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Pen points

Let the characters tell their story and get out of the way

Many newspaper people tend to cringe a little bit at the idea of writing phenomena stories. You know the ones: psychic experiences, faith healing, extraterrestrials, Bigfoot. The unexplainable or the unproven. Whether you write for the New York Times or a small-town daily newspaper, you need to have a certain level of confidence in your skills to write stories like these.

I've written a few in my time and, inevitably, when I pitch the idea to my editor or publisher they get a look on their faces I can only describe as the look people get when they've eaten a bad clam. Give them a good sewer story or political cesspit any day, but don't make them deal with things that go bump in the night.

Look, I've interviewed Bishop Desmond Tutu. I've written more stories about U.S. Senators than I care to count. I've investigated government fraud. I've covered fires, rescues and violent crime. I know serious journalism. But I also like, from time to time, to write about oddities.

The first such story that comes to mind was about 18 years ago. A local woman called to tell me about this phenomenal piano player and classical composer out of Goldendale, who was performing locally from time to time.

I went to hear him play and she was right: phenomenal and powerful. His songs were like a thunderstorm put to music. But there was something else. This young man – he was about 18 at the time – had never had a lesson, never played a piano until a year, maybe two before that. He told me that's when he started having the dreams. In the dreams, a man he called “The Master” came to him and taught him how to compose and play. Just thinking about it now makes a shiver run up the backs of my arms.

Don't get me wrong. A journalist's job requires a healthy measure of skepticism. We are trained not to believe something just because someone tells us it's true. This fellow was telling me he was channeling a dead master composer from the 18th century.

I didn't know what to think. Family, friends and even some outsiders confirmed that the boy hadn't been classically trained. Nothing else could explain why he one day just woke up and started composing and playing these masterful works. And there was no way to further confirm anything about the story.

What to do?

For the first time, I realized the only thing you can do in that situation is get out of the way and let the characters tell the story. This young man, his friends and family, knew what they believed. I didn't know enough to believe or disbelieve anything other than that he had an amazing talent and skill, apparently recently and suddenly acquired.

The job of a journalist is to observe, listen, research and tell a story. Every story isn't etched in concrete. In fact, we – like most of the rest of the world – can't claim to know everything about anything. Ever.

Hidden motivations, missing facts, unknown circumstances, even the occasional lie make our world the imperfect place it is – and reporting on it a challenging and sometimes exciting experience. So even though these are the kinds of stories that make journalists a little squishy inside, I felt on firm enough ground to go with it.

The story captured people's imagination all around the country. The Oregonian ran it as a regional feature a few weeks later. Every week or two I would get a clipping from someone who knew me and had spotted the story in some newspaper elsewhere in the country. Even though it skated too close to National Enquirer territory for some editors' taste, I learned a surprising number of legitimate, dare I even say conventional, newspapers around the country had run it.

I've taken the lesson learned from that story to heart and shared it with many young reporters over the years. I tell them, don't tell people what to think. Tell people what you know, then let them decide.

Stories like the metaphysical composer and the Bigfoot story from this weekend draw their share of skeptics and true believers. My job as a journalist isn't to tell people which camp is correct. My job is to tell their stories and get out of the way.

Personally, I have never seen, heard, smelled or otherwise encountered Bigfoot, despite a number of years of past hiking and camping. But a lot of reasonably credible people I know claim to have spotted the big guy. That adds a little credence to the idea in my mind.

Also, I am reminded of a report last year that scientists had discovered, if memory serves, an extremely rare mountain fox not known to live in this part of the world. The fox appeared to have been here for some time, but scientists didn't recognize it. Who knows what else hides in the dense woodlands of the Pacific Northwest?

I also like to think of a world full of unidentified possibilities. And I think it's the height of arrogance to pretend that we know everything there is to know about the world around us. Science is revealing new information every day that once was hidden.

As a journalist, it's not up to me to tell you what's true and what isn't. It's up to me to give you information.

You decide.

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