It was refreshing to learn how a writer comes to find their voice. In Marc Weingarten’s: The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, I was given specific methodologies on how pioneers, of what would be called the New Journalism movement, came to be. Weingarten begins by first explaining New Journalism as, “Journalism that reads like fiction and rings with the truth of reported fact.” I found this to be an enlightenment of the tried-and-true tradition of reporting the facts as they happened. So often in life the facts have very little to do with the truth of a matter.
Weingarten’s first examples of rogue reporting were what he called the roots of the revolution: Jimmy Breslin, Truman Capote and Lilian Ross to name a few. There were many more, but for the sake of brevity I’ll stick to the ones I feel that I learned something useful from. Jimmy Breslin was the man whose philosophy on reporting was to go in the opposite direction of the pack. He wasn’t concerned with winners and felt the story was with life’s losers. An example of Breslin’s ability to find a story was his covering of JFK’s funeral. He did a portrait on the gravedigger. My takeaway from reading him was that a writer can’t always be focused on the obvious. Often, there’s a bigger truth or meaning that can be mined from the peripheral of a story.
Truman Capote took peripheral to another level when he went to cover the murder trial of two men who killed a family in Kansas. He compiled six years of interviews, namely getting the facts from the only eye witnesses: the murderers themselves. He spent so much time breathing in the facts of the story that he ended up turning the assignment into a best-selling novel, “In Cold Blood.” What was of note in his rendition of the facts was that he took the liberty to fill in the blanks with his own words. This led to what he called a “non-fiction novel.” Capote pulled this off because he was so meticulous with his six years of notes. I believe it was because of his bounty of facts that he was able to ethically improvise the holes.
Holes were entirely absent; however, in Lilian Ross’s profiles. Ross wrote profiles of people by merely following them around for a couple of days and then reporting the events in story form. I was so interested in the way Weingarten showcased her talent that I went online and read her full profile of Ernest Hemingway in 1950. At the time the New Yorker released the profile, many readers felt Ross had betrayed the legend; yet, Hemingway himself was very happy with the piece. In it, Ross writes a captivating tale of meeting the renowned author at the airport in NYC and following him and his wife back to their hotel, the next day running errands with Hemingway. In her piece, Ross captures Hemingway’s mortality. I believe this is what Hemingway loved so much about the piece. At the time, I have to imagine he felt immense pressure to continue to be immortal and Ross was able to showcase his authenticity in her piece, “How Do You like It Now, Gentlemen?”
Authenticity seemed to be the catalyst for this new form of journalism. There were many other writers showcased: Tom Wolfe’s onomatopoeia and motion prose, Joan Didion’s introspective take and Hunter S. Thompson’s, “If you buy the ticket, you might as well take the ride,” approach to storytelling. There are also many writer’s that I’m choosing to leave out, aware that I’m now on the verge of 600 words and I feel as though I’ve only just begun to recount this book. My overall impression is that this is a mandatory book for writers. With each example, Weingarten, tends to highlight the specific circumstances as to how each writer began to find their voice and carve their niche. For Wolfe, it was a car show that was too vibrant to be dulled down with a normal recitation of the facts. For Didion, it was an ability to capture the truth in life’s disorder. Thompson was trying to make writing a full-contact sport when he got his ending to, “Hell’s Angels.” Ultimately, all of these writers were simply trying to be honest with their words and true to the event.
In the end it’s about telling a story and being accurate to the ultimate meaning of that story. Regurgitating facts is not always an accurate view of an event. Often, what defines the truth is a complete portrait of something that may use colors not present in the documented acts that factually occurred.