The thing about being a writer

A student I mentor e-mailed me today, asking for advice on a job she had her eye on. She was worried, she said, that she wasn’t a good enough writer for the work.

What’s more important, she asked, reporting or writing?

While that question is a bit chicken-or-the-egg, I do land solidly on one side of the road.

My first “real” job out of college was at a newspaper in Maine. I covered very small towns with issues and topics unique to small town life and politics. They were the kind of towns where the nearest grocery store was at least 25 minutes away (and the most direct route there was accessible only by a single road in or out of town).

I was a cub reporter, so my appetite for bylines was strong, and so I dove into the towns and their people and their stories headlong.

I made a point to be out of the office as often as possible, and put more miles on my car in my first year on the job than I had put on it the entire three years previous.

I didn’t just cover town meetings and crime and school board proceedings, I sat in the gathering spots and listened.

In one of my towns, that meant frequenting a sub shop (who made the best non-greasy Italian sub I’ve ever had). It had creaky floors inside, where the floor boards were warped only in the places people tread most often. Outside, there was barely room to park a single car, so there was often creative juggling if someone was lingering inside.

“That ya pick-up, Tom?”

“Ayuh, you need me ta get out the way?”

“Ayuh, less you’re wantin’ a new cah.”

After weeks of taking up residence in the sub shop, I learned the ebb and flow of the folks in town: How nearly everyone commuted at least 45 minutes to work and what time most people left their houses; Where the best coffee was (or wasn’t) and who you could always count on to ask for the real scoop and truth behind the latest town gossip…

But most importantly, I learned what these towns sounded like — from the inside out.

I wrote plenty of stories that got people mad “now, Elizabeth you KNOW I was just fired up at that town meeting last night, did you HAVE to use that quote?”

“Yes,” I’d say, “and that’s why I used it. I wanted people to know you were fired up.”

But they also knew I treated everyone as I wanted to be treated: Respectfully and honestly.

Sure, I’m a half-decent writer, but the truth is, if you do not first listen and understand the people, places, and context around you, it does not matter if you throw Merriam Webster at a story — it will not have the same weight or impact.

Listen to understand first.

You can explain anything better if you turn off your reflex to respond immediately.


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