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Monday, August 17, 2015
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Take time to think creatively

By Tom Hallman Jr.

I’d just returned from SPJ’s New York City JournCamp program in June when I received an email that serves as a reminder of why on-going training is vital for those of us in this business.

Hi, Tom.

I don’t know if you remember me. My name is Elisha Sauers, and we met at SPJ in Nashville. I participated in your session, which was probably the highlight of the conference for me because the discussion really hit home. Let’s say it was cathartic.

I didn’t remember Elisha. But I recalled the session.

I’d led a class on how to make the leap from news and features to narrative storytelling. I used examples of my own writing, stories sent to me for critiques as well as work I’ve gathered over the decades as a storyteller. Several hundred people filled the room. Some were new to the business. Others were journeymen who wanted to push themselves to tell stories.

We’d gathered for a common purpose: a chance to slow down to think about creating and recalibrate on a Saturday before returning to the “real world” the next Monday.

That’s important. With the pace of our business being what it is these days, it’s easy to get caught up in meeting the next deadline or turning in the next assignment. But in doing so, we forget to take the time to think creatively about what we do, and why we do it.

Writing and creating is an often-lonely pursuit. We struggle, grappling with doubts and a sense that “we’re not good enough” or we don’t have what it takes.

The SPJ programs — attend one if at all possible — remind us of our shared experiences and journeys. I’ve been lucky enough to teach at these various SPJ training events for more than a decade. I feel blessed to be part of an on-going community that I believe makes a difference.

So I called Elisha Sauers.

She told me she’s 32, the enterprise reporter for The Capital and editor of Capital Style magazine in Annapolis, Md. Her husband, a broadcaster, is an adjunct lecturer at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He’s also a member of the SPJ professional chapter. Since he was attending the Nashville conference, his wife decided to join him.

“I thought it would be good to go to the seminar and pick up some skills,” she said. “I wanted to be reinvigorated and get back to my roots.”

She’s had a variety of beats and assignments — watchdog column, business reporter and city government — before being named enterprise reporter.

“I wasn’t interested in networking at the conference,” she said. “Some of the sessions looked interesting, but I felt they didn’t apply to me.”

At the time, Sauers was filling in for beat reporters at the paper, and it had been a couple of months since she had written anything more than a news story.

“Your seminar, and what I read and what we discussed, reminded me of why I love doing what I do,” she said. “It was reassuring.”

She said that reporters who work at small papers can spend much of their time on police briefs and other routine breaking news. That can be a grind, she said. But the seminar reminded her to take the long view.

“What I want to do at the end of the year is look back and see where I put my soul on the page,” she said. “Great stories and great writing aren’t going to happen every day. But you never know when the great story will happen, or where it will come from.”

Sauers recently was honored with an award by the national Society for Features Journalism. You can read her story here.

How she got the story, she said, is a classic example of being prepared.

“A man who’d been homeless in the county for more than 20 years died,” she said. “A man at the firefighters’ union called me, said he had a good human-interest story. This man who’d died was what he called a frequent flier. All the paramedics knew him.”

She began reporting, and she learned that the man sometimes called because he was drunk, or he needed help. Other times, she said, he called because he was lonely. The paramedics, she learned, functioned as his family and caretakers.

“I found that his real family lived within a mile of where he was homeless,” she said. “Why was he homeless? I found out that when he was drunk he would tell a story about how his life changed because of a car accident.”

She began thinking of this as a story.

“What if there were one moment in this man’s life that changed everything,” she said. “I never found that one moment. But I told a real and complex story. He was not a perfect hero. There was kindness in him, and he alienated people, too.”

I asked Sauers what she took away from my seminar, and what she would pass on as advice to other journalists like her.

A stylistic way of writing a story will not always win the approval of an editor.

“But if you feel passion for a story, it is worth fighting for,” she said. “But pick and chose the right story.”

An assignment from an editor — even a routine assignment — does not mean you have to write a boring story.

“Look for the opportunity to tell a story,” she said. “Find your own avenue into the story and make it your story.”

Don’t be so self-critical.

“I would beat up on myself,” she said. “It’s something I learned that we all do. We’re all in that boat. But the stories will happen. Not all the time, not with every assignment or idea. But you have to believe they will happen.”

If you are interested in joining my community of writers —meeting people like Sauers — visit my website at tomhallman.com.

And check out those SPJ JournCamp programs. Maybe I will see you at the next one.

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