Interviewing, storytelling + enriching your personal narrative
hen I think about being a writer, two things come to mind. I think about sharing my story, which is bursting at the seams, ready to go out into the world. Then, I think about sharing other people’s stories. Although the first is a necessity — and a productive way to keep my mind sane! — the most beautiful part of my craft is discovering the stories in the people around me.
I remember the first person I ever interviewed. He was the owner of a sandwich shop in my college town, and I had convinced him to let me “shadow” him for a few days as I wrote about how his small business was weathering the recession. He had me flipping burgers, taking orders, and even cleaning tables — not exactly the most glamorous part of the gig! — but also opened up to me about his shop’s struggles and his dream of opening up a gourmet burger joint somewhere much warmer than Ohio. It was my first “undercover” assignment, but not my last. While in Roswell, NM, I worked three grueling 8-hour shifts as a jail guard, and reported on the dire conditions there for mentally ill inmates. I spoke firsthand with the warden, and the other staff, and was in awe of the stories and emotions they shared.
Since then, I’ve interviewed countless people. I’ve spoken with governors, public figures, and people who consider themselves “normal folks.” Through it all, I’ve found that the people out of the spotlight often have the most interesting stories to share. One of my favorite assignments as a reporter was a weekly feature on longtime community members. It was a story none of my fellow reporters wanted to tackle; it wasn’t “sexy,” and would never be front-page news. But I eagerly visited the homes of these community members every week, and spoke with them about their experiences. Nine times out of 10, once the story ran, my coworkers would be frustrated that they had passed up such a rich, deeply human story.
I’m amazed each day by how willing people are to open up to me with their stories. Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken at length with well-known surf artist Jay Alders, who shared with me the joys of welcoming his first child into the world. I’ve interviewed a budding motivational speaker, Realexis Castro, who described how his turbulent childhood helped him find opportunity even in dire situations. I’ve spoken with passionate CEOs, wellness practitioners, scientists and countless other people who have meaningful stories to share. Their narratives quickly become part of my own as they teach me about their areas of expertise and expand my understanding of what it is to be human.
I remember the first person I ever interviewed, just like I remember every other person along the way. It’s one of the most meaningful aspects of being a writer, and makes each day a learning experience. If you’re a wordsmith who hasn’t had the opportunity to interview people before, I hope you will do so soon. Writing may be introspective in nature, but the more you allow other people to inspire your work, the richer it will become.