I stumbled into my career in journalism quite by accident while looking for a way to pay graduate school tuition bills. My work as a stringer for Campus Life, a magazine for teenagers, led to a full-time position as an editor, and that platform launched further adventures in writing. Although for the past twenty years I have worked mainly on books of popular theology, I approach each topic from the stance of a journalist, a fellow-pilgrim inviting my readers to join me in exploring a new landscape
Annie Dillard once remarked that writers keep revisiting childhood because that’s the only time they have ever lived. I agree, in part: writers lead a sheltered and boring existence in which we spend our days in utter isolation, shuffling electrons around a computer screen or sliding a pen across paper. Yet we of the journalistic breed have the advantage of leeching life from others. We may not pilot jet planes or croon before thousands at a rock concert, but at least we can sit in the cockpit jump seat or on a chair backstage and take notes, basking in the glow of those who actually do lead exciting lives.
As a journalist I became so fascinated with one of my subjects, Dr. Paul Brand, that I followed him to such far-flung places as England and India and ended up co-authoring three books with him. We rode the London tube together, toured the Royal College of Surgeons, dissected armadillos and rabbits, tinkered with computer programs at a leprosarium. He even let me assist alongside as he treated patients under a tamarind tree in India. Yet I did not have to spend the rest of my life wearing scrubs in the daytime and scouring medical journals at night. In my search for a vicarious identity I could move on to someone else’s life.
Other writers often view journalism as a poor stepsister. Marcel Proust sniffed, “The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.” James Joyce proposed this condescending formula, “Literature deals with the ordinary; the unusual and extraordinary belong to journalism.”
In the decades since Proust and Joyce, the ground has shifted. Indeed, a reader who turns from Vanity Fair and Esquire to the novels of Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel García Márquez, and Salman Rushdie might almost reverse Joyce’s formula. Increasingly, literature has moved away from realism toward the fanciful and magical, whereas journalism focuses on the ordinary, the quotidian. And though journalism has metastasized into newly disposable media—reality shows on television, websites and blogs, MP3 downloads—it has also given birth to the field of creative nonfiction.
I resist that word nonfiction on the grounds that a major endeavor should hardly be defined by what it is not; we do not, after all, call dogs noncats or men nonwomen. In my more defensive moments, I would suggest a moniker like “the literature of fact.” Some university Associated Writing Programs acknowledge a new species of “factual and literary writing that has the narrative, dramatic, meditative, and lyrical elements of novels, plays, poetry, and memoir.” That describes journalism at its best, as practiced regularly, for example, in The New Yorker.
Newspaper journalists have the singular goal of communicating information efficiently, hence the inverted pyramid structure that begins with the most important facts and moves toward the more trivial. The kind of narrative journalism that appears in the better magazines and often expands into book length has a very different goal. We are more interested in telling a story rather than communicating information. I would summarize my writing goal in this way: to cause the subject (which may in fact be a person) to stand out in relief, in a kind of silhouette, for the benefit of a particular audience, and to do so in an engaging way that holds the reader’s interest.
I have written for magazines as diverse as Reader’s Digest and Books and Culture, National Wildlife and The Reformed Journal. Each time, I enter into an implicit contract with the readership, acting as their advocate or representative to investigate what I project as their possible interest in the subject I have chosen. I want to probe and delve into that subject so that my audience goes away with a clearer understanding, both in context and in relation to themselves.
Even as I am writing, I hear an inner voice saying, “That’s enough theory, Philip. You’re a journalist. Get on with the story.”
Though I fell into the field of journalism accidentally, I found that it fit my personality perfectly. I was shy and socially awkward, and I tended to react to people and events after the fact, following a period of internal pondering and sorting—exactly the process a writer goes through.
Since I was writing for teenagers, many of my first articles developed out of interviews with kids who, behold, were even shyer and more socially awkward! Very quickly, I had to learn some interviewing skills.
Tell me what happened.
“Well, uh, I ran into this grizzly bear.”
And then what…
“It—she, I guess—kind of attacked me.”
How big was it, or she?
“Pretty big, I reckon.”
In interviewing teenagers, I devised a fill-in-the-blank method. Was the sun shining? What was the temperature? Describe the bear. Where did she bite first? Tell me about the pain. What went through your mind? Did you fight back? Did you yell? Did your life flash in front of you? In essence, I had to imagine the story (good practice for a budding writer) and then backfill it with the corrected facts I managed to drag out of my interview subject.
After I left Campus Life and went freelance, my range expanded to include an entirely different category of interview subjects: people of some renown who had learned to respond with canned answers. Bono, Bill Clinton, Billy Graham, Jimmy Carter—any question I might think up, they had already been asked somewhere along the line. As experienced public figures, they knew exactly how to fend off a probing journalist who might threaten their carefully protected image.
Once, while interviewing Billy Graham, I felt a sudden wave of sympathy for him and others under constant public scrutiny. If I were to ask, “Mr. Graham, honestly, off the record, could you tell me what you really think about gay rights, or the tricky issues surrounding abortion?” I’m not sure he could truly answer. He had learned over the years what to say and what not to say, and in matters of controversy his public persona had swallowed up his private person. He couldn’t think certain things, and if he did, he certainly wouldn’t tell some nosy journalist.
Every journalist who deals with famous people faces this barrier. (The flea says to the elephant, Shall we dance?) A few years ago I agreed to interview the novelist John Updike onstage at a writer’s conference. I spent a week studying some 200 interviews he had given, and carefully crafted my questions to pry into the cracks he had left unfilled. But as we sat before a crowd of several thousand of his fans, when the eloquent and erudite novelist responded to my questions, guess who controlled the content? No matter what I asked, he steered his answers toward more comfortable waters.
If I want something novel, something more than other journalists have pried from a public person, I must somehow establish a position of strength. A few journalists do so by direct confrontation. The famous Italian journalist Orianni Falacci made her reputation by badgering and sometimes insulting her subjects. As she once said, “I’m not an interviewer, I’m a playwright. I just get the person I’m interviewing to say the lines.” That style worked for Falacci, but not for me (unless, of course, I was interviewing inarticulate teenagers who needed my prompting).
Instead, I developed a style I call the Columbo method. In the television show by that name, the winsome Peter Falk would soothingly win the trust of a murder suspect and then, just as he opened the door to leave, would turn, rub his tousled hair, and say, “You know, everything fits together except this one thing. Maybe I’m just dense but you said you were at the neighborhood bar that night, and, correct me if I’m wrong, isn’t that bar closed on Sundays?”
Rather than direct confrontation, I often bring up criticism through the words of another person: “I see that the Times really roasted you for that speech you gave in San Francisco. They can be so unfair. I imagine you read that critique—how would you respond?” Like Columbo, I only expose my background knowledge when absolutely necessary.
Toward the end of Francis Schaeffer’s life, I accepted an assignment from Christianity Today to do a comprehensive profile of him. Schaeffer was living near the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, undergoing treatment for the cancer that would eventually take his life. Because of the fatigue factor, he asked if we could do the interview over three afternoons, rather than all at once. The first day, I felt completely stonewalled. His son Franky hovered over us, interrupting, answering questions for his dad, warding off anything that might seem controversial. The second afternoon went little better, and despite my best attempts I had gained nothing from my questions but prepackaged speeches. Desperate, I used a Columbo-like subterfuge. I left behind a published article containing scathing criticism of the elder Schaeffer, with many of my notes and questions pencilled in the margin. If he saw that marked-up piece, and realized that as a writer I had the power to slant my profile any way I wanted, perhaps then he would take my questions more seriously. It worked. The next afternoon, for the first time Schaeffer seemed genuinely to listen to my questions and give thoughtful, authentic replies.
Janet Malcolm has written about the sense of betrayal that may steal in between the journalist and his or her subject. “The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.” I experienced this tendency often enough that gradually I moved away from the kind of investigative journalism that leads to misunderstandings and betrayal. I decided instead to invest my time in people I wanted to learn from positively. The book Soul Survivor includes the resulting profiles of some of these people: Dr. Paul Brand, Dr. Robert Coles, Annie Dillard, Henri Nouwen, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Frederick Buechner.
Good journalism, whether thematic or based on interviews, tells a story. As Reynolds Price says, “the need to tell and hear stories is the second most important need after food. People are going to tell stories.” And participatory journalism affords me a chance to live a story before I tell it.
Early in my career with Campus Life I met a young man named Peter Jenkins at a writers’ conference as he was working on the book A Walk Across America. As he recounted some of his adventures on a long walk across the country, he said, “I get tired of these reporters flying down from New York, renting a car, then driving out to meet me. They hit the electric window button of their air-conditioned car, lean out, and ask, ‘So, Peter, what’s it like to walk across America?’ I’d like a reporter to walk with me for a while!” Thoughtlessly, I volunteered. Even more thoughtlessly, I agreed to join him in Texas during what turned out to be the hottest summer on record.
For several days Peter and I hiked together, swatted fire ants, bargained with farmers for watermelon, chased snakes (and were chased by them), and endured the abuse of cruising Texas teenagers who had nothing better to do than harass the outsiders setting up tents in their town. I collected far more material in those days than I could ever include in an article. To complicate matters, Peter gave me a manuscript of more than 200 single-spaced pages recounting his experiences along the road before I joined him.
Several weeks later I flew to Washington, D.C., to sort through several thousand photos which Peter had taken and was storing at the offices of National Geographic. That magazine’s two-part write-up on Peter’s walk had attracted a higher reader response than any article in their history. “How in the world did you decide on what to use from the mass of material Peter had written?” I asked the editor.
“It’s like this,” he replied. “I went home early, sat down with a beer, and read all 200 pages as fast as I could.” Then I put the manuscript down, drank another couple of beers, and fixed a barbecue dinner for my family. I went to bed early that night, got up, and made some coffee. Then as I sat at the breakfast table I made a list of the scenes from the book that stood out in my memory. Those are the very scenes that made it into the article.”
Though I don’t necessarily recommend the libations, I did learn an important lesson that day. Often we journalists slip into the “strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father” role and want to write about weighty matters of significance. Most readers want stories. Several times in my young career I had sat with other editors and colleagues during coffee breaks and recounted entertaining incidents from my writing assignments. One droll editor would come to my office later and say, “Philip, that was a great story you told at coffee break. Why isn’t it in your article?” I began to think of myself as carrying a tiny video camera on my shoulder as I gathered material for my articles. I had to start assuming that what catches my eye, what interests me enough to recount the scene to my wife and friends, is a good clue into what might interest my readers.
Before I turned away from investigative journalism, I visited the PTL Club at the height of its prosperity in the late 1970s. Jim Bakker claimed that God had revealed to him the architectural plans for a television studio complex in the form of a miniature version of colonial Williamsburg, and he proceeded to build just that. As he and his wife Tammy Faye tearfully plead for funds to support their enterprise, donors (many of them elderly and needy themselves) would cash in their life savings or mail in their wedding rings. Meanwhile the Bakkers lived lavishly. They once held a wedding ceremony for a poodle and a Yorkshire terrier, complete with bridal gown and tuxedo, and installed them in an air-conditioned doghouse. Because I represented Christianity Today, the PTL Club gave me the run of the place, letting me interview employees and even volunteer for the telephone lines to counsel call-in viewers. I faced ethical dilemmas in writing that article, but in the end decided that my primary responsibility was to inform my readers about what was going on behind the scenes. (Bakker was later imprisoned for defrauding contributors and to his credit wrote a book with a title that says it all: I Was Wrong.)
Some journalists specialize in participatory journalism. George Plimpton courageously donned a Detroit Lions uniform and got himself knocked silly as an NFL quarterback. John McPhee took a raft trip down the Colorado River with the head of the Sierra Club and his arch-foe, a builder of gigantic dams. When I read their accounts, I see them as my representatives, my surrogates who go places I will never go and do things I will never do. Through them, I live vicariously.
Effective journalism needs narrative drive, a force something like gravity that pulls the reader from the beginning to the end. Sometimes what takes place inside the writer supplies that narrative drive. The story unfolds internally: the feeling of guilt and helplessness as I stood in a refugee camp swarming with 60,000 Somalis waiting for food while I strolled around snapping pictures; the sense of astonishment when I watched through a window on Red Square as the flag of the Soviet Union came down and the flag of Russia, banned for seven decades, rose to replace it; the prickly sensation of fear as I challenged the African-American leader John Perkins to prove to me that racism was still alive in Mississippi and we entered a never-before-integrated restaurant and every white patron fell silent and left their seats to avoid eating with us.
Recently I read a striking article in The Atlantic by a mother who wondered about the vulnerability of children in the age of cyberspace. She went on MySpace and picked at random a girl named Jenna. Without much trouble she tracked down Jenna’s school, learned her interests and daily routine, and found herself stopping by her favorite hangouts, hoping to catch sight of her. She, a perfectly harmless and responsible mother, found out how easily a predator could prey on her own daughter. In doing so, she evoked, even personified the fears of readers concerned about their own children.
In another example, I read a powerful account by an Israeli journalist who visited Palestinian refugee camps. As their guest, he listened to stories of brutality from refugees who had no idea that he also served as a member of the Israeli army reserves and had himself participated in such raids. They told of beatings, of late-night searches by armored soldiers shining flashlights into their eyes, of Israeli bulldozers destroying their homes. These are the new Jews, he thought to himself—an uprooted and despised people yearning for their homeland—an astonishing admission for an Israeli soldier.
An inner tension lies at the heart of each of these pieces of journalism. In the act of reading, that tension gets transferred from the writer to the readers, who are moved to a place of discomfort and recognition. The struggle, the irresolution in the writer provides much of the narrative drive. And that may be one reason why propagandists, whether religious or political, produce so much feckless journalism: they perceive the dynamic as existing between the message, accepted in advance, and the unconverted reader. They forfeit the power of suspense.
Narrative drive need not always come from the writer’s inner dynamic. Think of the flood of articles that appeared after September 11, 2001. We the readers supplied the dynamic in our confusion and our thirst for any facts or insights related to that momentous event.
Sometimes an exterior setting provides the narrative drive. I once read a profile of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. The writer conducted the interview mostly by email, amazed that one of the richest and busiest people in the world would actually answer his emails, and usually without delay. The writer (and thus we the readers) did not encounter Gates in person until the end of the article. It surprised him to meet a passionate man who curses, loses his temper, yells, and laughs lustily. He had seen none of that in Gates’s electronic messages—which was the point. Only then did the writer surface the article’s underlying theme: as more and more human interaction is handled electronically, will actual personal encounters become distilled, even exaggerated versions of the real humanity? Will our personalities evolve to fit the age of cyberspace?
One of my most memorable journalistic adventures took place in a forest in northern Wisconsin. A prison ministry cooked up a scheme to send a dozen juvenile delinquents and a dozen federal prisoners on an Outward Bound-type week in the wilderness, and I went along to record the results. For the juveniles, the experiment proved spectacularly successful. Loud-mouthed bullies were exposed as whining crybabies as the leaders made them rappel off a hundred-foot cliff or run a marathon. For the prisoners, the experiment proved a spectacular failure. If a federal prisoner who is six-foot-eight and two-hundred-and-fifty pounds doesn’t want to wind a rope around his waist and step off a cliff, there is nothing that the most highly skilled wilderness guides in the world can do to make him do it. In this case, nature was the star, providing the dynamic that at once melted the juveniles and hardened the adult prisoners.
On international trips I have often encountered situations in which irony provides the narrative drive of what I write. One memorable night in Chile I ate dinner with representatives of Prison Fellowship International in one of Santiago’s finest restaurants. The restaurant presented a floor show based on Easter Island themes, and soon the stage was alive with beautiful women dressed in brightly colored skirts and coconut-husk tops. Shouting through translators over the din, we tried to discuss prison policy with government officials in bedecked uniforms who were, in fact, responsible for the torture of prisoners under General Pinochet. Prison Fellowship needed their cooperation and approval in order to bring humanitarian services into the prisons.
On the same trip I had a gourmet dinner in a restaurant in Lima, Peru. I have rarely eaten such delicious food and in such a splendid setting, a former colonial palace. Unexpectedly, the inside cover of the menu began with the words, “Jesus lives! For this we are happy.” And as we ate the waitresses appeared together to sing a vespers hymn for their patrons. The restaurant, it turned out, was run by an order of nuns who cooked, waited on tables, scrubbed floors, and worshiped, and did all these things to the glory of God. But these nuns introduced a modern twist to the Brother Lawrence style: they proffered gourmet meals in order to serve the poor of Lima. All proceeds from the restaurant went to fund their social programs among the poor of Lima.
When I returned to the U.S., I badly wanted to write an article in which I brought together four men who were having a profound impact on world hunger and poverty. These four headed Christian relief and development agencies, and all four would qualify as obese by any standard. I wanted to invite them to a gourmet meal at a restaurant nearby and describe course by course the delicacies served us, even as I had them describe the scenes of starvation they had seen around the world. I never wrote that article, perhaps wisely, but the scenes in Chile and Peru and the imagined dinner in the U.S. all point to harsh ironies from which we cannot escape. In our upside-down world, that which most helps the oppressed and suffering often begins with a stab of conscience in those who know little of either. The context itself makes the point.
Meanwhile, the deepest, underlying irony traces back to the very heart of journalism. It is, after all, an act of vicariousness that leeches life from others and inevitably distorts it in the process. I don’t lead prisoners and juvenile delinquents through the wilderness, or minister to prisoners in Chile or squatters in Peru. When it comes to issues like world poverty and justice, I contribute best vicariously, by shining a spotlight on those who serve on the front lines. I rage against injustice by sitting in my Colorado office moving electrons around on a screen and arranging words and phrases.
Moreover, I never get it right; none of us journalists do. The act of writing involves selection, editing, point of view. When I report on a trip, I cannot include every detail of every person I meet, every conversation, every complexity. I choose, and as I do so I reduce my experience to what fits within the page requirements I’ve been given, as seen through my filter.
I love my work, and cannot imagine doing anything else. I begin, however, with a deep sense of humility, an awareness that we writers are little more than peeping toms at the keyhole of reality. James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men wrote openly of the humility he felt attempting to do justice to the lives of the rural poor:
In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger. It is that he exists, in actual being, as you do and as I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist. His great weight, mystery, and dignity are in this fact. As for me, I can tell you of him only what I saw, only so accurately as in my terms I know how: and this in turn has its chief stature not in any ability of mine but in the fact that I too exist, not as a work of fiction, but as a human being.
Agee has pinpointed the essential difference between fiction and journalism. Fiction creates a universe and characters that exist only on the page and in the author’s mind. Journalism has the audacity to record on the page what purports to be real, but is actually a reduction of the real as told through one person’s limited point of view.
I once wrote about a friend of mine named Larry, one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever known. A bisexual, he has a history of liaisons with people of both genders. A recovering alcoholic, he attends AA sessions almost daily, has twenty years of sobriety behind him, and has gone on to become a substance abuse counselor for others. Raised Mennonite, he rebelled by serving in Vietnam, but has since become a doctrinaire pacifist. Along the way, Larry became a Christian. He says he was converted by two hymns, “Just As I Am,” and “Amazing Grace.” As he heard the words of those hymns, it sunk in for the first time that God really did want him just as he was; God’s grace was that amazing. In his own way, Larry has been following God ever since. Larry states his dilemma this way, “I guess I’m caught somewhere between ‘Just as I am’ and ‘Just as God wants me to be.’”
I wrote about Larry briefly in a introduction to an article for Christianity Today. I changed a few details, including his name and location, hoping he would not come across the article and recognize my caricature of him. A few weeks later I got a phone call from my friend. “I saw the article,” he said. I waited. And then came these devastating words: “Philip, I’ve lived all my life trying to be a real person, a three-dimensional person. You’ve reduced me to a two-paragraph illustration.”
Larry was right, of course. At that moment I realized he had identified what we writers do, especially those of us who dabble in “the literature of fact”: we reduce. We reduce the magnificence of human beings to statistics, and illustrations, and article leads. Journalism—and indeed all art—is not reality but a mere portrayal or depiction that will never do it justice. I try to remind myself of that every time I turn to the keyboard. I will do my best to render truth, but I will fail. I will never get it right. That, too, is part of the pilgrim journey of this calling.
There are many books that describe the interviewing process, by such professionals as Larry King, Barbara Walters, and Oprah Winfrey. As a kind of case study I recommend Bono: in conversation with Michka Assayas, a fascinating, book-length encounter between an agnostic French journalist and the rock star from the band U2, an activist Christian who talks openly about his faith.
John McPhee, Malcolm Gladwell, and James Fallows are superb journalists who raise the craft to an art form. McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid captures his participatory style of journalism at its best.
In terms of making the ordinary sound extraordinary, I know no better example than a slim, little-known book by Annie Dillard, Encounters with Chinese Writers. Though her descriptions of 1980s China are badly dated, she has the novelist’s ability to turn a boring meeting into a suspense-filled narrative.