Everyone has a story to tell; none of us are boring
by Steve Meissner
When I taught journalism, I tried to prepare students for all the basic assignments given to rookie reporters: police stories, weather items, and obituaries.
No one can exit this world without leaving a mark on the people and places they touched. A woman dedicated her life to raising a family. She touched not only her own children, but also the surrounding community. The kindly old man who never married had an impact on his coworkers, his neighbors, and friends. The teen that died tragically, perhaps stupidly, leaves behinds friends, family, and accomplishments.
Did the deceased have an interesting hobby? Did she volunteer at her church? Did the student win academic awards, excel at athletics, or play a mean game of Dungeons and Dragons?
These things offer compelling evidence of a life that was lived. Maybe it was lived well; maybe not. But it was a life that made an impact.
To prove my point, I would pair up students at random, and provide them with a simple back-story: A student was struck and killed by an out-of-control vehicle while heading to a morning class. The student sitting next to them was the one who was killed. Interview each other, and write the other student’s obit.
The stories that emerged were astounding. One student worked part-time as a belly dancer. Another played on a championship team in high school. Another was mentoring Latino children learning English as a second language. Yet another was a political refugee. No student ever lacked interesting material.
And therein lies a lesson for every writer: We all lead interesting lives. All of us have lessons to teach. We do things that might seem mundane, but we also do things that are extraordinary.
We have talents. We have weaknesses. We do stupid things that offer a chuckle or a lesson on pitfalls to avoid. And we all have stories to tell.
As we develop our manuscripts, we fill our pages with people’s stories. To make them compelling, we must make them human. To make them human, we must give the reader an opportunity to learn something interesting.
If you’re writing a magazine article, ask about hobbies or outside interests. For recent magazine assignments, I found a farmer in South Phoenix who loved cows and began raising calves as a 9-year-old. I met a politician whose worldview was shaped by his hobby as a martial artist. A business leader I interviewed entered a field known for its low wages because he saw that it offered ample opportunity in exchange for hard work.
In other words, we writers don’t need to make up characters. They are all around us. Borrow from a friend – or an enemy. Populate your writing with the characters who occupy your world. When you’re interviewing someone, make sure you ask about hobbies, family life, and/or their educational background.
There’s no such as a boring person. All you have to do is ask the right questions.
For more than three decades, Steve Meissner has watched the Arizona political scene as a journalist, lobbyist, bureaucrat, and even as a legislative staff member. For nearly 20 years he was a reporter, editor and columnist for several publications, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Most of his newspaper career was spent at the Arizona Daily Star, where he was a reporter, editor and columnist, and taught journalism for more than a decade as an adjunct at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. He is the author of Cactus Caucus, a novel about Arizona’s legislative politics, which is available in Kindle format. He is currently working on a second novel about Arizona politics.