Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The choices people make

Speaking articulately is not my strong suit under the best of circumstances – like a lot of writers, I do best with words when I have time to contemplate, draft, delete, reconsider, and revise before publishing – but in this case I was positively blithering.

But I had a reasonable excuse. My editor had assigned me a story about a particular historical figure and then mentioned that one of the leading experts on this particular historical figure was Mitchell Zuckoff, who is one of my favorite nonfiction writers.

He writes the kind of journalism to which I aspire: long stories that examine every possible facet of a situation. And often, the stories he chooses aren’t particularly complicated in terms of their political context or historical import. Some of his most interesting work is about how ordinary people act in unexpected situations. He wrote about a young couple faced with a diagnosis of Down syndrome in their firstborn child, tracing their early days as a couple deciding to start a family, the shock of the Down syndrome diagnosis, and how they went on to make meaningful lives for themselves as parents and as a family in the years that followed their daughter’s arrival.

He also wrote about two teenage boys from rural Vermont who almost overnight turned into cold-blooded murderers.

I interviewed him about the topic relevant to my assignment, and then before saying goodbye tried to communicate to him how much I admire his work. That was where the blithering part came in. “I love your books,” I said. “They are my favorite kind of writing: long stories about real people and how they make the choices they make."

And it was true, I realized as I thought later about my simplistic choice of words. In its own way, that was as good an explanation as any I could come up with for what makes people interesting to me. It’s what I often write about myself, though I’d never consciously framed it quite that way.

When asked what I write about, sometimes I say “Generally the arts or community life” if I want a short answer. If I have time or space for a slightly longer one, I might say “Mostly I write about ordinary people doing unusual things.” A friend of ours once said that my career was based on drawing water from a stone – an allegation I’ve repeated many times since. I think he meant that I take the very most ordinary circumstances of parents, children, seniors, communities, avocations, passions – and find something to say about them.

Another narrative nonfiction writer I once took a seminar with said “When you find someone’s obsession, you have a story.” The story becomes not the obsession itself but the how and why of the obsession, its etiology in that particular person.

All of these are true, but yesterday I found myself thinking more about those words that unexpectedly slipped out: “How people make the choices they make.” The young couple first chose each other, then chose to become parents, and later chose to raise a child with Down syndrome. The two Vermont teens chose to commit a murder, chose their victims, chose an ultimately unsuccessful escape plan. Where did each of these choices come from?

Outside of my work for a daily paper, I help people write their memoirs. In this role, I often ask “What formative experience made you the person you are today?” It’s a good question, but I think I’m going to try changing it up a little. “What are the most formative choices you’ve ever made?”, I’m going to try asking. It introduces agency into the equation. An experience is what happens to us. A choice is what we make happen. 

Based on this idea, I’m going to start thinking more now about the choices people make, rather than just who they are and what they do.

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