A few weeks ago, I received a telephone call from a woman I’d never met, inviting me to an interview with two strangers.
How she selected me — and what happened during the 90-minute meeting — is a lesson in what narrative writing is all about.
Last summer, a private plane crashed into a beach cottage in a small coastal town about an hour from Portland, Ore. Two men on board the plane died, as did three children in the home. A mother and two children in the home escaped but were badly burned.
It was a horrifying, haunting story, and the family never consented to any interviews. And now, out of the blue, a friend of theirs had called to say they wanted to meet me. Why, I asked?
The father, this woman told me, had read my stories over the years and felt he could trust me.
A few months earlier, his wife had read the story I’d written about the barber who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident. She liked the way I’d written about the man. The story — and the theme — had stayed with her.
That’s the first lesson: Your body of work matters to readers. Through your narratives, you reveal yourself. Through those stories you make connections — unseen — with readers. Never forget that you aren’t writing for your peers or your editors. You write for the readers.
The second lesson is this: Give every story your best effort. I wrote about that barber story in a recent Quill column, and it was a story that my editor had shopped around but hadn’t found any takers. Maybe it wasn’t sexy enough.
That’s an attitude that will hurt you if you want to get very far in this business. Over the years, I’ve known reporters who wait for the multiple-part series, the 100-inch narrative or the project they can spend months reporting and writing. Writing doesn’t work that way. A better approach is to look at every story as a chance to practice the craft’s techniques: interviewing, story thinking, looking for a theme, structuring and polishing.
So, days after the call, I headed to a house to meet these parents. The parents walked in and settled into seats across the room. In a strange way — very strange — it reminded me of when I’d gone to California years earlier to try to do a story on the funeral of a man who had been in the Hells Angels for nearly 50 years.
Late that night, a group of Hells Angels arrived at my motel room. A Hells Angel I’d come to know had told them I wanted to cover the event. So they came to check me out in their own way.
They showed up unannounced and pounded on the door. I let them in, and we sat at a small table. I’ll never forget what they said: We don’t like the media. The only reason we’re even here is because someone says you’re OK. So what in the hell do you want?
Lesson three: You are not your paper. What I mean is that people don’t open up their hearts and souls to an institution. They talk to you.
In a narrative, the people choose to speak with you. People have to want to talk to you. Ask yourself this: Would you tell your story to someone like you?
Back in Portland, we sat there, all of us making polite small talk until the father leaned forward and asked me, in less blunt language, the same question as did the Hells Angels.
I told him I wasn’t really sure, that often what I think of as The Story turns out to be something much different. I explained how I work and what I look for. I told him that I believed the story, their story, had less to do with the plane crash and more about the aftermath.
I told the couple that I looked for a theme, something universal, something that would allow readers to have a story resonate with them. I explained that a story was about change: The character, or characters, change as does the reader. A story, I said, has to reveal something.
I told the couple that if they allow me to tell their story, I would probe deeply into their lives and feelings. I said I’d ask questions that seem dumb, and others that would make them relive painful moments.
I said I’d become part of their lives as I worked to discover what the story was, and how best to tell it. I explained how a narrative was different than a feature story, and I used examples from some of my past work, stories they had read over the years.
Lesson four: You have to understand the nature and demands of narrative. Don’t sugarcoat it just so you can get an interview. Be upfront about what it requires, and be able to explain a narrative arc and a theme and what a character means in a story.
“There are things,” she said, “that I have not even told my husband.”
And then we talked.