I’ve had the opportunity and the pleasure to write about maybe a hundred people in The Sentinel’s weekly feature, the Monadnock Profile.
If you read the newspaper regularly, you may have seen my byline on these stories, I’m identified as “contributing writer.”
Occasionally the newspaper suggests someone to be featured, but mostly I come up with my own. Sometimes friends suggest people to write about, or I hear about someone who might be interesting. What constitutes “interesting” can vary considerably, often dictated by how long I’ve procrastinated and then fighting a deadline.
Also, occasionally, some candidates turn me down but don’t explain why, or they just elect to not return my phone call. Sometimes I just think they’re shy, and don’t want publicity. A few times I’ve done a little extra research and find they have reason to avoid the limelight — maybe they’ve served time in prison, or been involved in a past scandal. A couple of them said they had unpleasant experiences in dealing with journalists, so they take a pass.
For the most part, I choose older people because they have longer and deeper stories to tell. My interviews take anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours, and I always meet them “in situ,” where they live or perhaps where they work. I’m cognizant of the signs they give to indicate that I’ve overstayed my welcome, such as them getting up from their chair and asking me to leave.
Once I sit down with the person, I don’t whip out my notebook and start to interview them right away, but chit-chat a bit, tell them some things about myself. Sometimes I talk about myself too long and they’ve asked, “Isn’t this a story about me?”
Before we even meet, though, I urge them to look me up on Google, so they don’t think I’m just some creep trying to get into their house.
These are some of the details of how the profiles come about, but my thoughts from 10,000 feet after delving into the lives of so many people are these: A life is so very complex and extremely difficult to pack into a 1,000- or 2,000-word story. And, nothing is black and white.
I don’t put in my stories everything people tell me. Sometimes they confide in me some extremely personal details that they ask me not to publish, or that I decide are much too intimate to disclose. I carefully make sure not to abuse that invitation they extend to plumb their lives. I reassure people that the stories are positive in nature, that I’m not trying to catch their foot off the bag, my line being, “After I finish with you, they’ll be nominating you for sainthood.” That always gets a laugh.
Another thing I’ve often noticed is that people are amazingly unsure of specific facts and figures of their lives. “That was during the mid-’80s, I think,” they may say. As one gets older, I’ve surmised, it’s not the data of one’s life that matters, but the impressions that are left, the emotions that are stamped in their minds. It’s my job to get the chronologies and facts straight. People forget names all the time, or get them all wrong.
Sometimes, too, some really funny things happen to people, and you have to carefully reconstruct those instances, as humor is very hard to convey in writing.
Then, too, are the disappointments or tragedies. Sometimes people tear up as I ask questions, you can see them dredging up terrible memories. That’s the time to say nothing, give them space, and then after a few moments move on to another subject.
Here are some other things I’ve learned:
People will readily talk about their parents. In most cases they have fond memories of their mothers and fathers. They’ll immediately start with a vignette about them. “My father came home every day at 5, sat in a big chair, smoked a big cigar and read the paper.”
They met their spouses in the most random of circumstances.
Most generally find, or found, pleasure in their careers and jobs.
It’s pretty much split between those who are religious, and those where spiritual matters have no big influence on their lives.
Most everyone has regrets, usually about opportunities that presented themselves but which they didn’t seize.
Those who served in the military, almost to a person, look back with fondness on their time in the service. Mostly, what they seem to appreciate is the camaraderie.
The older they are, the fewer grudges they hold. Either they’ve forgotten all the slights and slings, or they let them go. They’ve seemed to have abandoned anger.
Almost every person I’ve interviewed recalls, to the smallest detail, the neighborhood in which they grew up.
If they’re divorced, the reasons for it are rarely described. I’ve heard on more than several occasions “He drank,” and that was the end of it.
There is a surprising (to me), amount of estrangement in families.
It’s most amazing to me that everyone I’ve interviewed has a riveting story to tell, and you realize again and again that we share so much; we cover much of the same, sometimes rough, terrain. And we are, for better or worse, so human.