Week 13: Man-on-the-Street

June 18, 2020

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I am facing a quandary, one that comes up from time to time in my work as a journalist: how to find average people to interview, who will embody the issues in the story I’m writing?

Years ago, when I worked at local papers, the solution was straightforward, if occasionally excruciating. You’d just leave the office, notebook in hand, and go in search of a place where people were walking around. Then you’d accost complete strangers, introduce yourself and your publication, and pray they would stop walking and talk to you. If they did, I had this long pad of paper, with a spiral at the top, that fit neatly in my palm. As they talked, I scribbled and flipped over pages, scribbled and flipped over pages.

Today, I work from home as a freelance writer. And I mean literally from home. Even before the pandemic grounded me, I rarely did interviews in person anymore. Partly this was because I was talking to people all over the country for national publications. But I also wrote for USC, which often meant just schlepping across town to sit down with one or the other of their professors. If that sounds like a pleasant break from the same four walls, it was. USC has a pretty campus, and the people I interviewed there were even more interesting in person than they were on the phone. But it also meant that a 30 minute discussion could suck up hours of my time, between getting dressed in suitable business attire, driving down the 10 freeway, finding parking, walking back and forth to the office, driving home, getting resettled at the computer, etc. etc. So even in my USC work, whenever I could possibly do an interview by phone, I did.

The internet has made it astoundingly easy to find experts from the comfort of your home office. Seems like I remember. back in the Stone Ages, randomly calling major universities and asking the communications staff to recommend professors to talk to on particular subjects. I couldn’t know if they had done cutting-edge research on the topic, but I would hope that at the very least they would be familiar with the issues, and perhaps recommend other people to interview as well.

Now, like everyone else, I have Google, and Google Scholar, and a host of other services and directories.

But I do miss the days of standing in front of supermarkets, notebook in hand, calling out, “Excuse me? Excuse me?”

I recently got assigned an article about parents sending their kids to summer camps run by teens, because they (the parents) are scared of virus exposure at bigger, regular day camps — or the camps in their area are all closed. I did the usual routine: posted a request on my Facebook feed, as well as to a group for women freelance writers with kids. I got plenty of responses, more really than I need — all of them from upper-middle-class white women.

I made a vow on this blog, a few entries ago, that I would make a conscious effort to interview people who weren’t white, no matter what the topic of the story. For this particular story, the editor has even requested it. But I can’t find the women. I have sent emails to more than half a dozen mothers’ group for black and Latina moms, but only one responded, and that was to tell me they couldn’t help me. I intend to send inquiries to more tonight, tomorrow, and possibly — though I hope I’ve solved this problem by then — into the weekend.

This is a tiny problem, a minuscule problem, really, when black people are getting regularly gunned down by police, and African-American pregnancies are severely impacted by climate change, and it took a Supreme Court decision to ensure that a generation of Dreamers would not be shipped back to their countries of origin because Donald Trump wanted to fire up his base.

But it’s frustrating. And it’s embarrassing, because it points out how racially segregated my life is. I have some friends who are, to throw them all in a broad category, people of color. Some of my best friends, actually, fall in this category. But the majority of my friends are white, and the majority of those are Jewish. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. But it’s not right.

And it’s not at all helpful to me today.

Week 13: Path

June 16, 2020

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I attended a freelance writing seminar this weekend (over Zoom, of course — don’t get too excited), which was mind-blowing in a lot of ways. We got to pitch a series of big-shot editors, including ones from the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Paris Review. About one third of our group of 20 was African-American, and I am still pondering the stories they told and alluded to about the way institutionalized racism impedes their careers.

As I wrote last week, I’m continuing to grapple with the idea of my unearned privilege, and what I can do to advance justice. This weekend gave me even more to consider. I’ve joined a group at my temple that is going to meet once a month, facilitated by a member who has vast, deep experience in social justice movements. I’m told we should be prepared to drag our own prejudices into the harsh light of day and examine how we can make a difference going forward. I’m sure I will have more to report on that in weeks to come.

In the meantime, I’m also thinking about writing for free.

The guy who runs these freelancing workshops is David Hochman, a journalist who writes regularly for major publications and, even more impressively, manages to raise a family in West L.A. on his freelance writing checks. This is the third time I’ve taken one of his UPOD workshops (don’t ask me why the name), and at each one he repeats the same mantra: you should never write for free.

David, actually, has a number of mantras, and mostly I agree with them. For the longest time, I agreed with this one, at least as far as non-fiction went (if you say you will not write fiction until someone pays you for it, then you will never write fiction). I agreed with David up to and including the moment I first sat down to write this blog, almost three months ago. Until March, my work life was bifurcated by the dollar: on one side, the fiction writing that I did for free, out of a compulsion born of misery when I tried to stop; and on the other side, any other writing that I did, for as much money as I could possibly earn while still respecting myself in the morning (to clarify, the respect part isn’t about the money, but about the nature of the work that earns that money).

I started this blog because I was locked up at home and ill with mysterious symptoms and bubbling over with more thoughts on all of it than I could jam into assignments on, say, precautions nursing homes should take during a pandemic, or whether the coronavirus will lead to more cashless payments (both articles I wrote in March). I didn’t think writing the blog was a great way to spend my time, because it wasn’t advancing my novel, and I wasn’t getting paid. But it felt so good, and when my body felt so crappy, that seemed like reason enough.

In some far corner of my mind, I figured that one of two things would happen. I’d either write a few entries, get bored, and move on. Or I’d tap into a vein of hitherto-undiscovered genius, and pen the precise words that would make this pandemic come into focus, and I’d be “discovered.”

Nearly three months out, neither one of these scenarios has come to pass. Some days — many days — I’m sure I have nothing left to say, until I sit down and start typing. I have more followers than when I started (79 as of this count) but nothing like the kind of numbers that translate into book deals.

And still, I keep going, because this blog is the gift that keeps on giving. Since I started writing this blog, I’ve done more work on my novel. I’ve worked better and faster on my articles. I’ve started again keeping an actual journal, by my actual bedside, paper, pen and all. And I even signed up to take this weekend’s pitching seminar, because if I can write into the void twice a week and strike a chord with many of my friends, than maybe, just maybe, I have something worthy to say.

So, yeah, don’t write for free. Don’t do any work for free. Unless it’s art. Or, unless you see a path ahead of you, and it makes no sense to head that way, but something in you urges anyway, go, go, go. You can always turn around and head back. Then again, you never know what you might find.