On The Gallows

Ramsey noticed this spare, driving narrative by Marc Santora: Saddam Hussein never bowed his head, until his neck snapped.

His last words were equally defiant.

“Down with the traitors, the Americans, the spies and the Persians.”

The final hour of Iraq’s former ruler began about 5 a.m., when American troops escorted him from Camp Cropper, near the Baghdad airport, to Camp Justice, another American base at the heart of the city.

There, he was handed over to a newly trained unit of the Iraqi National Police, with whom he would later exchange curses. Iraq took full custody of Mr. Hussein at 5:30 a.m.

A Traffic Stop, And A Story

Read John Doherty’s story: The problem with the driver of the SUV seemed obvious enough. He was making crazy-wide turns around corners and drifting over the center of line of city streets around 11 at night.

Probably drunk.

But after officers pulled Wilfredo Rivera over Friday, they began to piece together a darker picture.

The Christmas Day Caper

Read his story: A quiz for aspiring burglars: You’ve just stolen $25,000 or so from a church safe during Christmas morning Mass. There is a witness, a man who asked you what you were doing lugging a heavy metal box containing the money to your Lincoln Navigator, the one with the Vermont plates.

The crime is a sensation, all over the news. An entire city is searching for you.

What should you do?

Perhaps it would be wise to lie very, very low for a while.

From Verse To Newsprint

Just the other day, I was scanning through a book of poems by Billy Collins when I noticed one called The Death of Allegory. Here’s how it begins:

I am wondering what became of all those tall abstractions
that used to pose, robed and statuesque, in paintings
and parade about on the pages of the Renaissance
displaying their capital letters like license plates.

Truth cantering on a powerful horse,
Chastity, eyes downcast, fluttering with veils.
Each one was marble come to life, a thought in a coat,
Courtesy bowing with one hand always extended,

Villainy sharpening an instrument behind a wall,
Reason with her crown and Constancy alert behind a helm.
They are all retired now, consigned to a Florida for tropes.
Justice is there standing by an open refrigerator.

(…)

Anyway, Collins’ scamper up and down the ladder of abstraction brought something to mind. Good poems are kernels of thought, compressed and polished like diamonds.

So are good newspaper ledes.

Do other journalists out there draw inspiration from poetry? Who do you read, and why?

Changes

I’ve never done anything for radio but I stumbled onto a story with radio potential, so I wandered over to This American Life to see how to pitch them a story. The section on their website for submitting work is practically a how-to on doing good journalism. Wonder what makes that show so special? Go here and click on the SUBMITTING WORK link on the left. Here’s part of it: What makes the show different from most other programs on public radio is that the stories we broadcast tend to have a very strong narrative. These are stories about a character or characters who are thrown into situations that shed light on something larger. The stories are constructed as a series of scenes or anecdotes (unlike most radio reporting). Often the characters change over the course of the story. Sometimes the entire story involves a writer or reporter (or character) going into situations to try to figure out the answer to some question.

An illustration of how This American Life is different from other radio shows:

During the 1996 Presidential elections, All Things Considered did many reports on the disagreements within the Republican party. These were standard news stories: we heard quotes from moderate and right wingers of various types. Experts weighed in.

This American Life broadcast Dan Savage’s first person account of how he–a life-long Democrat–decided that the best way to combat the extreme right wing of the Republican Party would be to join the Republican Party himself. His story detailed scene after scene of what happened at Party meetings in Seattle. The scenes were funny, surprising, and took us deep inside a world most of us know only in the most superficial way. Dan is gay, and a number of moderate Republicans pulled him aside to tell him that homophobia and intolerance are just gimmicks the Party uses to mobilize the rank and file, but that really, deep down, the Republican Party has nothing against homosexuals. So Dan started introducing gay rights resolutions. These were voted down by huge margins.

In contrast to the All Things Considered news accounts, Dan’s story was a drama, a narrative of one person who goes on a quest. There was a natural conflict: gay liberal among the conservatives. It shed light on much larger themes: the direction of the Republican Party, the way Party members see themselves and their political involvement.

The material we most often reject is writing that lacks a narrative. A lot of it is good, vivid writing, but without a real story to it. Often it’s recollections about some person the writer knew, or some time in their own lives. Often there are interesting anecdotes, but without any driving question, or real conflict. There’s nothing bigger at issue and nothing surprising revealed. In many of these stories, the characters are all the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. No one learns anything. No one changes.

The stories that fit most easily into This American Life are accounts of people who had some experience that changed them, or accounts of an incident that illustrated some broader idea. It’s best if these are surprising, if they run counter to what we might expect.

We also like found texts and tapes: found letters, old recordings from people’s attics or from thrift stores. We’ve done a number of shows with material like this. Again, these work best when the materials tell a story or illustrate some larger theme or idea.

Sometimes people send us “commentaries” like you hear on Morning Edition or All Things Considered. These tend to be brief essays, without real scenes or characters. We don’t usually run material like that.

What we are looking for:

Work that surprises.

Work that’s funny. Especially work that’s both funny and sad.

Writing that works like journalism–even if it’s fiction. That is, it describes and documents real things that happen to people.

32 West Iroquois Street

Read Corey Kilgannon’s story: It bears no plaque, nor mention in any local guidebook as a cultural landmark, but local residents recognize the two-story cape as the historic home that incubated the famous Baldwin brothers, the four acting siblings who proved that the Babylon branch of the Long Island Rail Road sometimes stops at Hollywood.

“A lot of people do stop in front of the house and stare,” said Claudia Barbosa, who has lived in the house since the last of the Baldwins moved out in 1988.

No, she said, there is no cauldron of hot, molten talent bubbling up from the basement, no scandalous youthful shots of the brothers tucked under the floorboards. No ghosts of Baldwins past rattling doors and reciting dialogue from “Beetlejuice” or “Bio-Dome” or other cinematic classics featuring Alec, Danny, Billy or Stephen.

Eternal Soul

Richard Harrington’s appreciation for James Brown: This time James Brown is gone. No more faux faints to the floor, no more hasty cape-covering or furious cool-down fanning by concerned band members trying to get the inevitably, and dramatically, exhausted Godfather of Soul to leave the stage. Death chose Christmas Day to declare that 73 years was enough for one rhythm revolutionary who danced and sang America though cultural changes in the ’60s and ’70s.

Shrieking Winds

Erin Sullivan covers a tornado: Paul Lilley was dialing a neighbor Monday to tell him bad weather was coming their way when he heard a terrible rumble, looked out his window and saw a tornado bearing down.

The black funnel, spewing bits of shingles and debris, crossed the seventh green of the golf course across the street and headed for him.

He screamed to his wife to get in the bathtub. He ran in and jumped on top of her and waited.

The shrieking winds lasted only a few seconds.

Lilley went outside and saw someone’s back porch in his yard. Shingles on his house were missing, but that was about all.

Others weren’t so lucky.

The 11:30 a.m. twister ripped through the Eagles Nest neighborhood of the Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club in San Antonio. Nearly 100 homes were damaged. Fifteen were left uninhabitable.