Editor’s Note: Many – surprisingly, perhaps most – of the stories we read for this site are about, or involve, children we worry about: They’re alone, ill, miseducated, lost in the system, abandoned or abused. Mark Kramer calls such pieces “endangered children” stories. They’re attractive to newspaper writers because children are of universal concern to the community. Portray a child in a fix and everyone cares. But precisely because the dilemmas of children are emotionally fraught, writers run the risk of veering into mawkishness – a tack that’s too easy and that often evades the social complications at the heart of any story. We asked Barry Siegel, director of the literary journalism program at UC Irvine, to offer some advice.
“Tears filled his eyes.”
I’d written those words, and had put them high up, as the third sentence of my story about a small boy’s death, his father’s suicide and a judge’s anguish (“A Father’s Pain, a Judge’s Duty, and a Justice Beyond Their Reach“).
I had Judge Robert Hilder sitting in his chambers in Utah, worrying about the father he’d just sentenced to jail for leaving his young son alone in the woods – a son who’d wandered off and died in a snowstorm. Now the father had gone missing – he’d not shown up to start serving his time. What had happened to him? Had Judge Hilder’s sentence driven this man to suicide?
That’s what Judge Hilder feared. Tears filled his eyes. True enough – Hilder had told me so. Yet as we neared publication and various advisers weighed in, I highlighted those words and hit the delete key.
Why? Because you don’t want to start with tears in obviously emotional stories, such as those involving endangered children. You don’t want to lead the reader in that fashion; you don’t want to prod the reader; you don’t want to underscore feelings that need no emphasis. The biggest challenge in writing emotional “endangered children” stories is to avoid the emotion – or rather, to avoid milking the emotion. You will end up sounding a false, mawkish note, and for no good reason.
You already have a powerful story, after all. The trick is to trust that story. If you find it greatly moving, don’t show your hand – or your feelings. Don’t emote on the page, don’t co-opt the reader’s feelings. The more emotional the story itself, the calmer you want to be in your writing. I have written a number of stories involving endangered children, and in all I have relied on a detached, understated, nearly clinical tone. Cling to the steady accumulation of details; they will do all the work for you.
Yet there is more to the challenge of writing effective “endangered children” stories than just banking your feelings and controlling your tone. I’d suggest that the most important task is not to treat them as endangered children stories. If you set out consciously to write such a story, you will have problems. Better simply to be aware of what you have – to be aware that your story, whatever it examines, will in large part be compelling because it involves children in trouble. Precisely because these stories have inherent emotional power, they can yield even more: You can use them to examine fundamental, resonant themes about who we are and how we live.
This is what I have tried to do time and again in my own articles, which, to my surprise looking back, seem to involve more than a few dead kids. It’s undeniable: There’s the one about an abused boy’s death in White Bear Lake, Minn., at the hands of his adoptive mother; the one about the 10-year-old girl smothered by attachment disorder therapists in Evergreen, Co.; the one about the 7-year-old boy who stopped breathing because an anesthesiologist ignored him during routine ear surgery in Denver. What I saw in these and other stories, though, were tales not about endangered children but about moral choice and responsibility.
If a child is endangered, a community has let bad things happen. Yet communities are not generally full of bad people – that’s too simple (as is the portrayal of all kids as angels). More often than not, communities feature folks who have just failed to do the right thing, usually in stressful situations. Flawed people, in other words – and if they can be portrayed that way, you will have authentic, recognizable characters. The goal always should be to understand events from everyone’s perspective, to allow the reader truly to know all the characters in a story. Complexity, nuance, ambiguity, the resonant larger issues – that’s what will elevate “endangered children” stories beyond the mawkish and cliched. In White Bear Lake, my true subject was why a good, God-fearing community failed to recognize or stop an abusive neighbor. In Evergreen, I examined what drove a desperate, loving mother to put her daughter in the hands of dubious therapists. In Denver, I wanted to understand why a reputable hospital harbored a negligent doctor. And in Utah, what drew me was a story about choices and consequences.
Two men’s choices and consequences – a father’s and a judge’s. I’d spotted a short wire service story about the father’s suicide, hours after being sentenced to jail by Judge Hilder. Looking back at earlier news reports, I saw another one about the sentencing hearing – where Judge Hilder, from the bench, had said “the court rules there must be a consequence.” He was talking, of course, about the father’s choice to leave his son alone in a car in the woods while he tracked deer. Hilder could not have known that his own choice – to sentence the father to jail – would also have a profound consequence. This promise of a parallel narrative put me on a plane to Utah.
Yet when it came time to write, I almost lost track of that theme. I had so much moving material about the search for a lost boy in the forest that I started there, and 8,000 words later, I was still stuck on that wooded mountain. It took me days to distill all those words, to give them their proper due but then turn to the critical underlying topic: Judge Hilder, watching the case evolve from afar, knowing it would eventually come to him, and all the while wrestling with his ambivalent view of the legal system, of the Mormon Church, of his God and of his very role as a judge.
Late in my article, tears finally do fill Judge Hilder’s eyes. But they are earned now, not imposed – the understandable result of all that has happened. And they reflect pain about many things beyond a small boy’s death. Of course, readers still cared deeply about a lost little boy wandering alone in the woods, curling up finally in the snow, a frozen tear in his eye. They wept mightily for this boy – many wrote to tell me so, including a good number who described themselves as “grown men.” Yet they told me something else as well: That their tears were for everyone in the story – most particularly for Judge Hilder and his terrible dilemma.
“Endangered kids” pieces? Most certainly recognize them as such – then try to write them as something else, as something more – as something that gets at all the reasons for why we’re feeling so emotional.