SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
An Oxford American Forum
QUESTION: What did you learn on the streets that you didn’t learn in journalism school?
Gay Talese • Jon Franklin • John McPhee • Madeleine Blais
Tom Junod • Michael Pollan • Tim Cahill • Walt Harrington
Mike Sager • Hank Klibanoff • James Conaway • Rick Bragg
Patsy Sims • Roy Blount, Jr. • Curtis Wilkie
With art by James O'Brien.
I learned nothing on the streets, and what I learned in my Journalism department (at the University of Alabama, 1949–53) did not have much influence on my career as a reporter, magazine writer, and nonfiction author of eleven books.
The most valuable lessons that shaped my career in journalism were derived from the observations and the eavesdropping that I indulged in during my boyhood days working after school in my parents’ clothing store. The shop was located on the main street of my hometown, a small island resort in South Jersey called Ocean City, about twelve miles south of Atlantic City. On one side of the shop was my father’s tailoring department (he designed and cut suits for a small but select group of the town’s leading men, including the mayor and top banker); and on the other was my mother’s dress boutique, specializing in garments for “mature” women (i.e., most of them middle-aged, bridge-playing ladies who were slightly overweight and wealthy enough to purchase high-priced frocks that flattered their figures). As I performed menial tasks around my parents’ shop during my free hours I learned many things:
1) Courtesy. My parents were always courteous to their customers, knew how to talk to people (but to listen rather than talk too much), and, as a result, my parents had a large and satisfied clientele who respected their good judgment about clothes and came to regard them as likable and tactful people.
The relationship that my parents had with their customers is the kind of relationship I developed as a young journalist with my sources. Courtesy is the key: knowing how to engage people in a respectful manner, to listen rather than interrupt with unnecessary questions, and to take pride in work well done.
From a young age, I took pride in what I wrote, and it was instilled in me by my father’s high standards in craftsmanship. My father’s suits were exquisitely tailored, were designed to last, and were, in an understated way, eye-catchingly elegant. In my own career I measured myself by the exacting standards of my father. I wanted to write stories that were uncommonly well-crafted and were designed to last, to hold up, to have the imperishable qualities of a fine short story or an essay. I cared about the “stitching” of sentences and paragraphs, the whole design of narrative writing; it all had to hold together, to have a organizational shape, a style, a distinctive feel about it.
2) Personal Appearance. I saw my parents dressed in an attractive manner every working day, and whenever they appeared on the public streets or in restaurants and cinemas. They cared about “how they looked” at all times, and as a consequence people regarded them as special people, appealing as subjects on the scene. My parents thought that by dressing up they were paying “respect” to the people they were with, no matter if these people were their customers, or their social friends in the community, or people with whom they attended concerts on the boardwalk or dined with. I myself “dress up for the story,” meaning that I never go to interviews without presenting myself in my well-made tailoring as a person worthy of respect. Respect for what? For what I do: I am within an honorable truth-telling profession, and I have always thought of journalism (when properly practiced) as a calling, not a job; I have always thought, as well, that a reporter should “dress for the story,” for the story you are working upon is always important: It seeks a truth, or a higher truth than ordinary workaday journalism; I always placed upon myself high and exacting standards. Again, this was exemplified by my parents.
3) There are other matters of importance, of course. Curiosity heads the list. If you are not intensely curious, you will never become a leading journalist or nonfiction author. (My own curiosity was developed as a boy in the store: I’d wonder about the customers, I’d strain to overheard their conversations across the counter with my parents, I’d watch their gestures as they talked and would later ask my parents for more information about them. These customers were small-town people, not famous in any sense, but they were “real” people, and I always wanted to write about ordinary “real” people, as fiction writers do.
(Who is more ordinary than Willy Loman, the failed road merchant of Arthur Miller’s classic, “Death of a Salesman”?) When I wrote “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” and he himself would not talk to me, I shaped the whole story from what I had been told by “ordinary people,” dozens of people who were not celebrities, who were not stars, etc.—they were just people who had been on the scene, in minor roles, when Sinatra was present; and I spoke to those “ordinary” people and got an extraordinary story that is remembered long after it was first published in Esquire in 1966.
4) Once the curiosity has been satisfied, and all the research has been completed, and all the facts are triple-checked for accuracy, then the organization begins…. I spend lots of time organizing my story before I actually settle down to write it. I want to know, step-by-step, scene-by-scene, how I’ll proceed. What’s the lead paragraph? What follows the lead paragraph? How does the story end?
5) The writing must be literary, lyrical, or at least should aspire toward the same artistic standards as one’s favorite fiction writer. I read lots of novels and short stories by top writers, wanting to gain insight (and inspiration) from their storytelling talents. Journalism is really storytelling. It is about people and places. These people and places must be described so well that the reader is “seeing” what you are writing about.
Bio: Cited by Tom Wolfe as the creator of New Journalism, Talese worked as a reporter for the New York Times from 1956-65, is the bestselling author of eleven books, and has written for myriad magazines and journals. His Esquire story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” was deemed the magazine’s “best story ever published,” and his most recent book, A Writer’s Life, devotes hundreds of pages to this question we posed to him.
A lot of my best work came out of Johns Hopkins. They were very jealous—you didn’t get past the guards without a pass. So I went out and bought a white coat, stethoscope, a pair of nicer shoes, and a used briefcase. Then I just walked past them—they’re shouting, “Hey! Hey!” but I’m a busy doctor and I don’t pay attention to that kind of shit. I learned to integrate myself. I talked to doctors and bums on the street. I was good at being invisible, and I got my best stories because the surgeon forgot I was there.
Bio: Born in Oklahoma, Jon Franklin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and an undeniable figure of the New Journalism Movement. He’s written six books and currently holds the Philip Merrill chair in Journalism at the University of Maryland, his alma mater.
I learned that it was a lot more pleasant on the streets than back in my cell trying to write what I learned on the streets. I learned that for every day on the streets, I averaged ten days back in the cell. I learned that when you think you are sweating blood you are actually sweating nickels, but never dimes, quarters, or dollars.
Bio: John McPhee began his career writing for Time, but has written for The New Yorker since 1965. Considered a pioneer of creative nonfiction, McPhee has written nearly thirty books and is a Pulitzer Prize winner.
I was out of school about five years at the Trenton Times in New Jersey when I was assigned one of those softballs-of-a-feature story about a couple celebrating their seventy-fifth wedding anniversary. The problem was that all my questions were vast and formless—about whether they had been happy or sad, whether they had any regrets or advice. It was only after I turned to the former bride in desperation and said, “Tell me about your wedding dress” that the frailty and the reticence disappeared: “Why, it was made out of a dotted Swiss that costs twenty-five cents a yard, a pretty penny in those days….” And so I learned that specific questions often yield specific answers, providing in their own way the cornerstone of all good writing, at least according to Wallace Stevens: “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself.”
I also learned (the hard way) from a mistake I made early on at the Boston Globe, that accuracy does not have a sliding scale. A story is either one hundred percent accurate or zero percent accurate. There was no officially-approved middle ground of being sort of right and sort of not. By those standards, you can be accurate, you can be pregnant, and you can be unique, but you cannot be somewhat accurate, slightly pregnant, or very unique.
Bio: Madeleine Blais was a reporter for the Boston Globe, Trenton Times, and Miami Herald, where she received a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1980. She’s written several acclaimed books and currently teaches Nonfiction Writing and Journalism Literature at UMass Amherst.
I didn’t go to journalism school after graduating from college. I sold ladies’ handbags in what might be called the Deep Southwest—Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. My assignment was to develop “small-store business,” which meant that another salesman got to go to the big department stores, while I wandered through small towns in a Chevy Impala stuffed with sample cases. I mostly dealt with ladies who ran their own shops; they had no reason to see me, other than their own boredom and their desire to talk to somebody. That was thirty years ago, and after I lost that job, I swore I would never work as a salesman again, when, of course, what I do as a journalist resembles what I did as a handbag salesman much more than I care to admit. Now, as then, I make my way through the world on “a smile and a shoeshine,” and although shoeshines these days are mostly metaphorical, the necessary smile of the journalist—the guy who listens to your story because he wants your story—most assuredly is not.
Bio: Junod started his journalism career at Atlanta Magazine before moving on to Life, Sports Illustrated, GQ, and Esquire. He's won two National Magazine Awards and splits his time between Atlanta and New York.
One of the most unexpected discoveries I had when I began doing journalism is that it’s actually easier to get people to open up than it is to get them to shut up. People will tell you the most amazing things, either forgetting or not caring that you may broadcast it to the world. I expected to be pulling teeth much of the time, but that’s hardly ever the problem. I suspect that most of us don’t get listened to nearly enough, especially about our work. When we find someone who actually will listen, and who cares, the floodgates open. Long after I’ve published the piece about them, sources will call to chew the fat. It’s sweet, but sometimes I’m busy.
Bio: The author of four New York Times best sellers, Michael Pollan provides prolific commentary on our culture’s relationship with food. He’s been a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine for some twenty-five years, and his essays and journalism have garnered many awards. In 2003, Pollan was appointed the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, and the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism.
My travel often takes me to remote places around Earth with a backpack. I’ve been amazed and delighted that people feel obligated to feed me. It doesn’t matter the social status—subsistence farmers will feed you what they have. In return, I have tried to share my food with them. This is backpacking food. Here’s what I learned: Almost anyone from any culture likes rice. Instant mashed potatoes are a hard sell, and no one on earth likes powdered eggs.
Bio: Born in Nashville, Cahill is a travel writer and founding editor of Outside magazine. He set a record driving entirely across the Americas—from Argentina to Alaska—in under twenty-four days. He still serves as an editor-at-large for Outside.
In journalism school, I took on a self-righteous confidence that is found only in whine rockers and prosecuting attorneys. Then, fresh out of school, I interrogated a politician about how public records showed that his property taxes had been set at a strikingly low rate. The politician told me, “If you print that you will be wrong.” I did, and the numbers—quickly updated since my inquiry began but not yet recorded in county records—were wrong. I have never forgotten the feeling of that humbling realization. As my journalism—which eventually came to be more grandly called nonfiction—moved more deeply into describing and understanding human experience, sensation, insight, and emotion, I often thought of his words: “If you print that you will be wrong.” I adopted the cautionary adage of baseball player Crash Davis in the movie Bull Durham: “You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.” To do journalistic nonfiction that is truly memorable, we must live consumed by the constant fear that we will be wrong while maintaining the arrogance to believe it is our duty and right to keep at it anyway.
Bio: Walt Harrington was a staff writer for the Washington Post for fifteen years and has written a variety of benchmark profiles on the likes of George Bush, Jesse Jackson, Carl Bernstein, and others. His most recent book, The Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family, describes what he learned rabbit hunting with his father-in-law and his friends in rural Kentucky.
The Lesson: A tin of mixed nuts can’t buy my love. When I was a young night police reporter, I received around Christmas time a gift-wrapped box. Complete with a bow, it was delivered to the Washington Post and brought to my desk in the Metro section.
I opened this mysterious present with a mixture of bravado and trepidation: After a sensitive story about residents of a run-down apartment building, one of my colleagues had received a shoebox full of roaches. Most of the insects were dead, some were not. I’d already experienced my share of mash notes and angry calls; prior to that, as a copyboy I used to answer the phone at the city desk late at night. Crazies! I remember putting one guy on hold to run a list of page corrections throughout the building and coming back thirty minutes later and he was still slurring his diatribe.
Because I was twenty-two and (thought myself) impervious to any known or unknown forces in the universe, I pulled out the throwing knife I used to wear in a quick-release sheath strapped to my left ankle (hey, D.C. was not a safe town in those days, especially where I always had to go). Carefully I sliced open the gift wrap, the tape on the box. Inside I found…
A tin of mixed nuts.
The accompanying card said the gift was compliments of the fireman’s union—I’d done a lot of stories on budget cuts, I had sources. We’d done the newspaper dance: used each other mutually, to mutual gratification.
There were different sections inside the tin, different kinds of nuts. I ate a few of the spiced pecans, my favorite. Then my editor came over. I offered him a nut. He saw the gift wrap and asked from whence they’d come.
When I told him, he freaked the eff out.
I was taking graft. Oh. My. God. According to the reporter’s handbook, my journalistic objectivity had been corrupted by accepting such a gift. I had to donate the contents immediately or face sanctions.
That was the day I learned that my journalistic rules of the road would have to come from a higher place.
Bio: Born in Virginia, Mike Sager quit law school for a copyboy position at the Washington Post. Bob Woodward soon hired him as a staff writer, and Sager went on to establish himself as “the Beat poet of American journalism.” He’s been a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and has served as a writer-at-large at Esquire for fifteen years.
I was never taught how to stand behind a tree at a Kent State anniversary to hide the tears rolling down my face as a dead student’s long-grieving mother spoke, or how to distract a Mississippi governor’s press secretary in order to read memos on his desk upside down, or how to ignore an ethics code and say yes to a broke, elderly-but-proud Iowa farm couple who insisted I have dinner with them before they lost their land and home, or how to use acres of available archives to bring history alive, or how to answer good questions like this in one hundred words or less.
Bio: Klibanoff was born in Florence, Alabama, and was the managing editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution until 2008. Before his time at the AJC, he reported for the Boston Globe and served as an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He currently teaches journalism at Emory University.
In 1965, my Stegner writing fellowship at Stanford was finished and I had a new wife and a newer baby and badly needed a job. The Times-Picayune dangled general assignments reporter, and I grabbed, although I had never taken a journalism course and didn’t know New Orleans. I arrived right ahead of Hurricane Betsy, drank too much Dixie beer the night before I was to report for work, my wife and son being in Memphis, and woke up surrounded by downed trees and streets full of glass. I got to the old Picayune building two hours before anyone. When the city editor arrived, he asked who I was; then, because I was the only person available, he said, “Go out and write a story about the effects of the storm on New Orleans.” It wasn’t a very good story, but it was printed on page one, with a byline, and I was hooked. For the next two weeks I worked fourteen-hour days and learned more than I ever would have in journalism school, and I indentured myself to a great profession that would later inspire and inform my fiction.
Bio: A Memphis native, Conaway is the author of two novels and nine books of nonfiction. His first novel, The Big Easy, is based on his experiences as a police reporter in New Orleans; his second novel, World’s End, is a Louisiana saga of politics and crime described as “a combination of All the King’s Men and The Godfather.” His upcoming novel, Nose, will be available in March from Thomas Dunne Books.
The great surprise was how many good people saw real value in writing. I came into newspapers in a time when long stories, centerpieces, magazine-length, and so on, were required. The gap between those pieces and literature was tiny, if there was a gap at all.
I don’t like blurbs and brights and containables—such awful words—and see little value when every other writer is merely out-shouting another on the issues. Show, don’t tell, is still the way to move someone’s conscience, maybe even touch their heat. Maybe we are too thick for that now, or too impatient, but I liked it when this craft took a while to appreciate, when a story took three beers or two whiskeys or a quart of iced tea to get through, and maybe a tomato sandwich. I am a dinosaur.
Bio: Bragg grew up in a small community called Possum Trot near Jacksonville, Alabama (which he writes about in his memoir All Over But the Shoutin). He’s written five nonfiction books, worked for several papers, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his work at the New York Times.
There’s a lot I learned in journalism school about accuracy and inverted pyramids and the five “W’s,” about thinking on a keyboard and getting words on paper, but when I think of the narrative nonfiction I most enjoy, I have my Southern roots to thank. It was through sitting on a front porch listening to my grandfather that I learned to love a good story. Listening to him and to other kinfolks and neighbors, I learned that what makes a story good is rich, colorful words (like “ruckus” and “commence” and “commode”) and expressions (“busier than a one-armed paperhanger”), vivid “telling” details, characters that live and breathe and sweat. I learned that how something feels, smells, tastes, and sounds is as important as the facts, and that a good story is as wonderful to listen to as to read. But most of all, I learned that if I forget about cramming all those drat five “W’s” into the first paragraph, I might just entice the reader to stick with me to the end.
Bio: Patsy Sims is an award-winning journalist who grew up in Texas and Louisiana and worked as a writer and editor for the New Orleans States-Item, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She’s written several books and co-authored the narration for the Academy Award-nominated documentary short, “The Klan: A Legacy of Hate in America.”
Roy Blount, Jr.
Vanderbilt didn’t have a journalism school, which was fine with me, because I wanted an education. I majored in English and am glad I did. College is where I laid a base for recognizing what’s deep-down good in writing. Meanwhile, I worked on the school paper, learning while doing, and it was Civil Rights Movement times. Then, after graduate school in English, two years in the Army, and two years in Atlanta newspapering—still Civil Rights Movement times—I got off into sportswriting, which was related to Civil Rights Movement times but involved much more in the way of getting to know people you’re writing about, personally not just politically. And here’s something that struck me: At first, they won’t tell you anything genuine, and then, when you get to know them, they tell you everything. And you have to take some responsibility for not screwing them. That’s the way it was in the ’70s, anyway.
Bio: Norman Mailer said of Roy Blount, Jr.: “Page for page, Roy Blount is as funny as anyone I’ve read in a long time.” The longtime OA contributor has written twenty-three books and penned articles for 170 periodicals, including The New Yorker, Playboy, Vanity Fair, GQ, and others.
Since I missed a deadline and flunked Feature Writing at Ole Miss in 1961—the same course I teach there now—perhaps I am not the best to discuss the joys of journalism school. Let me simply say this: Journalism instruction in college gave me a strong foundation and a leg-up to land a newspaper job. However, there is nothing better than real, practical experience. Reporting daily on fires, wrecks, and City Hall (the equivalent of fires and wrecks), writing obits, news stories, feature stories, rewriting hand-outs—and, best of all, covering the busy local scene in the Mississippi Delta during the Civil Rights Movement (the biggest and best story in the country, and it was at our doorstep) proved most valuable to a young journalist.
Bio: Born in Greenville, Mississippi, Wilkie began his career in journalism at the Clarksdale Press Register. He went on to the Boston Globe, where he covered seven presidential campaigns and served as chief of the paper's Washington bureau. He's written articles for the likes of Newsweek, The New Republic, and The Nation, and currently teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.