Friday, November 18, 2005

work update

At several points while I was working on my book I was overcome with doubt and anxiety. In fact, it happened again recently, as I was going over the copy-editor's comments on my manuscript. As I reread my own work I felt convinced that it was subpar and that it'll be a flop.

Fortunately it was just a bad day. I'm actually having a very good time rereading this work for the umpteenth time, and I think that's a good sign.

Lately I've been distressed about my next project. My idea is a book about a particular area of contemporary Christianity. The subject is rich, particularly from a historic perspective, and while there've been a number of books written about it, none that I've found really succeed at telling a good story. So I've been spending a lot of time lately at several churches in the area. And I've been vascilating wildly between confidence and uncertainty.

My main challenge has been figuring out where the story is. With the first book, I had a clear narrative structure: A debate season. And I lucked out when the team I was following finished tenth in the nation.

But with these churches there's not as clear a structure for a complete story. I'm sort of jumping into the life midstream and seeing where it'll take me. It's a lot like a ride-along with the cops, and I remember hearing a person say once at a journalism conference that these experiences rarely result in good stories because they don't offer clear beginnings, middles and ends.

For now, though, my spirits are up, and I'm feeling confident I'll find my hook. I have to keep reminding myself that this is a process. I'm just trying to make incremental progress, and I feel as though I'm succeeding.

At this point, I'm mostly just conducting in-depth interviews, and trying to find characters to focus on, and negotiating access. The interview process has been particularly fruitful. I'm using an interview technique I picked up at another journalism conference I attended years ago, from a lecture by Leon Dash. Dash won the Pulitzer for his work at the Washington Post investigating the root causes of poverty and teen pregnancy. To get to these deep underlying stories, he would conduct several series of very in-depth biographical interviews -- one of the subjects' family histories, another of school history, another on church and still another on the subjjects' social lives (their friendships and romantic relationships). All of these interviews begin with the subjects' earliest memories and progress very slowly from there. Each history is typically explored in several interviews, each lasting an hour to 90 minutes. These are all tape recorded and transcribed prior to the subsequent interviews.

He started doing this because when he sat down and tried to ask folks directly about things like teen pregnancy and poverty he would get canned answers that weren't particularly enlightening. But by facilitating an autobiographical discourse, he found that subjects would eventually get around to describing the deep underlying forces that drive their lives.

It's really hard work (especially the transcription part, which is maddening), but the results are remarkable. I conducted one on Wednesday night, and by the end of it I had gathered some fascinating information about the subject's spiritual life, which is one of the primary aims of my journalistic inquiry.

I'm starting to think I might be ready to start piecing together a proposal. I think I'll begin Thanksgiving weekend, right after I ship my manuscript back to the publisher for them to begin laying out in an actual book.

So exciting!

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