Tips

Reporting Advice: Shut Up and Listen

When I made the resolution back in January to get out and do more of the kinds of immersive reporting I love this year, I had no idea what that was going to mean. Fast forward four months, and I’m in New York City for the second time in two months deep into reporting on an issue vital to American society right now. (Stay tuned: I’ll reveal exactly what that is soon.)

It’s always interesting to report while on the move, whether that is a nearby town to where you live, or a city 1,000 miles away where you have to move from an AirBNB to a journalist friend’s bedroom to save on costs so you actually end up getting paid for all your efforts. So much about it is logistics: You have to make the call, or send the email, to get to who you want.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my years of reporting: Always ask. That is, no matter who you want to interview, always try. Of course, anyone can say no, but they often won’t, especially if you clearly have done your homework and you really want to hear what they have to say.

If You’re Writing To Change, You Will Be Criticized

A week ago, I published my latest opinion column in The Guardian, knowing full well that it would cause a shit-storm. As a fairly progressive writer and person, I’ve discovered over the years that it’s not the people with polar-opposite beliefs who can be the most offensive, and even hurtful, when I write something they disagree with; it’s the people who expect you to carry the same water who can get the most upset.

No one likes a traitor. Or, at least someone they decide is a traitor. They will cheer you on and put you on a pedestal as long as you stay in their line, but when you dare to step out and look at something differently, you’d better look out. So, what results is a whole bunch of writers and journalists who either pander to a certain choir, and pull punches that crowd wouldn’t like, or who split boring stories down the middle with quotes from two “sides” and call it objective. Of course, it’s also usually boring and does little to make someone think.

I don’t write or choose my topics that way. I don’t play it safe.

Never Fear the R-Word: Reporting

It’s inevitable. When I launch a new Writing to Change 101 non-fiction class series, I get nervous-but-excited students signing up, many of whom are well into adulthood and have itched to write their entire lives. They want to tell their stories in one way or another, and all have stories to tell.

Many of them have had trouble sitting down long enough to write a few sentences, or they fear they won’t be any good, or they fear that somebody either will or won’t read their work. In many cases, they just don’t know how to get started. They know there’s at least one good story resting inside themselves, but they don’t know how to pull it out.

I send them a list comprised mostly of award-winning stories my paper has published, and then they show up and gather around the table. We talk about their obstacles, do some warm-up free writing, and then I get to the “writing process” part. And each time, I know many of them will be shocked by the second step on the sheet.

The first step is easy. They need an idea. Most of them have more of them, at least vague ones, than they know what to do with.

The second step on the list is “report.” This is where the fear sets in and, sometimes, the protestations.

“I’m not here to be a reporter,” one or another might say.

Damn, That’s Bad. But That’s Good!

I see it every time I start a new series of my narrative non-fiction writing classes. A group of folks who have wanted to write much of their lives, and haven’t figured how to make themselves to do it yet, crowd around my big table with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.

For the first class, I have students do a free write about their obstacle(s) to writing. We then discuss the obstacles and, almost to a person, their obstacle ends up being about fear. (Even the time-management monster so many live with is often about fear when they’re really honest about it, but we’ll get to that later.)

I don’t want to sound dumb.

I don’t spell well.

I don’t think I’m good enough.

I might be embarrassed or criticized.

All about fear. Every single one of them.

But fear of what? Usually of looking stupid, or of being exposed as a poser, which is the same thing. As someone who grew up in Mississippi where we have elevated deep-held inferiority complexes to an art form, I get what this feels like. To this very day, I have to overcome (usually) fleeting moments of feeling like I’m not worthy right before I pitch an idea or project I know that I’m full well capable of nailing. And I know I’ve lost opportunities due to this fear of not being good enough slapping me silly and causing me to not return a call or follow up something I should. It’s always about fear, if I’m honest.

My Advice To New Writers: Just Start

Sometimes a moment is so much bigger than you are.

In June 2007, I was sitting a few pews back in Federal Judge Henry Wingate’s walnut-paneled courtroom on the second floor of the James O. Eastland Federal Courthouse in downtown Jackson. As I listened, almost holding my breath, Kathy Nester, the defense attorney for James Ford Seale, argued vehemently that the jury should not be allowed to see a story I’d written detailing journals from 1964. During the week-long trial, Nester—who happened to be a friend of mine on all days other than those—also fought to keep my other reported narratives about the Ku Klux Klan murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee out of the record.

I knew Kathy was doing her job, trying to give Seale a fair trial, but I was doing mine, too, and I had told those stories to help bring justice for those murders oh-so-belatedly. I also wanted to talk back, through the power of story, to people who said old Klan murderers are too old to bother with. I wanted to prove that native Mississippians, like Kate and me, craved justice and humanity and empathy enough to work really hard to make it happen. As I sat on the pews listening, or when I went up and down in the elevator, I knew it was out of my hands, but I prayed my stories would help those jurors and anyone paying attention truly feel what had happened to those families and how horribly wrong it was.

I was so focused on those outcomes that I could barely look at Kathy on one ride up in the elevator.

“So,” she said, clearly respecting the moment, “we’ll have to have a martini some day after the trial is over.”

I could barely answer. “Harumph,” I believe I managed to get out. I know she understood, even as she was a professional doing her job, too.