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You've Heard of a Writer's Writer? Well Portland is a City's City...

fore street restaurant, portland, maine, photo by Vilseskogen/flickr.com

Portland is a paradox. It is at once a totally accessible and visitor friendly place with many appealing qualities at first glance, and also an insider's treasure trove. What Portland shows to tourists on Commercial Street and the Old Port is on a par with many scenic New England towns—and the food is considerably better. But just below the surface, in neighborhoods all over Portland and its surrounding towns, people are hard at work making amazing stuff. And some of that stuff is as good as you will find anywhere and exerts a cultural influence wildly disproportionate to our scale as a metropolis. Case in point, writer Mike Paterniti. If you are familiar with this site you have seen his photo with his partner Sara Corbett on the slideshow of "People to Watch" on our home page, and you may have watched the audio slideshow about their life and work in Portland that it links to. You may have heard them mentioned in some posts as founders of The Telling Room. But, again, that's just the surface. To get an idea of what kind of writer Mike really is—he is in fact a "writer's writer—have a look at the two part interview on Neiman Storyboard about narrative voice and storytelling. [Neiman Storyboard is a project of the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.] Although the overt purpose of the interview is to talk about how Mike immerses himself in his reporting and then through instinct and experiment finds the right narrative voice and storytelling devices that best suit each subject, some of the most revealing bits are told by Sara in an introduction about his idiosyncratic writing process: “He listens to music when he writes – really loud music, same song over and over again, usually one song per story. He drinks insane amounts of Starbucks iced tea while on deadline. He has a surfboard, and when he’s on deadline he loads his surfboard into our minivan – which basically means that nobody else in our family, which includes three kids and a dog, can fit in the minivan – and keeps it there, not because he’s going to actually manage to go surfing but it serves as some very oversized talisman that tells him someday he’ll get his story done and feel free again." The range of his subjects is wide and strange, from driving cross-country with Einstein's brain (which, as an article in Harper's entitled, “Driving Mr. Albert,” won the National Magazine Award for feature writing and then became a book by the same name), to the book he is currently working on about his quest in Spain to taste the world's most expensive cheese (and the amazing story and storyteller he discovered in the process.) What is most striking, though, is how deep his practice is. Most journalists are doing a good job if they get the facts right and get their copy in on time. Paterniti brings to his magazine articles the story telling craft of the novelist while retaining the veracity and atmosphere of his subjects. Yet as intense as his process is, he is also a father and the partner of a writer of equal accomplishment. What makes this more than another eccentric artist story is how he ends the interview, "My wife does the same work, so we switch off... The juggle day in and day out is so tricky. And it has to do with both of us learning, or beginning to learn, how to allow the other to do whatever he or she needs to. So there are times when that person needs to be off the clock to get that writing done, and they can’t be carrying the guilt of not being at home. You have to just take it off of them for the period that they’re out there, because they’ll be doing the same for you when you’re gone. It would be harder if she didn’t get what I do or if I didn’t get what she does." People come to Portland seeking this kind of balance where the ease of life allows for the intensity of work. It's no vacation, but it can be a pretty great life.

Fore Street Restaurant, photo by Vilseskogen/flickr.com

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