Prologue of Artful Journalism :
“Be That it Made Some Contribution”
I knew an old man who had been a country preacher for more than half a century. In his last days, he would sit in his room at his daughter’s house, where he had come after his health was gone, and listen to aging and scratchy recordings of sermons he’d given as a young man. He had been a powerful preacher, with a chest-rumbling voice that sang and whispered and bellowed all at once. As he listened, he put a handkerchief to his face, and cried.
“Be that it made some contribution,” he said softly.
I suppose that’s all any of us can hope for. Did we raise children who were strong and healthy? Build houses that lasted? Sing songs that inspired? Fight crime well? Teach children to read better? Save someone from cancer, depression, suicide? Bring someone joy or wisdom or empathy? Do something, anything that is remembered or, if not remembered, at least passed on without credit or notice in the lives of others for some good?
Forty years sound like a long time but they are lived in a flash. That’s how long I’ve been doing journalism, writing about doing journalism, and teaching journalism. Looking back, I think I was pretty well destined to be a journalist. In graduate school, when I decided that a career in academic sociology was not for me, I asked myself: “What am I good at?”
I answered, “I complain.”
“Well, who in the world is going to pay me to complain?” I thought.
Then I knew: “I’ll be a journalist!”
They make livings being rebels and iconoclasts, I believed, rather naively. But it worked out, and I can’t image what else my temperament would have suited me to do. A friend in college once said, “Harrington would rather curse the darkness than light a single candle.” A bit harsh but a bit true in my early days. Years later, my wife would tell friends that it was a good thing I had discovered journalism because otherwise I’d be making change at a tollbooth kiosk. A man whose favorite movie characters were played by Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces and John Wayne inStagecoach is just not built for respectable occupations. Fortunately for me, journalism was becoming respectable right when I was coming along.
At first, my interest in deep human reporting was out of whack with the zeitgeist. USA Today, with its flashy graphics and bit-sized stories, was a few years from launch, and the ideas it would embody were already in the ether. When I submitted my journalism portfolio for review by my journalism master’s degree faculty committee, a professor told me my work was promising but that nobody was going to be doing such stories anymore. Stories would be limited to fourteen inches or so, and nothing would jump from the front page to the inside of newspapers because people were just too busy to read. They now wanted something called “information.”
“Nobody’s going to hire you,” he said with professorial certainty.
Well, the future hides in a murky crystal ball. Along came the narrative journalism movement in the late 1970s and, suddenly, my interest and passion were downright fashionable. The movement continued into the early twenty-first century when the Internet—and journalism’s fear that its arrival was going to destroy newspapers and magazines—sucked the air out of our room. Deep human reporting didn’t disappear but it has, for more than a decade now, taken a rumble seat as journalism’s masters have flailed about trying to decipher theWeb.I’ve pretty much ignored the matter, as I ignored my professor’s advice decades ago. I wasn’t interested in news bits, flashy graphics, or “information” then, and I’m not now.
I once spent a day with African American filmmaker Charles Burnett, who had just won a MacArthur “Genius” Award. It was the early nineties, and black filmmakers like Burnett and the more famous Spike Lee were on the rise. I asked Burnett if he ever worried that the public interest in serious black-themed movies was a temporary blip and that the films and their directors would soon go again into eclipse. “I don’t care one way or the other,” he said. “I can only do what I can do.” Since then, Burnett has made a score of feature films, documentaries, TV shows, and won a batch of awards—and you’ve never heard of him. He got his wish: the New York Times has called him “the nation’s least-known great filmmaker.” As journalism changed, I reminded myself of Charles Burnett’s words many times.
“I don’t care one way or the other. I can only do what I can do.”
I’m an accidental essayist. I only wrote essays about doing journalism to introduce book collections of my own stories, to teach feature writing at the Washington Post, to help spread the word among journalists about how satisfying and valuable it is to do deep human reporting. I always thought these essays were the toss-off work of my career. It was my own stories that I wanted people to notice and applaud. But a funny thing happened. Over the years, I began to hear from journalism colleagues around the country, journalism college students, and professors who were not praising my own stories but my essays about how I did my own stories.
What’s the old saying? “If you want to hear God to laugh, tell Him your plans.”
Like others prone to workaholism, I gave up a lot for my life’s passion—many weeks away from home, missed birthdays, long hours working, many more hours distracted by thinking about the work. My young wife once left two full trash bags blocking my way out the front door so I would remember to put them on the street. I came home that night and she was livid that I had left them. Honestly, I told her, I hadn’t noticed them. I must have stepped over the bags while I was thinkingabout the work. It took her years to realize I was telling the truth. She once came home from work and heard me alone in my study talking out loud: “Whoa! What a great line!” I was talking about a line I had written. Needless to say I was embarrassed.
When you put so much into your work, you want it to matter.
“Be that it made some contribution.”
But, in the end, you can only do what you can do.
Everybody else decides if it mattered.