The Power of Serendipity: Alex Tizon’s Journey
serendipity. n. The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery.
-- Oxford English Dictionary
In the glow of hindsight, the idea seems a no-brainer.
A reporter and photographer drive across the United States in the first shocking days after September 11. Filing stories from datelines familiar and obscure,they report what ordinary Americans are thinking, feeling, saying and doing. In the process, they forge a powerful connection with readers reeling from the worst terrorist attack on American soil.
The reality was "we didn't know what we were doing," says reporter Alex Tizon, who made the journey in a rented SUV, almost all of it with photographer Alan Berner.
But the product of that uncertainty -- "Crossing America," their vivid 14-part series published last fall in the Seattle Times -- reveals the rewards journalists can find when courting the happy accidents that produce exceptional work.
At its best, reporting and writing is a process of discovery, but in the deadline-driven world of daily journalism, far too many reporters and editors straitjacket themselves. They preconceive stories, write budget lines in stone and often end up cheating their readers and viewers. Tizon and Berner show what happens when you relax and surrender to the journey.
"Crossing America" began on Sept. 11 with a suggestion from Times reporter Ralph Thomas: Somebody should drive to New York. An editor overheard and took it to the news meeting. By that night, the paper's editors offered the assignment to Tizon, a veteran reporter who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for a series documenting fraud in the federal Indian Housing Program. Tizon, a husband and father of two, wasn't sure he wanted to leave his family behind.
He wasn't the only skeptic. "This whole thing started in doubt," he told participants in Poynter's Newspaper Writing and Editing seminar in February.
Newsroom doubters thought it sounded like a 3,000-mile walk-and-talk. Photo, always stretched thin even on slow news days, balked at sending someone along for the entire trip and offered a compromise: photographer Berner could only go as far as the Idaho border.
When the pair left Sept. 12, Tizon recalled, "we were scared to death. We had no idea where we were going."
Like good journalists, all the way out of town they groused and complained. But they brainstormed too, coming up with the idea to watch a grade school class recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Ellensburg, Wash., a two-hour drive from Seattle.
In the nut graf of that first story, published Sept. 14, Tizon described what would emerge as the series' mission:
I'm driving to New York City. The journey feels right, even in its vagueness. I'm a pacer. When I need to process something, I get up and walk. This will be my form of walking, only I'll do it in a rented Ford Expedition and cover 3,000 miles.
Many of you are in the same mental and emotional space I am, and I invite you to come with me in spirit across the country. Like true Seattleites, we can process this thing together. We'll visit with people along the way, find out who they are and how they're doing, and whether anything has changed for them.
"That first stop set the tone for the entire journey," Tizon said, including the decision to employ first-person point of view. He knew readers would have no shortage of news and wanted them to experience the mood of the country through his journey.
"The way you know your own story is by recognizing pieces of it in other people's stories," he said. The next morning, 70 emails waiting in Tizon's inbox affirmed his choice.
Mindful that "columnists gain a following by showing up," Tizon's editors decided the installments should appear every other day. Ultimately, 14 stories ran over 21 days, accompanied by Berner's photo gallery. The timetable also meant keeping stories relatively shortó25-30 inches.
Other than that, Tizon said, his editors left he and Berner on their own. His editor, Jacqui Banaszynski, herself a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, "left it purposely vague."
As Tizon's journey continuedóBerner went back home after a stop in Idaho, "the purpose and format of the series became clear. I didn't know what I was doing until Wyoming, five stories into it."
In Sheridan, Wyo., Tizon relied on one of his cardinal rules of reporting: "I have a policy. If all else fails, go to a pawn shop. People there are frank, candid, they cut right to the bone."
The visit led him to Zarif Khan Jr., "a Pakistani-American and the head of the only Muslim family in town" who described "what "it's like to be Muslim in a town that's 98 percent white, conservative and Christian, especially as war looms with Muslim extremistsÖ"
"The town has been kind," Tizon wrote, buttressing Khan's story with his own experiences as a Filipino-American: "My skin is as brown as mocha," he wrote, "and most everybody I met here over two days was friendly and helpful."
By then, the series was building momentum in the newsroom as well. "I knew the series was working," Tizon said, "when the photographer returned."
Reunited with Berner in Denver, the pair settled into a routine.
Every day they used a road map to pick their next destination. "It was all an intuitive thing." The only ground rule: "something that was three hours away."
At noon, they drove to their destination and spent the afternoon reporting. Tizon gave himself a night to sleep on the story. "I let the people we met and things we heard settle and arrange themselves. The next morning I would write, anywhere from 1-4 hours.
"The great advantage of this kind of story was that everybody wanted to talk about it. It tied everybody together."
Over the next two weeks, a stready stream of datelines marked their transcontinental passage.
In Shanksville, Pa., where townspeople made a shrine in the field where the third hijacked airliner shattered on the ground after passengers fought back, they found a sign of hope amid the anger, fear and sadness they'd witnessed.:
"At the foot of the memorial flapped a crumpled sheet of typing paper held down by a rock. The handwriting was in pencil and smeared from the rain.
It carried a message borne of a farmer's pragmatic wisdom: "The leaves die in the fall and disappear in the winter, but we all know they'll be back in the spring. No matter what happens, there will always be spring."
By the time Tizon and Berner reached the "still smoldering tomb" known as Ground Zero, a change had come over Tizon as well.
The journey, he said, "reminded me of what I was capable of as a reporter. I pushed the envelope. There are probably a whole bunch of other things I didn't think I can do that I can do.
Perhaps most important, crossing America taught him a paradoxical lesson, that you have a better chance of achieving excellence when you lower your standards.
"Relax," he advised. "Don't be a perfectionist."
"We all sit down and we want to create literature. I feel that all the time. The idea of relaxing really sunk in. Relaxing in every aspect: in interviewing, you relax and your subject relaxes; Relax in your writing. Give yourself permission to write shitty first drafts, like Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird. That's when your real voice comes out. You develop a voice when you stop trying. Stop trying. Period. Just write."
Postcript: Two months after reaching New York City, Alex Tizon and Alan Berner went back on the road, filing a series of reported "postcards" from Hawaii, New England and the Pacific Northwest.