The Art of Being There
The first time I heard about this story, I wanted to help tell it. A successful entrepreneur in Portland, Oregon, chooses to use his money and time for something other than improving his golf handicap or collecting vacation tan lines. Through his non-profit (Friends Of The Children) Duncan Campbell helps the hardest-to-reach, the most-at-risk, the heading-straight-to-jail-unless-something-incredible-happens children in America.
I knew that many of the ways I’d written before wouldn’t work with this book. Instead of being a single story told from a single perspective, Duncan’s story isn’t only about Duncan, but the hundreds of kids whose lives have been transformed through his work. It was a challenge to weave more than forty different people’s stories into a single, coherent and compelling narrative.
There were other challenges too. First person was out, as well as the chance of driving the book towards a clear, neat ending – for even though the work of Friends Of The Children is well into its second decade, it’s really only beginning. Oh, and mid-way through the research trip in Portland, another revelation: there was a whole other slice of the story over in Harlem, NY that needed to be told.
“When you’re talking with authors about new book ideas, keep your hands open,” says my Agent, Don. “Don’t grab so tight onto things. They’ll happen if they’re meant to.”
The Art Of Being There taught me that keeping my hands open doesn’t just work for those early conversations about possible projects. It’s sound advice for every step of each book's journey.
’Til We Meet Again
It’s no small thing to be trusted to tell someone’s story, and I’m always aware of the sense of responsibility when I write. But with Ray and Betty’s story that weight seemed even heavier.
They’re in their nineties and are, without doubt, the nicest two people currently alive on this planet. I’ve not met a single soul who has spent five minutes with them and who does not smile and sigh when their names are mentioned.
So how do you take someone like that back to a trauma seventy years in the past without causing pain in the present?
At some point, it became clear that all I had to do was take their lead. So we talked in random bursts over early lunches. We followed a conversation that trailed and backtracked like no other series of interviews I’d ever done before. And when the words stopped flowing for a while, we'd sit and listen to the silence.
It reminded me that the first step to writing someone’s story is learning how to really listen to them tell it.
Row For Freedom
And this was when I first realized that I was in a new phase as a writer. I’d started out as a hack who cranked out anything for anyone as quick as possible. After that I tried being the kind of author who was both brilliant and impressive and creative and original. The first phase ended when I got weary. The second never really began and I quickly realized that I wasn’t anywhere near as good as I thought I was.
Then came a dose of real life; grief and sorrow and pain. I suppose I had a little growing up to do, and going through the hard seasons of life made it possible for me to understand a little more what was going on in others.
Once that process had begun, Julia’s was one of the first books I wrote. It's a book about big dreams, deep pain and growing up.
Julia's courage and love of risk inspired me, but the book also taught me a lot as a writer. I learned some basic lessons, made some basic mistakes and was reminded of a basic truth: that money and affirmation are both lousy reasons to write. I’m not here to be like an architect, the kind of writer who creates things that impress people. Instead I’m an archaeologist; the kind of writer whose job it is to soak up great stories that have already been lived out, and then simply help to pass them on.