I love thinking about writing.
Nowadays, writing usually means 600 words and 7 GIFs and at least 4 internal links, which of course is fine. That's all well and good on the Internet. But there is a special form of nonfiction feature writing you can still find if you look hard enough. Today it is often tagged #longreads. Or you can find it in the out-of-print listings on Amazon or you can find it in the formal "best of" collections that get issued every year.
I realized the other day when I was compiling some of my favorite pieces to send to a friend to inspire and motivate her that over the years I have kept an informal running list of articles that I return to again and again as examples of what the best in literary journalism has to offer. My list is way longer than this piece but I figured I would give a flavor of some of my very top choices. The list is also ongoing and regularly updated so I have some oldies and some newer entries.
I've included an excerpt to every single one and a link to the 12 pieces themselves. Even if you only read the small passage from each piece I included, I think you'll get a flavor for the jarring writing, storytelling and point of view the author provides. That's what I look for in writing. That's what makes me feel alive.
In addition to the articles below, a few books I recommend if you're into this kind of thing:
- "Rolling Stone: Cover to Cover: The First 40 Years"
- "The New Journalism"
- "Esquire's Big Book of Great Writing"
As you look through these authors, you will quickly see that there are absolutely too few women on here, but the encouraging news is that their magazine writing recognition in the industry does seem to finally be changing.
Warning: There is an absurd amount of Rolling Stone on this list. And murder.
Patty Hearst and Emily Harris waited on a grimy Los Angeles street, fighting their emotions as they listened to a radio rebroadcasting the sounds of their friends dying. On a nearby corner Bill Harris dickered over the price of a battered old car.
Only blocks away, rifle cartridges were exploding in the dying flames of a charred bungalow. The ashes were still too hot to retrieve the bodies of the six SLA members who had died hours before on the afternoon of May 17th, 1974.
You were a child once, too. That's what Mister Rogers said, that's what he wrote down, once upon a time, for the doctors. The doctors were ophthalmologists. An ophthalmologist is a doctor who takes care of the eyes. Sometimes, ophthalmologists have to take care of the eyes of children, and some children get very scared, because children know that their world disappears when their eyes close, and they can be afraid that the ophthalmologists will make their eyes close forever. The ophthalmologists did not want to scare children, so they asked Mister Rogers for help, and Mister Rogers agreed to write a chapter for a book the ophthalmologists were putting together—a chapter about what other ophthalmologists could do to calm the children who came to their offices. Because Mister Rogers is such a busy man, however, he could not write the chapter himself, and he asked a woman who worked for him to write it instead. She worked very hard at writing the chapter, until one day she showed what she had written to Mister Rogers, who read it and crossed it all out and wrote a sentence addressed directly to the doctors who would be reading it: "You were a child once, too."
And that's how the chapter began.
She was 28, a slight woman, dark hair pushing past slender shoulders, haunting beauty nurtured in a small-child look. She was alone that chilly autumn night, driving her tiny three-door Honda through long stretches of prairie. The Oklahoma fields lay flattened under the crude brushmarks of the wind, the grass unable to snap back to attention. Every few miles a big-boned rabbit, mangled and broken, littered the roadside. A couple years back she had fired off a round of angry letters when sheep ranchers staged rabbit roundups, clubbing to death the furry army that had sprung up on the prairie. She was like that, poking her opinions where they weren't welcome.
In the early evening darkness of Wednesday, November 13th, 1974, Karen Silkwood was on an environmental mission of another sort. On the seat beside her lay a manila folder with apparent proof that records were being falsified at the plutonium plant where she worked. Waiting at a Holiday Inn 30 miles away were a union official and a New York Times reporter who had just flown from Washington D.C. to Oklahoma City to meet with her.
They waited nearly an hour. Then they picked up the phone.
Karen Silkwood's body had already been found in a small rivulet along Highway 74 where rabbits often came to drink. Her car had swerved left across the highway, skittered about 270 feet along the embankment, smashed head-on into a culvert wingwall, lurched through the air and caromed off another culvert wall, coming to rest in the muddy stream.
Her death was ruled an accident; the police decided she was asleep at the wheel. But the union official was not satisfied. The manila folder was missing. And a private investigator discovered two fresh dents in the rear of her car; telltale marks of a hit-and-run.
And so the school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page. If nothing else, DeAngelis and her teachers decided, beginning in the fall of 2009, New Dorp students would learn to write well. “When they told me about the writing program,” Monica says, “well, I was skeptical.” With disarming candor, sharp-edged humor, and a shy smile, Monica occupies the middle ground between child and adult—she can be both naive and knowing. “On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had a choice. I go to high school. I figured I’d give it a try.”
A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. ..." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. "What the hell are you yelling about?" he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. "Never mind," I said. "It's your turn to drive." I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.
John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games. He is thirty-four years old, and works for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, setting up a plant nursery on the tribal reservation near Miami. The Seminole nicknames for Laroche are Crazy White Man and Troublemaker. My introduction to Laroche took place last summer, in the new Collier County Courthouse, in Naples, Florida. The occasion was a hearing following Laroche's arrest for illegally taking endangered wild orchids, which he is passionate about, from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, which is a place he adores. Laroche did not dress for the occasion. He was wearing wraparound Mylar sunglasses, a cotton-blend shirt printed with some sort of scenic design, and trousers that bagged around his rear. At the hearing, he was called forward and asked to state his name and address and to describe his experience in working with plants. Laroche sauntered to the center of the courtroom. He jutted out his chin. He spoke in a rasping, draggy voice. He stuck his thumbs in his belt loops and said, "I've been a professional horticulturist for approximately twelve years. I've owned a plant nursery of my own. . . . I have extensive experience with orchids, and the asexual micropropagation of orchids under aseptic cultures." Then he grinned and said to the court, "I'm probably the smartest person I know."
I am an ex-drug addict who has solicited prostitutes in my day. I’ve also masturbated and inhaled at the same time, and I have been arrested more than once in my life. I dropped out of high school, and I’ve been under psychiatric care. Oh yeah, and I owe the IRS roughly six thousand dollars that they are well aware of.
In the language of Scientologists, the above information reflects what they include in their “Dead Agent Packs”-dossiers of all the dirt they dig up on people critical of their “religion.” Often they disseminate damaging information like this to the friends, family, landlords, and employers of anyone who dares speak of–or worse, publish anything derogatory about the “church.” So what I’m doing here is Dead Agenting myself before we begin, beating them to the punch.
Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient. The banks of America understood this. In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself “the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers,” the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building “generational wealth.” But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself. According to The New York Times, affidavits found loan officers referring to their black customers as “mud people” and to their subprime products as “ghetto loans.”
“We just went right after them,” Beth Jacobson, a former Wells Fargo loan officer, told The Times. “Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.”
"I used to call her a social butterfly," said her friend Carrie Norris. "She would flit around from group to group during lunch, joking constantly."
Stacy Bennett "kept remembering the cute things Kirsten did." "One that was just so much like her" went back to the winter of their sophomore year when Stacy invited Kirsten to spend Ski Week with her family at Lake Tahoe.
"We had four girls in our cabin," Stacy recalled. "And there was this one that we all didn't like. My mom had invited her because she invited me to this thing of hers before." The lonely girl brought a diary. "She would look at us and write something, and it was totally bugging us," Stacy remembered. "So finally she goes to take a shower and puts the book down on the table. Kirsten looks at me and starts laughing, and we opened it and started reading. Every time she'd take a shower we'd read it, then put it back in the same place, and she never knew. We would, like, repeat what she had written about us to each other, and it was so funny."
"She made people laugh," said Carrie Norris. "Some people."
The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in the sturdy wooden armchair that barely contained him, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. In the first pew of spectators sat his wife, looking stricken, absently twisting her wedding band. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept. He was virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment. He would not speak at all for the longest time, not until the nurse sank down beside him and held his hand. It was only then that the patient began to open up, and what he said was that he didn't want any sedation, that he didn't deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all, and then to die.
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.
PS: I highly recommend getting lost in this list of more than 100 of the best magazine articles ever, too. I also recommend shelling out a few bucks for access to the Rolling Stone archive online. It's worth it just for the dated advertisements alone. This is not just text. The entire magazine is scanned in for access, cover to cover. Enjoy. And please, share with me your own favorite articles in the comments.
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.