Make way for long form

I have two TVs in my garage. They sit near the door, one covered in an old blue and white striped sheet. They’ve been there on two years now. A thick lick of dust has formed on the sheet. Every time I open the garage door – just after I feel its cool air on my cheeks – I see them wide, heavy and useless. Their cathode-ray shapes form techno-carcasses on the concrete floor. All they need is electricity to come to life again. But I know that won’t happen. Sometime soon I’ll have to find the strength to get them into the car. They’ll be at the tip before the year is out.

Those TVs came to me less than a decade ago – and not without a little domestic fanfare. One was bought new, the other a second-hand bargain I couldn’t refuse. They both have ginormous screens which I sat before daily in darkness. The shadows of hundreds of stories were cast in colour on the walls of their rooms. Then one day those TVs found their way to the garage. When I bought them I didn’t realise that it was possible for technology to change our habits so quickly. Now I don’t even have the need for a TV anymore. As a medium for storytelling those TVs have seen their last days.

In the early 1990s I thought this was a resonating quote:

The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years. (Charles Péguy, 1913)

Today it seems twee. Thirty years? Try three. Three years is all it’s taken me. The way I consume media over that period has changed so significantly that I now have a phobia about acquiring new hardware. New hardware that is: I’m still interested in stories.

In Australia we’ve just had another washout of journalists from our leading dailies, causing more prognostications on the so-called ‘questionable’ future of long form. ‘Long form is dead in this country,’ I heard a journalist recently say. To me that’s the same as saying that because my old TVs are now in the garage there’s no point in Aaron Sorkin ever putting pen to paper. True: the traditional formats for delivering long form to readers are fading. False: there will be no more long form. As Staff Writer for The New Yorker, David Grann recently said, stories are things that are, ‘in some ways wired into our DNA… People have been telling stories for centuries and centuries… It’s always [been] a part of our culture.’ The desire to read and write stories isn’t changing. Only the formats for delivery are.

Business models for delivering written work are in flux – but that doesn’t mean they won’t find equilibrium. Many print media organisations have been slow (if not resistant) to digital evolution. Part of that grogginess is a notion that everything in digital format has to be short – ‘for snackers’ as Executive Editor of ‘The New York Times’ Jill Abramson said in this conference presentation.

This idea that focus and interest are lacking in readers of digital content is a misnomer. Abramson, for example says that ‘The Times’’ long form pieces are among the most popular on their site. So why is it that so many feel that reading content digitally requires a different state of mind to reading it in print?

With a virtual inferiority complex, the early days of the Internet celebrated things that the printed page couldn’t offer. Hyperlinks, sound and animated gifs were cool while plain words were not. Circular storytelling was engaging but linear narratives were droll. Of those who had access, most were excited by the technology – yet uncertain of its future applications. It took visionaries like Steve Jobs to show us what was possible. But they didn’t have all of the answers. In 2008 Jobs added fuel to the virtual end-of-long-form fire, ‘It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,’ he said.

People do read, but where they get their reading from is changing. Our dailies are fast becoming anemic of good in depth and investigative content. I will miss reading them with a pot of tea in a comfy chair on the weekends. But I won’t go without those stories. I will find them somehow.

‘In my beginning is my end,’ TS Eliot wrote in 'East Coker', one of the 'Four Quartets':

‘In my beginning is my end. In succession Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.’

Eliot’s poem continues to describe loss and melancholy – a sense of things that might-be or once-were. He was of course writing on far deeper issues than I am now. But there’s a melancholy he expresses in 'East Coker' that is infused with what I feel about the demise of print media. Something I value is ailing and I want to somehow nurture it to health. Yet at the same time a part of me wants to put it out of its misery, to euthanise print media, so that digital can show us what it’s got.

Eliot concludes his poem, ‘In my end is my beginning.’ For a little while now words have been moving from the printed to the digital space. I wonder – if we can eventually get past our ‘grief’ – would the complete absence of print media give us a new beginning? I think it would. I think it would show us that though the business models for delivering long form are changing, the form will continue to exist. Long form hasn’t been killed by digital media anymore than screen culture has by the fact that my old TVs are now in the garage.


MWF: A bag of mixed quotes and reflections

From the early morning of August 24th I am in possession of a treasure. In the days that follow I find myself coming to a stop along Swanston Street and rummaging through my bag until I feel the shoelace-like necklace in my hand. When I wear it around my neck in Federation Square I anxiously grasp at the pendant (flat, and the size of a credit card) seeking certainty that it is there.

Technically it’s now void, worthless even. But I think I will treasure it for a little while yet. It gave me access to the thoughts and minds of dozens of writers and provided enough inspiration (and topics for to keep me going for months.

One of my favourite lines from this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival is from 'The New Yorker' team (paraphrased) A ‘New Yorker’ piece has beats in it. It moves you through ideas. It isn’t a waste of time. That one’s going up on my wall.

At his ‘In Conversation’ session, Robin Hemley quotes Tobias Wolff as saying (paraphrased) Some stories have to be told, they create a kind of volcanic pressure within you.

Lee Gutkind speaks of his research work for ‘Almost Human: Making Robots Think’.  He tells writers pursuing similar immersion projects to, ‘find a long term project with a beginning and an end.’ As far as cracking into those projects he reminds us that, ‘lots of people think what they’re doing is really important and thinks nobody notices.’ Thus if you show those potential subjects that you understand and respect what they’re doing you are likely to be allowed in. But he warns, ‘if you don’t immerse yourself for long periods of time – if you don’t watch them succeed or fail – then you’re not a part of it.’ (For more on this session check out this post by Samantha van Zweden).

I like what Pico Iyer says in his session with Robert Dessaix, ‘If you write honestly you have to forget about the audience.’

I am asked by my fellow Emerging Bloggers what the highlights of the festival were for me. I think first in sessions, ‘I learned a lot from David Grann’s presentation,’ I say. (And wrote that up too). Interviewing Robin Hemley and Hattie Fletcher were highlights. It meant something to me to shake Lee Gutkind’s hand and thank him for his indirect advice and inspiration over the years.

But I also learned from those around me. Bloggers emerging and official blew my socks off with their speedy-yet-beautifully-written post-session reviews. (especially Alice Robinson, Angela Meyer, Andrew Bifield and Samantha van Zweden). Jen Hansen – a savvy journalist in her own right - reminded me of the importance of chutzpah. As a session chair Estelle Tang showed that earnestness, intelligence and humour are not mutually exclusive. The entire cast of The Radio Hour should stop us all from referring to ‘This American Life’ as the cultural touch point for good radio documentaries. It was proof enough of the trove of local talent we have.

And then there’s the people who made the festival happen – outgoing Director Steve Grimwade and his amazingly talented team (including my main contact, Imogen Kandel). And those who made it happen for me, Karen Andrews and Lisa Dempster at the Emerging Writers Festival. Generous legends, all of them.

It may be void of value, but I am sure this pass has some kind of a half-life. For this reason it will remain a treasure for me and take pride of place at my desk alongside the framed ‘Remittance Advice’ of the first article I was paid for.

David Grann on obsession

At 'The New Yorker' (TNY), writers are allowed to pursue their obsessions. Staff Writer David Grann says it comes from a theory that tapping into writers’ excitements and interests will make them write something better. I think they’re onto something there. The magazine’s circulation has long since travelled past its namesake. Here in Melbourne, Grann’s session ‘The New Yorker: On Obsession’ (at MWF) was sold out. Grann was enormously generous at the session. He described his achievements humbly and shared many insights into his writing process.

Moderator James Button started by prompting Grann to share the how and why of his writing career. Grann said he feels fortunate to have ended up where he is. But when he started he didn’t know how he would get there, or that he would ever get there.

Grann always knew he wanted to be a writer, and says the journey to TNY was a, ‘long, slow evolution with an enormous amount of rejections.’ As a young writer he thought he wanted to write fiction but, he says, ‘I’m really bad at it.’ Once he realised that non-fiction could be entwined with storytelling he became more inspired, energetic and found opportunities. Writers like Gay Talese and Joan Didion were ‘revelations’. Grann said he came upon them late, but devoured them all.

Grann says the problems he had with fiction – such as creating and rendering characters and capturing dialogue – were solved by journalism. Finding and reading a transcript involving a character called ‘Orlie the Crab’ was when he realised that non-fiction was better than fiction. He was researching a piece on former US Congressman James Traficant. The ‘authenticity of dialogue’ sealed the moment. ‘This is what I wanted to imagine [in fiction] but never could,’ says Grann.

When writing his stories Grann looks for the elements of fiction: interesting characters, compelling figures (including obsessives) and subcultures or worlds that the stories allow him into. Grann pursues stories out of curiosity. Sometimes he’ll read just a few lines in a newspaper that will spawn a question, other times a story will evolve. The subject of his recent book, ‘The Lost City of Z’ (about Victorian explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett and his journeys in the Amazon) had its infancy in a different story about the world’s greatest Sherlock Holmes character. For any story to work Grann says, ‘You’ve got to love the subject matter. You’ve got to feel that the questions you need to answer just keep growing rather than closing off.’

Questioning his subjects has put Grann into some fairly curly physical situations. While researching a story on a giant squid he found himself in a small boat at sea during a fierce storm. On his quest for the story of ‘The Lost City of Z’ he became separated from his guide in the Amazon, walking in circles and feeling very lost. ‘At a certain point the Amazon all looks the same – like a white out in the snow, but with greenery,’ he says.

Yet he plays down these moments arguing that the more challenging aspects of his work are the structural elements of writing. A piece of a story can be missing, or sources may collude to create a kind of ‘hall of mirrors.’ For Grann this causes the greatest amount of frustration. He becomes obsessed with trying to find out what happened. ‘My quest is biographical, reportorial,’ he says. He looks for the end of a story, tries to solve mysteries, to sate a certain curiosity. The more I dig, the more I want to know. One piece leads to another. (Grann, paraphrased)

When doing biographical research writers need to interrogate their characters Grann says. He is interested in history from the inside out rather than the outside in. When writing historical pieces he wants to know how his subjects saw the world at that time. This approach was central to his research for ‘The Lost City of Z’. Its main subject, Fawcett, had an urge to explore. ‘These urges do have consequences,’ says Grann describing the devastation Fawcett left behind when he took his son into the Amazon and never returned.

An audience member asked if writing can be taught. Grann delineates between fiction and non-fiction, ‘I don’t think you could create a John Updike. He had an enormous gift,’ he says. But non-fiction in many ways is a craft that can be taught, ‘Some of it is observation,’ says Grann. Writers need to train their ear for dialogue and notice details like a person’s ticks or habitual phrases. They need to figure out the essence of a story and distil these. Grann modestly describes himself as an effective writer but not a great one. He aims to be transparent in his writing, ‘So the reader can almost be there the way I was there,’ he says.

‘It’s less about teaching. A lot of it is doing,’ says Grann. When he was starting out in his career he did anything he could to get clips. He would work for free. He wrote obituaries and about high school graduations. In a session the previous day Grann said that the central element to his career was the urge to write, ‘If you have that urge… just keep doing it.’

Hanging around – being there - is a part of Grann’s theory of reporting. ‘If [you’re] there you’ll see things,’ he says. If you hang around long enough your sources will forget you’re there and become themselves.

Button questions Grann on the future of long form. ‘It’s almost dead in this country,’ says Button. Grann concurs, ‘You cannot be in the business and not feel like an endangered species.’ But, says Grann, stories are things that are, ‘in some ways wired into our DNA… People have been telling stories for centuries and centuries… It’s always [been] a part of our culture.’

‘The truth is long form non-fiction is expensive,’ says Grann citing costs beyond salaries such as guards, satellite phones and living expenses. And long form takes time. ‘So much of media is now predicated on quickness, immediacy and speed. You can’t tweet it out,’ says Grann. But the Internet has allowed writers to reach other people more quickly and cheaply. Grann is hopeful for the future of long form, ‘because of that essential need [for stories] those stories will still remain. It’s hard to imagine it going away,’ he says.

A part of every writer’s life is rejection, and Grann is no stranger to it. ‘We’re all insecure creatures,’ he says. We all want our stories to be critically well received and read. When he writes, Grann quarantines the fear of failure. He focuses on what he can control, ‘the sentences, structure and the reporting,’ and writing something he can be proud of.

At TNY rejection has a different slant, usually when you’re turned down for an idea it’s for the right reasons (Grann, paraphrased). He talks about the way editors at TNY work with writers. They help with structure, to overcome obstacles and talk out riddles. They are enormously helpful he says. Editors and fact checkers take the story though a process that is ‘bigger than yourself,’ says Grann, ‘I always try to pay my tribute to them.’

TNY is associated with an excellence that Grann ascribes to people arriving at the magazine when they’re better at their craft. Staff at TNY care about the story. ‘It’s almost a simple mission,’ says Grann. The story is, ‘what unifies everybody there.’ Grann also says that the magazine insulates its staff from economics and external pressures – something that few magazines are able to do.

A question from the audience asks Grann how he thinks about readers when he’s writing. ‘I don’t know if I really have a sense of an ideal reader. I try not to think of my story with limitations,’ he says. Grann aims to write for everyone, asking the questions: How can I pull you in? How can I take you on this journey? He says you can write an extremely sophisticated story (one that plays with post modernism, revolutions, socialism or idealism for example). But these stories almost always include something compelling – such as a love story. As a story it needs to be pleasurable, told in the best way, but including smart things. Grann also thinks about how busy his audience is, and the competition his story has against the various gadgets that now distract us.

Getting the story is important too. Grann is persistent with sources he wants to talk to. He’ll ask a source for years to tell their story until they agree to speak. Grann advises other writers not to give up if a source says no. Never think there's a great secret. If they really don’t want [to talk] they won’t (Grann paraphrased). But if they do want to talk, and you're the one who stuck with it, you will get the story, he says. Grann explains to sources that he realises they are entrusting themselves to him, and that he will always be fair to them. When negotiating with sources Grann says writers should be themselves, be forthright.

Grann’s approach in this session was very much in accord with this advice. He was honest and forthright, and gave the audience a real sense of the story behind his stories. Above all was the commitment Grann has to the potential of his craft. ‘On Obsession’ was an apt title.