where the tension comes from

Where do the big feature stories that show up in the magazines and websites you read come from? Someone’s mind, of course — and sometimes that mind is the editor’s, or the editor-in-chief’s, or the writer’s, but the process of going from idea to story usually involves a lot more than simply saying the general topic (SHEEPDOGS! TEENS VAPING! A NEW START-UP!) aloud.

There are a lot of places, like local news, where the sheer existence of a thing, or the anniversary of an event, is worth coverage: this is precisely what local news is (partially) for, conveying the facts about an event to the specific public that will potentially care about it. A mayor is running for re-election without much fanfare. There’s a new restaurant where that old restaurant used to be. There are more people flying out of Missoula these days than there are flying out of Billings. These aren’t boring stories, they’re just straightforward. I love them, and I read them, because they concern my world.

A celebrity profile often works somewhat similarly: the celebrity has something new to promote. (Most people don’t realize that the only reason you see a celebrity profiled = they’re in promotion mode, with a new show, or movie, or product. Sometimes, when celebrities aren’t in promotion mode, they don’t even employ a publicist (or their publicist is on retainer only)). Sometimes there’s tension in the profile (a come-back!) but a lot of time it’s just….here’s this celebrity, you’ll read simply because you’re interested in / like / hate that person.

The bar for a feature story is higher. I didn’t quite realize this until I started writing them. The thing itself should be interesting, but what should be MORE interesting — and to people outside of, say, your local news market — is the tension within the story. This might seem self-evident when said aloud, because a book has narrative tension, and a movie has narrative tension, and even a country music song has narrative tension, so obviously a 6,000+ word piece of journalism should have tension.

That tension is what keeps you interested through those 6,000 words. But it’s also what gives the story a so-what: so I’ve read all about this esoteric feud, or the future of this industry, or the collapse of a hospital in this region. So what? What does it matter?

Take my first example: sheepdogs. They’re very cute; there’d be great photos from ranches here in Montana. But what transforms it into from a story whose headline would be SHEEPDOGS!!! to a feature story = a big zoom in, and a big zoom out.

What kind of sheepdogs? (How about the special sheepdogs I met last year who are being bred to specifically protect against wolves in wolf-vulnerable populations in Montana).

Why sheepdogs? (They have to be bold enough to bark up a storm and scare off predators, but not so bold or aggressive that they actually go after the wolf and get themselves killed).

So what about sheepdogs? (If you can train a dog to this effectively, you can soothe some of the boiling tensions between those attempting to protect wolves, whose population has been threatened, and those attempting to make a living by raising livestock on lands frequented by wolves).

But really so what? (The tension between conservationists and those who use the land to make a living is the story of the West, tell it well and elucidate our current moment in that history).

That’s how I “get away,” for a lack of a better word, with doing hyper-local stories: pitch the tension, then pitch the stakes. I’m working on a story right now that’s ostensibly a gun story in a small town, but is actually a story about two different visions of America. I’m working on another story that’s about an uncool Christian church that’s attracting young people, but it’s actually about class and precarity and what we need and want faith and community to do in our lives.

People often want to know how I get my ideas for stories, or if I can write a piece about their idea for a story. This is interesting, because there does seem to be a general rule, amongst writers, that you shouldn’t talk about how you got the idea for a story in the piece itself. This was clarified to me sometime last month, when someone I follow, (I truly cannot remember who, and the tweet remains unfindable) said that no one should do it — but they’d make an exception for Patricia Lockwood, whose recent piece on John Updike opens with the following:

I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said when first approached, because I knew I would try to read everything, and fail, and spend days trying to write an adequate description of his nostrils, and all I would be left with after months of standing tiptoe on the balance beam of objectivity and fair assessment would be a letter to the editor from some guy named Norbert accusing me of cutting off a great man’s dong in print. But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are.

This is a killer lede (journalism speak for the beginning of a piece) but it is also a killer “how I got to write this story” anecdote. All of this was fresh in mind when I began writing my most recent feature on the company that, having succeeded in making so many millennial-marketed items cool, has pivoted to an anti-burnout corporate philosophy. You could write this as a fairly standard feature (see here, in Quartz) or a piece, published in a trade-publication, intended for an industry audience (see here, in Ad Age).

But the tension in the piece I wanted to write would derive, at least in some part, from me. For one, my piece on burnout was one of several things that prompted them to wholly reconsider their company. But also because my thinking and reading and writing since has rendered me deeply ambivalent about the ability for capitalism to fix what capitalism hath wrought. I increasingly find it difficult to think of any potential story, to listen to any political figure speak, to read any piece (like this one, on an “open revolt” by Hollywood assistants) on contemporary labor practices, to hear the jobs stats, or listen to a friend talking about her inability to find reliable childcare, without integrating it, in some way, with all the other things I’m thinking about burnout. Sometimes you can just insert that tension without inserting yourself. The best pieces often do. But sometimes, depending on the story, it feels necessary to make an appearance.

Maybe I’ll start to feel like I’m listening to my own broken record. The hope is I’ll keep excavating new corners of why, of what change looks like. Maybe that’s okay, if each and every time, I remind myself: it doesn’t have to be this way.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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