Journalism isn’t about writing. It’s about reporting.
Reporting is about interviewing.
It’s also about plowing and paying attention, but it’s mostly about talking to people and asking them questions. Lots of questions.
With that in mind, please read this lead from a feature I wrote for a Texas education magazine:
Jesus Guzman plays the drums for about a million reasons. Number one: He’s great it at. It brings him attention and admiration, even adoration. He gets to hang out with older kids because, after all, he’s a member of the Raymondville High “Fighting Bearkat” Marching Band, even though he’s a 14-year-old eighth grader.
But the real reason — the single, most important reason — Jesus plays the drums is because when he’s pounding away or laying down a dreamy groove into a magnificent wash of drums and cymbals, he loses himself in the moment. Everything dissolves and disappears, and it’s just him and the sticks and the skins, and inside that moment and that place, Jesus finds nirvana.
“It lets me forget where I am,” he says.
Where I am.
It’s not some puffy sentiment from a wannabe rock star. It’s real. Where he is is in a wheelchair, and barring a miracle or a medical breakthrough, he will spend the rest of his life in it. On New Year’s Eve, 2006, he suffered a broken back after the front left tire of his father’s Chevy pickup blew out, jerking the vehicle into the path of an on-coming SUV.
Of the five members of his family on their way to a party at his grandmother’s house, Jesus was the only person seriously injured. Today, he says he has few memories of the accident or the days and weeks afterwards when his parents tried to explain to him what had happened and what it meant.
The name of the magazine is Texas School Business, and I was commissioned to write 12 articles related to the organization that supervises extracurricular activities — sports, music and academic competitions — in Texas public schools.
One of the stories, the editors and I decided, would deal with a student who had overcome a great obstacle to excel in music.
So, let’s break it down from there.
■ Finding the perfect subject.
How? Use a network of friends, colleagues, fellow travelers, whatever. In my case, I asked a guy who regularly communicates with band directors across the state to circulate a note, asking them to contact me if they know of a young person who fits the profile.
At least 25 of them responded.
■ Gathering information.
John Turner is the band director at Raymondville High School, deep in the Rio Grande Valley. He and I e-mailed each other and played phone tag for a few days. Finally, I interviewed John, and he told me Jesus’ story.
I then interviewed Jesus’ mother about the accident, about Jesus, about his rehabilitation and progress, about his life. She filled in a lot of blanks too, although begrudgingly at times. For example, to obtain the details about the accident, I had to ask question after question after question.
When was the accident? New Year’s Eve.
Where were you going? Grandmother’s house.
How many were in the vehicle? Five of us.
What kind of vehicle as it? A pickup.
What kind? Chevy.
Where was Jesus seated? Backseat behind the driver.
Which tire blew out? Front left.
What kind of car did you hit? SUV.
What make of SUV? Don’t know.
Who all was injured? Only Jesus, seriously.
It’s not that she wasn’t an honest and willing interviewee. It’s just that she wasn’t a blabber-mouth either. She answered the questions I asked precisely and succinctly and offered scant elaboration.
■ Interviewing Jesus.
I asked Mrs. Guzman if Jesus owned a drum set.
“Where is it,” I asked.
“In his bedroom,” she responded.
That’s an important piece of information because Jesus was even less talkative than his mother, not that I blame him. He’s 14. He doesn’t know me. He’s not sure what I want or plan to do with all this. So, most of his answers are no more than one, two or three words.
What do you remember about the accident? Not much.
Do you remember anyone talking to you right after the accident? No.
What was your response when you learned that you’d been severely injured? I don’t remember.
What do you remember about your first trip back to school? I don’t remember.
Everything was “yes, no, not much, I’m not sure, I don’t remember.”
Hardly the stuff of a thrilling narrative.
Finally, I asked him, “When you’re in your room, playing your drums, what are you thinking?”
“Not a lot,” he said, then added, “Mostly, when I’m playing, it lets me forget where I am.”
And that, I knew immediately, would be my lead.
• Find a story worth reporting.
• Find five or six subjects who illustrate the story.
• Select the best subject, the perfect subject.
• Interview everyone connected to that subject’s experience. Be prepared to ask five, six, a dozen or more questions. Keep asking questions until you answer every possible question.
• Listen to their answers. Follow the conversation.
• Record the interview. I use two devices: my smart phone and a digital recorder. Some of the old reporters and editors frown on this. They believe real reporters need only a pencil and a pad and an overcoat and a fedora with a horse racing ticket stub slipped into the headband.
■ Next blog: Writing
Writing may be the easiest part of cranking out a story, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We’ll talk about that next time.