A editor who knew me well once told me I was a good writer, but when I was passionate I was capable of being a great writer.
Maybe I need more passion in my life.
I am not heroic. I don’t think I’m particularly brave. However, I do have a finely tuned sense of injustice and it was kicked into high gear last August when I learned about the story of LaVena Johnson and the strange, sordid way she died in Iraq.
This is what arouses my passions. Young women aren’t supposed to die violent, ugly deaths under strange circumstances and nobody but the family and a handful of supporters give a damn.
Writing about LaVena Johnson on my blog wasn’t enough. I wanted to tell her story and that of her family to a wider audience. I pitched the story to the editor of The Root, a publication I’d written for previously. The editor said she was interested and urged me to pursue the story.
Which is exactly what I did. I contacted and conducted interviews with Colonel Ann Wright, a retired officer who has written extensively and authoritatively about sexual assault and violence against women in the military. I spoke with Philip Barron, a librarian in St. Louis who created the LaVena Johnson website that is part memorial and part clearinghouse for news and information about LaVena’s life and death.
I tracked down the former producer at CBS News who had worked on a story about LaVena, but ended up changing his mind. Most importantly, I spoke with LaVena’s father, John Johnson. Mr. Johnson was very gracious and forthcoming. He has no doubt that his daughter was a victim of foul play despite the insistence of the Army that she committed suicide.
I have notes. I have tapes. I have more than enough to put together a thorough and informative story.
For some reason I’ve been frozen in place. The temptation is to chalk it up to a particularly bad, and inopportune bout of “writer’s block.” But that’s not it. I know when I’m blocked. This is different.
After several false starts and a lot of time spent staring blankly at a computer that is staring blankly back at me, I had to own up to why I couldn’t push through to finish the story.
I was depressed. Depressed like I’ve been only a few times in my life. And more than just depressed, I was intimidated.
Like LaVena I enlisted in the military. Unlike her, I did not serve during wartime. Viet Nam was winding down when I joined the Air Force. But even a soldier that never hears a weapon fired in anger is aware that at any time they may be called upon to go off to fight and possibly die. It’s one of the unfortunate things about joining a all-volunteer military.
I want to do right by the Johnson family. I want this story not just to be told, but for it to actually matter. I’ve written thousands of stories over the 16 years I’ve been a journalist. I can count on both hands how many of them I thought really meant something. That doesn’t mean most of what I’ve written is garbage. I know when I put my heart and soul and talent into it, I can write and actually write well.
But I’m trying to not just tell a story about LaVena Johnson. I’m trying to find some small measure of justice for her as well, and that is a objective that is as elusive as it is ambitious.
Writing, it is said, comes harder to a writer than anyone else. That’s true. Writers have to be a bit arrogant to suggest the world needs changing and cocky enough to say we’re the ones best qualified to do it. We want our words to not just matter; We want our words to mean something. We’d like to tell ourselves that the power of words can change things, right wrongs, speak truth and make a difference. All too often, none of that happens, but it’s always an objective worth striving for.
Maybe the power of words can’t change the world, but sometimes it can give it a little push in the right direction.
I have a promise to keep. I may not get justice for LaVena. Justice is an abstract concept and one that may one where my ambitions have to concede to the cold reality that justice is something beyond my ability to dispense. Reality, coupled with humility, compel me to just write as strong and effective a story as I can and let whatever happens, happen. It’s not my call.
I’m out of my fog or funk now. Maybe it was a crisis of confidence or something. Maybe I was relying on my finely attuned sense of outrage and passion to carry me through the difficult task of compiling the facts into a coherent narration and putting it together to create a compelling article.
Outrage only takes you so far. Passion fades. Neither one is a replacement for the damn hard work involved in getting a story right and telling it straight. When the heat passes, cool logic is necessary to put the words together and get the job done.
This is not how I thought this story would go when I took it upon myself to tell it. I wanted to tell LaVena’s story so much I found myself unable to tell it at all.
I think I can do this the right way now. I had to get lost for a while there, but I’m finding my way back.