Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Oct. 29 — What is this REALLY about?

My day never really gets going until I read what Nancy Nall has to say, as well as her regular commenters. Reading her blog has been a daily habit for, gosh, maybe a decade now.

Lately, both in class and in the Kaimin critiques on Friday (the student-run paper at the University of Montana), I’ve been trying to stress clarity and finesse in stories. You can know the basics of newswriting (fives W’s, one H, arranged in inverted pyramid, and hello, where is the nutgraf?) and still spend the rest of your career struggling to make it all clearer, more coherent, uncluttered, smoother. Many times I find myself asking what the story I’m reading is about — especially with feature stories, whether by students or in the nation’s best magazines.

In Popular Culture Journalism we are now buckling down on two big writing assignments — the scene story and the long narrative — that are going to test the students’ reporting skills and ingenuity. But I think the real test is going to be organization, theme and order.

Back in the summer of 2007, I was struggling through the first draft of what would become my book about Christmas in America, Tinsel. I had lived and reported in Frisco, Texas, through the fall and winter of 2006-’07; and before I returned there for a second round of Christmas (and, although I didn’t know this at the time, returned for a third Christmas, in 2008), I came home to Washington for spring and summer and tried to hammer through all the material and write everything but the final chapter. I had a massive outline mapped out on my bulletin board, but in many ways the material was still very loose, out of my control. There was too much.

One morning, out of nowhere, Nancy blogged about this very dilemma, based on her recollection of a tip she gleaned from a writing seminar in her former workplace. Take it away, Nance:

“Some writers have a really hard time understanding what a ‘nut graf’ is — the explanation paragraph that answers the readers’ ‘so why should I care’ question — as well as why you need one, and why the best nut grafs encompass the theme of the story in some way. So they went around the table and had each of us think of a narrative project we’d like to write or have written, and asked two questions: What’s it about? What’s it really about?

What’s it about? It’s about a couple who had a kid with a terrible genetic disease, and it was really breaking them down, and then she got pregnant again and they considered aborting but decided not to, figuring God wouldn’t curse them twice, but the second child was born and it had the same disease. What’s it really about? Coping.

The first question is the subject, the second is the theme. The story can be big:

What’s it about? The Rwandan genocide. What’s it really about? The paralysis of moral actors in the face of great evil.

Or small:

What’s it about? These two guys, lifelong best friends, who’ve spent all the lives chasing Bigfoot sightings, until one got discouraged and switched to 9/11 conspiracies, and they stopped speaking. What’s it really about? Craziness and friendship.

See how it works? The first question is easy, but if you can’t answer the second, you’re going to get into trouble, because at some point you’re going to get stuck and say what the hell, and if you don’t know what you’re really writing about, you won’t be able to go on. …”

This is one of the greatest pieces of advice — for all kinds of writers — that I’ve ever heard. When Nancy posted this (July 31, 2007) I was nearing 80,000 words of an out-of-control manuscript filled with false starts, divergent threads and a thousand “TK’s” waiting to be filled in on the next draft. I was averaging about 1,500 words a day, some days many more. That horrible draft grew to an ungodly 125,000 words by September.

So, on that same day, I took Nancy’s advice, opened a new Word document and quizzed myself:

What is this book about? I quickly disgorged a page-long summary of my book project, the characters, the setting (exurbs, shopping malls, etc), the facts, the discoveries, the Christmas culture, the many scenes, the little family dramas, the pressure, the vibes.

What is this book REALLY about? That answer didn’t come so quickly. I thought about it all afternoon and finally typed:  “The cultural and economic need for myth. Joy and heartbreak.”

Somehow this helped enormously with the clogged drain. I started moving pieces of my outline around on my bulletin board, where I also tacked up my answers to What it’s about and What it’s really about. I started shoring up some unruly chapters. I forged ahead. It would be many more drafts before I finished.

So, on that note, I had the class take another look at David Finkel’s “Group Portrait with Television,” (see last week’s recaps) with an eye toward how it’s built. I broke down its classic — and bulletproof — structure for them on a big pad: Opening Scene, followed by a whole section that could be labeled What Is This Really About?, followed by Deeper Scene and a more biographical and a Still Deeper Scene. Then, a Step-back, of sorts, a directional shift — Bonnie Delmar’s girlhood, growing up with one TV in the house, which then clocks forward to the present and a scene of a concerned-moms group that worries about television habits and influence (and seamlessly works in the voice of a contrary view); followed by more intimacy with the Delmars, in which, ultimately Bonnie imagines her life as a TV show in the Closing Scene.

Keep Finkel’s story handy, gang — it’s a perfect map for writing a narrative feature, especially for this class.

We then went around the table to check in on progress for the scene stories, only this time, we put them to the test:

What is this story about? The answer to this can be as long and rambly as you need, in order to tell us.

What is it REALLY about? The answer to this should always be a short phrase, or even just a word.

We also started brainstorming ideas for the long feature, which the students have about a month to do. Every idea will be put to this same test: What’s it about, then What’s it really about?

Already it’s making it easier to separate “topic” ideas (trends, “people who [insert odd new activity here]”) from true narratives — STORIES — that focus on a person or moment. Something more real. Something deep. In the case of this class, these will all need to have some pop-culture angle, but this can be widely defined.

• • •

For Wednesday, Oct. 31: “It’s Halloween, it’s Halloween …”

Two good ones to read and discuss. The first just popped up in my Twitter feed Sunday, a nice read from Stephanie Hayes about a costume shop in Florida. Kind of a scene story, also a profile, and right in our zone: At House of Make Believe in Clearwater, owner gives life to dreams” (Tampa Bay Times, Oct. 28, 2012)

And also, one of my favorite stories ever: Meet The Shaggs,” by Susan Orlean. (The New Yorker, Sept. 27, 1999)

Read both and come ready to talk.


  1. brendan doherty on October 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    it IS about the shaggs.

Leave a Comment