Monday, April 22, 2013

Writing in the Sauna and Editing During Downward Facing Dog


You read that title correctly.

Would it surprise you that my best writing is not done at a traditional desk on a keyboard?

Case in point, Saturday.

Every Saturday at 11 a.m., I have a Yoga class at my gym, and I move Heaven and Earth to always be there. I work out during other times of the week, but this Yoga instructor has this amazing class at a specific time that kicks my heart into overdrive while leaving me so relaxed that I feel like I've been sitting on a beach for five hours.

The problem was that this Saturday, I was in the middle of a writing marathon. I'd just finished two stories the night before and needed to polish off two others by a Monday morning deadline. I was brain-dead, but I didn't see how I could justify going to Yoga.

And then I decided that my body was more important than sitting at a computer for nine hours straight, machinating over minutia. So I hopped in my car to hit the gym sauna before the class and then spend the following hour stretching my limbs into rubber bands.

As I opened the sauna door, the aroma of cedar wafted over me, and heat bathed me. I sat on the wooden planks and closed my eyes.

And then I started writing.

No, I didn't bring my laptop in with me. But I'd spent enough time with my interview notes that I could envision the words on the screen, and then I pinpointed in my mind which anecdote would be best for the story lead.

Now I need to tell you ... this was no easy story to write. This happened to be on the same weekend that lots of movie-worthy action was taking place north of me in Boston. Other journalists on national news desks were churning copy as fast as SWAT teams could exchange bullets with the bomber of the Boston marathon. What I found during my work for AP was that those types of stories just write themselves. Your adrenaline is SO HIGH, that you just naturally pound out prose.

But these other types of stories .... well, this is where you are tested as a writer.

My two assignments were for a trade magazine, targeting owners of pizza restaurants in the United States and Canada. And the topics?

Dealing with food allergies.

And maintaining a comfortable restaurant climate during the summer months.

In essence, I had the story subject equivalents of watching paint dry. Just thinking about these stories was putting me to sleep in that sauna. But I pressed on.

I had my lead anecdote on the food allergy story from about 15 minutes in the sauna, and as I exited into cooler air and grabbed my Yoga mat, my mind started working on the best ways to frame it.

 So during my first 20 minutes of Yoga, I edited.

I worked the sentences around in my mind, each word a piece of a tapestry or elaborate stained glass window.

And it was during my third Downward Facing Dog pose of the morning that I came up with my approach.

Now this will surprise you -- I didn't race back to my house after Yoga and grab the laptop and start writing. I had one more magazine interview to complete for the second story on climate control. I found my subject, interviewed her .... and then I was sleepy.

So I took a two-hour nap.

Around 4 p.m., with most of the day gone, you'd think I would never be able to pull off the writing of two stories. But by this time, my mind was so rested, clear and focused, that I wrote the climate control story in two hours.

And THEN I pulled up a fresh screen. The words I had crafted during my Downward Facing Dog seven hours earlier came back to me as if I'd just left them on a shelf for a couple of minutes.

Here's the story lead:

"Tucked in the technology enclave of San Jose, CA, Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza draws a hip, sophisticated and highly-educated clientele. And with all of that education comes a high demand for not only healthy food – but customer knowledge about food allergies and sensitivities." 

I'm no Hemingway, obviously, but it did the trick ... and that story was completed in an hour-and-a-half.

The next time you feel overwhelmed by deadlines and don't feel that you have enough time to make time for yourself .... make time for yourself. Take care of your mind and your body first. The words will wait, and when you finally have given yourself the gift of self-love, the words will come.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Interview Pitfalls: Lessons Learned from Meg Tilly and The Globe & Mail

It's one of those things you hear from your mother and push aside, because she's your mother:

"You don't realize how powerful you are."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah,"  I quip, rolling my eyes and waving my hand at her as if she's an insect that has just flown too near my coffee cup. I've never been comfortable with that statement, but my mother repeats it a lot. A LOT.

Yet it wasn't until very recently that I had to seriously scrutinize these words. A few Twitter friends were batting around discussion about a blog entry by the actress Meg Tilly, which you can read here:

Meg Tilly: "Still Reeling"

Apparently, Tilly is one of those actresses who is excessively media-shy, and with good reason, as she's been burned in the past. But recently, she let down her guard with The Globe and Mail of Canada. She soulfully opened up to an interviewer and was none too happy with the resulting article, which you can read here:

"Meg Tilly as she is, not as you’d imagine"

Both deserve to be read in order for you as a journalist to get both points of view (after all, that's what we're about, isn't it? Getting both sides of the story?).

I walked away from this with a few thoughts: In my opinion, this was a classic case of miscommunication. And both sides are in the right, and both sides are in the wrong. The Globe & Mail's story is well-written and well-reported. But I did some digging and discovered another story in The Daily Mail of the U.K., written in 2011, and it had the same tenor and tone and style:

"The family Colin Firth left behind: How he will always be in debt to the reclusive beauty who bore his first son"

My guess is this was an advancement of that story, even though the two papers are not related. You know how this works if you've worked in daily newspapers: An editor decides they want to match what another paper has done, and the reporter is sent out with a pre-established list of questions or angle to quench that editor's thirst. I'm not sure if this is what exactly happened in this instance, but I found the similarities between the two stories interesting.

Now we get to the interview itself. Tilly describes the interviewer this way:

"I think the thing that hurts the most, is that I really liked this woman. ...We were both middle-aged women in our 50’s with grown kids, laughing over wrinkly necks, changing bodies, desires. She was wearing this unique jacket that was like this funky piece of art.  She was a writer, I was a writer. ...And it was fun. Sipping on peppermint tea with a little bit of honey. Tucked in a warm booth at a retro diner in a hipster hotel."

Tilly does a nice job setting up the scene, and I see exactly what she's describing. I've been that interviewer in the past. Interviewing people for a story is very psychological. To get them to discuss the most important aspects of their lives, you do need to find common ground and the like-ability factor. And as someone who tests consistently as an ENFJ on a Myers Briggs personality test, this is one area in which I am particularly adept.

But this is where I part ways with the interviewer.

See, whether you want to admit it, we as journalists do have power -- the power to build someone up or demoralize them, just because our words are circulated in print for thousands of people to read. And with that power comes great responsibility.

My heart sank when I read these words from Tilly:

"She felt like a friend. Her sharing her life, me sharing mine.  And when I left, I thought, maybe we’ll be friends, wouldn’t that be nice? ...I started to read, and shock set in.  This was an intelligent woman with warm eyes, this woman had a comfortable laugh, a comfortable body.  We were both middle aged women who had gone through a lot.  How could she have written this? An article that barely mentioned the book, which was the whole reason we met. Nothing about the writing process, the reasons why. The title. That’s it.  There was a brief reference,  a sentence, I think, about Bomb Girls."

You might say to me, "Well, Heidi, Meg Tilly knew exactly what she was doing when she sat down with a journalist. She's a grownup. She has responsibility and shouldn't be whining. If she didn't want that stuff in print, why didn't she say it was off the record?"

Yes, she could have and probably should have. But this is how I know that the interviewer went astray and abused the power that had been entrusted to her.

"An article that barely mentioned the book, which was the whole reason we met."

And no more needs to be said. It's obvious that the interviewer landed the sit-down discussion with this reclusive individual because she had written a book. She was there to discuss the book. She thought the interviewer was going to write about the book. She was led to believe the entire purpose ... was about the book.

If you have a personality that immediately sets people at ease and tells them that they can lower their guard, you have a responsibility as a journalist and as a human being to be as up front with them as possible. If the interviewer's editor said, "Listen, you get this interview, and she wants to talk about the book, but see what else she's willing to discuss ...." (And we KNOW that discussion had to have taken place, because I've heard those words more times than I can count) ... it was the reporter's responsibility to tell Tilly.

I always lay my cards out on the table for each interviewee, if it's a puff piece. We're not talking about investigative journalism. Yes, when I've interviewed slippery politicians, I have just let them talk and hang themselves with their words. But this is an instance where you have a fragile and trusting woman who obviously has a gift for writing as well as for screen acting. She was there to discuss her book. To do a complete 180 on her without giving her any warning may not land you in a court of law for a lawsuit ... but it ignores the simple human call to compassion and kindness.

What did the reader gain from this article? Maybe for the interviewer, it was all about satisfying curiosity and gossiping tongues. But was the reader's life edified? Would it have been so if the interviewer had gone with the premise for the article -- a story about an actress-turned-author?

There are losers on all sides of this story: Meg Tilly lost trust in what could have been a very positive experience, both for her and for the interviewer. The interviewer lost respect and a sense of her own humanity in running roughshod over that trust. The readers lost an amazing opportunity to read an enriching piece about an artist and how she spun her creativity into a new web of wonderful writing.

And as journalists, we also are losers if we can't learn a few lessons from Meg Tilly and The Globe & Mail about human compassion, decency, trust and integrity.