How do you find stories in a city of eight million? Where the default safety feature is zero eye contact, and you’re more likely to hear a person talking to himself or yelling at someone to “back off” than you are to overhear a friendly conversation?
How — in this place — do you find someone willing to open up and share his story with a complete and total stranger so that stranger can turn around and share it with the world? Does it help to resemble a beagle, with big brown eyes and floppy ears, or will that just cause them to make things up, because an innocent person like you will believe anything?
Are they thirsty for human connection, or am I the only one?
Whenever I go to Manhattan, I stand or sit in public transportation for at least an hour and a half and barely say a word. Being quiet is normal for me: I’m only talkative with people I know or am trying to befriend, and then only sometimes. It’s not unusual (at least, it hasn’t been in the time I’ve been here) for me to go more than half a day without saying anything — because no one else is around. I’m in my room (or the kitchen or the bathroom) by myself.
But going for lengths of time without speaking when I’m surrounded by people? That’s a little strange. It’s like I’m an animal being herded here or there, only grunting when a neighboring cow knocks into me. No words, no laughs to lighten things up. Just grunting moos.
Only unlike cows, I’m faintly aware that literally every person I’m smushed against in the sardine can of a bus or train is living out a narrative all their own. Their lives are tracing the pattern of story — each pattern so unique that no other person in any of the City’s other sardine cans has a story anywhere close to theirs.
What these stories are, though, I can’t know, because to ask would be crossing an uncrossable line and the only accepted sound is a grunting moo to the sardine on your right.
But I’m a writer, a storyteller — I can’t spend four months in the same place as eight million people and never write a single true tale.
This week, the ache to tell someone’s story kicked in, and with it came a number of realizations.
- First, the excuses I make for not writing will cripple me as a professional writer.
- Second, my location provides enormous opportunities in terms of story-finding resources, professional mentors, and possible places of publication.
- Third, if I want to find stories, I have to go out and do something — go somewhere interesting and actually talk to people.
It’s not that I’d never thought any of these things before (let’s emphasize the “re” in “realization”), but in my third week of unemployed intern-ment, they hit me a bit harder — square between the eyes.
I’ve been applying to jobs-to-make-ends-meet almost constantly. Mostly food service jobs that will schedule me long hours, pay me decently, and send me to bed each night more than ready for my pillow. I’ve had a couple interviews — in person, over the phone — and I have another scheduled for next week, but nothing’s worked out, yet, so this week, with the ache to write growing stronger and stronger, I started thinking about freelance opportunities. (Something I should think about anyway, if I truly want to write for a living.)
But I don’t know this place — how can I find stories to pitch?
My mind started working, thinking back to my Echo editor experience, remembering how I found local stories, analyzing my tactics. My curiosity, I realized, worked in my favor. My curiosity and my boundless desire to learn — they were what allowed stories like “Dallas, the bull-riding cowboy”, “Bibles on the bar counter“, and “Flying free” to reach print.
Granted, I was also working with an incredible staff who never lacked feature ideas — “Gloves on, fists up” came via a tip from the News section editor — and writers who were willing to chase after my un-checked ideas (namely, Paula Weinman who, as a freshman, made cold calls, set up her own interviews, and pitched her own stories). But even with the help of Echo staff, the Features section would have been incredibly boring — had it not been for my over-involvement on campus, my radar for the unique, and my interest in just about everything: sports, fitness, art, airplanes, food.
“That’s what I have to do now,” I thought, the pieces connecting in this ball of spaghetti we like to call a brain. “I have to tap into my interests, channel my inner two-year-old and set out to explore . . . everything.”
Or (to give my mom peace of mind) choose a direction — topical, not cardinal — and go with it. See what I find. Stories don’t usually end up being what you anticipate pre-research anyway, and some of the best stories I’ve written started with feeling around in the dark. Exhibit A: “Gloves on, fists up“.
Topics I’m considering right now include parkour/free running, rock climbing, and graffiti. My current strategy is to find places where those things are semi-institutionalized (e.g. Bklyn Beast and Brooklyn Boulders) and use them as a starting point to gain contacts, learn about the topic, and get leads.
I’m up for additional topic suggestions, but I also need to be held accountable so why don’t we use the power of the Internet for both. Please fill out the form below to let me know by what day this week I should have investigated (in person) at least one topic and what topics you think I should consider pursuing. (Please take into consideration that my internship is all day Monday and Wednesday and I have a job interview on Tuesday.)
Bringing you up-to-date:
(This week seemed to revolve around food.)
Sunday, after church, I went with my housemate, Lili, to a mall in Flushing, Queens, where I applied to jobs and Lili explained everything in the Chinese supermarket.
Monday, in recognition of President’s Day and the United Charities building being closed, I worked from home for my internship. More arson research.
Tuesday, I worked on job applications basically all day (started looking into writing jobs, too), received a call from a Starbucks, and taught my housemate how to make pierogies, while making them myself for the first time.
Wednesday, I interviewed two arson experts, one interview lasting a full hour, the other thirty-five minutes. I got a lot of information, learned a ton and, as usual, stumbled upon something unrelated but interesting.
Thursday, I applied to a few more jobs, but was mostly a lump on a log until Lili came home and we made three loaves and two muffins-worth of banana bread. (I’m not huge on banana bread, but this stuff is awesome. Let me know if you want the recipe.)
Friday, I went job-hunting in two different malls, got side-tracked in Target’s book section (added these books to my reading list), went home, did a quick semi-workout, then hopped back on a bus to get to a train to get to church for youth group — which was interesting from the perspective of a 21-year-old college graduate. I also snapped this fuzzy photo of the Empire State Building from the aboveground subway station in Corona.
Saturday, I went to a lady’s fellowship at church (where Lili and I gave up some of our banana bread), came back to the house, did a full workout including running outside in shorts (in February!), and read all of this Greatist article. I also watched the following video of a human running a loop-the-loop — something I’d always thought was impossible.