Mark Kramer is the founder of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism (Harvard University) and the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, a conference visited by thousands of journalists from all over the world. Asked to write about his first experience with narrative journalism, Mark Kramer travels back in time, to the year 1969.
Narrative journalism has two components. Of course, there’s the factual, structured string of scenes and digressions the reader experiences sequentially. And then, there’s the voice of the storyteller, the personality the reader experiences while ingesting those scenes and digressions. I’ve worked with journalists from many countries, and newsvoice seems a universal trait, whether in Japan, Russia, Holland, Brazil or back home in the USA—the mannered voice of official civic fact as relayed in newspaper stories—the voice calls out only to the ‘citizen’ layer of readers’ identities, and bypasses the complex, deep, contradictory, emotion-filled human layers that experience everyday life fully. Depersonalized official newspaper sentences like, “Damage from the blaze is estimated at $500,000, according to Associate Fire Chief John P. Smith. There were no reported casualties…” seem normal, right across cultures. We read them every morning. They describe only part of a far richer interpersonal, deinstitutionalized reality–the passionate, brutal actuality of a neighborhood fire, which ultimately is not a mere civic event but an occasion of violent destruction, loss, tumult, heroism, tragedy. The same story, told by a friend from next-door who’d witnessed it, might state, “I saw hands come out of an upstairs window clutching, then dropping, a wriggling cat, which fell down to a porch roof and jumped into a tree. The flames felt ferocious. Firemen on a ladder got the guy down, too, just in time.” As voice loses formality and gets personal, so does the range of facts and emotions that can be included, and the less formal the voice, the more fully it addresses and draws upon readers’ full, worldly experience.
I did not know this in 1969, and neither did most writers. I was, by upbringing and political disposition, though, an outsider. In that year, I’d moved to a hill farm in western Massachusetts that even dirt-poor farmers had abandoned (too small, infertile and tilted for post-horse agriculture). I wrote a column about rural life for The Phoenix, Boston’s cultural weekly, a few hours east, milked a neighbor’s thirty cows, and searched for a grown-up profession.
Tell it like it is
It was the early days of our genre. I was 25. The farm column worked out well and grew into my first book–almost by accident. Why? A) By chance, I was writing for an educated middle-class audience like me (which opened up my friend-voice), B) about a deep and crucial topic unfamiliar to that audience, with C) plenty of great, small foreground stories that pointed toward D) a huge social change (the corporatization of our food supply). So showing readers scenes, and inserting explanatory digressions now and then, and doing so in a voice that spoke to the reader as a whole person, a friend, and didn’t speak officially, and spoke not just to the citizen-part of readers—all those elements of the writing project, and fell into place. I was not thinking about this set up, not thinking about voice, storytelling, digressive structure, framing major themes by narrating intimate scenes. I felt I was simply chatting with like-minded urban friends about my fascination with rural life, as if around a dinner table. What was new, perhaps was that, like others in the outsider-culture of the time, my sense of how to “Tell it like it is” meant writing so informally, in a sense defying newsvoice, including personal detail—writing with a humane, full voice.
And that echoed the basic structure of the emerging “New Journalism.” Tom Wolfe’s article about that, in New York Magazine, in 1971, came out when I was a year into writing those columns, and it excited me—the genre of course actually had roots in writing that go from Montagne to Defoe to Twain to John Hersey (who wrote Hiroshima during the year right after the A-bomb fell, ’45-46!). Wolfe blew his own horn some, but still, I felt identified, felt like I was doing something like the sort of personal, non-organizational jouranlism he identified and parsed, and felt grateful that he’d elevated it to a genre by coining a name for it. New journalism was extended, digressive, informally voiced narrative nonfiction. It’s had more names since—literary journalism, narrative journalism, creative nonfiction, enterprise reporting, feature writing, all describing the same elephant.
Like a rain squall
And it was indeed a timely way to write: the following year, I was amazed when a few publishers asked about making those Phoenix “Living in the Country” columns into a book (those were still glory-days of print publishing) and Knopf published my Mother Walter and the Pig Tragedy in ’72. The genre was ‘in the air.’ It didn’t so much emanate from a single source as drift in like a rain squall, reflecting a changing general attitude toward news and meaning in relation to authority—individuals who’d shown they could oppose officially sanctioned racism and oppose our officially sanctioned war in Vietnam could also, from the same place of newly popular understanding, opine about society in general, and offer their own visions of public institutions and events–including the transformation of family farming and erosion of rural tradition.
That’s also when I read Ed Sanders book, “The Family.” The still-infamous murders by Charles Manson and his pals, killing actress Sharon Tate and four friends, filled newspapers in the summer of ’69, and then again when Manson was found-out and captured just before Christmas. The New York Times (in a version of newsvoice about as informal as newsvoices get) wrote, on Dec. 3, “…the persons accused … lived a life of indolence, free sex, midnight motorcycle races and apparently blind obedience to a mysterious guru.” United Press International’s arrest story, headlined Hippie Clan Is Suspect in Killing Sharon Tate, said, “Los Angeles (UPI) – A weird hippie band called “the Manson Family” burst into the Sharon Tate estate and brutally killed five persons because the home was a “symbol of rejection” to the cult’s leader, a member of the family has told police…” and the local paper near my farm ran the Associated Press Wire-photo snapshot of Manson’s hairy face, over the caption Cult Leader? The brief story went on: “Charles Manson, 34, was described today by the Los Angeles Times and attorney Richard Caballero as the leader of a quasi-religious cult of hippies…” They all told an official version of things—weirdos, free-love communards, up to ritual murder.
I was sort of a hippie then—a back-to-the-lander with thoe anti-authoritarian views of the time, living from odd jobs, and sure, feeling a bit rejected by mainstream society, too, or at least not at all sure I’d have a place in it. I’d hung out at the great ‘be-in’ in Golden State Park in San Francisco, smoking and dancing while Janice Joplin sang from a truck bed. I knew my kind of hippies weren’t cultish or foolish, although by suburban standards, we did aspire to lives of estrangement and indolence.
And then in ’71 Sanders’ book illuminated the weirdness. It starts with a chapter called A Poor Risk for Probation, referring to an official report written by a prison officer during Manson’s previous seven years behind bars. Sanders wrote, “Manson announced that he was going to live with his mother on Harkinson Avenue in Los Angeles. This was the first of twenty addresses Manson would have in this particular year and eight months’ stretch of freedom.
“The parole officer gave him some unemployment leads. His employment pattern for the following months reads like a struggling novelist’s. But Manson was just struggling, working as a bus boy, bartender, frozen-food locker concessionaire, canvasser for freezer sales, service station attendant, TV producer and pimp. On January 1, 1959, an irate father complained to the Los Angeles police department that Manson was attempting to turn his daughter Judy out into the streets to hustle…”
human scene by human scene
And there it was. Fact by fact, but in a you-know-what-I-mean, respectful friend’s sensible voice that compared his job-shifting pattern to that of a ‘struggling novelist,’ and counted those twenty addresses. It felt to me like ‘one of us’ had replaced the official police-reporter voice that dismissed comprehension of the events with terms like ‘weird hippie band,’ and ‘hippie clan,’ terms that conveyed discomfort but did not work to connect hideous crime to . . . well, to the spectrum of human behavior that stretched from Manson to me and everyone else who didn’t commit bloody murder. I got excited, suspended my plan to go to law school, and began to understand better how to write seriously. I offered informal, socially interpretive farm-related pieces to The Atlantic Monthly, was flabbergasted when they took them, and began writing “Three Farms: making milk, meat and money from the American soil,” with Sanders’ book still on my mind—the dense research, everyday stories and strong voice that treated the reader as a friend. Five years later, as a few colleges awakened to the genre and started narrative journalism writing courses, my farm book was published, and I started teaching narrative journalism seminars, and eventually, helping organize conferences. I’m still at it. Especially in this age of contracting newsrooms, and official factionalism, much of the news is best told human scene by human scene, in the voice of someone who merits the reader’s trusting friendship.
Copyright © 2014, Mark Kramer.