I never want to retire, but someday I do want to make room in my life to get back to occasionally doing a certain kind of journalism that has been one of the great joys of my life.
Maybe “joy” isn’t the right word.
Last week I was reading an interview with a New York Times writer, about how he deals with reporting people in difficult situations, immersing himself in their lives for a period of time. Referring to his most recent story, he says, in part:
… Whatever I’m experiencing is so infinitesimal compared to the people that I’m writing about, it almost feels embarrassing to talk about. For all the great privileges of being a journalist, the greatest one of all is that for me, the stories end. I move on to the next one. Shina is still, as far as I know, suffering severe mental illness and trying not to get stabbed or shot on the corner across from Old Station Subs. Joe and Debbie are still trying to figure out how to unwind this business that’s been the epicenter of their lives. None of these people have the option of walking away from the hard parts of their own stories. I’m always trying to center their experience of that to keep perspective.
Honestly, I didn’t like that answer much. For one thing, I don’t like the utter hopelessness of your outlook for your sources. I’d think if you spent enough time with them to write about them honestly, you’d see not only the possibilities (however unlikely) that their lives may improve—but also the joy they manage to squeeze out of their daily lives, despite everything. The idea that you’re leaving them in stasis of abject misery to galavant onto the next series of mopes—that sounds a little off to me.
Worse, I didn’t like that last line, about how you’re “always trying to center their experience.” Ummm, you should not have to “try” to do this. It should happen automatically, as it has to me, whether I’ve practiced for two months with a women’s football team, worked for two weeks in a struggling family business, gone on a weekend road gig with a standup comic, or just spent one long day in the life of a hairpiece maker, a canoe maker or a professional ballerina. What happens is, that person’s experience centers itself—and temporarily re-centers my whole world, just like the phone GPS, with that person in the center, and everything else I normally think is important (myself included), in a vague or unknown orbit.
Allowing myself to undergo that kind of humbling, brain-shaking, wisdom-making disorientation is not a choice on my part; it’s simply what happens, when I try to understand another person well enough to write about them in a way that will cause them to recognize themselves in your story. And feel seen clearly, as my subjects usually say they do, even if my stories aren’t altogether flattering. People want to see themselves more than they want to be flattered. And as much as possible, they want someone to show the rest of the world how the world looks to them.
This Times writer seems like he’s out to show the world how these poor mopes look to him. He’s got a larger purpose, he says in the interview: His reporting is to show “all of the ways in which systems aren’t working, particularly in terms of inequality, and how that gap in our country is getting alarmingly larger.”
And that’s fine, of course, but profiling people being fucked by “systems” isn’t my jam. I know, because I once spent a Saturday at a juvenile detention center in Chicago with kids, all Black or Hispanic and all poor, who did seem doomed by the system; and un-helped by the smiling white Christian ministry people visiting with their Bibles seemed doomed by their blindness. As soon as I got out of there, I drove straight to a liquor store for beer and tequila both.
So I guess I don’t want to write stories that start with systems. I want to write stories that start with people. Those stories don’t end until those people die. Those stories aren’t over til they’re over.