I wrote in the last issue about a young reporter who discovered the critical importance of picking the right character upon which to build a story. Now I want to introduce you to Jen Kocher, a reporter for a weekly newspaper in Wyoming.
We crossed paths when I taught at a Wyoming journalism convention. As I always do, I asked if anyone in the audience had a story they were thinking about tackling. Kocher raised her hand. She wasn’t sure what it was about, but she had an idea. I listened. I told her to keep in touch when I left town. She did.
We talked about her story and reporting. She sent me an early story draft. My suggestions came in the form of questions.
What’s the story about?
Why tell this story?
What’s the story’s meaning?
She plunged in and did the necessary work, all the while juggling other stories and assignments. Last year, the story won a state award, and it beat out weeklies from 32 states to win a national award.
She didn’t want to brag. But when I pressed her, Kocher told me the judges talked about her “quality of writing, and the proximity to the subject.”
Kocher is a reminder that it’s never too late for you to decide that you’re willing to put in the work required to become an effective storyteller.
Even though Kocher earned a degree in journalism, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever work for a paper. One of her student assignments was covering a city council meeting, which she hated. After college, she worked as a bartender and a copywriter, and then she earned an MFA and tried to write a novel.
“I had no talent for plot,” she said. “My critiques were all the same. My stories were boring and too introspective. I wasn’t doing something right.”
She ended up at a small North Dakota weekly where she met a newspaper publisher who, after talking with her, suggested she return to reporting. She signed on but quit a year later. She and her then boyfriend ended up in a small Wyoming town where she was hired at the Douglas Budget, another weekly.
“I figured I wouldn’t be doing it for long,” she said. “It was just a job. Even though I’d failed at creative writing, I was a snob. There was nothing about journalism that interested me.”
And then we crossed paths.
At the convention, I talked about my story philosophy, and I drew on examples from stories in my most recent book, “Dispatches From 1320,” an anthology of my work.
“I identified with your love of story,” she said. “I bought your book and began reading. Even though they were in a newspaper, they were stories. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
While listening to me, Kocher said she had an epiphany as I explained how I captured a scene in one story. The scene, all of it observed, was almost all dialogue. It was revealing, poignant and full of courage, love and respect.
“I realized you were listening and watching,” she said. “You took it all in and found meaning. That’s how you got the amazing scene. I kept thinking about all the beautiful literary moments you found in real life.”
Kocher’s story idea was to profile Misty Lane, a transgender woman. Everyone in the small town knew Misty. But they didn’t know anything about her life, and they likely didn’t care.
“People tend to think Wyoming is redneck,” Kocher said. “It’s not; just leave people to their own devices. On a small paper, I have many roles I juggle. I was drawn to Misty. No one had ever had the guts to pursue the story.”
Kocher sent Misty an email to say she wanted to tell her story.
“She wrote back,” Kocher said. “She told me that no one had ever asked to tell her story. She agreed.
“Just ask. That’s the secret.”
Before meeting me, Kocher said she never would have thought that hanging out with a source was a productive use of her time.
“In the past,” she said, “I asked a lot of questions and just wanted to get the story quickly written and move on. But it dawned on me that I just couldn’t do that. I had to find the theme of the story.”
Was it political?
Transgender bathrooms were a big topic, so too the Caitlyn Jenner story. Either would be an easy hook.
But Kocher didn’t feel that was the story she wanted to tell.
“I went different places with her,” Kocher said. “I found out how hard it was for her to make the decision. She had a mechanic’s shop when she was Mark. But how do you work in a Wyoming oil field with pink shoelaces? The story became not one about an agenda, but a human story.”
Structuring and writing the story were difficult.
“At the conference, you told me to send you the story,” she said. “It meant a lot that you took the time out to help a nobody in Wyoming. After reading it, you told me to focus on the name. The name matters. You nailed it. Once I had the structure, I could just go.”
Here’s Kocher’s opening:
“The camper was never meant to be anyone’s home, but the 120-acre spread it sits on is the closest thing to a home the tenant has ever known. More importantly, it marks the place where one way of life ends, and another begins. In most cases, a name doesn’t matter.
For this story, it’s critical.
Start with Mark.
“Keep going,” she said. “I was exhausted when I was writing. I wanted to quit. I didn’t. Don’t quit.”
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize -winning journalist and author. He’s been on staff at The Oregonian for more than 35 years and has published several books. His journalism and non-fiction narrative stories explore the significance of big moments and small and their impact on a life. On Twitter: @thallmanjr