Thursday, October 03, 2013

Smalltime Big Portraiture: Divesting My Interests

I watched intently as David Carr, journalist of New York Times fame, glowered across the table.  The interview was not going well.  The source was blathering pre-fabbed corporate talking points in place of real answers to Carr’s questions, and it was clear even from my vantage point at the far end of the table that Carr was having none of it.

“I don’t do corporate portraiture!” Carr said, slamming a fist on the table.

I applauded inwardly.  No matter that my spot at the conference was a treadmill in my living room and my attendance courtesy of Netflix in the heat of last winter’sdocumentary fest; I took a lot away from that meeting.

Because the truth was that over the past two years, my writing life had devolved into little more than corporate portraiture, writing for a hyper-local business publication and the fact had been troubling me greatly at the time of the meeting, for so many reasons.

First—and least important—the money was not enticing.  I say least important because it’s fair to say that this blog stands in testament to the fact that I’ll write all day, for free, if I have something I need to say.

Which brings me to the second point: my assignments were becoming increasingly difficult for me to care about.  I began dreading the monthly email from my editor, detailing which banker, accountant, or CPA I was tasked to profile.  And since I was clearly not enjoying the writing, in light of point number one, why did I persist in turning out these who-are-the-people-in-your-neighborhood pieces that served as little more than PR for firms I didn’t even know if I supported or believed in?

Because, simply and sadly, it was all I had going.  I’d become lazy in my writing, resting on decaying laurels of limited merit, failing to invite risk into my sleepy little writing world.  In short, I had lost my edge.

Things began to change after the meeting.  First, I vowed to somehow slide the phrase “I don’t do corporate portraiture” into my next interview, which happened to be with a lawyer.

At this point, I was operating within a maxim I’d embraced as an art teacher, which basically stated that if I was ever feeling bored, the problem was with me.  The guideline proved invariably true, as no job on earth is more action-packed and exciting as that of an art teacher.  Chances are, your own job is rooted in a deep-seated intrinsic passion. Returning to those basic ideals is a worthy pursuit, and should happen often.

True to my word, I let Council X recite his Party Line for about 30 seconds before I cut in.  “Council X,” I said, summoning up a Carr-esque firmness I had never used in the duration of my tenure at Hyper-Local Times, “I don’t do corporate portraiture.  Tell me who you are as a person.  Tell me why you chose this path.  Why, Council X, are you a lawyer?”

Now, getting to the personal, story-behind-the-story is not a new idea for me.  On the contrary, I am known in some circles as possessing a knack for behind-the-scenes reportage.  However, insisting on it up front, in lieu of listening to the “pitch,” and later wading through reams of scrawled notes in search of the real story—that was kind of new, and I liked it.

Mostly, I liked it because I had a better time, and, I think Council X did, too.  See, Council X is a seasoned man and, accordingly, has a lot of stories.  For instance, I learned that the pristine lawn at my university—thick and lush, with a manicure rivaling what even the swankiest of salons can do for digits—used to be a pig farm.  Plump sow of all sizes and persuasions used to roll through a muddy muck, the remnants of which must still lie beneath the Chem-lawn upper crust of campus earth.  I learned that the people I know today as the Who’s Who movers and shakers of our urban burb were Council X’s childhood playmates and high school peers. 

In short, Council X and I talked a lot about foundations, and values, and community, and very little about civil code and criminal cases. 

I went home and wrote a heartfelt piece entitled “Decency on the Docket;” a few weeks later I received a thoughtful, handwritten note from Council X, thanking me for the story.

But as nice as all that was, I can not truthfully say that fixing my angst was a simple matter of stepping up my game.

Indeed, it wasn’t too long before I gave notice to my editor at Hyper Local Times that I would be leaving to pursue my studies as an MFA candidate, which has now replaced Hyper Local Times as The Only Thing I Have Going.

But I accepted one last writing assignment (and well nigh a dozen photo shoots, but that is a different story), and it just so happened to turn into a real story.  Or maybe I turned it into a real story.  It’s hard to say at this point.

What I do know is that my last story at Hyper Local Times made me feel like a reporter again, at least a little bit. 

I was assigned a piece designed to highlight an upcoming fund raising walk for breast cancer research, as it was late August and my swan’s song was to be the October cover story.  But my editor—who is really an amazing business woman in her own right, not to mention a fabulous human being—gave me a couple great leads that allowed me to just run with the assignment.

First, I spoke with the organizers of the walk who happened three strong, vibrant survivors who happened to be good friends, each with very different and somewhat shocking stories—each, in their own way deviating from the typical breast cancer scenario (if there really is such a thing).  I was also given access to an oncologist—a breast cancer specialist, which I realized begged for a bold approach.  So I did some research, in the form of an online survey, in hopes of finding themes that average women—my facebook friends, your facebook friends, random tweeps, etc. would ask if they had access to a specialist.  My blood was circulating, my heart was pounding—for the first time in a long time, I was on assignment in a way that had nothing to do with corporate portraiture.

What resulted was a piece of reporting that challenged me as a writer and a woman, particularly as a woman with hypochondria/ocd/anxiety.  It made me think: about the uncertainty and beauty of life, the power of attitude, breast cancer, and my future in non-corporate, nonfiction portraiture.

All of which will be discussed right here, tomorrow.  I hope you will join me.

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