October 19th, 2006

What Not to Say to a Freelancer

In the course of my freelance work, I have a lot of interesting conversations. I hear a lot of interesting stories. And I gather a lot of interesting information that I would have preferred to leave ungathered.


I’m not talking about tough assignments, like interviewing the parents of a mentally ill man about how they found him after he went off his meds and ran away, or interviewing the mother of a terminally ill girl about a fundraiser to benefit research into the girl’s disorder, or interviewing a convicted rapist about his experiences in prison. On stories like that, I almost always learn things that linger unhappily in my brain—but that’s the nature of the story.


I’m talking about people who just blurt. Examples? Heck, yeah, I’ve got examples.


  • Once I was sent out on a story about a married couple who’d overcome their fertility struggle and were now the exhausted parents of twins. I’m not necessarily the best writer for this kind of thing, because I actually have issues with asking questions like, “So… what’s the deal with your fertility problem, anyway?” (Okay, this may come as a surprise to some people who actually know me, since lately I have been asking ever so many questions that normal people would not, normally, ask. But that’s real life, and people I actually know, as opposed to work, and people I’ve only just met. Yeah, yeah, that’s it.) Fortunately (!) for me, the mother had absolutely no problem detailing their fertility problems. And the ways they tried to remedy them. And I do mean “detailed.” 

  • So for that story, I was not overly surprised to discover myself discussing a man’s sexual challenges with his wife. It kinda fit the parameters of the story. (Only kinda.) But there have been other times—oh, so many other times—when people have decided to detail fertility/ sexual/ infidelity challenges they’ve faced, and the story was actually about, say, the history of the family lemon grove. (What exactly is it about me that makes people think, “Oo! Confession time!”)


  • Sometimes people tell me backstory because I asked the right questions—but then they say, “But don’t put that in there!” That’s always fun. One time I interviewed a sculptor about a piece she’d created for a local organization. It was very appealing, but she was obviously not excited about it. Turns out she’d designed a striking original piece for the organization, and the board decided no, they actually preferred a replica of another artist’s work. So that’s what she created. (“But don’t put that in there,” she said with a sigh.)


  • Once I was denied an interview in a similar way. I was on an awful assignment where I had to approach people at a restaurant, ask them what they were conversing about, and then write a story about all the different conversations. A group of people declined to speak with me because their boss didn’t know they were all out together, and they didn’t want him to know. (I wish I knew how the coup turned out!) So I got some juice—but I couldn’t put it in the story.


  • I also get a lot of spiritual revelations. Like the woman who started a church—sort of—with her soulmate. (She called him that more than once, yet it was unclear whether they were actually a “couple,” if you know what I mean. Again, being the not-as-nosy-as-I-should-be “reporter,” I didn’t request clarification on that front. And I totally should have, since here I am, nearly two years later, still wondering.) Anyway, the church—which was actually based in a house—had a very unusual name. Which the house had revealed to the woman when she first walked inside it. (As you can imagine, right about the time she revealed that, I started wishing super fervently that we had not arranged to conduct the interview in the talking house.)


  • Oh, this was a really good one. I interviewed three adorable sisters about their participation in an interesting summer theater program. When I talked with their mom afterward, she said, “I just don’t understand why anyone would want to interview them.” (Can you imagine a mother saying that about her own kids?? And if you had heard the tone of voice in which she said it!)


And now for my current favorite, and the inspiration for this post in the first place:

  • This week I asked a businesswoman who sells her products on eBay if she constantly checks the status of her auctions, or if she doesn’t have time for such silliness. Her reply: “I’m obsessive. Like, you remember in high school hearing about that rat with the cocaine? He could push a button and either get food or cocaine—and if he chose the cocaine, he couldn't have the food, and if he chose the food, he couldn’t have the cocaine. And he would always choose the cocaine, basically until he died. I’m like that rat.” (I don’t remember ever hearing about this rat. Do you?)

I was laughing so hard (yes, I am extremely professional) that I could barely reply: “So you’re a coke-addicted rat?”


And that’s when I heard those magic words: “Please don’t put that in there.” 

The moral of this blog? If you don’t want it in the story, DON’T TELL IT TO THE REPORTER. Just a friendly tip from me to you.