This weekend I had the good fortune to attend a writing workshop at the Bronx Documentary Center hosted by bestselling author Sebastian Junger. ((Junger’s friend Mike Kamber opened the BDC after a highly-awarded career as a photojournalist. One of the writing assignments was to create the lede paragraph of a profile on Mike and the BDC. I won’t share it, but it’s easy to say after a gnarly career around the globe Mike’s doing important work helping transitioning community tell its most interesting stories.))
Junger started by telling the 30 or so attendees it was his first time teaching, but he was a natural. The class flowed through the broad topics and touched on standout passages most recent work, WAR, as well as some of his favorite work from other authors.
I’ve never been to a writing workshop before, and have a real aversion to Big J Journalism’s self-important hand wringing, but I didn’t encounter that here. Junger had a lot of practical, simple advice, the sort of stuff a self-taught craftsman can relay after some successes and failures.
For the most part, these are direct quotes. Sebastian’s delivery and my typing speed made for easy transcription. I skipped a lot of the stuff where he read specific passages to illustrate a point, or used anecdotes to underline certain elements. The session was videotaped, and the BDC guys said they’ll post it, so I’ll surely link to it, or embed it, once it’s up, so you can get the whole feel. In the meantime, head up and check the BDC out, they’ve got loads of screenings and exhibitions on tap. So, without further ado: Sebastian Junger on Writing.
Write it down, don’t just record it.
Your intuition is an incredibly valuable tool. In the process of taking notes you’re already filtering out stuff that’s going to be less important to you.
Memoir is journalism.
Our society is filled with a leeway for misrepresenting the truth and getting away with it, and I think that’s infected writing. There’s fiction, there’s nonfiction, and there’s a very bright line.
That bright line is doing you a favor
You have to get that interesting stuff out of reality and into words. That’s the craft of writing. If a writer fictionalizes a little bit in memoir, it’s a petty crime. You steal a ten-dollar watch from the store, and you have a ten dollar watch, but it could cost something a lot more than ten dollars. It’s a bad bargain. It does this thing that jeopardizes the power and veracity of every word, it’s cast into doubt. It’s not worth it.
Truth is when you’re not distorting things intentionally.
Acknowledging that is important. Another truth is people see you in a certain way. No person can actually understand that clearly. It’s too distorted by your own fears. The most important thing is your striving towards truth. It should be the thing you try and head towards.
Style is what gets people to keep reading.
It doesn’t have any inherent value. It’s like clothes. Ultimately it’s not the person, and not the point. It betrays a lack of interesting in the world. Your writing is not more beautiful than the world is. One of the dangers of being a really good writer is you’re more at risk of becoming enamored of what you can do with the words. You don’t want the facts of the world to serve as a platform for your skill. It’s the other way around. Your skill serves the world.
Adopt a mindset of humility.
Say ‘Look, I’m bewildered by this topic, but I’ll spend some time learning about it, and will report back to you what I found out about it.’ Communicate ‘I don’t have an inherent advantage over you, but I want to report back what I found out about. I want to talk to people you didn’t have time to talk to, and I’m going to come back and tell you what I found out.’ You want to look the readers in the eye. You’re discovering secrets of the world that are available to anyone, you just spent the time to talk to the experts. You’re not in a position of special knowledge.
The conversation with readers about how subjectivity works is interesting, more so than unobtainable objectivity. Once you’re into first person nonfiction, just go for it. You can kind of do anything as long as you tell the reader about it.
Your intuitions about writing will be really, really accurate.
The first reaction you have is probably the right one.
Reality is your best friend.
It’s not an adversary. You’re never going to outdo it.
Do more research, whatever that research might be.
For me, writer’s block means I don’t have enough information. I don’t have the goods, and I’m trying to make up in words what I don’t have in facts.
You will not get everything right.
You should go back and check with the people you interviewed if it’s anything personal, or political, or charged. Once you go back, ask them, you don’t have to read the quote back, ask if you’re still good with that. Do the decent thing to do and save incredible hassles and hurt feelings later. You’re way better taking it out then living with their anger and your guilt. Public officials don’t matter. But you don’t want to ruin an old lady’s day with an unflattering description of her. People’s feelings are important, particularly people who are the victims of circumstances, not the perpetrators of circumstances.
Deeper truth is often the pretext people use to fictionalize.
There is none. The story is truthful only to the extent that the details are truthful. The story’s not true if the details aren’t.
If you’re going to put someone in a poor light, you’re honor-bound to investigate further.
You’ll know when you’re being unfair.
You are a lens that serves to focus the image for the reader.
You’re not supposed to tell them what to think. You’re supposed to tell them what to think about.
The things that you want to conceal are probably the most interesting things you’ve got.
Figure out how to talk about it in a way that feels beneficial, and illuminates the world.
You can’t describe everything.
What you want to do is pick revealing details to give an illusion of completeness. The weather. The street address. Small details. It doesn’t matter, but it means you were there. Go back as soon as possible and write it down so you can remember. If you’re not sure, you can say you’re not sure. You can say that. That means when you don’t hedge you’re absolutely true and they can trust that. They get a sense that you’re a real human being. You’re not god, and not a robot. Use details in an emblematic way. Pick things out that are revealing in some way. In the essence of things, things get more intuitive and artful. What is the essence of it?
Don’t overload it with poetic essence.
For a sentence or two. More than that it gets cloying.
Edit in every state of mind.
Writing is a weird intuitive act. Editing is a lot more rational. That’s its strength, but it’s also its weakness. Lets say I go running. I’ll run and come back and read the chapter I just wrote. You’re upset? Go edit something. The stuff you don’t like, it comes right out. If you’re reading something, and your mind starts to wander, pull it out. That section is in doubt; it’s in question.
Words are really precise.
You can’t be sloppy with the words. There’s one for everything you need, it’s like a set of wrenches. There will be a perfect word for what you’re saying. Just think about it. The pleasure of reading is when someone uses a word in a unique way. You want to surprise the reader a little bit.
It’s pleasurable to see things differently, in a non-rational way.
It’s why people take drugs.
Write in a visual style.
You’re setting a visual scene. You can write to some loftier part of the brain that’s not visual, but it will probably engage people less. We go through the world with our eyes open, and you have to write to that.
When you describe characters, think of one thing that describes their face, or body language.
Cinemagraphic writing style appears to our visual understanding.
If this was a film, how would I start the film? What would I want to see?
Shortcuts bleed the power out of words.
People will put your work down and not even know why. Mortars are always ‘slamming’, but after reading that word 20 times you don’t want to hear about mortars slamming ever again.
Give people periods of work and rest when they’re reading.
When you stop a reader, you’re stopping them to think. There’s other sentences where you don’t want to do that.
Rhythm in prose is the primary thing that keeps people reading.
It’s this essential thing that probably shouldn’t call too much attention to itself.
There is no good writing without good rhythm.
Pick those moments where you stop them, but don’t do that too much. You want a rolling, long-distance pace.
Things said with rhythm seem true.
There’s a power to them that seems unassailable, and that you tapped into a higher truth, and that’s coming out in words. IT is flowing through you, and you’re not impeding it.
No one writes in perfect rhythm, but you have to be attuned to it.
In a long sentence you can get into a filmic feeling.
You’re asking the reader not to stop and think, but to go with it. You’re in a situation that’s flowing past you. Long sentences are less about ideas and more about experiences and perception.
Expand and contract the pace, but you have to keep with the flow of reality.
At my desk is where I put words together, not ideas.
The conceptual leaps a piece requires will come to me in the oddest places. Places where I’m lightly engaged with something else.
Fictional devices in nonfiction…
…are not an excuse to invent, they’re strictly structural.
End sections on unstable moments, where there’s a lot of unexpressed potential.
If it’s too complicated to remember verbatim, you really should say to the reader how it happened.
‘Even if the words aren’t exact, that’s what he was saying.’ There’s a very specific value to recorded information, and you don’t want to muddy the waters.
Free to use fictional tricks, as long as that trick isn’t invention.
You have a relationship with the reader, you can tell them whatever you want.
As long as you’re honest. You can tell the reader the thing that you’re trying to protect them from.
On Beginnings & Endings
…should be really easy to get into. It should be an easy can to open. But also set you up for something important. You have to give a signpost that says it’s coming.
Start in a way where the person doesn’t want to leave you.
Endings partly feel like endings because of rhythm.
You can tell when a movie’s getting ready to end.
You want a feeling of eminent change, that you’re revealing the truth.
Endings should be a big book, thump it down on the table, there, that’s the end, thunk. It’s a little bit like the end of a relationship. You’re having coffee and you can talk about the details, but you know it’s ended. You know it’s over.