AJR Features : FIRST PERSON
From AJR, December 1996 issue
Writing to Feel Alive
"One writes in order to feel: That is the fundamental mover." – Rita Dove, "The Poet's World"
By Walt Harrington
Walt Harrington, a former Washington Post Magazine staff writer, teaches journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Journalists are always talking about how they write to inform the public, to defend democracy, to champion the little guy against the corporate mogul, to create a better world. I began my career 20 years ago holding these high-minded rationales. But over the years, as I turned to writing about the everyday lives of people, it dawned on me that these explanations had become props: I no longer wrote stories in order to right wrongs or to change the world. I wrote stories, as poet Rita Dove says, in order to feel.
At first I told myself that I wrote stories so that others might feel. In journalism, it's always the readers who are our final justification for the great power we bear under the First Amendment. Without the defense of serving readers – the personification of "the public interest" – we in the press lose all legitimacy.
Over the years I wrote in-depth stories about the everyday lives of a retarded man, a fundamentalist family, a working-poor family, a grandmother struggling to care for her children and grandchildren, an elderly preacher, a homicide detective, a black Harvard-educated lawyer who had dedicated his life to defending death-row inmates, a teenage runaway, an aspiring gospel singer, a pro football player, a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter pondering how they have shaped one anothers' lives.
As I reported and wrote those stories, I told myself they were meant to make readers feel the lives of others, to take readers outside their busy, insular worlds and into the worlds of people they had neither the time nor perhaps the imagination to go meet, to take readers on a journey across the boundaries of race and class, gender, religion, occupation, age and education – the fiefdoms that so Balkanize us today. This was a variation on the old theme: I was doing good for the commonweal, bringing empathy to the public. I believe that's a worthy fallout of what I do. But, truth told, it also is pretense: I write stories for myself.
They remind me that I am alive.
Some people jump out of planes or climb mountains. Others pray deep and hard. Others deliver meals to the elderly or take poor kids to the zoo. Others run marathons. Still others cheat on their spouses, run stoplights late at night, bellow obscenities at football games, go to horror movies. I think all their motivations share a common root: These things make people feel, pinch them, touch emotions wired into human beings that life today seems to dull and desensitize.
I once met a man, a sociologist, who was running a huge study of women who'd been beaten by their husbands. Fearful that his emotions might cloud his scientific judgment, the man said, he didn't talk to the women himself but instead read the reports of interviewers who had talked to them. That human distance, he believed, was a necessity of his job. Then, in passing, without thinking the ideas were connected, the man mentioned that he had recently taken up fishing – what an authentic feeling it was, he said, to hold a strong, live fish in his hands as his small boat bobbed beneath a boundless blue sky.
I have a wife, children, friends who touch me daily. They are the best piece of my life. But, as is true for so many others, it's not enough. Doing journalism has become my personal answer to the hollowness, the human disconnect, of modern life. I'm not saying it's healthy or normal or good that I feel this way about my stories. I'm not saying it's a legitimate journalistic motivation.
I'm saying only that it's true. The words satisfaction or accomplishment don't describe the sensations I get reporting and writing stories – awe or amazement or communion hit closer to home.
When I stood just off stage at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and Cookie Burrous, the aspiring gospel singer, twisted her body into a crouch, flung her arm behind her back and wailed out a line of gospel..when Shirley Rogers, the struggling grandmother who had waited months for her handicapped daughter to be placed in public day care, called the welfare office and told the woman she no longer needed her services, that her daughter was dead..when the mother of Bryan Stevenson, the black Harvard-educated death-row lawyer, described to me the first time Bryan, as a boy, was taken by the Holy Spirit and then said that soon afterwards she, too, was reborn while standing in her kitchen watching the sun rise..when pro football player Jim Lachey talked of how on a perfect block of an opponent he seems not even to strike the man but instead passes through him as if he were only an apparition..when Washington, D.C., homicide detective V.I. Smith threw back a dead man's coat to see a cocked Uzi and for the first time in his life felt fear...
ýt all those moments, as it does for a race car driver taking a turn at a hundred miles an hour, time slowed, bent and elongated, voices ran at dying-battery speed, and motion flicked a single frame at a time. At all those moments, I felt what I felt once while rocking my infant son to sleep in the middle of the night, half-dozing, when suddenly I dreamed or imagined or became my father, who was holding me decades before, when suddenly I dreamed or imagined or became my son who was holding his own son decades later. At all those moments, I felt what I felt as a boy after giving my confession to the priest and, instantly free of sin, walked out from the dimly lit church to a magnificent sun breaking from behind dark, ominous clouds. At all those moments I felt what I felt decades later when, no longer a believer, I sat in the tiny hospital chapel and asked any God or power in the universe to spare my father from the heart attack.
You know you are alive. You shiver, catch your breath. Your eyes tear, you blink, and inside your chest the light that is your life burns brighter, as if the electricity has surged. In such a moment is everything you ever felt that was humane or even holy, a moment when you know what it is to live beyond pride, foolishness, greed or self-pity. Naked, a moment at the heart of it, baffling and affirming. A moment of grace.
The instant passes, and the space it has created inside you fills up with clutter as fast as water replacing a hand pulled from a stream. But I believe we can re-remember. Long ago my childhood doctor, who was by then old, told me that the picture of the hand that hung on his wall had been a gift to himself, that its five fingers signified the 5,000 babies he'd delivered in his more than 50 years as a physician. If he set his memory to it, he said, he could recall each delivery. He paused, closed his eyes and said that he had just remembered my delivery, early one morning 25 years before. He smiled. I chose to believe him.
I've got a ritual: On a late evening after my stories appear, after the letters have arrived and readers have howled or praised, I wait until everyone in my house is asleep, leave on a single lamp in the back room, pour a glass of wine, sit down and read my story to myself. It is time to judge. The elderly Rev. James Holman stops in his tracks, glances back over his shoulder, touches the brim of his fedora and smiles. Do the words rekindle in me what I felt the afternoon I saw him stop, glance back, touch his fedora and smile? Do I feel the rush of it again, the connection? Do I shiver, catch my breath, blink back tears?
When grandmother Julia Shelton leans down and rubs the spot where her head hit the pantry door when she fell in her kitchen recently, and she and daughter Mary and granddaughter Karen, who are helping cook dinner, go suddenly quiet as they all realize that Julia is now old and will soon be dead, am I back in the kitchen hearing a silence that lasts forever?
When Dan Sullivan, the working- poor husband and father, brings his wife home a bottle of Manischewitz – all he can afford at $3.95 – to celebrate his new job at Radio Shack, do I feel his hope as well as the claustrophobia of his life?
The answer is..sometimes.
It is those sometime moments I've come to crave. And perhaps, if I can make myself feel those moments, readers will feel them too: Time will slow, bend, elongate, and they will sense, rub, re-remember a trace of the sensations they felt at whatever were their own particular moments when they knew they were alive.
That's a worthy fallout of what I do. But it's no longer the reason I do it. I do it because each story is for me a strong, live fish held in my hands as my small boat bobs beneath a boundless blue sky. In those moments, I comprehend what eludes me most of the time, what eludes most of us most of the time, and I am, for a redeeming instant, washed and purified in hope and in despair.
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