In the too-close village and crowded confines of the house of my childhood, my mother enforced wise social survival rules: Mind your own business. Don’t go poking. Don’t be nosey. That’s not, on the surface, the stuff of a good journalist and I wasn’t the most obedient of daughters. But as frustrated as my mother sometimes was with my rat-a-tat questions and where it led me in life, she stood firm against anyone who tried to tamp down my hunger to learn. That meant she honored and, in her own way, encouraged my curiosity.
Curiosity. That’s not a comfortable path through life, perhaps most especially for those of us who aspire to intimacy narratives — deep immersions into other lives and experiences and situations. It may not seem as aggressive — prosecutorial — as investigative journalism, but it sure doesn’t seem polite.
I recently hosted five accomplished journalists in my home for a weekend writers’ retreat. Each is struggling with a big story that both draws and eludes them. Some of their struggles are about structure. Some about story genre. Some about publication placement. All at some level, regardless of career accomplishments and fellowships and books, are insecure. I listen to their writing challenges and then ask different questions: What’s in your notebook and what’s not? What do you need to know that you don’t and what prevents you from getting it?
When we started, I gave them the run of my house, challenging them to wander, notice, wonder and surmise. Open any door. Open any drawer. Respect the space, but explore. If you pull something off a shelf, please put it back. If you break or spill something, please clean it up.
Then we regathered. The discussion was wide-ranging, about all aspects of the craft. We talked about the time we don’t have, the assumptions we bring to a situation, the yammering editors messing up our heads. They were fascinated with hearing what others had noticed that they hadn’t.
But soon enough they got to the heart of things: Curiosity and comfort — or lack of same. And those who had gone deepest into my drawers and closets and shelves spoke as if in a confessional when they admitted where they had looked, even though I had issued the open invitation. When I asked why, one said: “Because it’s just not done.”
Aha. Not done. By whom? Polite society of course.
The uncomfortable necessities of journalism
That got us back to the challenge of doing good journalism — necessary journalism — according to the conventions of polite society. And that allowed us to differentiate between polite conventions and true kindness. Which prompted us to explore not whether we ask, but how and why. Are we ready to explain our purposes and processes to the people we interview? Can we help them understand what we need for a credible story, and why? And can we separate, in our work, the need to find out with the assumption that we will publish. Those are two separate decisions, but I’ve never known how to decide what is and isn’t relevant to a piece if I don’t know as much as I can.
This promises to be a rich if uncomfortable weekend. But it ties back, for me, to a moment of grace I had with a young journalist I was talking to a few days ago as she worked through multiple drafts of a complex and sensitive story. She, by her own admission, likes “wonky policy stuff” and, for this project, needs to ask about deeply personal stuff — the kinds of things we don’t ask about in polite society.
So we probed what she did and didn’t know, needed and didn’t need, about the personal experiences that illuminated the wonky policies she was writing about. That’s when she surprised — delighted me — with this:
“My superpower is to sit with people in discomfort.”
There is nothing unkind about that. If anything, it is the epitome of kindness.