For the first Roundtable of July, our editors looked at “Diving headlong into a sunny paradise” by Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times. The story follows a young Wisconsin couple on their first day starting a new life in Florida. Appearing in print on Memorial Day, DeGregory’s piece was edited by Mike Wilson, the St. Petersburg Times’ managing editor for enterprise.
Our editors didn’t see each other’s comments as they wrote and haven’t yet read our interview with DeGregory about her story.
For bios of the Roundtable editors, see our January post.
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times
On reporting that nails the story:
[Full disclosure: I work with Lane, and while I’m not her editor, I have edited some of her stories in the past. I was on leave from the paper when she wrote this piece, so I wasn’t involved with it.]
When I was a new reporter, my editor had the good sense to give me the desk next to Lane DeGregory. He knew I’d learn just by eavesdropping over the half-wall of the cubicle.
The first thing I noticed was that I spent a lot more time at my desk than she did. She was always out chatting up convenience store clerks and truckers and God-knew-who. She couldn’t walk three blocks without making a new friend and arranging to follow them home. So when I saw this story in the newspaper, I could picture clearly how it came together.
Lane was on the bus. Of course she was. She goes where the story is and soaks it in. Lane’s stories always seem to unfold in places suggesting stale odors and crumpled lottery tickets. Lane doesn’t think she’s better than anybody. She genuinely loves people, and especially people who could use a break. That open spirit leads her to stories others overlook. Lane’s people are barflies, carnies, lost souls and anyone who gets nervous walking into a bank office. Her people ride the bus.
She recognized the story in front of her. If I’d been on that bus and noticed the pale people smooching, I would have smiled and tried not to stare. Not Lane. She got their story – they were escaping the frozen north and seeing Florida for the first time – and recognized what it represented. She was witnessing the mythic tug of the Florida dream, of eternal sunshine and oranges you can eat right off the trees. Forcing yourself to identify the larger idea in your narrative early on provides a clear mission for the reporting and writing.
She followed the story where it led. Lane and photojournalist John Pendygraft tagged along as the couple searched for the beach. They were willing to have their day hijacked by the unexpected story. They made room for serendipity. They recognized that their narrative was a quest, and to tell it they would need to report for action and allow it to unfold. Being there allowed Lane to capture moments like:
“What’s a pelican?”
“You know, like on Finding Nemo.”
She filled her notebook with detail and dialog. I like to deconstruct stories like this, to try to figure out what questions the reporter asked, and what she might have written in her notebook. She wasn’t with the couple as they packed and pulled away from Wisconsin, but her smart questions allowed her to maintain the narrative and her characters’ perspective as she weaves the backstory. Some questions Lane probably asked: What did the postcard look like? (A pelican on a piling …) Do you have it? Can I see it? What’s in your pocket? ($141, a half-pack of Marlboro reds) Can I look in your bag? (Jenna slipped a photo of her mom into a sock.)
Back at the office, she nailed down the rest of the story. Lane backgrounded her characters and discovered Dan was on probation. She had to decide whether that changed the nature of the story, and find a way to work it in without disrupting the narrative. (Jenna knows all about Dan’s past …) She researched the town they escaped. (Nine square miles of prairie, with 9,728 people and a prison.) She found the temperature in Wisconsin when they climbed on the bus. (39 degrees.) And every piece of background that she worked into the story helps explain how Dan and Jenna ended up in St. Petersburg.
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News
Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary:
[Full disclosure: I worked with Lane at The Virginian-Pilot in the early ’90s.]
Lane DeGregory notices characters and events that most other journalists pass by. She pays attention and lets curiosity guide her. She often recognizes a profound story lying just under the surface.
In following Dan and Jenna, Lane explores what draws some people to St. Petersburg. Sometimes, those reasons are random, romantic and irrational.
There’s no overarching trend in this story. No hard news nugget. No statistics graf. Instead, Lane steps out of the action and uses her narrator’s voice to underscore the universality of Dan and Jenna’s story. This is crucial: Lane helps the reader identify with the couple.
She does so by touching on the broader theme of escape:
Millions of people have done this, decided all their troubles would disappear, all their dreams would come true, if they moved to the land of eternal sunlight.
Dan and Jenna set out for the same reasons folks have flocked to Florida for more than a century: To stop shoveling snow. To escape. To start over.
They weren’t worried about unemployment rates or hurricanes or oil spills. They were young and in love and they had each other. All they needed were a few waves. And a tan.
If you remember what it was like to be young and in love and wanting to escape, then you understand Dan and Jenna’s story.
Lane also reminds us about how, after we’ve lived in a certain place for a long time, we no longer notice the extraordinary things around us. She gently tells her St. Petersburg readers to open their eyes: “After we have been here for a while, it’s easy to forget what a weird, wonderful place we live in, where blue herons wander through gas stations and bushes bloom all year.
We crank up the AC, close our blinds and watch TV. Instead of venturing into the Eden outside.
In the final scene, Lane uses Dan and Jenna’s kiss in the Gulf waters to return to the theme of escape and starting over – water is a symbol for birth and rebirth: “All their lives they had been surrounded by land, the whole country hemming them in. Now, they were at the edge of everything, about to dive in.”
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot
Gaining the trust of your subjects:
[Full disclosure: Lane was one of my writers here at The Pilot before she joined The Times, and she remains a close friend.]
Lane DeGregory is an editor’s dream for many reasons, but one in particular is how she manages to get people to share details that they wouldn’t tell their best friends. All narrative writers should strive for that intimacy.
People expect reporters to ask them basic questions, the who, the what, the when. With stories like this one, the reporting is much more involved. Notice that Lane pulled from this couple the details of their trip, what they took, how they left, what they were thinking. She found out what inspired them to go south, what they were hoping for, what they did once they arrived. She drew out emotions and reactions and gestures.
This is a story about a journey, and Lane wasn’t sitting next to them on that bus from Wisconsin, but she needed us to feel like she was. The only way to accomplish that was to get this couple to open up about everything, including their baggage – emotional and otherwise.
I haven’t talked to Lane about this story, so I don’t know exactly what she did to deserve their trust. But I know Lane, and I bet she did a few of the things she always does.
She was drawn to these guys. Lane has no interest in celebrities or politicians. She enjoys reaching out to people on the margins – even oddballs – to those other reporters ignore.
She asked them to share their story. I’m sure Lane treated them with dignity and made them feel important, like their experience was worthy of a headline.
She listened carefully and patiently. Anyone who wants to reach deep into someone else’s experience needs to not only draw out the details with good questions but also be quiet.
She was genuinely curious and compassionate. Lane always is. It’s second nature. She would have made a great bartender, too.
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune
Gaining the trust of the reader:
This is an unusual newspaper story – no nut graf, no news peg, no experts. What is it? (I can imagine many editors asking.) It is a brilliant moment in time, skillfully sandwiched between bad moments of the past and bad moments almost certainly yet to come. It is reminiscent in many ways of Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” How did Lane DeGregory do this? How did she pack so much pathos, hope and dread into one short piece? How did she make us believe it?
Sneaky attribution. Readers need grounding. We want to understand how the writer knows what she tells us. DeGregory tells us so sneakily we don’t even notice. Right up top, in the first graf: “He remembers every detail.” And, later, “Jenna knows all about Dan’s past.” The attribution is there throughout, just camouflaged.
Just enough context. There’s no nut graf in this story, but it is studded with context and meaning. Every so often DeGregory falls back from the action and reminds us that this story is not just about Dan and Jenna, but about all of us – about America, that great theme of striking out on one’s own and starting over. But each time she does this, she does it swiftly, and then immediately brings us back to our main characters.
Millions of people have done this, decided all their troubles would disappear, all their dreams would come true, if they moved to the land of eternal sunlight. Dan and Jenna set out for the same reasons folks have flocked to Florida for more than a century…
After we have been here for a while, it’s easy to forget what a weird, wonderful place we live in, where blue herons wander through gas stations and bushes bloom all year. … This young couple had journeyed more than 1,350 miles to find Florida. Now that they were here, things seemed so surreal.
All their lives they had been surrounded by land, the whole country hemming them in. Now, they were at the edge of everything, about to dive in.
No trauma, no extremes, no tragedy. Newspapers dwell in the world of extremes: The brave cancer patient, stoic to the end. The brutal murderer who kills someone in cold blood. This story resonates because these kids are so ordinary. It’s easy to believe the story, because it’s so easy to identify with it. We’ve either done something like this ourselves, or know someone who has.
Details provide credibility. The more you learn about Dan and Jenna, the more you can picture them. The more you see them, the more you believe them. And so the details – Jenna blinking in the too-bright sun; her Hannah Montana purse; her vari-colored fingernails; her hoodie sweatshirt; the way she hid a photograph of her mother in a sock. Dan’s haircut; his inky tattoos; his crooked smile. I wrote that list without referring back to the story because DeGregory had made these people so real I couldn’t forget them.
For more, read our interview with Lane DeGregory, in which she discusses how she found Dan and Jenna and the hard-luck epilogue to the story.