Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Writing Degree Zero

I've got two main jobs in this little period of time. One of them a semi-journalism story, the other something more unusual for me.

The story is for a university alumni magazine, which makes it part journalism, part PR. I try to take into consideration the PR requirements, which are to accentuate the positive and include as many alums who might donate as possible. But basically it's reporting and writing a story. I become more aware of the dynamics of that process when they push against other agendas. Every story grows organically into itself. I'm given an assignment, certain parameters and requirements. Then I apply my own analysis, ideas, experience, and skills to the research: what to look for, who to talk to, what to ask. It's a complicated process. For example, when you are talking to the first people, you're still pretty much in the dark. You're getting information-sometimes basic information-and testing your assumptions, and the assumptions of the assigning party-against what you're hearing and finding out.

Each interview sheds different light on facts and other available presentations (books, articles, web sites), so that become a back and forth dynamic. And at a certain point each interview helps shape the next: you refine your questions, perhaps taking a different approach to the subject based on what you've learned, or filling in details, or getting differing views. That dynamic sets itself going.

Interviews are themselves dynamic and sometimes delicate matters. Some people are media savvy. Some look at tape recorders as if they were poisonous snakes about to strike. Some of the dynamic is affected by how badly the interviewee has been burned by journalists before, journalists misunderstanding, misquoting and generally misusing them (or so at least they feel) or just wasting their time. In any event the interview is a kind of dance that begins with preparation. You want to be prepared enough to ask the right questions, and indicate some knowledge of what it is the interviewee is talking about, and does for a living, so you can get to better questions with better answers.

At the same time, you are there to get that person's words, explanations, views. They have to do the talking, preferably in complete sentences. So they have to say what you may already know.

Besides, it's dangerous to assume too much. So you have to be willing to sound dumb by asking elementary questions you think you know the answer to. Often enough, you find that you actually don't know, or you had it wrong. And if you have your conclusion confirmed, so much the better. It means you've understood something, so you can take the interview to the next level, and feel more confident that you can construct the story.

Later interviews can confirm, nail down those loose ends, answer more incisive and pertinent questions, add color and breadth and depth. When you're hearing the answers you've heard before, it's time to stop and write the piece. CONTINUING
I place a high value on the interview. I regard it as a relationship, even if you never see that person again. By interviewing them, I take on the responsibility to accurately reflect their meaning. I take that responsibility seriously. And by doing so, I allow the story to grow organically out of what people say, and what I observe.

As I recently realized, this priority of responsibility to the person I interview has made me very popular with the people I write about. But it has not always made me popular with editors. We've recently seen some high profile scandals of reporters who faked stories in small and outrageously large ways. They were able to do so because they were meeting their editors' desires, and secondarily because interview subjects are so used to shoddy treatment that they didn't complain when they were misquoted or distorted, because they thought that was normal.
Pleasing editors, including their competitiveness and their prejudices, is the path to success. Interview subjects are fodder to a lot of them, and therefore to a lot of writers.

Not to me. I am very often impressed about how much people know about their jobs, how sincere they are, how hard they work, and what good stories they represent that seldom get told. Either they and the work they do is ignored, or certain aspects of it are ignored.

Celebrities of one kind or another are examples of the second category. A lot of famous actors, for instance, are quite serious about acting, about storytelling, about theatre and theatrical tradition, and about the various issues they might advocate. But mostly what you read about them is gossip. Check out Bravo's Actor's Studio interview series. Sure, there's a certain amount of silliness and pretension and show biz, but I defy anyone who has seen a reasonable selection of those programs to continue believing the only thing these actors care about is salary and stardom, or more to the point, that's the only interesting thing about them.

And of course, the first category includes just about everybody who isn't a celebrity. The only kinds of work that get covered are politics---mostly Washington politics---and sports. Business gets covered on an entirely different level, along with a lot of political coverage: a level that is hard to describe except as abstracted and coded to the point of being
delusional. Science is covered superficially except in specialized publications. Law, justice, government---only scandal, superficial coverage of crime, gossip. Which means there are millions of stories not being told, that are actually much more important to our common life than a lot of the here-today, gone later-today reportage of politics, the economy, etc.

I've done stories that involve setting contrary views against each other, and I've quoted people to their detriment. But most of the time I've done stories that profile people or a process and explain what they do, and something of what it means. I place people and processes in various appropriate contexts--- often historical in some sense.

One of my guides is my assignment (or basic idea, if it originated with me) but my chief guide is what the reader would want and need to know.
The question," what is the story?" is in part a question of narrative form, in part a question of "news" or otherwise a journalistic question, in part a question of getting at the essence, and in large part is a question of what will attract, inform, entertain, enlighten the reader.

So that's the process I'm in the middle of for an assigned story. It has other difficulties at the moment, including a lot of people on vacation, and a number of agendas that are supposed to be addressed in a short time and a quite limited number of words. So we'll see.

My other project is different in one major respect: both of the people I am writing about cannot be interviewed on account of their mortal coils having been shuffled off some time ago. An agent is interested in my idea for a series of biographies for young readers, the subjects being figures in science fiction and fantasy, and the gimmick is that I'm approaching them in pairs. Can't give away more than this, but I have done a draft of a sample chapter for the first proposed book. Suffice it to say that it was weird to have a semi-real excuse to be writing about Star Trek. CONTINUING
I don't want to jinx this by saying how much it means to me. But I will say two things.

I've long since come to the conclusion that the only long term hope for the future resides in the young who want to learn how to do it all better. I'm hoping to at least pass along some of what I've learned and maybe some enthusiasm for learning and reading. I suppose I'm also trying to fulfill my genetic mandate in a different way.

This past Sunday's newspaper came with yet another dire warning that writing books is utter folly if you expect to make a living that way. I am personally urged to find something else to do. I wish I could, but what? I don't seem to be suited for much else. Everything else I can do, others have been pursuing careers doing all their lives, and they're looking for the same jobs. Plus all those employers who want your enthusiasm, your loyalty, your total commitment to their questionable or utterly boring activity. Your work is not enough, they must have your soul. If you'd rather not, there are always plenty of others ready and willing.

My worst moments are fearing that I have backed myself into a corner by sticking to this, but at the same time I have squandered the talent and potential I was given. I have failed to either make a decent living at writing, or to write anything transcendently good.

But life is what we do every day-some would say "also", some would insist "only." All I know is that one afternoon I was finally ready to start the actual draft of this sample chapter. I sat in the sun on the porch of Wildberries with my coffee, and on a yellow pad I wrote the first paragraph. And then I rewrote it, again and again, changing a few words, or maybe only one word, each time. And it was the happiest I've been.