|stating the obvious||archives | about|
Just One Question re. AfterDinner
AfterDinner turns one today. For the past year, it's been home to some of the most engaging content on the Web: personal stories by talented writers, assembled and shaped by a gifted editor.
In the liner notes to AfterDinner, editor-in-chief Alex Massie calls the words published there "poetic journalism." To celebrate AfterDinner's first birthday, I asked five of the Web's finest writers just one question...
MS: Why do we need 'poetic journalism?'
One of the best things about the Web is the stunning capability for good authors to publish themselves. One of the worst things about the Web is the stunning capability for bad authors to publish themselves.
There is certainly a desire to connect to other people, and it may seem that the most likely method is the telling of personal stories. Unfortunately, much of what is published on the Web today is rather dull. Uninteresting. Boring. And I should know, dot dot dot, insert annoying winking emoticon here.
There are few authors on the Web, but there are plenty of writers. Simply recording the daily actions of one's life does not make for exciting reading. No one cares about your frustrations, we all have them. It is only interesting upon reflection, when the author takes the time to examine those daily actions rather than report on them. The cast of characters of your life are undoubtedly a slam-bang hoot in your little circle, but it's a snoozefest reading about the third time your best friend saw Titanic and how stoked s/he was about it. Come to think of it, I can't imagine that ever being interesting so that's a poor example.
What we need is writing that strikes a chord, writing that goes beyond mere words into art. The painting of a story. Tell me not what you did, but why you did it, and how it changed you, or how it didn't. We need to be touched somewhere. Whether that's the heart, the head or the crotch is not the concern. It's the failure to even try that is the most damaging. A flood of words with no meaning pollutes the environment. Do not speak unless you have something to say. Then say it with passion, or don't say it at all. If you don't care, why should I?
I have no good, solid, logical answer to this question, Michael, I really don't. What I have is a gut feeling that tells me that whether it's called "poetic journalism" or "personal narrative" or simply "storytelling," the kind of writing that AfterDinner publishes is absolutely necessary. We live in a world in which each of us revolves in different universes, around different suns, following our own paths. It's far too easy to feel disconnected from friends, from family, from neighbors... we're all too busy, there's too little time, there's too much to do.
These stories make it possible for us to live a bit in someone else's skin, they remind us that we have far, far more things in common than not, that we are all, after all, human. Told from the heart, a personal story can be affirming and supremely humbling, inspiring us in a way that nothing else can. And that, I believe, is something that each of us needs.
The dirty little secret of journalism is that it's really about good storytelling.
It's a dirty secret because journalists like to point to old, dusty words scribbled on classroom chalkboards like "objective" and "fact." As any editor knows, facts are horribly hard to to work with when crafting a good story.
We all remember stories with drama and tragedy. The images of the elementary schoolers with guns or our president with his pants down start a feeding frenzy among journalists because they're the stuff of great movies or greek tragedy. They're just good stories.
And they're true.
The poetic part that Alex talks about, I think, is when you take the microphone away from the journalists and start telling your own stories. That's the blessing of the web. That's why we flock to it, to tell our own stories, to weave words that are both journalistic and poetic.
Leslie Harpold, of Smug:
Poetic journalism reminds us that there is beauty in everyday events, in truth. That our own lives, especially in their simplest moments possess their own brand of grace.
Writers see things much like others, but because of their training, through different filters and at different angles. Using that perspective to assign new colors and hues to familiar landscapes paints a picture of things familiar to the reader, encouraging by example to look for more quiet forms of beauty and subtlety assert that whole lifetimes can be lived in an instant.
As I see it, the value is inherent in the creation of commonality. The outstretched hand inviting the reader to re-experience a part of themselves. The sheer humanity of the re-creation of these moments in vivid detail that makes it important.
This value is felt most significantly later, when reading more literal journalism, more strict and objective reportage, as readers have received a tacit memo that the words were slung to paint a picture of the days events by an air breathing warm fleshed human, not unlike themselves. The moments of poetic diversion serve to unite the creators with the consumers.
Because, as she also likes to say, it's all about context. Bare reportage has its place -- it does what it needs to: convey fact. But it usually doesn't make for interesting reading, not sixty pages of it all at once. Complex situations (the recent Jonesboro, Arkansas murders for example) can benefit from a more relaxed, expressive voice and a sense of telling a story to the reader. The facts are still clearly reported but in style that while not loose is certainly more inviting than traditional journalism.
In other words New York Times, enough politics: more tension. You could learn a lot from those crazy After Dinner writers.
Other pieces about interviews: