On connecting to stories

I woke up yesterday thinking about how writers are the conduit between subjects and readers, and as such, how that relationship best functions in order to produce real stories – stories that not only tell – but stories that show and in doing so leave a reader feeling like they’ve “been there.”

The “been there” part comes from a connection the writer has with the subject and transfers to the reader. It could be the writer learns about the circumstances of the situation by copious research, observation, and interviewing subjects. It could also be that there is a personal connection due to experience of a situation – a shared condition, a family member with the same illness, a trip to the country in question, a first-hand knowledge of the information.

Take Karen Kingsbury for instance. She is an inexhaustible inspirational fiction writer who can turn out a book in 10 writing days. And within its pages one will find more than one sufficient realistic scenario playing itself out while several subplots unravel.  How does she accomplish this? Although Kingsbury does have a journalism degree, she watches the news. She reads. She studies people. She lives life. Characters in her book are openly modeled after real people – including her own family members. (http://bit.ly/q7qC0 )

About a month ago I interviewed a man who days before lost his missionary brother in a tragic accident in Africa. He was a triplet of the man who died, about my age, and I could hear the anguish in his voice. Only six years ago my brother in law, a missionary to the Czech Republic, died of Cancer. In responding to the brother, helping our newswriter frame the story, interviewing some of the subjects, I was all too cognizant of the reality of the pain involved, the challenges of the story, the sensitivity of the timing. Our job was to get the news out of his death so ministry partners could bring comfort to his family. (http://bit.ly/18pcft)

Some time back a former journalism student I mentor asked me if it was OK to hug little old woman after interviewing her about losing her husband; another admitted covering the funeral of a great Christian leader as being emotional and draining. Others have often asked me if it’s OK to let subjects see them cry. I tell them one of the surprises in my job as the managing editor of a state-wide newspaper is the number of stories I’ve covered related to death and dying. I tell them it’s OK to give hugs, to shed tears (without drawing attention to yourself), and to feel the pain of death, hunger, sickness, trauma and the myriad of human conditions a writer experiences through telling peoples’ stories—but to make sure to share that pain with someone who understands afterwards.

I couldn’t have anticipated that just a month after accepting my fulltime editorial position my mother would die unexpectedly of a blood clot to the lung at 66. For me, that personal circumstance seemed almost to set the stage for knowing the intricacies of being immersed in the “story” of death itself with all of the accompanying details, drama and trauma.

Almost immediately afterwards, in 2003, I was launched into coverage of the Terri Schiavo case in Florida. Reporting from a Christian and pro-life worldview, I first gained access to her parents, then spending their days in a trailer parked outside the hospice where she was living in Pinellas Park, Fla. Having been raised Catholic, I bonded with her parents, Bob Sr. and Mary Schindler quickly. I was also apparently given the stamp of approval by Msgr. Thaddeus Malanowski, their family priest, who was also a former military chaplain who appreciated my background as a Navy veteran and shared war stories with me about being stationed in Europe.

Connections, bonding. They not only help a writer gain access, they can mean better understanding of the subject – which creates a bridge for the reader.

In the Schiavo case, since I was raised Catholic, Bob and Mary didn’t have to take a lot of time to explain certain things about Terri’s upbringing the Catholic way in Parochial school. Been there, done that. Both of Terri’s siblings were introduced to me as the “Bapt-o-Catholic” by their grinning father, who teased me, but all the same, quickly understood I was a no-nonsense reporter on a quest to report the truth.

In the end, Pat Anderson and David Gibbs, both respected attorneys for the case, echoed many readers with the words any reporter longs to hear– they said my stories were completely factual. Given the often-touted widespread misinformation about the Schiavo case, I consider that high praise indeed. (http://bit.ly/2lrrYs )

Speaking with the student who admitted being devastated after covering the high-profile funeral of a Christian leader, I told him about the Terri Schiavo case – and also reminded him the end result was not something I anticipated. Instead, filing out from a funeral mass in Jacksonville about a week after her death, I was tearful and surprised when Bob Schindler grabbed me in a bear hug and Mary led me downstairs to where a handful of supporters gathered for a meal. “They were hugging ME,” I told the student in trying to help him understand that if we are honestly affected by our stories, our reporting will reflect that, our readers will be moved by it, and it’s OK. (http://www.floridabaptistwitness.com/tsoyl.fbw)

There are dozens of examples of the “death” and funeral variety, and admittedly, those are the really difficult ones to cover. Just this week, however, one of “those” stories turned around and I had the privilege of seeing it through.

Last year a prominent pastor and his son died in a plane crash in the mountains of North Carolina right after Mother’s Day. He left a wife and five children. Tears streamed down my face as I covered the “Celebration” service from the sanctuary. Ironically, reporters were told to be in a choir room, outside of the sanctuary where they could “watch” the service on a monitor, but instead I had arranged ahead of time to sit with my husband and our executive editor close to the front in the sanctuary. Quietly taking notes with my reporter’s notebook while my tape recorder ran, I watched people and listened. I made notes about what my senses took in. I say “ironically,” because I knew in advance that for our readers who were not able to be there I wanted to bring them to this place and it would be difficult to do that stashed away in a room trying to study the environment on a monitor. I wanted to see and feel in order to put the feel in my story.  (http://bit.ly/Xn4kB )

Happily, a year later, the widow has providentially it seems connected with one of the pastors who was at that service (to comfort former church members who had moved there) and they are engaged. I really desired to interview them in person, but since I’ve interviewed him many times, I at least felt I could somewhat anticipate his mannerisms when I interviewed them on speaker phone. I was delighted when she openly shared a few times, “I’m blushing now!” (http://bit.ly/swx6i )

Even in learning about the engagement before the interview, I made a connection. I had already told the pastor in congratulating him of the story of my sister and how she lost her husband—and that she too had married about a year after he died.  When I interviewed the couple, I briefly shared this information again and asked her to expand on the timing in order for our readers to better understand the situation—knowing too well there is sometimes a misunderstanding of the motives when this occurs.

An unexpected rush of longing and understanding came over me when she described how her children had gathered around a computer screen and helped her “check him out,” too. I remembered being 16 and waiting in the living room with my younger brothers to catch a glimpse of my mother’s date after helping her to primp. The man she met in the single’s again group at church later became my stepfather—her knight in shining armor for nearly 25 years until she died. When interviwing people, I ask them to tell me in as much detail exactly what happened when I can’t be there to observe.

Several years ago an older intern asked me how she could get to where I was—I think believing a journalism degree would launch her career even though she was nearly my age. I can’t be sure that’s exactly what she meant, except that she pointed to the nameplate and title on my desk.

When I finished closing my mouth long enough to think about it, other than shooting off the obvious–you could rewind about 30 years and start in the Navy as a freelancer, pick up a few degrees on the way, teach high school and college classes, and write and edit hundreds of stories–I contemplated saying, well, you could start by taking a few steps back from my desk and not chat me up. You could watch and observe for a while. You could read. You might start by asking me about myself. What I value, who I admire, who my mentors were/are. We might share lunch. We could talk about our families. I might lend some of my prized books to you (if I could get them back from the last person I shared them with). You could tell me about yourself. You could go on a few mission trips. You could ask God to reveal to you His plan for your place in communications and watch Him work it out (another blog, another day). I hope you get the idea. I’m not sure I can ever share 10 tips for becoming whatever it is you think I am.

Finally, writing is more than stringing words together in a sentence. It’s more than style, form and function. Like my Hispanic friends would say, each genre has a heart language all its own. I am thankful that God has allowed me the challenges and opportunities to connect with subjects, so the stories I write may connect with readers. I pray it is so.

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