Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow

Let’s talk about this one. From the archives. Michael Paterniti (h/t Wright): Go with him. Go out into the feed yards with Jack Hooker. His daddy was a cattleman, he was a cattleman, his son today is a cattleman. Go out to the feed yards near Dodge City, Kansas, out into the stink of manure and the lowing slabs of cow, into the hot sun and rain and driving snow with Jack Hooker and know what it means to be a man.

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79 thoughts on “Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow

  1. This might be my favorite story. I don’t know where Heckert found the link, but … wow.

    I think it’s the best story I’ve ever read about race, and it has that short story quality we strive for.

  2. My older brother showed me this story when it first came out, when I was 17. He was captivated.

    Not many stories anymore tell the whole truth, or nearly the whole truth, about how real people think and feel. This one does.

    Have you noticed, though, that this kind of stylish writing seems to have gone out of style? Look at the National Magazine Award nominees for this year. Almost all of them, if not all of them, are written in a straightforward, matter-of-fact tone.

    Hardly anyone writes like this anymore. Even Paterniti sounds different now.

  3. (Although he’s still doing great work. I wish his latest story from GQ, “The Suicide Catcher,” was online, so I could post the link. Read it if you can find it.)

  4. I found the link because for years I’ve waited for someone to put this story online, as well as “The House That Thurman Munson Built.” Every so often I check. Last week I checked and, lo and behold, someone put it up, or tried to–the link is cached.

    The main reason I like this story, other than the reasons that have been mentioned, is because when you read it the writing feels completely natural, nothing is forced, and the rhythm is phenomenal. This story is on another level, simply. Can writing be like that? Yes, it can be, I think. Another level. Not only is he a good reporter but he’s got a gift; a way with words.

    If you read his earlier work–even earlier than this, at Harper’s and before, at Outside–he loved to take pretty big risks. He never played it down the middle, as far as I can recall. That’s changed some since he’s gotten older. As a reader, it’s been noticeable. I’d love to ask him sometime about it.

  5. By the way, Michael Paterniti has been a National Magazine Award finalist six times; he’s won once.

    This story was not a finalist.

    But he did win the award that year, for his story “Driving Mr. Albert.”

    Among the stories he beat for the award was “Damned Yankee,” which is the personal favorite story of the man who has won more National Magazine Awards for writing than anyone else:

    Gary Smith.

  6. The article “Driving Mr. Albert” (which was like 17,000 words, and took up nearly that entire issue of Harper’s) led to a really fun, short, quirky book of the same name that expanded the original piece. I highly recommend it.

    I also recommend “The American Hero in Four Acts”, “A Machine Called Z”, “The Last Meal”, his Columbine essay, his essay on marriage, “The House That … (previously stated), if you can find those; and his story about Pernkopf’s Anatomy and story about the giant for GQ.

  7. Tom,
    Playing devil’s advocate on the stylishness bit, with no direct comment on this piece (which I’ve printed out to read tonight): A writer’s supposed to reflect his times, right? Nobody reputable is publishing Fear and Loathing screeds anymore, right? Maybe f-ed-up-edly complicated times call for straightforward, matter-of-fact writing. Whaddayathink?

    Oh, and hear, hear on the healthy criticism thing for this site. I think I’ve shut down at least one comment section with the suggestion that the piece in question was anything less than the Mona-GD-Lisa…

  8. That’s a very interesting point, Mike. I hadn’t thought of that. Did the dominant style of magazine writing begin to change after September 11, 2001?

  9. “A writer’s supposed to reflect his times, right? Nobody reputable is publishing Fear and Loathing screeds anymore, right? Maybe f-ed-up-edly complicated times call for straightforward, matter-of-fact writing. Whaddayathink?”

    I vehemently disagree with this notion, but only from a personal perspective. I think writers reflect the voice inside them, and it all depends on what that voice has been shaped by. For me, it’s not the age I live in; it’s the work I’ve read. Some of that work is modern, some is dated, some is ancient, some is timeless.

    This is not to say that I wish magazines and newspapers had more space, because maybe that really has affected some of the work, and the way it reads. But I think Michael Paterniti was probably an exception in magazine writing 10 years ago, as there will always be exceptions.

  10. I’m with you, Justin. Cormac McCarthy, David Mamet and Hank Stuever have broken through to readers because they’re compelling, engaging and useful, each in their own very different ways, all in our time. By definition that requires developing a distinctive voice, which in turn requires the alchemic synthesis of every novel, sports story, highway sign and cereal box you’ve ever read, lit by the rhythm in your head. A single distinctive voice changes over time and in relation to the material: Read Suttree and No Country back to back, right? In chorus these distinctive voices can be said to reflect their time. And the great ones, like old Ben Jonson said, become “not of an age, but for all time.”

  11. Without a doubt, the NMAs have steered toward stories that are told simply: simple arch, simple structure, simple language.

    I think that’s partly, at least, a direct response to stories like this one.

    I think there is a natural evolution of style that goes on in writing, as it goes on in music or in architecture. There are calls and responses. Glam begats punk. Modernism begats brutalism. It’s just fashion.

    I think people just decided they wanted to be told a story, straight up. Gimme the goods. Be it a function of attention spans, or rising illiteracy, or the influence of movies… But people decided they wanted quick, dirty, plain.

    Now, I read a story like this one — or something Tom Junod might write, or Gary Smith: that epic, sweeping style — and I marvel. Because the hard truth is, I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t write a story like this in a million years.

    I’ve told myself that there’s a beauty in simplicity, that there’s a poetry in it — and I believe that, deep down — but really, I never had any choice. I had to write simply, and luckily for me, I happen to be working at a time when simple’s in fashion.

    But I know that will change, maybe sometime soon. Stories like this one will triumph because of their artistry and flow and scale. Frankly, you can see it in Wright or Justin — their work is more aspirational. It has that return to bigness in it.

    Even younger writers will read them and want to write like them.

    And off guys like me will go, into the tar pits.

  12. I wonder what the people who are written about in this story thought of it. (It doesn’t matter, in terms of how well it turned out, but I wonder.) And what I really wonder is what Michael Paterniti thinks of this story, some 13 years later. If he’s got a self-Google RSS maybe he’ll land here and tell us.

    I liked this story when it first ran, and I like it fine now. I do think it’s spread on about an inch too thick, but that’s a judgment call; sometimes I like paintings with too much paint on them. I think it works because he got carried away by it, but that presents the problem that he _got carried away by it._

    So, on the one hand: Hallelujah for the courage, discipline and self-assurance to write like this. On the other hand: I’m not sure. I think someone could make the argument that the writing — the mind-inhabiting of the characters, even if every sentence is in fact attributable in the notes — gets in the way of the story. I would imagine the folksy locutions don’t do it for everyone; it would be easy to get offended on behalf of the people in it.

    As for styles coming and going, or times changing, I think everything comes into play (economics, the changing industry, sobering global events, whatever) but to that, let me also add: WRITERS CHANGE. Whatever you’re working on now, write the hell out of it, while you can.

  13. That’s really interesting. Because they said they didn’t like it, but nobody offered anything that wasn’t true. They said it shouldn’t be true, but the only person quoted said he got it right.

  14. Not 9/11. We tightened up a few years later, around ’02 or ’03. Remember the post-Pulitzer chatter after Sonia Nazario’s footnoted-to-hell story won for feature writing? The judges were saying: show your work. And then came Jayson Blair and it wasn’t just the judges. Readers were like, No, really, show your work. That begat more footnoting and editor’s notes and meat and potatoes.

    Before that, we all had the benefit of the doubt, I think. After — and maybe the internet expansion had something to do with this, too — we were forced to toil for trust again. Seems like I remember Finkel at a workshop around that time saying we don’t need better active verbs, we need more truthful verbs. And isn’t that what it comes down to?

  15. Please, please let me know if the link is back. I checked this earlier today and wished I hadn’t waited until now to print it.

  16. Does anyone else roll their eyes at this: “Finkel saying we don’t need better active verbs, we need more truthful verbs” ?

    I’ve never given much thought, any thought, really, to what the times call for. I want to write them true, I want to write them in a way that reflects the qualities I admire in the things I read. That’s it.

    I think all we need is writers who write stories in a way that comes natural for them, and to always be striving to be a reflection of whatever you think great is. Ben writes different from Heckert writes different from Jones writes different from Tom. I think all write great stories.


  17. Thanks, Ben.

    I was telling Wright earlier that it’s always seemed very difficult for me to imagine what Paterniti’s interactions with his editor must have been/must be like, maybe talking about the story, planning it out, pitching it. I can’t, for some reason, imagine him talking too much about this one, or being able to talk very much about it. We hypothesized that he must’ve stayed at one of the motels on his Einstein trip, overheard Jack Hooker complaining, and then just went back afterward. Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

    Also, we talked about the fact that it seems almost impossible to describe what he’s done here, if you were going to talk about it out loud, to an editor; he must’ve just said “I want to write a story about blahblah and these two motels”, or “I want to write a story about blahbity”–and then they just trusted that they’d get something cool.

    One more thing– this kinda applies to most of his stories that I’ve read. This story–and all his stories, really–seem almost mystical. Like, one day it rained, there was a rainbow, and then the story appeared. It’s hard to imagine the nuts and bolts of them, if you know what I mean. The planning. The interviews. The back-and-forth. Maybe that’s just me.

  18. I get what you mean, Justin. It seems sort of magical.

    Also, a few comments ago Brick was talking about developing your voice. He said it “requires the alchemic synthesis of every novel, sports story, highway sign and cereal box you’ve ever read, lit by the rhythm in your head.”

    I’ve never read a better description of it than that.

  19. I’ll agree with Wright — that’s a first, except for what bourbon goes best with P.F. Chang’s — that you just write the way you write. I’ve never liked writing “to fit”; I think when guys try to write in a particular way for a particular reason, other than to serve the story, it comes off as artificial and hacky and forced.

    When I started my magazine career, I tried to write like Charlie Pierce. Well, my stuff read like some mealy-mouth trying to write like Charlie Pierce, and my editor called me on it. That’s kind of what I meant about my not having had much choice. I think you can tinker with your natural voice, and I get that writers and writing evolve over time, but for me, you write with the voice that the universe gave you and you just hope the universe gave someone else the right ears to hear it.

    As for Paterniti pitching this — I think it was easier, even ten or 12 years ago, for editors to give writers a pretty long leash. If a writer said, I just want to disappear into Kansas for a while, an editor might have agreed, because there was money and pages to go around. Esquire doesn’t have some kind of vault or stories held in reserve these days. If they assign you a story, you have to deliver it, and so concrete ideas backed up by concrete plans are naturally more attractive, because they hold less room for error. A knuckleball’s harder to catch.

    For what it’s worth, my favorite Paterniti story is The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy. That story took sack.

  20. I just want to chime in here and say wow. Wow to the story and wow to all of you. A few of you guys are heroes of mine. Being able to peek in on this discussion? It’s like college without the boring parts. Or the girls. Hey, where are all the ladies, anyway?

  21. Okay, for the record, my first comment on this string started with: “Playing devil’s advocate on the stylishness bit.” Don’t turn me into the strawman against truthful, natural writing. None of us works in a vacuum; nonfiction is engagement. I’m merely suggesting that a lot of good writers, much present company included, seem to be responding to an age of complexity by talking right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.

  22. So, I spent an hour this morning outlining the story. Justin talked of its mystical quality, and I wanted to see what it looked like broken down into its moving parts. I did this fairly quickly, so i might be wrong about some stuff. but id like yall to read it and then see what thoughts you have about the piece. and, if im reading too much into it, like a english lit major, then say that, too.


    1. lede. set up village as a place of survival against the ocean’s place of death. it is solid. it is a place people cling to. both fishermen and people overcome by its beauty. a salvation.
    2.this does several things. first, it’s the billboard section. at its most basic, it’s a story about 200+ people pulled together to a fate. This gives us the broad strokes of who they were and where they were going. its the section that gives us enough information to know whats happening and to care about the people to whom it is happening. But underneath, it is also a section about a pull: of people to be on the plane, of people to be somewhere. a village on a postcard on a fridge. and, at the end, a twist, an added later: he addresses the reader directly (and probably the dead, too) to make sure you’re thinking about being on that plane yourself.
    3. In the most basic terms, this is a section of action. From the most normal — airplanes flying constantly through these kingdoms of the sky — to the brutal, the pilots fighting and losing, the plane falling from the modern sky kingdoms toward the ancient one of the mariners: the village. (He clearly got most details from the flight recorders. i wonder how he got the passenger in 30B and 16D info: did they pay for something w a debit card? No idea.) it also contains the best and scariest detail ive ever read. i remember it from the first time i read this: “It was falling. Six minutes later, SR111 plunged into the dark sea.”
    4. The Medical Examiner. the action is straightforward. a new character is introduced, all the relevant backstory folded into him moving, preparing to face this thing. it’s the second reference, i think, of time disentegrating, which is clearly a theme. The normal, safe constructs of the world can be ripped loose at any moment. there is hidden violence all around us. We forget that in the safety of the modern sky corridors but, here, where great-grandfathers fished other great-grandfathers out of the sea, where the green light shines on the green sea, that is an everyday part of life.
    5. at the scene. a new character introduced: the tv reporter. the watcher. a proxy for society, who watches these things happen. basically, the place where they left one world and entered another. the fishing boats out there as a sort of connection to the village w the green light. What else do you think is happening here?
    6. At its most simple, this is the action of a family member who learns. the beginning of grief to the point where the grief was about to make the griever crave the thing that made him grieve in the first place. Again, time disentegrating. Lots about the fallacy of human constructs. And, we get a pulling toward the village that was set up in the beginning. His wife stayed in the modern world of air kingdoms. He followed their daughter into the sea. This is a dividing line. Like the fishermen in the town, he went into the sea. What else do you think is going on here?
    7. The action is the ME starting and finishing ID’ing the body. that’s the most basic arc. but there’s this pervasive theme of becoming everyone, becoming the family and the dead, trying on their thoughts, their fears and, literally, their fingers. In terms of the piece’s arc, there’s something important happening here about facing the real world, the one where generations of fishermen lived and not the other one, where we imagine we are safe. He is the guy on the river, taking people to the other side. The souls hovering in the airplane hanger and, in return for releasing them, he is trapped there forever. He is trapped in the town with the green light. He restored order, but at what cost? Time is disentegrating again.
    8. Back to TV reporter. (So far, we have the plane, the town, the ME, the TV reporter and the father as characters. am i forgetting anyone?). A section about the act of forgetting, or of not forgetting. We see that the societal constructs — checklists — designed to make us safe … dont. People try to reassemble. People try to forget. To erase the disentegration of time. They do things to make them feel closer to the dead. And many are called to the village by the sea. Is it because a spirit lives here?
    9. Back to father. He comes to the village, to a place that separates land and ocean, separates the two worlds. He followed his daughter into the sea and so he comes here. One day the two worlds would be reuinited — he and his wife would come back together — but for now, he sits on the edge of one and looks at the edge of another. The piece is tying up: the dead are gone, and for a moment, because of it, everyone saw the fallacy of the world ripped open and saw deep inside of it. The dead never returned from that swallowing. The man who set their souls free left a part of himself in the town and left. the tv reporter tried to put it all in a box and, sometimes, he did. The father came here, because he could not pretend it didnt happen. some part of them remains in the town with the green light. What else do you see going on here?
    10. A final time disentegrating. Spirits live in the ocean. The lighthouse as home. A beacon, calling the father, the me, the reporter, calling everyone back to this place, but, really, to a larger home. some sort of shelter. The light lit the town that could save you. there’s something really mystical at work here. im not sure how to describe it.

  23. Also:

    The story has four basic acts.

    1. we start, we have the stage set, then the thing happens.
    2. three characters are introduced. the ME, the TV guy, the father. Problems are introduced in each case.
    3. We move through time by returning to each of the characters: ME, TV, father. Problems are resolved.
    4. Close

  24. I talked to Wright about his very well-thought-out post here, and I whittled down everything I had to say into the following:

    The reason I believe it has some “mystical” quality is that it feels, to me, like he just sat down and wrote it, and it was done–that he didn’t outline it, or painstakingly plan for everything to happen the way it did in the piece. It didn’t feel like an outlined story. Does that make sense? This isn’t to say that I don’t believe he picked the characters for a reason, and knew he would come back to them. That said, I honestly have no way of knowing, but to me it didn’t feel like an instance where he would’ve just broken out the three-act play guide, or whatever.

    I mean, Wright has shown that he did use a simple structure to write it, but what I honestly think is that if he were to read Wright’s outline, I think he might say: Oh. Really? I never thought about some of that. There is an esoteric aspect to writing. Things can be broken down and dissected. But what I think, or would like to think, is that he just started at the place that overpowered him–the cove–and he just followed a light that led him to the end. And since he’s an amazing writer and storyteller, the story ended up having a lot of the components in it that you can describe by using textbook examples of theme and stuff. Like when you’re arguing about why great fiction writers did this or did that, and they may have just … you know, done it because that thing in their head that makes the fingers move led them there.

    I like to think Paterniti was overpowered by the place, started there, used the characters, wrapped it up. I’m a person who, in my English classes, thought that workshopping had its benefits until someone broke a story down so thoroughly that all of its … reason for being was almost desecrated. That’s not what Wright has done here, but, really, to me, a lot of writing is just … unexplainable. There’s only so much a writer would be able to say about it, how it came to be.

  25. I can remember with The Long Fall that some readers were upset by the unflinching nature of the details: that for the families of the victims, the idea that their loved ones suffered — for six minutes — was something they just didn’t need to know.

    The thing is, a story like this should be upsetting. A bunch of people died in the ocean, and a bunch of other people had to pick up the pieces. It’s not a happy thing.

    But I can’t imagine being that father, for instance, and knowing what he knows. I wouldn’t be able to stop imagining, either. I wouldn’t be able to stop at the door of the plane.

    As an aside — and this story will come off wrong, but it’s something that has stayed with me for a long time — but a few years ago I knocked a guy out at the Swissair 111 memorial. It’s this beautiful sacred place, and this guy was posing for a picture at the memorial — his wife or girlfriend was taking the picture — and he was sticking out his tongue and doing all sorts of stupid shit, and his wife was yelling in her terrible, laughing voice, “Oh JERRY, you’re terrible, oh stop, hahaha.” I couldn’t even help myself. I walked up to him, punched him in the mouth, the wife started screaming and held his head up off the rocks, and I walked away and got in my car and kept driving down to Kingsburg.

    If I’d been arrested somehow, I would have given the cops this story and asked what they would have done to the guy. I’m 100 percent sure I would have gotten off. It’s impossible to read this story and not keep it with you. This story made me punch some guy named Jerry in the mouth.

  26. Justin: I think you’re wrong. He mapped this story before he started writing (whether his was similar at all to Wright’s deconstruction is a different argument). That doesn’t remove any of the mysticism for me, the idea that he worked behind the scenes to chart the characters and the plot. Maybe that’s the beauty: you can’t see his panty lines.

    I think you’d have a hard time finding any masters of nonfiction who just sit down and go. I can’t think of any.

    Someone should ask, btw.

  27. My gut says he certainly had at least this much of the structure written down or planted firmly in his head:

    1. short intro.
    2. put people on a plane. crash the plane.
    3. introduce 3 characters and their problems
    4. take all 3 characters as close to resolution as possible
    5. short close, reprising intro.

    I’d believe that the subtle themes of the piece arose out of each section naturally, because he’s an amazing writer and because he was so clearly moved by what he learned. I mean, the “disintegration of time” was either a) written down before he started or b) the first time he typed it, a light bulb went off.

    I know when I’m writing something, my editor, Jay, will notice threads that I didn’t intend to be there and, upon re-reading, I see them. Then, during editing, I can add a line here or there to reinforce and make stronger the thing that just sort of happened because I was knee-deep in the piece and whatever quote-unquote deeper meaning just lived, implicitly, in the action and emotion of the story.

    About this story, let me ask these two questions:

    1. What do you think he means by the disintegration of time?

    2. Why do you think he picked those three?

  28. I could very well be wrong, but that’s just how I feel, reading it. As a reader. And as a writer. And I don’t know what “masters” you’re referring to, there are so many; but Gary Smith sat in front of us and said he never outlined or planned too much (if I remember). I know Junod just sits down and starts writing until he winds up at the end. Did Charles Pierce say that he outlined, or planned it all out? I honestly can’t remember.

    I just know that there’s a precedent for me to feel the way I do, not only from personal experience: there’s something natural, to me, about just starting and not knowing where you’ll end up, and trusting yourself to figure it out. Some of the great novelists and short story writers plan the whole things out, and some don’t. Some just go, and then they’re done.

  29. Well, let’s shift the conversation a bit.

    Whether MP did or didn’t isn’t as important as this: is there a right way to write a story? Or is the trick to find out how best to take a shotgun blast of thoughts and information and turn it into something that’s focused.

    Justin lets something inside him guide him. I am wired so that anxiety is crippling if I don’t have at least a rough outline, a road map, more to help me believe that all this is going to work. I often change outlines as I go, when I realize that the story is demanding to go somewhere else, somewhere better.

    Figuring out your process seems much more important to me than figuring out voice. I mean, to me, voice isn’t something you figure out. It is always inside you and it takes time and practice and maturity to make the thing on the page sound like the way you sound in real life.

    What are some of your processes? I bet all of us do something that can, in big and small ways, help us evolve our process or, at least, help us think about it in a smart way…

  30. I’ll start.

    Basically, this is it. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, its different. But, generally:

    I report.

    I come home and transcribe tape (I type in my notes at the end of every day on the road). I print out all my notes. I usually put them in a 3-ring binder, just so it’s easier to handle.

    I read the notes w a highlighter and a pen, marking things, making notes to myself, seeing connections.

    I go through and put a short description of every scene on a notecard.

    I spread the notecards out on my desk, so I can look at the story structure. Sometimes, the order is just obvious. Other times, it’s not.

    I outline.

    I go through my notes again and see what information fits where.

    I send my outline to Jay.

    We talk about it.

    I write.

    I send a draft to Jay.

    He comes back with big picture thoughts.

    I rewrite, incorporating his thoughts.

    I file it again.

    He does an edit. This time, he writes questions in the text, or marks things to change, rethink, etc.

    I answer his questions.

    Sometimes, we’re done. Sometimes, we do this one more time, or two, or three, more times.

    It runs.

  31. I’ll join in.

    I don’t outline. I remember seeing Gay Talese’s outlines for Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, and they look like art, and I was like, What the fuck am I doing? But I still don’t outline.

    I usually try to pick story ideas that have some built-in resonance to them, some emotional hook. I like emotional stories. I think that’s probably why I write about death a lot. It’s hard to get much more emotional than that.

    If I’m being honest, I usually start my reporting with a preconceived notion of what the piece might be. It’s not that I can’t change if I see something better, or if my initial impressions were false, but I usually begin reporting with some final product in mind and then switch gears if I have to.

    That’s probably something J-school students are taught not to do, but I think it’s impossible to know enough about a story to pitch it as an idea without having some notion of what you want to do with it.

    On the flight home, mostly, I pick my ending. I might write it, I might not, but I know my ending. I know the finishing note.

    Then I’ll start writing. Usually I know my beginning before I sit down. Sometimes I don’t. But I know my ending, so I know where I have to go.

    I write, usually at night, usually with headphones on, playing music that fits the piece. I don’t look at my notes or anything. I just write from memory. My memory is my first editor.

    If I have to get up, I get up knowing what my next sentence is when I sit back down, so that I’m not staring at the screen.

    I go back through, with my notes and transcripts, and make sure I’ve got all the facts and quotes right. That helps me polish the piece.

    In fact, what I send to my editor, Peter, is usually a fourth or fifth draft. For him it’s the first; for me, not so much.

    We have a chat on the phone, big picture edits — idea edits.

    Another edit, slightly narrower.

    And so on, two or three more times, down to pages, which we do three times.

    So, each story gets something like seven to nine edits.

    Some writers couldn’t imagine working without an outline, with music, anytime other than the early morning. I’m the opposite. But I don’t think there’s a right or wrong process, really. I think you just figure out what works and go with it.

    For me, the idea of writing without music, for instance, is like someone suggesting that it might be fun to dive into an empty pool. Wouldn’t dream of doing it, even if 1,000 writers told me I’d be better off working in silence.

    Sigur Ros is probably my favorite writing music. My Roger Ebert story I wrote listening to “Little Motel” by Modest Mouse on a loop. I can tell you my first draft took me a little over 20 hours, because that’s how many times that song played. It kind of put me in a trance, and I was gone from there.

  32. I feel as though the way you just described what you do is an excellent way to go about things, and obviously it shows in the outcome. I’ve done most of that stuff before, even outlined once. I feel like organizing notes and using highlighters and thinking about sections of the story is extremely beneficial. But I’ll be damned if usually what happens is that I do some of that, and then just sit down, and write a first sentence, and then go in a totally different direction. And that’s happened so Many times I just don’t fight it anymore.

  33. Sorry … my last post, I meant to place it directly after Wright’s. I’m addressing his, not Chris’.

  34. I also write to music. I didn’t know you did that. I have a writing playlist that has been mostly the same for eight or so years. I’ve added or taken away a few.

    If there is music that fits the mood, I’ll use it. I’m writing a story about St. Andrews right now — in fact, going to make first round of edits in about five minutes, when the coffee is finished brewing — that I’ve written entirely to mournful bagpipes.

    When I just need a sad mix to put me in a trance — songs ive heard so many times that I don’t sing along — I use this playlist:
    Mister DJ 3:51 The Charlie Daniels Band
    Little Rock 3:58 Collin Raye
    Hallelujah 6:52 Jeff Buckley
    Brothers In Arms 7:00 Dire Straits
    Good Ole Boys Like Me 4:13 Don Williams
    New Orleans Ladies 4:43 Forlini & Cross
    Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) 2:35 Green Day
    This Old Porch 4:19 Lyle Lovett
    Home 3:45 Michael Bublé
    Sunrise 3:20 Norah Jones
    Lonesome Blues (Live) 4:26 Shooter Jennings
    Stuck On You 3:12 Lionel Richie
    Walking In Memphis 4:18 Marc Cohn
    Photograph 3:49 Charlie Robison

  35. Yes, music helps. Especially familiar songs. One that never fails me is the live version of “Amsterdam,” by Coldplay. That piano hook gets into my soul.

  36. OK, so I’m sort of crashing the party, but this conversation is fascinating. This is a pro’s pros discussion. I think one of the best points Wright makes is filing an outline to his editor; I think that’s really smart, mostly for confidence—knowing you’re taking the story in the right direction. But I always outline, for an entirely different reason: To get a jump on internalizing all the info I have, so that when I do write I know everything that I’ve got and don’t have to glance at notes. The process of writing I find most frustrating is, well, my own process. I think that whatever natural style and voice I have is most apparent when I’m writing with full internal command of the story, the arc, the themes, and the information. The process of_knowing_all that stuff is, for me, unbelievably laborious.

    For example, if an editor asked me to file a profile of one of my best friends, like Wright or Justin, I’d immediately know what to write and how to write it, what to use and what not to use, and exactly which moments illustrate my points best. Because of that, it would have style, voice, meaning, insight, etc, because I know the material so well—storytelling in the most natural sense. As best I can, I strive to know my material for magazine stories in a similar way, so that I can write without worry, if that makes any sense. For me, learning all that stuff and finding the right tone and voice for the story often takes full-scale re-writes.

    Take one of the stories I’m most proud of—a story about Albert Haynesworth in 2007. The final version was nothing like what I originally filed. I turned in a draft and Chris Berend, my editor, and I took it apart piece by piece and did an outline together. From there, the writing was pretty easy. It was a complicated story, but I had already done a draft and knew the material inside out, and I had an outline that I was confident about, and I had an editor who knew the outline also, so I wouldn’t second-guess myself.

    I want to be in that exact mental place when I write EVERY story, and man, it’s hard. I don’t know a better way, for me, than grinding out writing, even if it’s stuff I never file, until it clicks. Not very efficient.

    Any advice on how to accelerate the process?

  37. Oh, and I love writing to music, but not anything with lyrics, or lots of lyrics. I love jazz. Or rock instrumentals, like Glasvegas, which Jones introduced to me.

  38. Yes, I outline too. Usually several times, by hand, on the cardboard back panels of my reporter’s notebooks. Somehow this works better for me than typing words on a screen.

  39. Can’t listen to music. If music’s on I pay her all my attention. And can’t outline either ’cause writin’s like gettin’ on a roller coaster when you’re ten and you can makebelieve you’re drivin’ the motherfucker and you aren’t really but ooh what a thrill.

  40. I flipped through New New Journalism last night to test my theory that the great ones outline. I was wrong. Most of the names in that book do, but some just sit and write, which amazes me because I just can’t function like that. I’ll post some of their responses later.

    I outline to understand the material and identify the arc. The bigger the project, the bigger the outline. For the first part of For Their Own Good, we had more than 100 hours of interviews with about 30 people; tons of moving parts.

    We took over a small office and scored a big sketch pad and eventually the walls were covered. Edmund hung his portraits around the outline. We marched people in and walked them through the story frame by frame. We did this with editors, web folks and designers, enough to notice when we started losing attention, which parts were dry and where the weaknesses were.

    When a section needed to be revised, we outlined it again and hung the fresh page over the old page. (There’s a photo of the room about half way down this page).

    I outline short stories too, mostly on the computer. They are bascially a page or two of half-sentences, broken into sections. No numbers or roman numerals.

    I’d love to see how others outline if anyone cares to show their work.

    Here’s the outline for this story:

    Scene I: MJs

    Crowd around Tom, holding court
    Man in the middle.
    Everybody knows him.
    Preparing for a roast.
    Tell the one about
    Tell the one about
    He’s quiet. Trying to placate.
    Tell the one about snorting Tabasco, she says.
    Anybody can drink Tabasco, he says.
    Hardboiled egg eating championship of Aspen, Colorado. The man with arguably the greatest impact on local dining …

    Scene II: Tom at home.
    Stone crab cracker, Jimmy Buffet.
    Ice chest.
    Organ music.
    And what’s with the pitch fork?
    That’s a dung fork. Wife says I’m full of shit.
    Take me inside.
    Art. Jose Clemente Orozco.
    Moreau. More stories. Knows everybody. That’s how it is with Tom.
    Ask about his life, he starts with the story of Guy Lombardo.
    He says his mother was a typical Irish housewife, lots of drinking. Father was absent, and investment banker. Used to play a game: how long could you go without seeing dad?
    Drafted to the Army during Vietnam. …
    Travelled Europe. Exploits.
    Land and Sky waterbed co. Playboy deal.
    Moose Mazaracka.
    Strikes the listener as incredible.
    Sonny Liston carp.

    (SOMEWHERE: Phone call. Riedle. Dinner.)

    Scene III: In his kitchen.
    This is where the magic happens.
    Working on a Sangrita mix.
    Quote about two schools in Guadalahara.
    Influence on local cooking scene.
    People talking about him. His influence.
    Known best for his connections.
    Howard Sachs quote.
    But how much of it is true?
    Wife quote.
    Can we get confirmation?

    Scene IV.
    Start with old gray photo. Tom says he met Mike when he was chained to a wall in a prison in Germany.
    Mike’s number.
    Only a fool would give you his number.
    Phone call to the Big Bend National Park.
    Boren stuff.
    That’s true.
    Expound on it. Dope in congo. Marrying the American. Naked in bedroom.
    “Everybody thinks Tom is full of shit. He’s not.”

    Scene V. Tom at the restaurant. Shuffling around. He’s 67. Talking to people at tables.
    Earlier, went to Rumba. Exec. Chef at the Don Cesar had complimented the drunken shrimp. Wanted to see how it was.
    Seemed he knew everybody’s name. Woman buys him a drink.
    Send Donald out. Quick story about rags to riches Donald.
    Called Dave Novak, manager, to bring out the rum.
    Sample rum.
    Back at restaurant. Getting late. He goes in the back to create a desert.
    What he does now. Sweat on lip, he figures out what they’re doing wrong.
    What’s next? He won’t retire.
    Lived a remarkable life. How much is true?
    “All of the above.”

  41. My favorite line from that story is right at the beginning: the trees bent like old, shadowy men.

    I completely forgot about another Paterniti story that’s completely different from the first two we’ve been talking about, one that’s incredibly uplifting and life-affirming. For the Christmas season he dressed as Santa Claus at different malls around the country, I think, or tried to find Santa, I don’t exactly remember. The ending to the story–and I can’t get it because it’s not online–is one of the best endings, ever.

    Here’s the very beginning.

  42. First of all, I have been really enjoying this discussion and have been terrified to post because I clearly do not have the authority to add to it. But I wanted to link to a Gary Smith conversation where he talks about outlining.

    “I’ve had outlines with very general stuff, but never the details. I know that people writing features in college are always writing outlines, but I don’t know where the outline disappeared along the line for me. I wish I had a good answer why I don’t.”

    He also said that he doesn’t feel “close to an outline.”

  43. For me, because I overreport this shit out of stuff, I always am scared I’m gonna forget something. I think that’s what Ben was getting out. For me, it’s a process that helps me go back over what I have and think about where to go. It’s the process of creating the outline that helps me more than having an actual sheet over paper on my desk when I’m done.

  44. Charlie Pierce, ladies and gentlemen.

    The site will never the same again.

    Crazy bastard with the Sinn Fein hat pin.

    OK, Charlie. Why do you outline less?

  45. Hank gets detailed (includes bulletin board photos!): Like everything else, there are software programs out there (Scrivener is one) designed to separate writers from their old-fashioned, paper-centric ways — just like they’ve tried to wean us from newspapers, clippings, actual printed books, Filofaxes, card catalogs.

    These programs are obsessed with outlining, organizing. My dirty little secret as a writer is that I mostly pretend to outline. It’s like I’m creating an art collage about some work that I intend to do, but when it comes down to the actual writing, the part of my brain that writes scoffs at the part of my brain that organizes and plans. Once I’m lost, that’s when I look up at the map in front of me. There’s a pretty interesting discussion going on over at Gangrey lately about writers who outline and writers who don’t. I think it’s possible to be both. (I love this comment from “pierce”: “I’m outlining less than I used to do. You know why? Cocaine. [The first part of that is true, BTW.]“)

    No matter where the writing takes me, I just don’t feel like I’m working on anything good unless I can tack the plan up on the wall. Whether I follow it or not is another matter.

  46. There’s a great portrait of Robert Caro by Ethan Hill that shows his work on the walls behind him. I can see when doing something of his scope, or Ben’s, an outline is necessary — a must. Or if you’re writing something over the course of months or years and your memory might fail you. But I always try to write fresh — like, on the plane home — so I think that compensates. I hope so, anyway.

    And Wright: No such word as overreport. Overwrite is a different story.

  47. I’m with Brick on music. I can write in any kind of noise — or no noise — but if there’s music my mind will always pay attention to that first. I think it’s the frustrated-musician part of my brain pouting about having to do this stupid story when I could be taking guitar lessons or something.

    Here’s the thing about the Jack Hooker story that really got to me, in a good way. I started out thinking that this was leading to some violent event — Jack killing Donna, or Bev burning down the Thunderbird, or whatever. Maybe it’s just the way I was reading it, but I thought he planted that type of suspense in there a few times — especially when Donna’s husband was out on his bike, looking through the window at Jack. But then you get to the end of the story, and the gun never goes off. And that makes it MORE tense, and MORE dramatic, and MORE real.

  48. Chris: You’re right that there’s no such thing as over-reporting, and righter still that there’s such a thing as overwriting. Real and among us, brother. I’ve been shamefully guilty of it for reasons mostly summarized in the Harrington-to-Heckert memo elsewhere on this site. I salute you for having avoided it in your own fine prose, though I suspect some excessive modesty in the explanation you’ve posted above.
    That word though, if it is a word: Overwritten. In recent years it’s become a sledgehammer in the hands of too many cowardly, unambitious, ladder-climbing, cow-in-a-swivel-chair editors. The good ones know how to tell you where to dial it back, and finding a good one (as Wright points out elsewhere) is mission critical. I’ve been lucky in that regard. The bad ones (and here’s where I’ll foolishly try to bring this whole marathon comment section full circle) are hanging a kneejerk, uninspired, boardroom groupthink scarlet O on stylish writing.

  49. I just read Burning Bright, a short story collection by Ron Rash. One, has anyone read it?

    Two, what other short story collections do you love?

    Off the top of my head, i love Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love, Tom Franklin’s Poachers, everything by Tim Gautreaux, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.


    New stuff?

  50. Mine’s all old stuff, Wright, but here’s a couple:
    “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
    “Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson
    Any collection by Ray Carver
    “The Pugilist At Rest” by Thom Jones
    “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” by Robert Olen Butler

    I think what I like best about all of these is how they work together as a whole, how the collage becomes more than the sum of its parts.

  51. An email from Tom Junod*:

    (*I thought I remembered that he did not outline. I was correct in that he just sits down and goes).

    “I like writing, I try hard to write well. I have no fucking idea how to go about it, and every time seems brand-new, and harder. Mastery implies ownership of a range of techniques that might make things easier. I don’t have have any of that. McPhee is a master. I try to find something worthwhile in the struggle.

    I remember the first time I heard the beginning of Jack Hooker’s Cow. Granger read it to me over the phone after he first received it. I was like, Fuck. It was amazing.

    Also, I know that what Mike did to prepare for writing a story was read poetry. Lots of it. Wallace Stevens, and Campbell McGrath.”

  52. When it comes to American short stories in the past 60 or so years, I think few writers come close to touching Carver, Cheever, Yates, and my personal favorite, Andre Dubus. Not Andre III, though he’s not too shabby. His dad.

    Best collection I stumbled into recently: Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock.

  53. Last year I asked T. Lake to link to a story, “The Eighty-Yard Run” by Irwin Shaw. He did, and it’s somewhere on this site. No one commented on it, which leads me to believe not many people read it. It’s one of the best American short stories ever written.

    Off the top of my head I think Richard Brautigan’s short stories don’t sound like anything else that’s been put to paper.

  54. Justin: I checked the Shaw book out of the library after you mentioned it. Some of the stories fell a little flat (dare I say dated?), but most held up. The book was worthwhile alone for the tour de force of the opening section of Eighty-Yard Run, where he puts you inside his protagonist’s body in a way that, if you read it carefully, is altogether possible in non-fiction. I’ve been conducting interviews differently ever since. So, uh, thanks.

  55. Cool! While I don’t remember recommending anything of his other than that one story, it’s altogether possible that I did.

  56. I don’t know, Wright, to be honest with you. I certainly outlined Idiot America — both the original Esky piece and the book — to within an inch of its life. I guess I only outline to clarify in my head basic themes, scenes, etc. So, if I may revise and extend my remarks, I outline less now because I used to outline everything. I

  57. As promised, from New New Journalism, which you really should get if you don’t have it already. Everyone is responding to some version of the question: Do you outline?

    (typos are mine)

    Ted Conover, who starts outlining in his mind before he gets out of bed: “It isn’t so much an outine as a list of the topics I want to touch on during that day’s writing. It is usually a list of scenes, ideas, and characters. I occasionally put an arrow or an asterisk next to items that are particularly important. But the weighting has already taken place in my head.”

    Richard Ben Cramer: “I’m not much of an outliner. The whole of What It Takes was outlined on the back of a placemat in a Greek diner on Sixth Street. I was trying to explain to my researcher how I’d structure it, with all the stories running parallel to each other. So for the next three years we worked off that placemat.”

    William Finnegan: “Yes. I make detailed outlines of entire pieces, but at least half the time they fall apart after I start writing. I’ve always wished I were better at visualizing a piece. And I’m always surprised when, for instance, a major section that I’ve carefully placed three-quarters of the way through my outline turns out to be just three lines. Where’s the big rant I had in mind? Can it all really be said in just three lines? It seems so. Then I’ll come to a tiny, marginal note I’ve scribbled on the outline, and it explodes into an enormous scene. Why couldn’t I see that beforehand? I’ve been writing for a long time now and I’m appalled that I still can’t outline better.”

    Jonathan Harr: “Actually just the same sort of thing, a list of scenes I want to get into the story, usually a list done as I’m working on a particular section. But a scene that takes twenty pages in the book might be only a single line of my outline.”

    Jon Krakauer: “Yes. There is no fucking way I could ever keep all the information I’ve gathered for a book in my head. I have the opposite of a photographic memory: information fless my brain as quickly as it enters. So I need a map to tell me what I’ve got and where it fits. The first thing I do is make a very general outline. If I am writing a book, I winnow my material down to the forty or fifty most interesting scenes or incidents. And then I write a two- or three-line precis of each scene. This fills three to five pages of a yellow legal pad. Each page might have ten or twelve scenes, in no particular order.”

    William Langewiesche: “Yes. I go from scribbling to making an outline. The outlines get very, very detailed. But my outlines don’t look like a classic outline … I start writing on sheets of standard 8 1/2 by 11 paper, and when I run out of space on a sheet I staple another one to it and keep going. They grow into strange shapes. Sometime sthey grow laterally, sometimes they grow vertically. When I’m done I tack the whole thing on the wall.”

    Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: “I generate my outline from my first draft. It’s a process of distilling, of trying to figure out my original intentions, and then ordering them. Writing the actual piece really gets going when I sit down with my outline on one side of my desk, and my rough scenes on the other. Then I start spending long hours in front of the computer, writing entirely new stuff, drawing on the scenes and the outline.”

    Michael Lewis: “Yes. I write a point-by-point outline for even the shortest piece. When I’m working on a book, I’m outlining the whole time I’m reporting. Three weeks into a project, I’ll have one outline. As I learn more, I trash it and write a new one. It’s an endless process.”

    Susan Orlean: “The first thing I do is type up my notes into a computer. I organize each interview as a separate file. Then I’ll make another file of general observations I’ve made during reporting. Then i printo those all up, read them, and highlight the useful passages. Then I spread all the pages out around me and start working on the lead.”

    Richard Preston: “I always wring a little outline — not more than a few lines on a piece of paper — and then depart from it immediately. I think of my outline as an anti-template, the structure that I’m guaranteed not to use, since it’s my useless outline! But nevertheless, I feel compelled to write one. In addition to the written outline, I have a scene-by-scene outline in my head. My writing is scene-based, so I use an outline to figure out the sequence of the scenes. …”

    Ron Rosenbaum: “Eventually, after four or five redrafts of an opening I feel good about what I’m doing. Then i scribble out a mini-outline of where I’m going next. Then I go a little further — rewriting all the way.”

    Eric Schlosser: “It is fairly detailed — from beginning to end. I work chapter by chapter: the outline tells me where I start and finish each chapter, the information I want in each, the people and scenes I want to include. I spend a few weeks writing the outline, and that’s perhaps the hardest part of the process. It’s the part where I’m really tearing out what little hair I have left. I have boxes and boxes of material in front of me, and I know that 90 percent of it will never be used. The writing doesn’t begin in any meaningful way until the outline is completely done. I need to know where I’m going and why.”

    Gay Talese (for everything, not just books): I start with a yellow lined pad and a pencil. The first thing I do is try to print a sentence. Note that I say try to print a sentence, and print, not write. I use big, block letters. Then I look it over, chage it, rewrite, and try to do another. It sometimes takes me a couple of days before I have five to six sentences in large block letters. This is the beginning of my piece. When i have about four to five pages of block-lettered sentences I type them up, triple-space, on an electric typewriter. Then I edit and rewrite those sentences again and again, until I have a single types page I’m happy with.
    I then take the typed page and pin it to the wall with dressmaker pins. I have panels of styrofoam on the wall that hold the pages. Then I go through the whole process again and write another page and pin it to the wall next to the first one. It’s like laundry on a clothesline. I have four to five feet of styrofoam, so I can pin up as many as thirty-five pages in three rows.”

    Calvin Trillin: “I’ve never made an outline. I learned how to in high school, but I never made one after that. At times, I suppose I’ve scrawled on a piece of paper eight or ten words about what follows what, but it’s not a formal outline.”

    Lawrence Weschler: “I tape large one-by-three-foot blake sheets together to create a kind of blotter. I doodle and sketch a lot on the blotter. I make little diagrams to connect things. The point is to lay out and visualize the structures. I’ve been thinking through when I was playing with the blocks. But that is generally speaking as specific as it gets.”

    Lawrence Wright: “I make a rough, two-to-three-page outline and tack it up on the wall over my desk. As I said, the headings and subheadings of my note card files usually determine what goes into the outline. In the case of the al-Zawahiri piece the outline is roughly chronological. i start with the lead, and then move on to the gospel graph.”

  58. Not to keep harping on it, but the thesis statement of this book you’ve cited, The New New Journalism (“there was already a band called The Originals, so we became The New Originals”) essentially declares stylish writing out of style, replaced by Reportorial Feats of Strength. Simply an observation.

  59. Paterniti recently read this thread and was very impressed with the quality of the comments. Over e-mail, he offered this bit of insight on how the piece came together:

    (sidenote on the story: the watershed on that one came when i had to send in the opening section on a tight deadline, and off the break i’d begun the next section with a bit of familiar magazine first-person scribble, like, “I lived in Jack Hooker’s motel in Dodge City for three weeks last August… blah,” and got one comment back from granger, like something on a moses tablet, which was: “There is no “I” in this story”… which blew everything up suddenly….) anyway, the discussion on the link as it evolves to craft-talk is amazing…. just great to listen to pros talk about how they do it. some of my favorite writers, too…

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