I’ve always wondered how novelists come up their books. Do they just start writing with a hunch and let the inspiration flow, taking them where it will? That seemed unlikely, given what I know about writing as a daily job, with inspiration playing only a minor role. (Or better put, inspiration flowing from consistent daily toil.)
Or, I wondered, do they spend days ahead of time blocking out their stories scene by scene? (Which is how my mind works.)
Each writer is different. Each follows a different path.
It’s a chronology of events he describes in Catch-22 and it helped him keep track of the story he intended to tell in wildly non-chronological order.
(Full disclosure: I started to read the novel years ago and couldn’t finish it.)
I tried something like this with Dreamland – putting pieces of paper up on a mirror in my garage office, each representing a different chapter, which readers of the book will know are mostly 2-6 pages in length.
At one point my wife walked into the garage, saw this blizzard of paper taped to the mirror, and left thinking I’d lost my mind. But the papers helped visualize where the book was going and track the different storylines I was telling. It helped also when it came time to rearrange the order some of the chapters came in. I’d just untape a chapter and move it somewhere else on the mirror. At one point I had six rows, each with 5-7 chapters per row.
Apparently other writers find this visualizing necessary first before telling a story.
“Every great novel—or at least every finished novel—needs a plan.”
I continue to receive letters from parents whose children have been consumed in America’s opiate epidemic. Here is one:
Your book, Dreamland, does an excellent job of outlining how the convergence of the pharmaceutical environment with heroin trafficking from Mexico over the last two decades provided the avenue for the addiction that killed my son. I believe his story is the third leg of your book.
Sam was born in 1994. The next year, OxyContin was approved. Sam was a sweet toddler when Purdue began its aggressive and misleading marketing campaign for the drug. Meanwhile, Sam’s dad was writing a masters thesis on heroin production in Colombia — it was becoming so pure, he pointed out, that it could be snorted or smoked, avoiding the stigma of needles and making its way into the mainstream.
By 2000, when Sam was six and entering first grade, revenues from OxyContin had quadrupled. The initial 80 mg pill had given way to a 160 mg pill to account for increasing tolerance among patients. Purdue’s sales force had doubled and salespeople were receiving annual bonuses of $70,000 and above.
In 2001, when Sam was seven, Purdue was spending $200 million in marketing and had pinpointed doctors who tended to prescribe lots of pain medication for aggressive marketing campaigns. Sam began to face some bullying in school.
By 2002, Purdue knew of doctors who were recklessly prescribing its drug. Sam continued to struggle to fit in at school. It began to affect his mood and motivation.
Between 1999 and 2010 (the year Sam turned 16) Oxycontin prescriptions and overdose deaths quadrupled. Swapping pills became the new form of partying in the schools. Sam found a way to fit in and feel good all at once.
Meanwhile, heroin from Mexico had been making its way north, poised to fill the gap when opioid pharmaceuticals became harder and more expensive to obtain. Sam found his way to that solution.
My beautiful and beloved son, Samuel Logan Chappell, died of a heroin overdose in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 7, 2015.
I grew up admiring 60 Minutes for its storytelling and investigative reporting.
So many original stories. No one on television was doing what 60 Minutes was doing then. It looked so exciting and that was part of why I became a journalist.
So six months after the publication of my book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, it saddened and appalled me to watch the show last night.
Last night, 60 Minutes ran a piece about heroin in Ohio. I’m very happy that these Ohioans, who I know and like and respect, are getting this megaphone. Their story needed telling.
But I have to stand my ground.
Months ago, my publisher and I pitched 60 Minutes on stories from Dreamland: first, the Xalisco Boys heroin traffickers, and then a story about heroin in Ohio.
Over the span of several months and several phone calls, 60 Minutes decided against both ideas.
The Xalisco story wasn’t doable, they concluded, after I convinced them that it was unrealistic to assume that they could show up and in 3-4 days have someone magically open up a heroin lab for them to film. I argued that there were other ways to tell the story. I found them sources, people with years of experience in the drug underworld who trusted me. That wasn’t good enough. They wanted traffickers who spoke English. I told a producer that the traffickers in the Xalisco system were working-class guys from Mexico without even sixth-grade educations and that they spoke only Spanish. He also insisted that 60 Minutes had to have film of dope being made, and had to have it accessible after three days of reporting on the ground.
The Ohio story that we then pitched 60 Minutes had no such cost/danger/language concerns. The state was awash in heroin now. America’s opiate ground zero – for many reasons I made clear in Dreamland. Pills had taken hold there first, and heroin had come sooner than it had anywhere else. Over lunch, a 60 Minutes producer even asked me what story I would do in Ohio. I gave her some ideas.
60 Minutes did go to Ohio. Made it look as if they had figured out who to talk to, and what questions to ask, all on their own. No mention of what led them there and what explained the whole story to them. When I asked them whether they were going to refer to my book, one producer said they wanted to focus on the personal stories of local folks. They could have done the personal stories of local folks in Alabama, or anywhere else in America, but then they wouldn’t have had a book telling them specifically where to look, whom to talk to, and what the story was.
Parents and others in Ohio and elsewhere are understandably thrilled that major media like 60 Minutes are finally taking an interest in this topic. I’m glad for them and very happy that the issue is now getting attention. Wayne, Brenda, Tracy, Jenna, Rob and others spoke with eloquence and force, and in my opinion saved the piece.
I hope they won’t see this as raining on their long-overdue parade … but I have to say something to defend myself, my family’s sacrifice, and my work. If I don’t, who will?
I spent years working on this story, interviewing hundreds of people, poring over documents, taking collect phone calls from Mexican traffickers in prisons. Before doing it, I lived and wrote for 10 years in Mexico, which made me distinctly prepared to see a part of this story that 60 Minutes producers, judging from our phone calls, knew only because of me.
I took a leave of absence from the LA Times, where my book’s story began (as I note several times). I finally resigned from the paper to finish this book. I went all over the country. Each trip meant time away from my wife and daughter; each trip meant scrimping on meals and motels. When few people were talking about heroin, when most folks I met looked at me askance for researching the topic, I risked my professional career and my family’s financial future: all to find a story that I believed to be profound in its nationwide impact, and in what it says about our country.
I’m thrilled to receive emails like this one, from a retired undercover narcotics officer, who helped in my heroin education:
“The 60 minutes Heroin story last night was the “CliffNotes” version of your book, they needed to have you on that piece! … These news stories are great but they are quickly becoming “old news”. They need to go a few layers deeper. It’s time to talk about solutions! Thanks to guys like you the nation now knows very clearly what the problem is, now it’s time to move the national narrative towards developing real solutions through accountability. … Keep up the good fight Brother …Be Safe!”
It isn’t often that a book more or less scoops radio, TV, and print. But I believe that, to a large degree, is what Dreamland did.
Since its release, I’ve been disappointed to see Time, Sports Illustrated, Washington Post and now the New York Times publish stories on topics that I dealt with first in Dreamland and not mention it. (Btw, my book clearly cites several books to which I am indebted, both in the text and in the acknowledgements.) But 60 Minutes seemed to me to cross a line.
And even after the months of dealing with them, I might not have written this blogpost had not Sunday’s show itself seemed to involve so little original reporting and seemed to rely so heavily on my book.
Is that what it means to be 60 Minutes these days? Just riff off the work of an independent reporter and do nothing to recognize it?
The whole episode reminds me that 60 Minutes is no longer a standard bearer of anything except cost containment. Shows like 60 Minutes no longer set the national debate. They’re followers, imitators, now, where once they were leaders.
Yet I’m also invigorated, exhilarated even, by this experience. For it means that I and many independent colleagues have wide-open spaces now where we can harvest stories. That if we’re willing to put in the work and take the risks, that important stories will be ours to find. It means it’s a great time to be an independent journalist.
The Daily Show made fun of TV cable journalists, and gave respect to real reporters. It taught a generation to be skeptical of what was reported to them on television. The next step is to elevate real independent journalism.
As desiccated titans collapse, abdicating any role in maintaining standards of journalism, we now have this terrain to ourselves. We must work it, push at it, be relentless. But it’s there. People want it, thirst for it, as I’ve found in the reaction to Dreamland. When we find these stories – as now only we are equipped to do – they will probably mean more than ever.
Remember, too, that if you want risk-taking, on-the-edge, original, independent, red-blooded American journalism, then you have to look pretty far past 60 Minutes. The Atlantic is doing some good stuff. As is the Atavist. Might check out the Marshall Project. I thought Grantland looked good before ESPN pulled its plug. I’m sure there are many places I don’t know of – and I invite them to chime in.
His book influenced me enormously. We learn to write by writing, but if there’s one book to read on writing in English, it’s his. I read it probably eight times, though I’ve lost count. Some parts of it, more than that.
His approach to writing is the correct one – that writing involves rewriting and more rewriting, each time with an eye to cutting words that don’t need to be there.
That through rewriting we achieve greater clarity, and come to know what we think.
He didn’t mean that all sentences should be short. Rather, that all sentences contain only words that are necessary. Same goes for sentences in a paragraph and paragraphs in a text.
He also said that if you pare down your prose to only what’s necessary and do this over and over, through a lifetime, you develop your own voice. That idea hit me as strange at first, but I know now that he was right.
His point, too, that writing is not to be done when you have inspiration, but treated as a job, something you get up and do every day – that was a revelation to me, as well. The anecdote with which he opens the book, about speaking on a writing panel with a doctor, is fabulous.
On Writing Well went through many editions, but the core of it – the first six or so chapters – remains always clear and relevant.
His essay on Clutter in language is probably more on point today than ever.
I wrote to him twice – once after my first book came out and the second time after we published the first Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles volume. Each time, he was kind enough to write back.
A good guy who changed English – by making those who write it do it more clearly.
Two weeks from today, my third book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (Bloomsbury Press), is officially released.
The story of this epidemic involves shoelaces, rebar, Levi’s 501s, cellphones, football, Walmart, American prosperity, with marketing, with Mexican poverty and social competition, and with the biggest swimming pool in the US and what happened when that was destroyed.
It’s about the marketing of prescription pills as a solution to pain of all kinds, and about a small town in Mexico where young men have devised a system for retailing heroin across America like it was pizza.
The tale took me from Appalachia to suburbs in Southern California, into one of the biggest drug-abuse stories of our time – and one of the quietest, and whitest as well.
The new Tell Your True Tale; East Los Angeles book is out, the product of a workshop I did with a great group of eight new writers.
The stories are again fantastic — about Albert Einstein in East L.A., a Czech “almost blind” boy growing up in a Communist boarding home, a young man going to Tijuana to help a deported friend return, a woman on her deathbed remembering the last time she saw her kids, and a girl on her way to Mexico, a child bride.
After many many months of traveling the country, reporting, interviewing, of writing and rewriting and more rewriting, I just turned in the manuscript to my book about the country’s epidemic of pill and heroin abuse.
It’s called DREAMLAND: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.
Comes out in April, Bloomsbury Press.
I’m still walking around in a daze.
Writing a book is a process of discovery, I found again to my delight.
This is my third book. It started out very differently than it ended up.
Quite unexpectedly, it became a tale about the country, where we are as America and Americans, about rural America, the Rust Belt and the country’s nicest suburbs, about what excess will do, and the value of community. About what we lose when we undermine that which gives us community.
None of that should have surprised me, because unlike previous drug scourges this one has permeated virtually the entire country – or at least all of white America.
The story’s about drug marketing, and about our belief that we are entitled to feel no pain.
It’s also about Mexico, and the Mexican town that has devised a system for selling heroin like pizza. Making heroin convenient, and cheap and potent, as well.
On one level, the story’s about Mexican drug trafficking, but it’s probably as much about the impulse behind immigration, and the Mexican village, and envy and desire.
I didn’t start out thinking that parents of addicted kids would be part of the mix. But if you keep your mind open, new directions present themselves. So they are now. I love this about journalism.
I belong now to a Facebook site called The Addict’s Mom, where parents write in daily about their addicted kids. So many have died recently. So many people are wrapped up in addiction or the addiction of their children.
It’s amazing that it’s so quiet, because this is happening everywhere.
Given how hard this dope is to kick, it’s going to be with us for a long long time.
Hey all — An invite to the presentation of a book that grew out a tremendously successful series of nonfiction writing workshops I gave to new writers at East L.A. Public Library.
The presentation of TELL YOUR TRUE TALE: East Los Angeles takes place this Saturday (April 26) at 2:30 pm, at the library, which is located at 4837 E 3rd St, (323-264-0155).
The volume is stunning for the mosaic of East L.A. it presents, as well as the variety and quality of the stories: A vet returning home from Vietnam; a janitor in Houston trying to find her children in Mexico; of braceros finding their way north and back home again; a man learning confidence as he woos a woman; a bus rider in Los Angeles; a mariachi singing for a heartbroken family on Christmas Eve.
All by folks who’d never published before: Andrew Ramirez, Celia Viramontes, Olivia Segura, Manuel Chaidez, Jacqueline Gonzalez, Joanne Mestaz, and Diego Renteria.
I call my workshops TELL YOUR TRUE TALE. They attempt to excavate new stories from unheard communities as they help new writers over the intimidating humps that keep them from realizing their writing dreams, and push them to start thinking like writers — all by mining the stories in their lives or those of people close to them.
Hope you all can make the presentation this Saturday, and pass along the word to others who might be interested.
Today was my last official day at the Los Angeles Times after 10 years at the paper.
It was a sad thing. I’ve been a reporter for 27 years. I was very happy to have worked at what amounted to my hometown paper.
I’m very proud of the stories I produced while I was there (see below). But I decided it was time to move on, so I resigned.
Journalism, you may have heard, is changing, and I want to see if I can change with it. So I’m heading back to my freelancing roots.
I’ve got a heroin book to finish, then a podcast to start, my Tell Your True Tale workshops to teach, this blog to write — and other stuff. I hope you’ll follow it all as I wrestle with this grand experiment.
As these LAT farewell notes to colleagues have become almost a genre in themselves, I’ll add mine:
Adios Amigos –
Though I’ve been gone for many months writing a book about the (suddenly recognized) heroin epidemic in America, today is officially my last day at the paper.
It’s been great fun writing about Cambodian doughnut kings and palm-tree trimmers, Oaxacan hamburger chefs and stolen tubas, about transgender hookers and hellacious windstorms, kidnappers in Phoenix and Indian toothbrush gurus in Buena Park, about gangster matriarchs on Drew Street and the Mexican Mafia in every barrio around.
Such a great town. So many sublime stories to tell. …
So here’s wishing you all the best.
See you on the street, or wherever those stories happen.
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius probably wasn’t thinking about writing when he said this:
Do not disturb thyself by thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall thee: but on every occasion ask thyself, What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? For thou wilt be ashamed to confess. In the next place remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present. But this is reduced to a very little, if thou only circumscribest it, and chidest thy mind, if it is unable to hold out against even this.
But I’ve always found a sentiment like this to be enormously helpful in writing. Breaking down a task into little bits, isolating them, then doing that one task, and not thinking about all you have to do to finish your project. Even if they’re not done in what would seem obvious chronological order, it’s better to focus on small, doable writing tasks.
When I’m on a larger writing project — as I am now, with a book I’m putting together on heroin and prescription painkillers, I usually spend a lot of time writing what I call “chunks.” Could be anecdotes, or stories shaped around a quote, or just observations or descriptions of a place or person — things that might well make it into the final draft of what I’m writing.
I was talking to a prison inmate the other day who wants to write a book about his life. I said, don’t set out to write a book. It’s like climbing a mountain. Try crossing the street — write a story from your childhood. Just one. then write another, maybe from adulthood. Next day, another. Never think you’re heading toward assembling a book. Pretty soon you’ll have a selection of pieces and can gather energy and encouragement from that.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
One of the great storytellers in English and true independent spirits was born on this date.
The great Doctor (Theodore Geisel) did all that in perfectly rhymed (he knew how to count syllables) sentences, with whacky characters and drawings, exploding forever the “See Spot Run” children-book model.
The Cat in the Hat contained 236 different words. It’s been published in 12 languages, including Latin.
To think he wrote it in 1954, the year the Army-McCarthy hearings took place, the stifled and conformist 1950s, makes him one of the radicals of that decade, if you ask me.
“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” Sounds like the motto for the 1960s. (Maybe the mid-1950s was when the 1960s really began.)
As a wanna-be writer of children’s books — with two unpublished manuscripts, including one rhymed — I have particular appreciation for his rhyme and rhythm schemes, and his close attention to syllable count in each line.