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Home > Publications > Quill > Finding the story


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Thursday, May 1, 2008
Finding the story

Tom Hallman Jr.

This column is written with one target in mind: the young journalist out of school now starting a first job. A lot different than the classroom? You bet. And, if you’re at all like I was long ago (age 53, here), you’re filled with moments of self-doubt. That dream of becoming a writer? Sure seems unattainable. And narrative? Ha! That’s something that only reporters at major metros get a shot at.

If that’s you — and you don’t have to admit it to anyone — then you have lots of company. That’s why I want you to read about Jessica Monday. She’s working at her first paper: the Independent Record, a weekly in Thermopolis, Wyo., a town of about 3,200.

The staff is two reporters, including Monday, and Pat Schmidt, the editor, owner and, as he puts it, “the chief bottle washer.” His is the kind of paper where new journalists land. He figures Monday, like others before her, will stay a couple of years before moving onto a bigger paper.

“I cover everything,” she said. “Meetings, government, police news. A lot of inverted pyramids — ‘A 16-year-old boy was hurt Monday.’ It’s mainly facts. Fact grinding. Just give the reader the facts.”

Monday was drawn to narrative writing but never learned much about it in college. The closest she came was in a magazine writing class. But Schmidt encouraged her to try her hand at features, and she discovered she likes them.

I met Monday a few months ago when she was brave enough to ask for advice about narrative writing. I asked what stories were floating around her beat. Maybe we could find one that had narrative possibilities. After telling her what made a narrative, she said she was thinking about doing a story on a local wrestler. He was a senior, a state champion, and would be ending his wonderful high school career.

An interesting story, I said. But I’ve read that story. Who else is on the team? Well, she said, there’s a boy, another senior, who has a losing record, something like 5 wins and 20 losses. Intrigued, I asked her more questions about this boy and his role on the team, trying to get her to see the possibilities. I know it’s a cliché, but her face changed when she realized there was a story.

Not a news item. Not a feature. But a story. Who was this boy? Why did he compete? What’s his story?

“Reporting this was totally different than anything I’ve ever done,” Monday said. “I realized I took notes on quotes. I didn’t even know how to take notes for narrative. I wrote down what he wore, but I didn’t write down what it felt like when he was in the kitchen talking with his mom.

“The funny thing is,” she said, “the story made me realize how dependent I’d become on quotes. I relied on other people telling me the story. I wasn’t telling the story. I needed to tell it scenically. But I didn’t really know how to tell a scene. I had to learn.”

Stop there and re-read that last sentence. If you want to learn to write narrative, you start writing. It’s that simple. Is it easy? No. Are there times you want to quit? Yes. But the practice and struggle is where you learn the craft and discover how to start seeing stories where others miss them.

What Monday eventually uncovered was a story about love and courage and family. This, in the body of her story, is what she wrote:

“When Ty was in eighth grade, his father, Chuck, was killed in an oil field accident two days before Christmas break began. When school resumed that January, Ty went out for wrestling.

“His dad always liked watching him participate in sports, and Chuck wrestled his senior year at Hot Springs County High School. Ty thought his father would still enjoy watching him; part of his dad stays with him that way.”

I’ve said this before: The editor can’t find your story. Even your subject doesn’t always “get” the story. It’s up to you, the reporter, to ask questions, listen, observe and mine the character’s world and soul for the story. And then you have to be able to explain it, if not to an editor, at least to yourself.

“This is about effort, about being connected to his dad and proving to himself he could do it,” Monday said. “It wasn’t about winning matches.”

Now there’s a story. But she still had to write it.

“I killed myself,” Monday said. “Learning how to write something in scenes was hard. I usually write all the way through. With this, I’d write a scene, take a break and write another one. I had no self-esteem when it came to doing this.”

The day before she had to turn the story in to Schmidt, she remained at the office long after everyone else went home. The more she read, the worse it seemed. She stayed there until 2:30 a.m., cutting and polishing.

“I thought it was crap and I was crazy to try this,” she said. “I figured Pat would come in the morning, read what I had and criticize it. What was I doing trying to be a narrative writer? I was fooling myself.”

When she arrived at work that morning, no one said a word, and she feared the worst. But Schmidt loved the story and gave it good play. The paper’s proofreader sought out Monday. The woman had tears in her eyes and told the novice narrative writer that she “loved that story.”

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