Getting in There and Staying in There
Living the Story
By Joe Marren
Special to Poynter Online
Many of us in journalism have been given a few days to work on a story; some of us have been given a week or two to nail things down properly; and the lucky few among us have been given an extended, open-ended amount of time to work on, polish and maybe re-work a blockbuster piece. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc makes us look like neophytes. She spent 10 years researching, writing, but most of all living her story about the urban poor in the South Bronx.
Her book-length effort, “Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx,” will be published this spring by Scribners. The book mainly focuses on two generations of women’s lives during the course of that decade.
“I started out just by hanging out with this family and doing a lot of emotional investing,” LeBlanc told a roomful of writers at the annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism.
“I don’t think this is the best way to always do it, but it worked for me this time,” she said. “This just worked in this situation, it may not always work.”
But think of it, it took 10 years! In that time, the Buffalo Bills still couldn’t win a Super Bowl and presidents came and went, though real political and economic power stayed in the hands of the male, pale and stale. Yet she never had an editor hound her to go back and get more detail. Hell, she lived the details. If she didn’t know the answer to a question, or if a situation she didn’t understand came up, she could wait, like Buddha, for enlightenment.
“I had been hanging around with these people for years and slowly the pieces of information would come together,” LeBlanc said. “I preferred that way to raising a series of point-blank questions. The incidental information came out because I was there a lot of the time and I had established a bond.”
As such, though, a lack of notes on details could leave some holes in spots, as LeBlanc noted.
“I didn’t do that and I think there is a huge omission about the family’s day-to-day life,” she said.
But the problem is there is a certain mundane quality to spending day after day with a subject. So LeBlanc had to figure out a way to write compellingly about the boring.
“I chose incidents that would illuminate,” she said. “Things were only boring in the sense that kids without anything to do get into trouble.”
The advantage to spending soooooo much time with a subject is that the writer could never know the details of daily life by just making random or arranged visits. The disadvantage is that there is so much information to pick from that a lot must be left out. But such moving-in type of journalism can give a reporter the authority to interpret what things mean and put it all in perspective.
“It’s like putting together a big puzzle,” LeBlanc said. “By hanging out you can find out what you’re most interested in and get that incidental information you couldn’t get otherwise.”
And it also helped that the family in the book knew upfront what was going on. LeBlanc found them by doing her job as a court reporter for the Village Voice and told them at the outset that she was there to write about what it’s like to be poor.
They already knew, of course. But now the world will know when her book comes out early next year.
Just one word of advice if LeBlanc ever approaches you: Either build a guestroom to your home or buy a cot. She may be there a while.
Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. He can be reached at mailto:email@example.com.