I lucked into this.
My editor at The New York Times asked me, “Why don’t you look around for some quirky Midwestern stories?” I had never thought about it that way. But as soon as I did, I started seeing stories everywhere. The surfers who brave hypothermia and Lake Erie’s polluted water for a few good waves. The ninety-year-old women who decided to have bat mitzvahs after lifetimes spent nurturing others. The 17-year-old girl who races a jet-powered tractor that shoots flames 30 feet in the air (and who doesn’t have a driver’s license).
Some of these stories become serious. I laughed when I first heard about “Punk Muslims.” But as I reported the story for the Times, I met a generation of young people desperate to find ways of belonging to Muslim and American cultures even as they express their alienation from both. Others end up being funnier than I expect. A story about advances in cancer research led me to Butte, Montana, and the laboratory of Don and Andrea Stierle, a husband-and-wife team that manages to do great science in spartan conditions. I think their success comes partly from the goofy, compassionate humor they bring to their work. “In this test we’re just really knocking the snot out of ovarian cancer,” Andrea told me, standing in her lab wearing a t-shirt that read “I Dig Science!”
So here’s my litmus test for stories: Surprise me. Make me chuckle and snort and say “Nuh-UH!” Often this means that I write about people who have obsessions I find funny or captivating. There was the computer programmer who finally realized his dream of fame by taking pictures of himself getting squished by his own garage door. Or the scientist trying to build a perfect miniature Earth that holds hot magma, spins at 90 miles an hour, and weighs 30 tons.
It took me awhile to realize this is what I love to do. I got my first job in journalism a few years after college at the Mercer Island Reporter, a weekly community paper outside Seattle. The editor, Jane Meyer, told me I had “the least experience of any of the applicants.” She hired me anyway. I was doubly lucky, first to be employed, and second to have a boss as kind and smart as Jane. From there I worked at two daily papers, a monthly magazine and an alternative weekly; sold my motorcycle and lived for a year in Guatemala; graduated with honors from the Columbia University School of Journalism; and set up shop in Brooklyn (not exactly in that order).
Now I’m a freelance journalist. I work primarily for The New York Times and Time magazine, and I’m branching out into new magazines, literary journals, and someday soon, books. In addition to my own writing, I also help other journalists report their stories. My editors at Time and the Times say I have a knack for getting people to open up and talk honestly, even about touchy subjects like race relations or family finances. I still do quirky Midwestern stories, but lately I seem to be traveling a little farther afield. I’m currently reporting stories in Las Vegas and New Jersey, and those Alaskans sure have some crazy stuff going on.