Community journalists enter the business in a variety of ways. Some begin by covering local government, and others make their entry into the news world via the press box at their local high school football games. Others, like me, start out writing features.
I’m fortunate at this point in my career to be able to do some freelancing for the Times-Journal papers, which are local to me in North Georgia, and I’m even more fortunate that my editors rarely turn down a story idea. They let me put together a four-part series about the history of my little community of Everett Springs a couple of years ago, and I got more feedback on those stories than anything else I’ve written about in the past few years. I’ll admit, said feedback was mostly from my neighbors who got quite used to seeing themselves in print and kept asking me, “When’s our next story?” long after I had concluded the series. I was delighted that they had chosen to share their lives with me and that they liked the way I presented them to the world. And I also thought it was very sweet that they assumed the series would extend indefinitely.
At this point, my participation in community journalism consists of writing a feature here and there when I have the time, so I have to be selective with what I take on. However, my time constraints have allowed me to pinpoint some very special pieces recently, and if I decide to write a story these days, it’s because I really want to tell it. At the risk of sounding corny, I have begun calling this process “taking care of people’s narratives.”
And I think that phrase sums up the task pretty well. The folks I interview are celebrating a milestone in their careers, or they’re honoring a deceased loved one or they are attempting to condense their life stories into an hour-long interview so I can have some hope of portraying them in the 900- to 1,200-word space I have available. Quite often, they are nervous because they have never told these stories in a formal setting. Sometimes, they question whether their recollections are worth newspaper space, and my answer at that point, after I’ve mulled the narrative over and mentally pulled quotes to insert in headlines and subheads, is a sound “Yes. Trust me, it is.”
Often, I find it’s the most unassuming entities that make for the best stories. They are fixtures in their communities: the early childhood education teacher quietly marking 35 years in the classroom, the family owned retail store that has weathered countless economic downturns, the longtime historic society member who lobbied for the preservation of so many irreplaceable landmarks …
I get particularly attached to the stories that seem garden variety at first (which, by the way, is just fine — a story doesn’t have to be filled with earth shattering components to mean a lot to a community). Some of these seemingly everyday narratives take on a life of their own, though. This sometimes happens during the interview process when the subject reveals an unusual thought or interest, and sometimes it comes after the story publishes when their acquaintances read my words and tell me stories of their own about the person I featured, adding layers to a life or situation I thought I had summed up. Even when I spend an afternoon getting to know someone and I feel they are open with me during that time, I still sometimes get little anecdotes from their friends and loved ones later on that I would have added to the story had I known about them before press time.
The time it takes to put one of these stories on paper also endears these folks to me. I often spend upwards of four hours getting the interview, roughing out a first draft and then smoothing and polishing it like a river would turn a stone over and over in clear ripples. It takes quite a lot of positioning and repositioning of words and phrases before I think I’ve captured the person. Throughout the process, I’m imagining the subject and his or her loved ones reading the piece, maybe cutting it out to frame or put in a family scrapbook, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure I’ve portrayed the subject in a way I feel is accurate and authentic.
And that process pretty much sums up the phrase, “taking care of people’s narratives.” I consider it a privilege to be invited into a home or businesses and entrusted with stories that mean a great deal to those who have experienced them. And so, I have realized that long ago, almost without my realization, storytelling ceased to be a job for me and became a labor of love.