Anyone lived in a pretty how town…~ E.E. Cummings
As a teenager, I wasn’t much for journalism. I defined myself as a creative writer, too artistic and impatient for plain old facts. I didn’t like sports and never wanted to write the expose on the cafeteria pizza. I wrote stream-of-conscious poetry for guys who didn’t like poetry and didn’t like me.
I was an idiot.
Journalism is storytelling. At the Quebec City Chronicle-Telegraph (the oldest newspaper in North America), I focused mostly on the small stuff: charity drives, local teams, high school graduations, restaurant openings – the minutia of the small English-speaking community.
As small papers dry up or battle for readership online, we’re losing human-interest stories. We may never read Shelly Brown’s obituary, Shelly who spent thirty years working the counter at the deli; who gave the community three great children, who dedicated her life to rescuing dogs.
Why care about Shelly, the smiling deli worker? We have this to read:10 Things You Didn’t Know About Syria. 10 Things Amanda Knox Has in Common with a Unicorn. 15 Pugs Who Look Like Dictators.
Just like there’s a time and place for the above, (lunch breaks), there’s a time and place for newspapers: Sunday afternoons. I can’t remember the last time I sat with a newspaper article, chewed the story over, let it linger. I love blogs, but getting the story out is stressed more than getting the story out right.
Be a good listener
I interviewed a famous filmmaker, covered the 2011 Royal Tour with Prince William & Kate, interviewed the bassist from the Sheepdogs; met the winners of Red Bull Crashed Ice. But those aren’t the stories that mattered most. I talked to a lady whose teenage son was dying from cancer, about nine months before he passed away.
Most people don’t know what to say to a mother whose son is dying. I certainly didn’t. The interview still haunts me – maybe I was too probing, too self-centered, too positive.
Since that article, I ask myself constantly – am I listening or talking? Am I lending advice or listening? When I don’t know what to say, I say exactly that. Sometimes, it’s our job to silently absorb our friends’ words, so the weight falls off them and onto us.
Fame is overrated
Fame and famous people are overrated. I followed Prince William and Kate around on a bus for an entire day. We snapped thousands of pictures. I realized they would never have the privacy I take for granted. They are puppets, sure royal puppets, but definitely puppets. Meanwhile, around the world, children starve, poachers drive elephants to the verge of extinction, and millions flee from wars they did not cause. And it’s getting more difficult to hear the voices reporting on those issues under the heap of useless information piled on top.
I don’t pretend to know the answer to any of this.
Change the beat
If the writing isn’t working out, it might not be the writing; it might be the subject. Perhaps your old-lady character isn’t as witty and appealing as she seems because you don’t find her that interesting. Maybe as a travel writer, you’d rather write about the crazy taxi ride in your hometown than shopping the bazaars in Marrakech. That’s ok.
Write what interests you and it will interest the reader.
Remember the greatest writing compliment
After reviewing my clips for the first time, my editor said plainly, “the kid can write.” The Kid.Can.Write.
This is the best compliment I ever received from a person not required to love me. It’s accurate – he didn’t say I was the best writer, the most beautiful writer, an up-and-coming Hunter S. Thompson; he said I could write. Relief. I repeat this to myself when it feels like I am turning my wheels in the worst career.
Writing advice: find your greatest compliment ever and stick it in your temporal lobe. Refer to it often.
April 9, 2013 at 9:37 am
Thanks. I really enjoyed reading that. I also preferred poetry to journalism when I was young.
April 9, 2013 at 9:59 am
Thanks for the comment. I used to think journalism wasn’t creative. Boy, was I wrong! I love newspapers 🙂
April 9, 2013 at 3:58 pm
I miss writing for newspapers. It was such a joy and one that I didn’t realize was temporary until the entire Life section of our paper got cut. Like you, I enjoyed interviewing people and uncovering the human interest stories in our community. I thought for a hile that it might translate to blogging, but it doesn’t. Blogging require a different focus; a more global, chatty forum. I like it, but I do miss the paper.
April 9, 2013 at 5:29 pm
It’s so worthwhile. The thing I loved about it was how excited my “subjects” were when their name appeared. Made me feel really good. I want a t-shirt that says “I heart local weeklies.”
April 9, 2013 at 4:50 pm
Journalism, especially working for a small weekly where you have to cover everything, like at the QCT, teaches you to be able to write about anything, quickly, on deadline. Those are great skills to have. But you already know that. 🙂
April 9, 2013 at 5:26 pm
Yes! Deadlines. I work as a copywriter for a mega corp right now and it gets pretty intense. But it’s nothing compared to writing a page or two in a few hours, if that. Journalism has to change to survive, I just hope it’s not completely lost in the process.
April 11, 2013 at 6:30 am
I worked for a weekly for two years and consider that tenure to be the most important two years of my writing life. Never before or since had I written so much so fast. I developed my voice at the paper. I also met so many fascinating people on my never-ending quest for The Story.
Unfortunately I ate a lot of Ramen at that time, too. So there’s that.
April 11, 2013 at 7:34 am
I convinced my local paper to let me become a restaurant critic, so I didn’t starve. Best. job. ever. It was a very defining job for me too. I learned how to write fast and find an angle – sometimes a story ends up completely different at the end. And there’s a lot of satisfaction knowing there’s an audience. I don’t get the same satisfaction from copywriting, where I am told “no one will read it anyway.”
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