young girl, Jim Dwyer on one family not knowing if their child safe, Gary Smith on how he envisions responsible gun legislation coming about from tragedy and, as a sort of counterpoint to Smith, Joe Klein, Charlie Pierce and Gabrielle Giffords on the prevention of said responsible gun legislation.

Efforts by the Bardens - It's remarkable reading in Saslow's piece of the strength that Mark and Jackie Barden show in campaigning for responsible legislation around guns. On one hand, it seems as if their efforts are futile in the face of both active opposition and passive ignoring of the problem, but on the other, the Bardens are working towards something important so perhaps the odds of their success don't matter as much as the end goal itself.

All in all, it was great work by Saslow that was both difficult to read and an important and revealing story.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Racism in Italian Soccer Piece by Wright Thompson

Published last week for ESPN was a great feature by Wright Thompson with "When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly". I've posted on and linked to a number of pieces by Thompson and he combines excellent writing with what appears to be a tremendous amount of reporting, with him noting on Twitter spending "34 days from leaving home until the story running" along with the below note and pic...…
Subtitle to the piece is "A journey into the world of Italy's racist soccer thugs" and one of the things Thompson does is look at how the recent spike in ugliness from fans towards black players coincides with larger trends that are inspiring hatred and violence. From the story was "I got sent to write about racism, which I found in staggering amounts. But Italy isn't like America, and racism there is tied into a thousand years of feuds, and hatred of anyone different, even if they're from only a few miles away, and fascism, and the recent wave of immigration."

Along these lines, the story reminds me of both how I've heard about a recent increase in xenophobia throughout Europe and blog post I wrote two years ago which linked to some very well done writing around what could be labeled "politics of discontent" and how the causes of horrible events must be examined. A couple of sections from the pieces I linked to were as follows...

From UK-based writer Penny Red on a post to her personal blog about rioting in London... "The violence on the streets is being dismissed as ‘pure criminality,’ as the work of a ‘violent minority’, as ‘opportunism.’ This is madly insufficient. It is no way to talk about viral civil unrest. Angry young people with nothing to do and little to lose are turning on their own communities, and they cannot be stopped, and they know it."

From Charlie Pierce in his Esquire story "The Bomb That Didn't Go Off"... "'The radical Right,' cautions Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, 'is a response to real things that are happening to real people in the real world.' A political act of madness is still a political act. We use the madness to separate the events so that we don't have to recognize the politics they have in common. The madness of each individual act enables us to distance ourselves from the politics that burn under the polite society we've created like a fuse looking for tinder, like a bag in search of a bench.' 

It was great writing by Thompson and one of the things that made it great was it wasn't just about racist soccer fans, but rather those fans, the athletes targeted by them and the causes (as twisted and varied as they may be) of the hatred.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Writing Wisdom - by Vonnegut, Tomlinson, Stout & Richmond on Hersey

Prattling on about writing and linking to established writers doing so is one of my favorite things to do on this blog and over the past few weeks I've seen (three of them via Tommy Tomlinson) a few different excellent pieces on writing.

From the Nieman Storyboard site was "Professor Hersey: one student, the iconic author of ‘Hiroshima,’ and 6 timeless takeaways" by Peter Richmond on his former professor John Hersey, acclaimed writer of the non-fiction story Hiroshima, published first as the entire contents of an August 1946 New Yorker issue and then in book form. There's a lot of remembrances from Richmond on writing wisdom passed down by Hersey and what stood out in particular to me were the dual ideas of the writer letting a story speak for itself and Hersey telling his students that writing more of a craft than art form.

The second and third pieces to note here on the subject of writing were both from the personal blog of current Sports on Earth and former Charlotte Observer writer Tommy Tomlinson. On May 23rd he posted "Everything you need to know about storytelling in five minutes" and then "Story shapes (and exercise tips?) from Kurt Vonnegut" on June 3rd.

The "storytelling in five minutes" piece was from a speech Tomlinson gave in Charlotte and has some very straightforward, logical and cool about what makes story good. To summarize, Tomlinson talks about a successful story featuring (1) a sympathetic character, (2) a hurdle to overcome and (3) the payoff delivered if hurdle overcome. Additionally, he notes the importance of a good story containing both initial and then deeper level meaning that can be taken from a story.

The "story shapes" post is comprised almost entirely of a YouTube video embedded that features Kurt Vonnegut giving an extremely short lecture on writing. Vonnegut talks about good stories containing universal story arcs and themes (i.e. main character has a good thing going, that thing becomes in jeopardy, then gets saved) that can actually be plotted out on an X/Y axis. Vonnegut gave an entertaining lecture on an interesting notion that seemed as if it could fall under this umbrella of story as craft and a writer as skilled tradesman.

The last piece to mention here was "On the line with Glenn Stout", a phone interview conducted by Anthony Palmer and Pete Barrett on The Creators Call, an audio series hosted on SoundCloud. The audio is 25 minutes long and while all of it interesting, below is what stood out the most to me...

Identifying good writing - Stout noted how he looks for stories where the writer is confident and committed from the beginning of the piece. The story just starts because the writer knows where they are and where they want to go. The reader should know the story, know the characters and know the voice of the writer.

The importance of reporting - Stout makes the point that the best writing comes from the best reporting and mentions how author David Halberstam would say that if someone doesn't know what to write in a piece, they haven't done enough reporting on it. Writers know when they're just going from point A to point B in a story because they have to get there, but don't have the details needed and that are provided thorough reporting.

Becoming a writer - Stout referenced his August 2012 personal blog post "How I became a writer: a true story" and how everyone he knew who wanted to be a writer and kept at it, is a writer. Just because it hasn't worked out yet is no reason to stop.

Writing a book - Covered in the interview by Stout was how great it is to immerse yourself into a subject over the course of a few years to write a book. Similar to the smaller process of reading something great, a writer can basically lose themselves in the reporting and writing process of a book.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Book writing wisdom from Jason Fagone

There was a series of tweets on the subject of writing which caught my eye a week or so back that I wanted to preserve in posterity (well, keep track of here).

Jason Fagone is a writer I came across around the time I started this blog and I then posted on and linked to his really solid 2008 Esquire story "The Video-Game Programmer Saving Our 21st-Century Souls". In Nov of this year, Fagone comes out with the book Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America and for the past few months he's been tweeting both from his personal feed and from his IngeniousBook twitter feed.

Below was taken from posts made on May 26th to the IngeniousBook feed and contained I thought some very cool stuff on two writing-related topics...

Thoughts on writing a book

In response to someone asking if writing a book takes a lot of time - "Yes, it takes a shit-ton of time. For me, anyway. For some it takes less time, for some more. My first book took a year, start to finish. This one has taken 3. It's more complex, ambitious. It's just temperaments. Mine happens to be suited to ruminating on stuff." 

In response to someone asking how to manage the time required to write a book - "You try to set up a series of targets, then give yourself a break after hitting each one. First time you finish a draft. First time you show the draft to a friend and the friend kicks the shit out of it. First time you revise the draft so it's better. Share it again. Step back, breathe. It's still there, is always there. You make time to step away so that when you come back each time, it's slightly alien to you, and you see it new." 

Thoughts on writing a book proposal writing 

"A proposal is kind of a weird document. It has a standard format, like a screenplay. Editors read a ton of them, all the time. 3 main sections: An overview, a sample chapter, & chapter summaries. You have to lay out the whole book. The paradox is that you have to describe the book before you've fully reported the book. This is the hard thing. 

I think editors want to know 2 things: 1) Can this person lay out a plausible book that will sell? and 2) Can he/she write it? They want to know if you can think through a book. And the funny thing is, if you dedicate yourself to the proposal, by the time it's done, you really are ready to write the book. 

The overview might begin with your best character or scene. The "sample chapter" can be a mixtape of the best of what remains. I get the sense that people get stuck on the formality of proposals. But just start writing your best scene. Go from there. The book's structure can change from what's laid out in the proposal. Again, the Q is: Can this person think in book structure? Often the book veers away from the proposal. Still, it's helpful. I have a friend who ran into trouble while writing a book. He meandered. He went back and read his proposal, and he's like, "What genius wrote this?" The whole structure was right there. 

The harder thing, of course, is finding a great story. I have no advice there. The proposal you can do. It just takes time."

"Driving Mr. Albert" by Michael Paterniti

Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti was a tremendously well written and interesting book that worked on multiple levels.

It's subtitled A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain and is a first-person account of Paterniti travelling cross-country with Thomas Harvey, the man who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein in 1955 and  then kept his brain.

The book provides interesting detail on Einstein himself, but also serves as a road trip tale and most profoundly, feels to be an examination of people's lives and how the intersect with others and the meaning derived from that. This most specifically could refer to Harvey in relation to Einstein, but also Paterniti in relation to Harvey and both Paterniti and Harvey and their interactions with others.

 Really just riveting content that Paterniti weaves together in a melodic fashion with very much the concept of writing about something specific (in this case, a road trip with Einstein's brain), but doing so in pursuit of a much larger idea (a look at the aforementioned relationships).

Paterniti definitely put his time into the book with his research taking him (in addition to simply the cross-country drive) to both England and Japan and in terms of how open (including about himself) Paterniti was in Driving Mr. Albert, it reminded me of both The Tender Bar (which I reviewed here) by J.R. Moehringer and Bird by Bird (which I reviewed here) by Anne Lamott.... with the Lamott phrase "warts and all" coming to mind.

I first came across Paterniti from his GQ story "The Man Who Sailed His House" and his next book is The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese. Releasing on July 30th, it's reviewed by Ryan D'Agostino in a brief  Esquire piece that includes language which for me could also describe what made Driving Mr. Albert so great...

"Paterniti is a master of finding and telling great stories (the finding, for most writers, often being as difficult as the telling) that appear to be about something small, such as cheese, but are actually about something far larger — in this case, the whole of human existence."