Writing Narrative Journalism: “Your Heart Is Part of the Story”

Journalist and author Madeleine Blais talking about narrative journalism at a Nieman conference:

In narrative non-fiction in some way the writer is part of the story.

Two separate skills are required: social skills to hear people and the ability to sit still in isolation and come up with something worth reading.

Facts are important, but just as important are emotional facts.

The bigger the story, the more scaled down and miniaturized it should be—John Hersey’s Hiroshima, J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground, Katharine Boo at the Washington Post.

“Nothing happens nowhere”—readers want to be taken someplace. She read from the opening of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, full of a sense of place.

Talking about the writer’s passion, she quoted Tennessee Williams:” Your heart is part of the story.”

The author has to have a vision for the story and the passion to tell it.

If  you’re doing a good job, it looks easy.
From Jack: At the Washingtonian the best writer of narrative non-fiction was John Pekkanen, who won two National Magazine Awards for his stories. He believed strongly in doing multiple interviews of key people. He says if you go back and interview them a second or third time and keep pressing them for more about what happened, you’ll often then get the most valuable quotes and details.
Wikipedia on Madeleine Blais: She is a journalist, author, and professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s journalism department. As a reporter for the Miami Herald, Blais earned the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1980 for “Zepp’s Last Stand,” a story about a self-declared pacifist and subsequently dishonorably discharged World War I veteran. Blais has worked at the Boston Globe, Trenton Times, and Miami Herald.
The Madeleine Blais quotes are from notes taken by Bill O’Sullivan, senior managing editor of the Washingtonian, who attended the 2002 conference.

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