(Part one of this interview is here.)
Q. Once you've got a great story, by luck or pluck, how do you tell it? Given your successes, the answer will probably be of interest to folks who make their living as media professionals -- I'll certainly take note -- but I imagine just about everyone could benefit from the storyteller's skill set, whether the midcareer professional in a job interview, the best man preparing his wedding reception remarks, or the grandmother who loves nothing more than captivated grandchildren gathered at her feet. What does one do to get better at storytelling?
I have spent a long time looking for short cuts to the answer to this very question. But I haven't found any. So, begin by over-reporting and over-researching everything. If the story involves talking to people, talk to them as long as they will stand to have you around and then talk to them some more. Keep reading. Outline a structure to the piece. Set that aside for now. Realize you don't know enough. Go over all your interviews and research notes again, only this time, make a laundry list of all the great details, large and small, along with the best quotes. Look at that list a lot. Begin the process of re-reading all of your research. Bail out of re-reading all of your research by convincing yourself that what you really need is a long walk to think about "structure." Walk toward your shoes and look at them. Blow off the walk altogether. Descend into a shame spiral. Now, catch up on your HBO tivo'd backlog. After several hours, take another ride on the shame spiral. Lumber over to the desk and go over the interviews again. Make notes of your notes in tiny scrawl so that they can fit on a single sheet of paper. Look at the details. Write down the big ideas that form the superstructure of the piece. Realize you are a pompous git for thinking that ideas have anything to do with it and go back to that list of details. Set it aside. Read some blogs.
The next day, re-read the single sheet of paper with the notes of your notes and wonder, what does this shit even mean? Then outline a structure. Indulge in a nice long afternoon of intense self-loathing. Start to write according to that outline. Throw that draft away. Write a new outline. Go over your notes. Re-interview a few people. Realize, as if you hadn't realized this a thousand times before (most recently, a few minutes before) that your own big ideas about this story are pathetic, but this list of details and the more decent quotations from the interviews--there's some pretty good stuff in there. Fiddle with writing a few more paragraphs. Microwave your cold cup of coffee for the third time. Go over your notes again. Yell irrationally at your spouse/child/dog/a bare wall. Now, kick the wall. Limp. Review all the transcribed interviews one more time from beginning to end. Paste a large sheet of paper to a wall and, standing up with a fresh cup of coffee in your hand, outline the piece in really big letters. Realize that you've misunderstood the point of the entire story all this time. Scream the word, "fuck" really loud in an empty room. Do this about 40 times. Wipe off the flopsweat. Look at the notes on the single sheet of paper and realize just how brilliant they are, or moronic. Espy the grime on your bike chain--it could use a good cleaning with some WD-40. Start writing the lead paragraph again. Set that aside. Find that single cartoon frame from "Peanuts" that you keep in a box somewhere, the one in which Snoopy is reading a publisher's rejection letter for his novel that goes, "Has it ever occurred to you that you may be the worst writer in the history of the world?" Read it and laugh. Later that day, read it again and not laugh. Feel really, really sad. Go over your notes one more time. Look at earlier drafts and passages and realize that maybe this stuff here is the lead, actually, and then if you follow that outline from seven outlines ago, it just might work. Re-read the last couplet of the first strophe of Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella. Look at those riffs in the earlier draft again and realize some are not that bad. Convince yourself that your bike chain really does need another good cleaning and what's that gunk on the inside of the rear fender? Read the latest draft-like substance and think that, with a little work, maybe this won't be too embarrassing. Feel mildly excited that there could actually be something here worth reading eventually. Look at the list of details again. Re-read the edited draft and start to feel better. Or, if not, set it aside and then repeat all of the above instructions, only this time, after each step, masturbate.
Q. I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you to recommend some of your favorite stories. Any books, magazine stories, radio segments, or great stories in any other medium that interested readers ought to hunt down?
I used to read by subject matter. Now, if I see or hear certain bylines--Susan Orlean, Michael Pollan, say--then I know I'm fixing a cup of coffee, ordering the nearest kid to leave dad alone for the next fifteen minutes unless her hair is on fire, and kicking back with a magazine (or glowing computer screen--I don't care about that fight anymore). I was going to provide some names here, like Melissa Fay Greene, or Lawrence Weschler, or Scott Carrier or Sarah Vowell, but the problem is that this kind of anthologizing is painful. Sometimes you know one or two of these people, and even if you don't, the whole listing thing seems vaguely butt-kissy and confessional in an icky, governor of South Carolina sort of way.
So, rather than carry on with this list that I thought I said I wasn't going to start, discover the writers you really like and then read them. It doesn't really matter what they're writing about. And if there's time enough at the end of the day, check out the early Esquire pieces by Terry Southern--they're just brilliant--and never forget to dip into that S. J. Perelman complete works you have on the shelf there. How he continues to hold up is one of the more pleasant, ongoing mysteries.
Jack Hitt is one of America's best storytellers. His credits include Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, This American Life and Rolling Stone. You can buy his most recent book here.