First Published in U.S. Catholic, June 2017
In fourth grade, to Sister Clarita at St. Raphael’s Elementary School, I announced I would be a writer. Had I known about jobs with more status and better pay, I might have announced my intention to become a chief financial officer of a reality television network, but, c’est la vie.
I attended journalism school in the immediate post-Watergate age, at a historic moment when young journalists not only thought their jobs were to save the world, but believed that task could actually be accomplished. There was a passion and fire about breaking important public policy stories, and a real conviction that journalism was a tool for justice and social accord. It was a heady time. Students were hired by newspapers and magazines right out of writing courses, before they even graduated. (I am now a journalism professor, and when I tell that to my students, they sigh sadly and begin to google job openings for junior assistants on reality television networks).
Although I felt a little thrill of pride at the Bernstein and Woodward tales of digging and probing and working the phones to break the Watergate story, or, years later, when Christiane Amanpour stood fearlessly in war zones, reporting with calm confidence, I was never that kind of journalist. Democracy needs media professionals who do those jobs with excellence, but those weren’t my strengths.
I was drawn to stories—some would say, smaller stories—of people. Not necessarily political or powerful people, but people who were making things and changing stuff and thinking provocative thoughts. Journalism is an all-access ticket for a writer to visit behind the scenes, go backstage, violate social codes, ask impossibly cheeky questions and inappropriately personal ones, and to not make small talk but instead make big talk with total strangers about what matters most in their lives. It is simply thrilling. Anything that intrigues or puzzles me can be turned into a story pitch, and if I can find an editor who is game enough to hire me, I get to go explore it. In a way, it’s a license to be eight years old permanently, with permissive parents who let me ask “But why?” as many times as I like.
And then the task becomes turning all that into words that might, just might, touch some other heart. In an essay I wrote about New York Times writer David Carr, who cut his journalistic teeth at the time and in the city where I did, and who wrote like a god, I claimed that “it is a noble and aspirational and doomed thing to try to write words that touch other humans, and it’s so rarely done well that one wonders why we bother.” I still agree with myself on that one. And yet we do bother, and all that bothering and struggling to find the right word and turn the right phrase and hunt down the right adjective seems to be the entire point. We humans want to tell each other stories, and we want each other’s help in figuring out what matters in life.
Some journalists tell those stories as hard news, with hard-won facts that take courage to unearth. But there is another kind of truth telling, a kind that connects threads of humanity with one another, a kind that shows humans at their most human, and those are the stories that call to me. To me, they are not smaller stories than what is happening in Washington, DC—they are the very large stories of what it means to be human on this planet.
There is no way to do journalism and not see humanity, close up, sweaty and flawed and gorgeous. It’s a privilege and an honor to get that front row seat, and trying to find a way to share that seat with people who read your words is a weighty responsibility. (This may be where writer’s block comes from, but I can’t think about that right now, because I’m on a deadline). It is rare admission to the intimate and private moments of another person’s life, and the calling of journalism is to transmute that individual moment into a universal story.
One afternoon in the 1980s, I sat in the waiting room of an urban clinic that was treating people for a new disease called AIDS. I was at work on a book interviewing people who were dying, because I wanted to know what people thought about when they were dying. A physician had arranged for me to meet one of his patients. I sat in a battered green vinyl chair and watched the door. I heard measured steps coming down the hallway. I heard the scrape and click of a cane being leaned on and a foot being dragged unevenly. When the knob began to slowly turn, my hands suddenly felt clammy, and I thought, “This is it. I am about to meet Death.” I had a fleeting terror that I had absolutely no idea how to face the man who began to open that door, what to ask him, how to tell his story. I felt utterly inadequate and like a rude interloper in the most secret and private moments of his life.
Then he appeared, and held out his hand, and I shook it. I am rather short. He was extremely tall. We laughed about that and looked for a shorter chair for him, so we could approximate being at an even eye level. I didn’t know how to begin the interview, but he didn’t need me to, he started on his own. With great dignity, he told me everything and I asked nothing. He almost casually shared treasures that most of us guard protectively. The rejection of his family. His anger at God. His affection for God. The love of his friends. His isolation, his faith, his fear. He showed me that it is enough to witness, that it is a gift and an act of human grace to witness each other’s struggle. We don’t have to fix it or manage it or even understand it. There is some kind of gift we give each other in standing and listening and being aware. So I did that.
I have written about cowboys, hockey, divorce, and cooking. I have written books about marriage and children and travel and famous leaders. I have profiled accomplished folks and people whose names are already forgotten. I have written about my children, my parents, my sisters, my aunts, and my friends. I have been on a northwoods dogsled and in a tippy kayak and on a sawdust-covered dance floor and in the chambers of a Supreme Court justice and it always feels like this: Being a journalist is being a telephone, but the call is from the subject to the reader. The writer must make the connection and then, somehow, manage to get out of the way and let the spark of insight travel on its own.