Brian Chasnoff, one of the best writers at the San Antonio Express-News, started a new blog about the craft of reporting and writing, and it reminded me of a fantastic book for anyone who cares about long-form journalism.
“Telling True Stories” is a collection of essays by the most thoughtful and talented people in the business. It’s essentially a how-to book written by giants like Tom Wolfe, who wrote the “The Right Stuff;” David Halberstam, who wrote “The Best and the Brightest;” and Gay Talese, who wrote legendary celebrity profiles such as “Frank Sinatra has a Cold.”
There are chapters by Katherine Boo, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her stories “Invisible Lives,” which combined investigative and narrative journalism to reveal shocking abuses of people with mental retardation who were trapped in Washington D.C.’s privately run group-home system. Here’s how her first story started in the Washington Post:
Elroy lives here. Tiny, half-blind, mentally retarded, 39-year-old Elroy. To find him, go past the counselor flirting on the phone. Past the broken chairs, the roach-dappled kitchen and the housemates whose neglect in this group home has been chronicled for a decade in the files of city agencies. Head upstairs to Elroy’s single bed.
“You’re in good hands,” reads the Allstate Insurance poster tacked above his mattress — the mattress where the sexual predator would catch him sleeping. Catch him easily: The door between their rooms had fallen from its hinges. Catch him relentlessly — so relentlessly that Elroy tried to commit suicide by running blindly into a busy Southeast Washington street.
How do reporters find stories like this? Well, in the book, Boo tells you:
A friend once told me that I find my stories because I never learned to drive. It’s true. I take the bus. I walk around. By being out there — not the driver of my story but the literal and figurative rider — I have the opportunity to see things that I would never otherwise see.
I found the group home story because I missed a bus in a housing project. Someone gave me a ride home. He had to stop at a group home because he was having some disagreement with the staff there. I entered the group at eight in the evening. What I saw there led to my story.
“Telling True Stories” is full of gems like that one.