Notebook

 

Feeling motivated

 
 
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In October, I applied for and was selected to participate in the Out of Eden WalkNational Geographic Explorers Slow Journalism Workshop, and it’s been an intense and inspiring few days in Kolkata.

I’d heard about Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk project from its very beginning, when I was still studying in London. I remember telling friends then that that was my dream job and one friend, wisely, was like: “Really? Walking?” Okay, so maybe not walking exclusively, but immersing oneself out in the world. I’ve always thought I would like to spend at least two to five years living in a different country, and then move on for another two to five years, and then spend another two to five years somewhere else. I haven’t quite been doing that yet. But who knows? It may still be on the cards…

This is what the Out of Eden Walk is about:

Paul Salopek’s 21,000-mile odyssey is a decade-long experiment in slow journalism. Moving at the beat of his footsteps, Paul is walking the pathways of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age and made the Earth ours. Along the way he is covering the major stories of our time—from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival—by giving voice to the people who inhabit them every day.

Now, about six years into his project, Paul is in India. And this is the third slow journalism workshop he’s done here. I was one of the few journalists not from India. His mentorship—and that of other great writers and editors like Don Belt, Prem Panicker, and Arati Kumar-Rao—seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. For the most part, my knowledge on the craft of immersive writing and observation has been self-taught (BIG shoutout, however, to the former editors of the now-defunct The Malaysian Insider—Jahabar Sadiq and Leslie Lau—for schooling me in breaking news and shoe-leather reporting), and I wanted to see what gaps I needed to fill in order to get better.

In the end, all the four mentors were incredibly encouraging and approachable, and working alongside a group of like-minded fellow journalists was very reassuring. I think I’ll look back at this experience, albeit short, as having been defining in some way. For one, it’s definitely deepened my resolve to pursue the deep-dive stories I want to pursue in a world that revolves around blaring headlines and sound bites. Such a pursuit just feels more legitimate now, simply because these top-of-their-game storytellers are doing it. They’ve also been very encouraging about having us keep them in the loop with regards to our future work. There is so much to do going forward, and I’m excited to get to all of it.

In the meantime, I thought I would share some notes with fellow storytellers out there from the workshop—my own takeaways as well as paraphrased tips from the four mentors:

1. This is possibly the most relevant for me presently: Slow journalism is not inefficient journalism. Streamlining processes—like taking solid field notes so you don’t need to spend too much time transcribing after—matter. This workshop, though a slow journalism workshop, has showed me practically how much can be done towards a longform piece in even just two days on the ground, and that has been confidence-boosting. Slow journalism is not necessarily slow, but is perhaps more an immersive approach to reporting. It’s observing a place and its people deeply—if possible, over a period of time. To paraphrase: Fast journalism is about information; slow journalism is about meaning.

2. Don’t give the art of storytelling too much power. The word “story” is used too indiscriminately these days. Don’t make it too magical. It’s not mystical; it’s sweat and blood.

3. Make sure the connections you make in your story aren’t contrived. Readers are smart. They can see when you’re stretching it.

4. Besides just asking questions, set some time out just to sit and observe. How do your subjects interact with the world? How does the world treat them?

5. In finding stories, pay attention to what you find most compelling. When something moves you, there’s a good chance there’s something there.

6. There’s value in telling the stories of those who don’t make the news, of people who make societies work. If there are places that seem silent to you, it’s not because nothing’s happening. It’s because no one’s listening.

7. A professional journalist should practice military precision when it comes to submissions and deadlines and all that—as a fellow writer who used to be in the Indian Army showed all of us!

8. You can use literary techniques to tell stories truer than the news, all without making stuff up.

9. Don’t just report intellectually. Use all your senses. Inhabit the landscape with your body. What did the place feel like on your skin?

10. Allow for serendipity. Sometimes you can be so laser-focused on looking for what you’re looking for that you miss other things. Be alert to what’s happening in real time. Don’t think so much about the final destination.

11. A writer’s identity is inescapable while reporting. And every writer will come to a story differently. The best you can do is be honest about who you are.

12. When interviewing your subjects, let them dictate the energy. Let them lead you.

13. When someone needs to think about a question you ask them, that’s a good sign. Something that spills out of someone’s mouth may not be very valuable.

14. If you’re asking hard questions in an interview, do it in the middle. You want to end on a good note, so that it leaves the door open for you to come back to your subject.

15. Trace things back to their origins. People, too. Everyone has an origin story.

16. In your observations for a story, think about whether there are any quiet moments that say something about the human condition.

17. It might be useful to think about your editor as being blind. How do you tell a story to make them see? Don’t tell them it’s raining. Make them feel drenched.

18. There are some stories that you might choose to withhold—even if the story has the potential to change the world—because of the trust your subject has put in you. Basically, just be a decent human being. It may be that not all stories are yours to tell.

19. Write cinematically. There’s plenty to learn about good storytelling from the movies. Screenings during the workshop included scenes from Wong Kar Wai’s films and The Godfather.

20. Being a writer just means being someone who writes, writes, writes.

P.S. All applicants had to pitch a story and get it commissioned as a prerequisite to be considered for the workshop. The story I’m writing will be published in the Virginia Quarterly Review—so thanks to Paul Reyes, the magazine’s editor, for helping me to land a spot on this workshop.

 
 
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