THIS is the story that never was. . .
A newspaper agreed to publish the offering, and seemed keener on my new approach to a subject they had previously rejected because it had lacked this latest, personal approach.
Basically, they wanted a human story rather than my previous interview with academics who had carried out interesting research into an upsetting disease.
I knew how to write such a story: I approached someone who agreed to talk. Interview done, the feature was written then – as is my way – rewritten. It was the finished article, or so it seemed. I emailed the newspaper’s features desk and promised the article was on its way, subject to a further visit to my interviewee
It was a sobering visit. I went home to tinker with my words once more, re-read what seemed like a decent piece of work. That’s the thing with this job sometimes: you want a story because stories make the world go around, you want a story to put a few more pounds in the freelance pot. And you want to see your words published.
Your words but someone’s life. That’s where this affair fell apart.
The person I had interviewed no longer wished to see their story in print. On reflection, the whole experience was far too upsetting and they weren’t up to having their life shared in this way.
My first reaction was reasonable in terms of a frustrated freelance – ‘That’s 1,300 words gone to waste!’ –; and un–reasonable in terms of being a decent human being: it was my story but someone else’s life.
I will give no fuller details here. To do so would be unfair and unethical. Suffice to say that my disappointment made me question the ways of journalism for a day or so. Don’t be surprised if in my lecturing gig next term, I come up with the topic Your Story But THEIR Life.
A sympathetically written story about someone else’s difficulties can help and people are often happy to share their struggles. The Story That Never Was concerned something which it is common to fear nowadays. Sharing would have been good, I thought.
I was left frustrated by the wasted effort, and then felt shamefaced. All I had lost was one piece of work and one fee. The person I had been trying to write about had lost so much more than that.
I don’t often tackle ‘difficult’ topics and most people are pleased to see me when I turn up with my questions and my digital recorder; an artist I went to see this week was thrilled to be interviewed, in fact I think I’d still be sitting there if I hadn’t made my excuses and left. It was very cold in that studio.
My lesson from all of this is to remember that other people’s lives belong to them and not to me and the papers and readers for whom I write.
It’s not exactly a useful motto for a journalist, but it’s a wise thought to keep in mind.
Janet Malcolm would approve.