The farther I get into adulthood, the more I find that I’m drawn to people who march to the beats of their own drums. This demographic can range from those who take on a massive volunteer responsibility to people who are obsessed with an unusual hobby to those who adopt a way of life that takes them slightly off the beaten path.
Working in the newspaper world gave me just about as much access to this type of person as I wanted. After the initial shock of finding that I could get paid to spend my days talking with starving artists and amateur plant enthusiasts and self-made Civil War buffs, I realized I needed to curb my encouragement of these conversations because they could conceivably last for days on end.
After all, I still had to help get a paper on the presses every week and then twice a week later on in my career. But something about talking to people who were willing to discuss their special interests changed the way I listened, and I found myself hearing these people out even when I wasn’t planning to write about them.
I remember the reader who would call me (and this was always when I was on deadline) to discuss his profound love of iguanas. He consistently failed to ask if he’d caught me at a good time, and he had a tendency to talk without giving me much of a chance to contribute. Yet, amid a constant stream of complaints about paper deliveries, grammar errors, perceived unfairness in sports coverage (I’ve said this before, but readers are possessive of their local papers and can be very critical of staff), this gentleman brought a light in his phone calls about iguanas.
He never identified himself, but I always knew who it was when I picked up the phone because he had a habit of dragging his vowels, and he would usually launch with something like, “Did you know an iguaaaana’s bite can be extremely painful?” I took several phone calls from this reader, and I learned quite a bit.
One day, I finally asked him, “Sir, do you want me to write a story about your iguanas?”
He seemed slightly taken aback and responded with, “Ohhh, nooooo! You don’t have to do that.” I eventually stopped hearing from him, but I did enjoy the distraction and the whimsy of phone calls with a man who apparently found his local newspaper editor an appropriate outlet for random conversations about large lizards.
The fun thing about small town reporting (and maybe any type of reporting) is that I frequently had no idea what I was getting into. I would show up to spend a few hours with people I had never met before. Their interests, along with their approaches to social interactions were sometimes a little off the wall, and at first, this fact was nerve racking. Later, I learned to look forward to these encounters and to recognize when they were likely to sparkle in print.
I remember showing up to a story in a rural area in my early 20s brand new to the news industry. I was set to interview an artist who employed a chainsaw to carve bears and other woodland creatures out of large tree stumps. Several of the artist’s acquaintances were on site to witness the curiosity that I apparently was as a weekly newspaper reporter, and upon my emergence from my car, one of them yelled “Get the camera!”
I was a little alarmed, but I did my best to come across as warm and affable as I firmly informed them that I would be in charge of all photography that day and that I did not want to find myself as the subject at any time. The interviewee helped me reinforce this dynamic when he appeared from around the side of his home rolling his eyes in exasperation and calling his friends down from alarming the young reporter. He was a mountain of a man with a beard halfway down his chest. Wielding a chainsaw to produce art appeared a very natural choice for him. He was also a real gentleman with a quiet aire and well-developed social skills, and talking with him made for a great story.
As my interviewing skills developed, I learned to move from a state of wariness when getting to know strangers to one of openness and curiosity. A lot of times, because I was asking questions and expressing a genuine interest in something they held dear, I felt we had somewhat of a friendship by the time I left. These folks would often stop in to the office with updates on their various pursuits after their stories ran, and I got some wonderful thank you notes. As I look back on the many chats that led to fun stories, I am thankful for the people I met who probably didn’t get a chance to open up about woodworking or beekeeping or painting very often. And I hope I brought a fraction of the enrichment to their lives that they brought to mine.