I was inspired today, and also humbled.
I was moved, saddened and carried away by storytelling. As we reach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, The Washington Post published a series of articles featuring individuals who had been directly affected by the terrorist attack.
The articles may be too difficult, too heart-wrenching, for some to read.
But they are beautifully written, capturing the anguish these people felt 10 years ago—and, in some ways, still feel today. I started reading their stories partly out of a duty to remember and honor those who died and those left behind. But I continued reading them because I was impressed with the strong reporting and writing.
Some of these writers may be known in their industry, but I would bet the general public has never heard of them. We refer to news anchors and TV reporters by name, but newspaper and magazine writers often remain faceless and unknown. That’s a shame.
These stories reinforce my belief that good content—content that is brimming with detail and tone and mood—is alive and well in 2011. In the first in the series, “Trying to Find the New Normal,” writer Eli Saslow begins, “It was a Monday morning 10 years later, and they had regained control.” He describes a normal morning for mom Shari Tolbert and her kids. Then, he continues, “It was a Monday morning 10 years later, and they were still falling apart. Shari stirred in bed and reached instinctively for her husband, a daily act that could sometimes send her spiraling into depression.”
What struck me about these articles is how well the writers captured the mood and emotions of the people—and even of events in the past that the writers could not have witnessed. It reminded me that writers need to be still and really listen and see, to focus in on the surroundings, what the subject is doing, saying, how she says it, what she looks at when she speaks, what is happening in the background. It’s not just about quotes and paraphrasing what the interviewee said.
“She could tell him that they went on a trip to Maine in early September 2001 because it was cooler up there. That they boiled lobster in a cozy cottage. That they drove back to Maryland on Sept. 9 and were due to fly home to China on Sept. 10 on American Airlines Flight 77. That she thought her parents could use a day of rest before embarking on another long journey. That she called the airline and re-booked them on the same flight one day later.”
It’s a reminder of how important in-person interviews can be—and how sometimes you need multiple interviews and to tag along with the subject as she goes about her activities. Monica Hesse begins her feature, “On the 3,605th day after Dannye Drake-Ivey could have died, she baked cookies. She baked them in the little galley kitchen of the passenger jet flying from Paris to New York’s JFK and served them warm to first class.”
Ask and Keep Asking
It’s about asking numerous questions about what might seem like minutiae. There’s no other way Saslow would have known that Tolbert and her husband got married after they drove “through the night from California to Las Vegas and waited in line behind a cowboy and his pregnant girlfriend at the Chapel of White Lace and Promises.”
Yes, she grieved after his death at the Pentagon, but how did she grieve? “After he died, she had tried to force down those well-meant lasagnas and chicken potpies, vomited in the bathroom, and lost 10 pounds that first week. She had ached from head to toe, gone sleepless for five days and then, later, stayed in bed for most of a month,” Saslow discovered.
As my heart aches for these people, the poetry of the articles inspires me to always strive to improve my writing, to consider each word, to pay unique attention in interviews, to ask endless questions.