If you're serious about your work as a journalist, and
ambitious as a writer, you're going to feel pain along the way.
I've been a nationally-ranked saber fencer - a ferocious sport I
took up in my mid-30s with a two-time Olympian as my coach - and it proved
the best possible training for this business.
Why is being hit repeatedly with a sharp, pointed blade
great prep for getting your prose into print? Because so many of the
skills are the same: speed, dexterity, flexibility, anticipating your
opponent's moves and parrying them.
And working through emotional discomfort and even pain.
While it doesn't leave a bruise, it's annoying as hell to
wake up and find The New York Times has gotten to the same story I'm
working on when I'm writing for the Sunday paper. Yes, I can better them
and I have to. The same resilience and aggressiveness that allowed me to
fight my way through direct elimination trials also helps me beat the
most ferocious and experienced of journalistic competitors.
Stories written on staff do get cut or spiked. Stories
written freelance also get killed.
It hurts. Even when you know they're right, it hurts. It's annoying
to work long and hard, especially with a sense of excitement and purpose,
interviewing many people who grow excited about the story as well, and
never have it see the light of day. Not only do you have to manage your
own disappointment and your feelings about your editor's judgement, you
may have to explain to your sources what happened in a
But there's another type of pain, and it's far more than the
skin-deep drama of a wounded ego. I'm talking about people who've lost loved ones
to murder or illness or accident or war or suicide, when it's your job
to call them and talk to them. One long-term colleague shrugs and steels
himself against others' hurt. Like some contagious illness, emotional
trauma can, and does, affect the listener - you.
How do you calibrate compassion? I keep a box of Kleenex on my
desk. I need it when I'm interviewing someone by phone who starts to cry, as
they often do, even those willing to talk to me. I find this sort of
reporting heartbreaking, yet it's also my job to keep asking questions
and to keep taking notes. I have to ask the details that will make my
story accurate and compelling while beating my competitors.
I simply can't afford the luxury of feeling too much pain,
mid-story or later. Yet if I feel too little, I think it's time to hang up the
headset. People can tell if you care, and they can tell if you don't.
Journalists thrust repeatedly into others' pain and trauma find
themselves very seriously affected by it even though many of them don't
know what it is. It might manifest as insomnia or nightmares or
depression. They can suffer "secondary trauma" and it happens to anyone -
broadcast, print, Web - who spends much time thinking about violent or
graphic material. If you don't toughen into some Teflon robot (my
personal fear), you'll absorb the primary trauma you're being paid to
witness and chronicle.
And newsrooms aren't known for institutional compassion, so it
helps me to know that others face it and how they cope. One author said he was so
debilitated after writing a passage about wartime atrocities that he
simply had to go lie down for a few hours.
Journalists drawn to this important work must - just as welders
wear goggles and dental hygienists leave the room when they Xray your teeth
-- protect their psyches. Talking to a therapist, a minister or rabbi, a
good friend (but only those who can handle what you share) can all help
you off-load some of the horror. The Dart Center, dartcenter.org, is an
excellent resource designed especially for journalists facing pain,
theirs and others.
If you cover news and if you stay in the game for a decade or
several, emotional pain will come with the job.
Don't run from it, but don't let it run you.