Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Great writing on life and death - by Justin Heckert, Chaz Ebert & Chris Jones

Throughout the process of writing this blog, I've tried to make connections between great writing come across and three recent excellent pieces are around different time periods related to death.

A feature story that focused on the time just prior to someone passing was "Susan Cox Is No Longer Here" by Justin Heckert for the Dec issues of Indianapolis Monthly. It's a fascinating piece that begins with details on someone dying and a wonderful hospital program that provides companionship for those who need it. The story then takes a sharp turn into events that makes one think about tidy narratives, what we expect to happen with things and what actually can occur instead. Heckert writes something that doesn't lend itself to a simple take-away for the reader, but that seems to be what makes it such a great and though-provoking story.

The second piece to note here was "Oral histories of 2013: Roger Ebert's wife, Chaz, on his final moments" that was "as told to Chris Jones" for Esquire. It's a short missive from Chaz Ebert and very heartfelt.

The last piece of great writing to note here was by Jones and about work that gets done after cataclysmic events of death and devastation. "Kenneth Feinberg: The Nation's Leading Expert in Picking Up the Pieces" was for the Jan issue of Esquire on the lawyer who handled disbursement of funds to 9/11 victims and since then has continued to administer money to victims after major disasters. It's a fascinating topic and Jones writes a very well-done look at someone who seems to be doing the best they possibly can in the face of difficult circumstances.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Crash and Burn" by Artie Lange

Crash and Burn by Artie Lange was a book that would be sure to be interesting for anyone that's a fan of the comedian and is a pretty amazing tale of his life and drug and alcohol addiction.

The book follows up on Lange's original memoir Too Fat to Fish from five years ago and confirms what seemed to me to be the case back then, that Lange was very much addicted at the time the first book published.

Especially in this follow up effort, it's remarkable to read of the number of second, third, fourth, fifth (and so on) chances that Lange has had in life. It's not to at all begrudge him these opportunities, but I kept thinking how if not for the money he's earned for both himself and others a lot of  others, he wouldn't have the same number of second chances nor financial resources that his various efforts at recovery have cost. Definitely good for him that he has had those chances, just they're many more than most people in normal jobs making much less money for themselves or their employers would have. That said, here's to hoping he can actually stay clean and continue to both entertain and be healthy.

Sports Illustrated pieces on Newtown - by S.L. Price & Gary Gramling

Two recent Sports Illustrated features that really stuck with me both were about a subject I've previously written on and linked to under the post label "Newtown."

From the December 9 issue of SI was "What We Lost: Remembering Newtown victim Jack Pinto" by S.L. Price and it's the typical excellent work I've come to expect from him as a writer and closes with mention of the charity Kids in the Game Jack's family has partnered with.

The other piece was "A boy helps a town heal" from Sports Illustrated for Kids Gary Gramling. About fourteen-year-old Jack Wellman of Newtown and winner of the SI 2013 SportsKid of the Year award, it's a great story that also struck me as a result of one of the people noted in it. The youth wrestling team Wellman helped with was coached by Curtis Urbina, one of the subjects of the amazing Jim Dwyer New York Times piece "Running and Hoping to Find a Child Safe" from a year ago.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Writing wisdom & resources from Nieman Reports, Fischer, Fagone & Nadler

As it's been a month since I last wrote about and linked to writing wisdom, a whole entire month (!), there's a few interesting pieces about writing and the writing process to note here.

The first two things to link to were a Nieman Reports free e-book download Writing the Book: How to Craft Narratives, from Concept to Content and the piece "Breathing New Life into Old Stories" for the American Journalism Review. Written by Mary Clare Fischer, it's an interesting look at the number of great sites that link to (and in some cases, make available on the web) both current and past pieces of exceptional longform journalism.

Also Nieman-related was "Writing the book: Jason Fagone and Ingenious" for Nieman Storyboard by the author of a recently published book I enjoyed quite a bit. This Storyboard piece has fascinating commentary from Fagone on book writing and below is the stuff that struck me the most...

About the writing of a full-length book (his first, prior to Ingenious) manageable:

"I imagined splitting the book into three 25,000-word sections. Maybe I couldn’t write a book, but I could write a third of a book. Twenty-five thousand words: That was equal to four long magazine articles. It didn’t seem so daunting. I think it took me four months to grope my way to 25,000 words. When I hit the 25,000 mark, I felt this rush of relief. Then I started to write faster. I came across a David Mamet quote: 'It doesn’t have to be calm and clear-eyed. You just have to not give up.' I printed it out and taped it to the wall next to my workspace."

About coming up with a book topic:

"In 2008, I called a friend, a magazine writer and bestselling author in New York, and asked him how I should proceed. 'I think it’s simple,' he said. 'It’s about the topic. Pick a topic that people already like.' In other words: Don’t waste time trying to make people care about something they don’t already care about." 

About starting to write (after at least some research and reporting done):

"In retrospect, I should have just written a shitty draft earlier. That’s what I try to do these days. I follow the advice of Pixar Director Andrew Stanton and write bad drafts faster. The first draft is going to suck anyway, so you may as well do it fast. I believe Vonnegut once said that he enjoyed writing as opposed to speaking because he could edit himself into coherence. This will sound banal, but I think most truths about writing are banal: Book writing is mostly about giving yourself as much time as possible to rescue and absolve the stumbling you that wrote the first draft, and the second draft, and the third, and the fourth. 

A couple of things jolted me out of my troubles on Ingenious. One was a wise piece of advice from a journalist friend, Chris McDougall, who had written a book so successful, so enduringly popular — Born to Run — that it basically created a religion. It transformed the footwear industry, convincing tens of thousands of runners that they should ditch their bulky Nikes for shoes that looked like gloves. I drove out to see him one weekend — he lives in Amish country, surrounded by chickens and goats — and told him about my woes. He suggested I divide my chapters into small chunks. Two thousand words each. Make it easy on yourself, he said. That’s what he’d done for Born to Run. Two thousand words is just enough to paint a little picture and convey one small idea. The word limit prevents you from droning on and on. Later, you can flesh out a few chapters, as needed — 4,000 words, 6,000 words. And then you’ve got your 70,000 words. 

The first thing I did when I got back home from McDougall’s was go to Staples. I bought some index cards and a corkboard and put the board on the wall of my office. I wrote the numbers 1 to 25 on a bunch of cards, tacked them to the board, started writing chapter titles on other cards, and placed them beneath the numbers." 

About editing the manuscript (a process to me as fascinating as the writing itself):

"I added a historical tangent in Chapter 3, and shifted Chapter 9 into the slot where Chapter 4 used to be. It all felt sort of precarious. A book is a puzzle; any change to a piece affects the whole in unpredictable ways. I’m not a big outliner, so I tried to do the puzzle in my head. I realize this sounds insane. I really did try to hold the entire book in my brain, shifting pieces around mentally, trying to hear the click as they snapped into place."

"My editor told me she felt like a mechanic, making sure all the joints were tight, all the parts correctly fitted."

It was really great stuff from Fagone and the final piece to note here was a very short missive on writing from author Stuart Nadler posted here (but with his name misspelled) and reprinted below...

"You will always feel like your work isn’t good enough. As a salve, or simply as a way to stay sane, be in the world. Ride the train. Listen to strangers. Occasionally, if you’re brave, speak to them. Walk in the city you live. Pay attention. Don’t bother with taking notes, or buying fancy notepads. Try to remember as much as you can. Have just enough confidence in yourself to not be an asshole. Then, get up and go to work and try again."

Writing on NSA & CIA activities and people impacted - by Reitman, Apuzzo & Goldman

Two fascinating stories recent stories fell under the topic of government secrets and the lives impacted by them. "Snowden and Greenwald: The Men Who Leaked the Secrets" was by Janet Reitman for Rolling Stone and a great in-depth profile on both Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. I posted a few months ago on Greenwald's forthcoming media venture backed by Pierre Omidyar and there's really interesting detail in this Reitman piece.

The second piece of excellent writing to mention here was "Missing American in Iran was on an unapproved mission" by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman for the Associated Press. The story an almost unbelievable, but meticulously reported account (which the AP several times held off on printing at government request) about Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran back in 2007. Levinson was long said by the U.S. government to have been in Iran as a private citizen, but actually working for the CIA on a contract basis. CIA leaders were denying this fact to Congress, and may not even have been aware they were lying as Levinson's work was arranged by CIA analysts rather than field agents, a violation of known Agency protocol.

It's an amazing and somewhat sobering story and definitely feels related to the actions taken by Snowden and Greenwald as written about in the Rolling Stone piece.

Friday, December 13, 2013

"The Smartest Kids in the World" by Amanda Ripley

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley was a really interesting book on world education told in large part through the stories of three different U.S. exchange students who studied abroad for a year, and the results in those countries from a standardized test taken by students across the world.

Ripley began the book by covering this standardized PISA test which started in 2000 with 43 countries and measures 15-year-old students’ abilities to think critically and make reasoned arguments. The countries that the three students Ripley chronicled went to were Finland, Poland and South Korea and students in each of these countries scored better on PISA tests than did U.S. students. Shown in the book are definite differences in how each country achieves that success, with the success of students in South Korea coming from a brutally competitive and pressure-filled South Korean standardized test (other than PISA), Poland from a top-down initiative that radically overhauled education and Finland the most organic approach with a particular focus on having the very best teachers possible.

Even with these differences in how various countries were achieving high PISA scores, especially compared to the U.S., the overriding thing from Ripley’s book was that learning for students largely a function of how seriously they take school, and that in turn from how seriously students see adults taking their learning. 

The first example of this that Ripley noted was the aforementioned one from Finland and how students there see how challenging it is to become a teacher and the level of earned prestige accorded teachers in Finland. In opposition to this, the profession of teaching in the U.S. has much less cache and lower barriers to entry.

A second example from Ripley of how U.S. schools don’t give students reason to take learing as seriously as schools in other countries do is the importance of sports in middle and high school here. Sports are a much smaller aspect of the school experience in other parts of the world so the message elsewhere is a clear one that school is for learning and it’s important. This same idea of sports and their import in U.S. schools also relates to the prior example of teachers with U.S. high school teachers who double as coaches, in some cases with them having gone into teaching in order to coach sports at the school.

Ripley lays out the additional reasons of expectation and consequence for U.S. students to not take school as seriously as it’s taken elsewhere. While one all-important test in South Korea determining people’s futures may be a bit much, there’s no question that students there are expected to put their all into the test and understand the negative ramifications of scoring poorly on it. In the U.S., it’s all too common for students to be set up to pass academically, through either early on being put on a remedial track with lower standards or teachers giving passing marks based on effort and helping students stuck during a test. The idea of course is to not have kids fail (both for their self-confidence and because it could reflect poorly on the school and the empire-like administrations built up around many schools), but the result of course is that students both aren't having as much asked of them and know they’ll get bailed out if stuck on something in school.

Also covered by Ripley in the book was how rather than focusing on what can be done to improve education in the U.S., an approach gets taken by many school administrators and teachers of blaming external factors like poverty or parents not being involved enough. Ripley noted that these things in no way have to lead to a poor education, but it’s simply easier to talk about variables beyond control rather than to fix things that can be improved. In relation to parental involvement specifically, her research found no correlation between a student’s success and parental involvement in things like PTAs. Ripley noted that it’s not that parental involvement in education not important, as reading to kids when they’re young and then having real discussions with them about what they’re learning, current events, books and movies can have a huge impact on learning, just that oftentimes simple involvement doesn't necessarily do much.

The concept that seems to keep coming through in Ripley’s book is that kids are smart and figure out what's important to adults in relation to education, whether those adults are parents, people who set curriculum, people who hire teachers or teachers themselves. If an adult doesn't clearly have education as the be-all end-all reason for school, why should the student? To this end, one anecdote from Ripley that I loved was about the Finnish stoner kid encountered by one of the three U.S. exchange students. The stoner kid looked like U.S. high school stoner kids, only difference was the one in Finland took school just as seriously as everyone else there.

A couple of additional things I noted out of this excellent book were that there’s apparently additional information available on the author’s website and that Ripley gives BASIS school students as the only example of alternative U.S. school students doing better than similar students in public school.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Great outdoor adventure writing - by Kearns & Holland & Donnellly

Three recent pieces of outdoor adventure writing struck me as noteworthy with each from a writer I haven't linked to previously.

For Field & Stream, Colin Kearns wrote "Life, Death and Steelhead" about Joe Randolph, a fishing guide in Oregon who took his life in November of 2012. Similar to a feature on Randolph in Outside Magazine a few months ago, the story by Kearns is about both the renowned river guide and the writer fishing with him. It's an excellent portrait that Kearns provides and also interesting to me was seeing a feature story by someone who I'd previously known of as an editor rather than longform writer. I haven't looked to see if he's published many other features, but it was really solid work on Randolph.

The second excellent piece to mention here was also written by someone I was familiar with (in this case as a writer for Outside), Eva Holland. Posted to the AOL Weather site, she did "Chasing Alexander Supertramp" and just as in the piece by Kearns, the writer is in the story as Holland went to the interior of Alaska to write about people taking the oftentimes dangerous path to the abandoned bus where Supertramp died in 1992. Born as Christopher McCandless, his story was told in the 1996 Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild that in 2007 was made into a movie. It's such an interesting piece of writing from Holland in it's portrayal of people connecting with an ideal and the ramifications of that on their safety as well as on other people.

The last outdoor story I found of note lately was more of a straight reported piece rather than narrative, but tremendously interesting nonetheless. For the Detroit News, Francis Donnelly wrote "Michigan hunter survives 7 days in Alaska wilds" about Adrian Knopps and his tale of survival in Southeast Alaska. Just amazing that Knopps made it through and the story was definitely compelling reading.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Great writing on the NFL, warrior culture and walking away - by Keown & Phillips

An excellent recent piece for ESPN brought to mind for me two essays done a month ago after the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin story broke.

From the December 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine was "Off the depth chart" by Tim Keown. The piece has a subtitle of "John Moffitt left $1 million on the Mile High turf to pursue happiness" and is a fascinating look at the 3rd year Denver Broncos guard who retired mid-season from the NFL.

Very much related in that they're about the league Moffitt left were two pieces from a month ago on Ingcognito and Martin. Also by Keown for ESPN was "Failure lies with Dolphins leadership" and Brian Phillips wrote "Man Up" for Grantland. In his story, Phillips did a sensational tear-down of the warrior culture in the NFL that in many corners, defended Incognito and criticized Martin. Among other great sections in the piece was below...

"There will always be locker-room assholes. They should be curtailed. And when a player says he needs time off for mental reasons — again: in a sport with a suicide problem — it shouldn't spark a national conversation on whether he's soft."

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Writing on discontent in Brazil & on Nelson Mandela - by Thompson, Posnanski, Jones & Gingrich

Two days ago there was a great piece of writing on political discontent in Brazil that felt to be connected to other excellent work I've seen since the passing two days ago of Nelson Mandela.

The piece on Brazil was by Wright Thompson for ESPN and a fascinating look at the country's highly volatile social climate fed by government corruption and violence along with huge income inequality. "Generation June" will be in an upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine and was named out of the million-plus protesters who took to the streets last year during the Confederations Cup tournament leading into the 2014 World Cup hosted there. The piece brought to mind for me both Thompson's earlier this year feature "When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly" (which I wrote about in a post that also linked to my prior blog entry on writing about political discontent) and below is from Thompson's recent piece leading into next summer's World Cup...

"Last month, when I went to Brazil looking for clues about what might happen next summer, I found all the players assembled for a battle that happens over and over again. It's reborn in every place and in every time, yet it still manages to surprise us, whether it's the cafés of Paris in 1788 or the mountains of Cuba in 1957, or perhaps, San Francisco in 1967. Brazil in the shadow of the World Cup is one of those places, and right now is one of those times. The weird energy makes sense after a while: the alchemy of a dedicated minority of a generation first believing it can change a country, and being willing to derail the world's most famous sporting event to do so, set against the menace and authority of a nation willing to use violence to protect itself from the folly of youth."

Related to this concept of battling oppression, inequality and injustice, but doing so in a way almost too magnanimous to be believed if in a movie, was writing done after the recent passing of Nelson Mandela. Prior to becoming President of South Africa, Mandela spent decades in prison for his activism against apartheid and upon his release he very publicly forgave his oppressors and by setting aside the injustices done to him showed his country a model for reconciliation. Impactful writing I've seen in the past few days on Mandela included pieces by Joe Posnanski, Chris Jones and Newt Gingrich.

For the NBC Sports website, Posnanski wrote "Honoring Mandela's Resolve Through Bleak Lens of Robben Island" about visiting the prison where Mandela held for 18 years and prior to Mandela's death, Jones for Esquire wrote "Nelson Mandela's Dream Will Prevail" on how his legacy should hopefully continue to maintain relative piece in South Africa despite the income equality and legacy of oppression. The last piece on Mandela to note here was from a source I wouldn't have expected to to be linking to, but Newt Gingrich posted to his website the interesting "What Would You Have Done? Nelson Mandela and American Conservatives" that began as follows...

"Yesterday I issued a heartfelt and personal statement about the passing of President Nelson Mandela. I said that his family and his country would be in my prayers and Callista’s prayers. I was surprised by the hostility and vehemence of some of the people who reacted to me saying a kind word about a unique historic figure. So let me say to those conservatives who don’t want to honor Nelson Mandela, what would you have done?" 

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Interesting business writing - by Ford & Stone for Businessweek and McMillan for Wired

Three different pieces of recent business writing that struck me as particularly interesting were on companies I've written about and posted on a number of times previously in Twitter, AmazonHewlett-Packard.

From the Nov 11-17 issue of Businessweek was "The Hidden Technology That Makes Twitter Huge" by Paul Ford and it featured tremendously interesting information about the amount of detail that each and every tweet contains, and how that detail can then be sliced, diced, categorized and segmented. Past pieces of writing on Twitter I've noted and linked to can be found here and the company strikes me as just remarkable in its value as a platform for information dissemination.

Another interesting piece of writing also from Businessweek was done earlier this week for the website with "Amazon's Drone Fleet Delivers What Bezos Wants: An Image of Ingenuity" by Brad Stone. The story was written on the heels of a much talked-about 60 minutes segment on the company and Stone very well qualified to write the piece given his recently published book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. I've written about and linked to pieces on Amazon quite a few times and it's so interesting to me how on top of its consumer efforts, Amazon Web Services cloud computing offering also a large business.

The final piece of business writing to note here was a recent piece for Wired with "HP Hides Monster 3-D Printer in Its Basement" by Robert McMillan. The company seems to be on the right track now after a number of board and executive stumbles and bumbles over the past few years (with me having linked to stories both positive and negative about HP) and it will be interesting to see how 3-D printing efforts go.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Great writing by Wollan for the NYT, Grann for The New Yorker and Junod, Warren & Granger for Esquire

Three feature stories I've seen recently that struck me as exceptional were written about a major street gang that took on the branding of a major university sports program, the authentication of art work as having been done by masters and the cutting edge of cancer treatment with one specific person as the test case.

The first of the features was "Fresno State Loves Its Bulldogs, but So Does a Gang" by Malia Wollan for the New York Times. It's maybe the most straightforward of the three pieces noted here, but remarkable nonetheless in how the branding of a university and it's sports teams was in many ways taken over.

The second piece of great writing to note here was by David Grann for The New Yorker. From 2010, "The Mark of a Masterpiece" was a 16,000 word story on the world of fine art and a man, Peter Paul Biro, who declared himself able to authenticate works of art as being done by a particular artist based on fingerprints within the works. It's a fascinating read and what Grann did so well in it was laying out details and facts for the reader to then form conclusions, rather that telling a story and stating what a reader should take from it. Additionally, it was fascinating to read three years after the piece was done some of the aftermath from it and the fairly recent ruling on a lawsuit that came out of the feature.

The last piece of exceptional writing to note was done for Esquire by Tom Junod and Mark Warren"Patient Zero" was about Iraq war widow and mother of two Stephanie Lee, her initial diagnosis of terminal cancer and subsequent groundbreaking treatment. While reading the piece, I was struck to see that the cancer research genius who took her on was Eric Schadt, the subject of another Esquire story I remember well, and the confluence of these two people and what their interactions could potentially mean for future cancer treatments is nothing less than amazing to think about. 

One thing I felt at the conclusion of the story was that it felt incomplete, an assessment that then made complete sense to me after I saw the front-of-issue note from Esquire editor in chief, David Granger, and realized that the story felt incomplete because that's precisely what it is. The narrative about Lee and her life and then Schadt and his research is captivating reading, but what will come of Lee's treatment unknown... and what could then carry over to the treatment of countless others as they battle cancer... unknown and tremendously exciting.

The aforementioned Granger one-page note is titled "A Second Chance" and while it's not something I typically do when writing about something, I've included roughly the first half of it below as it doesn't appear to be posted online now and for me provides great big picture perspective on the story (especially after having read the feature by Junod and Warren)... 

"October 18, 2013: We've never done anything like this before.
   I've been working at Esquire for more than 16 years. I've been doing magazine journalism for almost 30. I'ts not only that we-especially executive editor Mark Warren and writer-at-large Tom Junod-made a connection between two people. It's not only that a story we published two years ago, about an eccentric math-driven biologist, allowed us to introduce two people who needs each other very much. It's also that we, especially Mark and Tom, are all in on this one. We're involved. We saw an opportunity to arrange for a man in New York who is on the cutting edge of math and science and medicine and has endless resources to help a young mother of two girls from Mississippi whose husband was killed in the Iraq war and who was told earlier this year that her cancer is terminal... to maybe live.
We don't know how the story ends. We know Stephanie Lee has fought every way she knows, with the help of a military hospital in Mississippi, to stay alive for her daughters. And we know when we first talked to Eric Schadt, who runs the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mount Sinai hospital, he told us there was virtually no chance he could help Stephanie. And we know that at each of the dozens of points at which hope and possibility could have been derailed, they were not. And now Stephanie is here, in New York, staying with Mark and his family, visiting the city for the first time, to hear what Eric and Several of the best minds in cancer treatment have to tell her about her cancer and about the course of treatment they developed for her through the application of a combination of techniques that she is one the first patients to receive, ever."