I stood in the hallway outside a patient exam room and took a deep breath. On the other side of that door was the first potential story of a new chapter in my life.
It was odd. I have been in the patient exam room of medical facilities in no fewer than six states during my lifetime. I am nothing if not inventive in finding ways to hurt myself and have been plagued by numerous fun diseases and viruses — thalassemia, Lyme’s and mono among them. But I had never been the one who knocked softly on the door and entered into an individual’s vulnerable moment, the time when an unknown person steps in and seeks to unveil hidden and often private information.
I am no doctor. But I am a storyteller. I operate not with surgical tools but with the belief that everyone has a story to tell. Every single person you meet has something to share that would benefit another someone out there. The key is to find that someone’s something.
So how do you go about it? How do you find someone’s story?
You must descend into the trenches of people’s lives, be willing to get right down there in the mud and the muck and all the unpleasantness. More importantly, you need to do so in a way that demonstrates that you genuinely care. I’ve seen reporters who never reached their potential because they developed a grotesque cynicism that oozed from them when they met their sources like a foul body odor. People sense that and they shut down.
But if you genuinely care? If you are willing to get invested in their lives? People sense that too. It’s the fragrant scent of fresh-cut flowers that overpowers the polarized stank of the modern media. It’s unexpected. It’s rare. It’s disarming.
From there, you listen. I mean, really, truly, listen. You’re not thinking about your next question. You’re not thinking about how you’re going to tell the story. You ask a question, and then you let people talk. In general, people want to tell their stories. Yes, even the introverted. Even the jaded. Even the hardened cynic. We all want to be heard. It’s a basic human drive, to come into connection with someone who truly wants to hear us.
I have told hundreds of stories throughout my life, chronicling everything from the vibrant life of a murder victim and the challenging existence of a Major League utility infielder to a teacher accused of having inappropriate relationships with her students. I’ve been there as top-flight athletes fell into exhausted celebration after winning a quadruple-overtime basketball game and watched as city councils wrestled with decisions to help grow the city they loved. In just about every situation, by simply listening, I have found the hook, that one special thing that ends up being at the top of the story that draws readers in.
Take, for example, cancer. Lots of people get it. But everyone faces it differently. Every battle has its own unique qualities. For Phil Zielke, his battle was marked by the daily effort to trudge down his stairs and out to his mailbox because he knew there would be a letter or a card from which he could draw strength to face another day. This led him to start an amazing organization called Phil’s Friends that coordinates care packages to be sent to cancer warriors. The story wasn’t simply “Phil’s Friends is a cool organization.” It was about that drive of a cancer-swarmed man to walk 100 yards every day to find what he needed to go on.
Back to the hallway. Back to the door. On the other side waited for me a 3-year-old girl and her mother. I knew the girl had a diagnosis of tibial hemimelia and what’s called a frame on her left leg. Think of the halo you see on spinal-injury patients. I knew this little girl had been through a lot in her brief life and, consequently, that her mom, at some level, was weary. There was a story to tell on the opposite side of that door. All I had to do was open it and remember how to do this thing that is at my core.
So I opened the door.