“Remember that you own what happened to you,” says Anne Lamont in the opening chapter of her instructional writing book, Bird by Bird. Reading this sentence was like getting permission to do something I’ve rarely let myself do as a journalist. To take one’s own experiences and use them when telling someone else’s story is a risk. As journalists, we are supposed to be the constant observers, those who stand silently by the wall and take in the events of other people’s lives. We are to be the studious stenographers and remain objective from the details that grab our hearts and remind us of our own experiences.
However, to achieve all of the dimensions of a story, to capture everything, there has to be a point where we let ourselves bleed into the story. Maybe this element is only visible to us, but it’s that element of personalization that makes a story whole.
When I was 17, I lost my high school journalism advisor to suicide. Nearly four years later, this event affects me more than I allow myself to recognize. A few weeks ago, I was having a parting chat with my editor at Nursing Times magazine in London, and I told her how concerned I was for my return home and for my classes to begin. In between spouts of these remarks, I apologized for taking my personal problems into the newsroom. She looked at me and said, “Let’s get some tea.” Tea: the British solution to all problems, and mine, too.
With the warmth of a cup of earl grey in hand, I proceeded to tell her about my previous semester and somehow ended up in October of 2009. I told her about my teacher, Bill Currie, his decision following our last phone conversation and the difficult year that resulted.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” I said as I tilted my paper teacup in an effort to avoid eye contact. “It was so long ago.” I watched the brown liquid slosh around and hoped she hadn’t heard the emotion catch in my throat.
“Well, obviously you brought it up not 20 minutes into this conversation,” Jenni said, reaching to steady my fidgety hand. “It’s something that’s still affecting you. It’s your experience.”
And that brings me back to what Lamott says. We own our experiences. I think that’s what Jenni was hinting at in our conversation, too. Being a journalist does not give me the license to neglect the personal, raw poignant events in my own life. In fact, telling my own stories will open me up in my ability to tell others’.