A lesson from Maggie

A few weeks ago, we talked about voice in reporting class and its importance in journalistic narratives. That week happened to be the week that the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died. I couldn’t help, in that moment to correlate our discussion of voice with the death of perhaps one of the most recognizable and, for some, most despised voices of all time.

But agree with her politics or not, the woman had voice. While Maggie Thatcher wasn’t a journalist, she achieved a tone that was incomparable to her contemporaries.

Thatcher’s voice, though, was one that was achieved over time and prompted by the challenge of her critics.

After being criticized by her male contemporaries who said “the right honorable lady doth screech too much,” Thatcher took voice lessons and deepened the sound of her voice. She  matched the deeper tone of her peers while creating an “iron” persona all her own.

While I am talking about Margaret Thatcher’s literal voice in this sense, I think her experience as a politician is one that can be related to a journalists’ developing voice in writing.

In class, we discussed the idea that our voices are constantly developing, in response to criticism from editors, readers and ourselves. As my confidence grows as a writer, I’ve noticed I’m a lot more brave and a lot more willing to take on a more distinctive voice.

It took me three drafts for my first Vox story before I could coax out the voice I wanted to employ. Now, I’m turning in drafts that are louder, more distinctive, more effective on the first try. In other words, I’ve pulled a Margaret Thatcher. Image


Everything is copy

“I am in desperate need of a breath mint,” I type to my Kappa Delta sisters Kelsie and Kylee in a text.
“You need a PiChi,” Kelsie replies.
The image of the sorority recruitment officers in their tye-dyed t-shirts and backpacks bulging with white Lifesaver breath mints, Band-Aids, personal fans and oil blotters comes to mind as my feet nervously pace the shiny, marble floor of the The New York Times lobby. At this point, not even snarky recruitment humor can bring me out of my anxious state.
I can’t believe he’s meeting me. I can’t believe he cares about a journalism student from the University of Missouri. God, I need to pee. Can I do that at The New York Times?
I struggle to compile questions to ask Jacob that don’t sound immature or too “fan girlish.” I’m still coming up empty as I mindlessly click the button on the top of my iPhone. Screen on, screen off, screen on. I open the e-mail I’d sent two days before and scroll down to my original message, looking for inspiration but afraid to find colloquial language or an unnoticed grammatical error.
“Dear Mr. Bernstein….”
As the cab makes its way from LaGuardia airport into New York City, I sit in the back seat, my leg pressing into my friend Claire. She leans her head against the back of the seat as I hold my phone out and watch the words swim in front of my eyes. Jacob Bernstein >launches into a story about his mother, Nora Ephron, on page one and I’m in the middle of page five, clutching the door of the cab, clinging to every detail. My stomach threatens to remind me of my history of carsickness, but I refuse it. Jacob’s telling me a story about his mother Nora and suddenly all of the questions about the death of one of my favorite writers are being answered, line by line. He’s included everything from her hallucinations on her final days to her lucid desire for a pineapple shake and a walk in Central Park. The cab pulls up to our hotel in Midtown as I reach page seven and I watch with Jacob as his mom pulls away from the world.
“I have to e-mail him, Beth. You’re supposed to tell people when you like their stories, right? Will you read this? I can’t send this.” I pace around our hotel room later that night and turn to face my new friend as she types something on her laptop.
“You have to,” she says quickly proving to be an exceptional person with an equal desire to pursue beautiful, slightly unrealistic dreams.
I sit, cross-legged on the hotel room bed, typing and deleting clichés born from my nervousness, until I come up with this:

Dear Mr. Bernstein,
Your mother was my hero. She still is. On my desk, next to my AP stylebook and reporter’s notebooks, is a framed quote of hers: “Be the heroine of your own life.” When I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in the fall of 2011, it was your mother who stood beside me as my imaginary protector, leading me past fear and reminding me to save all my struggles for my writing. After all, “Everything is copy.”
I’ve dreamed of meeting her since I was seventeen, when I became entranced by her commanding sense of perception. I imagined one day that I would somehow contact her upon my arrival to New York as a new magazine writer. I imagined she would miraculously reply to my note. She would tell me all there was I would need to know to succeed just as I had heard she had done for countless other women journalists.
Today, I saw your recent story in The New York Times Magazine about your mother’s final days. As I rode into New York City for a school trip, it reminded me of the importance of detail and the necessity of journalism.
I know this is a long shot, but I am in New York City until Sunday. We are visiting The New York Times Magazine tomorrow and will be near that office for much of the day. I would appreciate any advice you have for a young, ambitious journalist. I’ve provided my contact information below.
For now, I’m heading off to Shake Shack. Maybe I’ll get mine with pineapple.

Hilary Weaver

Jacob Bernstein is walking toward me now and I forget about my needs for a mint and the bathroom. I’ve googled his picture minutes before so I wouldn’t miss him in the lobby, and I instantly recognize the dark-haired, cleanly dressed, 34-year-old man who comes into view. What I don’t expect is how much he looks like his mother as he approaches me. It strikes me that he seems like an old friend. As we walk to the row of elevators, I can’t help but think that his mother’s had something to do with our meeting in some way. Some kind of mystical orchestration by her deep wisdom and wit.
“My mother always encouraged people to work for a daily newspaper,” he tells me as we sit across from each other at a round, white table in the cafeteria.
“Should I switch my sequence from magazine to newswriting?” I ask, somewhat frantically.
“No, not necessarily,” he says smiling slightly at my panic. “Just always take every opportunity you have to tell a story.”

Everything is copy.

As I sit next to Nora Ephron’s son on a Friday afternoon at the New York Times, it becomes apparent I am going to be a journalist and I want to be a journalist in New York City. He tells me how hard it will be, but I think I already know that. He tells me how I can never have too many sources and that I should never, ever stop searching for detail. You never know what could make a story great. Once, he stops me when I use the phrase “passed away,” and says, “It’s OK to say ‘dead,’ you know.” For that moment, I think I’ve gained a shred of insight into his personal pain at the loss of his mother and I’m grateful for his generosity in sharing it.

When he takes a phone call in the middle of our conversation, I quickly scribble down everything he’s said in my reporter’s notepad.

Everything is copy.

After about thirty minutes have passed, he rides down with me on the elevator and we make small chat about Seattle, where I’ve lived and where his mother once made a very famous movie. We discuss what I should do for internships this summer and whether going to London to study abroad is a good career move. We talk like friends. He shakes my hand and walks away, telling me to stay in touch.
“I certainly will,” I assure him as I turn to the door and the busy New York street.
I’ll never get to have lunch with Nora. I’ll never get to ask her endless questions about how to succeed as a woman in the journalism industry. But I will get to say she helped change my life. I’ve met someone whose life she’s touched perhaps more than anyone else, one of the most important pieces of what she left behind. As I walk into a throng of people and battle against the wind of a sunny March day, it becomes clear that I’ve proved to myself that I can make it on my own. I have the ability to seek my own resources and make things happen. I’ve grown up a little in this afternoon in New York City.

I guess that’s what heroes are all about.