PARTING SHOT: Finding the Story Beyond the Story
Somewhere in a half-asleep doze from Boston to Providence, I realized I was being driven by someone who’d had a very real role in the music industry.
Long before she became an unsung hero of Weld Boathouse, my friend worked for a guitar company. And when a talented music artist, considered by Rolling Stone magazine to be one of the “greatest songwriters ever,” had an injury that could have derailed her career, she was on the crew that helped design a lightweight electric guitar both easy to hold and capable of a range of sounds that can’t be accomplished with acoustic.
Naturally when I ran into my friends, I had to share this story, one no one had heard before.
People don’t win their teammates over by saying how unique they are, how incredible their stories are, or how many obstacles they’ve overcome.
Whether as reporters or as friends, it’s your job to find that out.
I wouldn’t advocate journalism as a guide to friendship in most circumstances. Reporters are expected to keep a certain emotional distance from their subjects, and stories are often told without concern about how they will affect their subjects. As Michael Corleone says in The Godfather, “It’s not personal.... It’s strictly business.”
But reporters are expected to dig deeper into their stories, to ask follow up questions, to see both the good and the bad in people.
No matter how well we know the teams we cover, feature pitches never encapsulate the entire life story of the athletes featured. It’s the writer’s job to find the backstory. Because ultimately, the ability to turn a phrase doesn’t make something a good feature. I can read a literary magazine for that. The best features are the ones that tell a story that couldn’t be read elsewhere.
Just as athletes’ GoCrimson pages shouldn’t represent the bulk of our research, neither should our friends’ resumes be seen as a summary of who they are as people. Perhaps even more than the roles of researcher and reporters, the role of a friend depends heavily on the follow up question. Don’t accept your friends’ one-dimension definitions of themselves.
Don’t accept people’s two-dimensional portraits of themselves either, for that matter. I was proud of myself for uncovering a story about one of my friend’s past life as a guitar fixer when this week my friend mentioned picking up some tomatoes for her because she loves plants. Definitely missed that.
All of us have stories we haven’t told, whether they are accomplishments we’ve humbly refrained from telling, interests we’re sure others will find weird, or fears we’re afraid to express.
Of course the kinds of questions you ask, the pieces of information you seek to probe, are probably different for reporters than they are for friends, but many of the most important lessons I’ve learned can apply to both of them. I learned to let people tell their own stories rather than let my own interpretation cloud out the story itself. In my early stories with the Crimson, I always felt a compelling urge to chime in about how I could relate.
But it’s really not forwarding the conversation, unless you are making note of your own affiliation to a sport few people understand (like rowing). Similarly, in writing, I’ve worked to get out of the way of a story and let it tell itself. But the one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from writing and from friendship is to be dissatisfied with the story at hand. In my time writing features and editing features, I haven’t come across boring athletes—only ones whose personalities and stories were incompletely researched. Similarly, the people I know best are all incredibly interesting, talented, complex people. If I were to offer a piece of advice, it would be to look at your group of friends. Do any of them seem average? You probably don’t know them well enough. Originally, this story had both the name of the music artist and the name of my friend who helped her career.
But for better or worse, it’s all from a conversation I had half-asleep that was later confirmed when she was helping my mom and me load the family car for Christmas vacation. Not exactly an official interview. But maybe the context is part of the lesson, even if it’s a part I’m only learning now in my frustration at not having the perfect article to run as my parting shot. Maybe part of the lesson is to always keep your ears open. I’ve found out some of my information for features from unlikely sources and offhand comments. And I learned some incredible things while part of me wished I were sleeping (oh hey, post-morning-practice classes). You never know when you’ll hear an incredible story about your friend you didn’t know or pick up on a red flag to address with him or her.
People say that the best thing about Harvard is its people. It’s true that telling the stories of amazing athletes and coaches at this school has been my favorite part of writing for The Crimson and that the relationships I’ve built have perhaps been the most meaningful part of my time here.
But I don’t think the wondrousness of Harvard is what we should learn from it. Instead, I leave here convinced that there are incredible people wherever you go. You just have to look hard enough.
—Staff writer Christina C. McClintock can be reached at email@example.com.