The Power of Narrative at BU

A front page, breaking news story has the power to attract established journalists from around the country and the globe all under one roof. The Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University in early April had a similar effect.

Now in its 16th year since its inception at BU in 1998, the three-day conference is a narrative journalist’s watering hole. It sheds light on the state of narrative journalism, provides journalists with new story ideas and ways of effective storytelling.

Originally called ‘Aboard the Narrative Train’, the conference is organized and directed by Professor Mark Kramer of BU’s College of Communication. Kramer, writer-in-residence in the department of journalism and the author of four books, taught narrative writing at BU for many years. At ‘The Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism’ at Harvard University in 2002, which was also organized by Kramer, he said, “Narrative hugs and holds readers, which is just what is wanted in these times of dropping newspaper circulation and wandering audience attention.”

Kramer explained the vision behind starting the conference in a recent email, “In 1998 the informal planning group may have felt that we could help ‘save newspapers’ – circulation was contracting, average age of readers was climbing and minutes per day spent reading a paper were declining. And indeed, we may have helped the spread of serials and short narrative in newspapers.”

After nine years at Harvard University, the Narrative Conference returned to its roots at BU in 2010. Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer, former New York Times writer Gay Talese and The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean are just a few of the names who’ve featured in the conference over the years.

On the opening day of this year’s event New York Times columnist David Carr lit up the SMG auditorium with his blunt honesty and quick wit. In an engaging one-on -one conversation with The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, Carr talked about how storytelling and narrative writing is thriving in the digital age. “What fits the cell phone well is the long-form narrative story,” said Carr. “There are no ads, you get immersed in it and just keep scrolling down.”

Carr, who joins BU’s journalism faculty in the fall, said while consumer habits have changed, long-form writing has an eternal appeal to it if it’s done well. “There’s nothing worse than a long, boring story,” Carr said.

While calling himself a ferocious user of new media, Carr addressed the hype around Twitter. According to him Twitter has something to do with headlines but nothing to do with narrative. “Being big on Twitter is like being big in Japan,” Carr said to a laughing audience. “You can’t use it as a metric of your actual reach.” He went on to say, “Metrics driving journalism show what people want are big, glorious stories.”

When the so-called New Journalism was introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, literary techniques in journalism were deemed unconventional. The forerunner of this craft, Tom Wolfe, published a 1973 anthology called ‘The New Journalism’, which included works by himself, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Gay Talese and others. Despite the criticism of this style of writing from contemporary journalists and writers , narrative has become a useful tool for non-fiction writers.

Michael De Monte is the CEO of ScribbleLive, which is a live blogging platform used by major news organizations for real-time news delivery and event coverage. On wired.com in 2013, he wrote, “The platforms and timelines may have changed but the core elements of storytelling have not. Great stories always — without exception — follow a predictable pattern.”

Monte said, “One of the reasons we created Scribble was because we recognized that online storytellers needed a space where they could easily create expert content to develop a narrative that engages consumers from beginning to end.”

Widely used by authors, Scrivener is a word-processing program that allows the user to organize notes, concepts, research and whole documents for easy access and reference.

Co-founder and long time editor of the Nieman Narrative Digest and a former BU professor Nell Lake used Scrivener in writing her new book, ‘The caregivers: A support group’s stories of slow loss, courage, and love’. Speaking at this year’s Narrative Conference, Lake took the audience on an emotional journey through what it’s like writing intimate stories about ordinary people and their very private lives.

Wearing a grey sweater and a green jewel necklace, Lake read an excerpt from her book about her interaction with one of the main characters, Daniel, a 90-year-old man taking care of his dying wife. “I find that phrase, ‘get access to’, cold and calculating and it makes me uncomfortable, but it’s also honest,” said Lake. “It points to a central discomfort of our job. We have to be calculating even as our intentions might be good. We’re not car salesmen, we’re not strategizing or manipulating in order to make a sale. But we have to figure out how to get access.”

With the way narrative writing has evolved in the digital age, conferences such as the Power of Narrative at BU, have great appeal for mid-career journalists and old school writers. “I worked for 15 years in documentary and educational video, and I’ve been out of the field for about 10 years,” said conference attendee Ellen Krause-Grosman over dinner at the SMG auditorium. “The digital storytelling format has changed, so for me, it’s an opportunity to get to see what the new compass of a story is and how they’re being told.”

Lee Hill Kavanaugh, who attended the Nieman Conference at Harvard in 2004, was also one of the attendees this year. After working for the Kansas City Star as a feature writer for 17 years, Kavanaugh left her job two months ago and was looking to be inspired again. “Newspaper journalism, right now, is going through a lull, its changing very fast, there have been so many layoffs and it’s harsh,” said Kavanaugh. “I love telling stories and being around people who tell great stories.”

Other than the learning aspect, the Narrative Conference has an obvious social appeal to it. “The benefit of the conference is sharing people’s stories, the narratives of the narrators, and it’s also building community, because writing can be very lonely,” said Krause-Grosman.

As for the future of narrative writing, branded digital magazines will become more established, according to Kramer. “It’s about the story and storyteller,” he said. “It will adapt. Narrative is great for keeping the social and individual effects of news events understood, and that’s the heart of the matter. More of it will come from outside of newsrooms.”

The success of the conference and large turnouts each year speak of the relevance of narrative writing in the digital space. “Narratives will always be around, somewhere near the campfire, telling a story,” said Kavanaugh. “Just the business model has changed now, so we evolve and get more comfortable with the digital process.”

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