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Guide’s ‘Stories’ Are a Mixed Bag

By Casey N. Cep, Crimson Staff Writer

Learning to write is a like buying a car. Going from dealership to dealership, you compare prices, consider features, and measure your desires against your means. Reading everything you can, you build your style from what observations you make of every model.

That metaphor may be a bit awkward, but it’s still a bit helpful, no? Any number of ungraceful metaphors like this one can be extended to try and describe the difficult process of learning to write, and a book like “Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide” is full of them.

Purporting to teach aspiring writers useful things like “Finding, Researching, and Reporting Topics” and “Building a Career in Magazines and Books,” “Telling True Stories” is a collection of essays derived from the five annual Neiman Conferences on Narrative Journalism held from 2001 to 2006. Hosted by Harvard’s Neiman Foundation for Journalism, the conferences allowed practitioners of narrative journalism—including Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Susan Orlean, David L. Halberstam ’55, and Malcolm Gladwell—to offer their best or most concise advice to audiences of aspiring journalists.

A full 91 of these presentations are collected in “Telling True Stories.” Contradicting and disagreeing with one another, the 51 contributors to the volume usually describe their own methods, always cautioning readers that the key to literary journalism is finding your own voice, your own way of doing things.

Take the four opinions about whether or not a writer of creative nonfiction should use a tape recorder. Adam Hochschild ’63 writes, “I’m deeply grateful for the invention...it takes care of the soundtrack in a far more accurate way than I can by taking notes.” Gay Talese considers the device sacrilegious: “I espouse patience in listening, trying to capture what the other person is thinking, trying to see the world from that person’s point of view.” Two other reporters describe the professional and legal safety of having a transcript, should you need it.

Multiply these four opinions by the number of other writers in the book and you can sense the difficulty—or, rather, the charming frustration—of this collaborative “guide” to writing.

But the true joy of the collection is the strength of the writing included in it. The famed heroes and rock stars of the book do not fail to present interesting theories of nonfiction and nuggets of advice.

Tom Wolfe details four technical devices of a novel that can assist narrative journalists: “scene-by-scene construction,” “the use of copious dialogue,” “the careful notation of status details,” and “point of view.” Susan Orlean advises everyone to “read your stories out loud so you can hear how you tell stories.” Of writing about history, Harvard Professor of History Jill Lepore says, “Immerse yourself in the subject’s world and then immerse your reader in that world.” And Nicholas B. Lemann ’76 compares feature writing to “matching up the sound track and the visual track while watching a movie,” where the soundtrack is “an idea plot” and the visual is “the movement of the characters through a series of dramatic events in memorable settings.”

“Telling True Stories” is a helpful guide to have around your desk—or, once you settle on your car, in your glove compartment. When you’re looking for a way to start a story or drafting questions for your next profile, an owner’s manual is never a bad thing to have around, even if it is a little redundant.

—Reviewer Casey N. Cep can be reached at cep@fas.harvard.edu.

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