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Pulitzer Winner Tracy Kidder to Headline COM’s Narrative Conference

Last chance to register for Storytelling Journalism Goes Digital

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Registration for COM's Narrative Conference ends April 2.

The biggest name at this year’s College of Communication Power of Narrative: Storytelling Journalism Goes Digital conference admits he has “never been entirely comfortable with the digital world,” and prefers paper and pen to a computer, because writing on a computer “encourages the kind of rewriting that isn’t the most essential rewriting—that is just moving stuff around.”

That confession comes from Tracy Kidder, author of nine nonfiction books, including 1981’s The Soul of a New Machine, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and a National Book Award. The book chronicles a computer engineering team’s feverish efforts to create a 32-bit superminicomputer. Among Kidder’s other books are Mountains Beyond Mountains, profiling Paul Farmer and his nonprofit Partners In Health, and Strength in What Remains, a vivid account of a genocide survivor’s struggles adjusting to life in the United States. Kidder’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. In 2010, he was named the first A. M. Rosenthal Writer-in-Residence at his alma mater, Harvard.

Inviting Kidder to deliver one of the four keynote addresses at next weekend’s conference was a no-brainer, says conference organizer Mark Kramer.

“Kidder is the epitome of the independent narrative journalism movement—a fine writer with major concerns of conscience, who makes it all happen,” says Kramer, a COM journalism department writer-in-residence and a former professor of journalism. “As narrative journalism goes digital, the new practitioners owe many of their literary and ethical practices to the print narrative journalism movement. Kidder’s presence at the conference brings it all home—the individuated voice, the highest level of reporting and technical skills, the ethical concerns.”

Kidder and his longtime editor Richard Todd will deliver a conference keynote address titled On Editing and Being Edited, a topic they explore at length in their new book, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, published in January. The two met in 1973 when young freelancer Kidder went to The Atlantic, where Todd was an editor, looking for an assignment. In the intervening decades, the two have worked closely together, with Todd the editor on Kidder’s books. Good Prose has been compared to such classics as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and according to Publisher’s Weekly, it is “a comprehensive, practical look at the best practices of professional nonfiction writers and editors.”

This year’s Power of Narrative conference, which still has a few seats available, will draw 33 participating journalists to campus, among them Mother Jones cofounder Adam Hochschild; Charles Homans, executive editor of the Atavist, a publisher of original narrative nonfiction for tablets; Kelly McEvers, a Lebanon-based correspondent for National Public Radio; and science fiction editor David Hartwell.

Also speaking at the conference are five COM faculty: Dick Lehr, coauthor of Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss and a former Boston Globe investigative reporter; Nick Mills, president of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, who has written numerous articles about Afghanistan for the Huffington Post and Foreign Policy; Neil Shea, editor-at-large for The Virginia Quarterly Review; Ellen Ruppel Shell, codirector of BU’s graduate program in science journalism; and Mitchell Zuckoff, the author of Lost in Shangri-La and the upcoming Frozen in Time, a true story of survival during World War II set in the Arctic.

BU Today spoke with Kidder about his career path, his writing process, and his advice for young writers.

Boston University BU, College of Communication COM, Power of Narrative: Storytelling Journalism Goes Digital, Pulitzer prize winner Tracy Kidder, faculty, Dick Lehr, Nick Mills, Neil Shea, Ellen Ruppel Shell, Mitchell Zuckoff, journalism

Pulitzer winner Tracy Kidder will headline at COM’s Narrative Conference. Photo courtesy of Tracy Kidder

BU Today: What first drew you to writing?

Kidder: It’s hard to say exactly. My mother was a high school English teacher, and I always liked the stories she read to me and my brothers when I was a kid. I liked writing. I remember learning how to write an essay and finding it very difficult as a young person. Once I’d gotten so that I could do it, I was awfully pleased with myself. It was something you could do that you could get praised for—you tend to like those things when you’re a kid. I remember being at Harvard, where I went to college, and taking a creative writing course just for fun. The teacher liked some of the stories that I wrote and so did some of the young women in the class, so really, I think, part of my first strong impulse to be a writer was that it seemed like a way to impress girls. It was just kind of ridiculous, except, you know, I was 19 years old. It didn’t work all that well, but never mind.

What’s a typical writing day like for you?

My life is divided roughly into two parts, between research and writing. When I’m doing research I don’t do much writing except in notebooks, taking notes. But when I’m actually writing, I get up pretty early. I tend to have a hard time getting going in the first stages of a project, writing rough drafts. So I tend to go at it until I can’t stand it anymore, and that’s usually a fairly short period of time, like four hours or so. I make myself stay there. After I finish rough drafts, I spend longer and longer periods of time writing, until it becomes the only thing I want to do. So it’s all progressive.

You devote years to researching and writing each book. How can you be sure you’ll love the subject enough to stick with it?

Well, you never are. The most nerve-racking times are when you’re doing the research and you begin to wonder, gosh how am I going to make a story out of this? Where is the story? I’m in the middle of research now, so I find that I’m goading myself with doubt. Once you’ve been doing research on someone or something for years, you have a pretty big investment. I kind of just try to close my mind to the doubts that always come. And once I start writing there are always times of despair. But the great thing for me is having had this editor, Richard Todd, this companion, for 40 years for reassurance and to talk out these problems. Also, the problems that get stirred up in my mind are really irrelevant, unimportant. They don’t seem that way until I get them out into the open air, you know? But it always feels risky, like a gamble. I haven’t yet devoted enormous amounts of time to a subject then had to abandon it, but that’s always a possibility.

The editing process can be particularly frustrating for young writers, who often feel their work has been slashed. How did you learn to work with editors and what advice do you have for young writers?

Well, it’s a pretty complicated thing. I think I should say, first of all, that my relationship with Todd is probably pretty unusual—I don’t know of another like it. Doesn’t mean there isn’t one. You know, we’ve been working together longer than most people stay married, a lot longer.

There are two sides to this. One is finding someone to edit you and whom you trust.

It’s also a matter of chemistry. A person could be a great editor for one writer and a not so good for another. I think there are two things on the writer’s side that one ought to remember. The first one, really important, is that anytime somebody takes the trouble to read something you’ve written, particularly when it’s a draft, and to offer honest advice about it, you ought to feel grateful. You’re not bestowing gifts on people by giving them things to read. This person is doing you a favor. And for young writers, it’s not always a professional relationship—people who are editing your work are friends or people you trust. You want to make sure that the person you’re using really has your best interest at heart. It’s very dangerous. Any piece of writing can be ridiculed, especially if it’s still unformed. It’s easy to discourage a writer at an early stage of writing.

The other thing that’s important, though, is to figure out what is meant by editing. Editing is, of course, almost synonymous with rewriting. And rewriting is not just tinkering with sentences or moving paragraphs around or trying to find better ways to say something. It is all that, but it’s something much bigger as a role. The most important kind of editing comes with rather a deeper conceptual level, a structural level. The most useful sort of editing is the one we find most frustrating, which is, throw this away and start over, that sort of advice. But that’s what is often involved. I think it’s a very hard thing to learn, and you have to keep relearning it. I think that you have to cope with a little objectivity toward your own writing—you simply cannot confuse your own ultimate abilities and morals and standing and everything else in the world with what you print. Writing can always be made better.

If it’s a distant relationship, if it’s the relationship of a newspaper editor to a writer, that’s a very different sort of thing, where no one has enough time to really get down to the matters at hand. This is a relevant question, and one of the main questions Todd and I set out to address in our book Good Prose.
Boston University BU, College of Communication COM, Power of Narrative: Storytelling Journalism Goes Digital, Pulitzer prize winner Tracy Kidder, faculty, journalism, Good Prose

Why did you decide to devote a whole book to writing?

It was Todd’s idea, and I warmed to it and went on partly because it was so much fun. It was fun to deal with editing him for a change, get some revenge. It’s interesting to me that we had some things to tell, and for me, the best way to explain something is to tell a story about it. There’s a fair amount of general advice—I hope it isn’t didactic, that book. But it’s all drawn from our experiences of trying to write and edit these three kinds of nonfiction—narratives, memoirs, and essays.

How do you define narrative nonfiction?

In some ways “factual narrative” is the best attempt at what to call it. I don’t like the term “creative nonfiction.” But narrative nonfiction, how do I define it? Well, it’s storytelling, and what that usually involves is characters, trying to bring people to life on the page. A story, it seems to me, always results in someone heading somewhere. It’s not all that different from fiction. There are so many different kinds of stories, but there have to be stakes involved. Something is at stake for the characters, perhaps for the narrator of the story. And I don’t think the techniques of storytelling belong, or ever did belong, to fiction exclusively. The one thing that I forbid myself is departure from fact—well, deliberate departure from fact. I think that everybody who writes nonfiction or any form of journalism has made mistakes, factual errors. Making mistakes is very different from making mistakes on purpose or misrepresenting the facts on purpose. I do think that if you call something nonfiction, it ought to be nonfiction. It ought to be factually accurate, as factually accurate as you can make it. Which means you don’t create composite characters or pretend things happened when they didn’t happen.

Many readers say your books transport them to wherever you are writing about, whether the hills of Africa or a school in western Massachusetts. How do you achieve this?

I always dream of being able to transport the reader, and what I love most when I’m reading a story is transport. I think in any kind of story, the crucial element is some form of identification by the readers with the character or characters. I remember once saying to Todd that the idea is to catch life on the page. And he said, no, actually what you want to do is get life off the page and into the reader’s imagination. It’s a very complicated and kind of mysterious process—you depend enormously on the reader for this. Just take the issue of how much you say about a character, how much you describe a character. Writers have different approaches—some describe a lot, others almost nothing. But the ones who tell you almost nothing about the way a person looks are the ones that you just see the most. They’re usually looking for one or two or three details, little things. Jane Austen is really good at this, tremendous at this, and so is Graham Greene on the economical side. But Dickens is great in another way. I notice I’m talking all about fiction writers, but I do think that when it comes to the art of making characters, that’s where nonfiction storytellers ought to go first—to the library of fiction.

The conference title is Storytelling Journalism Goes Digital. To what extent do you rely on technology in your reporting and writing?

It serves the same purpose as a library. It’s a useful resource, but I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all. It’s not for me, but I grew up in a vastly different era, and I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the digital world. There are times when I would rather be in a library than online. There are certain actions that have happened to me in a library that can’t happen to me online, like going to one section of a library for a book and seeing another one that I must pick up. That may be able to happen on the internet, but part of this for me is the tactile nature of a library.

I think there are an enormous number of pitfalls in writing on a computer, particularly for people of my generation. It encourages the kind of rewriting that isn’t the most essential rewriting—that is, just moving stuff around. On the other hand, it saves you from the enormous anxiety of losing a manuscript. I used to write whole drafts longhand, but then I worried I would lose manuscripts. I’d make copies and hide them at a friend’s house. I write on a computer now, but if I get stuck, I turn back to pen and paper.Boston University BU, College of Communication COM, Power of Narrative: Storytelling Journalism Goes Digital, Pulitzer prize winner Tracy Kidder, faculty, Mountains Beyond Mountains

What are you working on now?

I’m not quite ready to say. I’m moving back to a subject that once really interested me and then I abandoned. I’m going back to the world of high tech—software this time though. I’m really at the beginning of it all.

Is there a prescribed path you recommend for students interested in becoming narrative nonfiction writers?

The problem is that it’s changed. My path was pretty irregular. I didn’t do what most of my friends did, which was get a job at a newspaper, start writing for magazines, and then eventually go off and write books. I never worked at a newspaper. I learned how to write by writing a lot of stories for The Atlantic. In my case, I wasn’t making a living. Fortunately for me, my wife was making a living. I think it’s harder now to get a book published than it used to be.

What I do feel sure about is that if you really want to do this, and you’re willing to do the work, and you have talent (which is such a weird word because it suggests that some people are brought into the world as one form of an artist or another), and can suffer through delusions…if you really want to do it, there is a human need for all sorts of stuff that has been put between covers of books and magazines. However it is delivered in the future, there is still a need for storytelling. We are created with a special appetite for stories as a way of understanding the world. I may just think that way because it’s the way I understand the world. Even something technical, I understand it better if it is put in the form of a narrative.

The COM conference The Power of Narrative: Storytelling Journalism Goes Digital is being held April 5 to 7 at the School of Management, 595 Commonwealth Ave. Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s keynote address, On Editing and Being Edited, is on Saturday, April 6, at 1:30 p.m. A full schedule of events can be found here. Registration closes April 2; register here.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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