Writing Other People’s Stories, Part II: All Great Features Are Profiles

B&W typewriter

When writing a profile, you’ll need to move outside your own worldview, upend your assumptions, and tour someone’s inner and outer life with radical openness.

Sometimes it’s my job to be a glorified mic stand.

By “glorified,” I mean “paid,” because there’s not much glory in tape syncing—recording an interviewee for a reporter who cannot produce a broadcast-quality recording (usually because it’s a phone interview). The chief skills are remembering to load batteries, insert a data card, and press “record” at the proper moment, and to remain very still and mostly invisible for an hour or more.

The great thing about tape syncs is listening in while another journalist performs The Interview—an inexact alchemy in which a reporter magically transforms a leaden theory into golden nuggets of information or description she can use in her story. Everyone does it differently, and unless an interview is broadcast in full, it’s the part of a journalist’s work that lives below the surface. You rarely see it, but it’s the cornerstone of what you read in the finished product, from pull quotes to the wall colors in a story scene.

I once recorded an in-person interview for the excellent New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh. It was wonderful to watch him work: He was amicable, at ease, and neutral in tone. He seemed to reserve judgement, but he didn’t take non-answers at face value—he pressed gently for clarification and calmly countered with contradictory information he’d compiled. He had pages of notes but rarely referred to them; he knew his subject so thoroughly he could refer to facts and events by memory.

I chatted with him for a moment before the interview. “All great magazine articles are really profiles,” he said at one point. That made sense to me. In every memorable piece, there’s always a character driving the story, even when that story exists to illuminate a larger issue.

All Great Magazine Articles Are Profiles

Writing a profile, of course, requires spending a LOT of time with someone, interviewing and shadowing them, studying their inner and outer lives. You’ll probably drive them a little crazy by the end of the process, with all your damned reiterated questions and “correct me if I’m wrongs” (just for clarification, just to be sure I understand properly, etc.). Ideally, along the way, you’ll witness a few dramatic moments and scores of mundane ones that seem unimportant, but aren’t—the recipe for most any human life.

As I said in the first installment of this series (Part I: Empathy in First Person), the interview/shadowing phase is the part of story writing I enjoy most: It’s a ticket to another life, an excuse to be invited into someone else’s way of understanding his world and himself. And that grand tour, when traveled in good faith, usually transforms your own worldview a little bit, too. I’ve been awed and humbled by the terrible, beautiful truths interviewees have shared: when a Soviet WWII veteran airwoman wept at the memory of being liberated from a POW camp and then treated as a traitor for being captured; when a descendant of slaves lifted her pants leg to show me scars from the sugarcane she chopped as a girl in Louisiana; when a boy shivered as he recalled nearly dying of exposure as he crossed a desert and a border.

These quiet moments of extraordinary revelation are the why of the life’s work I’ve chosen.

I won’t pretend that I’ve mastered the arts of interviewing or magazine writing. (To experience mastery, read David Grann or Pam Colloff or Taffy Brodesser-Akner, among others.) But I have learned a few things about how to listen with curiosity and humility and to reserve judgement. Trust is a piece of the puzzle, but so is Verify. Because unfortunately, some people aren’t truthful, even with themselves.

I err on the side of trust (which is potentially problematic) but also on the side of good faith (which isn’t). Because here’s an aspect of telling someone’s story that can’t be ignored: In every article, there’s spin—decisions about what to include and emphasize, what to describe, what to ignore, what it all means. In extreme cases, spin can transform a hero into a villain (or vice versa), or reduce a complicated human life into a stereotype or a symbol, in the interest of a writer’s agenda. When done with intent, that’s called exploitation. But in most cases, I think, it’s the unintended, careless consequence of a voracious media machine that rewards speed, simplicity, and outrage appeal.

spin /spin/ verb …3. give (a news story or other information) a particular interpretation, especially a favorable one.

We deserve better—we, as readers, writers, editors, and profilees. Each human life is too complicated to be whittled down to a Single Illuminating Archetype. And we writers owe it to the subjects who’ve entrusted us with their stories to render them as faithfully as we know how, even if it leaves us with a less-than-tidy narrative and takeaway.

That’s often a difficult task, especially if a subject is still struggling to make sense of his own story. After all, in our own personal histories, we don’t always understand the “takeaway” of a Big Life Moment until much later, if ever.

And of course, even “heroes” aren’t simple—they may act courageously, but with murky motives and methods.

A Profile in Courage—and a Few Other Things

A few years ago, I did a story for the Nashville Scene about the pastor of a big evangelical church in Nashville which, like so many Southern congregations, had become embroiled in a controversy about their policies toward LGBTQ members.

Increasingly, the pastor felt called to be a champion for LGBTQ people. Many had been rejected by their churches as children but still wanted to belong to a faith community. He hoped to create such a community, one that would welcome LGBTQ members fully. But as he tried to steer the church toward that goal, the rifts only deepened.

The pastor got tired of waiting for his congregation to agree with him. So one Sunday, he agreed for them—and summarily announced a new policy: No more “don’t ask, don’t tell.” All LGBTQ members were from that point forward welcome and equal, in all aspects of church life and leadership. Unfortunately, he neglected to run this policy change by the board members he suspected would not give their blessings.

I hereby declare my biases: I have left behind the evangelical faith of my childhood and schooling, never to return. And while I don’t hold people of sincere faith in contempt, by any means, I do feel a great chasm between my own worldview and theirs, as if I’d become a foreigner in the country of my birth.

Which is why, as I heard this pastor’s story, my immediate feeling was: Good for him. To my private self, he was the hero of this tale, an open-hearted welcomer of people who’d been unjustly spurned. But my writer-self knew that Private Kim’s opinions, experiences, and theological prejudices weren’t part of the story. There were other humans involved and other positions to consider, people who disagreed with their pastor and felt betrayed by a leader they’d trusted. To them, he had summarily imposed his will on the congregation, acted in bad faith. I had to hear them out, then offer their points of view without my own spin or slant—even if I didn’t understand or like what they had to say.

And as I stepped back from the picture, I could see that in the context of those events, the pastor was a complicated figure—which made it easier to forget my feelings and see the fullness of this person, good and bad. And the hardest part of that was that in the process, I would have to say some tough things about this man who’d spent hours with me, someone I liked, and whose intelligence I admired.

Tough things. Painful things. As you’ll see in this excerpt:

“With his dark hair and closely trimmed goatee, Stan Mitchell, 47, isn’t a dissident by nature. He wants people to like him. His memory is notably sharp, and in conversation he ricochets from literary allusions to amusing personal anecdotes to citations from scripture and philosophy. Casual and approachable, he often wears jeans in the pulpit, offers confidences like gifts in person, and unconsciously mirrors whomever he’s talking to, to put them at ease.

“But he knows there’s a dark side to such skills. Onstage before his congregation, in trying to be ‘all things to all people,’ he’s found himself at times facing a metaphorical hall of mirrors, wondering which reflection is the real Stan Mitchell — the empathetic pastor, comforting the afflicted, or the headstrong, borderline arrogant prophet, afflicting the comfortable.”

Full story: Grace Under Fire: Embracing LGBT members may have saved Franklin’s GracePointe church — or destroyed it

The late, universally beloved Scene editor Jim Ridley edited this. The words “borderline arrogant” were his suggestion. It ground my guts a little to apply that phrase, but I had to admit that the description was probably apt. I let it stand, because there was no way to be “nice” to everyone and tell this story in a way that was fair to all parties.

I also included quotes from another church pastor who disagreed theologically, and from a founding board member who left the church in protest. My private, ex-evangelical self didn’t understand where they were coming from. But when I spoke with them, I did my best to put that old self aside and hear them in the context of their beliefs and histories—and to explain their views fairly, without the shadings of my own.

I don’t know whether I succeeded in that, but people told me later that they felt the story was even-handed. That was nice to hear.

Whenever I’m tempted to embed my own views into a piece of journalism, I remember something my friend and hero Pam Colloff said: Early in her career writing about wrongful convictions and other massive justice system failures, her righteous outrage would sometimes find its way into drafts—until an editor told her that the facts spoke loudly enough; they would convince people more surely than editorializing ever could.

Sure enough: Again and again, Pam Colloff’s stories spur public indignation, increased accountability, and systemic changes. Other times, unjust policies or practices stubbornly persist; but in the blinding discomfort of Colloff’s longform journalistic illuminations, they often prove endangered.

The power of Colloff’s straightforward storytelling, offered without comment, pounds punditry into dust.

Summary:

As writers, it’s our responsibility to tell other people’s stories without oversimplifying or spinning them to serve our own purposes. Still, the writer reserves the right to offer interpretations: to a degree, we are always applying our values and experiences to what we write, learning all we can and telling the best version of what we think happened and why. Our role is to cut through a person’s possibly skewed version of himself, say. To check his testimony against other people’s. To mitigate people’s tendency to put themselves in the best possible light or cover shame.

Other times, our job is mostly to get out of the way. Like in a radio piece, where you only hear the interviewee’s voice. Or an “as told to” piece you render in first person.

In the next (and mercifully, final) installment of this series, Part III: Getting Out of the Way, we’ll talk about the privileges and perils of facilitating someone’s telling of their own story.

See also:

Writing Other People’s Stories, Part I: Empathy in First Person

An annotated version of Pam Colloff’s The Innocent Man at Nieman.Harvard.edu

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