At the end of a recent interview, my interviewee, a seasoned journalist himself, asserted that I’d forgotten to ask the most important question of all.
Never one to take criticism well, I eyed him skeptically, and replayed the last hour in my mind, guaranteeing that we’d touched on all of my article’s most important themes.
“You forgot to ask me if there was anything I’m still waiting to answer,” he said.
Surprised, I took his advice and we finished the interview. The article is now published with the answer to my unasked question featured prominently. The moment has attained a certain permanence in my psyche. What answers are poised on the lips of passerby? What questions am I forgetting to ask?
I have a screenshot on my desktop of a snippet of advice from NPR. Producer Lauren Migaki is quoted saying, “Think of everything as a possible story. As a journalist, you should pay close attention to the news…but also to conversations with friends, family and strangers. Pay attention to the things you see and hear on the street and on social media. Chances are, if something interests the people around you, other people will be interested too.”
The best stories sneak up on us.
If you walk the halls of YDS, you’ll learn that I have a reputation as quite a talker. Actually, forget the YDS part. Ask anyone in my life about my general habits and you’ll hear tales of me rushing up to them with exciting news or sending entire story arcs to them over text message. I love to learn things. And I love to share my findings.
The student council bulletin board on campus describes me as a “coffee-adled communicator.” Never are those words truer than in the course of an interview.
Often buzzing on a few cups of coffee, I am already brimming with questions by the time my subjects arrive. I interrogate their responses while they are in the middle of delivering them, and I interject my own reflections at random. I frantically type their smart quips or sentimental reflections, but rarely do I slow down enough to listen for what they are leaving unsaid.
I don’t mean to be overly modest. Yes, I am proud of my successes in capturing the spirit of the people I’ve interviewed. But I am also haunted by the stories I’ve left untold because of my obsession with drawing clear boundaries between my role as an interviewer and their own role as a respondent.
As a writer, I want to turn my attention to what remains after the formal questions are over, to the unexpected and beautiful messiness of a final moment of reflection.
The best stories sneak up on us, and I urge you to pay attention.