Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Writing About Other People

It’s been an interesting week of writing about other people.

I profiled a 68-year-old woman who has devoted the past few years to lobbying the FDA and Congress to require warning labels on antidepressants because she is concerned about the correlation between anti-depressant use and suicide – an issue she discovered for herself after her twenty-something daughter died.

And then, coincidentally, I profiled a former NFL player who battled bipolar disorder for years until a leading expert in the field of psychotropic drugs helped him find the right combination of medications, a drug regimen that he believes saved his life.

Over the weekend, I worked on a memoir project for a former Olympic pentathlon competitor who told me about what it was like to train for the horseback competition with taciturn cowboys in the Australian Outback when he was fifteen years old.

And for a community memoir project I’m doing in Newburyport, I interviewed an elderly man who described how after he served a two-year stint at Pearl Harbor, he was sent home to New Hampshire, and then pleaded with the U.S. Navy to send him back to Pearl Harbor for another two years. “But why did you want to go back?” I asked him three times while he repeatedly ignored the question. Finally, the fourth time, he answered: “Because I had a lot of girlfriends I really liked there. But don’t tell my wife.”

I had interviewed his wife the day before for the same community memoir project. Both of them are now in their nineties. She talked about waiting until she was thirty to get married because she didn’t want to have children and thought waiting a long time would eliminate the risk. She preferred tennis, boating and the country club to being a mother, and she got her wish.

Sometimes the stories blend in my mind and I can’t remember whether the boating story was in Newburyport or Concord, whether the Olympics story was for the newspaper or the book, whether the antidepressant issue was under discussion with the FDA or the NFL. But fortunately, I take good notes, and even if my mind can’t keep it all straight, my keyboard can.

And sometimes, truth be told, I wonder if what I’m doing now is any different from when I was in high school, hearing stories from the more popular kids about what they had been doing with their weekends and being glad that I got to hear the stories without committing any of the deeds. I’m not sorry that I don’t have to do naval duty, and I’m not sorry that I’m not training for the Olympics. I’m even sort of glad that I don’t have to attend a Congressional hearing.

But I love hearing the firsthand accounts of people who have done all these things, and I embrace the challenge of getting it all down on paper for them – something the popular kids in high school definitely would not have wanted me to do. I may not have much aptitude for fast living, but I can keep striving for ever more compelling narrative. And so with every interview, every anecdote, and every discussion, I’m learning a little more about how to tell a good story – one that matters, one that informs, and one that lasts.

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