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 I’ve enjoyed: profiles of what I used to call, “Happy Men, and Other Eccentrics.” People like hairpiece-maker Ernie Casper, who abruptly asked me at about hour four of an all-day interview, “How do you listen to people all day?!” Caught off guard, I said, “Ernie, it’s exhausting! But go on!”
So recently I was interested in an interview with a New York Times writer, about how he deals emotionally 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.
Huh! That answer rubbed me the wrong way. Two wrong ways, in fact.
For one thing, I don’t like the hopelessness of his outlook for his sources. I’d think if he spent enough time with these people to write about them honestly, he’d see not only the possibilities (however unlikely) that their lives may improve—but also the joy they manage to squeeze out of their current lives, despite everything. The idea that he’s leaving them in stasis of abject misery to galavant onto the next gang of mopes—that sounds a little off to me.
Worse, I didn’t like that last line, about how he’s “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 worked out 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 canoe maker or a professional ballerina. What happens is, that person’s experience centers itself—and temporarily re-orders my whole world with that person in the sweet spot, everything else I normally think is important in a distant orbit, and myself nowhere to be found.
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.
And for me, the privilege involved in doing that kind of work isn’t escaping the story when it’s over. It’s the exercise itself, which is really good for my mind and for my soul and my whole self-centered self.
This Times writer is on a different mission, it seems to me. He’s out to show the world how these troubled 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 evangelists visiting with their Bibles. 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 use people to portray systems. I want to write stories that start with people. And end with people, too. Because as Ruth Gordon says in Harold and Maude: They’re my species.