Today's guest post comes from writer extraordinaire and massage therapist absolutely extraordinaire — if you live in the D.C. area, seriously, go lie on her table — Amanda, who I know because she had to edit my first bumbling attempts at professional writing. This isn't about that.
I'm thankful for Lance Armstrong, hyper-competitive old runners with bad knees, the mind-numbing routines of step aerobics and some L.A. asshat who crashed his car into a competitive cyclist out on a night-time training ride in the mid-80s.
Those forces combined to birth the chronically trademarked Spinning® classes in 1996 (See Evolution of the Revolution here — That's not the real headline. That's the headline of the story someone should have written about Spinning's takeoff). Back on track (pun, as always, intended): Without those sweat boxes of neon lights and testosterone, I may have been grape-vining across a plastic Reebok step or running in the cold that one fateful day in January 1999. Instead, I was where I was almost every Saturday morning in the late 90s: in a Spinning class, the required 10 minutes early to snag the bike on the right side, waiting for someone to yell at me to pass invisible riders on an imaginary hill while Peter Gabriel sang about Solsbury — you, guessed it — Hill.
That's where I heard a fellow "rider" complain about the multiple edits his article for The Washington Post Magazine. Someone pointed to me and said "She's a writer. Maybe she can help."
He'd have to wait for me to burn approximately 500 to 700 calories to get that help, but an hour later, he continued to rant and pant about a simple interview he'd done with a jail guard (that got my interest) and how the editor said he'd overwritten it (much like I've done to this sentence). The column, "First Person Singular," was meant to be told in the voice of the person interviewed and kept short. My heart rate shot back up. Thanks Sport and Health for providing those straps of bacteria, er, those shared chest straps.
You mean, you just had to interview someone with an interesting job, drill it down to the basics, put it in some kind of logical order and turn the sucker in? No worrying if your transitions were tired. No searching and searching for the perfect lead to introduce this character who needed no introduction and could do the introducing much better herself? It would be just like a radio interview, except no one would have to hear my mouth full of potatoes introduce the subject.
I'd been training my radar to find these characters since journalism school, when fed up with covering student athletic council meetings, I started pitching and writing stories about campus characters: the hot-dog cart guy who catered to the drunks at 2 a.m., the resident assistant who worked part-time at the townie bar, the manic step aerobics instructor (I've always sweated the details!) who had a messianic following of sorority girls and was married to an equally buff instructor. My wheels were turning!
But back to the spinning-his-wheels writer/rider pal: I gave him some suggestions. Pretend you're introducing this guy to your family -- what three anecdotes or details would you share before he came over. What's the first thing you told someone about the guard after the interview. He said he'd try again. Then I asked for the editor's phone number.
I've been writing First Person off and mostly on since. My first? An improv guy who took two hours to finally admit why he'd spent his adulthood acting like a child, and encouraging others to do so: All of the men in his family had died before 55; he expected to do the same. Why figure out what he going to be when he grew up? I got this detail and got past his "act" and comic routine after sharing my own loss. It helps to be human when interviewing humans.
I've focused on people without their own people, trying to avoid PR trolls, canned anecdotes and firstname.lastname@example.org addresses, but more importantly trying to give the microphone to the guy in the back, the one you see all the time but never slow down to listen to. The stock character who is much more than a maid, a Girl Scout leader, a lunch lady, or Dominos pizza manager. They've let me into their Byzantine basement workshops (the Cuckoo Clock doctor I ran into at — wait for it — my gym), their messy lives (all of us) and their swank D.C. dens, where pictures of them schmoozing with presidents failed to elicit a "tell me about that." (Everyone already knew about THAT!) They've let me make this big city small.
And yes, they let this small-town girl get her byline in a big-city paper. That wore off quickly. I've had the intense joy of watching someone say something about herself for the first time; realizing a fundamental truth about why they do what they do and are the way they are. No byline ego stroke can compete with that.
Not every column has been riveting, but I'm thankful for every one — yes, even the one about the mean cheesemaker who snarled through the interview and the snarled-through post-publication email complaining that he came off as a sour, snarly man. Note to cheesemaker: Don't say you prefer cows to people and then be surprised to not come across as a people person. They've kept me connected. They've kept me curious. They've kept me fully aware of the best coffee shop/wine bars in the area and the worst of my tendencies to interrupt and nod in an agreement a bit too aggressively. They've kept me in journalism, despite my big shift into a new profession.
And they've made me realize not everything has a nice narrative arc. Sometimes, things just end and you have to figure out if it's the end of the story or the chapter — or some other lame metaphor. By the time you read this, I'll have written my last First Person.
So thanks, Spinning for getting my Lycra-ed butt in that room. Thanks, dude who never did get his guard story published. Thanks, every single human who opened up to me. I've learned so much! I'll never look at a LEASE NOW! sign spinner the same again. I'll never, ever regret finally acting on the hunch to interview a photo restorationist. If nothing else, go read that one.
I'll get used to being just a massage therapist — connecting without a deadline, editor, or tape recorder between us. And for that too, I'm thankful.