February 21, 2022

I remember the first time I met a person with AIDS. I was sitting at a reception desk, looked up, and saw a thin man with lesions on his face. I recoiled as if I lived in Biblical times and had encountered a leper.

It was the late 1980s. The fear of exposure roared up in me. In my ignorance I had stigmatized this person. He was gay, I assumed. Or he was an intravenous drug user. Or both.

It turned out that I was the sinner. I found a way to try to make up for it. In 1996, I wrote a series for the St. Petersburg Times titled “Three Little Words.”

Those words were not — as the romantic lyrics suggest — “I love you,” but “I have AIDS.” They were uttered by a man named Mick Morse to his wife Jane. Married for more than 20 years, they had three children. He was an educator, and his work took the family from a small town in Michigan to Brazil, Germany, Spain, and, finally, to St. Pete, where he died in denial of how he was infected — and the secret life he had led.

Published in February 1996, the story appeared as a serial narrative of 29 short chapters, one of the longest such series in the history of the paper. Controversial in both its form and content, the story broke ground on how to write about a disease that was still thought as a “death sentence.”

So much has changed in the quarter-century since the story appeared. Sadly, AIDS has not disappeared, nor has the stigma of homosexuality, especially in some communities and in some parts of the world. But the Supreme Court declared gay marriage as a legal right. And medical science found treatments that turned a once fatal illness into a manageable disease.

In the summer of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was changing so much of how we see the world, an intern from Arizona State University came to the Times and, under the influence of editor Maria Carrillo, became interested in “Three Little Words.” His name was Austin Fast and he now works as a producer for National Public Radio. Over the summer and for the following year, he resurrected the story, undertook original reporting and research, interviewed the key surviving characters, and created a five-part podcast, published, fittingly, on Global AIDS Day 2021. The original story and the podcast can be found here.

Public writing is mostly about what is happening now. But this revival offers a shiny corollary: The way we understand our moment — as in a pandemic, for example — can be illuminated by a return to the past, so that the “first rough draft of history” can be revised and reimagined.

The second rough draft of history

The practice of journalism — it has been said at least back into the 1940s, given its dailiness and deadlines — requires tolerance for a level of superficiality. In a phrase now attributed to Alan Barth, an editorial writer at The Washington Post, the reporter could be said to create “the first rough draft of history.”

That rough draft created by public writers has countless benefits for the common good. But by the time historians make use of it, years or decades later, the flaws or inadequacies of the rough draft are made manifest. When historians offer their own incomplete version of what has happened, they can expect to be challenged or revised by future historians. The best we can hope for is what my college teacher Rene Fortin called “gaining on certainty.”

Such an elevated description of journalism would have amused the likes of Donald Murray, who came up in the news business after World War II. He thought a lot of his bylines in a Boston newspaper until the evening he watched the cleaning lady slap down a recent edition of his section on a wet floor. There he saw his soggy photo and byline. Forget about the enduring value of his old stories, he thought. On to the next story.

The enduring value of a story, wrote Murray after he became an influential writing coach, is not just what it taught the reader. Writing the story taught the writer about writing. “Every story is a workshop,” he told me, and I pass that lesson on to you.

There are at least two different scales of time in public writing. We can call the first “report time.” This works best for events of civic importance, such as a protest march, the inauguration of a new mayor, the grand opening of a museum. Something happens. The writer covers it and shares it with the public, looking, perhaps, for a new story or a follow.

This style of writing and reporting is less successful when time expands beyond an event. Take education, for example. A writer can cover a class or a school board meeting. But how do you cover learning? How, during a pandemic, do you write about what children have learned, or failed to learn, over the course of a year, when much learning has happened at home, or when students are at physical schools masked and distanced for their health?

Here such coverage requires reporting over time, expressed most often in a narrative form. To me, narrative is another word for “story,” the kind of writing that produces vicarious experience. What was it like for a teacher to be in that classroom, where everyone was required to be masked?

If public writing is the first rough draft of history, there are, I would argue, the second and third rough drafts over years and decades before we get to what we might agree is history itself. “Leave that to the historians,” is the dismissive way some public figures answer questions about the larger meaning of a policy or set of judgments over time.

There is a value, underappreciated, in revisiting the narratives of the past and extending them to the current moment. The most common expression of this in public writing is the anniversary: of Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the Jan. 6 insurrection. But also: What happened to that man who won the lottery 20 years ago? That man who created the seabird sanctuary was in the news a lot years ago; whatever happened to him? How about: All those seniors who are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 today were probably vaccinated against polio when they were in elementary school. How have their attitudes been shaped by that early experience?

Writing a mission statement for your work

In 1996, “Three Little Words” received unprecedented attention from local readers and journalists everywhere. A month of chapters was a lot to ask of readers. But here was the catch: No chapter contained more than 850 words, so you could keep up with the narrative by reading five minutes a day. Long series, short chapters.

Good public writers do turn stories into workshops, intense moments of learning in which they advance their craft. I learned more about reporting and telling stories from “Three Little Words” than from any other writing experience of my life. I’m still learning. But I did not learn how much I learned until I stumbled upon a strategy that I turned in a tool, first described in my book “Writing Tools.”

I write a mission statement for each story.

Whether we want them to or not, readers and critics examine the work of writers to grasp a sense of our mission and purpose. In a sense, they always read a story twice: the first time to learn what happened, and then to figure out what it means.

Writing down your mission turns your vague hopes into language. By writing about your writing, you learn what you need to learn.

I scribbled my mission for “Three Little Words” on two pages of a legal pad. It covers the content and the form of the story, what I was writing about and how I wanted to write it. My mission begins: “I want to tell a human story, not just about AIDS, but about the deeply human themes of life, love, death, sorrow, hope, compassion, family, and community.” My statement includes these goals:

  • I want to portray my protagonist, Jane Morse, as a fully human character — and not some kind of cardboard saint.
  • I want to do this so people can identify with and care for her and her family. It’s so easy to see people with AIDS as “the other,” the outcast, suffering sinners.
  • I want to help illuminate AIDS, and help educate the public about key aspects of the disease.
  • I want to advance the conversation about sexual culture and its impact on public health. I want to portray my protagonist’s husband in a respectful way to avoid the common equation that Homosexuality=AIDS=Death.
  • I want to do this in a form — 29 short chapters — that will give people a chance to know, to learn, to care, and to hope.

In revisiting that list after 25 years, I realize how overly ambitious it is, like a baseball player writing in spring training: “I am going to hit 80 home runs this season.”

I added these goals as to the format of the series:

  • I want to help restore the form of the serial narrative to newspapers — using the shortest chapters possible.
  • I want to reconcile the values of short and long writing in American newspapers.
  • I want to write each chapter with a) a stand-alone quality, b) a cliffhanger ending, c) a sense of a new starting point.

I cannot overstate the value of this exercise, even though I set for myself unachievable goals. It gave me a view over the horizon as I drafted the story. This 250-word mission statement, which took about 10 minutes to write, helped create a 25,000-word series. It provided the language I needed to share my hopes with other writers, editors and readers. It could be tested, expanded, revised — and it was — during the writing process.

Missing from the mission statement, but inspired by it, was a strong desire to “tell it like it is,” to cut through contemporary euphemism, such as that HIV could be contracted by “the exchange of bodily fluids.” That lack of specificity, that reluctance to introduce the phrase “anal sex” into news analysis, led to excessive fear, panic, confusion, not to mention marking the stigma that became attached to anyone with the disease.

My “Three Little Words” workshop goes on and on as I hear from readers and journalists years later. From a distance, I see ways I might have done things differently. By writing that mission statement, I not only kickstarted my own learning, but also created a path where many others could ride along.

‘Three Little Words’ 25 years later

Roy Peter Clark holds a reprint of the edition of the Tampa Bay Times in which “Three Little Words” first appeared. (Photo by Alison Hastings)

More than a quarter-century after the 1996 publication of “Three Little Words,” much had changed in the world and in my town. The St. Petersburg Times was renamed the Tampa Bay Times. Medical science had discovered treatments that had transformed HIV/AIDS from what many called “a death sentence” to a treatable disease. With medication, patients could live long and productive lives. When NBA great Magic Johnson revealed in 1991 that he had HIV, few would have guessed that 30 years later his photo would be on interstate billboards hawking Medicare plans.

Though AIDS remains with us — from my hometown around the globe — along with the stigma attached to homosexuality, there can be no denying a great social movement in which gay people live and work with more acceptance, especially from the young. I could not have imagined that my oldest daughter, Alison, would one day identify as queer and legally marry Deeds Davis, a transgender man, in a courthouse in Decatur, Georgia.

The podcast of “Three Little Words” was created over two years by Austin Fast during some of the most difficult periods of the COVID-19 pandemic. The timing was not planned, but coincidental. It turned out to be a productive coincidence in that the AIDS epidemic, in which epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci was a key player, could be seen as a distant mirror of the current pandemic.

There was fear, confusion, disinformation, stigmatization, politics, but also heroism, compassion, and dedicated science in the story of both diseases.

When I finally listened to the five half-hour episodes, it felt, in many ways, like a different story, with its own sense of mission and purpose, building upon my reporting, but discovering new layers of tension, resolution, and meaning. To better understand what I was learning, I interviewed Fast on his own sense of mission and purpose.

What interested you most in “Three Little Words”? 

Two main reasons: First, I find great hope and inspiration in the way Jane Morse-Swett and her family persevered through a devastating family tragedy. Like so many other readers of “Three Little Words,” I wanted to meet Jane to learn more. Working for the Tampa Bay Times gave me that chance.

Second, I saw it as an opportunity to continue the mission you laid out over 25 years ago: “to help illuminate AIDS” and “advance the conversation.” Some people assume new treatment options mean AIDS is no longer a problem, but the epidemic and its stigma are still with us, deeply impacting the LGBTQ+ community and people of color.

What were you trying to accomplish by shaping it into a podcast? 

Podcasts are an intimate medium that allows listeners to immediately recognize and identify with complex emotions. The original series was evocative, but hearing Jane sigh and pause as she searches for the right words to describe her feelings of betrayal and Mick’s denial adds a new dimension to “Three Little Words.”

The episodes follow the narrative arc of the print pieces, but I wanted this podcast to be more than a simple rehash of the original. The world is a completely different place for HIV/AIDS patients today and yet it is just as stigmatized for some communities, so I wanted to take stock of what’s changed and what hasn’t since 1996.

What surprised you most in your original reporting? 

It’s not necessarily a surprise, but I found great significance in the route the younger Morse daughter has taken since “Three Little Words” was published. For me, the fact that Erin is now happily married to a woman symbolizes America’s progress toward equality, especially when compared with her father’s experience just a generation earlier. My goal was not necessarily to solve the mystery of Mick’s sexuality, but to point out history does not need to repeat itself.

What did you learn about the links between AIDS and the pandemic? 

COVID-19 peeled back the curtain for millennials like me and anyone younger who cannot appreciate how frightening AIDS was in those early days. This didn’t make it into the final podcast, but oncologist Dr. Jeffrey Paonessa pointed out scientists developed multiple vaccines against COVID-19 in only a year, yet we still have no vaccines against HIV despite 40 years of the AIDS epidemic. I hope to see a vaccine emerge within my lifetime.

What can we learn from the experience of the Morse family over 25 years? 

Jane Morse-Swett and her family handled their experience with resilience and candor.

Many people would have swept this family secret under the rug, but they chose to share it to fight the stigma of AIDS and inspire others needlessly struggling with secret shame. And it worked, as proven by the intensely personal letters that AIDS patients, closeted gay men and other readers sent to the St. Petersburg Times in 1996.

What would you hope that listeners would get out of listening to the podcast? 

For me, COVID-19 drove home how terrifying an unknown virus can be. I hope this helps younger listeners understand how Mick Morse and other AIDS patients might have felt in the ’80s, when nobody knew what was going on.

Modern medicine can stop HIV transmission in its tracks, but the AIDS epidemic is not over. Fresh CDC data shows new infections increased among young gay and bisexual men over the past decade, despite increasing awareness and prevention options. Some people still fear and condemn HIV/AIDS patients, which causes real damage to families and rifts in their communities.

Roy Peter Clark wanted to help overcome this stigma 25 years ago, and that work is not finished. I hope this podcast will prompt conversations in communities still harboring that stigma today.

Enduring lessons for all public writers

  1. The bigger, the smaller: The consequences of something huge, such as an epidemic, can be illuminated in part through a microcosm of a single well-chosen person or family.
  2. It helps to articulate a mission and purpose for a particular story or for a body of work. It can be written and revised at any stage of the process, but it helps if you try it early.
  3. The old news slang of “follo,” referring to a follow-up of a story can be done the next day — or the next year, decade, quarter-century.
  4. Reports are best for breaking news. For an understanding that occurs over time, consider a narrative approach.
  5. A slander for old newspapers is that they could be used to line birdcages. But think of those older stories, instead, as seedbeds for newer ones.
  6. The 25 years between 1996 and 2021 saw the creation of an informational revolution as dramatic as the one caused by the printing press or the telegraph. Stories could now be expressed in a multimedia format, or with multiple media. The podcast is just one example of the choices public writers have available to them. Look for collaborators who can work with you in creating different formats for your story.
  7. The public is best informed by writing that tells it like it is, especially when describing life and death issues involving such difficult and controversial topics as disease, race, gender, and human sexuality.
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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…
Roy Peter Clark

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