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Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

Among other nice things in a recent review of my book, Ralph Bowden wrote that I “grew up with engaged, responsible parents.” This is true. One of my favorite examples of Mom and Dad’s engaged responsibility, however, did not make it into the book….

In the winter of 1987, when I was eight years old, my parents informed me that the three of us would be watching every episode of the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 together. It was, I remember, broadcast once a week for six successive weeks, with each episode covering a specific aspect of the movement.  It also came on precisely at my bedtime. In my house, bedtime was iron-clad, so the fact that Mom and Dad let me stay up late made me happy and conveyed the deep importance of what I was watching. Some of the footage, I remember, was scary – buses on fire, men being beaten, faces contorted with hate, but I was allowed to ask questions about what I was seeing.  It was while watching those episodes that I learned about my parents’ memories of those days.

I looked forward to the every episode of Eyes on the Prize. Sometimes, I would fall asleep on the couch, but Mom and Dad woke me up if there was something they thought I needed to see – I still remember being shaken awake to witness the Freedom Rides.

Because of what my parents did, I felt a responsibility to what I’d learned. I wasn’t sure what exactly to do with my newfound knowledge,  but I knew, somehow, that I needed to be mindful of that history in my daily interactions. I knew those stories were important. I also became completely fascinated with the movement – a fascination that rekindled itself as I sat in the Downtown Nashville Public Library in the summer of 2005 and began what would become my book.

Tonight, PBS is airing another immensely important Civil Rights documentary – Freedom Riders – in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, when black and white Americans violated Jim Crow laws to ride buses together across the South. Advance criticism is overwhelmingly positive. From what I can tell, one thread of the story involves students retracing the rides today.

We Americans can talk and talk about what happened here in the 1950s and 60s, but few genres capture the high stakes, terror, and courage of the Civil Rights Movement like documentary film.  Tune in tonight – PBS 9/8 C. And if you have school-age kids, keep ’em up – I speak from experience when I say this is one history lesson that’s worth sacrificing some sleep for.

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I’m back to the blog after a lovely weekend in Huntington, West Virginia – a city that gets some mentions in Confederate Streets owing to the fact that I have good friends there and have visited it a few times a year since I was about 16.  When I was younger, many eventful Greyhound bus trips began and ended in Huntington, and the most eventful of those was my first, which is chronicled in “Leave the Driving to Us” – a chapter in my book.  That’s all I’m going to say about that  – I’m trying to pique curiosity after all.

Back to Nashville.  My third reading of the weekend was at Rhino Booksellers, an excellent used book store.  I read at the store on Granny White Pike, not far from the neighborhood where I grew up. It was a much smaller gathering than the one at Glendale the previous evening, but that allowed for more of a discussion format.  I read from my essay about the history of Pearl High School/ my experiences in junior high. Overall, it was a nice mix of lifelong friends, folks who were just introduced to the book this winter, and some Pearl alums who had helped me with research.

But the most amazing/nervewracking moment came when I walked into the bookstore and saw folks I’d worked with at The Daily Herald in Columbia, Tennessee. I was extremely happy to see them again, after almost ten years away from the newsroom. However, one issue essayists must deal with that novelists escape (well, almost) is the fact that we’re writing about stuff that actually happened and we are not, for the most part, changing locations or names. So, as I watched my old editor, his wife, and the woman who had been the office manager take a seat, all I could think of was the chapter entitled “That’s What We’re Doing Here” – in which I question the value of being a journalist and reveal some of the behind-the-scenes gallows humor so common in newsrooms.

When the reading was over and my editor was writing a check for the book, I felt I had to tell him that chapter was there.  After driving all that way to support me, I didn’t want him to be blindsided.  So, Chris took his copy home and read it, and when I checked facebook the next day, this message was waiting for me:

Erin,

I thought the essay on your time as a reporter was terrific.

As far as the part about gallows humor, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the reason for it explained as well as you did.

Wish I’d known how hard you took some of those assignments — I’d like to have been able to tell you it’s OK to be both a reporter and a human and that reporters who don’t feel sympathy for the people they write about are crappy reporters, crappy people or both.

I wish I’d told Chris more, too. But I was just 22-23 while I worked there. It was my first job; I think I had the impression that jobs are supposed to push people out of their comfort zone and there wasn’t much I could do about it. However, one thing I should tell Chris, or anyone who finds themselves portrayed in an essay, is that the “creative” in “creative nonfiction” comes from the fact that essayists choose what they will portray. We don’t make things up, or change facts (At least, I don’t.) But we do take life and structure it into a literary format. I’m not writing straight autobiography or my life story, I’m adjusting focus, creating metaphor and theme. The themes I put in my essays aren’t necessarily how I saw my life at the time – in fact, they usually aren’t – but finding those themes in my life retrospectively is always illuminating.

The message from Chris continued, and I was struck by another reason I love creative nonfiction.  I love the fact that people tell me their stories after they’ve read the ones I wrote.  That kind of resonance is my entire goal, really. The chapter in Confederate Streets about my time as a reporter centers around three deaths I covered.  So, Chris told me about covering a trailer fire in which two young boys were killed:

What stands out most vividly for me is their young mom, sitting on a porch swing near the highway, keening. The sound made me frantic and nauseous. The part I don’t usually tell folks is how I wanted so much to go and sit by her and hold her hand or pat her on the back, but I knew I was the last person she’d want comfort from.

I, too, felt “frantic and nauseous” when I was a reporter. I could write another chapter just on those words and the feelings they evoke.  But Chris has already hit the nail on the head. I’ve always been impressed that writing can bring such connective feelings and ideas to light.

Chris went on to say that he has worked in print journalism so long because he believed in the importance of the truth. That’s also a feeling I tried to get across in my chapter about the topic.

There’s a lot of talk these days about newspapers being on the way out, but just in the process of writing this blog and reconnecting with the Daily Herald staff, I have been reminded that there are reporters out there every day, hitting the streets and putting themselves in all sorts of situations, just to get the truth out in print. I hope this inspires you to pick up your local paper. If you read something you like, shoot an email to the reporter.  Like us essayists, connecting with the reader is their goal.  And they’ve got a lot less time and space in which to make it happen.

 

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