Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, “The Questions” in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
Kathryn Streeter: I am a freelance writer but I best like to describe myself as a story-teller. I write stories—other people’s stories—for my local newspaper and magazines by first sharing a conversation with them and hearing them tell their story to me. I watch them, laugh with them, carefully noticing their expressions and gestures and anything else which helps me bring their story to life. What I have then is a pile of notes, more than I can use, and I feel my way into expressing the story on paper in an artful way which brings dignity and reality to the subject. Many of my themes are often quite ordinary, such as featuring a new small business in town, but I look for an interesting angle and hope that I make the community feel like they’ve just met a new friend.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
KS: First you have to have something to say, something which won’t leave you alone until you’ve put it down on paper. That’s how my first foray into print happened. I would say story ideas don’t happen in a vacuum, they arrive because of observation and experience. There’s also a sense that when you have something to give, something to offer, it shouldn’t be shut down. So at this point, I’m conscious of a God-given ability and that I’m living out my calling through my writing. In this sense, I didn’t find this work; it found me because it’s simply part of who I am.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
KS: My journey with writing has been groping and feeling my way, mostly, so it’s hard to point out bits of my life experience which have shaped this path. Surely all of who I am contributes to being able to eek out a great story, but it’s not insignificant that I’ve habitually written in a journal since I was first putting words together. Secondly, I fell in love with reading, as well, at a young age. I’ve always believed that reading and writing go together—that to write well, one must love books. Then there is travel and living in a great many places around the country and around the world. This is a huge influence because what is lived and digested is apt to crop up somehow, someway.
Beyond that, my foray into writing for newspapers was uncomfortable. My ‘creative nonfiction’ was getting ruthless editing to help me conform to mainstream reporter-style writing. I developed a real rash when it dawned on me that I could be referred to as a ‘reporter.’ However unfairly, the label ‘reporter’ came with certain baggage I wasn’t after, especially around the Washington, D.C. area. I was learning what types of stories attracted me, and conversely, what I didn’t want to write: that titillating ‘breaking news’ story which promises mega shock value and makes big headlines. But those early frustrating days helped tease out ‘my’ writing style, a style which led me into writing a column About Town in my local newspaper for a year, before taking on a role of weekly business/personalities profiling for the same paper, the Alexandria Times. So, the process was rewarding in that I discovered my style along the way. And, I feel that it’s no accident that stylistically my writing jives well with flushing out human interest, lifestyle pieces. The one goes with the other.
Comment: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
KS: Let others make your point for you. If I’m trying to drive home a point I find particularly unique or significant to a story plot, I’ll find the voice, the perfect quote, to deliver the message. I’ll ask myself, “Who would be likely to make this point?” A reader will be more receptive to the story angle if they aren’t feeling force-fed.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
KS: Everywhere I look I see stories—my struggling garden, children at play in our urban school playground, people I pass on the sidewalks, ‘for lease’ signage in our town, etc., so I’ll scribble a phrase, some words or a new theme to mull over in a little notebook I keep on hand. Then I create a file in my laptop and let the idea ripen until I’ve got the time to focus on preparing a query to ‘sell’ my idea to a certain market. The key is that I get it down fast, because sometimes I’ll have a story idea flash through my mind at the most inconvenient time. Not getting it down on paper makes me crazy later. The stories I write weekly for the local paper may also originate in this way; other times it’s the proverbial assignment from the editor.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
KS: Having young children puts strict routine in my day because I write while they are at school. I just sit down and get going, basing my work day to day on what I’ve set out to accomplish for the week. Because I juggle my duties as ‘home engineer’ (I heard this term and like it), I’m often interrupted with daily necessities, a reality I don’t mind at all because it’s a function of being a wife and a mom. My editor knows that after 2 pm when I switch gears to go pick up the kids, my mom hat is on, period. Oftentimes I’ll return to write during the evenings and over the weekend, so my work schedule is very unconventional.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
KS: I write on a Dell laptop at the kitchen table, our all-purpose family work centre. If I’m tired of the scenery at home, I’ll take off and walk to a nearby coffee-shop where I have easy access to another tool: coffee. I also lean heavily on a simple headset for talking on the phone (and typing simultaneously) and a small recorder for interviews.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
KS: I got especially caught up in a story of a local bartender who was celebrating twenty years at the same local pub, a favorite family destination. This bartender used his ever-growing popularity and influence to help serve the interests of numerous charity projects, especially a Christmas toy-drive. I heard from an array of his regulars from all walks of life that this particular bartender kept them coming back because he not only did his job well, he cared about them as people. I could tell he considered his work significant because he found himself serving a need in the community in his bartender/counselor/priest role behind the bar. His example of what can come from ‘bar talk’ was a great story to tell and it wound up published in Bartender Magazine as the Bartender-of-the-Month feature as well as in the local paper.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
KS: I have a weekly deadline for the local paper and then other personal writing deadlines. The former deadline is cut and dried and there’s no time for getting ‘inspired.’ Deadlines can be a good teacher because they require strict discipline. And, as a freelance writer a story idea is only going to get as far as I can sell it. I’m still learning how to do that part well! Really, over time I’ve shifted my thinking from ‘hobby’ to driving my writing like a business. That’s a difficult transition.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
KS: My writing revolves around this enchantment with people and places. I enjoy finding the ‘gift’—as I tell my interviewees—which connects a person or a particular place to the greater community, its home, its context. Then, I ask the question in reverse because I like to let the community know how they are showing support for the subject in question. I call this a draw-string effect, pulling together the community, reminding the community that we are after all not so very different, so very far-off from one another. Since I love people and enjoy conversation, the worst part for me is the business of note-taking because I’d rather get lost in the chat. It’s like going somewhere and forgetting to take pictures because you’re busy drinking up the experience. I do that a lot, too.