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How I Write: Deeply Rooted

What do you do with the parts of a story that don't fit? A lesson on preserving structure and killing darlings from my profile of filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon.
How I Write: Deeply Rooted

I recently wrote a profile of the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon for the spring edition of the University of Tennessee’s Torchbearer magazine.

It was the first profile I’d written about a filmmaker, which was especially exciting after dedicating a year to watching and reviewing films from my DVD collection.

Sheldon’s storytelling is rooted in Appalachia, and while she’s extended beyond its boundaries at times (Netflix’s My Love), her most famous works to date all take place in the region. They’re serious documentary pieces that look at substance abuse (Netflix’s Heroin(e) and Recovery Boys), incarcerated mothers (PBS FRONTLINE’s Tutwiler), and the consequences of coal mining in Appalachia (PBS FRONTLINE’s Coal’s Deadly Dust).

As part of my How I Write series, I go behind the scenes of some of my favorite stories and break down different approaches or techniques I use. So far I’ve shown you how to resurface old ideas and reveal new things about heavily-covered topics and took you through the process of interviewing, sourcing, and crafting a narrative.

This time I’m going to focus on a foundational part of nonfiction storytelling—and among the absolute hardest to stay faithful to when profiling prominent figures. Killing your darlings.

A History of Violence

The phrase—though often misattributed to William Faulkner and Allen Ginsberg—comes from the English writer and literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch, whose work spanned the late 1800s through early 1900s. In his published book of lectures, On the Art of Writing, Quiller-Couch said:

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it whole-heartedly and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

The point: don’t fall so in love with a sentence, a word choice, or an anecdote that it becomes impossible for you to remove it if it falls outside the narrative structure of your story. Your reader doesn’t care how funny, smart, or well-researched you are. If they are confused or distracted by something you’ve said, they will simply quit reading.

Sportswriter Wright Thompson explained how this lesson applies when writing scenes.

I recently wrote a story about cricket and couldn’t use perhaps the funniest thing I observed because it took away from the arc. It was a great scene for some story—just not this one. The story is more important than any individual part.

I interviewed Sheldon three times, spoke with her college mentor, her husband, the professor (and accomplished filmmaker in his own right) who recruited her, and the NPR journalist she collaborated with for her most recent Emmy-nominated documentary. Including emails exchanges with Sheldon to verify information or ask follow-up questions, I had 31 pages of notes and interview transcripts to work from. I learned a lot—which made it very difficult to get started.

To do so, I went back to the basics. I thought of the simple concept I’d been applying to my stories for years. Sheldon was a rural West Virginian. She was bright and smart and seemed destined to leave Appalachia as a girl. She did. Then she returned and became a prominent advocate for the region, even appearing in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown to talk about what people get wrong about West Virginia. As a professor, she’s now teaching a new generation of filmmakers also rooted in Appalachia to do the same kind of truth-seeking, human-centered storytelling she does.

That was my story.

In order to stick to that narrative, I had to cut out entire sources and remove some of my favorite anecdotes and quotes. I had to murder my darlings.

Below are some of my favorite pieces from my reporting which didn’t make the final cut and the reasons why they didn’t.

The Darlings I Slaughtered

The origin of the story’s headline

I like to take a crack at writing my own headlines, though they rarely stick. My editor, Cassandra Sproles, has a much keener sense for what makes a good headline. This time, however, she went with my original suggestion: Deeply rooted.

That phrase came from two items I unearthed during my reporting.

The first was a quote in West Virginia, Still Home, a short documentary Sheldon shot in 2013 for The New York Times. The last voice in the video is Marsha Timpsin, executive director of Big Creek People in Action, speaking over scenes of life in McDowell County. She says:

I was gone a lot of years. And when you come back you see all those things you took for granted. These roots hold these trees and these mountains. And somehow those roots get embedded in our souls.

I first used the quote to open the story, like you often see at the start of a book chapter. But, I ultimately decided against including it because I wanted the first voice in the story to be Sheldon’s.

The second influence was a blog post Sheldon wrote in 2014 on her website. In the published version of the story, I mention the family tree Sheldon’s mother sends her three weeks before she wins her first major award, a Peabody for Hollow. In my first interview with Sheldon, I asked her whether her family had any storytellers before her. She told me about her great uncle, who had photographed the family for generations and made that family tree. Sheldon sent me a Google Drive link to his photos, which she has been archiving.

I discovered Sheldon’s post, with a photo of the family tree, in my research (i.e. Googling). In an early draft, I opened with the story of the family tree and the blog post—not Sheldon’s decision to leave home. But, after considering the story arc, I realized it presented little for the reader beyond showing off my detective work.

What makes Sheldon a great storyteller

What’s apparent when you read or listen to an interview with Sheldon (here’s one she recently did for the podcast Creeks to Peaks and another for 100 Days in Appalachia) is that she’s smart, thoughtful, and very in tune to the people around her.

Here are two quotes from Sheldon, from our first interview, which I had to cut:

In our media, we get bite-sized versions of each other. My style of cinema requires me to embed myself. I spend unprecedented amounts of time watching people in their daily lives. It allows me to give a deeper understanding of what they are up against, of their daily struggles and triumphs—the human faces behind the bigger issues we read about every day.
I really like people. I could talk to strangers all day every day. I have a pretty large appetite for random people and random stories.

Here's a snippet of her response to a question I asked her months later about what reminded her most of home now that she was living in Knoxville:

In the U-Haul on the way here, there was no cord to plug in an iPhone, so I listened to the radio. There was this show on called The Trading Post. A man was on air trying to trade eight chickens for a gun. Another guy called in asking someone to come help him get the antiques out of his house; another offered his tamale-making skills.
There are characters here. Moments when you’re standing in line at Walgreens and you overhear some dude in his thick east Tennessee accent telling a story: ‘So my wife died. I broke my damn foot in a pothole. I got laid off—all before the end of the year. And the lady at church asks me if I wanted to be re-baptized. I told her, ‘I would, but with my luck, I’m afraid I'd drown.’ That sounds like something you’d overhear at a gas station in West Virginia.

These were fun anecdotes. But including them would’ve pushed me over my allotted word count, which my editor had already been generous with (typically, UT’s magazine features get around 1,500 words; I submitted a first draft of 2,600. The final version had 1,900 words). The tone of my article was serious. I couldn’t make room for a more fleshed out picture of Sheldon, even if it meant I lost some of her humor.

I also wasn’t able to include anything I got from John Temple, a journalist and professor at WVU, who is Sheldon’s mentor (though he swears, now, she’s more a mentor to him than he is to her). He took me back to an assignment he had given her for an advanced reporting class in college.

She was young. She came into class, where we did two longer in-depth stories over the course of a semester. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of students and I remember this. She wanted to do something about sexual assault on campus. A very challenging and important story. I hear pitches from students about that subject a lot. She pitched it, and I never want to discourage someone from doing something ambitious. We talked about potential sourcing. We came up with the idea of approaching people who’ve had an experience. Maybe she should try to connect with a sorority. She came back a few days later. She said she talked to them. I said, ‘Which one? She said: ‘Oh, all of them.’ Right then, I knew that she was unique. I’ve never had that happen before or since.

Temple also told me about how, in 2008, Sheldon had pitched him the idea of traveling around the state and doing in-depth stories on local people. Sheldon and Temple ended up working together to secure over $300,000 in grants for a project that became West Virginia Uncovered. “Up until that point no faculty member had really done at the journalism school,” he told me. “But Elaine doesn’t seem to have any voice in her head that says no. I don’t know. She’s fearless.”

Like with Temple, my interview with Howard Berkes, the NPR reporter Sheldon worked with for Coal’s Deadly Dust, featured fragments that hinted at what makes Sheldon special as a documentarian. He said one of the best parts of reporting with her was watching her interact with the miners, who were typically skeptical of reporters. Around Sheldon, who spoke their language, they were comfortable, however. I asked her about this, and she said:

It’s like anything if you grow up in a community. I know what the hoot-owl (overnight shift) means, being the buggy man (the person controlling the load of the car), working on a miner (using automated mining machines), going to the face (mining in the deepest part of the mine, where the work is advancing). I just know these terms because everyone in my family has worked in coal mining. When we get together for Thanksgiving or Christmas that’s what they talk about. It’s nice to be able to know what people are talking about without having to question what that means.

Again length was the factor that made me cut out these anecdotes and quotes. I had already mentioned that Sheldon’s family members work in the mines, and that she had done stories on mining throughout her career. This was valuable background info, but it only fattened the story. In the end, I relied on quotes from Sheldon’s husband to show her empathy for the people she documents and used a separate summarizing quote from Berkes to close that section of the story.

The reactions of her students

The last sources I spoke to for my profile were Sheldon’s students. Because the story had been bumped from the fall to the spring edition of the magazine, it meant Sheldon would have one full semester of teaching done by the time of publication.

In my Googling, I found a short profile that had been written about Sheldon by the journalism school at WVU when she graduated. It provided insight into how Elaine’s diligence and seriousness were present years before she won her first major award, before anybody outside of WVU had any idea of her. I wanted to see how this kind of person related to students who might be in the same position today that she was in 12 years ago.

In the published version, I included quotes from three of the four students I interviewed. I wanted to include much more. But a lot of what they told me followed a similar vein. Here’s a long description from Chloe Baker, a young filmmaker from East Tennessee who took Sheldon’s intro to cinema studies course and was so impacted by Sheldon’s approach to teaching that she appealed to get into her documentary filmmaking class the following semester:

Within the first week of class, she was never the kind of professor to brag on her work. If we did watch her work in class, we didn’t know until the end credits. She’d tell us if she was going to be late and had to put on a film. She had to accept an award. But it shouldn’t take me long.
Not only was I astonished by all the information I was gleaning from lectures, but the way she cared about students. I never had a professor who genuinely wanted to know what was going on in my life. She made it a point to know each of us and something about us. She cared about who we were, what we wanted to make. At the beginning of the semester, I lost my grandfather, and I had to email her to let her know I wouldn’t make class because I had to go to his funeral. She recorded the Zooms for me and made herself available. I had my one-on-one yesterday during studio. I had been looking forward to it. She opens 30-45 minutes of studio time to talk about whatever you want. You can ask me about me. We can talk about interviewing. I went into it and the first thing she asked was how my family was.

What To Do With the Dead?

There's no way around it. Like I did, you’ll also have darlings to kill in the stories you tell. But when you do, what do you do with the dead? Bury them in concrete and forget they were ever there. No!

Save the bodies.

Don’t incinerate the valuable parts cut from your stories. Stow them away somewhere for another time—like a morgue of cryopreserved corpses.

The poet and essayist Eliza Gabbert recommends creating a separate document for darlings, one which you can return to for new work.

You need to be able to see your darling in a new context. This will also help you start fresh without feeling like you’ve abandoned your other lines – they’re not deleted, they’re not dead, they’re just sleeping in another file. You can always go back to them.

Instead of creating lots of individual documents for each piece you’re working on, another approach is to create one running document of darlings. You can use dividers or separators and make references to the works you pulled them from. But you keep everything together—like a white board filled with quotes or a word collage.

Since I started blogging again, I like to create draft posts of ideas that come into my head. I jot down whatever I can remember, or I insert a title and drop the dead darlings into the body. I have at least a dozen of these in my drafts page right now that I can return to whenever I’m struggling for a new idea. When you resuscitate a darling, you create a zombie—not the horrifying Walking Dead type, but the Michael Jackson “Thriller” type. This is a good thing.

Save bodies. Make zombies.

If you found this breakdown helpful, write to let me know. If you're unsure of your darlings, are struggling to kill them, or need any other kind of storytelling help, email me: briancanever (at) gmail (dot) com.