In the final days before the deadline of a magazine feature about fertility treatments, Ian Brown, who had already written thousands of words, could not figure out his opener. He went back to the clinic, where he’d already spent weeks interviewing staff and clients, and just stood around. His scene found him: After overhearing nurses refer to someone named Mr. Wang, who had spent the last 45 minutes in the room where clients masturbate into cups (an unheard-of length of time), Wang emerges, specimen triumphantly in hand. Brown asks to sneak a peek into the room, to the disgust of the nurses. Inside: the German magazine Shaved Hole and a copy of Toronto Life featuring Peter Gzowski and Robert Fulford. (“Brilliant guys,” Brown says, “but not the sort of thing I would use.”) Brown went home with the perfect start for his story: “The thing about reproduction: you’ll never know who will get involved.”
“It’s a lot of work to write these kinds of stories. It’s at least twice as much as reporting,” Brown told an auditorium of writer-types at Wordstock on Oct 2, an event hosted by Ryerson University’s alumni association.
Brown began his speech with typical candour: “I would like to say it was a great pleasure to be here, but I cannot.” Brown points out that we’re experiencing “the most perilous point in the entire 400-year history of Western journalism, at a point when newspaper readership and readership in general is declining precipitously and newspapers are going out of businesss almost daily; at a time when there are so many so-called platforms that the so-called attention span of the so-called public is completely fractured and they wouldn’t do anything for any stretch of time that you can actually count or count on; at a time when the great tradition of telling a true or untrue story in print seems about to succumb to a cult of click-counting, focus-group organizing wieners. And now, the organizers of Wordstock have asked me to tell you why you ought to be writers. And being the idiot that I am, I’m going to do that. Because despite all the apparent evidence, I think the opportunities for writers — for real writers, who care as much about the way a story is told as the story they are telling — are probably unparalleled and about to blossom.”
“I tend to write long, long stories: three, five, 10,000 words long, almost an unheard-of length these days; I take a long time to report on them: four, six, eight weeks; I take a long time to write them: two, three, four weeks — are any of my editors in the audience?”
He explained how he agonizes over the details — he spent half an hour trying to discover the best way to represent the sound his severely disabled son makes when he’s hitting his head (his book, The Boy in the Moon, has since won a trio of literary awards). He insists that great storytelling requires conducting a lot of interviews to get different points of view and find out how people actually talk, instead of just how you want them to sound (After interviewing teen girls for a Globe story, Brown realized that most exaggerated the Canadiana upspeak, raising their voice at the end of every sentence so that each statement became a question. He thought it spoke to the girls’ “provisional” sense of self, and when writing about them he ended each quote with a question mark in hopes that readers could get that much closer to the subject).
“The anecdote lede has almost become a cliche in itself” and newspapers are especially guilty, Brown says. “The story usually consists of a sentence or two of colour, then the writer abandons the scene entirely and just provides pure information.”
He thinks there are two kinds of information and that 80% of what news organizations produce is the first kind: the info that we need to know — interest rates, traffic, what’s happening at Nuit Blanche — but “it’s really kind of prosaic. It’s kind of like looking for your car keys instead of going on a voyage of discovery.”
There’s also a second kind of information, the information you didn’t know you wanted to know, but you are thrilled to discover that you want to. “I think that’s the kind of information that real writers — writers who care about how you tell a story as much as the story you tell — that’s the kind of information writers traffic in. You don’t need this information to live your daily life, but it does make your daily life more worth living.” It comes as well-told stories, he says, the kind of journalism that people want to reread.
“Most journalists I know that practice this kind of writing don’t have any other choice in the matter,” he says. “They walk around our world, something catches their interest, and they’re obsessed and must write their way to the end of their understanding, they don’t know what they think until they write. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but I’m currently obsessed with trying to write a long — maybe 10,000 words — story on the subject of observing one’s wife. It’s not a love story necessarily, but it’s not necessarily not a love story.” He realized how often he thought about his wife, how often he observed her, “flirting with some guy across the room, or how she gets sad, or reading the paper with that same cup of tea that she reheats throughout the day. I know a lot about her collection of kimonos, because she wears them when she reads.” His next step is convincing his editor at the Globe to devote three or four pages to the subject. “It’s going to be a tough sell, but I think I might try it. Because it has grabbed me.”
Brown admits he wishes for a more efficient way to produce his brand of journalism — he only ever uses a very small fraction of his reporting — but after years of writing he knows there aren’t really any epiphany moments of writerly self-realization, only good reporting. “What you need is always in the material,” he says. “You have to turn the computer off. We’re reporters. We’re all social retards. We really don’t want to say hello to anybody. We just want to sit in front of the typewriter. But you have to get out and see things with your own eyes. I rarely think of a story idea from stuff I read. Most is stuff I hear, or see, or feel.”
Of course, you still need a good editor that recognizes the value in the unexpected or unconventional approach to a story, editors that support long-process writing and reporting (“Stories deserve that indulgence”). Those can be hard to find, especially in the 24-hour news cycle, Brown says. “The best editors tend to be rebels — my best editor was fired by The Globe and Mail.” He laments that news organizations have become trapped by the cycle — story meetings happen in the morning now, which means all an editor has had time to come up with is what other people have already produced. “What does the CBC have? What did CNN run? We have to have those stories…” Brown says it’s impossible to produce original, well-researched reporting when you’re busy chasing the other guys’ story list. He offers a disturbing little factoid: a series of recent studies found that, in any 10-day period, the same two or three stories account for up to 90% of the news hole (which is all the stories printed, broadcast or published online), with hot topics — Obama, health care and the economy, for instance, or Sarah Palin in 2008 — commanding the majority of news coverage. “90% of what you read is the same tiny, undernourished 5% of human experience,” Brown scoffs.
The bright side? 95% of the human experience has gone completely unexplored. Writers need to start exploring the world with fresh eyes: even if you’re just observing the way a wife wears a kimono when she drinks her reheated tea.