Controlled abundance: the art of long-form profiles

Longing for long-form.

Editors are always telling writers to make their articles shorter. The culling of word counts is rationalised by dwindling attention spans, superabundant content, or the lack of space between gargantuan advertisements in print. But I am far from casting the first stone, most of my edits seek to trim like taking hedge cutters to an overgrown thicket.

Yet, I have never shied away from intricate narratives in my writing, no matter how little they add to the message of the piece. When I read any form of non-fiction, I want to feel immersed in it. I want the writer to take me on the journey with them, every step immortalised in a descriptive sentence a harsher editor would have struck through. It is almost unpleasant to read writing untouched by the creator’s soul, with nothing but vast expanses of unadorned tidings. 

The first long-form article I remember reading spanned ten magazine pages; and I only remember this because I recall counting them on the tips of my fingers. I was twelve, sitting-cross legged across my mum in a salon. She was busy, typing furiously on her phone with argent foil pinned in her hair. It was a feature article about the recently-deceased editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine, and I marvelled at the dedication it took to write so much about another person. I still cannot conceive of writing a biography, but I also cannot explain the unparalleled joy of reading one. 

I receive four copies of The Paris Review in the mail every year. One of their sections is entitled ‘The Art of Biography’ — second only to ‘The Art of Fiction’ in my books — which, as its namesake suggests, consists of in-depth interviews and research about illustrious people. In an amusing twist of faith, one of my favourite pieces from the section sees Louisa Thomas writing about Hermione Lee, a biographer herself. Originally published in ‘Issue 205, Summer 2013,’ “Hermione Lee” asks the question: what is gained in learning about the life of an author? 

For one, you learn how that person works in all senses of the word. You can trace the way they stitch themselves together every morning, from every pinprick to every seam. But Lee also speaks of what is lost in the process: the sense of childlike wonder that comes with not knowing. When I hold books in my hands, their creators are larger than life. I don’t want to know how they take their coffee or the fact that they need reading glasses; I want them to exist slightly out of reach, a dream just nebulous enough to elude definition. 

But even more so than the focus on the subjects of the pieces, I enjoy reading the introductions. It is nice to know that Lucas Wittmann took three sessions to interview Richard Holmes, and that they went from Covent Garden to North London to New York. Arundhati Roy’s love for immersing herself in the world of a novel for years sheds light on the bridge between The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

In her autobiographical essay A Sketch of the Past, Virginia Woolf asks: how do you tell the life story of a person? 

Writers of biographies tend to begin with the present. In the cases of interview-led profiles, a subgenre I am partial to, standard practice is to describe the setting the interview is taking place in. Then comes the speculation, the snippets of private lives one can glean from bookshelves organised in discernible sections and slivers of paint splattered on carpeted floors. Does the cat linger during the course of the conversation, does the subject prefer a side of the couch, will knowing any of this help you understand a bit more than they’re willing to reveal? 

If I were to answer the question Woolf asks; I would say in controlled abundance. I have written multiple profiles during the course of this year alone; none of them exceeding the thousand-word mark. The image of the physical space the words will need to occupy follows my fingers on my butterfly keyboard, and as much as I favour structure I cannot help but wish for endless space on which to muse.