Joe DePaulo on Talese, Cramer, and What It Means to be Edited

Written by Brendan O’Meara

“There’s no downplaying that moment for me. There’s no humble bragging that. It’s a straight-up brag, a measure of pride for me.”—Joe DePaulo

“I can’t abandon it. For me, I don’t know what else I’d do.” —Joe DePaulo

Maybe my favorite part of my conversation with Joe happens toward the end where we briefly touch upon drafting one particular writer in a Fantasy League for Narrative Nonfiction. I should’ve expanded on this, but I figure it’s going to be a much longer segment in the future.

This was a fun one. We talked about writers who inspired Joe and the harsh financial realties of the freelance game. (You can hear Episode 9 guest John Scheinman shed insights into this as well.)

I’ve shortened by Bookshelf for the Apocalypse segment to five books. Good stuff here.

Joe’s BftA

The Complete Works of Shakespeare
Character Studies by Mark Singer
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
The Best American Sports Writing of the Century
Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer
Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow

Ricky Jay’s Magical Secrets by Mark Singer is a New Yorker profile Joe re-reads over and over again.

Here’s Joe’s SB Nation Longform archive, which includes his profile on Mike Francesa, a story that earned Joe a notable selection in the 2014 volume of Best American Sports Writing.

So let’s get to it. Enjoy!

Hey, if you get a chance subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and throw down your email here at the website. I know that’s asking a lot, but it would mean a lot to me.

Also give a listen to some of the older episodes. If I don’t buy more storage, I’m going to have to delete them starting from the bottom, so be sure to download them soon.

Inside the Reporting Mind of John Scheinman

Written by Brendan O’Meara

“You know what? It’s like when you ask a girl on a date. How scary it can be. It’s terrifying sometimes.”—John Scheinman

“I was always a conversation person. I would literally say this, ‘I’m going to earn your trust and you will never be misquoted.’ They loved it!”—John Scheinman

Here we are again. Two weeks in a row! Not too shabby.

This week I interview my friend and colleague John Scheinman who won the Eclipse Award for feature writing for his piece about legendary Maryland horse trainer Dickie Small. The piece, titled Memories of a Master, is a long, sweeping profile that took John about three months to craft. Give it a read.

[Last week’s episode with Maggie Messitt]

We get into the use of voice recorders versus notebooks, something I find fascinating as different reporters use different methods for gathering information. We also talk about the anxiety that comes from having to interview people and I think that may be particularly helpful to others who feel the same way.

And, of course, there’s John’s Bookshelf for the Apocalypse, the books he’d keep in his survival pack that he could never part with should the world melt down around us. He is the second person to say this is a stupid question in two weeks. Does that mean I should give it up? Not yet. If next week’s guest says it’s stupid maybe I’ll consider.

John’s Bookshelf for the Apocalypse

The Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell
Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
The Honest Rainmaker: The Life and Times of Colonel John R. Stingo by A.J. Liebling
Life by Keith Richards
The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds by James Hamilton-Patterson
Blues People: Negro Music in White America by Leroi Jones
Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story by Nick Tosche

Thanks again for listening. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast and sign up for email updates. They come once a week ONLY IF I POST SOMETHING. Then you can fish around for what you may like in that email offering. Thanks!

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Many thanks to new subscribers

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Philanderer’s Corner. #madmen

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I want to thank all the new subscribers who submitted their emails. I hope you choose to stay aboard the bus, but it is your right to unsubscribe if you feel you’re getting no value or entertainment from anything I post.

I am officially out of hardcover copies of Six Weeks in Saratoga. The final two copies went fast. I’ve reached out to you already if you “won” a copy.

Thanks again and stay tuned for what I hope to be weekly releases of the Hashtag #CNF podcast, book reviews, and other links to my work and the work of others I admire.

Keep thriving!

Maggie Messitt and Telling True Stories

Written by Brendan O’Meara maggie messitt, the rainy season “I really embrace the shitty first draft.” — Maggie Messitt.

“I was always into true stories, almost at an obsessive level.” —Maggie Messitt

My guest for this re-re-birth of the Hashtag #CNF podcast is my friend Maggie Messitt. She has written a gem of a book in The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa. 

We talk about a lot of stuff, certainly about process and the challenge of writing book-length narrative. Maggie is a writer, author, teacher, hiker, dog owner, reporter, super kayaker, all-round liver-of-life. Not the organ liver, but…ah, you get it.

Also I introduce a new segment called the Bookshelf for the Apocalypse. What’s this? Should the world be ravaged by global pandemic, zombies, meteor strike or nuclear winter, and you were allowed ten books to keep in your survival pack, what would they be?

Hmm….

Below you’ll find a list of books Maggie mentioned that you may want to check out. Thanks for listening and I ask that you please subscribe to the podcast and sign up for the email newsletter.

Thanks so much!

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Maggie’s Bookshelf for the Apocalypse

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadimann

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, A Writing Life, all by Annie Dillard

Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Open City by Teju Cole

Portrait with Keys by Ivan Vladislavic

A dictionary

What is Justice? by Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy

Make a List of Validations, Not Rejections

When suiting up, never forget to accessorize.

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By Brendan O’Meara

I’m sure you’ve heard the famous Stephen King quote about his rejection slips. The one where he said he used to hang them up by a nail, but then he needed a spike. Let’s let him say it (h/t Alex Strike):

By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.

That’s a nice image of writing in the face rejection, but who needs to see all those rejection slips? Some people are motivated by them. It’s what athletes do. When someone like Tom Brady, a winner of four Super Bowls, was drafted 199th overall, he used that as motivation. That was like receiving 198 rejections over the course of a weekend.

[Hey, if you've made this far, please sign up for my email list. If I post on the blog, it goes out once a week. If you sign up, you'll be on the frontline for goodies. Thanks!]

Sometimes, though, you see those rejections and you start to believe them. You start to see them as a way out. Maybe you’re deluding yourself in whatever art you choose. The rejections are like a virus that must be purged.

I used to keep rejections. I used to like to see them pile up, but then this began to poison my thinking. If they don’t offer anything constructive, which almost none of them do, I delete them. Instead, I keep a list of validations.

These are so powerful. These are Exhibit A in of You v. Delusions, that you should KEEP GOING.

Keep a file of praise from readers (the most important, because they, you know, buy your work),  mentors (almost as important) and family/friends (don’t let this be your only validation).

It’s not stroking your ego. It’s keeping your soul alive in the dark moments when you want to quit, when you’re looking for every ounce of permission to get out of the game, when you’re looking for one person to tell you to stop deluding yourself.

There’s a fine line between a life in the arts and the delusional. Validations are tangible reasons why you keep going and keep trying to push through.

When Backstory Feels ‘Deliberate’

Day 4: about 20% through the book. Will it be worth keeping? Should it be chucked? We’ll see. #writing

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By Brendan O’Meara

In yet another bout of mapping vs. outlining (mapping is just reverse outlining. The terrain of the book is in place and you set out like Magellan and map the world. Very clever, I know.) I’m hitting the notecards pretty hard. See pic.

I’m at this point in the this book where I just backed up the dump truck and unloaded a chapter of backstory about my central character. Reading it feels laborious. I haven’t touched this manuscript in four years.

I’m thinking of gutting the entire backstory thus leaving my main guy a little mysterious, a little cloudy around the edges, like Gatsby. He is my Gatsby and I’m Nick, an unreliable insider-outsider who greatly admires his Gatsby.

I love seeing giant limbs of text come tumbling down. I prefer the chainsaw to the pruning sheers.

In Maureen Corrigan’s great book So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, she meets with Scott Shepherd toward the end. Shepherd reads the entire novel once a day for the broadway production Gatz. He actually has the text memorized. That’s not hyperbole.

Corrigan speaks with Shepherd about Gatsby’s (the character) backstory. Shepherd says of the four-and-a-half-page section that fills in Gatsby’s early backstory:

The beginning of chapter six was sometimes tough. That’s when the audience [for Gatz] would just be back from the dinner break and the’d be logy with food. There’s something about that section that feels deliberate.

Max Perkins, the famous editor to Fitzgerald and others, pushed for Fitzgerald for more biography. Shepherd continues:

In my mind, I see Fitzgerald inventing more specifics in the backstory because Perkins told him to, while at the same time dealing with his strong impulse to leave most of the questions unanswered. The result is, to my ear, a slightly obligatory and vaguely evasive quality that’s artificial in comparison to the rest of the book.

Indeed.

In nonfiction (and all writing for that matter), there’s this tendency to fill backstory, backstory, backstory to round out the character. It’s how most reporters write a 1,000-word take out. It’s basically ALL backstory with some quotes. These past events are why you care about this story about me today.

When we’re dealing with narrative, every word is an oar that must row the boat forward. If you’re going to pause for backstory, that backstory needs to inform the foreground. If we’re going to tell you something that happened way back when, there needs to be some sort of payoff or at least a connection to the foreground.

In my mapping of this first book I wrote, I find this backstory chunk merely background with very little of real substance. Of the 5,000-8,000 words, I bet there’s a 1,000 words worth keeping to pepper throughout the rest of the story.

It feels, to echo the above statement, deliberate. Deliberate feels labored and, worst of all, boring.

Yes, we need to know where our characters came from to have a better understanding of why we care about where they’re going. But too much and we’re too anchored to the past and all forward momentum is lost.

Hey, folks, if you made this far, I’d love your email address. I send out a weekly newsletter with the week’s posts every Tuesday morning. Also, for your loyalty and permission, whenever I have freebies you’ll be the first to know. If I’m selling a book, I’ll make sure you get a discount somehow. You’ve given me your time. I give you story, and maybe a few extra dollars in your pocket. Thanks! 

Love, 

Brendan

The Age of Process or The Story Behind the Story as More Important Than the Story

Fatigued pencil. #keepwriting

A photo posted by Brendan O’Meara (@brendanomeara) on

By Brendan O’Meara

Listening to the run up to the Oscars, what was the main thing you heard about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood? It wasn’t how great a movie it was or how powerful the performances were. It was This movie took twelve years to make!

The marketing machine behind this movie was brilliant. I haven’t seen Boyhood yet (I will), but the true brilliance of this movie is the story behind the story. The actors and filmmakers committed a few months every year for twelve years to make the film.

This story behind the story was more powerful than the story itself.

So what’s the lesson? As I see it, make your process as transparent as possible and make the making of your art part of the narrative. Blogs are perfect for this. Show Your Work, as Austin Kleon would say.

Part of Boyhood’s appeal was this notion of backstory. Whether it was intentional or not from the outset is unknown, but once it became part of the movie’s machinery, it was this unbelievable talking point that made the movie irresistible to viewers because people kept saying, “Can you believe this movie took twelve years to make?”

This backstory was even more powerful than the actual movie. A Google search for “boyhood took 12 years to make” yields over 4 million hits.

Blog about your book. Take pictures. Make little confession movies. Make a mini documentary about your project. Pretend someone is interviewing you and answer questions. Create a story about the story and people will read the story you want to sell.

 

Chuck Palahniuk on “Thought” Verbs

By Brendan O’Meara

I’ve been reading a lot of Brain Pickings lately. Maria Popova is so perilously good. It’s like how television wraps you in because as soon as a single show begins, the network is already teasing the next half-hour.

Sometimes I find myself just diving deeper and deeper into what Popova finds interesting because what interests her so interests me.

Aha! I came across something, referred “to me” via the Script Notes podcast, a great craft essay by the author Chuck Palahniuk. You may have heard of Fight Club. He wrote that.

His essay, titled “Thought” Verbs, is like getting whipped by bamboo. If you thought you were decent at this craft, he just dropped an A-bomb down your chimney. Basically this is just a fancy essay about showing vs. telling and he’s all about showing.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

What he means is don’t be lazy.

This is much more approachable in fiction. If you have it sketched in your brain that a character loves another, you can then craft an illustration of the love and let the reader make the connection.

He also talks about the “thesis statement” and how this totally emasculates a paragraph. Take this example:

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph  (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later)  In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph.  And what follows, illustrates them.

For example:

“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline.  Traffic was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits.  Her cell phone battery was dead.  At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up.  Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”

If you lop off that first sentence you’ve established that Brenda isn’t going to make the deadline.

If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others.  Better yet, transplant it and change it to:  Brenda would never make the deadline.

I’m reading Michael Chabon’s fantastic book Wonder Boys and I’m looking for instances of “thought” verbs, even from a master like Chabon. I can’t find one and I’m 145 pages into the book.

How do you approach these “thought” verbs in nonfiction? It’s even more difficult than fiction and, sadly, more annoying for your characters. It may require some extra awkward questions to reach that level of depth, to really show someone is mad.

Maybe if someone is driving, you can be mindful of how they react to traffic. You may even ask them, How do you react to traffic? Does it stress you out? Make you angry? Make you impatient? If yes, then how are their actions illustrating these internal feelings.

Says Palahniuk:

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader:  “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.  Present each piece of evidence.

I like that last part. I like picturing myself in the courtroom talking to the jury (the reader) and laying out the facts (all the reporting). If done properly, if done well, you’ve sold the jury on your message.

Pullouts from Glenn Stout Talk in the Village

By Brendan O’Meara

Being in the orbit of NYC gives me access to things that being in Upstate New York doesn’t. Specifically there was a talk by Glenn Stout, series editor of the Best American Sports Writing anthology, at Le Poisson Rouge.

I took some notes (I appeared to be the only one taking notes, this in a room full of reporters) and I was the only one who wasn’t drinking beer (this makes me the freak in a room full of reporters. This reporter doesn’t have $10 for a pint of Guinness. Plus I’m slow-carbing it. ANYWAY.)

Here’s some great quotes from the great Glenn Stout.

On what makes a great story:

“Thorough reporting, you can’t have a story without thorough reporting, even if you’re working on memoir.”

“Leave them [the reader] some place they haven’t been before. Stories are made of stories. You need scenes.”

“It’s written from within. They’re confident from the first word as if every word is destiny.”

“You miss the words and you feel immersed in the experience. It’s like walking into water that is body temperature.”

“It unfolds and answers question. Creates a three-dimensional picture, plays to and involves the senses. We’ve got five senses, use a couple of them.”

“Every story has a sound, singular, emerge transformed like you have forgotten to breathe.”

“You’d better give them something at the end.”

“Every story I put forward is because I want to read it again.”

“The best written stories sound well. it’s gotta stick. It’s the one you want to share.”

“Long form refers also to the time spent reporting.”

So, that’s a chunk of what the talk was about. Good stuff. Share those quotes with someone you love.

Paperback Writer!!!!

Written by Brendan O’Meara

I received a paperback copy of Six Weeks in Saratoga today. Pretty exciting stuff. After three-plus years, the hardcover run sold out and SUNY Press, my gracious publisher, elected to go paperback with the book.

It’s got some of the review blurbs in the front of the book and I was able to comb through it and remove several of the typos that snuck their way into the hardcover editions.

It’s only $15!