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Jon Franklin and the art of nonfiction

A former student recalls how the one-time University of Oregon and Oregon State professor taught generations of writers to use the techniques of drama to tell true stories.

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Jon Franklin, who died last month at 82, taught a generation of journalists – including ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell -- to apply the power of storytelling to news reporting. Franklin is pictured in 1985 in his University of Maryland office. Photo by: Edwin Remsberg/The Diamondback/University of Maryland University Archives
Jon Franklin, who died Jan. 21 at the age of 82, taught a generation of journalists – including ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell — to apply the power of storytelling to news reporting. Franklin is pictured in 1985 in his University of Maryland office. Photo by: Edwin Remsberg/The Diamondback/University of Maryland University Archives

Like many aspiring mid-century American writers, Jon Franklin wanted to write the Great American Novel. But he faced a couple obstacles. His youthful first attempts, in the 1960s, had been failures. They taught him a valuable lesson, though: He needed experience writing short stories to develop his narrative writing skills.

There was another barrier: a demanding day job as a newspaper reporter and a young family to support. Where would the artistically ambitious young writer find the time and mental energy to hone those storytelling skills? Especially when that job required him to write in information-centered daily newspaper formats that forbade using the emotion-fueled narratives he needed to learn?

Franklin, who died last month at age 82, found an answer that ultimately fueled one of the great careers in nonfiction writing and produced some of the most moving and memorable true stories in American journalism, including a pair of Pulitzer Prize winners.

Even more important, it produced a second, parallel career — a crucial stretch of it in Oregon — that transformed telling true stories into an art form. In the words of his one-time student John Higgins, “Jon Franklin fused the modern discipline of journalism with the ancient magic of storytelling to create a new literary genre capable of bridging the gap between the sciences and the humanities that has long divided mainstream culture.”

He also transformed my life and writing career, drawing me from Texas to Oregon some 30 years ago to become his student.

I first learned about Franklin in a college writing class by reading his 1986 pedagogical masterpiece, Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction, which laid out his ideas in his approachable, inimitable voice and became required reading for generations of journalism students.

I was smitten. I suddenly understood how so many of the plays, movies, novels, and stories I’d admired really worked — the infrastructure supporting the enchanted palace. 

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The next year, at a journalism conference in Portland, I spotted the great man on the program and buttonholed him after his presentation, my copy of WFS in hand. 

“Where can I learn more about this?!” I demanded. “Well, I’m starting a program in it at the University of Oregon in a year,” he replied. 

A year later, I’d moved across the country to Eugene, and I’ve lived in Oregon ever since. So I owe him not just the most important knowledge of my career, but also three decades of living in the wonderland of the Northwest, as well as learning the wonder of storytelling.

Franklin blazed a new trail between a hard-boiled newspaper tradition suspicious of literary ambition on one side, and a literary tradition suspicious of reducing high art to lowly tradecraft on the other.

He vowed that if he ever found success, he would teach aspiring writers like me the shortcuts and hard-won insights that he had accumulated along the way that could save us time and frustration. 

“We learned this stuff the hard way, and if we don’t talk explicitly about it, each of our students will have to learn, at considerable personal cost, that the artistic principles we so love to look down on are, actually, critical to our success,” he wrote.

Franklin didn’t just change his own writing through the magic of literature — he changed journalism itself.  

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In 1979, Jon Franklin won the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his piece in the Baltimore Evening Sun, about a brain surgeon and his patient, “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster.” It was Franklin’s first Pulitzer.
In 1979, Jon Franklin won the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his piece in the Baltimore Evening Sun, about a brain surgeon and his patient, “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster.” It was Franklin’s first Pulitzer.

LEARNING TO SEE

Franklin’s own apprenticeship began when, after an itinerant Oklahoma boyhood, he dropped out of high school to join the Navy. He became a reporter on the Navy’s All Hands magazine. Its editor, G. Vern Blasdell, became a tough-love mentor, rigorously imbuing the cub reporter with a strong journalism skill set that would serve him throughout his career, including his narrative writing. 

Those skills, including absolute devotion to factuality, earned Franklin his editors’ trust. And that credibility in turn opened the door for him to use the tools from his other “mentors”: the classic fiction writers (Hemingway, Garcia Marquez, Fitzgerald, et al.) and the “New Journalists” (so dubbed by one of them, Tom Wolfe, in an anthology) who, starting in the late 1950s, began turning to the techniques of fiction to tell stories that standard journalism couldn’t. Wolfe, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, John McPhee and, especially for Franklin and others, Truman Capote’s pioneering 1966 “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood, showed ambitious journalists ways to engage readers on deeper levels than a typical newspaper article could hope to reach. 

It wasn’t easy. “After I had become a master craftsman,” he wrote, “I became aware that I wanted something else. That ‘something else’ turned out to be story, and at first I had to struggle to see it.” Gradually, enhanced by literary techniques then disdained by many hardcore newsroom vets, Franklin’s stories began drawing more readers, attention, and, eventually, awards. 

THE ART OF SCIENCE, THE SCIENCE OF ART

Those stories mostly appeared in the Science section of the Baltimore Sun, where Franklin (who as a child had thought he might pursue a science career) wound up after his Navy magazine days and an undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland. Later, he found a broader canvas in books such as Molecules of the Mind and The Wolf in the Parlor.

“His nonfiction short stories, dramatic essays, and books described how discoveries in medicine and brain science shape our understanding of ourselves and our place in a bewildering natural world,” wrote John Higgins, a Seattle writer who joined me in studying with Franklin in the inaugural cohort of the master’s program in creative nonfiction at the University of Oregon. “He wrote about science, but his true subject was the human condition.” The humans often just happened to be scientists, and the field often provided a built-in narrative superstructure — a protagonist on a quest for understanding. 

The science beat, and especially his eventual focus, neurobiology, also gave Franklin insights into what became his great project: the art and science of storytelling. 

One day after an interview with a brain researcher, Franklin, who’d been struggling with a book project, realized how the work of scientists who studied human minds was relevant to his own writing. “My book wasn’t working,” he recalled in Writing for Story, “because I had avoided looking directly at why my characters were feeling.”

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To dreadfully oversimplify: Scientists were figuring out the human brain was hard wired, by evolution and anatomy, for story, which can move us emotionally, not just rationally. Artists — writers, filmmakers, playwrights — had for generations been perfecting tools to engage those biologically and culturally embedded characteristics. His breakthrough was to systematically and consciously apply the wisdom of the great storytellers to nonfiction storytelling.

From that moment forward, Franklin began figuring out just how that process worked. Like the scientist he once aspired to be, he set out to craft a theory and practice of narrative nonfiction that could both enlighten and emotionally move readers as much as any Great Novel ever could. And even better: These stories would be true. They actually happened. 

Franklin received his second Pulitzer in 1985, the inaugural prize for explanatory journalism, for “The Mind Fixers,” a seven-part series about molecular psychiatry.
Franklin received his second Pulitzer in 1985, the inaugural prize for explanatory journalism, for “The Mind Fixers,” a seven-part series about molecular psychiatry.

THE ART OF TELLING TRUE STORIES

Franklin’s revolutionary approach won the attention and approval of media’s most vital figures: readers. They regularly wrote to editors, telling how his stories had gripped them, how they made the characters come alive, how they had made them think — and more important, feel. 

They also earned the respect of Franklin’s peers. Two of those tales, Mrs. Kelly’s Monster and The Mind Fixers, won Pulitzer Prizes in feature writing and explanatory writing in 1979 and 1985, respectively. Franklin may not have written the Great American Novel, but he had achieved something as meaningful and more significant — he’d helped create a new genre of nonfiction storytelling in newspapers. If he’d done nothing else, his place in journalism history would be secure.

But Franklin did more than that. He shared his discoveries. 

“He made the magic explicit, teaching generations of novice writers how to bring true, rigorously reported stories to life using time-honored literary structures and techniques that keep readers wanting to know what happens next,” wrote his former student Higgins.

Franklin had moved to Eugene with his wife and fellow writer, Lynn, after stints heading the journalism department at Oregon State and, before that, three universities in Maryland, including his alma mater. He also shared his wisdom at journalism conferences and newspapers.

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Along with embarking on a second career in academia, Franklin began formulating and disseminating his ideas about art and nonfiction writing in a narrative about the craft itself that demystified storytelling for generations of aspiring literary journalists.

Still in print after almost four decades, “Writing for Story”  continues to enlighten and influence generations of journalism students for whom it’s required reading in many advanced courses.  

SCHOOL FOR STORY

Around the time I discovered Writing for Story, I read a newspaper column by a young writer who’d been hired as an assistant to a famous blues guitarist and songwriter. I can’t recall the details, nor the folks involved, but I do remember one line. When the writer asked the venerable musician how to get started playing the blues, he replied: “First, you’ve got to learn the codes.” The newbie finally discerned through the old man’s Delta accent that he meant “chords” — but the youngster was enchanted by the idea that there were cryptic codes to creativity, and if a would-be artist could only learn them, the magic would follow.

I felt the same way about Writing for Story, which along with its instructional material contained detailed breakdowns of two of Franklin’s most powerful stories, including Mrs. Kelly’s Monster. It was like learning the harmonic structure of storytelling. 

I wasn’t able to apply much of Franklin’s wisdom in my first magazine writing job, which focused on investigative reporting and public policy. But I wanted to learn more, for the same reasons Franklin had. I wanted to write more than journalism (I’d already dabbled in theater and playwriting), and I also wanted my journalism to move readers the way my favorite fiction writers and playwrights did.

Our graduate seminar immersed us in the art, science, and — just as important — practice of storytelling. We had to bring a new story idea to each class, then discuss what kinds of narratives might be discerned and dramatized in those events. “The object,” he wrote in WFS, “is no longer to write clearly but to see clearly.” 

We learned to see the drama in the stories of ordinary people. (Franklin detested the plague of celebrity journalism already then infesting the profession, so stories about sports or popular entertainment figures were off the table. He’d found that people took inspiration and understanding from reading about people like themselves.) We’d try different approaches, different subjects, discard or modify them — all the things you just can’t do under a newsroom’s deadline pressure.

Our cozy coterie of students were all experienced journalists, and we used all that knowledge, including immersive street reporting and document analysis. Franklin insisted on following the strictures of reportage, including verifiable factuality.

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But we went way beyond standard journalism practice. Using psychology in interviewing subjects, reconstructing scenes, generating narrative movement and tension, characterization -– everything was game for discovery or reinvention. He criticized anti-intellectual old-school newsroom culture as fiercely as elitist academic condescension, always trying to connect with the broadest readership. Instead of looking for topics, quotes, trends, or analyses, we were searching for stories, stories that could make compelling drama. And those turned out to be a lot tougher to find, and even tougher to craft, than I ever imagined.

Of course, journalists are always writing stories. But in emotional impact, they’re a shadow of the narratives in great novels, plays, and movies. The trick is to find them — to see them. The other trick is to dramatize them in words. 

But words alone, no matter how pretty or original, are only the bricks and beams. It’s the design that distinguishes, say, Chartres from any run-of-the-mill chapel. And that design has structure. Drawing on sources from Aristotle to Chekov to Hemingway to Garcia Marquez to screenwriting, Franklin elucidated the structures that underlie classic narratives (complication/developments/point of insight/resolution, etc.), then showed ways we might apply (or sometimes adapt) them to real-life events. 

Still, while WFS adduces an elaborate schema of storytelling, we learned that those ideas were pretty flexible, depending on the story. Franklin wasn’t rigid about these formulas, encouraging us to tweak and twist traditional storytelling approaches — as long as we knew what we were doing. “For every rule there’s an exception,” he wrote, “and the best writers are often to be found scooting through those loopholes.” We learned some loopholes, too.

Like any good arts teacher, he insisted that you had to know the rules before you could consciously break them. Readers came to our work with certain expectations embedded by our culture, by almost every story we’ve encountered since childhood, on page, stage, or screen, and, Franklin believed, by our brain biology. So we needed to know how to deal with those expectations.

Once when I was having trouble determining the precise complication in a proposed story, he put a figurative hand on my shoulder. “Don’t get too caught up in the technicalities,” he grinned. “It’s really just… opening a door.” Moments like that make me wish he’d written another book of “craft secrets.”

Dramatic nonfiction isn’t appropriate for every story or even most; for one thing, it takes a lot of time and legwork, which is why he always counseled us to aim for book-length stories when possible. But what I learned in that program, not just from Franklin but also masters such as Lauren Kessler and Garrett Hongo, has been enormously valuable to my work and how I think about writing — and about human experience. I use Franklin’s methods literally every day in writing plays — it was only a short step from using the tools of drama to tell true stories to writing dramas sometimes based (sometimes very loosely) on true stories. Many other Franklin devotees could tell similar stories.

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In 1998, Franklin left Oregon to return to the practice of nonfiction journalism at the News & Observer in North Carolina, where he produced some of his finest work. He continued coaching writers there and elsewhere. Later, his alma mater made him an offer he couldn’t refuse — an endowed chair in its journalism school. A few days after moving there, the Franklins’ house burned down, and, alerted by their trusty pooch, they escaped with their lives — and their dog. Characteristically, Franklin got a book out of the whole ordeal, a marvelous exploration of the human-canine bond. 

In the early days of the internet, Jon and Lynn Frankin created a listserv where writers could discuss literary journalism. “A Place Called WriterL” collects the best of those threads.

VIRTUAL INCUBATOR

Classrooms and newsrooms weren’t the only venues for Franklin’s wisdom. The same year he inaugurated our master’s program, Franklin and his wife created (with help from a UO IT specialist) the listserv (look it up, Gen Zers) WriterL, which eventually attracted some 400 working writers and editors from around the world, some famous, all desperately seeking (in those Internet 1.0 days) a cyberplace to discuss and debate some of the nuts and bolts as well as the big picture issues in narrative journalism.

For 15 years, Lynn Franklin’s astute management and direction of the project and its participants’ high standards made WriterL a welcoming place for fascinating and sometimes fierce conversations, questions, and answers — the kind of safe yet provocative virtual space increasingly rare since the plague of antisocial media descended. It was like continuing my grad program for more than a decade after I got my degree.

In 2022, one member, prize-winning editor and writer Stuart Warner, had the vision and initiative to organize and compile some of those threads (culled from over a million words!) into a fascinating book. Rereading some of those posts years later, I’m re-astonished at how thoughtful so many are, and grateful to Warner for doing the hard work to make Franklin’s wisdom, and that of many of his colleagues, available for future generations of journalists. 

Even after he “retired” for the final time, from the University of Maryland a few years back, Franklin continued coaching writers and began work on a subject he’d long avoided — himself. I don’t know whether that memoir-in-progress will ever be published, but we already know the most important thing about Jon Franklin. He showed us the way to make nonfiction writing an art form like any other — or rather, since many of those ancient storytelling techniques were actually devised to tell true stories, to reclaim nonfiction narrative as an art form. 

“We narrative journalists,” he wrote, “are using the close observation of reality to reliably produce factually true stories that produce the vision that leads to artistic truth – or, alternatively, deep reality.” He continued: “anyone who cares about the future of journalism is forced to embrace art, the unquenchable human quest for Truth, and the vision that is its handmaiden.”

Writers — and more important, readers — for generations to come will be the beneficiaries. And that’s a true story.

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***

I’m indebted to my UO Master’s program classmate and Franklin’s friend of 30 years, Seattle writer John Higgins, for providing much of the research and ideas for this appreciation. Like me, he’s one of many, many writers whose work was dramatically transformed by Jon Franklin’s ideas and generosity in sharing them. We, and the stories you read by us, including this one, are part of his living legacy.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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