a walrus on the beach

Lawrence Weschler in the edited collection called The New New Journalism:

“All the time I spend gathering material and doing interviews during my first few weeks is actually about trying to figure out the question. One of the most helpful things that anyone ever told me was said by a marine biologist in college named Todd Newberry. I was writing an essay for him on some enormous, unwieldy topic and was floundering badly. And he said, “When you’re dealing with a huge, amorphous topic, it’s sort of like when you’re walking down the beach and come upon a dead walrus and you’re curious why it died.” (Bracketing the fact that don’t walk down beaches, don’t come upon walruses, and wouldn’t give a damn why they died!) He continued:

‘You can do one of two things. You can pick up that piece of driftwood over there and start bashing the walrus, but all you’ll do is make a mess of the walrus and of yourself. Or you can take that driftwood over to that boulder and sit down, pick up that stone, and start sharpening it. It will take you hours and hours, probably all afternoon to sharpen the driftwood. But at the end of the process you’ll have a blade. And you can then use that blade to do an autopsy and you’ll figure out what happened in five minutes.’

The moral of Todd’s story is that when you’re confronting a huge, amorpohous topic, don’t ask huge, amorphous questions. Spend 95 percent of your time honing the question. In the early stages of my reporting I often approach an interview with a battery of questions the size of a huge block. “Does this question work? How about that one?”