Many years ago, I called myself an “outdoor sports and environment journalist.” I had clips from Audubon magazine; Field and Stream, Outdoor Life. I was a contributing editor for a short-lived outdoors publication, and I knew a lot about the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, and could tell you how the Fish and Wildlife Service handled—or didn’t handle—endangered-species lawsuits.
At the height of all that, while I was reporting on a story about surfing in New Jersey, someone thought it’d be a good idea to put me, an avowed shark-o-phobic, on a longboard. In the ocean. You know, where the sharks live.
I was in the middle of my very own George Plimpton moment, experiencing something word-worthy, and I knew I’d write about it.
The problem was, the essay wasn’t assigned. I wrote it anyway, because dammit, I had been In The Water, looking like some tasty seal, and I had survived, and not only that, I had had fun, and I wanted someone to know about it. Maybe some other shark-o-phobic could learn from my experience.
I never looked back. From there, I wrote narrative essay after narrative essay, and lo! They got placed. It turns out, I was better at the essay than I was at journalism, and I like essays more.
Journalism is of utmost importance. It educates and informs, and it sometimes does so beautifully.
But, for this writer, it was equally important to reach out to the as-yet faceless reader who might have had the same experiences I had, and needed to hear from me.
For essay writers, maybe the key is connection: Surely, someone has the same questions I do; someone struggles with the same quandaries.
The more I delved into the nonfiction world, the more I realized something: It’s nice to know that the reporter behind all of that information and reporting has a heart; is an emotional being; wonders sometimes about the very information he or she is imparting. And I wanted to know those journalists.
The journalism world now is vastly different form the one I grew up in. Then, objectivity was the golden standard of American journalism*, and while creative journalism was taught and had its place, it was—well, it was called “creative journalism,” as if it were somehow make-believe.
Now, the advent of publications like Matter and Grantland promote and encourage the voice and the experience of the writer, even as they continue to place importance on solid reporting.
I’ll take that one step further: I used to give a pretty flip answer when folks asked me why I stopped looking for a career in journalism. I used to say, “I got sick of writing about cool people doing cool things.” I forgot, I think, that meeting the cool people was cool itself. And that meeting cool people leads to cool experiences, like realizing that surfing might be the key to getting over my irrational fear of toothy sea-creatures.
But I never forgot what it felt like to be, for a page and a half of writing about myself and my experiences, the person who was sharing her own experiences with her readers.
I’d love to see some journalists in these pages, too. Send me your narrative nonfiction, and your essays about meeting the cool people you met, and wrote about; or your essays about that cool thing you did while you were reporting. I want to see them. Our guidelines are here.
*French publications, for instance, seem to encourage editorializing.