Succinct and Purposeful

Diana Henriques’s Advice to Journalists Seeking to Captivate Their Readers

“In that short scene, Mark Madoff’s tantrum basically summarized five chapters from my book,” Diana Henriques said about the FBI interrogation scene in the HBO film adaptation of her book, The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.

 

As the first keynote speaker at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, Henriques’s speech revealed a startling conclusion: today more and more people have to be entertained to read in the news. However, this gives journalists the wonderful opportunity to explore the world of technology and expand our skill set in telling stories to make journalism more engaging. While it may be disheartening thinking about the fast-paced, consumerist society we live in, it forces us to get creative, get our hands dirty and push the boundaries of storytelling from the inside out.

Henriques also pointed out that despite writing about financial investigations, Henriques adopts principles of screenwriting for journalism, even looking at weather reports for Washington D.C. to set the scene for the delivery of the Blue Ribbon Commission Report to President Reagan, which is a key event in her account of the 1987 Stock Market Crash. She emphasized the importance of contextual narrative and building the scenes through subtle descriptions of the time and place and through the pace of her writing. Relayed in her keynote speech, Henriques provided essential advice to journalists endeavoring to immerse their readers in their work.

“Read the pages aloud so the pace doesn’t lag…  but

is it the right pace?”

 

One anecdote she used describes her last-minute rewrite to readjust the pacing of her book A First-Class Catastrophe: The Road to Black Monday, the Worst Day in Wall Street History. When she got the page proofs back to do a final look over and catch the typos, she “was appalled it did not move quickly enough.”

Immediately she called her editor who told her to, “do what you need to do.” She looked to other authors to aid in her revisions and concluded the likeness she most desired was none other than thriller, crime fiction writer, Lee Child.

Page by page, she worked to provide a fresh and invigorating air to her novel. Henriques’s attention to detail when establishing scenes addresses the importance of a succinct and purposeful narrative: to entertain and inform readers.

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The Road So Far

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Oscar Wilde

Introduction to Me: Learning From My Lows

Over the past few years, I struggled to meet and connect with new people, avoiding social engagements like the flu shot I refuse to take each year. I have a few good friends. Let me rephrase that — I have a few friends and one superbly dynamic friend. Even so, I find it hard to be transparent and explain how I truly feel.

Thus, this Oscar Wilde quote directly and succinctly illustrates what I grapple with. Like countless others, I use screens to clearly and unwaveringly express my creative and intellectual endeavors. Photographs catching beauty off guard in ordinary places and words strung together like popcorn and cranberries around a tree in assorted patterns allow me freedom to personalize my thoughts.

The Conference: It Begins

Before I checked into the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and started meeting the girls in the group, I was an anxious wreck, as my parents could attest. While I didn’t express it on the outside, my insides were vomiting butterflies. If you cannot tell so far, I’m quite the social introvert: I’m not proud of this but there have been intermittent weeks over the summer where I did not leave the house.

Nevertheless, I ached to be comfortable. As I met Leah and the girls, I began to realize my worries existed inconsequentially; they were all cool, friendly people. This valley of comfort was not lasting for the world of my mind. As we learned of our tasks and I learned everyone’s background, the fluttering array of butterflies resurfaced as fears of my inexperience increasingly tormented my stomach.

Butterflies

The butterflies entered slowly throughout the first day, accelerating as I reflected more and more. During dinner, they slowed as the Soiree engulfed my thoughts. Diana B. Henriques’s discourse on the intersectionality of all facets of journalism, especially business and politics, allowed me to attain a new perspective on my purpose here. I was here to learn and experience. I am here, and I belong.

Despite this revelatory respite, my evening U-turned Friday night when I got back to my room. I began to dwell on my inexperience, arriving in an overwhelming discomfort knowing I was surrounded by such an accomplished group of people — my peers and the award-winning journalists in the rooms around me.

Breaking Through

I awoke well-rested not knowing my fears would soon become determination. I entered the lobby and met someone new. My roommate. I immediately put away my selfish anxiety and did something that granted me ease — helping others. I helped her get a room key and soon we were off to meet the group with potential story ideas.

My doubt — that is all it was anyway, my fear of inadequacy — flared as I realized my thoughts and research were just ideas, not stories. But as teams formed ideas for stories formed, and we had a couple of directions to veer towards: telling stories people don’t want to hear and the balance of reporting to entertain and inform.  

Determination took control and we collaborated to generate insightful questions to ask Alfredo Corchado, the Mexican Border correspondent for the Dallas Morning News and renown author and journalist. The lunch with Corchado reassured me all of these prominent journalists were people, and I connected with their yearning to tell stories about people’s humanity.  

The Light At the End of the Tunnel

Throughout the day, we observed, listened to and collected information and lessons from scholarly people who knew what they were talking about. This is the part where I learned this experience is not about me and my lack of experience, but about becoming a better journalist, and — most of all — a better storyteller.

This is the part where I became inspired. We dressed up to the nines, exhausted but excited, and at Literary Lights Dinner, while the food was just okay —not everyone knows what a vegan is— Lindy West delivered an impassioned and awakening message to “be loud,” unapologetic and fight for truth and justice. Her unashamed opinion on abortion gave me courage to accept what I believe in my heart about, not only abortion, but all social, civil and political movements.

At #MaybornLitCon18, I learned while it’s okay to struggle and feel emotions, to ensure your strife is worthwhile, you have to gain perspective. I cultivated confidence to assert my opinions and trust in my abilities as a writer and journalist.