A few months ago I wrote a story that’s received more attention from readers than my series that won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Although it reads quite simple, in many ways it was a much tougher story as I grappled with choices and structure.
I discussed this story in my previous Quill column, but I want to delve into it again for more teaching points.
In this case, I was trying to figure out why a story that, at its core was a minor incident, resonated with me. Once I got my answer, I had to find a way to convey all that to readers.
Within a week the story had more than 26,000 Facebook likes and was sent around the world. It was mentioned in a Katie Couric tweet, was linked at The New Yorker magazine’s site and will be reprinted in the November issue of Reader’s Digest.
And then, a few weeks ago, I received an email from a journalist in another state. She, too, had read the story and wrote me this: I love reading anything that gives me goose pimples and this piece did — it was wonderfully written. I’m a very low-level editor at a small newspaper and one thing that strikes me is that I would have never been able to write this story, or one like it, in the same way. I would have been asked to remove myself from the story and just write what happened between the former teacher and student, skimming over the involvement you had in bringing them together. Why are editors so reluctant to allow reporters to, on occasion, have a voice like this?
That raises a larger question. I’d like to hear from editors and reporters, and I’ll share your comments — and my thoughts — in a future column. But first I want you to read the story.
Breaking down the story, called The Apology, I believe it worked for these reasons: I took a calculated risk, followed my heart and believed in the power of narrative to let readers experience emotion, theme and the universal power contained within this story. Notice that I didn’t start out thinking it was just a chance to “be a writer.”
The opening paragraph was key, specifically seven words. And the middle section is why readers around the world were moved by this piece. Without both of those story elements — all based on my choices — the story fails, or at best is a “nice” little feature.
My point is that I thought about the story and the approach as I reported, while I wrote and while I polished. First person or not? Why? Where? In a draft I thought was final, I stepped back and realized that elements I included in the first section were confusing and self-serving. So I moved them to the middle section, which became the heart of the story.
Let’s take a look at the opening paragraph.
When he was 12 years old, the boy did something he only later realized probably hurt his seventh-grade teacher. It was minor — he was, after all, a kid — but in time, when he was older and wiser, he wanted to find this teacher and apologize.
The words in bold are important. Think about them and why I made those choices. Why, for example, did I say boy? Doesn’t being 12 imply that? Why kid? The key phrase is this: minor — he was, after all, a kid
This story is not about someone confessing to a murder. I also lower a reader’s expectations. That later allows me to surprise and move readers. It also lets the reader know, subtly, this story has a narrator who will speak directly to the reader. The phrase — he was, after all, a kid — does two things: It’s conversational, a tone I want through the piece, and it telegraphs that the narrator is going to not just narrate, but judge behavior.
Once that’s out of the way, my goal in the first section is to give the backstory, build a sense of mystery and end the first section with a lingering question.
Then we get to the heart of the story:
As the days passed, I thought about this strange tale. There was no news. If no one ever heard a word about James Atteberry and Larry Israelson, it wouldn’t matter.
Or would it?
A good feature story is about something universal. When it comes to apologies, no one gets a pass in this life. Everyone deserves one, and everyone needs to give one. When I mentioned this letter to people, I found a story more universal than any that I’d written in years. Everyone told me they had someone they wished they could apologize to. And they told me that by the time they realized that truth, it was too late.
In my case, it was something that has haunted me for decades.
Because of what I did in the opening section — think back to that first paragraph — readers are ready for my story and my judgment. That allows me to move the story from a minor incident to something universal. I bring it all home for readers when I write this: I realized then that my story — the one with no news — was about something more powerful than news. It was about getting a second chance.
I use my voice to set up the final section with this sentence: The beauty of an apology is that everyone wins because it reveals not only who we are, but who we hope we are.
Think how absurd that sentence — word for word — would be if I had made it the opening sentence to this story.
Remember, writing is about choices.