I didn’t think I’d need to think creatively too often when I started this job. I thought I would just report on car crashes and fires and meetings, nothing too interesting, nothing that needed embellishment.
There was one turning point, a very frustrating point, when an editor made me rewrite one small story several times. She wanted me to paint a picture of what happened at the event. She didn’t just want me to throw out information. She wanted me to capture the audience.
I didn’t quite get it after that story, but I began to (you can read it here). I cringe looking back at that story. I could have told it much better.
Not only did that story push me to become a storyteller, but it showed me the impact of the words I write. That week,, only one family came to the event. The next week, I was told that dozens of people showed up because they saw my article. A park volunteer told me more people continued to go throughout the summer.
There was a fantastic reporter who worked at The Evening Sun years ago. He was an incredible storyteller. The editors still mention his stories several times a week. I feel like I am living in this man’s shadow. I have to fill his huge shoes. This man I have never met has been a source of stress for me, because I can’t be him. I can’t be as good as he was.
During slow evenings, I have read through our archives and skimmed through the hundreds of stories this reporter wrote for the paper, becoming more intimidated at each one. But one evening, I decided to go back to the very first story he wrote.
It didn’t blow me away like his other stories did. As I worked my way through the oldest stories of his, I realized that he had mundane assignments too. He didn’t turn a story about a car accident into a poetic treatise about the fragility of life. Some times he simply reported. Others, he painted a picture and captured his readers.
I realized that even this great reporter started at the beginning like me. I am still very much at the beginning. Even though now I have over 100 bylines, that’s nothing compared to the over 1,000 this man has.
But we both started somewhere.
Today, as I roamed around a festival puzzling how to craft a story out of the large event that stays more or less the same year after year, I asked myself what that veteran reporter wouldn’t have done.
He probably wouldn’t have asked random people what their favorite festival food was (yes, I’ve done this. Not at this festival but others for sure.)
He probably wouldn’t have roamed around with an order of sweet potato fries for as long as I did, stressing over where the story was.
So I roamed, and when I found something I thought was interesting, I talked to the people behind the booths. I watched people make apple cider with an antique press. I sampled warm applesauce as someone told me about the process to make it. Still not particularly great stories, but I started taking in the sights, sounds and smells and describing them in my head, as if I were writing about them.
I’ve always thought a lot of weight was on me to ask the right questions to get the right information and quotes to write a good story, but now I’m learning that sometimes the best thing to do is sit and watch what is happening and jot down what I see.
I got into a line for the shuttle back to the parking lot with a half-formed story in mind that I deemed good enough. I wasn’t enthusiastic about it.
Until a saw the guy holding a metal mug filled with soda, dripping with condensation.
That was the AHA moment for me. That was the descriptor I needed to link my story to the bigger idea of the festival.
So I wrote in my notebook on the shuttle: DRIPPING METAL MUGS.
And you can see what I made of it here.
I can only hope that in a few months when I look back on this story, I cringe, knowing I have become a better storyteller.