Not long ago, I came out of a theater in Tampa, Florida, and heard someone calling my name. It was Adan Martinez, a young college student who had just performed with a local symphony. He still wore his tux, and was beaming. I told him how proud I was of him.
Adan, who also had an interest in writing, had attended my summer writing camp at the Poynter Institute when he was 10. About that same time, at a music workshop for children, he had been chosen to hop on the stage and lead the orchestra. From that moment on he knew what he wanted to do — play viola in an orchestra.
Raised by a single mom, Adan had little money and few opportunities. The family was able to rent him a viola, which he carried around his middle school so no one could steal it. It led to his being bullied. When he tried to stand up for himself, he was sucker-punched by another student, sustaining a head injury that required a trip to the hospital.
Throughout high school, Adan was able to grow in his craft and decided to become a busker, playing on the street for tips, until he made enough money to buy his own instrument. I invited Adan to join me recently at another Poynter Institute seminar, this one for journalists who want to do a better job of covering the arts. He told his story to the group and played a classical piece he had just learned.
If you have read this far, and want to read a bit more, you have succumbed to the power of the embedded narrative — the stories that sometimes hide inside of people, places and things. (Adan’s viola, for example.)
Each of the people at the seminar had a narrative embedded in his or her experience: a woman with neuropathy from chemotherapy who crochets colorful blankets and donates them to children’s hospitals; a college tutor who converted obsolete books into crafty works of art; an opera singer born in Dubai who, when he came to America, was profiled after 9-11 as a Muslim extremist, even though his ethnicity is Portuguese and his religion Catholic; and a painter and designer, exiled from Cuba as a baby, who painted a Dali-like utopian image of a liberated Cuba.
Covering the arts can be — and sometimes should be — about following the money that fuels institutions such as museums, theaters, galleries, and symphony halls. But, at its best, it means writing about people: the people who create works of art; the people who experience it; and all the people in between who build the magical bridge between the two.
The lucky among us can practice our passion and make a living from it. People in the arts rarely have that privilege. They work — as baristas, table servers, Uber drivers, real estate agents — in order to finance their passions. Go to any craft fair or morning market and you will find dozens of folks selling license plate art or shawls made from bamboo threads, or making balloon peacocks to soothe misbehaving children. All the artists seem to have two gigs, maybe three or more. The tension between a passionate calling and practical livelihood is not a story yet, but it is story dust.
To understand the power and flexibility of the embedded narrative, think of any episode of one of my TV favorites, “Antiques Roadshow.” I could link one here, but, for our purposes any vignette in any episode on YouTube will do. Here is my composite description:
A young woman sits at a table across from an older man. A framed painting sits on a stand between them. It appears to be a depiction from the Old West, a group of Native Americans descending on horseback on a narrow trail down a rugged hillside. A name — presumably the artist’s — appears in a bottom corner. The woman explains that this was a gift from her grandmother, passed along shortly before the older woman’s death.
Assuming the work was a print and not of much value, the woman stores it in back of a closet. Years later she notices the art, dusts it off, and sees that a mosquito had worked it way behind the glass. She removes the frame, cleans the glass, and gets a closer look at the painting, which may, in fact, be an original. She takes it in for evaluation and appraisal.
The expert is amused, and explains to the woman that, yes, the work is an original. He tells her how and when it was painted was made. He tells her about the artist. He asks how much the young woman thinks it is worth “$200?” she guesses. Then comes the reveal: the piece is much in demand; at auction it might command more than $200,000.
When you are watching, you may not think of this four-minute vignette as a story. That’s because multiple narrative lines are embedded:
- The guest tells a story about how the work was acquired. (At a yard sale, is a common response.)
- The host tells the story of the work and how it was made.
- The host may tell the story of what the work says about the era in which it was created.
- The host tells the story of the artist, when he lived, his vision and eccentricities.
- Then there is the largest narrative arc, one common to television entertainment: How something of little value is unveiled as something of great value. Yard sale junk becomes museum treasure.
- The guest concludes with the story of what the painting’s value means to her, and what she might do with it.
Let’s carry the potential of embedded narratives into coverage of the arts, especially when those stories are done not by art critics but by general assignment reporters and feature writers:
- Someone decides he or she is an arts person. (That’s a story.)
- Someone creates something significant for the first time. (That’s a story)
- Someone overcomes obstacles or suffers pain from trying to create. (That’s a story.)
- Someone develops a better process for creating something. (That’s a story.)
- Someone makes their first — or maybe best — sale. (That’s a story.)
- Someone purchases a piece of art or experiences a performance. (That’s a story.)
- Someone experiences a work of art, is moved by it, and wants more of it. (That’s a story.)
By definition, the arts appeal to all the senses and can be represented on multiple media platforms, with countless audio and visual enhancements. But over the last decade, as newsrooms have contracted, journalists who cover the arts are too often considered expendable. At the recent seminar, we heard from reporters who said that so few editors are left that they are lucky to have anyone read their stories before publication.
There are ways to expand coverage of the arts without busting a shrunken budget on teams of critics and reviewers. The invisible resource? A passion for the arts that exists in the hearts and experiences of rank-and-file reporters and editors. Journalists, too, have interests outside the newsroom. Some are poets, playwrights, and novelists. Others play in rock and jazz bands and compose their own songs. Some sing in church choirs. I know one who plays with a ukulele band. I know another who sells her paintings.
Avoiding conflicts of interest, and with necessary transparency, journalists can unleash their own creative experiences to cover some of the most creative people who live, work, and play in our communities, making them better places to live. Go ahead and look. You’ll find stories embedded everywhere.