The Power of Narrative: A recap

Two weeks ago, I attended The Power of Narrative at Boston University, a conference focused on narrative nonfiction. The night before, I noted the sessions I wanted to attend and wrote out objectives. Following are my objectives and the related things I learned while I was there.

1. Make connections

I didn’t talk to that many people significantly older than me who are doing what I want to do (though I did meet Noah Rosenberg, who started Narrative.ly whose articles I read all the time and recommend fairly often). I did meet a number of younger people who are either decently established or starting out like me. One lives in New York City and freelances full-time (it blows my mind that this is even possible — even though New York is the writer Mecca). Another is a long-distance hiker working on a book. Her life experiences out in the wilderness . . . wow. That’s living life out-of-the-box, for sure. Kudos. Still another is focusing on science writing (blogging at Strange Biology) and preparing to join BU’s science writing grad program. She’s a person who’s energy and excitement rubs off on everyone listening.

2. Get tips on finding stories

I went to a session all about this taught by Barry Newman, long-time reporter with The Wall Street Journal. (I also bought his book on the subject.) His tips were common sense approaches you forget when you overthink “getting ideas.” Among them:

  • Go the opposite direction of everyone else.
  • Follow up on news stories from the day, month, year before.
  • Scope out your family and things they’re involved in.
  • Walk around and pay attention.
  • If it makes you go, “huh,” investigate and write about it.
  • Clippings from other publications.

And probably the best piece of advice: get out of the office.

3. Expand research toolbox

I went to an entire session dedicated to this as well. Taught by Caryn Baird, New Researcher at the Tampa Bay Times, a high-energy lady who says the best one-liners but talks so fast it’s impossible to catch them all. Baird introduced more legitimate fact-finding resources than you want to know about. Seriously, everything about you is on the Internet — whether you put it there or not.

Some highlights:

4. Get pitch tips

This came in some form through nearly every session, but the thoughts I found most helpful came in two sessions:

Alex Tizon, author of Big Little Man: In search of my Asian self

  • A common problem of proposals is they are a subject in search of a story.
  • When pitching, it’s best to be as truthful as possible and put forth the best possible consequences for the project.

Pitching Aces session (where six attendees presented their pitches to a panel)

Common mistakes

  • Not explaining who the characters are
  • Too decided on the final end of the story

Seems a bit subjective, but they came from different people so writer’s guidelines ought to fill the gap.

Make sure your pitch . . .

  • builds its own distinct narrative momentum
  • is tightly focused
  • identifies a clear audience
  • has a surprising angle

Before pitching, consider your subject. Are you just using whomever you have access to? Could there be a more interesting subject elsewhere?

There is plenty more I could rehash from The Power of Narrative. So many quotes and ideas and moments of that special joy that exists when storytellers come together to talk story. Listening to Sarah Koenig, producer of Serial, share her experience, identify her favorite stories as those that are “mushy and complicate” and provide the powerful reminder that, “Our job is to go in and talk to people we don’t understand.” Being encouraged by Barry Newman to go into interviews blind sometimes and “just let the story flow.”

Hearing Jill Abramson share a lesson from Gay Talese that the essence of great storytelling is showing how people change over time — and it’s when narrative nonfiction does that, that it wields the power of fiction. Remembering the purpose of story when Alex Tizon said, “The hope is always that some deep part of the story connects with some deep part of the reader.” Being challenged to learn that when Neil Shea’s boss told him to do something on Instagram, Shea had to get over himself and his dislike for social media — and doing so discovered his now favorite place to write nonfiction. And being encouraged to learn that Masha Gessen has never written a daily newspaper story in her life — so maybe I won’t have to.

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