This is no. 51 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
“I was slow to realize that if we write what we know,” writes Margot Livesey in her book The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing, “research could help me know more.” I retweet this quote, but add the comment: “So can reporting.”
I never wanted to be a reporter or a journalist. The word journalist had always conjured the image of someone in black dress pants and sensible shoes. Journalists, if femme, definitely carry purses, and all of my purses are collecting massive cat-fur bunnies at the bottom of a closet that mostly houses an air conditioning duct. But there came a time when I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the hellmouth of the culture wars that were to become the forces that shaped the 2016 election opened, and all around me I saw things I could not explain—the Rolling Stone article about the University of Virginia’s culture of rape was released, then “debunked.” A Black UVA student leader was badly beaten and the campus was flooded, not with empathy, but with racist celebration. Two girls, one white and cis, the other Black and trans, went missing to vastly different results. The fiction I was working on began to seem limp and pointless in the face of such blatant evil and abject confusion. I began—as any good millennial might—on my phone. I Googled murder and why people do it, I Googled white supremacy and why people do it. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that the answers I sought weren’t there, not on that screen and not in that small enclosed car interior that held only me. They were somewhere else, with someone else.
This is what reporting means: You pick up the phone and dial a number and ask the person on the other side some questions and write down or record what they say. Or you get in a car and drive to where that person lives. They let you in and you look around at their house and taste what their water tastes like and then you ask them questions and write down or record what they say. That’s it. That’s the magic.
For it is magic. You ask the right person the right question at the right time, and they’ll tell you something that has never before been told in the history of the world. Where do we think the information on the internet comes from? At some point, some person who knew a true thing told that information to another person, and they wrote it down. Of course, many people may say many true things that contradict each other, but that is true too. You write down or record what they all say.
I am not sure why so many literary writers who otherwise enjoy making truth eschew reporting—so hard! So scary! And I could write a whole other screed on the dangers of what so many of us often do: link to a story that links to another story that links to another story the original basis of which is maybe untrue or maybe just a single source that nobody bothered to fact-check—but that is for another day. Suffice it to say, reporting has become a key tool in my nonfiction, not because I have any particular skill for the process, but because I don’t mind picking up the phone (Jewish upward mobility patterns) and seeing what happens. There is a particular joy in knowing you don’t know, in acknowledging that your imagination and experience do not contain what is necessary to say the truest possible thing. If you are not careful, reporting may, as it has for me, become a kind of addiction because once you start knowing what you don’t know, it is nearly impossible to stop.
Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts.Thumbnail: Sylvie Rosokoff