AKA: the writer’s connection to a story as well as to a future job and the elusive concept of acknowledgment and fame (whatever that means in journalism).
It’s also one of the things I grapple with most about the nebulous world of writing.
I worked at a place that didn’t use bylines or use a super (name label) when broadcasters were on air. That was intentional — the creator and CEO created the workplace with that in mind. This tiny, minute aspect of this place contributed so much to its overall environment: a place of humble and communal writers, reporters and editors. I felt no ego there. No attempt to write the most stories or have the best ideas.
No sense of competition. No sense of unnecessary social or psychological pressure. No anxiety. No apprehension.
There was a sense of community. There was support. There was acknowledgment — even for the little, tiny things. Lunch hours alone found themselves partnered with small chats of some new foreign policy development or where you grew up as a kid. The security guard at the front door slowly smiles more and asked, “How are you?” when you come more frequently. The secretary remembers you — says hello, smiles. Your cubicle next-door neighbor passes more jokes. Gets frustrated. Laughs. Gets more coffee.
You find yourself sad and almost on the verge of tears when you say goodbye to another cubicle neighbor who you rarely spoke to.
You think about your time there and realize how special it was.
How humble everyone was. How different it felt.
People tell me that the journalism world is different from journalism school; I’m sure that’s true.
My feelings for my time in the journalism school ebb and flow just as the gripping heat struggles barefisted with the oncoming fall. It’s cool outside, finally, as I write this.
Right now, it comes down to the investment that I’ve put into the school. It’s hard to describe how frustrating it is putting so much effort into something — time gone, friendships strained, money seemingly slipping out of my tensed fingers — and getting little in response. I’ve told people, “I’m not asking for a gold star or anything.”
It’s true. I don’t want a gold star. I don’t want an award. I don’t want a pat on the back.
When I go to Fulton and give up an entire day, I don’t want to be told to rewrite the story — and get no other response. I don’t want to have my ideas immediately shot down when I walk into an editor’s office.
I get it. They push us into our creativity. They challenge us. They force us to ask ourselves the tough questions. That’s the only way we’ll grow. That’s why Missouri is the best. Right?
But there’s a difference between compassionate challenging and a silent, academic lack of guidance. Saying “no” isn’t the only way to challenge. In fact, I think it can be a hindrance.
The issue that I’ve seen with the program is that it forces us into a selfish position — which, admittedly, is probably the goal of many college programs. That’s what college is for, after all. To help individuals become stronger individuals. Journalism is inherently selfish; of course, we write about others, and give these stories to others to read. Seems pretty unselfish, right?
But the structure I’ve seen is that within the profession itself, it can be selfish. The byline rules. “Seeing your byline” is supposed to be a moment of elation, ecstasy.
I’ve never felt that way when I’ve read my byline.
I don’t know why.
When I wrote a huge project on “poverty in Columbia’s public school system” (I use this in quotes because I have issues with using the word “poverty” and many other trivializing words I used in that story), I did not feel elation when I saw it published.
I have told very few people this.
I felt like I was exploiting. I felt like I was trivializing. I felt like I did not tell the story right because, at the end, I felt selfish. I was using the plight of someone else to create something beautiful, a poetic prose that did nothing but exacerbate the frustration these students (and their superiors) have with the media’s portrayal of them as well as deepen my sense of doubt.
Were my byline not there, could I have been happier? Maybe.
Yet, it was about more than my byline.
I felt pigeonholed to tell a story that I did not want to tell. “These poor, dirty children are performing low due to a spiraling problem that they can’t control.”
The “spiraling problem that they can’t control” was not my issue; I wholeheartedly support that assertion. What I had a problem with was the “poor, dirty children” part (of course, no one ever actually said this; I use this phrase to paraphrase to digest it easier). In the story that was written before mine, there was a paragraph that had a teacher’s description of how the students often came in dirty to class.
It was stirring; several people mentioned that in their laud of the article.
But I didn’t like it.
(The authors are wonderful writers and this has NOTHING to do with them. I just use this as an example.)
I didn’t like it because I felt like it was a “low-hanging fruit” of a description, as a friend just told me when I described the situation. I felt like it was a cheap shot. It’s just like the description of a female politician and a male politician: you’d never think to describe the male’s suit when you would pretty much always describe the female’s outfit (see: Hillary Clinton). The same thing goes for this situation — you’d never think to include the cleanliness of a upper-middle class, average-performing student. It just doesn’t seem relevant.
But, for some reason, this trivial description seems plausible.
But it was patronizing to me. How would you like to be described as dirty?
Even if these students are dirty — which I’m sure they are, since that graf was included — it seems unnecessarily low to me.
What I wanted to do with that project was go beyond the “low-hanging fruit.” I wanted to talk to these people as more than the “poor, dirty student” or the smiling, helpful disciples of after-school programs. There were issues with the programs. Students were frustrating sometimes. Students’ parents were uncooperative. But the students also had friends. They had problems. They had crushes and they had brothers and sisters who annoyed them. They acted up. They were annoying. They were annoyed by things.
Have they seen death? What do they think about when they wake up? What do they remember from being a kid? Why do they fight with the boy who used to be their best friend? Do they know their grandparents? What street did they live on growing up?If they could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I didn’t even want to use the word “poverty” in my story. I thought it was degrading. Saying a child is dirty is putting that filth first — and their humanity second.
I think we underestimate the reader in perpetuating these images of poverty and poor v. rich and class and race by using these “low-hanging fruits” of description. Perhaps we don’t think about it most of the time. But I want to think about it.
I described all of these concerns with a friend today. He then asked, “Do you think everyone will understand that, though?”
That’s a good question. I have all these philosophical ideas, but I don’t want to write things for the elite or whatever. In Lucky Peach, a new food magazine, the articles go beyond a “trip to Hawaii” or finding a great new South American dish. A writer that toured in North Korea wrote a devastatingly beautiful piece that grappled with the strict tunnel vision they were shoved into — how it felt wrong, sterile, dark. And then someone else wrote another beautiful piece about their favorite Taco Bell. All beautiful. All philosophical. But in a way that everyone could understand. Plain English with a human depth.
I say all of this with an awareness of the idealist tone it brings. But I don’t want it to be idealistic. Life is not idealistic. Just real. I want to write honestly and realistically, with no highfalutin goal except to make writing the way it should be: evocative, for the most basic reasons. Everyone has been hurt, and felt pain, and felt joy, and gotten in a fight with a sister, a friend, a parent. We have all lashed out and felt bad and apologized (or not apologized). We all played in the hose or fire hydrants as children. We all have a birthday. We all have a favorite kind of cereal.
Prose doesn’t have to be written “for an audience.” Prose can be written as a personal account or a reflection of someone else. Sometimes the most personal, basic writings garner the best response. I think there is a way to write about large concepts in basic, seemingly unimportant ways.
I can’t deal with the ego that comes with the writer world. I want to write and not have a byline. I don’t want to write about poverty. I want to write about the people within what is called poverty.
I think writers can be separated from what their role is through the haze of bylines, “biases,” inverted structure, scanner style, SEO, the audience.
“The audience is the most important thing to think about” — this is true. But the audience is not just a vague blob. The audience is made of people, who have all experienced what I wrote about earlier. Writing about these things makes most sense to me.
We are all vulnerable, and even as writers, we hold it back. But if I can learn about people as who they are — people — instead of the caricatures they’re put into, I feel like I’ve done more as a writer and done more for the reader than I could ever do.
I don’t care about bylines. I don’t care about what style my story is in. We assume we know so much about the reader that we forget to look at the readers themselves and realize that they are just like us. If we write about ourselves, for ourselves — and moreover, treat each other as the complex, beautiful beings that we are, instead of students or teachers or numbers or award winners or reporters or editors, then the more the writing — and the people who read the stories — will communicate.
It’s not about objectivity. I don’t believe in objectivity, for me, at least. It’s about communicating in basic ways. Everyone feels emotions, and anyone would get riled up about different stories. I get emotional and I know that I can’t stay objective. So I won’t stay objective.
But it’s not about me wanting to insert my opinion into articles. It’s about realizing that maybe writing requires a little bit more nuance, a little bit more flaw, a little bit more vulnerability, a little less structure, a little more error than we (and the rules we follow) let us release.
Only then will I be able to be happy with a story.