Archive for February, 2012

Can a Good Writer Make a Story Out of ANYTHING?

February 27, 2012

Not too long ago, I got a great assignment from the editor of a website devoted to religion. She had identified seven key ethical values — empathy, compassion, spirituality and a few others — and she wanted me to create a kind of grid showing how each of these values develop in children, with boxes for infancy, toddlerhood, preschool-age kids, middle-grades kids, and teens.

Now, it was pretty easy to find experts on and research about how children of all ages demonstrate values like empathy and compassion. Studies show, for example, that even very young babies will cry when they see another baby crying. But there was simply no evidence, no studies, no nothing –at least not back then — to show that babies can feel spiritual. I contacted child-development scientists and authors at major research universities and facilities, and got the same answer: Spirituality develops later.

So I finally called my editor, who resisted my explanations, evidently because the horror of a blank box in her grid outweighed any need for facts. “Come on now,” she said condescendingly. “You know as well as I do that a good writer can make a story about anything.”

I was speechless. My first thought was that I couldn’t believe what she was saying.

My second thought was that she was right.

More recently, I took my young daughter and her friend to a classical music concert at a local community center, and was approached by a reporter and cameraman from a local TV station. The reporter held the mike to my face and asked why I had decided to come out with young children on such a cold, dark night.

“I knew the music would be beautiful, and I wanted to enjoy it with them,” I said.

“Did you come to be part of the great community spirit here tonight?”

“No,” I said. “I just wanted to hear the music.”

“But would you agree that there’s a wonderful feeling of community, with so many people from town coming together?”

“I guess,” I said. “But we came for the music.”

Not surprisingly, when I saw this story on the local news the next night, I was not part of it. Instead, there were a bunch of people talking about — what else? — community.

As for my story, I went back to my old sources, found some new sources, stressed that I needed something, and finally was able to weave together a few vague sentences that linked babies and spirituality, albeit with the thinnest of threads. I never wrote again for that website.

Sure, I guess a good writer can make a story out of anything.

Just not sure I want to be that writer.

How about you? Have you ever had to create a story where there was none?

Another resigned day in the life of just another working writer.

 

Advertisements

Article Interviews: Why Do They Talk?

February 16, 2012

A few years back when I was on staff a at trade magazine, I set out to interview a key merchandising executive at Bloomingdale’s. Susan K. was glamorous, sophisticated, powerful, and notoriously press-averse.

“Everybody already knows who I am and what I stand for,” she told me. “Manufacturers and designers all want to get their products onto my floor.  The only possible thing that could happen if I do the interview is I could say something wrong and get people mad at me. Why would I consent to that?”

Why indeed? Why take the risk?

I was thinking about this situation not too long ago, while I was writing an article for a regional magazine about the pros and cons of living a rural life. I had contacted a writer friend of mine who lives in the country, and she spoke eloquently–almost lyrically–about the joy of driving home on winding roads after a long day at work.

“If you quote me, do you have to use my name and hometown?” she asked.

I did. That was the magazine’s policy. She told me that she didn’t like being so exposed in print — but then she said she would do it this time, and she looked forward to seeing my piece.

I wondered: Why did she agree to be published? Was it because I was her friend and she didn’t want to disappoint me? Had I gotten her to do something she didn’t want to do? Did that make me a bad friend?

Another time I was working on an article about developmental delays in children, and through a friend of a friend, got in touch with the mother of a severely disabled preschooler. The child had motor issues and language problems, and Mom’s entire life revolved around doctor appointments and physical therapy sessions. Worried that she would regret being so open, I offered to hold back on anything she preferred to remain unpublished — but no, she said, she was fine with my printing everything she said.

Why did she agree to be published? Did she really want to be as open as she claimed she did? Would the right thing be to hold back on some of her more personal quotes, as a way of protecting her from her own candor? Did I exploit her to write a good story?

Now, my interviews don’t always proceed this way. Some people ask to see their quotes before the article is printed. Some people even ask me to repeat their quotes two or three times, as though their whole world might collapse if they used the word “this” instead of “that.” Sometimes it’s because they’ve been misquoted by others in the past, and sometimes it’s because they have never been quoted, so they don’t know what to expect. And some people just don’t like to relinquish control.

And what of my Bloomingdale’s friend? She ultimately and unexpectedly called me back and agreed to the interview — and enjoyed the whole process so much that she thanked me whenever she saw me for months.

Why did she talk?

Truth be told, I’ll never  know exactly why anyone I’ve contacted decides either to speak to me or not to. But if my years as a writer have taught me anything, it’s that being interviewed for publication entails consequences — and when people decide to do it, I want to make sure that they’ve reached that decision without being manipulated, and that I quote them accurately, objectively and in the proper context.

How about you? Have you ever tried to interview someone who felt conflicted about whether to talk? What did you say and what did they say? What finally happened?

Another diplomatic day in the life of just another working writer.

And P.S….my fellow blogger Nicole Cloutier (http://nicolecloutier.me) nominated my blog for a sunshine award. Now it’s my turn to spread the sunshine, so stay tuned for my great blog pics!

Why I Went Freelance: A Cautionary Tale

February 7, 2012

So I work on a kitchen table; my stapler and print cartridges are never where I left them, thanks to my thieving children; I have no steady income and am always out trolling for my next gig; and nearly all my telephone interviews are accompanied by the sound of my dog barking or the UPS deliveryman pounding on my door.

Why do I continue to believe that a freelancer’s life is the best writing life?

Let me tell you my story.

My first journalism job was as a reporter on a trade magazine that covered the furniture industry–a job I thought was the greatest that a person could ever have. I traveled all over the country, attending trade shows and press conferences, sniffing out mergers,executive shakeouts and other juicy bits of intrigue. I was wined and dined by marketing and PR folks (on nearly limitless expense accounts) trying to prove that their brands deserved coverage. I was the toast of the publishing team, my editor’s best reporter…

And that’s when they stabbed me in the back: They promoted me.

Now it was my reporters who traveled all over the country, while I stayed back in the office, correcting grammar, checking facts, and making nice  to hysterical sources who claimed my writers had misquoted them. My good friend at work suddenly hated me, because she wanted the promotion I got, and the rest of my staff hated me too, because they thought I was too young and inexperienced to be their boss (and truth be told, they were probably right).

And just when I thought things couldn’t get worse…they promoted me again.

This time, I was editor-in-chief of a monthly trade magazine–which meant that much of my time was spent accompanying my publisher on sales calls, a sign to prospective clients that if they bought a lot of advertising from him, they’d own a good piece of me. On the personnel side, one of the higher-ups stepped in to hire an acquaintance of his as a reporter — but when we realized that she couldn’t string together a sentence, I was the one who had to show her the door. Another day, another enemy. And finally, on the eve of a trade show, I got word that the company was considering closing my magazine unless I beefed up our reporting so more ads would come in. I pushed all of my reporters — even M., who had just come down with a nasty case of bronchitis — to work nearly round the clock to shore up our reputation.

The magazine was closed down the next week anyway. Then I had to call M. at home, where she lay feverish and miserable, to tell her that I had been saved but she was out of a job.

So I say to my family–give me your worst. Hide my stapler and steal my print cartridges. Let the dog carry on, and let the UPS guy pound from today until doomsday.

A staff job? I’ve been there. And I’m never going back!

What do you think? Would you rather join a staff or be freelance?

Another grateful day in the life of just another working writer.

Freelance Writing and the Long Goodbye

February 1, 2012

I’m afraid the time has come for me to talk about goodbyes.

Not too long ago, I scored a steady gig with a regional, glossy magazine. I had spent months painstakingly querying the managing editor, pitching ideas, and following up on emails, trying to be polite and firm but not annoying or pestering. Finally, she got the green light from her boss to give me an assignment — and that led to a regular quarterly column.

I loved writing for that magazine. I loved its luxurious photography. I loved its thick, glossy paper and the charming graphics that accompanied my articles. Mostly, I loved the relationship I formed with the managing editor–the greetings we’d send as my manuscripts went through various revises, the banter about clueless or too-talkative interviewees. I learned that she had a big house in the country, as well as a big, sloppy dog and a couple of kids, and she was planning to take a cruise on the new QE2. She was kind of a friend, although I never saw her except on the photo on the magazine’s masthead.

And then, last summer, after more than two years of steady writing, the email came, informing me that my beloved column had been canceled. “It’s nothing against you,” my editor-friend said. “It’s just that the editor-in-chief wants to scale down on the amount of copy we’re running and add more photo spreads.”

Sirens went off in my ears and red alarms started flashing in my brain, spurring me to act fast and salvage the relationship. Reminding myself that her company had two other publications in addition to the one I had been writing for, I fired back a response. “I completely understand,” I wrote, “and actually, I have a few ideas for your other magazines that I’d like to share with you. Do you have some time later this month? I’d love to stop by your office, or even buy you a cup of coffee.”

“Hmm, coffee sounds good,” she wrote back. “But we’re putting out the next issue, and things are a bit hectic. Let me call you in a month or so.”

No, she never did.

The bookshelves in my office are lined with magazine holders storing publications I used to write for but no longer do. Back when my kids were infants and toddlers, I wrote all the time for Parents and American Baby, using my own experiences as a source of ideas. But my kids started growing up at the same time that one of my favorite editors left American Baby to become a nurse, and those gigs sort of drifted away. I also used to be a book reviewer for bn.com — but my editor there left as well, and her successor decided to write the reviews in-house. I really miss those assignments.

Of course, there have been plenty of new gigs to take the place of those that went away. One of my long-term clients has kept me so busy lately that he’s changed my bio in the magazine from “freelance writer” to “regular contributor.” I’ve found great opportunities at online publications, and a few editors I thought I lost touch with have found me through the Internet and given me assignments from their new berths. Scouting out new opportunities is part of being a freelancer. It’s what makes freelancing fun.

Still, I can’t help wondering how my editor-friend’s big, sloppy dog is…and whether she enjoyed her cruise.

Another sentimental day in the life of just another working writer.


%d bloggers like this: