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Archive for June 13th, 2007

The unintended but better story

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

I write this post on Roy Peters Clark’s Writing Tools blog yesterday, and his post “When Journalists Use Archetypes” reminded me immediately of a time when I had to make the same choice that student did: Do I go with the touching, cute story or the warts and all version?

I took one summer course other than my internship in college. It was feature writing (at 8:30 a.m.!), and it was the summer I was serving as managing editor at the Stater. I liked the class for two reasons:

First, unlike feature writing in the fall or spring, we turned around a story a week instead of a story a month with endless revisions. I have a tendency to grow weary of a story I work on too long, favoring instead a more immediate turn around and revision process. Because the semester was shorter, we pitched the idea to the professor, reported and wrote it that same week. We pitched the next story and worked on both the revision and the new story simultaneously. It was more time consuming each week, but it was a more newspaper-like than feature writing in spring and fall.

That was my second reason for liking the class. I had been a magazine major because I wanted to do these feature stories. It wasn’t until my professor, Mitch McKenney (who was then the deputy metro editor at the Beacon Journal and has since become the features editor), had us read newspaper feature after newspaper feature, many from his own experience where he could elaborate on the reporting and editing processes, that I realized you can do those types of stories at a newspaper. You can do those types of stories better on a beat because you understand the material and the people and the issues that much better. I also saw that you can write interesting features in a non-traditional form or in very few words. Until that class, I had never really been exposed to that. So it was a turning point for me. It was after taking that class that I changed my major from magazine to newspaper (though, obviously by my status as ME at the Stater, I had already established myself in both newspaper and magazine student media, so I was poised to go either way, both with the intent of doing online in the long run).

I pitched the idea of riding around with the ice cream man for my final story. It was an idea stolen from one of the stories we read where the reporter rode for a day with a dog catcher. I also liked the idea of being able to do all — or almost all — of the reporting in one sitting.

It was both one of the most fun and miserable stories I’ve ever done. Fun because the woman was hilarious and you really do hear and see a lot of cute things from the window of the ice cream truck. But miserable because the truck didn’t have air conditioning, and I hadn’t thought to wear light clothes or put on sun block — my legs and arms were sunburnt on half of my body after baking for 12 hours(!) in 97 degree sun. Oh, and then there was the prolonging of the 12 hour day by the truck breaking down half an hour away from the company base. It was, eh hem, an interesting day.

I met the owner and he put me on a truck with the woman with whom I had struck up a conversation outside.

It was the first of many contradictions that I experienced that day. This was an ice cream woman. That followed with many more: before doing this she had managed an adult bookstore, she swore like a sailor (though not around the kids), and she profiled the neighborhoods in the opposite way you would think: lower- to middle-class were better. As she drove through the neighborhoods, she went on about her theory (the upperclass kids were playing video games, their parents were too cheap that’s how they got so much money, etc. and the poorer areas where she did her best business, the parents could spend a dollar and totally make their kids day.) I was able to see this play out as we drove through much more affluent areas and sold not a single popsicle, and then as we drove through “the projects,” she had lines halfway down the road.

When I got home and sat down to write, I was confused. Do I write about the feel-good stuff, the cute kids counting their pennies and stopping at Wal-Mart to buy sugar free popsicles for the nursing home she visited because many of the adults were diabetic yet her boss couldn’t sell enough sugar-free items to stock them? Or, do I write about the more real-life stuff, the empty yards and sidewalks in the affluent areas, the kids who wanted the ninja turtle but could only afford a freeze pop, the other driver invading her “turf” and cutting into her business, the annoying song that must have played 1,000 times, the lack of air conditioning, the truck breaking down, the excessive use of “damn” and the like?

I struggled with that, and then called Mitch the next day to ask for his advice. I had decided to go with the warts and all version, even though it wasn’t what I set out to report or to write. But I wasn’t sure how to treat it when fully half my best quotes included an expletive. He helped me work it out so it wasn’t offensive and it wasn’t sugar coated. It was what it was true to her character and my day in the life of this ice cream truck driver.

Sadly, as it was written for class and it wasn’t of immediate appeal to the Stater audience, it never ran, and I have long since lost the copy I had of it. But it is still one of my favorite stories. I know Mitch really liked it, too, because the last time I saw him at a function last fall, he mentioned it as he introduced me to his boss and he has told me he uses it as an example in his classes.

Something tells me this story wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable if I’d gone with the cliche, ideal of the ice cream man.