Monday, November 2, 2009

What Stephen Fry's Twitter Incident Says About Us

If you haven't been following along with the Stephen Fry saga, or if you're (through no fault of your own) American, then here's a quick refresher: Stephen Fry, public intellectual, actor, author, game show host, Oscar Wilde enthusiast and all-around good man was so insulted by some harassment on Twitter that he threatened to delete his account.

# of Stephen Fry's Twitter followers, as of 2:35 pm: 941,732

Before the "who cares" switch gets turned on, consider this: Fry is the English Mr. Twitter himself, one of the first celebrities to embrace the technology and, in the eyes of many, embodies the site. He has nearly a million followers, 50,000 twitter friends, and has posted nearly 5,000 Twitter updates.

When one of his followers commented that he "admired and adored" Fry but found his updates, "a bit ... boring," Fry took the comment hard. He replied, "Think I may have to give up on Twitter. Too much aggression and unkindness around." In a direct message to the man who criticized him, he added, "You've convinced me. I'm obviously not good enough. I retire from Twitter henceforward. Bye everyone."

Again, before the "who the fuck cares" switch is thrown, think about what this small incident says about the way we communicate and the internet. We've all been there. We've all been Stephen Fry, and I think we've all been the criticizer. We've had our egos bruised, and sometimes so badly that we threaten to quit whatever site we were on. Whether we were more directly attacked, told we were boring, ugly or (in my case) a "future burnout", we've *all* had the wonderful endless wire turned against us. If Fry can be so badly bruised, with 941,732 followers (in the course of writing this note, 78 more people began following Fry) of positive reinforcement, then this must be potent stuff.

I think we've all been on the opposite side too. We've all made a joke or off-handed comment that was taken to heart, whether we felt badly about it or not.

It's the nature of the beast. I don't think its avoidable; it is inevitable. Fry himself inadvertently contributed to the cyber-bullying of "thumb-headed boy", an over-weight college kid who, bending awkwardly in a photo, looked unfortunately like a thumb. Once Fry mentioned it on Twitter, the internet jumped on the photo and the boy and it's been turned into its own meme, plastered on mugs and t-shirts, etc. The boy is considering suing for the rights to the image.

So where do we go from here? Do we lick our wounds, like Stephen Fry, and reluctantly stick around? "Thank you for being so understanding," Fry later updated. "I feel more sheepish than a sheep and more twattish than a twat." The criticizer (who was subsequently blocked from Fry's Twitter) also apologized, acknowledging that Fry has bipolar disorder.

Most of us do stick around and we largely enjoy the positive reinforcement social media provides, while fully realizing that it has a tremendous capability to hurt. Megan Meier, 13, committed suicide after being bullied by a local mother, posing as a young boy, on MySpace. The incident jump-started an attempt to legislate prohibitions on cyber-harassment.

Meier's case is clearly an extreme. Fry's incident is closer to what we experience routinely. Both point to the capacity of human beings, acting anonymously, to be tremendously cruel, and (for the counter-part) to be overly-sensitive and easily wounded. Both also speak to the still uncharted and uncontrolled power of the vast span of endless wire called the internet.

Fry acknowledging 4-chan, one of the internet's strongest, strangest, and, most often, cruel, forces for anonymous baiting.

tldr: Be a bit kinder to each other on the internet-- just a little bit kinder than you think you have to be.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Interviewing Your Subject : Strange Bedfellows

Somehow, interviewing subjects never gets less nerve-wracking. The night before, I am always up until silly-o'clock writing out pages of questions. (I tend not to keep notes on hand, I have a decent memory when it comes to my biographical subjects, but I'd recommend it to others who don't.) Then the morning of the interview I fret and pace and rehearse what I'm going to say when I pick up the phone. With a few false starts, I finally get through.

Then everything's fine. I swear, young biographers, it's usually 100% fine! This is difficult to remember when you're hearing that phone ring and panicking, but when the voice answers on the other end, something intuitive kicks in.

Here are the best tips I can offer, from a very young biographer to others, about interviewing your subjects. These apply to any non-fiction research. If you have other tips to add, feel free to join in:

1. Prep your questions ahead of time. This seems sort of intuitive, but it makes the conversation a lot less intimidating if you know what to ask when the stories lull. Also, if you don't have a good memory, it might be beneficial to keep some of your notes nearby, for quick reference. I write my questions on separate sheets of paper, not front-to-back, so I can spread them out easily in front of me. Like I said, if there are pauses in the conversation that indicate a switching of topics, you can quickly grab a question and throw it in.

2. Ask ahead of time to tape record. Tape recording your interviews is almost essential to get every valuable fact and colorful phrase just right, but it is also illegal without prior consent. Written consent is best. Most subject have no problem with this, but it's always best to check with them before using exact quotes so as to avoid quoting out of context.

3. Speak with both humility and authority. You're speaking to someone who holds a precious key to your research and your book. This person knows something you don't-- so don't forget it. Thank them, many times. Sincerely. However, you should also speak with some confidence. Don't apologize for yourself and your questions. Talk like you know what you're saying.

4. Take notes. Even if you're recording, take notes. Tape recorders can fail and written notes will always jog your memory. However, I use shorthand so that I can be mentally engaged in the conversation while note-taking.

5. Every time you think of a question, write it down. Self-explanatory. You should write down every scrap of information, every question, every idea anyhow.

5. Listen. The single most important thing to remember. Don't ramble, don't interrupt. Let the stories come and just listen. Again, this person knows more about your subject than you do. Listen with the openness of a young student.

6. Again, thank them for their time! Sincerely. These people are busy with their own lives. They deserve thanks.

Developing character

Had a fascinating discussion with fellow non-fiction writer Jerry Waxler who writes (and lives) memoir about the development of character in non-fiction. His latest essay in his fascinating blog Memory Writer's Network deals with the mental connections reader's must make in order to full realize a character.

"Books don’t tell us everything about a character all at once. They drop in a fact here and a scene there, and the reader’s mind accumulates a deeper understanding of that character in bits and pieces across many pages." - Jerry Waxler

No truer advice ever spoken. With non-fiction it's particularly difficult, as we, as researchers, must first investigate, piece together, and interpret the essential truth of a person for ourselves before we can attempt to translate that onto the page. But that character translation is the most essential thing to our work. I find that the only thing worth writing is character. Character reveals plot and plot changes character.

Through endless glimpses here and there, as Waxler wrote, by dropping in a fact every now and then, we build a mosaic illustration of a human being. It's a beautiful and bizarre thing, something akin to magic when it happens. If you can give your readers only one glimpse of the essential truth of one person, then you've accomplished the near-impossible.

Is it ever really possible, you ask, to capture a human being on the page, anyway? Or on the screen for that matter? In paint? In music?

Well, perhaps not. But hell if we won't try.

Jerry Waxler's memoir blog:

Monday, March 2, 2009

Books that can help beginning biographers

Beginning a full-length biography can be extremely confusing. There aren't too many books or web sources out there for first-time biographers and navigating the tremendous tasking of dealing with interviews, archives, book proposals, travel -- not to mention the writing itself -- will inevitably seem overwhelming. There are plenty of books focused on fiction, but not many that begin to explain nonfiction.

Over the course of this blog, I've decided I will pool some of the useful resources to hopefully aid others. These are just some books that helped me, in whatever fashion it was, to gain insight or knowledge of some source about the craft of biography and/or autobiography and memoir.

How to Do Biography: A Primer by Nigel Hamilton is a good introduction, a primer, as it says. It provides some good basic advice about the traditional structure of a biography (birth, career, love, twilight, death) as well as a quick chapter about the afterlife of the biography (the critical reception of your biography). In addition, this is one book that also contains a section on autobiography and memoir. A very basic book, good if you need general guidance but probably redundant if you have a good handle on how to begin thinking about your story.

Biography: A User's Guide by Carl Rollyson was very useful to me. It is laid out much like an encyclopedia which makes for a strange read from start to finish. The book lays out the basic history of the genre and provides examples of different sub-genres (political biography, religious biography, musical biography, royal biography, literary biography, intellectual biography, among others). This book also contains a section on autobiography. Rollyson talks extensively about the differences between authorized and unauthorized biography, the ins and outs of fair use policy and the ridiculousness of so-called 'definitive' biography. A good book, incredibly useful.

Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard, contains a few useful essays. The first, "As Time Goes By: Creating Biography" primarily talks about going beyond chronological order, finding truth in interviews, and using archives. The second essay, "Twelve Years and Counting", is a shorter essay containing some good advice about interviewing, archives and the balance between research and writing. The rest of the book focuses on other nonfiction mediums but contains some useful advice. Nearly every essay contains writing exercsizes following the essay that are related to the primary advice imparted. These exercises can be extremely useful.

How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larson contains much of the same advice as similar books, but is organized in a way I find most useful. A solid introduction to writing proposals for any nonfiction book.

I hope some of these books can help you. As I find more books and websites useful, I will post them here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Biography : Forgetting

"People get old, they forget."

Mark Ruffalo, in the role of Detective Dave Toschi, says this to Jake Gyllenhal, in the role of Robert Graysmith, towards the end of David Fincher's Zodiac. This is the problem with trying to piece together a book after many years. People get old, they forget.

It's been eight years since Paul Avery passed away on Orca's Island, north of Puget Sound. It's been forty-one years since the height of the Zodiac investigation, also traditionally thought of as the height of Avery's career. Thirty-five years since Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Avery is a modern figure and yet plenty of time has passed to facilitate forgetting.

People get old, they forget.

The death of memory is just a fact in biography. We have to deal with the fact that there are infinitely more memories than can be captured, and we can only hope that the small snapshots we do manage are among the most striking. "I'm sure I don't know the half of it," one of Paul's colleagues told me one day, "and the half I do know I've forgotten."

We biographers are pretty remarkable writers. We must make sense of life. Nothing can be more daunting. We often cannot make sense of our own lives but we must sort out files and files of stories, gossip, e-mails, phone conversations, articles, books-- all written by friends, enemies, family, colleagues, exes, spouses, children, rivals. Wading though all of these stories, all of this time, we know that the frailty of the human mind is working against us. Time is working against us. People get old, and sometimes they forget.

Yet, we still manage to find the essential human being. We (hopefully) make good judgments, we (hopefully) ask good questions and we eventually catch a glimpse of who they were.

And then we try to convey that in writing. But that's a whole other story.