Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fiction v. Journalism

In junior high, I worked on the school newspaper. Teachers and friends thought I would turn my interest in writing toward nonfiction. In their opinions, fiction was fun, but journalism, that was a career. However, "just the facts" didn't interest me as much as creating entire worlds from the cloth of imagination. Still, I tried.

In my mid-twenties, I returned to college and freelanced as a human interest (features) writer for a local paper that was also a local joke due to poor reportage and even worse typesetting. Once, when I asked the editor about a story I submitted that, when published, was missing an entire paragraph critical to the piece, she shrugged it away, saying we worked for a small paper, she was overworked, and she didn't have time to proofread everything before the publishing deadline.

When I consulted with my first interviewee on the final draft of an article, checking my facts and his quotes, I was scolded by the editor for breaking a cardinal rule of journalism by giving the interviewee a chance to change what he originally said. I started the article with a quote rather than a fact-filled opening sentence, and wrote too many words, expecting her to edit out what didn't fit, and basically broke more rules than a journalist should. I crafted a true story, not an article.

I shouldn't have sold the piece, but she bought it and gave me more assignments. Had she been a different sort of editor, and had I been more interested in creative nonfiction, I might have stayed on, writing about people in our small town, and delving into the rich history of our southern, rural, coal-mining region. For one assignment, however, I couldn't reach the people I needed to interview; repeated phone calls and messages yielded no response. I tried in vain to track down alternate contact information, and when I spoke to the editor, she told me to keep trying. No contact. Her assistant called me on the day the piece was due, asked where it was, started in on how I didn't do my job, and I quit.

Strangely enough, the people who wouldn't take my phone calls promptly answered hers, and a tiny announcement--sans interview--appeared in the next paper.

In the years since, the newspaper has improved. There's a new editor but the same assistant, the last time I checked. Last year, I considered going back. My articles did get a lot of positive feedback, and people used to stop me at church or in the store, telling me how much they enjoyed reading positive stories about their neighbors. But I can't seem to take that step--going back.

Pride? Probably. Disinterest? Perhaps.

Maybe it's just not my thing.

Some readers consider fiction unworthy of their time, a childish entertainment, but I find fiction a challenge. There are some histories and biographies I've blitzed through as if they were the tensest of thrillers, but that's because they told stories, not just facts. Fiction, however, can take facts and find deeper meanings behind them, can take a desert of data and turn it into an oasis.

My writing skills are nowhere near where I want them to be, but I hope that someday readers will open my books, settle down in their favorite chairs, and disappear into rousing good tales.

Beats "who, what, when, where, why, how" any day.


Eaglewing said...

Good points. I read the paper to know whats going on, but it very rarely challenges me in any way. I'm just absorbing facts. However, reading a good fiction story can get me thinking about things I may not have considered or just stay swirling around my brain for days as I ponder the characters, the writing, the points being made, what if scenarios and so forth. Both have their place, but a good work of fiction can be very rewarding to read or write, not to mention a much freer area to work within. I do love a good story.


I listen to a lot of news radio and talk radio while riding around in my truck, and I hear goofy headlines or really bad grammar--but it's the same with television news, too--and it frustrates me. I also wonder how much fulfillment reporters get from their work. They may be thinking the same thing about the rest of us!