October 21, 2015

Not long ago, I heard myself saying something like this at a writing seminar: “It’s not a story yet; it’s just story dust.”

  • You are reading an old book, and inside, in a childish handwriting, is the name of the boy who first owned it in 1962, and a phone number.
  • A young woman has a tattoo of a Jewish star on her forearm. Under it is her grandmother’s name: Sadie.
  • A classified ad reads: “Lost. Class ring. Heartbroken. Reward to finder.”

None of these are stories. But each contains story dust.

I am using “dust” here not as something insubstantial, wisps that disappear in a breeze. My metaphor is to star dust – that basic stuff that becomes the source of all matter, from the Milky Way galaxy to this delicious Milky Way candy bar that I am eating right now.

Some writers need to have story dust pointed out to them – usually by teachers or editors. Others see it everywhere. A few kind of roll around in it like a puppy with a nose for news. Lane DeGregory is such a writer. If she ever wanted to change her name, I might suggest Dusty. Dusty DeGregory, like Dusty Springfield.

For the last two decades, DeGregory has become one of America’s indispensable feature writers, earning her a trophy case full of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. She also happens to be a generous teacher of the craft, spreading her influence at Poynter and writing conferences across the country.

This Friday, Poynter’s Lauren Klinger will interview DeGregory in a Master Class, designed to extract for all to see her considerable knowledge and experience.

On July 10, 2003, DeGregory wrote a story for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns), titled “A Message from Roger.” The story, which had the rare effect of bringing a tear to my eye, solves the mystery of a letter in a bottle that was discovered 19 years after a 7-year-old tossed it off a pier on Florida’s west coast.

So a man calls a reporter saying he found an old Pepsi bottle that has a note in it. “To whoever finds this letter please write me a letter and let me know,” the note said in a shaky pencil. “Roger J. Clay, 890 Linwood Ave., Fairfield Ohio, 45014.”

Story dust. Bunnies of story dust. A researcher helps the reporter track down the name. “He’s dead,” she tells her. Story dust has become story.

Her original story is here, a finalist for an ASNE writing award. Below is an essay DeGregory wrote that describes how the story came to her and what she did with it. The piece was originally published by Poynter in “Best Newspaper Writing 2004.”

As you read it, it will reveal crucial virtues and strategies that can guide any writer:

  • That curiosity remains the essential journalistic skill. The best writers see the world as a storehouse of story ideas.
  • That a writer needs many more story ideas than he or she can actually process.
  • That luck – in this case the presence of the boy’s mother in Florida – is the byproduct of hard work and preparedness.
  • That you want to be able to observe directly as much as you can without intruding on the privacy of others or unnaturally changing their behavior.
  • That collaboration with a good editor can help you solve important problems and overcome your doubts and weaknesses.
  • That, when it comes to storytelling, an open heart is just as powerful as a skeptical mind.

Lessons Learned
By Lane DeGregory

When the phone rang, I answered it. I hardly ever do that.

I try not to be at my desk much. I’d rather be out reporting, or scouting subjects, or something. But over the July fourth holiday, when this story started to unfold, I broke my foot. There I was, the Monday after the long weekend, with crutches propped beside me and my right foot in a cast, stuck at the office because I couldn’t drive. So when the phone rang, I answered it.

“I found something. I’m not sure if you’d be interested,” said a man’s voice. “But I understand you like strange stories.”

It’s true. The slices of life I love most usually are ones no one else sees. I comb the back streets and bars, chat up bus drivers and eat at all-night diners. Co-workers kid me about seeing stories everywhere. That’s my biggest asset. And my biggest downfall: I believe everyone has a story. And I believe almost everyone.

Sometimes, as a journalist, you have to be a cynic.

Or at least sit near one.

When I got off the phone, I was so excited, I shouted over my cubicle, “Some man just found a Pepsi bottle floating in a canal. And there’s a note in it! He said it was written 19 years ago.”

The reporter whose desk is across from mine has been writing for newspapers since before I was born. “No way,” he said. “Not possible. Somebody’s pulling your leg.”

What? Who? Why would anyone do that? How could my colleague say such a thing?

Burst my bubble, would he? Well, I’d show him…

I called four oceanographers. Two called back. By making me want to prove him wrong, that reporter had forced me to show how something that seemed entirely implausible was, at least, possible. Scientists said so. That made the story so much stronger.

The man who found the note wanted help finding the boy who wrote it. That’s why he called the newspaper. When Times researcher Caryn Baird finally tracked down the boy and told me what had happened, I didn’t know what to do. Should I call the boy’s mother? After all these years? Would she want to know? “Let the man who found the bottle make that call,” said my editor, Mike Wilson.

The hardest part of this story was trying to stay out of the way.

So I called Don Smith and he called the boy’s mother and, of course, she sobbed and, of course, she wanted to see the note. And since she happened to be in Florida, a short drive from where Smith found the bottle, of course, they agreed to meet.

I needed to see the mother’s face when she cradled the bottle. I had to be there when she opened the crumbling paper and traced her young son’s words. Of course, I asked to come along.

But I had to be careful. I had to shut up and not ask questions and stay in the background and just observe and let the scene unfold on its own. So I could write it.

Roger’s mom saw his message the night of Tuesday, July 8. I wrote the story the next day.

I hadn’t planned to do this piece as a daily. A story this great deserves to be really well-written. I wanted to take my time, craft something special, draft and re-draft.

“This is a simple, lovely story,” said my editor. “Just tell it like it happened.”

Most of the time, I try to be invisible in my articles. But sometimes, as a reporter, you can’t help but influence events. If the Times hadn’t tracked down the boy and found his mother, Smith wouldn’t have been able to pass on Roger’s note. So how could I tell that segment of the story without being in it?

“Acknowledge your role when you need to, then step aside,” said my editor. “Readers want to know how you know.”

Sometimes the best narratives spin out naturally: Start at the beginning, when the phone rings. Drop clues about what’s going to happen. Don’t give away the ending.

And always edit out your last three sentences. Most writers tend to dribble on. See?

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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