Telling people’s stories is rewarding work, but it’s also hard and messy. Our storytellers have a responsibility to represent another person’s narrative, emotions, and actions fairly and honestly in their work. By its very nature, this enterprise brings us into full contact with the most sensitive parts of our subjects’ lives. It makes what we do a tricky business and one where mistakes are easy to make.
But, the gospel frees us from the bondage of our sin and mistakes. Christians do not need to carry the guilt of our past errors as motivation to do better. We have the freedom to confess, repent, and move forward, knowing that the grace of God pays our debts. In this light, our mistakes and sins against others are not something to be ashamed of and hide. Instead, we can use these mistakes to learn about ourselves and how we are prone to sin.
In this post, I want to share two mistakes I’ve made and how learning from them is making me a better storyteller.
The Lost Interview
When I started writing for The Austin Stone Story Team about five years ago, I did not make the best use of the tools available to me. I had not done an interview since my college journalism days, and I was rusty. I was also cocky. On my third or fourth story, I thought I had this whole interviewing thing down, so I rolled into the interview with a notebook and started taking notes. It was a good interview with a lot of great comments from the subject. He was articulate and able to distill many parts of his story into great quotes. I took as many of them down in my notebook as I could, and knew it was going to be a great story.
A week later I sat down to write the story in order to make my deadline, and I couldn’t find the notebook. I was incredibly irresponsible with the results of that interview. I looked everywhere and never found it. I lost the notebook.
With no notebook and no recording, I was sunk. I finished the story from memory, without a single quote that I could reliably remember. It was not a very compelling or interesting story. It did not do justice to the great story my subject had told me the week before. I was disappointed in myself, and I knew I’d let a bunch of people down because I did not take the responsibilities of the work seriously enough.
When we do an interview, the subject literally trusts us with their memories, hopes, and fears. We must take care of their memories and make sure that they are stewarded well in the final version of the story. I didn’t do that in this case.
The Missed Deadline
As a writer for Story Team I was pretty good with my deadlines. I wasn’t perfect, but I rarely blew a deadline completely. That is, until I moved into a leadership position.
After several years of writing for the team, Steven Bush asked me and my wife to lead our writers. We were thrilled to be asked, and we loved the work. We really, really enjoyed our first year leading the team. But after that first year, I also missed doing assignments. I’d stopped taking story assignments to focus on my duties as team leader and wanted to get back into it. So when a promising story came up and we didn’t have a writer available, I volunteered to do the story.
I had a great interview, and it was a wonderful story of redemption. I went home and drafted an outline of the story, and then closed the document to get away from it for a few days. I didn’t open that outline back up for almost six months.
There are plenty of excuses—busy work schedule, major life issues, and more—but in six months I had the time, I just never prioritized it. This hurt our production schedule, as we had to fill the hole that story left. It also hurt my credibility as team leader. After about six months I finished the story and we published it. I think it ended up being a pretty good piece of work, but I will also remember it as the story that was six months late.
Yes, there is grace for our mistakes, but consequences still stand. Our team is full of grace, and no one holds it over my head. But I do consider it my biggest mistake during my time on Story Team. When someone misses a deadline like I did in this case, it throws everything off. Team members wait on the work, the schedule is affected, and people lose trust that you will hit deadlines in the future.
Both of these mistakes represent a common temptation and an easy failure for storytellers. It is so easy for us to trivialize the work. It’s easy to lose a notebook, not back up your files, or not take an interview seriously. It’s easy to rationalize away why you couldn’t get to the story last weekend. But the truth is that these are huge errors and sins against our fellow team members and the story subjects.
As storytellers, we must treat our interviews, notes, and deadlines with the importance and respect they deserve. These are not just stories; they are people’s stories. They are stories of gospel change in the lives of real people. They are evidence of the gospel. And they deserve more effort and attention than we sometimes give them.