Saturday, November 16, 2013

What It Means to Tell the Truth

When I was little, I was very insistent about the fact that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up—but not a journalist. An author, yes; a novelist, yes. As the fiercely independent daughter of a longtime newspaper editor, I wanted to follow my own dream, not just in his footsteps.

When I took a journalism class my freshman year in high school, I was turned off by all of its rules, the legality of it, and what I perceived to be the utter squashing of creativity. After a year writing journalism-style pieces for my high school's yearbook, I quit yearbook staff to help cull art and poetry for the literary magazine instead.

I spent my college years writing poetry and short stories, wrangling the nuances of the English language, honing the craft of storytelling. To my surprise, though, of all the writing workshops I took, my 300-level creative nonfiction workshop was my favorite. Family and friends asked me, But, what IS creative nonfiction? Isn't that an oxymoron? Or, Isn't that just journalism?

Well, for me, no. When I was 19, "creative nonfiction" was really just a glorified term for "writing therapy." In other words, I wrote a lot of either (1) angsty, teen memoir-style babble, or (2) David Sedaris-esque attempts to poke fun at my own experiences, my relationships, my family. Not that anything was wrong with those approaches; I was, after all, just writing what I knew at the time. I got plenty of practice fine-tuning my wordsmithing abilities through those writing projects. Above all, writing about my own experiences instead of others' seemed a good way to avoid becoming a journalist.

Fast forward to the past year of my life, during which I've found the books that most capture my attention are not the novels I used to so love, but rather, investigative nonfiction stories like Tom Kizzia's 'Pilgrim's Wilderness,' Nicholas Kristof's 'Half the Sky,' Laura Hillenbrand's 'Unbroken.' And, due to the nature of at least some of the writing projects I've tackled in my professional life, it seems that I have become a journalist after all.

In August, I ran the historic Leadville Trail 100 race, in anticipation of writing an upcoming feature story on it for Trail Runner. Aside from sharing a few anecdotes from my own experience, though, I am not all that interested in telling my own same-old, same-old ultramarathon narrative (i.e. I ran for a long time! It hurt a lot! I fell apart at mile 75 and thought I'd never make it to the finish line, but with the support of my amazing pacer and crew, I did!)

Rather, I am compelled to (attempt to) tell a much bigger, far-reaching story about Leadville, its history and what happened at this year's race—a situation that has already sparked widespread controversy throughout the blogosphere and injected some real ugliness in the greater trail-running community. I'm not interested in joining the personal jabs back and forth; what I want to do is uncover the truth.

But, what I've been reminded of over the past few months is that "the truth" is more subjective than we often think. I recently finished reading two very different feminist books. One is Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead"—essentially, a treatise encouraging women to "lean in" to their careers, combat lingering sexism in the workplace and ascend to more leadership positions in their companies. Sandberg interviews many highly educated, upper-middle-class women who've managed to balance full-time jobs with motherhood, and derive deep satisfaction from such.

The other book I just finished reading is Harvard graduate and writer Emily Matchar's "Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity"—which examines the opposite phenomenon among the same (perhaps slightly younger) demographic: highly educated, upper-middle-class women who've decided to "opt out" of the full-time, working world in exchange for pursuing a simpler, more DIY life at home. The Etsy generation, the urban homesteaders, the corporate-dropout-turned-organic-farmers, the lifestyle bloggers.

Both books were terrific, thought-provoking reads, full of women speaking their own personal truths. For many of those interviewed by Sandberg, their truth is, "Women are better off having rewarding careers outside of the home." For many of those interviewed by Matchar, their truth is, "Women are better off stepping outside the traditional full-time work paradigm." Is one more right than the other?

Interestingly, both books arrived at pretty much the same conclusion: Women should do whatever the hell they want with their lives. More specifically, women should not fall prey to societal expectations, whatever they may be, and instead heed their own intuition and pursue their personal dreams with rigor. Although both authors, Sandberg and Matchar, interspersed their books with their own personal experiences, I appreciated that neither presumed to know "the truth" about what's best for women. Rather, they allowed the stories and ideas of the women they interviewed to be heard. They listened.

For my Leadville article, I interviewed runners who loved this year's race, and I interviewed those who said it was the worst race of their life. I interviewed Leadville locals who think the race is the best thing that's ever happened to the town, and I interviewed those who feel it's a monster. Certainly, after running it this year, I had my own thoughts about Leadville, some of which I do express in my article—but thanks to invaluable input from my editor, I did my best to let those take a backseat to the diverse voices of those I interviewed.

As a journalist, you have incredible (terrifying) power in your hands to pick and choose the words, the quotes, the details you include, or exclude, in your story. It's all too easy to editorialize, to let your own biases creep in. When I was 19, I was interviewed by a newspaper journalist about hurricane relief work I'd done in New Orleans; her questions to me were deeply biased, interrogating, from the moment we got on the phone. I felt disappointed that my words were ultimately twisted to fit her agenda—a chastisement of young people traveling to volunteer, thereby abandoning needs in their home communities. It was a valuable idea worth exploring, but the fact that she approached our interview (and eventually, her readers) with the mentality of a prosecutor rather than a listener, seemed a reckless use of her power as a journalist.

In the age of instant Facebook and Twitter status updates, of blogs and comment threads that rapidly devolve from productive dialogues into personal attacks, we're all the more accustomed to flash-broadcasting our opinions in lieu of being patient enough to ask questions, to complicate our understanding by seeking out opposing ideas. Social media and the kind of inflammatory headlines that sites like Gawker and Jezebel thrive on encourage us all to react before anything else; we already have an opinion, a sense of outrage, before we've even read the article. Confirmation bias is rampant. Is listening to one another—particularly those we don't already agree with—becoming a lost art?

Taking the time to explore contradictions in what "the truth" is, rather than shuttling readers high-speed toward an uncomplicated conclusion, is at the heart of all good journalism. I wouldn't proclaim to be anywhere near mastering this yet, but it's a principle I'm grateful to be working on every day.


  1. yitka - excellent piece. so perfectly written and a slam dunk of a point - very relevant to me. appreciate you taking the time to think through the Leadville piece even more and admire you so....

    1. Hi Jenn,
      Thanks :) Glad to hear that it resonated. I miss having long-winded conversations with you about topics like these over long runs on Tiger!

  2. this is great!! i so appreciate your thoughtful nature. looking forward to your piece! :)

    1. Thank you, Erin! I welcome your thoughts on it, once you've had a chance to read the story :)

      Hope all's well with you.

  3. Great blog, Yitka. I like the discussion of creative nonfiction, which is particularly relevant to stories about running races and endeavors that are really more about how they impact life beyond running. Keep it rolling!

    1. Thank you, Travis! I appreciate your feedback. It was great to talk with you about Leadville and get your perspective; thanks for taking the time. And ... congrats again on all your amazing race performances this year! You rock.