Some Things to Read and Listen to This Weekend

If you're looking for a few good things to read or listen to this weekend here are some things I've enjoyed this week that I'd like to share.

A blog post about podcasts 

I really liked this post about podcasts and what a great time in history it is for radio. The post title is "Mystery Show is the new Serial. Kinda. (But it's an awesome moment for radio.)" It's by Ethan Zuckerman, the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection. He describes how the new podcast Mystery Show, by a voice many public radio fans recognize—Starlee Kine—stacks up to podcastdom's uber popular show Serial.

He discusses what's to love and what's troubling, includes listening links, and makes great points about the beauty of radio now.  He writes:

This is a remarkable moment for ‘radio’, a term that’s increasingly archaic as much of the best stuff is never broadcast over the airwaves. But that’s the term the producers at Gimlet, Radiotopia and other purveyors of fine podcasts use, despite the fact that 10 of the 12 shows I’m following exist only in the digital realm.

"What wasn’t as obvious, to me at least," Ethan said, "was the ways that changing the distribution and revenue equation for content could spark a renaissance in creativity. Much of what I’m listening to on podcasts is much, much better than what I routinely hear on NPR or commercial radio."

Exactly. Podcast love.

A podcast about longevity

This week I celebrated my birthday, which was the perfect day to listen to the TED Radio Hour episode called "The Fountain of Youth."

My favorite part was the discussion of "blue zones"— areas around the world where populations are living to 100 years old at rates up to ten times greater than most of us and with more vigor.  How do some of these cultures live so much longer and better? Does it matter more if we eat plants or do yoga, or does purpose and spirituality and how we socialize come into play? 

One common factor seems to be relationships. "Committed social networks" contribute to living far longer than average life expectancies. One speaker and explorer said "loneliness can shave five years off your life expectancy." I so believe that.

Some narrative nonfiction books

In a Twitter conversation I had this week with Dave Cullen (author of Columbine) and David Grann (staff writer @NewYorker and author of The Lost City of Z and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes), they gave a few suggestions for great narrative nonfiction. I was needing a Kindle fix fast.

Dave, who once came to a talk with a duffle bag full of narrative nonfiction he'd read before writing Columbine, said: "Devil In The White City, Longitude, The Plantagenets (if Eng history), Perfect Storm is underrated, Blackhawk Down, House Of Stone! Not all narrative, but 2 amazing: Yanomamo: The Fierce People, Presentations of Self in Everyday Life. The Professor & The Madman. Yąnomamö 1st enticed me into anthropology 30 yrs ago. Great pairing w/ modern Lost City of Z."

David Grann said he loved Professor & the Madman and suggested Dave's ColumbineDevil and the White City as well, and Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.

Beautiful Forevers and Columbine are both on my Story List. Love those books. I'd started Devil and the White City years ago, but stopped because frankly, I got scared. It involves a murderer and I was alone when I was reading it. At night. Mhmm. You know the creaking you hear downstairs is not the wind, but the same madman in the story you're reading. Of course. But I'll try it again. If I'd stayed too off-put by the subject of murder to read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, I'd have missed one of the best examples of narrative journalism ever written.

I quickly bought Grann's The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, on my kindle and spent my entire birthday afternoon on a pool float reading it.

It's superbly written narrative nonfiction and experiential journalism. Grann adventures deep into the Amazon to report and tell the story of the famous British explorer Percy Fawcett who went on an expedition in 1925 to find a lost civilization, and never returned. That same fate has befallen many others who've gone looking for Fawcett. I'm enjoying it immensely.

What are YOU reading and listening to?

Avoiding a Narrative Nonfiction Writing Shipwreck

I’m going to tell you about a book writing screw-up I made. A quasi-catastrophe. Don’t you hate it when you realize you should have done something differently and now it’s going to cost oodles of sweat equity to go back to the task and try again? Mental sweat and untold work. It feels a lot like failure.

When I wrote my memoir I wanted to intertwine factual information into the narrative. I did some of this as I wrote, but I got so focused on telling and structuring the story, that I started just making notes of where I wanted to add my researched information and kept writing the narrative with the intention of going back later to add the bulk of the “hard info.” Um, big mistake.

A carpet pounding, self-loathing, three-boxes-of-Kleenex mistake.

The task of facing all the journalism threads I wanted to include and trying to figure out how to weave them into the narrative afterwards was daunting. The hard information needed to be seamless within the story, unobtrusive, folded in, like whipped egg whites into angel food cake batter. Writing the draft and reworking the theme and dramatic narrative structure was hard enough. Trying to do this at this point in the writing was overwhelming, adding the egg whites after the cake had begun to bake. Which overwhelmed me. Made me grab the three boxes of Kleenex.

It seems so clear now. I think the best method would have been to have the hard info, the research, as well as the narrative reporting done very early and married them as I wrote. Why, oh why, didn’t I do this?

At some point though, you have to stop pounding carpet and get on with things.

I reminded myself that my nonfiction narrative involved extensive interviewing skills, meticulous organizing, a dedication to journalistic integrity and veracity by comparing facts and dialogue against different people interviewed, and so on. I also reminded myself there’s no “right” way of writing anything. Methods and work flow vastly differ.

In fact one of the most interesting books about how literary journalists do what they do and the myriad ways they do it is called The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft. Just reading how Susan Orlean, Gay Talese, and Ted Conover attack their work encourages me to learn better ways of approaching my own writing while giving myself permission to work the way that’s best for me.

We have to work with what we’ve got at the time. Maybe a more journalistic work is for another book. Maybe part of the answer lies in leaving out much of what I thought I wanted to include and only putting in what’s absolutely necessary to the theme and resolution going with just enough hard info to make the dramatic narrative work. Um, duh.

Maybe this was the best route after all.

And maybe, no absolutely, in the future I’ll try to adopt lessons from those whose craft and methods I admire, and give myself lots and lots of grace.