Writers (and other people) should remember that every honest person can be made to be fascinating on at least one subject. Usually that subject is the person's work—the area of life where they have been forced to conduct a close, daily longitudinal study.
Most people do need to be drawn out, and once drawn out they need to be steered because they often have a hard time knowing what's so compelling about their daily grind.
Why am I thinking about this right now? For a magazine article, I'm working on a story about a man who I think has one of the most fascinating jobs in America. I'm at that nervous stage in the reporting when I have too much truth to get across in too few words, and I'm afraid a I'll die trying and the article will die with me. I remind myself that I've done this before. I've writtten interesting stories about people with far grimmer jobs—but jobs that give them "time to think," as my favorite Chicago bartender puts it in this delicious Chicago magazine profile that I wish I'd written.
Most of the best stories I've done have been about people working seemingly prosaic jobs, like Ernie Casper, hairpiece maker:
There are no windows in Ernie Casper's double storefront at 6033 N. Cicero Ave., and that's probably for the best, considering the business he's in.
"When you come in to buy a hairpiece, you're scared," Casper says. "Your hands are sweating."
Casper's first goal in closing a hairpiece sale is making sure the customer never has to utter the unhappy words, "I need a hairpiece." Casper welcomes the man warmly, ushers him back to a barber's chair—free haircuts are another sales technique—and after singing and whistling his way through a haircut, he eventually gets around to saying, "I'd like to show you something."
Before the customer knows it, his bald scalp is covered in one of the many dozens of differently shaped, sized and colored hairpieces that Casper keeps in stock.
But the hairpiece the customer finds himself looking at is not the best fit Casper can find for him, nor even the second-best fit. Casper says that men always find fault with the first hairpiece they see. So if he gives a new customer the best he's got, "then there's nowhere to go."
Once the customer inevitably rejects the first rug, Casper shows him a second. Now the customer is warming up and ready to rave when he sees Casper's third and final contribution—the one he has had in mind for the customer all along. If he has done his job right, in some cases all that's left for Casper to do is make a few adjustments to the hairpiece and "cut it in"—that is, trim it and style it so it blends perfectly with the customer's hair—and teach the man how to wear and care for the piece properly.
Or Paul Frisbee, the stand-up comic who made his living trucking in a GMC Jimmy to disconsolate hotel bar gigs throughout the Midwest, and felt sorry for Jerry Seinfeld:
The Chicago-based comedian, who is one of hundreds of nameless stand-up comedians roaming various regions of the country playing big-city comedy clubs and small-town hotel bars, believes big names like Seinfeld and Ray Romano and Jeff Foxworthy and Paula Poundstone have lost something precious that they can never have back: the ability to know, for sure, whether they're still funny.
When an audience pays big bucks to see a big-name comic, they want to laugh and they feel they should laugh, he reasons, so unless the celebrity is absolutely dreadful, they do laugh. By contrast, every time a no-name road comic gets up in front of an audience, Frisbie says, "you're daring them not to like you. You have to make them like you. And the nice thing is, when you're not famous, you earn it every night. It's a wonderful rush."
Dawn, who also teaches during summer layoffs at the Joffrey school in New York, often has occasion to advise young dance pupils on how they should approach a career in dance. In a word, carefully. “It’s a difficult world,” she tells them. “You’re vulnerable to elements of judgment from inside you and outside you.”
What she does not tell them is more revealing: “I don’t tell them that every one of their hearts is going to be broken. I don’t say only one of you will make it. I say, ‘I want to feel you.’”
What Dawn also does not tell her students: A career in dance precludes many other options in life. The low wages, the layoffs, the rigorous rehearsal schedules and the intense competition makes life difficult for dancers who want to have families. …
[Dawn] was married once, to another dancer. When he quit dancing and went to law school, he wanted kids and she wanted to dance—a disagreement that split their marriage, she says. Though she says she’s looking for a relationship, she says she doesn’t regret not having had children. Indeed, she expresses no regrets at all about her life in dance.
Asked about other possibilities in life she might have missed because of her devotion to dance, Dawn replies, “What other possibilities?”
Yes, I can do this. I can write about people and their work.
I can do this for the rest of my life.
It is my work.