Monday, December 20, 2010

Write your own story

One of my most memorable mentors in life is Jim McKenzie. Jim was one of my professors at the University of Regina's School of Journalism. Jim taught me three things - 1: to be true to personal values, and 2: to be balanced and compassionate in the writing process, and 3: to be thorough.

Since graduating from the School of Journalism, I never stopped writing.  Writing is what keeps me grounded. Writing keeps my head in my own game. It is the means through which I document the story of my experience.

Writing challenges me to think through all the corners of my mind and to look at the world from an objective perspective.  I have rules for writing.

1.  Be factual and balanced.
2.  Be compassionate, but not passionate.
3.  Be compelling.

I also follow one of the other rules that I learned as a child:  "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."  (Those were the wise words of Thumper's mother in the Disney movie, Bambi.)

Jim could deliver a lesson like none other.   A hard core journalist, Jim was everything you might imagine. He was kind of rough around the edges, a little gruff, and had mastered the fine art of challenging others without saying a word. He was a master instigator of learning.

One lesson Jim taught me was how to set my own boundaries. Our class was writing an on-line magazine that semester, and the focus was the sex trade.  I was assigned the topic of child prostitution along with another student.

The plan was simple, or so we thought.  We would locate a person and interview them.  That's what journalists do, right?

We began the way an inexperienced person might begin. We went out to find out what was going on.  So we drove to the neighborhoods that were infamous for such things, and observed.

I saw children.  Period. I did not see the "sex trade".  And I saw the stereotypes that we were propagating by just being there.

We were unwittingly participating in the problem. It struck me that if that were my child on the streets of my own neighborhood, and someone made that assumption about my child, I would have to retaliate.  Secondly, it made me realize - who was I to label these children?

I went back to Jim to deliver the news that I could not do the story as assigned.  He asked me why and I told him that I did not believe there was child prostitution.  I believe there is child abuse. And to participate in that story is to further the lie and protect the abusers.

Jim bought my reasons and let me off the hook.  Instead, I focused on the abusers - the people who were taking advantage of children.  I attempted to interview some people who were already serving time for such things, but not surprisingly, they declined the invitation to be interviewed.

I spoke to parents of children who had been abused on the streets and their story was sad.  One woman told me she would block the door, but her daughter would find another way out.  The mother told me she could not compete because she did not have the money to give her daughter the things she wanted.

I spoke to adults about their childhood experiences on the streets, which only furthered my view that this was abuse and that children need to be protected.

In the end, I retold the public record, including a listing of who had been before the courts on such charges and what the outcomes were over a period of time.  I let the facts speak for themselves.  And I wrote the story that needed to be written.

Jim passed away some years ago, but I often think of him still when I am challenged to tell "the" story. Not just "a" story.  The principles that Jim instilled - to be factual, compassionate and compelling - continue to guide my writing process.