Daily Newspapers Still Offer Superb Training for Young Writers

July 8, 2019 § 10 Comments

autmanBy Samuel Autman

I wish I could say reading novels by James Baldwin or Toni Morrison spurred me on to becoming a writer, but my career choice is more likely tied to my Southern family’s penchant for spinning tales, my comic strip heroes Clark Kent and Peter Parker, and the fact that I was seven-years-old when Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reportage forced Richard Nixon out of the presidency and made newspaper work seem noble.

By the time I showed up at the Tulsa World as a general assignment reporter in 1989, people who wrote for newspapers were still revered as skillful, savvy souls contributing to the social good. Thirty years later, journalists are too often vilified as “the enemy of the people” and purveyors of “fake news,” but newsrooms are still invaluable boot camps for aspiring writers.

The structure is natural. Editors sign off on the stories. The writers are provided with characters acting out on a public stage. Sometimes reporters make dozens of calls, knock on doors, or talk to people on the street in search of that sparkling quote. Deadlines force the journalists to quickly organize their thoughts and write for editors who are waiting for the piece, which will be edited and placed online almost immediately. The stakes are high but the system creates a safety net and structure for all involved. Nobody wants to be sued.

During my first week in the Tulsa World newsroom, editors tossed me a juicy front-page story. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation requested that FBI Director William Sessions authorize a new DNA test to re-examine the unsolved Girl Scout murders. On the morning of June 13, 1977, the bodies of Lori Lee Farmer, 8, Doris Denise Milner, 10, and Michelle Heather Guse, 9, had been discovered at a Tulsa campsite. They had been molested, bludgeoned and strangled on their first night out. Gene Leroy Hart, who had been convicted of kidnapping and raping two pregnant women, was on the run at the time of the Girl Scout murders. His arrest and trial drew a lot of media coverage. In March of 1979 a jury acquitted him. Three months later Hart, in prison for other charges, collapsed and died after exercising.

Over the next thirteen years in Tulsa, and later at newspapers in Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and San Diego, I was paid to chase hundreds of assignments and write about a series of characters I would not have met otherwise.

Once I accompanied a team of journalists who followed San Diego Padres right-fielder Tony Gwynn from San Diego to St. Louis to Montreal until he made his 3,000th hit, a real stretch for me, a non-sports guy.

Another time I covered the story of the Salt Lake Board of Education tossing out every single noncurricular student organization –  from the Bible club to the UFO club –  just to prevent three lesbians from forming a Gay Straight Alliance at East High School. The action launched a series of 1960s style protests, landing me on the front page for ten consecutive days and making national headlines.

Not everything was a splashy A1 story but they all taught me something. I remember covering a speech in the early 1990s by Pulitzer Prize winning author Norman Mailer, who went on a rant at the Tulsa Public Library. “Most newspapers writers are hacks,” he asserted. “They’re just terrible writers.” I felt so located and enraged because he was right. Much of my prose was truly dreadful, but each day, sentence by sentence, editor by editor, year by year, newspapers allowed me to shed those terrible sentences, hone my craft.

Later I was invited to write about a reunion with my father from whom I had been alienated since childhood, and his subsequent death. This was the story that hooked me on narrative technique. The way readers responded to those columns, which I now know were personal essays, led to my eventual resignation from working in the newsroom. I craved the freedom to write what I wanted.

When I quit, a former colleague from The Salt Lake Tribune invited me for two weeks to visit a small college in rural Indiana to consult with the student newspaper. All these years later, I have tenure, and numerous personal essays in literary magazines and print collections.

Yet I owe my literary DNA to writing for dailies.  I would do it all again.

Samuel Autman is a member of DePauw University’s creative writing faculty. His essays have appeared in The Chalk Circle, Black Gay Genius, The Kept Secret, The St. Louis Anthology, Ninth Letter, The Common Reader, Under the Gum Tree, The Little Patuxent Review, Bonfires, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Memoir Magazine and Brevity.

The Commodity of Others’ Lives

November 11, 2015 § 7 Comments

51KdglJZ7CL._SX389_BO1,204,203,200_Short nonfiction storytelling–often photo-driven, largely consumed on social media and at events staged in bars–is enjoying a vogue. Which personally, I like. The Moth is one of my favorite venues, I enjoy Jeff Sharlet’s micro-essays on Instagram and post my own.

But as a “storyteller,” am I ducking my responsibility to the people who figure in my work? Am I appropriating their stories? Is mine the best point of view to deliver their experience?

In The New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham reviews Humans of New York–first a series of Facebook posts, now a book. Author/photographer Brandon Stanton has compiled his work and published with St. Martins, even as he moves into new Humans territory in Iran, India and Pakistan.

Cunningham doesn’t like it. He compares the work (unfavorably) to the social justice journalism of Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, James Agee and Walker Evans, and Jacob Riis. He posits:

The quick and cavalier consumption of others has something to do with Facebook, Humans of New York’s native and most comfortable medium. The humans in Stanton’s photos—just like the most photogenic and happy-seeming and apparently knowable humans in your timeline—are well and softly lit, almost laminated; the city recedes behind them in a still-recognizable blur. We understand each entry as something snatched from right here, from someplace culturally adjacent, if not identical, to the watcher’s world; there’s a sense (and, given Stanton’s apparent tirelessness, a corresponding reality) that this could just as easily be you, today, beaming out from the open windowpane of someone else’s news feed. Any ambiguity or intrigue to be found in a HONY photo is chased out into the open, and, ultimately, annihilated by Stanton’s captions, and by the satisfaction that he seems to want his followers to feel.

But maybe it’s OK to want the reader/viewer to feel kinship, immediacy, identification. Maybe satisfying stories have their own charm. Our editor here at Brevity, Dinty W. Moore, advocates that a piece is by definition not ‘nonfiction’ if you make stuff up, change the timeline, or condense characters. I’d add that it’s very possible, through selective leaving-out and keeping-in, to form a messy, chaotic, even improbable story into a tight bundle of nuance, character growth, temporal journey, and yes, satisfaction.

Check out Cunningham’s review and tell us what you think.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

The Opposite of Brevity

October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

OliverTwist_6957Sometimes, a reader just wants…more. And here, well, we’re brief. Very brief. The soul of wit, as it were. But if you’re settling in for a morning’s reading–and you’ve already savored Brevity‘s Fall issue–skip the clickbait and listicles (the food and the book have to come out even, right?) and head over to Longform.

Longform rounds up (of course) long form essays, journalism, podcasts and a weekly fiction piece.

Their curated article sets are a great way to explore a subject across time–The Longform Guide to Bank Heists included pieces on prolific, famous, and infamous bank robbers, including the true story behind Dog Day Afternoon. The juxtapositions of subject matter and style are intriguing–Sarah Miller’s To Cook or Not To Cook from the September issue of Cafe is side by side with a piece on corrupt congressman James Traficant, from The New Republic, July 2000.

It’s a great place to spend some time.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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