Friday, July 19, 2013

the interview: be a great audience

When people ask what kind of writing I want to do (or, excuse me, the kind of writing I do; I'm working on ownership here), I try to explain it without any of the fancy terms the writing community gives it: literary nonfiction, narrative journalism, etc. So I say I write nonfiction, and that I like telling other people's stories more than my own. I like doing research and I love interviewing. Last winter when I took a narrative journalism class, I interviewed my friend, who was my main source and character for my first story, a few weekends in a row. During the second weekend I remember having one of those "in my groove" moments where I felt like what I was doing was not work in the sense of drudgery and labor; it was challenging and satisfying and completely thrilling. That solidified it for me.

I found this cool little ditty about interviewing that frames it as a guided conversation. Totally. Part of what made those interviews with my friend so great (and fun and insightful), apart from the fact that this friend is articulate, thoughtful and totally interesting, is that we already had rapport and she had some trust in me, so we got right to the conversation part - the "center of the onion" - without needing to spend time building a relationship. But that building part is fun, too, if a little awkward at times. I like to think that interviews help "subjects" (if you can call them that) get more insight, and so benefits them, so that it's not a one-way street.

Anyway, here's what some of the link says (emphasis mine):
So, because of that, I only really interview in the strict sense of the word when I have to. I try to do everything else that I can to make sources feel comfortable enough to talk with me. That doesn’t mean that I don’t ask questions. It means I ask lots of questions. But what I mainly try to do is to be a great audience. I egg them on; I nod; I look straight into their eyes; I laugh at their jokes, whether I think they’re funny or not; I get serious when they’re serious. I kind of echo whatever emotion they seem to be sending to me. I do whatever it takes to get them talking.

Friday, July 12, 2013

at it again

Mike Tyson: Discipline is doing what you hate to do, but nonetheless doing it like you love it.

Interviewer: And how do you that?


Mike Tyson: [Smiles] With discipline.
– from an interview in Details, July 2010

I am taking another writing class. Are you surprised? You shouldn't be, because that's the reason for a lot of the posts you see here these days. I'm not ready for class, I'm out of practice, I hope this class whips me into shape. Blah blah blah. (If you are still visiting this blog, thank you. And why?)

I'd hit a serious wall during May. There were lots of things I had no motivation to do, including reading and writing. Which was a problem that I chose to attack by ignoring it. I did have momentary freakouts. (Like, what will I do with the rest of my life if this desire is fading, along with all my other ones? Why can't I sustain any venture? And why doesn't netflix have the second season of Girls? It was a dark month.)

In June I avoided the issue by redecorating my bedroom, watching more tv on netflix, and making social plans to get out of the house. And then, just like I thought, one day I closed the netflix tab in my browser, and the next I went to the library and picked out three books. I sat in the reading room for 30 minutes to start one and felt my heart beating faster, in a good way. I recognized that feeling as pleasure. And later that afternoon, I attended my friend's book launch for her very first book of short stories, which she published herself. As she read from it, I recognized humility, pride and (here it is again) pleasure in her voice. At home, my housemates and I talked about her publishing company, and one said, "She should publish you, Betsy." Now, my housemates have barely even read what I've written, so I didn't take this very seriously. But I did hear myself say - holding the book I'd started reading in the library earlier that weekend - "this is the kind of book I'd want to write, one that requires research and interviews and that tells real stories."

Well, ok then.

I still don't know how to get there, but I took another small step and signed up for a four-week writing bootcamp, which started on Monday. Three hundred words (what a pittance!), five days a week (totally manageable!), and plus one essay of 1,000 words each week. On Monday I was hopeful, on Tuesday I started to resent my computer screen, on Wednesday I seriously considered dropping the class and getting some of my money back, on Thursday I woke up dreading life. I had some extra time that morning to get my 300 words out, but the thought made me find every excuse to not open a word document. I checked my email and saw some feedback from a classmate on the previous day's 300. I have to say that I think this woman might be deluded or need reading glasses, but nevertheless her response included exclamation points and the words "could win an award." I walked to the kitchen to get my coffee and realized this woman had just given me the courage to write that day - 300 words in the morning and my 1,000 word essay that night. And I actually kinda like what I wrote.

Tyson is right, and I'm guessing you all have your own stories to prove it, too. Love can grow from discipline, even if it was lost for a little while, and especially with some exclamation points from your friends.