Today in my Advanced Feature Writing class, my professor had journalist Lawrence Wright come and be a guest speaker. He is a staff writer at the New Yorker, a fellow at the Center for Law and Security at the New York University School of Law, and author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. He took his experiences writing the book and turned it into an off-Broadway play and a 2010 HBO documentary, both called My Trip to Al Qaeda. He also co-wrote the hit movie The Siege, and a script he originally wrote for Oliver Stone was turned into a Showtime movie called Noriega: God’s Favorite.
It was such a great privilege to be able to speak to such an accomplished journalist and writer. We got to ask him questions about struggles we are facing in writing our own stories for class, and he was so helpful.
He said that in order to be a journalist, you have to be curious. You have to speak to one person, and when you’re done, ask them for another name of someone to talk to. Then ask that person for another name. Keep going until you ask someone for another name and they can’t name someone you haven’t talked to yet. Your research isn’t over when you start writing; it’s just beginning.
You have to enlist your source into helping you. Don’t be afraid to tell them, “I don’t really understand; Can you help me to understand so that I can convey this as accurately and thoroughly as possible?” How can you write about something or someone you don’t understand and expect your readers to?
He then went into the actual storytelling process. He said that there are two really important elements in creating gripping stories: characters and scenes. Characters, he said, are like donkeys, “serviceable beasts of burden.” This means that you have to take a subject your readers might not care about except that they care about the character, and that’s what keeps them reading.
There are flat characters and round characters. Flat characters are the ones who convey the information; that’s all you want from them. If you notice them too much, the information gets lost and they begin to compete with your round characters. Round characters are the ones you want to be noticed. You have to signal to the reader, “This is someone we’re going to pay attention to.” As it becomes pertinent, you start to bring in their personal stories and their backgrounds. Each person has their own independent reality, and your job is to listen to it, understand it and convey it.
When it comes to scenes, he said that a good one is the thing that creates the tension and keeps the pages turning. That was when he went into the “Rubber Band Theory.” When you get the reader engrossed, pause. If you pose a question in the minds of the reader, don’t answer it right away. You want that tension. Once you have that scene, report it. Write down anything and everything you see, read or hear about your subject.
My professor had us read Wright’s piece about John O’Neill, chief of the F.B.I.’s counter-terrorism section, who died in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. After speaking to Wright today, it is clear how he was able to turn something as vast as the 9/11 attacks and narrow it down into something so human and personal. “The person that was supposed to get bin Laden didn’t get bin Laden, bin Laden got him. He was a flawed character with a wife and kids and three other women who all thought they were engaged to him who all met for the first time at his funeral, but in the end he’s forgiven. Everyone who dies at the end is forgiven. Kind of like Annette Bening’s character in The Siege.”
It’s so unreal to me that I get to sit down face-to-face with such prominent and successful journalists in my classes here at UT. It reminds me how lucky I am to go to college here and to appreciate the opportunities I’m given and put them to good use in my future as a journalist. I’m still not sure what kind of journalism I want to make a career out of, but all I know is that I want to write. I want to write until my hands can’t write or type anymore. I want to meet people, all sorts of people that inspire and move me. I wasted so many years of my college career trying to be someone else for someone that in the end disappointed me and left me. I should never have put anyone else before me, but life is all about learning from mistakes. Now I know exactly who I am, and I’m not going to stop until I get to where I want to be.
#np little lion man – mumford & sons