Where good ideas come from
Four writers offer four techniques about how to conceptualize more creatively
What we write about is usually more important than the techniques we use to make the story pretty. Newspapers continue to suffer from too many stories that feel obligatory or flat or formatted, and from too few that brim with a sense of discovery–a natural enthusiasm that comes from looking at the world in a fresh way. It isn’t merely language that hooks the reader and carries him along. It’s the ideas–your ability to make him think about something in a way he never thought about it before.
Here are four essays from reporters, published in “Nuts & Bolts” in 1999, that provide insight into attitudinal technique–the intellectual stances that can make you more sensitive to good ideas.
#1: “Imagine the broadest context possible…”
Many of us have written the story of a parent fighting back for social change after losing a child to homicide or disease. And many of us slapped ourselves in the head when we read Mark Fritz’s piece about how common this syndrome has become, and how it can lead to poorly thought-out social policy. It was so obvious! So, how come the rest of us didn’t think of it? (Confession: I once wrote about a Riverside father’s successful crusade to ban lawn darts after one of them accidentally struck and killed his daughter, and until I read Mark’s article it never dawned on me that what I’d chronicled was part of something grander.)
When I asked Mark (who subsequently left the L.A. Times for the Boston Globe) how he connected the dots, he responded:
I live in the wilds of western New Jersey, where the biggest fear isn’t crime, cow pies or drive-bys, but a tick the size of a decimal point that might be carrying Lyme Disease, a rarely fatal but potentially debilitating yet easily treatable illness caused by a spiral-shaped bacteria borne by a bug that can burrow into your eyebrow and suck your blood for two days before it drops, now looking like a fat asterisk, onto the copy of “Nuts & Bolts” you happen to be reading. Last year, under pressure from Northeast politicians, the FDA rushed the approval of a vaccine that seemed to work for some people. Sometimes.
I like stories about things that change collective human behavior, so I thought this news peg might warrant a quick trip to the Connecticut city where the affliction was discovered to see how Lyme the disease had changed Lyme the town, a woodsy epitome of upscale exurbia.
The most interesting thing I found was the Lyme Disease Foundation, a nonprofit group founded by a couple whose child had died of mysterious ailments that the family had become convinced were caused by a Lyme-carrying tick that must have bit the mom while she was pregnant, though the link was never proven. Their belief that Lyme disease was much worse and more prevalent than the evidence indicated was taken at face value by so many newspapers, that a couple of scientists tried to point out that these folks were letting their personal agenda distort the empirical facts. Cooler heads claimed the foundation was panicking people into thinking they had the disease when they didn’t, and had opened the door to countless Lyme-curing quacks.
I tucked this example of obsessive parental advocacy away for a bit, looking for parallels elsewhere. If something is happening somewhere, something similar is usually happening somewhere else for somewhat the same reason, which sometimes means, voila, a trend (which sometimes unravel so slowly they aren’t noticed for decades).
Some months later, President Clinton signed a new law called the ”Jeanne Cleary Act” that compelled colleges to compile new sets of campus crime statistics for the Department of Education. This law required them to begin collecting and collating crimes that occurred in places adjacent to campus or were merely frequented by students. Having dropped out of one school nestled in the peaceful countryside of western Michigan, and attended another that mingled colorfully with the crack alleys and hooker promenades of midtown Detroit, I wondered about how this one-size-fits-all law would work. I noticed an item in a higher education trade journal about the legislation, and it quoted some school officials as saying the new law, which toughened an already confusing older law, was so contradictory and difficult to decipher that schools needed to pull cops off the streets to manage compliance.
It turned out that Jeanne Cleary, a freshman from a well-to-do family, was the victim of a tortuous campus rape and murder that had compelled her parents to go on a mission to change the way schools catalogued and chronicled crimes on campus. They had succeeded in getting two sweeping federal laws and 13 state statutes enacted in little more than a decade. Lobbyists, lawmakers and even tough-on-crime prosecutors admitted they often were too intimidated to point out the flaws of these laws when confronted with the mind-bending manifestation of every parent’s worst nightmare.
Their comments, campaigns, convictions and even their web site were so strikingly similar to the Lyme folks’ that it took only minutes to find other analogies in crime, product liability and disease policy. I passed a note on to my editor, Bret Israel, who talked with colleagues Scott Kraft and Tom Furlong, and more analogies poured forth: MADD, Megan’s law, missing kids on milk cartons, Three Strikes prison sentencing, the Superfund’s origins as an outgrowth of a mother’s complaint about the Love Canal. Parents whose kids suffered brain damage because of an infinitesimally possible yet unproven link to the whooping cough vaccine had morphed into a movement opposed to childhood vaccines–the lack of which probably kills more kids in the world than anything else. All relied on media stories that–whether the killer was a paroled child molester or disposable cigarette lighter–sounded eerily similar, and sometimes tritely formulaic.
This wasn’t an easy story to write. Many parents had accomplished incalculable good after suffering incomprehensible loss. Yet their missions were so uniform in the arc they followed that it cried out to be covered as a collective phenomenon that increasingly produced what some rarely covered critics said was bad law.
A psychologist specializing in parental grief told me that embarking on a mission, in fact, is a common reaction to the loss of a child. But there were other things at play that became apparent by imagining the broadest context possible and talking to people from other, seemingly unrelated fields: The growth of the Internet and its ability to instantly link like-minded people; this decade’s unparalleled demand for tough anti-crime laws; the increasingly imitated success that AIDS and breast cancer advocates have had on influencing the priorities of federal disease policy; the two political parties’ war to one-up each other on people-pleasing legislation; and this generation’s rise in consumer protection and product liability lawsuits—all have combined to give enormous public policy power to pitiable parents just trying to cope.
Sure, far too many news stories are twisted into symbols of the Zeitgeist, but today’s Zeitgeist (I know, you German speakers, it’s a redundant term) compared to yesterday’s is a terrific source for stories and a good way to broaden the context enough to find angles that challenge the surface assumptions that lead to formulaic approaches. I firmly believe that every story we cover is a tiny part of a larger one that sometimes eludes our grasp. Too often, we forget that what we mostly cover are aberrations from the norm, and we have a tendency to treat a statistical cluster of aberrations themselves as trends while missing the larger picture, which is sometimes as interesting as the aberration itself.
…The Clearys remain undeterred. Theirs is a classic American story of contemporary activism, a wounded family’s odyssey endlessly replayed, from Megan’s Law to missing children on milk cartons. Thanks to the unlimited power of parental grief to attract media and sway lawmakers, lawn darts in toy stores and drawstrings on children’s clothing are banned. A vaccine comes to market earlier than originally intended. A child’s sickness is linked to Love Canal, spawning the Superfund.
And at the center of them all so often stands a tragic tale, a family calamity transformed into arresting allegory, a freak occurrence offered up as a terrifying trend.
Parental grief, in fact, has become one of the most powerful political forces in the country. Already, the massacre at a high school in Littleton, Colo., has inspired a parents’ group modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving that aims to toughen gun laws and, if history is any guide, will inevitably broaden its agenda.
“You see this on hundreds of different things,” says Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas expert on interest groups. “What is fascinating to me is that a lot of times the power is in the story itself, the narrative. The power it has over legislatures. Anecdotes become the evidence.”
Though it can be politically dangerous to oppose teary-eyed parents from middle-class America clutching photos of children killed by what they are certain is some institutional defect, there are signs of an emerging backlash.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist recently ripped Congress for churning out laws “to appear responsive to every highly publicized societal ill or sensational crime.”
In February, an American Bar Assn. task force said 40% of the federal criminal laws passed since the Civil War had come in just the last three decades–often “in patchwork response to newsworthy events” rather than “an identifiable federal need.”
The bar says the last Congress alone slogged through 1,000 new crime proposals, with some of the voguish laws passed in recent years–including those against drive-by shootings, interstate spouse abuse and murder committed by escaped convicts–so superfluous they were never used.
Even MADD founder Candy Lightner says the politics of grief have seized control of the political system. “How are you going to say ‘no’ to a crying mother?” she says. “The legislature winds up acting emotionally, and you have all these ridiculous laws passed that don’t do a hill of beans. I can relate to it, because I used to do it too.”
#2: “Look for the nexus where several fields intersect…”
Our business’ emphasis on geographical and topical beats, as well as increased formatting, conspires against the kind of eclectic thinking in which a reporter finds a story in that rich soil where two or more seemingly unrelated fields intersect. One of my colleagues, Sharon Bernstein, excells at breaking down these barriers. Here she describes how she got jazzed by news that Eli Lilly & Co., the pharmaceutical company that makes Prozac, was about to air a 30-minute television info-merical promoting the anti-depressant:
When I first heard the news, the old-line business reporter in me wasn’t all that impressed. But the former media writer in me was floored.
They’re going to do what? And they’re going to run these things when? In the middle of the night so depressed people can see them?
I knew this was a hell of a story. But it wasn’t obvious to a lot of people until it was all done. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal had passed the information on to their marketing writers, who devoted all of one paragraph to the topic in columns on new advertising campaigns. Although my editor, Annette Haddad, immediately saw the value of the story, some people on our Business desk didn’t think it was that important.
But from my perspective–having covered entertainment, business and health care, and having often thought about how marketing and media affect people–the story was a natural. To pull it off, though, I had to rely on skills honed in very different fields.
To gather the elements necessary for a good financial story, I relied on techniques learned by covering business during two stints in my career: I found out why the company felt it needed to market Prozac, what the goals of the campaign were, and what it cost. But to cover the program properly as media, I also relied on skills from my days of covering TV and entertainment.
I watched the show and took notes. I interviewed the producer to find out what she had been trying to accomplish. In the story, I made sure to describe the program itself, quoting from the narration and describing the mood and the program’s progress.
Putting those two fields together, I was then able to make the most important leap–understanding the program’s importance as it related to health care. I found sources who were experts in health care and mass communications, and talked to them about the program, its positioning in the market and the financial goals of Eli Lilly in making the show.
The resulting story ran on A-1 and was picked up by many other media outlets. At a symposium on the health care business a few weeks later, the it was quoted by the keynote speaker.
The Prozac story brought home to me something I had been trying to articulate for years: that the best stories come not from narrow specialization, but from the nexus of several fields. In my case, this happened entirely by accident. I bounced around to so many beats that I wound up, for example, covering business (the first time around) like a political reporter; then, when I switched to media writing, I covered entertainment with the understanding of a business reporter. And so on when I went back to metro news and then came back to business. (Editor’s note: She’s now back in metro as our public-health reporter.)
The resulting stories are kind of weird–maybe because they’re written from something of an outsider’s perspective–but they’re full-bodied in a way that I think is important. They’re more fun to write, too.
In a way, writing from several points of view is like learning several foreign languages. You reach for Italian and it comes out French. But the resulting patois can be the basis of a whole new language.
EXCERPT (beginning with lead):
Borrowing a technique used to sell everything from exercise equipment to food dehydrators, the makers of the antidepressant Prozac have produced a 30-minute television infomercial to directly market to consumers the prescription-only drug.
The commercial, which is aimed mostly at women, will air in the middle of the night and on weekends, when company marketers believe more depressed people will be watching.
By producing the ads, Prozac manufacturer Eli Lilly & Co. is aggressively stepping up to the plate in a controversial new area of marketing that many pharmaceutical companies see as their best hope for new sales in the era of managed care.
More and more, since rules on advertising drugs on television were eased in late 1997, drug makers are turning to consumers, rather than doctors and hospitals, to create demand for their products.
The question of marketing a psychiatric drug directly to consumers, however, goes to the heart of the controversy over whether pharmaceuticals should be advertised on television. Prozac, unlike drugs for allergies and hair loss, can have psychological side effects and is aimed at a condition that is often not easily treated.
“It’s a trap,” said George Gerbner, a telecommunications professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and author of the book ”Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs in the Mass Media.” ”They’re trying to appeal to and exploit the most vulnerable people.”
The Prozac commercial, which appears to be the first half-hour advertisement for a psychiatric drug, is part of Lilly’s bold campaign to shore up the $2.8-billion drug’s lead among antidepressants.
…”You’ve got to have mixed feelings on this,” said Lawrence Wallack, who specializes in mass media and public health issues at UC Berkeley and Portland State University in Oregon. ”Depression is a big issue, and the more public discussion of it the better. But you can’t get around the fact that it’s an infomercial. It’s a sales pitch.”
Introduced in the United States in 1988, Prozac was the first of a new breed of antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which….
#3: ”Weigh reality against society’s expectations.”
Greg Braxton’s front-page piece in May, 1999, about the virtual whiteness of the coming network television season stood out as a strong moral statement by the newspaper. Rather than writing about a questionable societal trend after interest groups or lawyers intervened, Greg’s piece was a simple but important statement of a fundamental shift in programming: The networks, which had been creeping toward diversity, seemed to have retrenched in unison. (The then-hipper-than-it-is-now Entertainment Weekly didn’t pick up this until July 30, using as an angle the NAACP’s plans to protest, which came in a reaction to Greg’s piece.)
The story was–like Mark Fritz’s parent-protest story–obvious in retrospect, and so is the lesson that it teaches: Keep measuring reality against society’s expectations. The story also reinforces Sharon Bernstein’s point about finding stories where two fields collide–in this case, entertainment and race.
Since coming on the TV beat in 1994, I have spent much of my time exploring minority images on dramas and comedies, and how race relations are handled on different shows. Pursuing this angle has resulted in a steady stream of stories-how comedies are more segregated than dramas, the unhappiness with black and Latino images, and how some popular series have been popular with white viewers but not minority viewers, and vice versa.
Just before the new fall schedules were announced, I got a sense that there would probably be little ethnic diversity in the new shows. But it didn’t start to dawn on me, my colleague Brian Lowry or my editor Betsy Sharkey that there would be virtually no minorities in a leading role, very few blacks in supporting roles and virtually no Latinos or Asian Americans that were visible.
In New York in May, all of the television networks unveil their new programming before advertisers, showing them clips of all the new shows. I attended closed-circuit broadcasts of those presentations here. By the second day of watching pilots, it was obvious that there was a certain sameness to the looks of the shows. That was a sharp contrast to our anticipation of more integration, especially since there had been diversity in some of the hit shows, like ”The Practice.” We assumed the pendulum was going to keep swinging in a direction of inclusion. I remember sitting in an ABC board room and being so shocked that the casts of the new shows–even ensemble casts of the new dramas–seemed to be all white.
Heightening the contrast further was the fact that I had heard several network executives say in previous years that diversity was very important to them. But from the clips and cast photos, it was clear that wasn’t the case this time. Something had gone wrong. It was never anticipated that all of the major networks–Fox, CBS, NBC and ABC– would all look the same.
I contacted the network executives and confronted them about the trend and their past promises. For the most part, they were responsive in explaining their rationale, and how they were still trying. When the story wound up on the front page, many of them clamed up.
It was only the beginning of what would turn out to be an ongoing series of stories examining diversity in television, which has turned out to be the hot-button issue clouding the new season.
EXCERPT (beginning with lead):
The new prime-time television season has been unveiled, and guess who’s not coming to dinner this fall.
Of the 26 new comedies and dramas premiering on the major broadcast networks–CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox–not one features a minority in a leading role. Even secondary minority characters on these sitcoms and dramas are sparse, turning the TV lineup into a nearly all-white landscape.
There are few blacks in supporting roles on the shows, and Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and other ethnic groups are virtually invisible. And even Fox, a network that grew to prominence on the strength of shows targeted for and featuring blacks, may have only one regular black character on its entire schedule this fall.
The lack of minority characters has sent a shudder through an industry that has prided itself on being politically enlightened and progressive. Further, it is in direct contravention of network executives’ repeated pledges to increase diversity in their shows.
Tom Nunan, entertainment president of sixth-ranked UPN, whose edgier programming strategy includes several shows featuring minorities in leading and supporting roles, said the lack of diversity on the major networks has been obvious for some time but is particularly evident in the new crop of prime-time series.
“It was really glaring at the upfronts,” said Nunan, referring to the networks’ announcement of the fall prime-time series lineup to advertisers last week in New York. Advertisers, in turn, will now decide how and where to spend roughly $6.5 billion to buy advertising time in advance of the season, which begins in mid-September. “It was a shortsighted approach that they took. When you realize how valuable the African American audience can be, and also any minority audience, [inclusion] shows respect to all Americans, not just one demographic group.”
Among several high-profile shows with all-white casts are ABC’s “Wasteland,” about six “twentysomethings” living in New York City and dealing with life after college; NBC’s “Freaks and Geeks,” which features a group of teens attending a suburban high school in 1980; CBS’ “Love or Money,” a comedy about romance in an upscale New York City apartment building; Fox’s “Manchester Prep,” set at a prestigious New York prep school; and NBC’s “Cold Feet,” about three couples in various and differing stages of relationships.
#4: “Keep an open mind…”
Evelyn Larrubia heard about what sounded like a slam-dunk story: Some toy manufacturer was producing a set of figurines called “Homies” that clearly resembled Latino gang members. An outrage story, clear and simple. But by being willing to let the story take on additional complexities–rolling with the punches and keeping an open mind to a changing set of facts–Evelyn produced a far richer tale about two ways of looking at the world.
“Cultural toys.” That’s what the guy on the other end of the phone was calling them. Sure, some people have complained that they look like gang members, he conceded, but they’re just ignorant.
This was not quite what I’d expected to hear when I finally tracked down David Gonzales, creator of those 1 3/4 inch Homies figurines that had cops and prosecutors up in arms.
I had gone out and bought myself a purseful of Homies figurines and stickers as soon as I heard about them. I saw the knit caps, the bulging muscles, the baggy pants and white tee-shirts, the bandana hanging out of one guy’s back pocket, the teardrop that looked like a prison tattoo–I was sure this was going to be an easy quick story. I mean, who wouldn’t condemn toys dressed like gang members?
All I had to do was track down the company that made the toys, call few Hispanic activists, add police and prosecutor quotes and file it.
But now I had Gonzales talking, with a straight face, about low-rider Chicano kids as a cultural phenomenon. He told me his art was inspired by neighborhood people from the barrio. They weren’t supposed to be bad, just authentic, he said. He was intelligent, well-spoken and sounded like a decent human being.
I didn’t know if anyone would agree that these tiny, cartoonish Chicano toys were art, but it was worth a shot. Which meant my original idea of just calling people up and describing the little guys was not going to work. I mean, baggy clothes and bandanas? Nobody was going to defend that description on its face.
Nope, I had to take the Homies on the road. I showed them to kids, parents, community leaders. Those I couldn’t get to personally I asked to look at pictures of the little guys on the manufacturer’s web page.
Even then, plenty of people still hated them. They thought the toys were demeaning and demoralizing. They said Homies glamorized gang life and perpetuated negative stereotypes about Hispanics. But I didn’t have to go very far to find others who actually saw these little Homies as a genre of art. At the very least, they said the toys and stickers were an honest portrayal of some people that lived in Chicano neighborhoods.
…The Homies draw mixed reactions from Los Angeles area Latino community leaders, raising issues of dignity, stereotyping and the right to artistic expression.
Some in the community agree that many of the images are nothing more than silly, harmless or nostalgic portrayals of characters that have existed for decades.
”It’s a form of art and I respect it as such,” said Xavier Flores, head of both the local area Mexican American Political Assn. (MAPA) and the San Fernando-based social service agency Pueblo y Salud.
He said he has seen similar caricatures over the years and considers them a legitimate portrayal of disaffected Mexican American youth who feel neglected and rejected by the dominant culture. ”It’s art imitating life.”
But other activists said they found the toys to be offensive.
”They are negative images. They perpetuate stereotypes,” said Helen Hernandez, president and founder of the Imagen Foundation, which honors groups that portray Latinos in a positive light in film, television and advertising. ”Who is he kidding?”
”I believe in creative freedom, but I also believe in social responsibility,” Hernandez said disgust washing over her face in disgust as she examined the toys.
”They’re cool! They’re gangsters,” said 9-year-old Gino Johnson, a sweet-faced third-grader at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, who was interviewed at the Pacoima Boys and Girls Club on Thursday night. ”Can I have this one?”
RECOMMENDED READING: Owen Glieberman’s 325-word review of the new John Singleton movie, “Baby Boy,” in the July 13 issue of Entertainment Weekly. It’s short enough to present below. I offer it to you as an example of two complimentary virtues, purposefulness and compression. This could have easily been twice as long without telling you any more. Just imagine how tough the writer was on himself in cutting it; it’s easy to see the extra sentences that were there in draft form. Read:
Jody (Tyrese Gibson), the strapping, sloe eyed, 20 year old protagonist of John Singleton’s ambling yet impassioned “Baby Boy,” is, by any definition, a bum. Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, he’s the father of two young children by two different women, but he still lives with his mother. Jobless and pleasure seeking, with no focus on anything but the next moment, he cruises around the neighborhood in his girlfriend’s car and considers it his divine right to cheat on her whenever he wants. (He refers to his conquests as ”tricks.”) His one brainstorm of employment is to steal a bunch of dresses off the back of a truck and barter them, with his ladies man swagger, at the local hair salon. Even when he’s ”working,” he’s really playing tricks.
”Baby Boy” is structured dramatically to echo the lackadaisical, easy-does-it chaos of Jody’s existence, and while that lends the picture a certain lurching and repetitive quality, Singleton’s achievement is that he stages each moment with such an intricate and painful sense of what’s going on inside Jody that his haphazard days have more fullness, more life, than most movie characters’ tidy arcs. Far from indifferent, Jody is boxed in by his anger, his need to inflate the most casual living room conversation into a turbulent contest of power and pride.
He is, to put it in the film’s terms, the neurotically infantalized African American urban male, yet Singleton, nearly a decade after ”Boyz N the Hood,” now puts the ripeness and conflict of adult experience right up there on screen. Ving Rhames, as the violently contained, wised up ex-con boyfriend of Jody’s mother, continues to be amazing, and Snoop Dogg, with his skinny coyote’s snarl, makes a mesmerizing petty sociopath. What holds the movie together, however, is Gibson’s broodingly responsive performance as a young man who refuses to grow up because it would mean that he’d have to stop fighting himself.
Notice how, in the first graph, each sentence takes you slightly deeper in describing the protagonist; how, in the second graf, that initial monster sentence, despite its 64-word length, clearly connects our understanding of the protagonist to the success of the movie, and finally, how, in the third graf, the supporting roles get their due with the briefest but functional descriptions, allowing enough room for the last sentence to resonate back to the review’s first.
This is not great writing, but it is great efficiency, one of the building blocks of great writing. You should steal from any writer who exibits this sensibility as well as Mr. Glieberman does. On your next draft, and on your next self-edit, be as tough on yourself as he is.