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.