But sometimes, the story is. Or at least the journalist is living the same story as his or her sources and readers.
That is especially true in times of shared crisis: The devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans; being on-the-ground and under fire in the middle of a war zone; working in a profession that is besieged by economic and digital disruption.
And now, in the same-boat realities of coronavirus.
That’s not just true for journalists, of course. Pandemic diaries have almost become a cliche on social media. As for the bleed between personal and professional, consider health care professionals, first responders, pastors, funeral directors, teachers now online with their students and home with their own kids. And let’s not forget those grocery clerks and delivery drivers.
But when journalists become part of the stories they cover, they have a range of professional and ethical decisions to make. First among them: Do they — or how do they — draw on their personal experience or situation to write a relevant, credible and relatable story?
Dan Barry of The New York Times faced those decisions when he became part of a family drama that was both acutely personal and tragically universal: What do you do when a loved one is at risk of both debilitating illness and debilitating loneliness because of the coronavirus.
The headline in his March 19 story says it all:
92 Years Old, Scared and Pleading to Come Home
From there, Barry takes us deep into a family’s all-too-common dilemma: Should they take their father out of a nursing home? In just 1,200 words, he follows a life journey to a moment of crisis, and unspools the decisions that had to be made.
FAIR WARNING: If you’re someone who can’t stand spoilers, I urge you to read the story before you dive into this. And if you’re tapped out on coronavirus stories, you might want to bookmark this one for later.
Otherwise, join me for a study of what we can learn from Barry’s story, and for a quick conversation I had with him about five journalistic techniques that made it work.
Renowned writing coach and scholar Roy Peter Clark calls this selection. Whatever your terminology, it’s a technique used by skillful writers to provide essential backstory through summary rather than drawn-out chronology. It is something of a magic key to tight writing, and can often be more affecting for the reader, Rather than drag on — and drag down a forward-moving narrative — it highlights just a few elemental examples that are specific to the story but let the reader imagine the fuller picture, either because the backstory is common enough for them to relate to directly, or because they have learned knowledge. That notion of letting the reader bring themselves to parts the narrative — as they do to pieces of art — is one I first hard expressed that way by Pulitzer winner Tom French.
Another way to think of it is like imagining going through snapshots in a photo album. Let’s say a friend takes an epic vacation, and you want to share their experience a bit. They show you trip highlights that best capture that experience, but you don’t have to sit through a two-week video.
Barry employs that technique to great effect throughout his story. It allows him to capture the sweep of a man’s life in a handful of tight paragraphs. Among them:
He taught drama and speech at Jonathan Dayton High School in nearby Springfield for 30 years. The photos of him in yearbooks stored in the basement mark time’s passage, progressing from military-style buzz cuts to blondish-gray hair touching the ears.
Mr. Trinity retired but sold real estate part-time. Children married. His Mary died at 62: irreplaceable. Grandchildren crawled, then walked, then invited him to high school and college and law school graduations.
Mobility declined, and some independence was forfeited, reluctantly. But there was a cocktail before dinner, and “Jeopardy” at 7, and family gatherings on Sundays and holidays — until it was all interrupted by a fall.
It sets the story in a specific place — and shows the universal changes visited on that place by the virus outbreak. This is the view Barry offers from an ambulance ride through Mr. Trinity’s neighborhood. (Barry was driving the same route, just behind the ambulance).
Past the West Essex Y.M.C.A., closed, and the Livingston Public Library, closed. Past an electronic sign reminding people to wash hands, and a ShopRite so packed that the presence of a police car with blinking lights was required.
Barry even uses the technique is in opening paragraph, which invites us directly and poignantly into the heartbreaking reality of elderly one loves separated from family.
His daughters were not at his bedside, holding his hand. His sons were not making him smile with wisecracks about the institutional setting. His grandchildren were not cheering him up with reports from the distant world of youth.
I asked Barry about his use of compression — whether it is conscious when he writes (or rewrites), or whether it is something he has internalized over the years. His answer:
“As I was writing, I found myself falling into a kind of ‘He was born in 1927’ kind of section. More chronological. It would have been fine, I suppose; the background is necessary to care, really care, about the man. But I wanted it to be faster. I think you always have to be thinking, How can I do this better? How can I make it more seamless? More inviting? More economical, but not at the expense of emotional impact? I decided to rewrite it so that his fall in the house he loved came first. He is taken away by ambulance, and here — his past, his present — is what he is leaving behind. Here is the context. This worked, almost accidentally, because the ambulance becomes a quiet touchstone throughout. Taking him away. Returning him home.”
The publication date of Barry’s story is Thursday, March 19, just as nursing homes and senior living centers around the country were closing their doors to visitors. Mr. Trinity’s fall, surgery and admittance to a rehabilitation facility collided with those isolation orders. This from Barry on his story’s turnaround time:
“I felt an urgency to write this, in part because it seemed so universal — so of this moment. I got my father-in-law’s okay in the late afternoon on Monday, then went home to check on the positions taken by health care associations and state and federal governments.
“On Tuesday morning I began writing, and had it done a little after noon. The hardest part of me is always the lede; that took the longest, getting the tone down to my satisfaction, and making sure it was intriguing enough; alluring enough; and grounded in an institution somehow.”
Writers who tell their own stories sometimes think memory is enough. After all, they were there. They lived the story — or watched directly as it was lived around them. But brain science increasingly shows us that memory can be mushy. The more personal and emotional an event, the more than memory can be clouded by those emotions.
Writers who do pure memoir debate how much needs to verified and how much can be framed as a story that’s true to them. Journalists are schooled to always check where information comes from, and to corroborate it whenever possible.
Barry was straddling between the two — writing a story he witnessed and lived, but also doing reported journalism. He wasn’t planning to write a piece when events were first set in motion. Once his editor nudged him to consider an essay about what was becoming a universal tension, the reporter in him took over:
“On Saturday night, the family connected by conference call to decide what to do. I listened in, but didn’t really say anything. …
“On Monday, I drove to the rehab facility just in time to see my father-in-law being wheeled out on a gurney. He was so happy to be out of there, to be in the daylight — even to see me. He actually asked: Is there a story in all this? (I don’t know if he meant it or if he was teasing me — again.) I took notes and photos.
“I had done reporting on the ride home from the rehab center as I followed the ambulance. I took photos at the center and at red lights, and recited notes into a voice memo app. So after I finished the draft, I did fact checking with my wife. What year did your parents get married? Did he teach drama? Or drama and speech? Did you guys used to go to McDonald’s when you were at the summer-vacation motels? (No, it was usually pizza.)”
4. Source ethics
We talk a lot about the imperative of transparency with readers. But that ethic also applies to sources. With intimate narratives that follow a personal situation, the imperative of transparency often needs to go beyond disclosure to agreement: Do we have permission to make that story public? (This also could be seen differently through a journalist vs memoirist lens. That’s a fuller exploration for another time.)
Barry had insider access to this story as a family member — not a journalist. So I was especially curious about how he dealt with journalistic ethics within his personal relationships. Was it simply understood and accepted that he likely would write about this? Or did he seek overt agreement?
“I knew instinctively that there was a story in all this, but it didn’t occur to me to write a reported essay for the Times until I mentioned what was happening in a note to the Metro editor, Cliff Levy — and he quickly asked whether I would be comfortable writing about it. I checked with my wife, who checked with her siblings, and they were all fine with the idea; they understood that many other families were facing the same dilemma.
“But it wasn’t until I knew that I had my father-in-law’s approval that I began to actually write.
“And even then, quite frankly, I first showed the draft to my wife before anyone else. She usually reads my stuff before publication — she’s a non-journalist with an unerring sense for clarity and story — but in this case, it was obviously personal. After a tweak of a word here and there — for nuance, not fact — she teared up a bit, but gave it the thumbs-up, and I sent it to my editors.”
5. The reveal
That’s a term I first remember hearing from magazine writer Chris Jones. As I understand it, it refers to the build of a narrative, pulling the reader along to a profound moment of revelation or meaning or relevant surprise. It is seldom the same as the newsy “what happened” of a story, or even the contextual nut graph. I think of it as that late-in-a-movie moment when the viewer is given an invitation to reconsider the entire story — or at least to understand it more fully.
I was especially interested in whether, and how, Barry would handle an essential reveal in his reported essay. I follow what I can of Barry’s work directly in The New York Times. But I can’t possibly see everything. I stumbled across this piece via a Facebook post of his, when he mentioned a coronavirus story that had enormous personal meaning to him.
As I read the published piece, I could infer that personal connection because of the main character’s name: Trinity. I knew Barry was married to Mary Trinity, knowledge that came from conversations over the years, or perhaps his memoir “Pull Me Up.” But as I read, it wasn’t there — until the very end. Actually in the last two words of the piece, as Joe Trinity is wheeled back into his home, welcomed by six of his offspring, and greeted inside by framed family photos and bouquets.
“The flowers are beautiful,” said Joe Trinity, my father-in-law.
Here’s Barry’s response to my question about why he flagged the personal connection on Facebook, but saved it until the very end in the Times’ piece:
“I was more straightforward in my Facebook post because friends and relatives know that I’m married to Mary Trinity. But even then, I only said the case was particularly close to me, without revealing exactly why.
“I have to say that I grappled with the personal/public nature of the piece early on. If I mentioned that he was my father-in-law at the top, it might make the piece less accessible; readers might not feel as included. So early on I knew that I would save that detail — that this was my father-in-law — until the end. Not to be cute so much as to not get in the way of HIS story, and then to signal how I knew so much, and had such access.”
Five universal lessons from a universal story.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t add this last note with my email conversation with Barry, when I asked permission to use a photo of his father-in-law:
“And, yes, of course, you can use that photo of this lovely man.”