New Yorker writers dish about their craft

An event with The Moth saw writers telling "tales out of school"

The New Yorker Festival brought back its collaboration with The Moth again on Friday for “Tales out of School 4,” an adaptation of The Moth’s popular and portable storytelling machine. This time it produced stories about writing for The New Yorker, as told by its by writers. Needless to say, New Yorker devotees packed the room at $50 a head to hear Lauren Collins, Anthony Lane, Rebecca Mead, Nicholas Schmidle, and Lawrence Wright talk about their employer.

So pretty much, if you read The New Yorker, and you’re in that room, you’re going to eat up whatever those writers dish out. Fortunately, there was some interesting content there beyond the little morsels of insight and mild embarrassment that are all but required for a “behind the scenes” special of any sort; each writer on that stage managed to touch on a huge truth missing from many of the polished narratives on the magazine’s pages: The act of reporting and telling stories teaches good writers something new, either about their craft, themselves, or some sort of combination of the two.

Storytelling—the now well-known performance genre where monologue and stand-up comedy meet—is kind of the anti-New Yorker feature. The speaker stands on stage note-free, telling a true story in which the stakes are enlarged under the microscope of the personal, all with a strict time limit. The facts matter, but reported nuance and qualifiers give way to emotional content, epiphany, and empathy in a way that simply doesn’t happen in a 10,000-word piece of longform journalism. Plus, storytelling, while rehearsed — Lauren Collins told me after the event that each writer had worked with storytelling pros to help them “midwife” their narratives for the stage — is different every time. The speaker works to hit a few crucial beats, usually with a dead-set closing line containing some sort of moral, epiphany, or nugget of insight explaining why the story matters. But the turns of phrases, the details, the additions and omissions, can change. It’ll never be as polished as an essay, and that’s part of its appeal.

Mothites would already know Andy Borowitz from his hosting duties for their stage show, so he sort of served as the gatekeeper between The Moth and The New Yorker’s different but compatible styles. But really, the storytellers did a good enough job of that themselves by picking stories that clearly held some meaning to them as writers and people.

Of all the stories, Collins’s tale on profiling Donatella Versace, complete with the mournful line “I threw up on Donatella Versace,” felt the most familiar to those who listen to a lot of these performances. Hers was a story you’d know from her work, but as she alluded to on stage, the emphasis was reversed from the traditional profile style to that of her own personal crisis, induced by the overpowering stench of a moving vehicle that smelled, pre-vomit, “like a cross between gardenias and a Yankee Candle factory.” And of course, Collins learned that even the most improbable missteps are not as unique as one might think. After publication, she found her people in a “secret fraternity of journalists all over the world who have thrown up on their subjects.”

Nicholas Schmidle hit on the jealousy that can develop between sources, the weird love triangle that happens when a reporter, doing his job, hits up against that fact that he’s handling real lives and relationships while on the job. He talked about his story on weapons trafficker Viktor Bout, acknowledging at some point that he’d fallen into a “story about seduction as much as it is about anything else.”

Lawrence Wright, who went last, hit that point home while talking about Scientology, noting that “there are some stories that just won’t let you alone.” His Moth story flitted between the “laws of storytelling” and their application to his calculated work as an experienced teller to find the people he needed to do his craft, and a more ineffable, personal obsession with just getting someone to open up to him. And it says a lot about both the teller and the subject that Wright’s quest to eke the humanity out of then-Scientology spokesperson Tommy Davis was met with Davis’s insistence that “I’m not a person. I’m a message.”

When you’re in a profession that so easily allows (and sometimes insists) that your identity be your work and vice-versa, strange things happen. You vomit on famous fashion designers. You talk about sources in terms of seduction and jealousy. You, like Rebecca Mead explained in her story, take decades as a journalist to figure out how to tell one story about yourself. Or maybe the juxtaposition of work and life is more insidious, like the slowly unwinding tale Anthony Lane let loose, complete with a perfectly respectable Werner Herzog impression, about how he literally “shot a movie” with an SLR - single loading rifle - long before he took aim as a critic.

Pretty much every journalist has at least one story like the ones on stage, just not about a New Yorker piece they’ve written. So while the evening did an effective job of opening up the work of some very gifted writers in a way that, to be sure, The New Yorker finds acceptable for public consumption, the truth it spoke to has a greater application and reach than as a gentle, playful tweak to the image of one of the most bepedestaled publications out there.

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Abby Ohlheiser is a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire. She also contributes to the New Humanist and the Revealer Tags: ,