Asking a Question, Painting a Portrait

By Amy Wu and Kelly Carr

Jacqui Banaszynski
Jacqui Banaszynski
There are many types of profiles, Jacqui Banazsynski said, and knowing how and when to use them is a skill of the successful profile writer. The best writers navigate between the cradle-to-current profile (the one we assume we always have to do; a sweeping biography of a person), the niche profile (a tightly focused examination of a person’s role as it relates to a specific story), the paragraph profile (one sharp detail or moment that quickly illustrates a person’s life), and others.

Banaszynski spoke about the ladder of abstraction, stretching from universal themes to precise details, like the story of one individual or family. It helps to actually draw a ladder and write down the subject of the piece at the bottom, and work up to the greater theme at the top.

Interviews are the key to a good profile, Banaszynski said. She offered some tips on how to elicit information from reticent sources, including:

1. Ask questions so deep and sometimes so peculiar that the person is more likely to give you his or her “internal” versus “external” resume. (Banazsynski: “Who you are vs. what you’ve done.”)
2. Putting the subject in a familiar place might make him or her feel more at ease to talk about things.
3. Push back against people, Banaszynski said. Put yourself in the interview a little. Throw some verbal assumptions at them. For example, if interviewing a car accident victim, you might say, “You must be terribly angry about what happened. Did you want to hit someone?” In agreeing or arguing with your statements, they’ll refine your sense of who they are and what they feel — “No, I wanted to throw something.”

Amy Wu is a freelance writer based in New York. Kelly Carr is a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer.

Posted in interviewing, profiles, sessions.Profiles in Journalism, speakers.Jacqui Banaszynski on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Following Susan Orlean’s Earlier Advice That You Might Choose to Describe a Single Physical Feature of a Character, Sort Of

By Geo Beach

Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean

“I don’t think love is silly.”
-- Susan Orlean, “Writing with and about passion” [Nieman Narrative Conference closing keynote session]

Even in a large, high-ceiling ballroom, Susan Orlean’s mouth kisses the back row.

They’re wet kisses.

Her lips are far more red even than her hair, and they are caricatured, inflated, enough to serve as arched eyebrow and wink, toss of tresses, shrug, sway, foot-tap. Breath and swallow, bit lip and lick, valuable purse. Susan Orlean’s lips are twisted into a comma at one corner, at both corners then, and mark an apologetic quote, the wry shared words that become now a mutual friend.

And her lips are the world that has swept in, spinning out yarns the whole nine yards of whole cloth. No, not that. Her mouth is not clichéd.

Susan Orlean smiles a Hollywood projector but not mere incisors, remember, a smile happens everyplace else, cheek, chin, the delta of experience that flows from a blue pupil lateral to her temple. Her dimple is an edit, the thing more beautiful because something is taken away.

Her lips make words. Her mouth loves, telling stories.

“And during the next song she crossed the room and kissed me.” -- from “Devotion Road” [“Passion” session closing quote]

Independent journalist Geo Beach contributes commentaries to NPR, columns to the Anchorage Daily News, and essays to

Posted in character, profiles, scenes, sessions.Making It Matter, speakers.Susan Orlean, writing with passion on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink