This is the page for folks, including students in my classes, who want to know about my approach as a narrative journalist and about the theoretical inquiries in Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging.
I like the definition of narrative journalism that writers Mark Kramer and Wendy Call suggest in their preface to Telling True Stories. They say that such writing “mixes human content with academic theory and observed fact, allows specialized understanding of everyday events, and unscrambles and sorts the messages of a complex world.” Nick Lemann, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, puts it more simply: “The marriage of narrative and analysis is the fundamental project of journalism.” He adds that “nearly all journalism is a promise to explain the world via narrative.”
So that, I think, is the path of a narrative journalist — to weave stories about individual lives and specific contexts (such as the geography and culture those characters find themselves in) with important inquiry about matters that affect all of us.
Science journalist Alan Weisman, in his book Countdown, says of the role: “Journalists rarely claim depth in any field: our job is to seek people who dedicate their careers to study — or who actually live — whatever it is we’re investigating and to ask them enough common sense questions so the rest of us might understand.”
In Gay Seattle, I set out to collect stories of individual lives that had unfolded over a century and to construct not so much an epic of one person, but a saga of one generation passing its tasks of a civil rights struggle on to another. Too often, those of us who are LGBTQ are stripped of any sense of our “family history” — especially since few schools or museums bother to include those stories. But the book also includes a theoretical structure: an inquiry into the way different “discourses” — or types of conversations — have to be re-shaped so that LGBTQ citizens attain a public voice equal to that held by others. The book addresses eight such areas, some in depth, some briefly, depending upon which particular “discourses” captured the attention of the different generations.
Sometimes I metaphorically refer to these “discourses” as chess pieces to be moved if LGBT citizens are to secure a full public voice. You can see the “chessboard” here: “Chess” for LGBT Social Change
For an analytical paper about the Seattle case: Gaining an LGBT Voice in Seattle
As to how to best create narrative journalism, Annie Dillard had a good suggestion in her book, The Writing Life. She compared writing with fishing or mining or chiseling. “When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.” Pretty soon you figure out whether you’ve hit a dead end or are being pulled further. She also had a good technique for finding worthwhile ideas. “To find a honey tree, first catch a bee” — preferably one with its “legs heavy with pollen” so it would be headed home.
That’s exactly how most of the research for my writing begins. For Gay Seattle, my daily wanderings around my home on Capitol Hill provided the impetus. Whenever I’d walk by a lesbian/gay business — a bar, a bookstore, a sauna — I’d wonder how it had gotten to be where it was, especially since so many of those establishments in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to be juxtaposed to all the various Catholic schools, hospitals and churches that also sat atop “Catholic Hill.” I figured I could spend a few months finding out the story. Instead, I discovered very little had been written about Seattle’s gay/lesbian history and even less had stored in that honeycomb every writer loves to discover: a complete, well indexed library archive. Instead, it took about a decade to follow the bee from one flower to another.
All of us, like Odysseus, seek “home.” It’s a concept and a journey that has always been laden with challenges for us since we both enjoy and suffer migrations. It is an especially fascinating journey in these days of globalization and of “queering the discourse and the geographical spaces.” Gay Seattle is a study of how real people did that.
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