This question constantly haunts my journalistic endeavors. As in, “Why did you go vegan for a month?” or, “Why are you sleeping in the park for a week?” I suppose I’ve gained notoriety at this newspaper (though it feels tremendously pompous to say so) for a sort of experiential journalism. In layman’s terms, that means that I’ve written a few lauded pieces more about experience than interviewed reportage. Immersion journalism is one name; I like to call it narcissistic journalism because I hate writing about myself.
Most recently, these efforts brought me to spending a week sleeping in a tent in Aldrich Park, unbeknownst to campus security, in order to get at what it means to feel truly connected to the campus. When I told people about my proposed endeavors, they almost all gave me the standard reply: “Oh, wow. That’s awesome. But why?”
In part, it’s a need to conquer the impossible. “Would I ever be able to be vegan for a month? Would I make it that long?” I asked myself these questions in my car, moments before deciding to start the column, “The Quinoa Chronicles,” for which I spent a month vegan.
“No, probably not,” I thought. And then I decided to do it, just to prove to myself that I could.
Much of my success boils down to a commitment to reporting. These challenges are personal, yes, but the writing cements my commitment. Just like the moment five minutes before a deadline forces our minds into an uber-creative panic mode, my adventurous instinct sits up when I commit myself to writing an article. Did I want to give up on the third night of the Aldrich Park article? Well of course I fucking did. I was miserable and I didn’t have a bed and I had to use public bathrooms for a week and I couldn’t really take a proper shower and I felt fucking dirty. But that would have killed the article, and I wasn’t about to lose face like that.
Somewhat to my dismay, some of my peers and professors have drawn comparison between my efforts and those of the immersive greats like Jon Krakauer. Not to curse their praise, because I really do appreciate it, but I am nowhere near as accomplished or as driven as guys like Krakauer. Will I be in the future, given the chance? Maybe someday, but I like to think my inspiration lies elsewhere.
There’s a segment of the movie “Waking Life” that I always refer back to as a personal credo. In it, Louis H. Mackey talks about the intellectual gap between the great thinkers like Plato and Nietzsche, the average human and the chimpanzee. He says that the gap between the great thinker and the average person is far less reachable than the one between the average and the chimpanzee. We are, he says, essentially only adding zeroes to the great sum of human achievement. The reason? It comes down to two basic but massive inhibitors: fear, and laziness.
So why do I do what do I do, and what keeps me so committed to these crazy projects? Simply an attempt to report without fear or laziness. I’m stupid enough to let a spark of an idea combust, curious enough to see how long it will burn, determined enough to get to the other side unscathed.
This is the advice I give, warranted or not, to the young would-be reporter (that is, anybody younger and less experienced than me): Don’t be afraid. Don’t be lazy. If you have an idea, follow it. Pitch it. Write. You might make yourself miserable, but what you gain is far better than a freelance fee.