Constance Hale teaches narrative writing at the Nieman Foundation and was the founding editor of the foundation’s online Narrative Digest. At a small group session during the “Aftermath” conference, Hale led a conversation about how to produce good narrative journalism about trauma. During their time together, the journalists spoke about successful approaches to narrative writing, and Hale addressed these elements in remarks that are excerpted below:
All of us are bundles of contradiction, and if you haven’t found the contradiction in someone, then you haven’t done the character work that you need to do for a narrative to work. We’re talking about paradox so character description becomes a skill that’s very important.
What place do your emotions play? What place does what you’re experiencing play in the story and the totality of your experience as a human? There’s this wise narrator that is there sometimes, even when it’s a very objective, third-person story. There’s a kind of emotional insight that a skilled writer with a great command of language and of the human condition brings to a story.
Some trauma narratives can feel very small-bore because I think sometimes as reporters and editors we’re like, yes we have great characters, sympathetic, narrative arc, dramatic escalation, climax resolution; all the elements of narrative, but what’s the second level? What’s the deeper level? What does it tell us about life? What does it tell us about humanity? What does it tell us about the human condition? And so the larger context is the thing we often find missing.
Listen as Hale describes a narrative story that appeared in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer in which a reporter wrote about having been raped 20 years earlier—and why her particular approach to reporting this story worked so well. Here is an edited excerpt:
She went and found the rapist’s family and the story became not just about her experience of rape but about poverty and race and violence within families. It turned out the rapist had come from a very violent family and had been subjected to abuse as a kid. That’s a very ambitious story, to write about your own experience of rape 20 years ago and then to build class and race into the story.
Hale reads from the beginningof a story written by Neil Shea, who was sent by National Geographic to Iraq. When he came back with a story that was not going to be published in that magazine, he wrote it for The Virginia Quarterly Review. Hale introduced her reading by observing the following:
He probably didn’t make very much money, but he was given the space and he was allowed to write a narrative. It’s kind of interesting to me that this was the outtake, the story that didn’t sell—the story that he wasn’t sent on assignment for, but it was the story that he wanted to write.
In another section from Shea’s story, Hale illustrates how the author uses fresh, detailed language to describe what it was like to get into a helicopter.
In a second small group session about narrative, Moni Basu, then a reporter with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Scott North, a projects reporter with The Daily Herald in Everett, Washington, and documentary filmmaker Peter Davis shared their experiences in doing long-form trauma narratives. Basu described how she decided to focus her eight-part Iraq narrative series on Chaplain Darren Turner.
Basu explains how her search for a central character began in Georgia. The first clip begins with moderator Andrea Simakis, a reporter with Cleveland’s Plain Dealer and a 2009 Nieman Fellow, reading from her story, followed by Basu’s talking about her work on it.
In the second audio clip, Basu explains what it was like when she followed Chaplain Darren Turner to Iraq, embedded with his military unit, and returned to Atlanta to write. Basu provided a poignant glimpse of how Turner’s role in the war affected him.
What happened in the story was I went to document this young, green chaplain who went into battle thinking he would save these young souls, and in the arc of the narrative, when you get to the last chapter, you see how he is the sponge for the whole battalion. All through the story he has absorbed all of the wounds of all of his soldiers. By the end of it, you see him so completely spent where his anger comes out in what he says. At the beginning of the story, he goes to Walter Reed, and at the very end of the story you hear him say, “I don’t want to go” to Ibn Sina, which is the combat hospital in the Green Zone where nine of his men have been taken from a burning Bradley. He says it because he’s just completely done. He’s so stressed out by that point. I had not ever imagined that to be the arc of my narrative but that’s how it ended up.
After five years of reporting a story about Mylo, a 19-year-old member of the Tulalip Indian tribe, who died after ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms, North wrote an 11-part serial narrative that was published in The Daily Herald.
Scott North tells how he approached Mylo’s family and stitched together the story of the teenager’s life and death. In talking about his work on this story, North observed the following:
It’s an easy trap that we fall into: young man on drugs, encounters the cops, he’s dead. Game over. The reality was Mylo had been trained to be a leader in that community. Mylo was somebody with tremendous charisma, and Mylo had just left home three days before. He was a kid in whom people had invested great time and energy trying to help him make good choices, and he made a kid’s choice and he died. It was a tremendous tragedy and loss, and I tried to capture what that meant over the course of his lifetime by reflecting on who the people were that I met. It was the hardest part of the story to write, but it was the last thing I wrote, which was how does this connect very, very directly with my family.
Peter Davis is the filmmaker responsible for the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Hearts and Minds,” a film about the Vietnam War that was released in 1974. Moderator Simakis read from a review by New York Magazine’s Judith Crist:
The title is derived from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s noting as he escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War that, “the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of those who actually live out there.” But Davis’s triumph is that he is even more concerned with the hearts and minds of Americans. And though its time-set is the 10-year foreign war that cost some 60,000 American lives and caused internal upheaval and bitter aftermath, his work endures as a touchstone for a concept of Americanism, patriotism and personal and political principle.
Davis explores how he dealt with three central questions—Why did we go to Vietnam? What did we do there? And what did the doing, in turn, do to us? In this edited excerpt, Davis observed:
The last two—“what did we do there and what did the doing do to us?”—that’s trauma. I didn’t call it that then. I didn’t know it, but I knew that something horrifying had happened to America in the process of doing these horrifying things to the Vietnamese. … dropping more bombs on Vietnam, for instance, than were dropped in all of World War II including the Far East, Hiroshima and Europe. By the way, none of that is mentioned in the film nor are the three questions. I didn’t want a narrator. I still didn’t know what I was going to do with those three questions, but I decided that everything in the film has to be related to them—to at least address the questions; there are no real answers to those questions. Even if these questions were not heard in the film, I wanted the film to be an inquiry rather than just an anti-war blast.
Three Vietnamese people in this documentary are talked about by Davis who explains their significance to his film.