This week, we’re sharing stories from Ronan Farrow, Diana Nyad, Rachel Monroe, Ross Andersen, and Teresa Mathew.
In an essay at The Believer, Rachel Monroe lets us tag along as she hangs out with the Manson Bloggers — yes, there are people who blog about Charles Manson — as they gossip about Manson-adjacent people and look for relics. There’s not much new going on with Manson and his followers, most have either died or are still in jail, so the bloggers look for updates on anyone who had any association with the Family.
These photographs would look banal to the uninitiated: a grandmotherly type on a bench, clutching a water bottle; a short woman standing on the beach, flanked by three young men—her sons? These people are infamous not because they’ve killed anyone—they haven’t—but because when they were fourteen or nineteen or twenty-three, they had the bad luck or bad taste to befriend some people who did.
In the intervening four decades, some of these ex–Manson Family members changed their names or became born-again—whatever it took to distance themselves from their turbulent, murder-adjacent youths. Sometimes these people write angry emails to the Manson Bloggers, asking for their photos to be taken down. It’s easy to imagine them looking back at their former selves, shaking their heads, and thinking, That person isn’t me anymore. But the Manson Family Blog is always there to remind them: yes, yes it is.
Monroe’s piece isn’t just about the Manson Family or those who still obsess about him; it’s about whether we ever truly escape ourselves. Do we carry pieces of our younger selves with us, even as we grow and change? Monroe thinks that maybe we do, and maybe that’s a little bit of a miracle — even when those pieces include teenage Manson fandom.
That’s me in the photo. June, 2011: my first time interning at a daily newspaper and the first time I read Joan Didion. She blew my mind, of course. Eventually, I started sharing my favorite longform pieces on my personal blog, which led to a variety of opportunities, including my gig here at Longreads. If you’re new around these parts, like I was just a few years ago, the stories below will give you an idea of the strength and skill that goes into creating engaging literary journalism.
Each of the four stories below has been featured on Longreads before, minus the annotations, of course. The interviews with the authors are just as fascinating as the essays they’ve written. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Adrian Chen, and Brian Kevin discuss their research methods, their writing style, and how they choose which details to include and which to let go. There are literally dozens of other Annotation Tuesday stories I could’ve featured — it was hard to pick just three! — so be sure to take a look for yourself on the Nieman Storyboard website.
1. “Annotation Tuesday! Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and ‘If He Hollers Let Him Go.’” (Elon Green, October 2014)
Part of successful longform storytelling is a seamless blend of the macro and micro. In recounting her journey to Yellow Springs, Ohio — where comic Dave Chappelle lives, where he grew up, in part — Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah does just that. She never interviews Chappelle himself; she interviews several of the people surrounding him, including his mother, scholar Yvonne Seon, and Neal Brannan, co-creator of “Chappelle’s Show.” Ghansah and Elon Green share a fascinating back-and-forth about the impossibility of objectivity, the n-word, and comedy as a weapon.
2. “Annotation Tuesday! Adrian Chen and ‘Unfollow.’” (Katia Savchuk, January 2017)
Tech reporter Adrian Chen — formerly of Gawker, now The New Yorker — wrote a marvelous profile of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was once a devoted member of the Westboro Baptist Church. When Phelps-Roper took over the church’s social media accounts, her life changed. In between hate speech and emojis, she engaged with people of different backgrounds and worldviews. Chen explains that it took a long time for Megan to feel comfortable opening up to him and sharing her story publicly. But when she did open up to Chen, she gave him access to her emails, her journals, even her private messages on the Words With Friends app. They spoke for hours, and the result is a nuanced portrait that demonstrates the nonlinear nature of healing.
3. “Michael Kruse and the Woman Who Disappeared in Her Own Home.” (Paige Williams, August 2012)
I remember reading this piece when it was first published in 2011. I was interning at a daily newspaper and learning about feature writing and reporting for the first time. Michael Kruse and the Tampa Bay Times (previously the St. Petersburg Times) came highly recommended to me, and this story, “A Brevard Woman Disappeared, but Never Left Home” — is a contemporary classic. Journalist and professor Paige Williams dissects the story on an educational basis; Kruse answers her questions and adds commentary.
4. “Annotation Tuesday! (Back to School Edition): Josh Roiland and His ‘Literary Journalism in America’ Syllabus.” (Josh Roiland, August 2015)
During my senior year of undergrad, I embarked on an independent study of longform journalism — reading hundreds of essays, interviewing Ben Montgomery, and analyzing what makes different stories tick. Ready to embark on an independent study of your own? There’s no better place to start than this syllabus — I wish it had been around when I was in school. Roiland, presently an assistant professor with the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine, goes into glorious detail about each of his reading selections.
In The Believer in February, 2014, Michael Schulman wrote about one of the most dramatic and memorable failures in American branding: Coca-Cola’s OK Soda. Marketed to Gen X’ers in 1994, the OK Soda brand died by 1995, though its artifacts live on in collector circles and advertising lore. As ’90s fashion and music cycle back through popular culture, this epic story of food, failure and the secret heart of youth culture highlights the arrogance of business people who think they know what you want and how to manipulate you into buying it.
When OK Soda was introduced, of course, Coke executives were certain they had it right. Drawing on a study from MIT, the company had pinpointed what Generation X was all about. “Economic prosperity is less available than it was for their parents,” Lanahan theorized. “Even traditional rites of passage, such as sex, are fraught with life-or-death consequences.” Tom Pirko, a Coke marketing consultant, told NPR, “People who are nineteen years old are very accustomed to having been manipulated and knowing that they’re manipulated.” He described the soda’s potential audience as “already truly wasted. I mean, their lethargy probably can’t be penetrated by any commercial message.”
How to sell soft drinks to such people? The answer was to embrace the angst. Coke turned to Wieden + Kennedy, the ultra-hip Portland, Oregon, ad firm that had devised Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign. The agency’s pitch has become the stuff of soda lore: research had shown that Coca-Cola was the second most recognized term in the world. The first was OK, which, the firm pointed out, was also the two middle letters of Coke. So why not combine the two? The drink was christened OK Soda, and its semi-reassuring motto was “Things are going to be OK.”
Every Sunday as he entered the church where his father, Theodorus, preached, Vincent van Gogh passed a gravestone marked VINCENT VAN GOGH.
The artist’s brother Vincent was born, and died, March 30, 1852. The artist was born March 30, 1853. I remember being sixteen years old in the Toledo Museum of Art, staring at his painting Houses at Auvers, when I heard a museum guide say this. Whether the knowledge affected van Gogh—that he shared both his name and birthday with a dead sibling—remains unknown, the guide said.
“Does anyone have any questions?” he asked.
My mind filled with loud, hurried thoughts and just as suddenly emptied, like a flock of birds scattering from a field.
I was sixteen, the age Jeanne would always be.
-From an essay at The Believer by Jeannie Vanasco, about the heavy psychic burden of her “necronym,” the name she was given in memory of the daughter her father had lost, and whose presence she always felt.
The sensitivity of male egos, the demands of motherhood, and the general disdain for female ambition made loneliness the likely lot of the chick singer. For the young, female rock-and-roll fan, the arm of a male musician might have seemed more welcoming. Girlfriends and wives appeared as fairy-tale heroines who held royal sway in the courts of their rock-star loves. Even groupies—at least “the concubine elite,” to use Des Barres’s term—lived a preteen dream, consummating their crushes nightly while avoiding the emotional and physical perils of being married to, say, Keith Moon.
—Alexandra Molotkow writing in The Believer about the contributions, sacrifices and struggles of the women who loved rock and roll’s leading men, from Cynthia Lennon to Marianne Faithfull, and the sexual politics of popular music.
Early this summer I attended a disappointing writing workshop where a clearly unprepared instructor stressed the importance of creating air-tight sentences without bothering to suggest how. “Interrogate each one of your sentences,” she kept saying, then referring, over and over, to the first five lines of Lolita.
While the overall experience was unsatisfying, it reminded me that for a long time I have been wanting to go further with my development as a writer, at the sentence level. Since then, everywhere I’ve turned there have been signs pointing me in that direction.
More notably, not long ago, two different colleagues independently mentioned “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” this instructive essay by Gary Lutz that appeared in the January 2009 issue of The Believer, in which he includes lessons from legendary editor Gordon Lish, and cites many examples of great sentences by writers like Christine Schutt, Sam Lipsyte, Fiona Maazel, Dawn Raffel, Don DeLillo and others. Then a photocopy of the piece showed up in another writer’s photo on Instagram. I took it as a sign:
The sentence, with its narrow typographical confines, is a lonely place, the loneliest place for a writer, and the temptation for the writer to get out of one sentence as soon as possible and get going on the next sentence is entirely understandable. In fact, the conditions in just about any sentence soon enough become (shall we admit it?) claustrophobic, inhospitable, even hellish. But too often our habitual and hasty breaking away from one sentence to another results in sentences that remain undeveloped parcels of literary real estate, sentences that do not feel fully inhabitated and settled in by language. So many of the sentences we confront in books and magazines look unfinished and provisional, and start to go to pieces as soon as we gawk at and stare into them. They don’t hold up. Their diction is often not just spare and stark but bare and miserly.
There is another way to look at this:
The sentence is the site of your enterprise with words, the locale where language either comes to a head or does not. The sentence is a situation of words in the most literal sense: words must be situated in relation to others to produce an enduring effect on a reader. As you situate the words, you are of course intent on obeying the ordinances of syntax and grammar, unless any willful violation is your purpose—and you are intent as well on achieving in the arrangements of words as much fidelity as is possible to whatever you believe you have wanted to say or describe. A lot of writers—many of them—unfortunately seem to stop there. They seem content if the resultant sentence is free from obvious faults and is faithful to the lineaments of the thought or feeling or whatnot that was awaiting deathless expression. But some other writers seem to know that it takes more than that for a sentence to cohere and flourish as a work of art. They seem to know that the words inside the sentence must behave as if they were destined to belong together—as if their separation from each other would deprive the parent story or novel, as well as the readerly world, of something life-bearing and essential. These writers recognize that there needs to be an intimacy between the words, a togetherness that has nothing to do with grammar or syntax but instead has to do with the very shapes and sounds, the forms and contours, of the gathered words. This intimacy is what we mean when we say of a piece of writing that it has a felicity—a fitness, an aptness, a rightness about the phrasing. The words in the sentence must bear some physical and sonic resemblance to each other—the way people and their dogs are said to come to resemble each other, the way children take after their parents, the way pairs and groups of friends evolve their own manner of dress and gesture and speech. A pausing, enraptured reader should be able to look deeply into the sentence and discern among the words all of the traits and characteristics they share. The impression to be given is that the words in the sentence have lived with each other for quite some time, decisive time, and have deepened and grown and matured in each other’s company—and that they cannot live without each other.
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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Veteran status cuts both ways. Because I’m an army veteran, other vets often tell me things they wouldn’t tell those who haven’t served. It is a privilege to be given this confidence, and yet I’m filled with an overwhelming obligation to get their stories right. Although I’m a longtime reporter, writing about veterans has been the hardest subject for me to cover, because their stories are so nuanced, and reporters, most of whom have never served in the military and have no connection with the armed services, frequently get their stories wrong and paint them as one-dimensional lunatics. I wanted to get Capps’s story right and not come off as a voyeur. There was some precedent for my concern: a month before our interview, Capps had spoken about his struggle with PTSD at the National Endowment for the Arts, which sponsors his NICoE seminar, and after his talk he told me he was destroyed for the rest of the day.
—Veteran and freelance reporter Kristina Shevory profiling Army combat veteran and former Foreign Service officer Ron Capps in The Believer. Capps was haunted by PTSD after serving in Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Kosovo; writing brought him relief and helped him make sense of his experiences. He formed the Veterans Writing Project in 2011.
BLVR: When you’re having the experiences that end up in your fiction or your poetry are you aware they might end up as literature? Like are you thinking “this is going in a book,” or do you try to oppose that tendency, saying “no, I’m going to experience this as if ‘writing’ didn’t exist to me” and then, as needed, recall the experience only in retrospect, as you’re writing?
BL: I’ve always wondered about that. Henry James claimed that if you want to be a novelist you should be somebody on whom nothing is lost. The problem is that if you’re self-conscious about being a person on whom nothing is lost, isn’t something lost—some kind of presence? You’re distracted by trying to be totally, perfectly impressionable. I guess when I’m frightened or in pain or maybe very bored I’ve tried to hold myself together by imposing a narrative order on the experience as it happens. I don’t think “I’m going to publish this as fiction” but I think “I’m going to tell this story to a friend” and then I start telling the story in my mind as the experience transpires as a way of pretending it’s already happened. Does everybody do this? I’ve always assumed this is a common human defense mechanism. Regardless, this is the opposite of James’ dictum, right? Because I’m trying to be somebody on whom the experience is lost by supplanting it with its telling. I definitely do that in medical contexts, even in trivial ones.