Wonder how we gather stories


Kemal Kurspahic, running the Bosnian daily newspaper Oslobodenje during the siege of Sarajevo, fills me with awe. I can't imagine having to fight to write about events on the streets of my city. I can't imagine my newsroom forced to move into a basement shelter.

Hilary Greene gathering a calendar of events in St. Petersburg, translating from Russian to English for American visitors, fills me with curiosity. What would it have been like to do what I do now on the streets of St. Petersburg in 1991 -- to talk to the women selling their homemade pastries, waiting in line for rationed food, hoping for new jobs?

As the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers brings voices like Helen Benedict's to speak to us, and journalists' voices come into the magazine this week, I am reminded how much I have to learn.

Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia, won the Ida B. Wells award for bravery in journalism in 2013 for uncovering the extent of sexual abuse of women in the U.S. military during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

She spoke Friday night at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts. (For more about this, see the blog.) I came away humbled by her courage, and I think her students are a lucky goup -- listening to this panel for half an hour is already making me think about how to get more depth into my own writing.

As a journalist, I don't often get to sit back and think about what I do. I'm more likely to be reading Agha Shahid Ali's poetry to prepare for an interview at Mass MoCA, or talking with Susan Rose about the writing of "Motherhood Out Loud." In one way I am always asking myself how I can do this job better, but in another, I'm always in motion. I'm interviewing today for a story I'll write tomorrow, and time is limited.

Stories are not limited. I have sometimes talked with people who assumed that my section grew smaller in the winter because "there's less going on," so let me answer briefly: The length of this magazine is determined by advertising -- the more ads, the more pages. I could fill a 32-page magazine in the dead of winter easily. Generating ideas is part of the fun.

We get ideas from reading bulletin boards, hanging out at open mics, walking on icy trails, returning a library book the day the library has turned itself into a green market.

But this week's stories are reminding me that the stories only begin in places like that.

Writing about arts and community means more than alerting people to events, and thinking about the events and the people who made them and the power of the art, music, drama, nebula visible through the telescope.

Witing about the arts is writing about people, and there are no limits to the depths or the excitement or the pain in that.

And we get to find them.

Kurspahic's strength, and Benedict's breadth of knowledge, and Greene's daily efforts to make life run more smoothly and fully for the people who have made long journeys to live here, remind me that having limited time doesn't matter: Using it well does.


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