taking care of business

When you sweat the sad stuff.

A couple of weeks ago, I was assigned a story about a 14-year-old girl (I’ll call her D) who had just died of Leukemia. D was a force of nature, one of those incredible people you hear about but rarely get to meet. I never got to meet her, though I knew her name because she was active in a local dance program for developmentally disabled kids and teens.

I interviewed her dance program director just a few days after D died. It was sad, but manageable because the director is a fantastic lady, warm but professional, and someone I’ve interviewed for other articles.

The next day, I interviewed D’s parents.

I thought I’d mentally prepared as much as I could. Their daughter had died four days before, and the funeral would be that weekend. Interviewing grieving parents is something most journalists have to do, and of course it’s never easy but it comes with the job territory.

The director had told me the parents planned to go shop for a burial outfit for D after they met with me. It broke my heart because I remember doing that exact thing a few days after my son Graham died. They were even using the same funeral home we did.

Her parents were lovely people, weighed down with raw grief, who said many beautiful things about their daughter. I tried to stay as professional as I could be, but of course I lost it a couple of times, when they did. Near the end of the interview, I made the decision to share with them that I’d lost a child, too. No grief or situation is the same, of course, but I thought it might help to know there are more of us out there. After Graham died, right after his funeral as we were standing outside the church, the man from the funeral home told Jeff and me that his own son had died a few years previously. I remember at the time I appreciated that empathetic word from a stranger who wasn’t trying to make us feel better, but was just sharing in our grief, a little.

After I left D’s parents, I got into my car and I hadn’t even made it out of their driveway before the tears started. I took the long way back to the office and cried and cried. Mostly it was because of the unfathomable unfairness of parents having to live without their children. I’ve made my peace about Graham’s death. All my faith rests firmly on a powerful, loving God I don’t always understand. But living with loss still sucks.

I had to write the article that day; the page designers were waiting on it, and ended up running it on the front page of the paper that Sunday.

I felt unsatisfied with what I wrote. I kept thinking if I’d stayed more objective and got less emotionally involved, it would have been a better article. If you’re objective, you can look at the story arc and pick the best, most powerful parts without the cloudiness caused by grief or the fear of not giving a dead girl and her parents the story they deserve.

The next week, I was talking with a coworker, a career journalist and features writer who has done her share of “life stories” (as they’re euphemistically called in our organization). She’s one of those people who seem to invite confidences; you find you’ve told her half your life story after talking with her 10 minutes. She said she thought getting emotionally involved wasn’t something to avoid. It’s nearly impossible anyway, she said, and she believes it actually makes the story better.

I still don’t know, but that made me feel better about it. And the response to the story was incredible, much bigger than anything I’ve written before. D’s life was powerfully inspiring. It’s like she can’t help but affect everyone she touches, even after she’s gone.

Still, I’m genuinely curious about whether getting emotionally involved makes an article better. I couldn’t say one way or the other yet, and maybe never will be able to.

What I do know is the stories whose subjects have me emotionally invested stick with me much longer – they’re my favorites. It’s hard to be objective about your favorites.

 

Standard
taking care of business

Trying not to be a creeper.

Recently, as I sat across a table interviewing a nice person, I started to worry I might be staring into his eyes and/or at his face too much. (Not in a romantic way.) Was I coming across as a creeper? But then when I tried looking off in the distance or over his shoulder, I worried I looked like I was bored with what he was saying. The interview was on a deeply personal topic (why yes, it was cancer) and he was super interesting.

Luckily he mostly looked other places as he was talking, which seemed normal, so maybe my intense (?) staring wasn’t freaking him out, but when he did look at my face, I felt like maybe there was too much mutual staring going on.

I’m so awkward sometimes! At least, I frequently feel awkward. Feeling awkward probably means I am awkward. I tell myself it’s because I’m a writer and writers are sometimes lacking in finer social skills, but it’s probably just me.

How often should you look directly at someone’s face while they’re talking? What about while you’re talking? It seems to me that if you’re the one doing the talking, it’s OK to look away because obviously you’re engaged in the conversation if you’re the one talking. But if you aren’t the one talking, maybe it’s incumbent on you to look at the other person while he’s talking?

So after a while I decided to look at his chin instead of in his eyes, but then I felt like maybe I was overthinking the whole thing and he’d wonder if he had something on his chin. So I went back to looking at his eyes, which sounds weird but I swear I wasn’t trying to be.

I got back to the office and on my Facebook feed was a Mashable link to this article about how it’s generally not a good idea to look someone in the eyes.

Great.

In my defense, I used to have this friend who never, ever looked at me when we were talking. She was always looking over my shoulder, as if she was looking around for someone more interesting to talk to. It was off-putting.

I know what you’re thinking: she was probably trying to avoid your creepy-intense eye contact! But I did mention her weird habit to mutual friends and they all experienced the same thing. So it isn’t just me. Really.

Which leaves me with the question of where to look during interviews. Any help from you non-creepers out there would be appreciated.

 

Standard
taking care of business

Writing about cancer and stuff.

I’ve been on a two-week stretch of writing about people with cancer. I know you want to keep reading this post now, right? It’s been breast cancer mostly, with ovarian cancer thrown in, liver cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

During those weeks I also, maybe coincidentally, was reading John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars, which is about kids who have cancer (lung cancer and osteosarcoma).

Aside from partially convincing myself I have a stomach tumor – which would explain my wider waistline, which in no way could be the baby weight I’m still carrying from my son who was born over a year ago – I’ve enjoyed the interviews and also been a little emotionally exhausted by them. Which feels ridiculous to even mention since anything I’m feeling is nothing compared to the exhaustion (emotional and otherwise) of someone who has cancer.

I’m also feeling my way through the best way to interview people who’ve gone through something so life-changing. You have to be sympathetic but still keep sight of the story you need to tell. I’m not an emotional person generally but I got choked up during an interview with an ovarian cancer survivor when she started talking about her mom, who had died of ovarian cancer when the woman was in her teens.

I haven’t done human interest reporting since college, but in some ways I feel more prepared now than I was then – and with a heart that breaks a little more easily. After going through the death of my son three years ago, I feel better equipped to talk to people weathering personal storms, even though there are as many kinds of grief as there are grievers.

Whew. Even so, lots of times lately I can’t help comparing myself to other journalists who are writing hard news, uncovering corruption, being political watchdogs, covering complicated issues. Their work is so important and, to me, intimidating. But then I can’t help but think: regular people going through extraordinary circumstances are important, too. We crave stories about people who are like us and facing something we pray we never have to – how do they do it? Maybe all journalism comes down to the same thing: that people matter.

Standard
taking care of business

Becoming a reporter the second time around.

katebeaton_loislaneSeptember means change. It marks the beginning of fall (to me, anyway – it’s football season!), my entire office moved to an awesome downtown building a couple of weeks ago; my 13-month-old started Mother’s Morning Out for the first time and my 3-year-old started preschool.

And earlier this week I started a brand new job.

Sort of. I’m still working at the same place, but my role has shifted completely: I’m a reporter again.

I’m sad my magazine was tabled indefinitely; it was work I loved. But I’m also – surprisingly, even to me – completely stoked about going back to full-time writing. I’ll be a features and human interest reporter, which is exactly what I want to write. Meeting interesting people and learning their stories and crafting them into compelling prose – I geek out on that stuff.

It’s just different now. I’ve spent the last several years editing and managing and directing other peoples’ writing. Getting back to generating multiple stories weekly for our online news site and the newspaper is challenging. I haven’t done it since college, which was a long eight years ago.

It helps to work with a killer set of coworkers who are generous with leads and lavish in their encouragement.

So now I’m on to a new chapter in my working life. I’ll try to be a bit jaded, like any good journalist, keep my eyes and ears open, and remember the most important advice I got (and had to memorize) from Prof. Williams’ JRNL 1100 class: “Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise.” And make “every word tell.”

 

Standard