Sunday, February 8, 2009

How I wrote the story: Jim Seip

If you've ever found yourself trying to write a story with seemingly no way to make it good, and you were about to give up, read on.

I asked Jim Seip to tell me a bit about how he put together this story about a Steelers fan who made a connection with some military guys who were also Steelers fans, and who went through a harrowing ordeal himself.

Turns out that Jim was in that box: He knew he had to write, and it was looking ugly.

But the beautiful thing is, Jim found a way out. How he did it is great inspiration for any writer who is stuck: Keep thinking. Keep turning it over in your mind. Usually, you'll find a sliver of light, a possible way out ... and then go for it. So, here is how a talented journalist pulled that off in this story:

1. I asked Jim how/when he chose to structure the story around a series of moments:
-- Decided late on the story structure. Real late. Stared at my screen, scrapped two or three horrendous ledes and went in another direction. Here was the main problem with this story: I felt like I didn't have a strong enough story to stand on its own. John was a Steelers fan, that's the reason we wrote the story, but he had so much going on in his life I didn't know how to start it or where to go.

My line of thinking went something like this:
* In the original e-mail from Chris I looked at the story and thought I was supposed to write a quick-and-dirty feach. Chris noted the guy sent tapes over to servicemen in the Middle East. First reaction: This story is going to be terrible.
* After talking with John a few minutes, it sounded worse than terrible.
* John had no contact with the airmen since he returned to the States. John didn't even know what service the guy served in during our initial phone conversation. I found out he sent the tapes about two years ago. So I didn't think that was a strong enough theme to carry a story.
* His mother sent us his contact e-mail and, oh by the way, mentioned he had a brain bleed. A BRAIN BLEED?!?!?! I didn't know what that was, so I asked: "Uh John, did you have something called a brain bleed?"
* He had some terrible health problems, but I didn't know what that had to do with the Steelers. He told me some neat little anecdotes about himself and the Steelers, but nothing fit together.
* News Flash: The Steelers didn't nurse him back to health. I really wanted that to happen so I could tie everything together into some nice little run-on sentences. I'm not proud about this fact, but I actually asked his wife if she thought the Steelers playoff run helped him -- at all, er maybe a little. (I had to ask right? And yeah, that was a stupid question. Her reaction let me know, even though she was nice about it.) The Steelers don't perform miracles. Now I know.
* So I'm sitting at my computer. I had nothing. Well I had a bunch of little stories, but nothing really ... WAIT A MINUTE! I had a bunch of little stories, er moments, yeah moments.

I thought using the moments in a quick-hit style might tie everything together. All I needed was a sentence or two at the top to let readers know where we were going.

2. I asked Jim what he wanted to accomplish by adding "for now" to "the story ends" near the end of the piece. The point being that he could have simply written, "the story ends" and moved on.
For now -- When I hung up the phone after interviewing John the first time I knew the story would end with the Super Bowl. It's current. It helps tie everything together. It explains about his improving health and it revolves around the Steelers.

I added "for now" because there was so much more I didn't add. I didn't talk about his first day back on the job. I didn't talk about how he's buying his wife tickets to go to the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, because her favorite Steeler is being inducted. It's a thank-you gift for her. I also thought I needed to add "for now" because he's relatively early in the recovery process. He's only completing half days at work. So I was sure there was going to be a lot more going on in his life in the coming weeks. But the big reason I added "for now" is because in the lede I talked about small moments. I sort of went over the top in explaining how the little stuff adds up to a big thing -- your life -- and how that's important. So I can't say the story ends, and the moments end, and the dude ends -- unless the guy dies. The article ends because it catches us up to date with John ... for now.

3. When I read the last line -- He returned to work the next day at FES Systems in Manchester, just another happy Steelers fan happy to survive a close call. -- I thought, that's a really cool way, almost a sideways way, to tie the subject's major health problem to the danger the military Steelers fans face every day. Turns out Jim was going for something else -- and probably better, more directly tied to the events in the story -- but he came up with something that works on several levels.

Close call -- Ha, ha! Totally didn't see that connection. But it does work that way. Wow.
I wanted the phrase to have more than one meaning, but not in terms of soldiers surviving the war. I wanted it to sound like he survived his health concerns. And he -- like other Steelers fans -- "survived" a close game. Over-the-top fans are the type of people who say "we" when talking about Steelers, and I just wanted to illustrate how John was up sweating with the rest of Pittsburgh when the Steelers -- I mean, "we" -- came back and won the game in the final minute.