End in Sight

Posted by Michael on January 10, 2013

By Rachel Zurer
Family holiday lunch was down to smears on plates, and the conversation turned to my cousin's freelance film production business. "A billionaire flew me to New York to discuss a potential project," he said. "But I'm not sure I'm going to take it." 
He explained the problem, leaning back in his chair as the rest of us leaned in across the table. While the assignment would be to make a documentary, the producers had a goal that precluded true, open-ended exploration: They wanted the film to improve young Americans' perceptions of a particular foreign country.
The complications of that mission became clearer the more my family talked.  "The best two stories we know of so far are out," explained my cousin. "In the first, the link to the country has deteriorated. The other's hero is an old guy with a thick accent--not exactly about to go viral." The sexy, young characters he had found weren't doing compelling enough work. Plus, someone pointed out, was a full-length, under-the-radar movie really the right medium for changing hipster opinion?
The debate swirled as my mom slid cake onto dessert plates: Would taking the job be setting my cousin up for months of frustration? Or could he guide the billionaire's visions and expectations into a workable plan?
I'm the youngest of my cousins, and even now, at 30, I'm still often shy around this branch of my family. So I was pleased to realize I had much to say about the conundrum. My cousin's problem felt familiar--familiar from my experience as a fellow in the first round of To Think, To Write, To Publish
I'm a writer, though I haven't written much lately except as part of my job as an editor at BACKPACKER magazine, where I produce stuff like instructions on where to go hiking in Ohio in December. But I have an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College, meaning I've tried to soak in a lot of good advice about the genre: Let the story emerge. You can have an idea of what you want to say going in, but it'll change. Be open-minded.
But how does that work when a major goal of a piece is to make a policy argument? That's exactly what my scholar partner, Gwen Ottinger, and I struggled with during TTTWTP 1.0. For her, the chance to publish in Issues in Science and Technology meant a chance to bend the ears of people who could really effect a certain kind of change. She couldn't let that escape; she had a point to make. And I wanted to helped her make it: Why else was I working with an academic if not to ride the coattails of her thoughtful ideas and convictions? 
But if you know what you want to say ahead of time, if policy or PR message comes before story, then you narrow your pool of scenes and characters and risk crippling your plot engine, risk never snaring your audience at all.
After several false starts, Gwen and my solution was to tell the story of how Gwen herself came to understand the policy argument she wanted to make. As part of her academic research, she had done exactly what my teachers advised reporters to do: She'd gone in with an open mind and drawn her conclusions from the reality of what she saw. We took our readers through a few key moments of her process, and were thus able to both tell a story AND make a case.
It was time to let the project go, and we'd learned oodles, so off to the presses it went, flaws and all. But I know neither of us was completely satisfied. What would it take to truly meld the best of creative nonfiction with the work of these scholars? 
One question we need to be asking is: Which pieces of each discipline should we bring with us into the collaboration, and which are best left behind? Lee Gutkind has made clear that he believes SCENES are the nonfiction side's most valuable contribution. (That's debatable, but this post is already too long--another day.) Is policy argument the best thing we can get from a policy scholar? Or is the constraint of predetermined message too rigid? Is there a better piece to adopt?
That's exactly what the current round of fellows is wrestling with as they draft their pieces (first eadline: January 11!). It'll likely be months, even years before we have our clear answer. But we've got 12 groups trying; I have no doubt we'll learn some new techniques.
As for my cousin, he still hasn't decided. I think he should say no. He's leaning towards yes. "It would be pretty cool to work with a billionaire," he pointed out. "You never know where that could lead next."