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Writerland Chapter 10: NYT’s Ellen Barry on the Story That Will Not Go Away
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
Writers have all sorts of relationships with their stories, and most of them are healthy. There are stories that happen in a great burst of creativity. The heart races. The breath quickens. The rush will leave a writer gasping for air and wondering if anyone wants to get a beer or three.
Then there are stories that linger. They are like noir detective novels. The story begins in one place. Then without warning it slips from the writer’s fingers. It takes off in a new and wholly unexpected direction. The writer wants to let go – do I really need this? – but can’t because this story holds such promise, such possibilities. These stories will drive writers nuts. They can also bring unanticipated joy. If only you can figure out what’s going on and how in heaven’s name you are going to write it.
That is what happened to Ellen Barry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for the New York Times, when she arrived outside of a forest in the middle of New Delhi to talk to the mysterious man who lived there.
Three years later came a story. It was called The Jungle Prince of Delhi. It was a finalist for a Pulitzer and is one of the best stories I have read in years. I will not spoil it by giving away what happens except to say that it was not the story Ellen set out to tell.
The man she came to talk to was named Cyrus. He lived in a crumbling hunting lodge hidden in the woods. He and his sister had lived there with their mother. They were royalty. That is what he told her.
“At first,” Ellen wrote to me in an email, “when I was visiting him in the woods, I thought I would just write a profile, acknowledging the mystery about who they were but not attempting to solve it. He wanted me to keep coming back -- for the company -- but he was reluctant to allow me to publish anything. He said he was worried that if I published something, he would be overrun by Indian journalists. So, I didn’t feel I could do that profile, and then my assignment came to an end, and the movers came, and there were goodbye parties, and I had to crate up the dog, and so forth. When I left, I had this folder of interviews, but I didn’t know what I would do with it.”
Writers face this all the time, and it does not matter how skilled or experienced they are. They encounter a story that feels too big, too amorphous, too hard. And at the same time, just so compelling. You want to quit it. But you can’t. You thought you had it. But you don’t.
The story followed Ellen and her family to her next posting, in London. The folder of interviews grew to become “a big fat binder, with every document and page of written notes from 3 years of reporting. Those binders are magic.”
Magic, yes, but only in hindsight. She had learned about binders from a colleague when she was a young reporter at the Boston Globe. You fill the binder, or binders – yes, you can color-code; whatever works – with whatever you like, which explains why this process is called “saving string.” Ellen wrote, “I put everything into the binder chronologically -- the clips, the notes, the letters to my editor, the sketches of scenes or conversations.”
In other words, all the stuff that accumulates and which can feel like the detritus that fills a closet whose door you can barely keep shut. The magic of the binders, as Freud might have put it, is that they make the unmanageable manageable. You open them up, and start to sift through what you’ve filed away. Maybe you take notes on a fresh piece of paper -- “I use post-its and marginal notes.”
And as you do this you are performing a miracle: you are making time slow down. You are not thinking, per se, because thoughts and ideas race through your brain at speeds with which no one can keep up. But when you are reading and maybe annotating, you slow things down enough to see, even if it’s just bits and pieces. It is all you can reasonably ask of yourself, as you’re trying to make sense of a story that keeps eluding you.
“I read through the binder every now and then to sort of internalize it,” Ellen wrote. “For me, what's difficult about deep, longitudinal reporting is that you lose the feel of the material really quickly, those moments that serve as hinges to the story, so the way I do my binders tries to account for that problem.”
She continued. “First, I try to get my notes into a more processed form by transcribing notes from notebooks and recording. That gives you raw notes. Then I try to process those notes into something usable, by writing up scenes or else writing a letter to my editor about what I got in that day's reporting. I try to do that right away. If it's really exhausting reporting, hours and hours of just watching and listening in the heat -- trying to process the notes after a day's reporting was just too exhausting. I would travel to the place I was reporting and then stay an extra day or two just to process my notes into usable form and put them in the binder. That sounds extravagant, but will pay off when you sit down to write.”
Then the binders performed another bit of magic. “The finished binder gives me a lot of confidence,” she wrote. “It's all the ingredients of the finished story, you just have to add water. It takes a lot of the fear out of the writing process.”
“When I do sit down to write, I tend to write from the start to the finish, moving through the binder, and therefore the story, chronologically. I don't write quickly. On something difficult, I might only get 500 words done a day. I hid in the British Library, and forced myself to get through 500 words a day. It actually wasn’t hard writing, though while I was writing, I was thinking, be realistic, there is no way the New York Times can publish this.”
Or, put differently, no one will care. Or, it’s too long. Or, what if no one reads it? And so on and so on. But those worries are for another day, when the writing is done or close to it and like all writers you can find something new to fret about, to fill the void left behind by having conquered the story that, for the longest time, you were convinced was going to conquer you.
In addition to Ellen’s story, we wanted to offer you another story to read, an escape, we hope, from these long and difficult days. This one is from our archives and we hope transports you to a different place, at a different time. Fifteen years ago, in an African kingdom, two serial killers were hard at work. Just one of them was human. The Killers of Swaziland by Shaun Raviv.
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.