By Mark Kramer
Non-fiction writer Mark Kramer is a professor at Boston University and organises an annual storytelling conference, The Power of Narrative. He’ll be at Storyology this year and is teaching two workshops after our Sydney conference. But every veteran writer got started somehow. Earlier this year in the Walkley Magazine, Kramer reflected on his origins.
Narrative journalism has two components. First, there’s the factual, structured, character-populated string of scenes, heading somewhere. And then there’s the voice of the storyteller. I’ve worked with daily journalists from many countries, and “newsvoice” seems a universal trait, whether in Japan, Russia, Holland or back home in the USA – the stilted voice of official civic fact that switches on only the “citizen” layer of a reader’s identity, and bypasses the complex, deep, contradictory, emotion-filled human layers.
Depersonalised official newspaper sentences such as “Damage from the blaze is estimated at $500,000, according to Associate Fire Chief John P. Smith. There were no reported casualties …” seem normal. We read them every morning. But they describe only part of a far richer interpersonal, extra-institutional reality – the passionate, brutal actuality of a neighbourhood fire, which in its entirety is not a mere civic event but an occasion of violent destruction, loss, tumult, heroism, tragedy, variously experienced by participants.
The same event, offered as narrative journalism, might include a scene described by a next-door neighbour who’d witnessed it: “Hands emerged from an upstairs window, clutching and then dropping a wriggling cat, which fell a few metres to a porch roof and jumped into a tree. Firemen on a ladder got the man in the window down, too, just in time. He touched earth smiling, and went looking for the cat.” As voice loses formality and gets personal, the range of facts and emotions that can be included expands.
I did not know this in 1969, and neither did most writers. I was, by upbringing and political disposition, an outsider. In those years, I lived on a hill farm that even dirt-poor farmers had abandoned (too small, infertile and tilted for the post-horse world), and wrote a column about rural life for The Phoenix, Boston’s cultural weekly, a few hours east. I milked a neighbour’s 30 cows,and searched for a grown-up calling.
It was the early days of our genre. I was 25. The rural-life column worked out well enough almost by accident. Why? Because, by chance, I was writing for: (a) an educated middle-class audience like me (which opened my friendly, informal voice); about (b) 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 steady corporatisation of our food supply and the fading of rural tradition). 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 merely to the citizen part of readers – all that fit the project, and fell into place. I was not thinking about this set-up, not thinking about voice, storytelling, digressive structure, framing themes. I felt I was simply chatting with like-minded urban friends about my fascination with rural life.
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 informally, and including personal detail – writing with a humane voice, one that did not represent any institution or carry out any citizen-informing duty.
And that, perchance, echoed the basic structure of the emerging “New Journalism”. Tom Wolfe’s article about that, in New York Magazine in 1971, excited me. The genre, of course, actually had roots in writing from Montaigne to Defoe to Twain to John Hersey (who wrote Hiroshima during the year right after the A-bomb fell).
Wolfe did blow his own horn some, but still, when I came across his article I felt identified, I understood that I was doing something like what he described, and was so grateful that he’d elevated it to a genre by coining a name for it, and declaring it an innovation.
“New” genres don’t come along every day. 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.
It was indeed a timely way to write. The following year, a few publishers wrote to me, asking about gathering those Phoenix “Living in the Country” columns together into a book (those were the glory days of print publishing). Knopf published my Mother Walter and the Pig Tragedy in 1972.
The genre was “in the air”. It didn’t emanate from a single source but drifted in like a band of rain squalls, reflecting a changing general attitude toward news and meaning and authority. Individuals who’d so recently shown they could oppose racism and oppose our war in Vietnam on their own could also opine on society in general, and offer their own visions of public events, including the transformation of family farming, and the erosion of rural tradition.
And that’s also when I read Ed Sanders’ book The Family. The still-infamous murders, by Charles Manson and his pals, of actress Sharon Tate and four friends, filled newspapers in the summer of ’69, and then again when Manson was identified and captured just before Christmas.
The New York Times (in a version of news voice as informal as news voices got) wrote, on Dec. 3, that “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, “Hippie clan is suspect inkilling Sharon Tate”, said, with an even more stereotypical public sensibility: “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, with a caption headlined Cult Leader? that 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 …”
I was sort of a hippie then – a back-to-the-lander with anti-authoritarian views, living from odd jobs. And sure, feeling a bit alienated from Vietnam War-era mainstream society, too, and not sure of my place in it. I had been to the great “be-in” in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, smoking and listening to Janis Joplin singing atop a flatbed truck. I knew hippies weren’t generally cultish or foolish, although by suburban standards, we did aspire to lives of indolence.
And then in ’71 came Ed Sanders’ book. I read it and was amazed. It starts with a chapter called “A Poor Risk for Probation”, referring to an official report during Manson’s prior seven years behind bars: “Manson announced that he was going to live with his mother on Harkinson Avenue in Los Angeles. This was the first of 20 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 making attempts to turn his daughter Judy out into the streets to hustle…”
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 his 20 addresses, and addressed readers as whole personages, not just dutiful citizens.
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 the spectrum of human behaviour that stretched from Manson to me and everyone else who hadn’t committed bloody murder.
I got excited, ditched plans to go to law school, and began to understand how to write seriously. I offered a few 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’ approach to an audience on my mind. The dense research, everyday stories and strong voice treated the reader as a whole person, a respected friend. Five years later, as a few colleges awakened to the genre, it was published, and I started teaching narrative journalism seminars, and eventually, began helping organise conferences. I’m still at it.
Mark Kramer is a Boston-based writer, editor and educator of narrative journalism. He will be in Australia for Storyology in November 2015 and is teaching workshops for emerging writers in Brisbane and Melbourne after the conference.
Andrew Weldon is a Melbourne-based freelance cartoonist. His work appears regularly in The Age, The Sunday Age and The Big Issue Australia: andrewweldon.com.