I did some pre-reporting, gathered some statistics, and then structured a pitch that wove a personal account with new scientific information.
For my story, I wanted to explore how reflux’s corrosive effects on the esophagus can turn into cancer. For personal reasons, I wanted to know how this murderous monster took my father at age 62, killing him 10 months after he was diagnosed, and leaving me traumatized. My brother and I were there until the bitter end, watching my father decay and wither, and we remained even after he died, sitting next to his dead body, touching his arms and his mouth, as rigor mortis set in.
And since I also suffer from reflux, I wanted to know if I was at risk for the same fate. So I pitched a story called, “Hunting My Father’s Killer, Before He Gets Me.”
(The edited story was published March 2019 as an Undark Case Studies feature under the headline “Heartburn Gave My Dad Cancer. What About the Rest of Us?”)
Zeller assigned me the story, accompanied by this note: “I normally like to have a phone chat about long-form assignments, but this is a rare instance where I’d prefer to not interfere just yet. Your trajectory is solid, for starters, and I’d like to avoid knocking you into another direction unnecessarily. I also read your horseshoe crab piece for (Popular Mechanics) and couldn’t put it down. These suggest to me that I ought to simply let you do your thing.”
Zeller made clear that Undark is a science magazine; the investigation and distillation of the science must be vigorous, but it must also be readable and comprehensible “to a reasonably intelligent middle-schooler.” And he said that they value an elegant narrative style, but not to the point where it becomes distracting or preening.
I didn’t know what he meant by “preening,” but I certainly understood “distraction.” Still, his confidence in my storytelling abilities made me feel I could take some creative risks.
After five months of reporting and writing, I turned in 8,100 words; the assignment was for 4,000. I’ve been a journalist for 34 years, and I’ve never overshot my allotted word count by more than 400 words — let alone 4,000. (OK, I did it one other time, in a piece this year for Popular Mechanics; I must be suffering from a bout of self-importance.) But now, between reporting the story so thoroughly, and then indulging in personal narrative, my word count ballooned.
I was apologetic and told Zeller I wanted him to see what I’d written before I hacked away, in the off chance he liked it all. His response: “I’m sure it’s great. However, I do see that it is over 8,000 words.” He said they are a very small team with lots of stories to edit and could not easily absorb a piece of such unexpected size. He said I probably wouldn’t hear from someone until the end of the year. That was Oct. 3. And he warned me they’d likely bring it down to the assigned word count. I again offered to cut, but he said I was probably too close to the story at that point.
…editors must always balance a reporter’s sensibilities with other concerns…
When he got back to me Jan. 30, the story had been trimmed to 6,157 words — halfway between the assigned amount and my draft. I was even able to negotiate a few sentences back in because I felt they reinforced my premise that I, too, feared I could die from reflux.
Overall, I was relieved. It was like signing up to rent an economy car and driving off in a Cadillac. And yet some of the things left on the cutting room floor were personal favorites.
I feel like a spoiled brat complaining about this, because the editors really did indulge me. But they took out part of a scene that takes place after I talk to an oncologist in Baltimore about why there’s been a spike in reflux, and I’m told, for the hundredth time, that it’s largely because of obesity. That response was not satisfying because neither I, nor my father, nor lots of other people I know who have reflux, are obese. In the scene, I’m sitting in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor watching all these people go by, and I make a mental note about how they’re not all fat. The editors kept much of that scene but cut the last few lines from my version:
But I saw lots of people who were thin or average. In fact only about an eighth of the people who walked by were overweight. Was my study scientific? No. But I do have two eyes.
Another part of the story was based on learning that we have the tools to treat reflux, but don’t yet know how to use them. Here’s a scrap from that passage that hit the cutting-room floor:
I felt like my father had died of tuberculosis or polio — some old world disease that they didn’t know how to treat. But with reflux and adenocarcinoma, the treatments are there. They just don’t know when to do them or which patients need them.
I originally had a long, contemplative ending, where I likened my father’s quick and unexpected death to watching him swim in the ocean when suddenly he vanishes, yanked underwater by some invisible monster. I wrote about meditation and the belief that thinking about something can make it so. And how now, fortified with knowledge about this wretched disease, I won’t meet the same fate as my father, and so I will plant my feet firmly in the sand.
That whole thing got chucked.
We’re human, and we come with our own reflexes and priorities and, yes, our own darlings. ~ Undark editor Tom Zeller
Perhaps I had gotten a little too introspective, too self-indulgent, even long-winded. Maybe I had veered too far into the personal and too far from the science, as Zeller had warned me not to do. What made my story different from a regular science story was the personal. And yet in delving into the personal, I crossed an invisible line that was only revealed when I stepped over it.
But then this whole line of thinking may be the same trick I used when my father died: I began to see him critically so as not to care so much that he was gone.
It’s now 18 years since my father died, and some of the harsh thoughts that bubbled to the surface then remain, though they’ve been softened by time (and by becoming a parent myself). The same could be said of my story, on an accelerated pace. My immediate instinct was to view passages that were cut almost with contempt, out of some sort of survival instinct. But as time has passed, a thoughtfulness has moved in. I now see the published story and the lost passages in the same way I view the park across the street from my house.
I bought the house because I loved the trees and the woodsy feel. When I renovated it, I made sure it had lots of windows — big windows — to view the park. Then, a few weeks ago, lots of little men in big trucks came and cut down 27 of the 88 trees. The Shade Tree Commission said the trees were decayed and at risk of falling.
I was willing to take that risk. I felt nauseated when I heard the buzz saws and watched the trees but get down and carted way. Now there are gaping holes in the park, like a mouth missing teeth. It looks horrible. But the other day I thought, well, if I had moved into my house six months from now — if I had never known those 27 lost trees had been there — I’d probably just think it was a lovely park with lots of trees.
So that’s how I’m trying to see my esophageal cancer story — for what it has, not what it doesn’t. Because truly, readers don’t know what’s missing. That remains between me and my editors.
A friend came over yesterday and confirmed I was on the right track. As she went from room to room in my house, she marveled at the large windows facing a park.
“Your view! It’s amazing! The light! The trees!” she said. “Can we do a house swap?”
When I wrote Zeller to ask if I could use some of his comments from our early email exchanges for this piece, he also offered some insight into the thinking behind the trims to my story. He said editors must always balance a reporter’s sensibilities with other concerns, such as the publication’s specific audience, the topic and the cultural context into which it is being introduced, as well as the magazine’s personality, mission, and the reputation and expectations it has developed among its readers. He also said they must weigh how much subjective, first-person exposition should be used in the context of fact-based reporting, striking “a balance between the two that satisfies our internal journalistic sensibilities.” All of that is weighed against the reporter’s goals and desires. They do want the reporter to be happy, he said.
Are our decisions infallible and right?” he wrote. “Absolutely not. I know the end result wasn’t everything you’d hoped for, and that it might have taken a different and equally powerful trajectory — all 8,000 words of it, perhaps — with another publication. Truth be told, it might even have appeared very differently here at Undark, had it not been me at the helm, or Jane (Roberts) in charge of fact-checking. We’re human, and we come with our own reflexes and priorities and, yes, our own darlings.”