How’s this for a story:
For the past 18 months, Chris’s ex has forbidden her to see their young daughter. Not because Chris has harmed her daughter, violated any agreements or broken the law, but — as Chris sees it — because she recently completed her transition from male to female. Chris is transgender.
Since she began her transition 5 years ago, her entire family has shunned her. She’s been disinvited to Christmas, to birthday celebrations and other activities. Members of her family have verbally abused her, calling her grotesque, sick, deranged and psychotic. “If you were a real man you would have just killed yourself,” they told her.
Devastated by the lack of support from her once close-knit clan at a time of intense vulnerability, Chris did, in fact, once try to take her own life.
Today, as she struggles to regain her footing in the world, she is fighting a costly uphill court battle over her parental rights, mired in discrimination.
This may sound like rich fodder for a page-turning novel. But Chris is not a fictitious character. She’s my client. And it’s been years since I put fiction-writing aside to focus instead on bringing real-life dramas and narratives to the world not in books, but on the pages, screens and air waves of the media.
Chris has hired me to promote her children’s book, My First Red Sox Game. Stripped of all other means to communicate with her daughter, she wrote it in hopes her daughter will read it one day. It’s inspired by memories the two once shared.
Like with any other book, the backstory to My First Red Sox Game extends far beyond the plot into Chris’s personal life: her past, her pain, her dreams. To find and connect with its audiences, I need to dig into that backstory and unearth the nuggets that have news value. This means spending time getting to know Chris, hearing about her past life as a motorcycle-riding rock club owner, reading her poems and looking at family pictures. Like with creative writing, it means jotting down notes in the middle of the night when an epiphany wakes me. It means drafting, editing, cutting and pasting until the words paint a powerful and coherent picture.
Back when I was writing fiction, I was constantly plagued with a sense of futility as I went through this very same exercise. “My book.” “My story.” “My characters.” “My WIP.” These words made me cringe. While I loved the process, I couldn’t help feeling somehow at odds with the isolated, inward-focused place it came from. That anxious question writers so often ask — will anybody care? — was preceded by a particularly troublesome preposition: Why? As in, “Why will anybody care?” My outwardly-focused side — the news-junky working mom forced by her profession to be constantly tuned in to the world around her and acutely aware of the role teamwork plays in creating most things that society truly values — couldn’t help feeling, somehow…selfish. As if in choosing to pour so much energy into my passion, my fantasies, my characters (who after all, are extensions of myself), I was somehow not making the contribution that I could.
A disappointing publishing experience and meager sales did nothing to help, despite the ability to say those self-affirming words, “my editor.”
On the other hand, the buzz of digging for news stories between the lines of someone else’s galleys and then seeing these stories published in articles or broadcast on TV is positively intoxicating. So is getting that one call from a reporter to say, “Yes!” to an idea I’ve pitched then hearing the gratitude and excitement in a client’s voice.
Words can’t describe the gratification or the depths of my own joy when authors say to me, “I can’t imagine having gone through this process without you,” or, in one particularly moving case, “You changed my life.”
A couple of weeks ago, Chris had her first press interview. I was the lucky person who got to listen in. Just arranging the interview had been an extremely emotional experience. For at least 5 years, Chris has been bursting to share her story with the world. Keeping it bottled up inside has been all the more painful and frustrating for her given the immense injustice at its core. And now, this first interview happened to be with CNN.com.
It was clear that even the reporter, Emanuella, was moved. She pressed on long after having gathered the information she needed to file her story, probing for more detail on Chris’s background. When I heard Chris getting choked up as she spoke, tears filled my eyes.
Occasionally, I still find myself scribbling notes for a potential memoir or short story. But even the delicious indulgence of journeying into my pure imagination simply can’t compare with the profound joy of making a contribution by crafting other people’s living stories into news that’s valued by consumers and can give writers an immeasurable boost — even change their lives.
It’s at moments like this that I feel I’m truly fulfilling my role as a storyteller.
Who else’s story have you told lately? How? How does it feel?