A cringeworthy slice of American pie

Here is some video from last Saturday’s gay pride festival, which I was planning to attend – if you want to know why I didn’t, read the previous post.

Why cringeworthy?  Because the scene speaks to something in everyone, no matter where you stand on gay pride – the preachers isolate themselves from the larger group, who harass and hate them.  The preachers inflict on themselves a bit of responsibility for the festival participants’ souls.  It becomes symbolic of a city squarely in the bible belt governed by a gay mayor.  Ultimately, it is about American freedom – freedom to believe, to speak, to dance and declaim in the streets.

If that isn’t American pie, what is?

Right man in the wrong place

The last few days have gotten away from me a little bit, but I wanted to make sure I note what happened last Saturday, when I was supposed to be meeting a source at the gay pride festival.  He is one of the street preachers I am interested in interviewing, and he demonstrates, so to speak, at events like gay pride.  I was all set and excited to attend, but as the morning went on I started to wonder if it was a good idea.  I tried to picture it: here I am at the gay pride festival, a woman wearing a head scarf, which most people recognize as a sign that I’m Muslim, much as they would recognize a priest’s collar.  Then, not only would I stand out, I would specifically approach the guy with signs condemning homosexuality and talk with him.  I would know why I was there and what I was doing, but outward appearances would make it seem like something hateful or nefarious.

Going to the festival might have been a good idea from a reporting perspective, but it would have been unnecessarily provocative, if based only on appearances.  So I didn’t go.  I was very disappointed because I was excited to meet and interview him for the first time.  But it also brought home to me that since I started wearing hijab and leading a different (read: more religious) life than I used to, there are some things that simply won’t happen because they’ll go beyond my comfort level and will encourage people to define me according to their perception of a hijabi woman.  My lifestyle is a choice I’ve made, and step by step as my writing career advances I will realize the impact of that choice, especially in terms of whom I approach and how.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t go to the gay pride festival.  The issue was how much my presence as a hijabi speaking to a despised street preacher would influence my reporting.  And that speaks to the question generally of how journalists research stories.  Where is that line drawn, both generally and for me as someone who wants to write about religion and religious people?

Month and a half

It’s roughly a month and a half now till I start the MFA program at Goucher.  The program formally starts with the on-campus residency.  I think I’m ready, although I still have a fair amount of reading to do before I feel like my brain will be full of enough literary journalism, memoir, biography, autobiography, crime writing, and general “true studies, well told,” to use CNF’s catch phrase.  When I was last in Jersey I went to an “everything you can fit in this bag for $5” book sale, and among the titles I bought was Gay Talese’s Fame and Obscurity (1986 printing, I should add, the kind of musty book you pop a Benadryl before you read lest the decades-old dust ravage your sinuses).  So now that’s on my stack.

Okay, so I’m doing a bunch of reading.  Not enough writing, I think.  Well, I have deadlines this week on a couple pieces, but I mean writing just to exercise my writing muscles.  I journal every day, but most of the time that’s just me whining about my life (including a lot of cursing, I’m ashamed to say, but there’s no one to offend but me, and the doc is password-protected).  I should probably try to make the journal a literary exercise as much as a free-form litany of complaints, anxieties and fears.

Then, as I’ve mentioned before, there is the logistical aspect, since it will be Ramadan and the days will be long and I will be getting up at around 4 a.m. and etc., etc., etc.  And without a laptop I’m going to be working on how to write and access my documents, but someone recently recommended Dropbox to me, so if I don’t use thumb drives I will use that.  Okay, everything’s to be all right.  Just chill.

Science, medicine, CNF

I read this on the Narrative Nonfiction blog today.  The link goes to the To Think, To Write, To Publish program, which is a two-day conference intended to “…discuss the value and advantages of communicating science and innovation policy (SIP) to general audiences with creative nonfiction writing that uses narrative, scene and storytelling to engage and inform readers.”  I see an increasing focus on using creative nonfiction to tell medical and scientific “stories.”  I’m super interested in that, I guess especially after working in a physical rehab hospital for so long.  I saw compelling stories every day, all day long.

Whatever the subject matter is, I am excited by the genre, but I’m worried about how well I get the concept of using “elements of fiction” as it’s usually described by authors and teachers when defining creative nonfiction.  I’m worried I’m going to start at Goucher lacking a basic understanding of CNF, even though when I applied to the school I thought I got it.  Maybe I’m too simplistic about it, but in my mind there are four basic types of prose:

1) News reporting, which by definition is simple communication of facts

2) Feature stories, which are based on factual reporting and research and tell a deeper and more nuanced version of stuff that happened

3) Fiction, which derives from imagination and is presumed not to represent factual information

4) Essays, which share the author’s opinions, either standing alone or in reference to factual information or events

Maybe I’m over-thinking it.  To me, creative nonfiction is feature stories told really well.  Like Thomas French’s The Exorcist in Love; he obviously did tons of reporting, which allowed him to present a super detailed and nuanced story.  Same with Tom Hallman Jr’s The Boy Behind the Mask.  Feature stories with tons and tons of reporting.  I hope my assumption is correct that what I will learn at Goucher is how to arrange the reporting so it tells the story in the best, cleanest, most compelling way possible.

The residency is two months away.  I’d better be sure I have it straight.

What time is it? 4:30. It’s not late – no, no, it’s just early early early

If you’re not familiar with the Spin Doctors, the post title is from their song What Time Is It?  It’s in honor of my continuing effort to get up at 4:30 a.m., the idea being that I will devote that time to writing and thus be able to devote the rest of the day to reporting, chores, reading, and other activities that don’t require me to sit in my chair facing the computer.   Unfortunately, this morning I again failed.  I actually got out of bed and stood up, but when I felt my head spinning (not like the Spin Doctors, just regular spinning) I said to myself, “dang, it’s just too early.”  I went back to bed.  Hopefully tomorrow I will succeed.

It’s a good plan.  I used to get up at 4:30 every morning, like 10 years ago.  Back then I had a second job, doing medical transcription from home, and I was finishing my bachelors degree.  Based on that, I suppose I could assume that when I start school again I will actually need that time.  The other issue is that when I go to Baltimore for the residency it will be Ramadan, and I will start fasting at 4:38 a.m.  By the time I leave, the start time will be 4:53, but it’s not like that’s much better in terms of having to get up early early early.

Bottom line is that within the next few weeks I will go from wanting to wake up super early to needing to wake up super early.  Please pray for me to succeed tomorrow!

Story in peril (part 2 of how we deal with sources)

I have mentioned in earlier posts that I am working on an essay for Creative Nonfiction’s “Southern Sin” issue, and that I came up with a great story idea.  The story relies on two street preachers, who unfortunately have not yet agreed to speak with me.

The story isn’t important just because it will be beneficial for me to tell it; it is also a chance to tell their story in a nuanced and non-judgmental way.  I have heard and read them referred to as “nutjobs” and “bigots.”  I’d like to write a piece that will let the reader decide if they are really nutty or if they’re driven by their faith to do things many others wouldn’t.  That question really drives the story.  Where does religious zeal stop and personal attack begin?  What does freedom of speech have to do with labeling others as sinful, if anything?  How do modern-day street preachers follow the heritage of those who preceded them?

It’s a great story no matter where it gets published, but I can’t write it without the main players; I really can’t.  Without talking to them I have to either drop the story or write it from the viewpoint of others, which would just summarize prejudiced positions.  These men are dismissed by many, in fact by the majority, of Houston community members.

So following on yesterday’s post about the concept of “selling out” subjects, I wonder what I can do to convince these men to talk to me without exploiting them.  I have offered the best value proposition I have – the chance to publicly tell their story, from their side.  Is there anything else I can offer to convince them to talk with me?  And how do I find the boundary beyond which I’m trying to “bag” them (using yesterday’s term) rather than convince them to let me be a conduit for their story?  I suppose it’s a question every journalist must address.  I just wish I knew the answer.

“Selling out,” trust and respect

I read Alexis Paige’s essay On Didion and the “Selling Out” Mantra today on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. In summary, she discusses Didion’s statement that “writers are always selling somebody out.”  Paige describes how she instructed a group of students to create their own writing mantra, sharing Didion’s quote, presumably by way of example.  Her students didn’t get it – or at least got their own version of it, which differed substantially from hers.

I got it, but I’m not sure if that says something positive about me.  I love the quote (which is from the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem):

My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

“Temperamentally unobtrusive and neurotically inarticulate” – that is a good description of my journalist persona.  Just as my public speaking persona is much more lively and outgoing than I really am, when I approach and interview subjects I project a more introverted self who wouldn’t dare be unfair in her reporting.  I can’t help it, and I am the same person whether I am giving a speech or interviewing a subject.  It’s like I’m showing two different sides of myself which are both true.

Being neurotically inarticulate – also a post for another day, but let’s just say that being quiet is the key to a good interview and also to avoiding babbling. Much of the time that’s a good thing, but not always, which is why I abhor talking on the phone. Okay, on to the main point: do writers “use” their subjects?

When I did my masters project – profiles of drug offenders – I had to approach strangers who were drug addicts with criminal histories – people I might know in private life but wouldn’t necessarily approach.  Sometimes I literally chased them down the hall after court was finished (which the public defender wasn’t always happy with).  When I convinced someone to talk with me, I’d say I had “bagged” them.  The irony is that that phrase was in contrast to what I really felt – that I had given someone the opportunity to tell their story, which is what my goal is as a journalist.  Yes, I was a small, quiet, polite person, but if I were to say I was selling subjects out it would refer to using myself as a tool rather than them.

As a student I interviewed white supremacists for a class assignment.  Did I sell them out?  I would argue no, because I didn’t write a story that was angry or judgmental.

Perhaps my version of “selling somebody out” really means inviting them to meet the journalist me, which is questionably deceptive but entirely acceptable if the subject is treated with respect and fairness and without judgment or prejudice.