For our first post since vacation, we’re sharing some advice from Katherine Boo, who’s perhaps best known for writing the 2012 National Book Award winner Behind the Beautiful Forevers. We found her list of principles for responsible nonfiction storytelling thought provoking. The original story is here, published by Nieman Storyboard on July 25, 2017 and written by Katia Savchuk. We’ve condensed Boo’s rules below.
Katherine Boo’s 15 rules for narrative nonfiction
It’s not enough to tell the stories of victims. I also need to investigate perps.
I let what I hate give me wing. —It doesn’t matter what pisses you off, she says, as long as you pay attention to that feeling. “Writing against” is a good compass “until you know what you’re writing for,” she said.
I’m not the sum of my best or most difficult circumstances, and neither are the people I report on.
When I’m first settling into a place, I tell myself that strong presumptions will make me miss what’s happening.
Memory sucks. —Boo says she reports out everything she can. She’s found that people sometimes deny their own experiences during the fact-checking process, until she plays back video showing them their own words. After a day of reporting, she also immediately writes an email to her husband capturing the emotion of that time.
I ask myself: “What would really get lost if this story never ran?” —Boo engages in an inner dialogue that keeps her going until she finds a bigger meaning for the story.
Don’t be a whiner. —Nonfiction writers shouldn’t get wrapped up in how much sacrifice the work entails. “My presence isn’t doing them a favor,” she said of her subjects. “They’re doing me a favor.”
I don’t try to find simple characters. —“If you’re searching for a super-virtuous character, you’re denying … the infinite variety of the human condition,” Boo said.
I try never to forget that my “subjects” are really my co-investigators.
Though I seek out the public record maniacally, I don’t assume that it’s accurate. —Government documents and other public records often reflect the interests and perspectives of those in power, Boo noted. So she makes sure to supplement these sources with “hang-out journalism.”
To calibrate my compass as a writer, I share my work widely and not only with journalists. —Her 12-year-old nephew told her he couldn’t smell the slums when he read a draft of her book. Others reported when they started to get bored.
Editors and publishers don’t know what’s going to sell.
Even if I’m telling urgent stories, I can still experiment with form and make it a creative process. —“If your subject, like mine, is one people don’t necessarily want to read about, you have to do that,” Boo said. She encourages journalists to “read above your station.” Her own work has been inspired by the novelists Roberto Bolaño and George Eliot, among others.
When after a lot of effort I can’t pin something down, I force myself to put that uncertainty on the page. —Boo says she fact-checks “like a madwoman.” When she can’t find confirmation for something, she makes that explicit. “Getting it right matters way more than whether you can make people care,” she said.
If my work is successful, I don’t go and get high on my own supply. —“You know better than anyone where the essential courage of the enterprise resides—with the people who risk retaliation, share their stories and help journalists build piece by piece a crucial alternative public record of our time,” Boo said.
We’ll be thinking on these in the days to come. We invite you to read the original article here.
Happy Friday, everyone. Time for our end-of-week wind-down. We learned about the Shine A Light album this week: guitar and vocals from Billy Bragg and Joe Henry as they rode the train from Chicago to L.A. Here they are singing The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore. Be kind to yourself this weekend.
An organization at the root of ethical storytelling
Emily Breunig, one of our co-founders, taught community college composition for years, often using a text called the Voice of Witness Reader. So of course Voice of Witness was on her mind when she created Small Stones. That’s why we were so excited a few weeks ago when our other co-founder, Eva Kaye-Zwiebel, attended Voice of Witness’s four-day oral history workshop in San Francisco.
Voice of Witness (VOW) is a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the stories of people who have experienced injustice but are largely unheard in the public square. In fact, VOW’s tag line is “amplifying unheard voices.” They describe their mission like this:
“Our work is driven by the transformative power of the story, and by a strong belief that an understanding of crucial issues is incomplete without deep listening and learning from people who have experienced injustice firsthand. Through our oral history book series and education program, we amplify the voices of people impacted by injustice, teach ethics-driven storytelling, and partner with human rights advocates.”
If you’ve read or heard about Dave Eggers’s book What Is the What, about Valentino Achak Deng, a “Lost Boy” of Sudan, you might recognize it as part of VOW’s origin story. Eggers’s experience of working with Deng was instrumental to his inspiration to found Voice of Witness, along with Lola Vollen and Mimi Lok. VOW now publishes oral history collections and creates resources to help teachers, activists, and youth create oral history, too.
At this year’s training, Eva and 25 or so classmates participated in discussions, brainstorms, and role-playing with oral history teacher-practitioners. Then, everyone buddied-up to go through the process of telling a personal story and recording a partner’s story. (You can read part of Eva’s story here. VOW’s blog about this year’s workshop is here.) It was a very intimate and emotional experience: there’s a feeling of “nakedness” to sharing a private experience with another person, but also a feeling of strength in seeing that story written down, as well as its impact on others when it’s read aloud.
Small Stones is a project founded in the wake of the 2016 election. We focus on curation, education, and narration, and right now, we’re waist-deep in our Small Stones Interviews project. That’sprobablyhowyoufoundus.
Do you have a story of your own? We would love to hear it. We’re currently working on our Small Stones Interviews guiding principles. Here they are in their current form:
History is personal as well as factual. Facts and statistics are part of history, but so, too, is personal experience—otherwise known as ‘your story’ or ‘oral history.’ We think it’s important to think critically and compassionately about peoples’ stories. They are, after all, the fundamental stuff of history. We are living in a time of political and social upheaval that future historians will study. We aim to influence both how we see ourselves now and how posterity will see us. Because if we see ourselves differently, we may take different, braver action.
Stories can be transformational. Oral history is inherently humanizing because it recreates one-on-one conversation, rather than presenting a list of facts or abstract ideas. People learn about themselves and the human condition by sharing, reading, and hearing stories. When our children ask us what we did in 2017, we hope to tell them that we worked towards a better world by helping people listen to each other.
Conducting oral history is an opportunity to honor a person. We aim to be respectful, trustworthy, and accurate listeners to, and communicators of, our narrators’ stories.
The Small Stones storytelling process. When we interview you, you are giving permission for us to record, transcribe, and consider the interview for publication at org. However, you remain in control. You can call the process off at any time, you can edit the interview, and we’re happy to keep your identity confidential (i.e. publish it anonymously) if that makes more sense for you.
We welcome your thoughts and comments! And, if you’re interested in telling your story with us, please email us to discuss: email@example.com. Or reach out on Twitter. We’re at @smallstonesedu.
“…and then some of them took a knee and got out their gas masks, and at this point I was telling some of the policemen, ‘This is not necessary! What are you doing?'”
Here at Small Stones, we define education, and educators, broadly. So often, classrooms appear in the most unexpected places.
As we continue our own work of interviewing some of these educators, we wanted to share with you work from a friend of the blog. Photographer and photojournalist Eze Amos, a Charlottesville, Virginia local, has found himself in the middle of some of the larger protests and counter protests that have taken place since the 2016 election. We are featuring some of his images in this post; there are far more on his Instagram feed.
“Institutions are just habits. They’re nothing. When they’re broken, they’re broken.”
Eva Kaye-Zwiebel is a co-founder of Small Stones. In June she attended a Voice of Witness oral history workshop, where she talked about the 2016 presidential election against the background of her grandmother’s life. She told this story in an interview, which we’ve edited to create a first person narrative.
My brother was at my house on Election Day, November 8, 2016, when a giant box arrived from my Cousin Nancy. I looked at it and thought, “What the heck is this?” As we were opening it, I remembered Nancy had told me she had the steamer trunk Manna used to move from Germany to the United States. I’d said Nancy could send it to me. Manna was my grandmother. Her name was Marianne, German for Mary Ann. When she was little she called herself ‘Manna’ because she couldn’t pronounce her own name, and that became the family variation on grandma.
Before the election my brother and I talked a little. My reputation is as the professional worrier in the family and I didn’t want to dump too much of that on him. He knew I was worried and that I had gone to Nevada to knock on doors because I didn’t have a good feeling about the election. I wanted to be able to say I’d done what I reasonably could.
The box was absolutely empty. It’s an empty wooden crate. I guess I expected a more finished trunk. The wood is raw, like, ‘be careful when you touch it, you might get a splinter.’ It has metal hinges and a place to put a lock on it. It’s maybe three feet by eighteen inches by twenty inches. It’s sturdy. It has Hamburg Line stickers on it and the address she was going to in Harrison, New York.
I laughed when we opened the box because it was too ‘neat’ for it to arrive the day of the election. Manna left Germany in 1935, and this is the trunk. If it happened in a story, you’d get mad and throw the book because it’s too neat.
Manna was a force of nature, and she was grumpy. I think she was like that before her country fell apart and the whole family left. But she left early; she was one of those people. She was in medical school in Switzerland and, if I remember my history right, the Nuremburg laws or some of Hitler’s legislation went into effect in Switzerland before it did in Germany. She had to leave school because she was Jewish. As a result, she looked around and said, “This is not the place for me. This is not going to go well.” And she up and left before the family. She ended up getting her US citizenship the week before Pearl Harbor. Of course then Germans couldn’t get it and my grandfather was an enemy alien in Los Angeles during World War II.
“Perspective is everything.” Hiking the Appalachian trail, by @rahawahaile.
The essay below, Going It Alone, was published in Outside magazine in April 2017. Its author is Rahawa Haile of Oakland. We invite you to read it, both for the beauty of its language and also, most importantly, for its thought-provoking content. We then invite you to read this ‘Behind the Story’ article from the Columbia Journalism Review, written by Elon Green about and published in June. If we can sum up why we’re sharing this article, it’s probably a brief line in Ms. Haile’s article: “Perspective is everything.” – Sm.St. eds.
From Outside Magazine:
“What happens when an African American woman decides to solo-hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine during a summer of bitter political upheaval? Everything you can imagine, from scary moments of racism to new friendships to soaring epiphanies about the timeless value of America’s most storied trekking route.”
It’s the spring of 2016, and I’m ten miles south of Damascus, Virginia, where an annual celebration called Trail Days has just wrapped up. Last night, temperatures plummeted into the thirties. Today, long-distance Appalachian Trail hikers who’d slept in hammocks and mailed their underquilts home too soon were groaning into their morning coffee. A few small fires shot woodsmoke at the sun as thousands of tent stakes were dislodged. Over the next 24 hours, most of the hikers in attendance would pack up and hit the 554-mile stretch of the AT that runs north through Virginia.
I’ve used the Trail Days layover as an opportunity to stash most of my belongings with friends and complete a short section of the AT I’d missed, near the Tennessee-Virginia border. As I’m moving along, a day hiker heading in the opposite direction stops me for a chat. He’s affable and inquisitive. He asks what many have asked before: “Where are you from?” I tell him Miami.
He laughs and says, “No, but really. Where are you from from?” He mentions something about my features, my thin nose, and then trails off. I tell him my family is from Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa, next to Ethiopia. He looks relieved.
“I knew it,” he says. “You’re not black.”
I say that of course I am. “None more black,” I weakly joke.
I’m tired of this man. His from-froms and black-blacks. He wishes me good luck and leaves. He means it, too; he isn’t malicious. To him there’s nothing abnormal about our conversation. He has categorized me, and the world makes sense again. Not black-black. I hike the remaining miles back to my tent and don’t emerge for hours.