When people ask me (or I ask myself) why I want to be a journalist, I usually tell them something along the lines of “I love to write,” “I enjoy reporting,” “A lot of novelists got their start as reporters,” you get the point.
But every so often, I go into a more overly-introspective mode about why it is that I want to spend my life chasing people down and asking them minute details about how much something is going to cost or when something is going to happen or what it felt like to do something.
When that happens, this is the answer I come up with to the “why I want to be a journalist” question:
I want to tell stories.
Earlier this week, my friend Margaret and I went to see Maya Angelou speak at a campus-sponsored event, and let me just say, it was incredible. She talked about finding “rainbows in the clouds,” people and things that brought goodness into her own lives and the lives of other people she’s known.
I think the thing that struck me most was how she spoke, how she blended speaking and poetry and song with ideas and thoughts and anecdotes to pull the audience into the story she was building.
Considering that she got two standing ovations — one before and one after she spoke — I would say she accomplished her goal. After Margaret and I left, I couldn’t stop gushing about how I wanted to be like her, to travel and do interesting things and meet interesting people so that one day I can write them all down in a book or something.
To tell stories.
I had a conversation with my intermediate writing teacher at the beginning of the week about the profile I’ve been working on and the difference between magazine and newspaper journalism, and one of the things we talked about was how magazine writing allows that kind of space to really just tell stories. Now, I definitely haven’t changed my mind about my decision to go into a newspaper-based major. I have no regrets in terms of my chosen emphasis. But the conversation sparked my imagination to think about the capacity of journalism as a way to tell stories.
When I think about it, storytelling has been in my blood for a long time. I spend a fair amount of time asking “Did I tell you about the time I…,” usually in an attempt to tell them the same story I told a few weeks ago. Throughout high school, I would scribble short scenes or bits of fiction on scrap paper during down time in class. For the last three semesters, I’ve taken fiction classes for which I’ve written a number of short stories ranging from a couple of pages to 15 to 20 pages. My not-so-secret life dream is to be a published novelist.
I love to tell stories.
And I love the way journalism lets me do that, even in the little things.
A quick anecdote at the beginning of an article, the story of what happened at a meeting (if you think about it, it really is a story, you know), what it was like to listen to someone famous speak to a packed theater, a piece of the puzzle part of a body of work on a tax increase or a finance plan.
They don’t always look like it, but they are stories.
I think at this point, that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned/had reinforced in intermediate writing this semester. Journalism doesn’t have to be, and sometimes shouldn’t be, just relaying a bunch of information. It’s finding the best way to tell a story so that the greatest number of people will read it and understand what it means for them.
And when I think of it that way, I can’t help but remember why this is something I want to do. I want to learn things and see things and experience things so that I can write about them and help people see that those things are important, that those things matter. I want people to understand things and act on things and be moved by things, even if it’s just telling them about school finance, because then at least they know. Then at least I can fulfill my obligation (although I think it’s more than that) to the public so that they can figure out how to move next.
Maybe I’m getting a little too philosophical. Maybe that’s the product of spending a semester reading long-form journalism that makes you want to cry or laugh out loud or question your views of the world. Maybe in the long run, I’ll get to the real world and find out that there’s a different time and place for that kind of lofty thinking.
But for now, I will tell stories.