As host of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, Brendan O’Meara is no stranger to talking about the art and craft of storytelling. In this craft-focused excerpt, we’re digging into Episode 309, in which he interviewed Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby and writer Kelly Loudenberg about their work on the latest issue of The Atavist.
Why do we become writers? What is the impulse?
For many, it’s being drawn to writers whose prose is pyrotechnic. The aspiring writer thinks, “Man, I want to try and do that.” We know how this story ends, though: It never ends up like that. So then what?
Being a stylist isn’t the only thing that makes a writer great, or even good. Sometimes a piece calls for holding back — which is what Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby sought from the documentary filmmaker and journalist Kelly Loudenberg for her piece “The Caregivers.”
Kelly’s piece chronicles the story of Danny Valentine, a brilliant artist whose path crossed with Janie and Buzz, a Michigan couple who worked with incarcerated artists. Once Danny was released from prison, and Buzz’s health was in decline, Janie called on Danny for some much-needed help. Emotion is everywhere in this story, and Darby and I discussed how that can sometimes spill into sentimentality. “This is a piece where restraint is everything,” she says. “Figuring out with Kelly how tightly to hold the reins and when to slacken it a little bit.”
Kelly, who created Netflix true-crime series Exhibit A and The Confession Tapes, applied her documentary film background to this, her first foray into longform written journalism. As she was sitting down to write, she says, her old storytelling instincts kicked in: “Do I want to storyboard this? Do I want to outline? How am I going to get all this information down?” As she found out, though, sometimes the best practice is to surrender to the story.
Lots of stuff to unpack. Please enjoy this excerpt from Episode 309 of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast.
These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
Brendan O’Meara: Every piece that comes to your desk, or [contributing editor] Jonah [Ogles’] desk up there, there’s often an inherent puzzle. As the editor of Kelly’s piece, what was the puzzle for you to figure out?
Seyward Darby: This definitely hits some different, softer notes, I think, than some of the stuff we’ve been publishing recently. It’s a romance, but it’s also about friendship, and it’s also about justice. There’s a lot of beauty in it. There are no cliffhangers, per se, but there are surprises. So it turns into figuring out where to locate those — but then also to keep the line between good storytelling and getting a little too saccharin.
As a writer, Kelly was already very much in this mindset, but still, as you’re editing, it’s making sure you’re letting people’s actions and decisions speak for themselves, as opposed to commenting on them. That’s where you can get into the danger zone of over-sentimentalizing things. Figuring out how to strike the right balance between tugging at people’s heartstrings and yanking at them.
Writing the thing in such a way where you don’t comment on it is such a hard place to write from, because you have to show so much restraint — this is especially true with memoir, because sometimes you want to defend or justify a decision or at least acknowledge that, for example, something was kind of unsavory. But you’ve got to find a way to let the scene speak for itself, or to be the bad guy, or let someone else be the bad guy. It’s a really hard thing to navigate as a writer.
It is, and this is a piece where restraint is everything. So [it involved] figuring out with Kelly how tightly to hold the reins, when to slacken a little bit. But really, trying to keep things in check so the story is speaking for itself, and we’re not getting lost in purple language or unnecessary sentimentality. She did a really nice job with that. It’s also on the shorter side for us — 8600 words. And I think that’s because of the intimacy of the story and also because of the restraint that was really a priority in the writing and editing process.
Kelly comes from a documentary film background. And at least from the conversation I had with her, I gleaned that this was her first real foray into longform written journalism. When you’re approached by a writer who doesn’t necessarily have the body of work in this vein, how do you make sure that they can pull off the piece they pitched if they don’t have that body of work?
I remember getting this pitch very clearly because these three characters — Janie, Buzz, and Danny — jumped off the page immediately. And I found their story to be an interesting confluence of a couple of stories we’ve heard before. One is stories about people who support [those] in the U.S. carceral system, and [the other is] stories about the people who become surprising caregivers for the aging in America. I don’t mean that to say that either of these was overdone or trite; the point was that this story had various components of these little genres of other popular stories, and I was immediately excited by the way that I saw those layers in her pitch.
As a filmmaker, Kelly saw the story. No question. For me, it was a matter of talking to her and getting a sense of how close she could get to these folks, and it was pretty abundantly clear that she really had their trust and support. In the editing process, when the first draft had a bit too much restraint, we said “okay, let’s give it a little bit more love,” like, let’s put a little bit more flesh on the bones here. And she was really excited by that. She said something then — I’m trying to remember exactly — something along the lines of “editing is better than taking a writing class.” I love being edited for that reason, too; I feel like I’m learning in process, as opposed to a more sort of instructional format.
Kelly was definitely game to try something she’d never tried before. But she also just instinctively got what the story was supposed to be from the get-go. And to me, that’s always the most important thing. It’s not “can you write the best sentences? Are your powers of description off the charts?” It’s “do you feel the story?” And it was just so clear that Kelly did. It was one of those pitches I got and immediately replied to because I was just really interested. And I think it was because even in her pitch she was already conveying that she understood the power of the story.
Sometimes for writers, we may be very seduced by stylists, whether they be David Foster Wallace, or Didion, or John Jeremiah Sullivan, you know, these people that really just kind of leap off the page. And I think a lot of us get into writing because we’re excited by that. And we want to find some sort of way to contribute to that. It’s such a delicate balance to really surrender to the story, but also to inject some style into it without going over the top.
To be clear, I love a great prose stylist. But when in doubt, let the story do the work. That isn’t to say that the writer is not doing the work because the writer had to get the story. The writer had to understand the story. The writer had to put all of those bones together.
I think there’s sometimes a misapprehension that the more words you put on the page, the more description you’re able to include about a particular scene or something, [the better]. People think that good writing is ultimately all about style, right? But I always tell people, focus on the story and be more restrained. Because if you have a good story, and you’re able to tell it in such a way that a reader really wants to keep turning the page or scrolling down, then you’re succeeding as a writer, even if there’s not some flair or panache to every sentence.
What comes to mind when hearing you talk about this is that being the writer is effectively the drummer. There are tendencies where a band could be overstylized: too many fills, too much tempo. It feels like the good writer who knows the story is just putting the right accent in the right place and keeping you moving along. And then when there’s really a good opportunity, they can be there to hit the cymbal, maybe do a little bit of a flourish, but it’s all in service of accenting the other elements of the band.
I’m one of the bajillion people who loved Get Back, the Beatles documentary. And one of the things I was so struck by in watching it was that nobody ever had notes for Ringo. Like, they were all arguing about this or that, and Ringo was just there doing his job keeping the beat in an absolutely crucial way. I know people say Ringo is the best Beatle, and after seeing that documentary, it’s really hard to argue with that — not only because he is a great drummer, but because he’s hilarious and gives no shits about a lot of the drama. I understand exactly what you’re saying. Which isn’t to say that the drummer can’t have a fantastic solo, but it’s really about “are we keeping the song on track?” It’s the backbone, it’s the anchor.
Given that you have a lot of experience in filmmaking, in what way does filmmaking help your writing?
Kelly Loudenberg: Well, this is my first longform piece. I mean, I’ve written smaller things. But this was kind of more like making a documentary. I actually enjoyed the process a little bit more, because it was more intimate; I like collaboration, but sometimes, like when you’re working on a story, it’s kind of nice to be just you and the people who you’re writing about.
I was talking not just to Janie and Danny, but also all the people in their orbit: Janie’s former students, Buzz’s former students, Buzz’s work colleagues, old friends from before he knew Janie, Janie’s friends. I kind of made friends with one of Janie’s friends who’s in the piece, and who lives in LA now, which is really nice. But it’s kind of just getting to know their whole world and talking to everybody around it, and not just directly to both of them.
For both of my documentary shows, I would talk to a lot of people who I never even planned on interviewing, but who gave me the right kind of context and helped me embed myself in their story. So I think it was really similar to that. And then the process of writing is like the process of thinking about the structure of a documentary — how am I going to unfold this story? With documentary, you’re more limited, because you have to tell it with interviews and footage and archival. If you don’t have those things, you can’t really do it. But with writing, if you have the scenes and they exist, you can write them. So it was really more creative in that way.
Making a film, you’ve got a crew, you’ve got microphones, and then here reporting is just you and your recorder and your notebook. Did it feel more streamlined? Liberating?
It felt simpler. I’m not saying it was easier, just that I felt like I could focus more. I could create things in my head, too, and it just didn’t have to be the distraction of all the crew and all the money. You know, when you’re doing shows, there’s just a lot of money weighing on each time you go out with a crew. This kind of reporting, you don’t have to put so much pressure on every interaction, you don’t have to get something out of every conversation, you can just kind of flow through it a bit easier.
You alluded to structure earlier — can you talk about the structure of this piece in particular, but also maybe give us an insight into how the structure of a documentary is similar or different than a longform written piece?
You can open a documentary the same way I open that story. Structure is one of my favorite parts, just figuring out [that] it’s not just beginning, middle, and end. It’s not like I need to go through a chronology. How am I going to create something interesting that somebody wants to read? And it’s the same thing with a documentary. Within a documentary setting, the editor is also writing it with you, and they’re helping you think through what the structure should be. And you’re kind of talking back and forth about it. And it’s really a huge part of the shape and the form that it takes. But I think with documentary, you are limited to having the right assets visually. And if you don’t have them visually, you can’t do it.
The opening element of this piece is a really nice scene. I wrote in my notes “ask Kelly how she goes about reconstructing something like this.” So maybe you can unpack the opening vignette of this piece that introduced Daniel, and how you went about reporting that.
The scene in my head was of Danny getting this call from Janie on Christmas Eve that she needed some help — she was emotionally exhausted and needed a backup. And he left the next day. Packed up his car and came down from the Upper Peninsula.
I just imagined Danny on his drive, smoking a joint, driving through this wicked snowstorm and getting into Ann Arbor to this beautiful neighborhood and this beautiful house, and what that scene must have been like. I mean, it was also probably very stressful for people involved — it wasn’t a perfectly normal Christmas. But you also have to stick to the facts. You can make the scene cinematic, but it also has to be completely true. I’m glad that we were able to bring it out.
I think sometimes in documentaries, there is a tendency to get further from the truth. That’s what’s happening now. That’s not how we made our shows, and we were very committed to representing what actually happened. But things are getting more blurry in the genre, and it’s not something I totally like.
Is it getting overstylized? Dramatized?
Very much. I think some things don’t need to be documentaries; some things are better as a written piece, or a podcast, or a fictional take on that story. [When you force it into a documentary,] sometimes it just stretches a little bit. There’s not such a strenuous fact-checking process. They don’t have an outsider coming in and checking these things, so it’s up to the filmmaking team.
Your piece isn’t all cinematic scenes; there are more expositional informational sections as well. How did you go about balancing the more kinetic scenework versus information the reader needs to be fully immersed with these primary characters?
It was a lot longer at one point, and then Seyward really helped cut it back by working to find that balance of details versus scenework. What I began with was something like, Okay, I’m going to take as many pieces of this and make them into scenes, and not get too bogged down in mundane details. That’s just how I started thinking about it, and then the editor helped me expand on that and make that even stronger.
A lot of writers have their own idiosyncrasies to get into the flow of things. Like, Susan Orlean is all about the lede — she’s said she can’t proceed until the lede is in place. And some people may put that off until later and work on something else. What are the things that you like to have in place when you’re generating the thing?
I think it was a little bit scattered for me, and I’d be more organized next time about how I’m looking through the information before I start writing. At first I was like, “This is my first time doing something so long — maybe I should just outline it.” That’s what I would do for a documentary: I would outline it in a very detailed way, even put it up on the wall, like some people storyboard a film. So I thought about “okay, do I want to storyboard this? How am I going to get all this information down?” But what I actually did was I just started writing it. And I just kept going through all the interviews and transcripts, and talking to Danny and Janie along the way.
So it wasn’t like I went out and did all the interviews, and then came to my desk and started writing. I was actively interviewing them the whole time, realizing that I needed more here or there, and they were just so wonderful about answering all these questions, and also their memories are very detailed. And so they helped, where I needed to fill in all of these pieces that I didn’t have. So for this time, at least, it was very piecemeal, just working through it until I got through to the end.
Because you were kind of writing it as you went along, did you find that you were spackling in holes with interviews here and there? Did you ever run into an instance where you felt like you might have been painting yourself into a structural corner that might have been hard to get out of?
I knew the general arc of the story, so I didn’t worry that the structure wouldn’t work. But it’s hard when you don’t have a ton of distance to know, “Is this interesting? Does this build, does this work?” So I also had to ask Seyward if the basic structure was working, and thankfully, it was.
But there were times, too, that I was like “How much do I want to go into the prison art world culture” — because that’s a world unto itself that I got to know through Danny and other artists that I’ve interviewed and talked to who were still incarcerated, and a couple who are out. It was a whole other world that I just loved, and I think I did at one point go pretty far down that rabbit hole, but then we scaled it back. That’s probably a whole other piece right there, but not the same thing.
The story is so tender and delicate. With Buzz’s mind starting to deteriorate over the years, it can be really hard to tease out information and interview people about such delicate subject matter. So I wonder how you went about interviewing Janie and Danny about things that are so delicate, and doing it in a way that honored their story, but also getting the information you needed to tell the story you wanted to tell.
I just felt a deep connection with both of them. When I met Janie, I had had a baby born very early. She was born three months early, and was in the NICU for four-and-a-half months, and was very sick. And then when she came home, it was a process of caregiving that was beyond normal parenting. I think I was still very, very raw from that experience — almost still in shock. I can’t say how they were, but I did feel a deep empathy and connection to them through going through this myself, and I felt like talking to them helped me too in a lot of ways, like we were just having a conversation about these things that were really hard.