“But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
To Ken Armstrong, a writer at The Marshall Project, these 12 words from Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” demonstrate the epitome of good storytelling.
“A great lyric can tell you a story in just a few words,” Armstrong told conference IRE Conference attendees. The simple language of the phrase works because it’s “easy to say, easy to sing, easy to remember.”
Armstrong and ProPublica editor Louise Kiernan shared some of their recent sources of inspiration from art, music and fiction at the panel “Storytelling that hums.” Here are some of the materials they shared:
The beauty of audio, Armstrong said, is that it can be much more conversational. As writers, we can and should take note of this. “Find your inner Ira Glass,” he said, after playing the introduction of the audio version of “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” which earned Armstrong a 2016 Pulitzer in explanatory reporting.
Kiernan suggested “In the Dark,” a podcast from American Public Media. She said the podcast did a good job presenting the voices of victims.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that the people who are impacted by what we find are the most important,” she said. “We can become too big of a character.”
In “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead pulls the reader along with references that are only explained later in the text, Armstrong said. Events or characters are introduced, but only explained pages later, which gives the reader a feeling of suspense and momentum. Journalists can use this in their writing, too. “You want to make them wonder,” Armstrong said.
Kiernan spoke about “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. In one chapter, the author uses slides from a PowerPoint to tell the story. Kiernan doesn’t suggest putting slideshows into your pieces, but said that there is something about the spacing and tempo of the medium that can be applied to writing.
When you watch Errol Morris’ films, you may be surprised by what you don’t see: Errol Morris. The documentarian is notorious for pointing his camera at a subject and letting it roll, Armstrong said. Minimalism can be a storyteller’s best friend. He suggested “Gates of Heaven,” about a California pet cemetery, and “Vernon, Florida,” about the eccentric residents of one Florida town.
Why does the woman in Patty Griffin’s song “Making Pies” bake for her nephew and not her own children? Listeners soon learn that her lover died in the war, but it’s a delayed revelation made all the more poignant by the build up, Kiernan said. Journalists should be more open to delaying revelatory facts, she said, which can lead to a more powerful narrative.
In addition to Johnny Cash, Armstrong offered songs by Louis Jordan, Dolly Parton and Robbie Fulks. All four demonstrate powerful storytelling with the simplicity of their lyrics. Take Parton’s incomparable song “Jolene,” for example. Before we know anything else about the singer’s woes, before we even know there is a man involved, we hear Parton’s pleaful cries of the woman’s name: Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. Armstrong says this kind of simplicity is what makes the lyrics so memorable.
Kiernan spoke about the paintings of artist Kerry James Marshall. In his “Garden Project” series, Marshall explores public housing in America, a topic he was intimately aware of. The artist had lived in projects in Birmingham and California. Kiernan held up the painting Many Mansions as an example: The foreground is floral, depicting three black men in various stages of gardening. A sign covered in splattered paint welcomes you, and behind it you can see some of the eight high rises that made up the public housing development. The paint covers the more lyrical name of the project — Stateway Gardens — but to the side you can clearly read “IL2-22,” the official name of the property.
The painting reflects a complex story. Kiernan says that journalists can too often be caught in the trap of dismissing certain neighborhoods as ugly, poor or dangerous. For perspective, she mentioned a recent article in Chicago magazine about a girl who noticed that the news coverage she received made it look like her success came despite the neighborhood where she grew up.
“[We have to have] open eyes, open ears, and an open heart to what is around us,” Kiernan emphasized.