Talking Story

Provocative pieces, tips on writing, and thoughts on literary style

What the heck is narrative journalism?

I’ve taught narrative journalism at Harvard, organized conferences on the subject, written criticism about it, and practiced it for more than 20 years.

Yet the term “narrative journalism” makes me cringe.

But we do need a name for articles and books that tell true stories, and do it artfully.

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Shelly Runyon on twit wit and chick lit

susanorlean BTW, my animal sitter at home reports that Laura has become a total raging maniac rooster madman, complete with rooster rage. Oy. – November 11, 2009

In a grassy upstate-New York yard fit for farming, Susan Orleans gives a camera crew for The New Yorker a tour of her utility shed. Half of the shed is occupied by seven chickens. Outside the shed is a fenced-in area, resembling a petting zoo. Chickens zoom past the cameras as Orleans squats down just inside the yard. Three birds rush over to snack on the tomato half in their dutiful owner’s hands.

Almost every day, Orleans writes one-liners just like that about her chickens on Twitter. It started with her just tweeting her life, discussing her family and career. Then something clicked. Her fans fixated on the birds. They followed her chicken tweets, re-tweeted them to friends, and tweeted her back. It became a chicken-tweet movement, inquiries about chickens flying fast at Orlean. All the while her following proliferated…

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Is true fiction just true fraud?

A recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review set me on edge. In “The Rise of True Fiction,” my colleague Alissa Quart writes about a trend she perceives in the literary landscape: “an increase in the blurring of neat and certain categories of ‘fiction’ and ‘nonfiction’ into something that we might call ‘true fiction.’”

I would recommend the essay to anyone practicing fiction, nonfiction, or memoir, with some caveats.

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Favorite pieces

Look in this space for selections from my collection of all-time favorite pieces, spiced with some recent stories.

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Where to find narrative journalism online

The number of sites that post graceful writing grows every day. You can’t go wrong at The New Yorker’s online incarnation, and many other magazines offer interesting experiments in new media. I’m on the lookout for beautifully written blogs, in which masterful writers explore the form and manage to do much more than whine, pine, and opine. More on that soon, I hope. In the meantime, here are some other great sites….

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