Hey there, writers. Hope you’re doing well.
Today I want to talk about talking to people. And your super power as a writer. But first, here’s a rundown of what you’ll find in this issue of One More Question:
Some thoughts on the importance of interviews.
Recommendations of the week (1 read, 1 listen, 1 watch)
Pitch Opportunities! These editors want your stories.
An interview with freelance journalist Eileen Guo on her recent article for The New York Times.
And if you haven’t subscribed yet, please do! There’s so much more to come:
(It would make Jackson so happy. 🐶)
People want to talk to you. (Really.)
I was working on something last week that I wasn’t super excited about. It felt like one of those flimsy topics that won’t matter to anyone unless their wallet is directly attached to it, and then they’ll probably only read the headline and then get mad at me because what the hell do I know, really. (My attitude towards this assignment was really freaking positive, let me tell you.)
And then I called someone for an interview. This was actually the third interview I’d arranged with this person. He’s a busy businessman and kept canceling and rescheduling for one reason or another, so I was half expecting him to cancel again. But he didn’t. He picked up, sounded flustered, and said, “Can I call you back in five?”
Sure, of course. No problem.
He called me back in five.
“So sorry. I just walked in the door, and I had to put the phone down to wash my hands.”
Ah. Right. Even busy businessmen whose lives I assume are nothing like my own are stressing out about washing their hands right now.
I thanked him for taking time out of his busy schedule, feeling self-conscious that talking to a stranger was probably the last thing he wanted to be doing right then.
But right away, I realized I was very wrong about that. He wanted to talk. He needed to talk.
He told me how hard these last few weeks have been for the people he works with, and he told me of all the pressure he’s under to help certain businesses stay afloat. At one point there was a long silence, and I thought our call had dropped. Right before asking, “Did I lose you?” I realized he was crying.
This was completely disarming for me, and I admittedly got a little awkward about it. But I was also so touched. I realized this conversation was important. It was a wake up call for me, as a journalist. A big part of my job is giving people the space to tell their stories. No matter the topic, and no matter my level of expertise or passion for that topic, it is often my job to ask questions and then offer silence for them to fill. And then it’s my job to hold what they give me with the sensitivity and the context that turns it into something others can hold, too.
Sometimes those conversations are pretty cut and dry. Sometimes people have memorized a few lines from their company’s “values” page and they won’t actually give you any substance. Sometimes they just give you one-word answers. But lately, more than usual, people really want to talk.
This is your super power as a writer. Questions. Conversation with a point.
Everyone is trapped at home right now. They’re trapped in their own story that starts at their bed and ends in their bed with a couple detours to various rooms and maybe a walk around the block. And you get to give them the opportunity to escape, and talk about something bigger than the context of their day.
As a writer asking questions for a story, you can give people the space and the words that connects them to the outside world. You get to skip the small talk and say, “Hey I know you’re busy, so let’s get right to it. What do you think about, [insert thing that really matters]?” And then they will tell you what matters. And often, especially now, it all ends up mattering more than either of you realize.
Don’t have an assignment that requires interviews? You don’t need them. Talking to people can be the gateway to new stories you haven’t thought of yet. And editors LOVE it when your pitch includes a character, or an expert source—not just a topic. Start reaching out to people who know a lot about something that interests you, and go from there.
The businessman’s perspective made me care about that story. I saw the humanity behind something that seemed so uninteresting at first. But it was personal to him, and once he shared that, it was personal to me, too. I hope he felt a little lighter after we spoke, because I immediately felt the weight I was looking for.
That’s all to say, I suddenly really love interviews. And if you don’t love them yet, now is a great time to practice. I promise. It might not seem like a superpower yet, but it gets easier. And everyone is making them really easy right now because they’re so darn excited to talk to someone, too.
I hope you find a reason to call a stranger this week.
Recommendations of the Week
I read Normal People, a novel by Sally Rooney, cover to cover over the weekend. It ate up my heart, bite by little brilliant bite. The plot is pretty simple. It’s about a relationship between two people who are very different and you follow them as they drift apart and come back together and drift apart and so on. Highly recommend it if you’re looking for a compelling story that’s full of really beautiful writing.
Cheryl Strayed chats with George Saunders in the first episode of her new podcast Sugar Calling. Saunders reads an email he sent to all of his writing students when school shut down, and I think it’s something every writer should hear right now.
Also this live stream of jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is so very soothing.
Editors Who Want Your Pitches
Leah Finnegan @leahfinnegani’ve been at @outline since before it began. editing it was the best job, and with the best team. hire them, give them money, have them write and edit for you: @jeremypgordon @brandyljensen @drewmillard @nkulw @shujaxhaider @rachelmillman
Eileen Guo on Her Recent Article for The New York Times
Eileen Guo is a freelance writer friend who is constantly inspiring me with the stories she puts out into the world. Her reporting goes deep to expose inequalities and injustices that often aren’t being covered elsewhere. And her latest for The New York Times on how Corona Virus Threatens an Already Strained Maternity System is no different. It’s also an urgent, timely story. Many writers are trying to figure out how to cover this crisis, and Eileen’s article is a great example of a unique angle that wasn’t being told.
How did you come up with the idea for this story?
It was a tip from my roommate, whose close friend was about to give birth for the first time and was shocked by the new restrictions on who could or could not accompany her into the delivery room.
What was the pitch process like?
I cold-pitched the Fuller Project (fullerproject.org), which covers women's stories, and which had recently put out a call for pitches on how coronavirus was affecting women. I've interacted with Fuller Project editors and reporters online and at conferences, though, so they knew my name when it came through. They then pitched it out to publications that they had working relationships with, and placed it in the NYT Gender section.
How did you find the main character for this piece?
It took me a while to find her, basically by reaching out to a lot of organizations that work on black maternal health. I ended up finding her through an organization called The Birthing Project, and actually had interviewed the founder several years ago for another project that I was working on.
Contacting non profits, community orgs, and other advocates has been the best way to reach hard to reach populations. They’re also great as potential future sources, so especially if there’s an area you want to continue covering, I’d definitely recommend that you cultivate these contacts.
What was one unexpected challenge in covering this story?
When I pitched the story, there were two stories on pregnancy/childbirth during COVID19, from a local paper in Seattle and on a blog for birth workers. By the time that I published, a week and a half later, everyone was publishing/had published on the topic -- including other sections of the NYT.
This meant that we really had to hone in on an angle that no one else had written about. And no one had really written about how this disproportionately affects lower-income and other marginalized communities, which has always been part of my unofficial beat of inequality, so we leaned into that. It was very stressful, though, seeing everyone else come out with stories before me and hoping that some of the new information we uncovered -- that Kaiser in SF was offering induced labor, which no one else has reported, or that another hospital in SF had shut down its labor and delivery ward completely and turned it into a Covid-19 ward -- wasn't scooped elsewhere.
What's one thing you learned about yourself or writing/publishing through this article?
As a freelancer, it's rare that I get to report/write timely features, so it was cool to have that opportunity—and to be able to do it. It was also new to work with a team. My editors at Fuller Project and New York Times were both very involved and collaborative, and a gender reporter at the NYT also helped out, which was pretty cool as well.
One more question for you…
A reporter is calling you tomorrow. They want to share YOUR story. What’s one question you hope they ask you? What’s something you’ve been dying to talk about, but you haven’t had a chance? (Grab a pen and paper, and answer that question.)
That’s all for now, friends. Stay well, and I’ll see you next Wednesday when we’ll be talking about the future of travel writing with Lonely Planet Editor, Meghan O’Dea.
And please, if you enjoyed this, it would mean so much to me if you shared this with a writer friend or recommended it on social media. 💛