A young journalist once asked me:
Is there anything you wish you could tell yourself when you were inexperienced as us?
What mistakes should we be making?
I wish I hadn’t thought I had to be so smart.
When I was starting out, I was afraid the politician I was profiling would realize I didn’t understand property taxes; that the hockey coach I had to interview would out me for not knowing a hat trick from a helmet; that the commercial fisherman would think me unworthy of sharing his story because I had never been on a trawler. So I tried to study as much as I could beforehand and fake my way through difficult interviews, nodding and taking notes. Then I’d sit down to write and realize I really had no idea how to explain what was going on to my readers. That wasn’t fair to them — or the subjects.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized, it’s okay to not know — it can even be endearing. When you ask people to explain, tell them you’re far from an expert, offer that you have to be able to break this down so all the audience can understand, subjects appreciate that. They want to help you get what they’re doing, see what’s important to them. They don’t want you to BS them, or get it wrong. So they won’t see you as dumb but rather as smart for asking so many questions, for admitting your fallibility, for wanting to get it right.
Instead of trying to stay out of the story, I wish I had shared myself more.
I thought it was important for a reporter to remain on the sidelines, sort of sheltered from her subjects, and in the early years I think I used my notebook as a shield. I was asking people all these questions, sometimes really personal questions, but I never let them know that I was only 25, or was scared of sharks, or that my car had broken down on the way to the interview and that’s why I was so flustered and late. I thought I should be sort of teflon-like, untouchable. But that only shut me down, and kept people at a distance.
Being pregnant, I think, helped me move into a new phase of reporting. There was no hiding that from my sources, and it gave them something to talk about that was personal, that I couldn’t keep inside, that helped them connect to me as a person — not just a reporter. Plus, I couldn’t hide that belly behind a notepad 🙂
Now I tell everyone I talk to that I’m a writer — not a reporter, that sounds scary — that I’m 46 years old, married to my college sweetie, who is a drummer, that I have two teenage boys and two crazy dogs and a turtle the size of a dinner plate. That lets them think of me as a wife, a mom, an animal lover — not just someone who wants to dive in and ask them to open up without sharing herself. Dogs, kids and cars will get anyone talking. And it’s important to talk to people, not just interview them. I also let them lead and guide the story now: Where do you want to start? What do you want people to know? (I used to think I had to be in charge …)
I wish I hadn’t thought I knew what the story was about before I reported it.
When I was starting out, my editor often told me what the story was about before I ever went out to report it — so I tried to tailor my questions and observations and even the writing to what I thought the editor wanted. But the story you set out to get isn’t always the story that’s really there, or the best way to tell it, or even a true reflection of whatever reality you’re trying to capture.
I wish editors had given me more leeway to say, okay, here’s an idea, now go out there then come back and tell me what you think the story is. I wish I had had more confidence to say, no, really, this is what I saw and think … or maybe there isn’t even really a story there at all. Being willing to go with your gut, to let the story morph and evolve, to see where it fits into the context of people’s lives, makes the experience so much richer, the story so much better. And closer to the truth.
I wish I had pitched more stories I wanted to do, instead of tackling assignments I didn’t want to do.
I wish I had done more stories I wanted to do in my own time, instead of making excuses like the editors won’t give me time.
I wish I had taken more risks with my writing early on, let myself experiment with voice and dialog, different structures and chronology, trusted myself more to just tell a story and not feel like my job was to share information.
I wish I had read more short stories and fewer newspaper articles.
I wish I had attached myself to more senior writers I admired, asked more questions, gotten more advice.
I wish I had done fewer phoners and gotten sunburned on more boats.
I wish I had known that it was okay to make mistakes, that no matter how brilliant — or bad — your story is, another paper will come out tomorrow, so it’s okay to try something that might not work. But it’s not okay not to try. Or to bore yourself by always doing what’s safe. Or to think your readers will care if you don’t.
Finding Story Ideas: Tips your editor won’t tell you
Lane DeGregory, Tampa Bay Times
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, 2009
1) Talk to strangers
Be nosey, sit by the old woman on the swing, everyone has a story
Lady Liberty: Searching for the American dream
2) Play hookie
Roam aimlessly, let someone else drive, ride the bus, look around
Cashier Michael Turbe: A Father’s Day 41 years in the making
3) Read the walls
Check bulletin boards, buy bad papers, scour the classifieds
House on the Corner: What would drive a man to shoot his neighbor 17 times?
4) Sit the bench
Be a fly on the wall, eavesdrop at beauty parlors, eat lunch alone
Girl in the Window: A feral child finds a family
5) Make freaky friends
Opposites attract, befriend photographers, use your friends and kids
Chasing the Light: A photographer documents dying children
6) Get a life
Eat dirt at the drag strip, join bowling leagues, go to festivals
The Divine Miss Em: Losing a young actress
7) Ignore important people
See who’s in their shadows, stakeholders, other ways in
Pahokee Fred: When football is your only ticket out
8) Celebrate losers
Dreams don’t always come true, ask about failures, lessons learned
Homeless artist Rick Lewis: “Homer’s odyssey”
9) Wonder: Who would ever?
Here’s to you, Mr. golf ball picker-upper, Dirty Jobs, why you?
Mr. Newton: Still sweeping a shrimp factory at age 99
10) Hang out at bars (or coffee shops)
Check out different dives, try a martini, always come back to Cheers
After the hurricane: We all need a drink
GETTING THE GOODS
11) Give everyone your phone number
Keep in touch, don’t dis PR people, ask what else is going on
Davion Only: Orphan goes to church to find a family
12) Be late
Old news is good news, it’s easier after the arrest, whatever happened to
Susie Wheldon: Widow of race car driver goes back to the track
13) Work holidays
Relish rituals, find faith, new traditions, those who can’t celebrate
Valentine Boy: Finding the right words for your first girl
14) Take stories no one else wants
Make people care, write for other sections, find a new way
Guess My Age: Couple falls for biggest game at the fair
15) Look for the bruise on the apple
Ask uncomfortable questions, celebrate conflict, sucks for them
Prince Vinegar: How do you know when it’s time to let go?
CRACKING THE NUTS
16) Lie on the floor, climb on the cabinets
See stories from a new angle, seek new perspectives
In the aftermath of a massacre: A young man finds his voice
17) Listen to the quiet
The sound of silence, what doesn’t happen, questions not answered
Miss Teen America: A long walk in the woods
18) Go along for the ride
Invite yourself over, ask for photo albums, vacuum the scene
The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck: Before her dad dropped her off the bridge
19) Take small bites
See a sliver of the big picture, shadows in the news, I can’t imagine
Mom Cheryl Brown of Trayvon Martin’s neighborhood: “The Retreat”
20) Don’t be afraid of yourself
Share your life, open up, tell stories, take risks, you are a character
I’m Ryland’s Mom: Sending my first-born to college
Don’t be a snob. Don’t think you’ve heard them all before.
Try on new lenses and frames.
And remember, sometimes the best stories are in your own backyard.