Wick Communications

Say Boo!

In Writing on 27 Oct 2011 at 4:18 pm

Last week, I mentioned one of my favorite newspaper writers, Gene Weingarten. Turns out his “The Peekaboo Principle” is also one of the favorites of another of my favorite writers, Lily Bixler. Lily works with me here at the Half Moon Bay Review.

After reading last week’s Kicker post, Lily told me they mentioned Weingarten’s story in a narrative journalism course she took in grad school at Stanford. She shared with me some other stories that came up in that class, including a story by Katherine Boo that appeared in The New Yorker in 2003.

Boo’s story is headlined, “The Marriage Cure.” Boo decided to follow two single women from different circumstances who lived in Oklahoma City and embraced the notion that, if only they could get married, they could claw their way out of poverty.

Boo is a Pulitzer-prize winner and just damn good. Here is how the story begins:

One July morning last year in Oklahoma City, in a public-housing project named Sooner Haven, 22-year-old Kim Henderson pulled a pair of low-rider jeans over a high-rising gold lame thong and declared herself ready for church. Her best friend in the project, Corean Brothers, was already in the parking lot, fanning away her hot flashes behind the wheel of a smoke-belching Dodge Shadow. … At Holy Temple Baptist Church, two miles down the road, the state of Oklahoma was offering the residents of Sooner Haven three days of instruction on how to get and stay married. …

I can’t remember ever reading detail that was more telling, more important to the narrative of a story. The way Henderson was dressed, the car Brothers drove, the image of the projects and the church – as a divine source of rescue – are just pitch-perfect.

Boo appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered shortly after the story ran and she talked about some crucial elements of storytelling like this. For instance, how did she pick her subjects?

“I liked their honesty,” Boo told host Jennifer Ludden. “When you write about what we call character as subjects, one thing that deters me is a person who’s really desperate to have their story told. And the people who most interest me are the ones who, when you say, ‘Can I follow you around?’ go, ‘I don’t know. Why?’ Because I often find that their stories are the ones I most want to hear.”

Boo talks about a tip from the great photographer Walker Evans, who urged journalistic observers to simply stare. Be still. Listen.

Boo also said that her assumptions about her subjects – the characters in her stories – are “almost always wrong.

“There is a lot more going on in this woman’s head and heart than I first guessed,” Boo said.

And that is the point, isn’t it? That’s why we read long-form narrative journalism. That, and the opportunity to connect, to see a snapshot of our shared humanity.

Seek out Katherine Boo. Here’s a start.

Clay

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