When I was a journalism teaching assistant at the University of Illinois, I signed up for a seminar called Writing Across the Curriculum, which was designed to help teaching assistants incorporate writing into their classes in more meaningful ways.
During the two-day workshop, one of the activities involved each participant drawing a sort of comic strip describing his or her writing process. Up to that point, despite holding degrees in creative writing and journalism, and having worked as a newspaper reporter for a few years, I had never really given much thought to the individual steps by which I gathered information and turned it into a piece of written work.
As we went around the room and shared our drawings, it was evident that the writing process is incredibly idiosyncratic. It didn’t just vary among academic disciplines but also from each individual writer to the next. Some people’s processes included breaks to go for a jog or to do the dishes. So, while some wrote more efficiently than others, there was no single right way to approach the task.
One of the beauties of Robert S. Boynton’s “The New New Journalism” (Vintage Books, 2005) is that it shows that this phenomenon is not exclusive to a group of a few dozen graduate students at a Midwestern research university.
Boynton is an accomplished journalist and director of New York University’s magazine journalism program. A similar realization about the uniqueness of each writer’s process was the impetus for the book. Rather than simply teaching his own methods, Boynton also invited other writers to come speak to his classes about their work and processes. These conversations evolved into the book.
Through interviews with 19 of “American’s best nonfiction writers,” as the book’s subtitle dubs them, Boynton reveals the very different ways in which each writer finds story ideas, conducts research and interviews, organizes the gathered information, and, finally, crafts a narrative.
Pulitzer Prize winner Leon Dash, who just so happens to teach journalism at Illinois, lived among his subjects, sometimes for years, as he reported his stories on urban poverty, “When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage Childbearing” and “Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America.”
In writing her New Yorker pieces about “anonymous, marginal characters; and powerful politicians who are at the center of their world,” Jane Kramer goes “into a frenzy of cooking” as she works out a story’s opening.
Lawrence Wright, who was in the process of writing “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” when Boynton spoke to him, developed a complex, color-coded system for organizing the reams of material he had gathered through research and interviews.
Boynton’s enlightening introductory essay distinguishes the current breed of literary journalists from the New Journalism championed by Tom Wolfe, of whom the author is quite critical. The introduction traces the roots of the genre back past Wolfe and his contemporaries, writing, “Although indebted to the experimentalism of Wolfe’s New Journalism, the New New Journalist should also be understood as a movement that rehabilitates important aspects of its nineteenth-century predecessors.” Boynton also argues for this style of writing as a distinctly American form.
While tackling some overarching questions about the genre in the introduction, one of the book’s greatest strengths is its balance between the philosophical and the technical. Each section offers a brief biographical introduction to a particular writer and his or her work, followed by a conversation in question-and-answer format.
On the technical side, readers learn things such as whether a writer does extensive research before beginning interviews, like Ron Rosenbaum, or prefers to go in cold, like Susan Orlean. Surprisingly, one of the most disputed issues among the writers seems to be the role of the tape recorder in the reporting process. Jon Krakauer says, “I don’t understand journalists who don’t record their interviews. On the other hand, Lawrence Weschler believes “the tape recorder falsifies the situation” because sources sometimes say the best things when the tape recorder is shut off and because facial expressions and other “communication events” are not recorded in interview transcripts.
Among the philosophical topics, the writers are asked about how they handle ethical dilemmas they face in reporting and what they believe are the prospects for this type of work in the future. Perhaps the most interesting question posed to each is whether they believe the type of work they do can lead to truth, which elicits many thoughtful discussions on the nature of truth itself.
“The New New Journalism” is an invaluable resource for those who aspire to write narrative nonfiction. It not only serves as an introduction to some of the best voices currently working in the genre, but it also offers a wealth of ideas on how to take a story from its initial idea form to a finished narrative.
There is, perhaps, one important question Boynton’s book does not answer: In today’s changing media environment, how does a young writer who aspires to do this kind of journalism find a viable outlet for his or her work?