Monday, February 26, 2007

So You Want to Write Profiles?

So You Want to Write Profiles?

By Ruth Douillette, IWW Administrator

Writing profiles is right up my alley: I get to ask questions, lots and lots of questions. People share their lives with me, their triumphs mostly, but sometimes their tragedies. I listen, I commiserate, I comfort, and congratulate. Then I write. But first I remind myself of my mission.

If you want to write profiles, there is a point between your interview and your writing where you need to ask: what do I owe my readers? What do I owe my subject?

The answer for both is the same: the truth.

I had the privilege of interviewing a woman for a profile piece in the local paper. Anna. She's a hairdresser in a small two-chair shop she owns.

Born in Italy, she's retained a strong accent despite thirty years in the US. That day, while I waited for my turn, she cut the hair of an Italian man. She lapsed in and out of her native tongue so quickly that her words blended in a mixture I found hard to separate. When finished, she powdered his neck, brushed off the stray hairs, and then dispensed the hug she gives her male clients. They've come to expect it.

Then it was my turn for the chair. I watched her in the mirror as she kept track of what her newly hired hairdresser was doing. She watched, chatted, and answered the phone while she wielded her scissors to cut my hair expertly, if not a bit shorter than I wanted.

I returned later in the day when her appointments were done, with a coffee for each of us. We sat on a leather couch in a small alcove where late afternoon sun poked me in the eye. I chose to ignore it. Anna spent an hour telling the tale of her fifty years.

Now that I've heard it, it seems too personal for a column in a local paper. How can I write 1000 words that capture her pain and anger, and subsequent growth? How can I print a story that brought tears in the retelling? She offered the truth; I will be careful with it.

There are many ways to present the truth, and this is where you, as a writer, need to make a decision. Do you share a positive truth, one that highlights the strengths and positive attributes of your subject, ignoring the weak moments? Do you pick and choose from details that paint a darker view, still truthful, but less positive? Or do you mix and mingle both in an attempt to show the complexity of a life, both
good and bad?

The choice is ultimately yours. Only you have that story at your fingertips. You hold the power. Your pen is mighty. Write carefully about life you frame with your words. It was entrusted to you.

The Internet Writing Workshop has a nonfiction group for those
interested in writing profiles and other forms of nonfiction.


Carter said...

I must have written a hundred of those when I was a reporter back in Texas years ago. You have it right--it's a balancing act. Most satisfying when you think you got it right, but you can kick yourself when you see it in print and decide it doesn't say quite what you wanted it to. Good crits can make a huge difference.

shaye said...

Interesting, Ruth. This gave me some ideas for a longer piece I'd wondered how I might approach!


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