Last month, journalist, filmmaker and military veteran Zack Baddorf made a plea, in an essay for Nieman Reports, that more veterans consider careers in journalism and more newsrooms hire veterans. Besides more accurate subject expertise, he wrote, “vets bring with them objectivity, neutrality, and ability to work in crisis — all valuable attributes for newsrooms.”
While Pam Constable is not a military veteran, she is a veteran of more than 30 years of reporting from conflict zones. In that time, she has done work that embodies every one of the characteristics Baddorf notes.
Now Constable is trying on a different pace and view. She recently returned to the U.S. after a tour as bureau chief in Afghanistan/Pakistan for the Washington Post, and has moved to a part-time contract position with the Post as she works on another book. (Read her sobering essay on the U.S. she found upon her return.)
“I’m looking out my window now, at a green field (in Virginia), with a white fence around it,” she said. “There are birds in the trees, and a dog outside on my porch. When I looked outside my window in Kabul, I saw two story-high concrete walls with razor wire on top.”
Constable reported from Iraq, South Asia and other conflict zones for the Post. Her writing style is riveting, humane, and deeply narrative, getting to the heart of every broken dream with such rapid-fire clarity and compassion that it’s hard to fathom the personal cost of that work.
A passage by Constable from her memoir, “Fragments of Grace:”
How strange it feels and yet how familiar. Once more I am alone, wedged into a window seat, sleepless at dawn, floating between continents and commitments. Far below, civilizations rise and fall, forest fires rage and die out. A child cries and no one picks her up, a spindly burro totters along a road under a mountain of bricks, a man watches a shadow creep across a cell wall. These images touch me, but they cannot hold me. I jet in and out of other people’s sealed fates, I devour their pain and transform it into prose and move on, clutching a passport from the most powerful nation on Earth.
Since 1982 Constable has largely lived out of a suitcase — a very compact one, minus the luxuries ordinarily found in American flight bags. She’s reported from Latin America, Central America, the Caribbean, and South Asia during political, military, economic and civil strife. She lived and worked in Chile under the Pinochet regime, and in Afghanistan during and after Taliban rule.
Besides packing needed field gear, including modest clothing for the Muslim countries where she’s worked, she also carries another kind of suitcase — a mental carry-on with tools of the foreign correspondent trade, mastered during years in the field: self-reliance, flexibility, and hyper-awareness.I’ve been following Constable’s work for a decade, since shape-shifting my 35-year career as a professional singer/songwriter to newspaper reporter to freelancer. My acquaintance with her, however, started 53 years ago. We were classmates at a private boarding school in Connecticut. We took similar classes, read the same books, and wrote different but equally impassioned term papers. But all likeness stops there. I took to the stage, while she took to regions under siege from combat and poverty.
Constable studied American civilization at Brown University, then built a solid career as a newspaper reporter and foreign correspondent, from the Baltimore Sun to the Boston Globe and finally to the Post in 1994. During that time, she also published three books, one each about conflicts in Chile, South Asia and Pakistan.
With conflict leading the headlines and at home in the U.S., I felt compelled to reach out to Constable for guidance, both in story craft and mentorship. How does she maintain her cool while bombs explode around her? How does she keep her language fresh when writing stories that, dramatic as they are, have an inevitable sameness? How does she maintain a sense of compassion and hope after repeated exposure to violence and suffering?
My summary of her responses: Soldier on. Meet your breaking news deadlines but dig in deeper with follow-up stories, maybe even a book. Keep the pen/the computer keys moving while maintaining hyper-alertness to every nuance, every shadow. Seek out the humanity behind every bullet — which are the true stories behind the story.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Were there special challenges that came with being a woman working in warzones, and in Muslim countries?
In almost every country I’ve worked in, there were other women doing similar jobs, both local and foreign. So I wasn’t such an anomaly. I would say though, there were plenty of times when it was physically difficult to keep up, especially when I was working alongside the U.S. military or sometimes the international military.
There were only a few times that I felt truly uncomfortable as a woman. For example, there was a short window of time when the Taliban regime was in power in Kabul and women had very strict limitations on what they could do and where they could go. Of course, we had to cover up and wear modest, loose clothing. But we didn’t have to cover our faces.
People would often wonder what I was doing in a foreign country all by myself, but rarely did I get questions that I thought were really insulting. It was more, I would say, curiosity…The way they responded to me had much more to do with whether or not they had any opinion or prejudices about Americans, about the West, about journalists, and last but not least, about how they felt dealing with a woman as a professional, especially if she was a foreigner.
What advice would you give women (or men) who want to pursue this kind of work?
Young people today tend to think of journalism as being on camera, or online, or something that’s relatively technical and safe. When you report from poor and conflicted countries, you’re often in conditions of real hardship and uncertainty. You don’t necessarily even know what you’re going to do the next day, or the next moment. You have to be self-reliant, flexible, and aware of your surroundings… You wake up in the morning and you need to figure out, OK, has something important happened today? If so, what do I do about it? Where should I go? Who should I talk to? You’re really on your own. You can’t just call the office.
Language is another issue. You need to know the language or have somebody with you who does, because there is no point in going somewhere abroad if you’re not going to be able to have a really meaningful conversation. I’m fluent in French and Spanish, which I used for many years reporting in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the years I’ve been reporting in the Middle East and South Asia, I’ve learned bits and pieces of Hindi, Urdu, Persian and Arabic. But because there are so many different countries with so many different languages, I really never learned any of them in particular. By absolute necessity, I’ve always had one or more translators working with me.
What special writing techniques have you developed under intense deadline?
In the first draft of a breaking news story you’re not going to think so much about finding the best adjective and adverb. You want to just get something out as soon as you can, whatever time of day or night it is. Then once you’ve done that, you have a little more time. You can go back and think about it and talk to more people. Then you usually have a chance to rewrite your story, sometimes even three or four times, in a slower fashion that has more depth, that has more creativity. But when you’re just dealing with the facts of an incident or crisis, you just have to get it out.
Can you give me an example of how you’ve written multiple stories about the same incident?
There was a very bad suicide bombing one morning in Afghanistan two years ago, probably the worst they’ve ever had in the capital. It was about a half-a-mile from my office. I went out to report and was on the cellphone calling into my assistant, writing everything down quickly, and he would send the basic information back to the editors in Washington. I spent many hours interviewing people at hospitals, at the scene of the bomb itself, and went back to the office at 4 or 5 p.m. I wrote the entire story of what had happened during the day, but I wrote it in a better, more descriptive way. I put in context, and when that was done, later that night I sat down and wrote yet another story, which was a personal feature, how it affected me, and how I felt about the tragedy of that day.
How do you keep your language fresh?
After all these years, all these emergency kinds of reporting, you become creatively exhausted. It’s hard to find new ways to write about the same thing. It’s hard to find new words, new expressions, or new descriptions. And it’s easy to fall back on the same language you’ve used in the past, especially if you’re on deadline. So you have to try even harder to find unusual aspects of things to single out or focus on. If you just stick to the main story it’s going to sound like all the others. But if you have a little extra time, you can talk to a few people who had unusual experiences, or tales to tell, that can keep it fresh and give you a new linguistic perch.
I’ll give you a really good example… There was a quiet neighborhood near me in Kabul, and there was a little old guy who repaired shoes in a little old cobbler shop. Quite a few times I talked to him while I had him fix my shoes, and thought, this would be an interesting neighborhood profile. So I went back four or five times and talked to all the little local shops that had all been there a very long time, and discovered every single person in every one of those shops had had some personal tragedy in the previous war, either the Soviet war or the civil war or with the Taliban. They’d lost relatives; they’d been bombed; they’d been injured. There was not a single shop in this whole neighborhood that hadn’t been physically and personally affected by these wars. It made a great little story.
What kinds of activities did you engage in to counter the effects of repeated exposure to traumatic events?
I would come home on brief leaves every few months. That helped a lot. I’ve also always been involved in rescuing animals in every country I’ve ever worked in overseas. Animals gravitate toward me. That’s the main thing that keeps me sort of happy and feeling like I’ve done something useful and important in situations where it’s hard to find good or happy news.
How did you find time to write books? And how does this style of writing differ from your news writing?
It’s very difficult to write a book if you’re still working full time in the news because you’re constantly distracted. When you’re working on a book you think about it all the time. You wake up in the middle of the night and remember something you wanted to say, or a phrase you wanted to change. It really consumes you. Most writers I know have tried to get fellowships, or take off at least six to nine months so they can really get the bulk of their book done in peace and quiet. You can always do the final version and the editing later on.
I co-authored my first book with another writer, when I was working for the Boston Globe. It’s about military dictatorship in Chile. I’d lived in Chile off and on for a number of years during the second half of the dictatorship, so I’d lived through it very intensely. When I was reporting for the newspaper, I was doing daily news or features. But then I had an intermediary format where I won a fellowship to do more in-depth magazine-like stories. For that project, which lasted a year, I published four or six long features about different aspects of life under military rule. Those features became the basis for various chapters in the book. Again, it was a gradual progression from covering demonstrations and all sorts of things that were happening under the dictatorship, then doing longer forms sit-back pieces and really doing some in-depth interviews.
What’s been your biggest adjustment returning to the U.S.?
I’ve lived overseas for various periods of time, in various countries for many, many years, but I’m used to coming back, for just two weeks at a time, sometimes for months, and a couple of stints for a few years. Still, it’s really the modern nature of this country and how people live that’s always a bit shocking when you’ve been in a poor and conflicted country. There’s so much freedom here, so much choice, and so many distractions.
I’m very allergic to a lot of modern technology. I don’t have a television set, for example. And I don’t go on Facebook or anything. I try to minimize technological distraction so that I can spend more time reading, writing and thinking. I do listen to a lot of music, and I communicate mostly by email and What’sApp, because those are individual messages, which I’m fine with. I’m very wary of the Internet and social media. There’s a way to be balanced, a way to not let it take over your life. I think that’s really important for everyone, not just writers.
I’ve been doing a number of events speaking and some lecturing, also trying to catch up with friends and family. And I’m working on some writing projects. I’m also doing some part-time writing for the paper. I’m now just a consultant for the paper, not staff any more. But I’ll be travelling back to Afghanistan for the holidays and doing some reporting from time-to-time, as well as writing personal essays on foreign topics, also trying to start work on a book, which I put aside several years ago because I was just working too much. It’s another memoir. It has a lot to do with various aspects of life, including nature and animals. It’s a project I really care about and I’m anxious to pick it up again.