I sent the profile to the editor three hours ahead of the deadline. She liked it. I didn’t.
The subject of the profile is woman in her 70s. My assignment was simple: 500 words to capture her spirit, her heart, her contribution. I chose her because when she stood up at the front of a room to talk about how to deal with people who are dying — and their families — she channeled pragmatism and compassion. I could hear bubbles burst and see lights flick on over people’s heads as they listened to her. When I did some research, I found she’d done a fair amount of good in the city. I asked to interview her and she said yes. Which was good because I had to write a profile and submit it to the editor in a month.
And so there we were in a cafe in the north part of the city I never go to. She sat across from me, fiddling with her big cup of coffee, turning it one way and then half turning it the other way.
“I’ve never been interviewed before,” she said.
“It won’t hurt, I promise,” I said.
She laughed. “You know, I’m a nurse and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that to people.”
A good interview is like a good conversation. I wanted to help her feel comfortable and in conversation.
“We’re just going to talk,” I explained. “While we’re talking, I’ll take some notes, but otherwise, it’s like a conversation. And I’ll show you my final draft.”
She relaxed a bit, nodded and said, “okay”, giving her coffee cup a half-turn toward to the window and then back again.
Even though we had talked a few times to coordinate this, it seemed that the idea of an interview was making her quite nervous now that it was actually taking place. It was my job to make her comfortable.
I’d done my research. Had some general questions. Mostly, I wanted to come away with enough to write about a woman who had changed the world for the better for some people.
My strategy: ask open, leading questions and let her talk. I’d gather everything of what she said figuring I’d find a way to put the words together into a coherent piece of writing when I sat down to write. Like I always do. Have it done in two days. Like I always do.
And so we talked. I took notes, asked a few questions and as her shoulders came down, I got to know a bit of her life story. Three hours in that coffee shop, too many coffees, some laughter punctuated by quiet.
When there was a longer period of quiet I judged our time finished and gave the usual wrap-up banter and thank you.
“That was so interesting. You’ve asked questions that one would normally never think about or be asked about and give one pause for consideration,” she said.
I just smiled.
We stood to say goodbye, giving each other warm hugs. I paid for the coffees and croissants and then, as I stepped outside, a niggling little feeling crawled up my spine to lodge itself in the back of my mind.
I got home and I started writing; not from my notes, but from my feelings about the time we spent together, about what she said, and what she revealed about herself. Then I figured since I’m already here, I’ll transcribe my notes.
That niggling feeling exploded. My notes told me why: she was SO uncomfortable being the focus of attention that she did not once use the word “I” in describing anything of her life’s work. Instead she used:
“one thinks of ….
” people find….”
” you think….”
“we did, we thought, one tries…”
In using that kind of language she had, in effect, erased herself from the story of the systemic change that she made happen — that other people told me she made happen. Where she was the driver of making things happen, when she told the story, there was no ‘I’ driver energy to be had anywhere.
Now, while this was fascinating from a WHOLE batch of perspectives — gender, age, class, changing rules of speaking and writing, as well as socially, culturally, psychologically — it was NOT helpful to writing a freaking profile.
I was beginning to think I had wasted my time, that our conversation hadn’t given me anything useful to work with to craft a compelling profile that people would want to read.
But I hadn’t wasted my time and I knew it. She told me profoundly personal details: she was adopted when she was one year old to people who were outgoing, interesting, artistic and loving. Then her world crashed: her adopted mother died when she was eight and because of the times, when it was improper for a man to live alone in a house with a daughter, she was sent to a local boarding school.
She hated it: it kept her away from everything she knew.
She loved it: she learned about literature and books. She learned that she loved learning and the love of learning saved her heart and soul.
She found imagination: when she’s standing in front of people giving talks or teaching, she imagines her parents at the back of her room listening, smiling and supporting her.
She married and has two adult sons, one of whom she loves and one of whom she does not love or even like. The one she loves lives across the country. The one she does not love or like twigged her onto what she wanted to do with her life., the thing she has been doing for nearly 35 years.
And when she is on the speaking circuit, sharing stories about life and dying and death; she shares her experiences, weaving magic and planting seeds in the folds of the brains of her students and audiences, leaving many profoundly changed. Now that she’s thinking about retirement she wants to write a book, but can’t seem to get it together to do it. She thought maybe I could help her. I just smiled.
I was not smiling now. All of that really juicy stuff was not going to fit in a 500-word profile. I had pages of notes, but did I have enough write the article?
For a few days, I sighed heavily about this. How do you write a profile about someone who seems to want to be invisible? I sat down at my computer and wrote Draft #1. Junked it.
Draft #4. Not any better — what’s the hook? What’s the story? Where the hell is the ‘I’ of the profile, the sense of self-awareness? What POV do I take? There are so many potential stories here, which one do I choose? Why am I writing again, exactly?
I left it for a few more days. I’m NOT gonna call it writer’s block just because an interesting interview didn’t yield the content I wanted. For some unknown reason, I wasn’t paying attention to that nuanced way she gave me her stories, which on any other day of the week I’d have noticed in a heartbeat and would have found ways to enable her to put herself in the picture. When did I get that sloppy? What happened..?
Draft #6. I can smell the deadline coming up behind me. I have to kill 317 words to edit out of a profile piece that says nothing.
Draft #7. I start all over.
Draft #9. In the middle of my bath, trying to relax, I get an idea. Use the POV least likely to win the Miss Congeniality award: Third Person. Not my favourite, but it gave me a way to deal with the lack of her ‘I’ and still give her a life force.
Draft #10. Proofread it. Met the word count limit including the title.
Deadline two days away. With some apprehension, I sent it to the subject of the profile for her feedback.
“You make me sound interesting and important,” she said.
“I’m a non-fiction writer: I don’t make things up that aren’t there and only work with the facts,” I said.
She had no changes.
Draft #11. Changed some words and still stayed within word count limit. Added some more emotion. Ended with words that will make someone, somewhere blink twice.
Changed document properties from draft to final submission and sent it in two hours before the deadline. Editor raved, much to my puzzlement. Maybe she was taking happy pills? Still, it is done.
And the weight of that block? Gone.
Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood. William Howard Taft