In journalism, one of the first ropes you have to learn is don’t focus on your assignment so much that you miss opportunities for other stories. It’s something each of us learns the hard way at least once. You go to a city council meeting to write about a controversial new development and miss the city manager’s comments that imply a major tax increase is needed in next year’s budget. Or you scribble furiously about building projects in the school district’s bond election and ignore the brief report about a how a teacher’s innovative methods are having incredible results.
My moment came in college at Sam Houston State University. Lech Walesa, a major figure in Poland’s independence from the USSR, received a humanitarian award from the school. All of us in the class were supposed to cover the event, which we dutifully did. And all but one or two completely spaced out on a history professor’s beautiful and heart wrenching story of his family’s flight from Poland.
A closely related principle is that everyone has a story. While I may have missed the first one on a few occasions, this is an area I have always done fairly well with. One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten from an editor was that I could get a story out of anything. While whatever level of writing talent I have may play a role in that, I think a bigger part of it is simply that I’m willing to let people tell their stories and I realize they’re all important in their own ways.
I was reminded of this the other day at a laundromat. Our washing machine suffered a sort of chain-reaction breakdown, and we hadn’t replaced it yet. So I took a couple of loads and my Kindle and figured I’d get a little reading in while the clothes got cleaned.
What I got instead was a conversation with a man passing through Paris, Texas, on a sort of never-ending tour of the country. A retired police officer, he’d been living in New Mexico when he lost just about everything in the housing market crash a few years ago. He bought a Ford cargo van (which looks a lot like the behemoth we purchased for our own extended family), put a few hooks, a mattress and other odds and ends inside, and he’s been traveling ever since. “I like traveling anyway,” he said. “I can live cheap.”
On the road, he’s met people who run laundromats and will talk on and on about high-efficiency vs traditional washing machines. He’s become an expert on the places to eat and avoid on his regular routes (and here I thought all Sonics were pretty much the same). And he swapped a few stories with a part-time journalist/full-time teacher. I don’t know the man’s name, and I doubt he remembered me the next morning. But he’s a face, a real person affected by these widespread economic woes we keep hearing about. He’s a chance intersection of lives that left a lasting impression. And he is a reminder of the truth Samwise Gamgee once observed: We’re all part of a bigger story that our own lives continue to ravel and weave.
As I said, journalism teaches us not to overlook the potential stories out there and to keep in mind that everyone has a story. But observing life through the eyes of a writer tells us that everyone is a story in his own right. We just have to pay attention, even at the laundromat.