Get Lit

Here’s a quick excerpt from my book Literature on Deadline: The Art of Reportage (Celumbra/Pacific Isle, 2007) for a bit of late winter writing inspiration. — JCS


Some writers, and literary sorts in general, would say that literature and daily deadlines are mutually exclusive. Could Ernest Hemingway have written The Sun Also Rises or even The Snows of Kilimanjaro when facing a 5 p.m. deadline and an impatient editor? The answer is not what we might expect. Hemingway did write on deadline—many times. And though he spent years tugging at the seams of novels, he wrote short stories of another sort when facing the clock. Hemingway cut his teeth on reportage—the swift narrative of life. And he, like many other novelists, poets, and nonfiction book authors, worked as a deadline reporter to learn the craft of writing. As a reporter for the Kansas City Star, and later as a foreign correspondent, Hemingway witnessed and recorded the lives of real people. One need only read his journalistic dispatch “Japanese Earthquake,” for example, to see a young Hemingway trying out the fiction techniques of characterization, dialogue, narrative tension, image-provoking language, and other elements of a good story:

She went upstairs, quick and lithe, wearing a Japanese kimono. It ought to have some other name. Kimono has a messy, early-morning sound. There was nothing kimonoey about this kimono. The colors were vivid and the stuff had body to it, and it was cut. It looked almost as though it might be worn with two swords to the belt.

Hemingway wrote within the strict word limits of newspaper stories, keeping his sentences brief, active, and direct. It is a form that would become his style. Other great fiction authors, including Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Stephen Crane, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, George Orwell, John Steinbeck, and Virginia Woolf, wrote journalistic pieces or nonfiction essays. As they and other successful writers have learned: the key to good writing, no matter the form, is telling compelling stories.

Story telling is a vital human attribute. People convey their own life experiences via anecdotes: “You would never believe what happened to me today.” And we first acquire language via stories—in the form of songs, nursery rhymes, and children’s tales. Some of those legends even read like bizarre Miami crime stories: “Cradle Rocks Hard: Bough Breaks and Baby Falls,” or “Old Woman Living in Shoe Charged with 12 Counts of Child Abuse.” We all like to hear about what happens to other people and, more importantly, what happens next, and why?

So, as every novelist and raconteur knows, at the center of every narrative is a character. In literary forms of nonfiction, you don’t make up characters, but you learn how to get inside a real character’s world and retrieve the details of a life lived.

The art is in the quality of the reportage. A writer is only as good as his or her material—the quotes, details, revealing facts, and other elements of the clay thrown to mold each piece. Excellence in reportage is necessary both for daily journalists and literary nonfiction writers, though writers of either camp often see a No Man’s Land between the two approaches. While the reporter might focus on sifting facts and the literary nonfiction writer on flexing novelistic forms, the primary goal is the same, to chronicle the truth.

. . .

By nature, this book focuses on the journalistic approach to research and writing. Writers of all genres, however, would benefit from understanding the news gathering/research techniques expected by editors at most publications and by publishing houses.

If there’s any advice to remember while studying this book and other writing guides, it would be: absorb, explore, inquire, and experiment. That’s what reporters and writers do. And it’s a pretty good job description. So, whether you yearn to cover City Hall for a big-city daily newspaper or become a backwoods essayist, you will excel at your craft once you master the art of reportage.

See also, about the book:

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