“Long-Form Journalism with Anna Krien” Workshop (@FemWritersFest)

 

Image thanks to: Feminist Writers Festival

Thanks to the generous support of the Feminist Writers Festival (@FemWritersFest), I attended their workshop “Long-Form Journalism with Anna Krien” at the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre in Melbourne on May 17. Built in 1848, the building was the premises of the Queen Victoria Hospital, one of three hospitals in the world that were founded, managed and staffed by women. As I walked in, I wondered what extraordinary human stories this majestic structure had witnessed.

Image thanks to: Queen Victoria Women’s Centre

It turned out that Anne Krien was born in this building. I came to know about Krien through her Quarterly Essay: Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock (2017). It was only when I did my research that I realised her writing, such as Quarterly Essay: Us & Them: On the Importance of Animals (2012) and Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests (2012), has long been informing Australian readers about the impact of human life on our environment. Hence I am keen to read Krien’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport (2014) and the forthcoming Act of Grace (October 2019), where her journalistic gaze shifts to the impact of humanity’s dark sides on individual lives.

Krien began the workshop with the warning that journalists and long-form nonfiction writers need to be more critical about ourselves. Instead of relying on statistics and data, we need to talk to people “who don’t say who they are and just go on to [do things] for what they are”. Particularly when people feel powerless, they are inclined to support those who they perceive to be of their own kind. Whatever people want these individuals to do for them is beside the point. Rather, people want to be like these individuals and have whatever power and/or status they’ve got.

This is an important point because, as journalists and long-form nonfiction writers, we should never underestimate the effect we have on people when we talk to them. Conversation is a two-way street, and people respond in accordance with how we reach out to them. If we make an effort to know them with humility and curiosity, then we get to understand their stories and especially their identities. This is despite the fact that people go back to who they are once they’re out of our presence, in the same way that we do when we’re not asking questions and representing the voices of others.

Reading the best journalistic and long-form nonfictional voices out there helps us cultivate empathy. More importantly, not only can we learn invaluable skills such as fact-checking the so-called “reliable sources”, but we also get to constantly question our own assumptions and change our points of view. Krien suggested that, while reading, we should let the story tell us what it is that connects with us. In her words: “You’re doing a good job [reading] when you see most of your perspectives are challenged or changed.

Krien further advised that we should strive to keep in touch with people because they can be helpful/useful one day. In her words: “Stop thinking about friendship but connections”. It helps to talk to people of diverse backgrounds because they can give us fresh perspectives and answer our “dumb” questions. Particularly when we think something needs to be changed, it is crucial that we take time to talk to people and brainstorm.

More importantly, it helps to have connections because they can help us get past the facade or cut through the red tape maintained by institutions and their publicists. Indeed, those “at the bottom of the ladder” can be incredible sources because they are often less restricted by the system and have more to say about it. As for those “at the top”, it helps to remember that they are obliged to represent their organisations in the most positive ways possible. This allows us the benefit of the doubt, prompting us to explore for whom they are performing their stories and for what purposes.

Like the media, we live in our own “bubbles”. When a certain news story grabs our attention and/or makes our eyes light up, it is crucial that we make an effort to resist it, instead of becoming trapped by it. Think of who the media are NOT talking to. Think of why some stories get told and others are not. Think of what hides or is kept behind the story. Think of who the story is helping and how, as well as who it is hurting and why. Think of who has the loudest voice in the piece. Think of who does not want the story to be told.

Drawing from her own experience and insight, Krien urges us to always keep in mind the “ethics of telling”. Who will gain/benefit from the story we’re writing and who will be hurt/damaged by it? More importantly, what’s in the story for us? Is there real conflict or we’re just inventing one for the story’s sake? In other words, are we helping to create a conflict? Is the world going to be a better place because of our story?

Krien proceeded to talk about research, interview, writing and revision skills. To me, the most important lesson is NOT to assume anything – not about the people we talk to, and certainly not about their answers to our questions. The second lesson I learned is that the story is NOT in the media releases, PR kits, government statistics, public archives, or any sort of formal database. Instead: “The stories are on the ground and in the mouths of people who have nothing to gain,” Krien cautioned. “Keep reminding yourself that you DON’T know the story. You DON’T know how it’s going to end. You keep it open.”

Finally, I learned that, in interviews, it is necessary to observe how people do things and respond to their surroundings. In other words, interviews are not just a series of questions and answers. The people we talk to, are they different when they are doing their work and engaging others? Wherever the interviews are held, are these people comfortable there? Do they even feel entitled to being in that environment?

I feel both privileged and humbled that these words from Krien remain with me even today: “Know that people are opening themselves up to you. Show respect to that. Don’t leave them feeling lonelier than before. Don’t enforce the isolation they already feel.” In short, journalists and long-form nonfiction writers are storytellers. We need to be respectful toward the owners of the stories we tell – not only because these are never our stories, but also because it is these people and their voices, rather than our own, that deserve to be heard. This is despite the fact that these stories will be less known if not for our presence in them.

Anna Krien (5th from left) and workshop participants. Image thanks to: Feminist Writers Festival.

 

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