Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Professional development: Acquiring a sense of restraint

My editor emailed me late yesterday afternoon to ask if I had any feature story ideas. As I drove later that evening to a meeting, I thought about different ideas, but kept dismissing them. This may sound like a defeatist attitude, but within the context of my journalistic career, it actually might represent progress.

When I started having features accepted by the Boston Globe, I was sun-dazzled with excitement. Having that byline was so important to me that I forgot being part of a Globe story might not be the highest priority of everyone I involved in my articles. It wasn’t a matter of celebrity; it was just that for me, being a regular freelance contributor to a major city daily was the culmination of a decade of striving for publication. Because in my mind, nothing was more important than writing for the newspaper, I grabbed every assignment I could get.

And then I learned some lessons the hard way. While I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve lost friends over any articles or essays I’ve run in the paper, I’ve definitely had some sobering moments. An article I was elated to be assigned about a controversial Halloween celebration in one neighborhood resulted in one of the residents of the neighborhood calling me to express her displeasure over my use of the phrase “granite countertops.” A story about the high number of twins in our town caused a mother to be upset with me for not letting her younger, non-twin son appear in the photo with his brother and sister. And when I wrote a first-person essay that I thought was lighthearted and entertaining about “divorcing” one book club so that I could join another, it received a frosty response from some, if not all, members of both book clubs.

Sometimes, too, I’m the one who ends up at the sharp end of my own judgment. I was thrilled to have an essay I wrote on my son and his first protective cup (as in underwear worn for baseball) embraced by a Globe editor – until I saw it in print and wondered how many pedophiles were reading my essay about my son’s private parts. But it didn’t teach me a lesson: a year later I wrote an essay about my daughter’s imaginary friends – and had similar qualms when I saw it in print.

Gradually, though, I’m finally developing what I consider a little bit of journalistic maturity. I no longer get so carried away with my own delight in self-expression that I completely overlook the possible reactions of the people I might be writing about. While it’s true that earlier this month I published an essay about being annoyed when my kids’ teachers assigned “family homework,” I made sure to qualify at least three times in the same essay how much I like and respect the entire faculty and administration at my children’s school. Besides, I reasoned, I’ve never known their teachers to read the Boston Globe.

I learned within six hours of that article’s publication that parents were clipping it out at the breakfast table and hand-delivering it to the classrooms, so there went that protective measure. But none of them took offense. Not too much, anyway.

Still, my newfound sense of restraint is probably a generally good thing. Except that yesterday it was preventing me from settling on any good ideas at all. A feature about over-the-top luxuries at our school’s fundraising auction? Sure to alienate some of the parents who spent a lot of money at the auction, and equally sure to elicit fiery responses from opponents of public school fundraising. A story about a teardown controversy in a nearby town? No; it was a town where I had several clients for other freelance assignments, and I didn’t want to make any enemies there either. I thought briefly about a family I know slightly who recently lost a child to heroin overdose and have been working hard to bring attention to the issue of drug use in the affluent suburbs. Sure, I told myself, and have heroin dealers on my case? Maybe not.

It’s not professionally productive for me to grow paranoid. I find story ideas by staying abreast of what’s going on around me, and inevitably, friends and neighbors are involved. And often they appreciate my drawing attention to their causes and projects. But overall, it feels like a new stage of wisdom that I have these second thoughts now. Not at the expense of ever coming up with another story idea. But if I avoid future episodes of being blacklisted by my book club, that’s just fine as an outcome.

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