Monday, March 24, 2008

(Narrative) J School for People Who Never Went by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

I found literary journalism as a way to bring together my deep interests in sociology and class in America. Because I never went to journalism school, I always assumed there must be methods for approaching stories that I just didn't know. In retrospect, I see that my lack of method worked to my advantage. To do this work well, you must find your own way and make your own mistakes.

Some of my best stories grew from killed assignments. Here's one example: After reading a little clip in Newsday about a young heroin dealer who was being tried, I started attending the trial. I got an assignment from Rolling Stone to cover it and spent about three months at the courthouse. Ultimately, full access to the defendant was limited because of a pending appeal. He could be more open with me if his appeal were rejected, but that would take a year or two. Rolling Stone wasn't interested in waiting. They killed teh story, but I stayed with it.

During my reporting, I had gotten to know the mothers and girlfriends of some of the codefendants. I followed them. It was the beginning of a very long journey that culminated in my book, Random Family. Had the Rolling Stone piece run, perhaps these relationships wouldn't have continued.

I often take a straight assignment, believing that I can convince the editor to see the story differently if I can report it differently. The assignment is just a frame to get started. When I start a story, I often feel baffled. I ask myself and others such basic questions as: What is a "gang girl?" What do people mean when they say those words? What associations do they bring to mind?

When I begin reporting, I'm the thermometer for the story. I constantly gauge my reactions. Starting out as a reporter, I made personal journal entries while also taking field notes or making tape recordings. I wrote about how I felt about the field work, who I liked, who I didn't like, who annoyed me, who held my attention, and why. Some of that material eventually found its way into my stories, not because I found it interesting but because good editors drew it out of me. They asked me questions I could answer only by pulling from my journal entries, where I felt a liberty that I hadn't allowed myself in my professional notes.

I have learned over the years that I must draft scenes immediately. I do it right after reporting -- ideally, as I'm typing my notes. I never used to do that, which may be part of the reason that Random Family took nearly a decade to report and write. I am now more disciplined about fleshing out my notes as soon as possible.

After the Columbine tragedy, the New York Times Magazine asked me to do a story about outcast kids in high schools. The editor asked me to find a school that had received a threat from some of these kids but had managed to thwart it before disaster happened. Three or four schools fits that category.

Almost everyone believes that because they were one kids, they understand adolescence. I knew that I couldn't fathom what it means to be a high school kid right now, let alone an outcast boy in a suburban neighborhood. I tried to convince the editor to do a story on what it feels like to be an outcast. I went and stood outside a high school, stopping kids and saying, "Hi, I'm a journalist. I am working on this story about outcast kids. Who are the most outcast kids that you know?" After talk to just six kids I had learned the social hierarchy of the school.

The initial reporting can be extremely difficult. I find that I hit a wall of despair because I am so much on the outside. I need to move closer to the inside, but I don't know how to get there or even where it is. I always get through that phase. The feelers I've put out in six different places finally come in. I must make a decision, because I can't continue following six groups of kids. If I have a good editor, I will call and talk about it. Or I'll call a friend. By listening to what I decide to say, I discover which story line I' most interested in. If I keep coming back to one person, that's the one I choose. That conversation becomes an arrow pointing to where I should go.

If you do this successfully and turn in focused stories, editors will come to trust you. They will let you start with very loose assignments. How loose? That's a careful balance you have to find. If it's too loose, the story might end up getting killed -- and you're the one who won't get paid.

After I had decided which group of kids to focus on, I told them, "I don't have questions yet. I really just want to shadow you for a while." They thought that was strange and funny. I did that for a couple of weeks. I became most interested in one young man. We spent time talking. I needed to let his mother know I was reporting on her son. We went to his house, and I explained what I was doing. After, he clammed up. A few nights later, he and some friends got stoned. He turned to me and said, "You are such a fraud." Why? Because I had given his mother an adult-style explanation of what I was doing. I wasn't the person I had been with him.

Usually, if I can keep my mouth shut long enough, I learn more. Moments of enlightenment take time. People need time -- lots of time. Most people, regardless of age or social class, are rarely listened to without interruption, asked questions, and responded to thoughtfully.

Throughout the process of reporting I tell people, "It's my story." I often tell them, "Imagine I'm making a movie of your life. I have to trail you around with a camera because I'm trying to show people nothing but your life. I have to see your bedroom, meet your friends, see how you are with you rmom. I'm going to watch you, and I'm going to see it differently from the way you do. I'll talk to other people about you. I'll be here for a while, and then I'm going to disappear and write my story about your life. It won't be the story of your life. It will be one tiny piece of what we've talked about. You will tell me one thousand things, and two of them will end up in the story." Ethically and logistically, it is important that your subjects understand the dynamic as much as they can.

I tend to think of myself as a reporter who doesn't ask a lot of questions. Still, sometimes I listen to tapes of my interviews, and I am amazed that my subjects managed to get a word in edgewise. I realize that when I talk too much, it is because I am uncomfortable either with what the subject is trying to tell me or with the situation: the aggression of needing something from them. At other times I have the bigger picture in mind and am therefore resistant to my subject's deepest revelations when a topic becomes too intense.

It is important for me to understand my own responses to situations, not because they are inherently interesting but because they create a map of my unfolding understanding. It is important to know, in equal measure, what I might want to believe, what I resist, and what I'm excited to learn. The dead ends and blind spots offer terrific paths to narrative. My own confusion sometimes informs a narrative strategy. In order for the journalist to get her ego out of the story, it helps to know where the ego lives.

To help understand my own responses, I try not to fill my mind with other people's ideas. I don't necessarily do background preparation before I begin reporting. Usually, I don't read about the subject or talk to experts. Not steeping myself in secondary literature helps keep my ego in check. Otherwise, I might feel too confident that I know something and then ask questions too quickly rather than keep quiet and listen.

During my early fieldwork for Random Family, one young woman spoke about her boyfriend. He had lots of girlfriends, but she fancied herself his main one, which seemed to be true. She described dealing with all the commotion around his lively love life. At one point he was dating someone else, but she still visited him. While he went out with the other girl, she would go into his room and iron his T-shirts and polish his sneakers. She told me this, and I replied, "Oh, my god, that must have been so difficult for you!" I had interpreted it as a moment of subjugation.

Many years later I interviewed the other girl and asked her, "Do you ever remember so-and-so doing anything for your boyfriend around the house?" She said, "Oh yes, I bet she told you she used to take care of him. I was the one who washed his clothes and took care of his food." It dawned on me that by polishing his sneakers, that first young woman had been asserting her territory. I had read the situation completely wrong. Only through fact-checking did I come to understand that the two girls were in competition.

By responding as I had in that long-ago conversation, I had shut up the first girl. How could she explain it to me, given how far off-track I was? That experience taught me to stay quiet. What book could have taught me that?

(from Telling True Stories, copywright the Nieman Foundation)

No comments: