Inside a serial narrative: A story is ‘a promise that the end is worth waiting for’

In April 2011, Kelley Benham gave birth four months early. Her daughter Juniper’s birth was supposed to be a joyous occasion. Instead, it was marked by physical and emotional pain, shock, and uncertainty about whether the micro preemie, who weighed just 1 pound 4 ounces, would survive.

Benham and her husband, journalist Tom French, were faced with a pivotal question: Fight for their daughter’s life or let her go? In a recent three-part series in Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, Benham wrote about how she and French confronted this question and how the answer they sought has changed their lives.

“A story is a promise,” French said to her as they read to Juniper. “It’s a promise that the end is worth waiting for.”

In an email Q&A, Benham explains the story behind her powerful series and describes what she learned from the reporting and writing process.

Mallary Tenore: At what point did you decide to write this series?

Kelley Benham

Kelley Benham: Not until after we were home from the hospital. It was impossible, living through this, not to recognize that we were in the middle of an amazing story. And there were times when the nurses would ask Tom or me if we were going to write about the experience. But we were so scared and so consumed by trying to be parents, we didn’t have time to be writers too. So we put off any discussion of writing it down until we could breathe again, and until we knew how it all turned out.

About how much time did you spend on the series altogether?

I started reporting in February and worked part time, sometimes just a few hours a week, until some point in the summer, when I started writing full time. I had a draft of part one in early August and a draft of the entire thing by mid-October.

Even though the series is based on personal experience, you nevertheless did a lot of reporting and research for this series; you read medical records, books and journal articles, and interviewed doctors, epidemiologists and bioethicists. What did you learn from that process, and how did it inform your writing?

Memory is fallible. There were details in my head I would have sworn to in court that my reporting showed were not exactly right. Fortunately, I had a 7,000-page medical record of everything that happened in the hospital, including what side Juniper was laying on at various times each day, the quantity and color of her poop, what time Tom and I arrived and left each day. Even the expressions on Juniper’s face were charted. It was a pain to sort through all that material, so I actually paid a high school student to organize it for me.

I went back and interviewed everyone just as I would if I were writing a story about someone else, and that allowed me to see our story through different eyes. I learned, for example, that one of the reasons I got to hold Juniper when she was two weeks old is because the doctors thought it might be my only chance to hold her while she was still alive. I learned a lot of details that made it clear how close she came to dying, and those details made me appreciate even more how far she has come.

From the medical journals I learned how lazy we can be as journalists sometimes. Just because one expert says one thing does not mean that person is the best expert or that what they are saying is the definitive answer. I spent a lot of time digging and weighing one study against another study, trying to find what was the most true, the most relevant, the most current. When it was over I got dozens of emails from doctors and nurses telling me that I had gotten it right, and that was hugely important to me.

In the end I did not want this to be just a memoir. I wanted it to be a deeply reported piece of medical and explanatory writing as well.

How did you decide on the structure?

I just felt in my gut it was three parts, and I proposed it that way. I knew part one would end with me seeing her for the first time, and that the first part would be about 5,000 words. That forced me to compress a great deal in the first part, and really blitz through the story of her conception in a petri dish and the month I spent on bed rest, but once I made a few tough choices, part one was very easy writing, maybe the easiest I’ve ever done. I turned in part one and had no idea what to do for the next two parts; that was some of the hardest writing I’ve ever done.

Figuring out the structure for parts two and three was the hardest part of the entire process. Fortunately, my husband is probably the person in the country who knows the most about structuring a serial narrative for a newspaper, and he helped me find my way. He suggested the scene that starts day two, and he identified a number of other places where I was summarizing and needed to slow down.

In part two, I built toward Juniper’s intestinal surgery, because that was the story’s most critical moment, but she had several other very tough moments that I had to breeze over in part three. The story as we lived it was much more drawn out than the newspaper series. If I’d covered every crisis she had, the readers would have hated me, and the story would have been three times as long.

What I loved about your story is that even though it was deeply personal, it was also easily relatable — largely because it touched upon universal themes like motherhood, illness, and the fight for survival. How cognizant of this were you when writing the piece?

I was extremely aware of that. Tom was constantly prodding me to clearly state the theme of the story. And it kept changing. At first, he would ask me what the story was about in one word and I’d say “frontier” — because the baby was at the frontier between viability and futility, and the neonatal intensive care unit was this frontier in medicine. But ultimately, he convinced me that the story is about love, and that’s why people connect with it the way they do.

You said in a live chat with readers that you don’t journal, but that you do take a lot of photos. How did those photos (and the photos that Times photographer Cherie Diez and John Pendygraft took) help you tell Juniper’s story? Did they help you remember details that you may have otherwise forgotten?

One of the first things I did was organize my photos and put them in order by date. That gave me a visual timeline. So using the photos and the medical chart, I then made a written timeline of the entire six months. The photos showed things that weren’t apparent in the chart, like when her eyes opened, when her bruising faded, what scrubs her nurse Tracy wore. We also had a lot of video, and I was able to pull a few quotes from that.

Juniper is almost two years old. (Photo by John Pendygraft)

What was the editing process for this series like, and what did you learn from it?

Editing has always been my favorite part of the process. Maybe that’s why I became an editor myself. I love the feeling when you’ve poured everything you have into a story and you can hand it off to someone you trust and watch them make it better.

Mike Wilson has been my editor at the Times since he plucked me out of a bureau in 2004, and every edit with him has been a lesson for me. He pushed me to resist the temptation late in the process to make this story four parts instead of three; he helped me muster the courage to skip over a lot of stuff in part three; and he helped me figure out some tricky point-of-view issues throughout the story. He helped shrink the story from 25,000 words to 20,000. He also thought of the title.

Executive editor Neil Brown also gave me a couple of very thoughtful reads of the first draft and the last draft. He was not afraid to tell me when something was boring or not working, and he caught a lot of places where I was putting in too much context too high. Mike and Neil helped me find the balance between the science and explanatory stuff and the pure narrative. They both pushed me to make it more personal, which was not easy for me.

I called a former professor, Jon Franklin, for advice about writing in the first person. I’d never done it before and I was really struggling, because I wanted to both hold the reader in the moment as I experienced it and also tell them what everyone around me was thinking at the same time. “There’s no such thing as first person omniscient,” he told me. “Everyone learns this the hard way.”

Tom was my toughest reader. In fact, the day before it went to press, he told me the top of part three just wasn’t good enough. And he was right. So I rewrote it.

What has the reaction been like so far?

Really overwhelming. I’ve never written a serial before but it is much more gratifying than a one-day story. After day one, people were sobbing into my voicemail, just freaking out needing to know — sometimes demanding to know — if the baby survived. Sunday-only subscribers were calling to find out what day they had to buy the paper to get part two.

People had a strong need to connect over this story. They wanted to tell me they were praying for Juniper, they wanted to tell me about their own babies. People shared deeply personal stories about babies they’d lost decades ago. One of the coolest things was hearing from people in their 20s and 30s who were born weighing less than two pounds. A lot of those letters made me cry, because they allowed me to think about Juniper grown up, and for so long we could not let ourselves do that.

Are you and Tom planning to turn the series into a book? If so, will you co-author it?

We both know this is the most powerful and harrowing story we will ever have to tell, so we’ve been talking for a while about what this might look like as a book. I know he is eager to tell his part of it, and I’m eager to read what he might write. I am not sure exactly what form it will take or who will write what. But I’m looking forward to it.

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