The Human IKEA?

For the last several days, my living room has smelled of birch veneer and plywood. That's because I was in Boston for the weekend, which provided the opportunity to veer sideways and take my list of IKEA needs to what I fondly think of as Little Sweden.

I've been considering for some time how to make sure I can actually get to my office supplies and files and writing books. And printer, for that matter. In day-to-day life, I just carry around my laptop and a Staples ARC planner. But sometimes, I do need to use a Post-It or my stapler. Stowing them in plastic tubs stacked to chest height behind other things was not proving an appropriate storage plan. 

Enter the Kallax system of versatile cube shelving, with drawer inserts and seagrass boxes to reduce my exposure to the dust that rivals only cats, according to my allergist.

Do I live at least three hours from the nearest IKEA store? You betcha. Could I have had some pieces of this system shipped to me? Sure. All pieces? Of course not! Besides, a $5.99 plate of chicken meatballs, gravy, lingonberries, mashed potatoes, and veggies doesn't arrive with every shipment. But it does accompany every visit to Little Sweden. 

In this case, Sunday at IKEA Stoughton was less packed than it could have been. Fresh off 45 hours at the Boston University/Boston Globe Power of Narrative conference, I needed the chance to process the reflections offered by exceptional writers. Strolling through the ruthlessly organized showroom and marketplace offered that opportunity.

The weekend didn't provide "lessons" so much as "refreshers," which was encouraging. It's been 20+ years since I took a basic journalism class, after all, and more than a year since I completed my master's in creative nonfiction. I'd spent much of the conference mumbling vague answers to versions of, "What do you do?" But more on that in a minute.

I realized as I looked back at my notes that I'd jotted down amusing turns of phrase more than useful information. That might have been because much of the content seemed to target the students in the room more than it did the folks who'd been working through the practicalities of the field for years. I spent a chunk of my time comparing notes in my head between the stringent requirements of reporting hard news and the freedom that a book's artistic structure offers to a writer.

Case in point? Sacha Pfeiffer (Boston Globe Spotlight team) and Emily Steele (The New York Times), who are both brilliant investigative journalists. discussed the need to get their sources on record describing in clear and clinical terms how they'd been touched by priests and celebrities. The point was to fully convey to their readers exactly what the level of abuse was within the power dynamics they described. Meanwhile, I was thinking about my specific decision not to press my sources about the details of their torture sessions, but instead to take my readers right up to the line where a source's eyes plead not to go further ... and then to use exposition gathered from in-depth, verified testimony to describe the nature and pattern of torture techniques in the same prison in a similar timeframe. It's a technique that works to preserve dignity and reveal truth in a book, but not in an investigative news article or series.

So what were some of those turns of phrase I mentioned?

  • "We come to these things to rub shoulders with people and maybe pick up a couple of things." - Barry Newman (Wall Street Journal), describing the purpose of professional conferences
  • "I say what I want to say, even though you know these wingnuts are gonna call your job." - Best-selling author Roxane Gay, explaining her perspective on whether she considers her audience's potential reaction when writing her essays
  • "I hate that word, peg. 'What are you going to peg it to?' I'm gonna peg it to fuck all, that's what." - Roxane Gay, getting into the relationship between her personal essays and news and current events
  • "Narrative can be the enemy of truth." - HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen, on the need for straight reporting as well as narrative technique
  • "News is what happened yesterday. It's always past tense. If you hear somebody talking in the future tense, turn that shit off. It's opinion." - Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird (Tampa Bay Times and Politifact), describing the importance of vetting facts before reporting anything (and facts are things that have happened, not things that might happen)
  • "You're the intelligent agent. The computer is stupid." - Caryn Baird, on the need to search alternate spellings, time ranges, locations, and more that a computer can't currently suss out
  • "I use the 'if you give a mouse a cookie' approach to sources who distrust the media or you." - Claire Galofaro (Associated Press), explaining how she introduces herself and starts a conversation, then asks if she can take notes, then asks if she can record
  • "My opinion doesn't matter. I'm just one person." - Ellen Gabler (The New York Times), on separating personal feelings from her role in reporting a hard news story
  • "I don't think we're advocates as journalists. I think we're truth-tellers and we need to remember that." - Claire Galofaro, describing how she approached writing about life in Appalachia amid the current political environment (and drew heat from both ends of the political spectrum, which told her she'd achieved her goal of balanced reporting)

Over my plate of Swedish delights, I considered the range of fascinating details I'd picked up throughout the weekend. Something that stood out was the way in which some of the women attendees asked their questions of the speakers. 

One mentioned the challenges of "asserting while female," while others seemed to be looking for permission from an authority (whatever that means) to do ... something. I don't even know what. I just know that I've never been aware that I was supposed to wait for permission from anyone, for anything. So I haven't. Perhaps that's among the reasons why I infuriate everyone I know at one time or another. 

So why had I been dodging questions about what I write all weekend? I told you I'd get back to this. Well. Because when I did my undergraduate work and even for several years after that, I wore my white hat. The journalist hat. The truth-teller hat. The principled realist hat. And then, 15 years ago or so, I stumbled over into custom publishing, sponsored content, and content marketing. While it was a necessary financial decision, it also felt like a sell-out. To someone trained as a journalist, marketers wear black hats. They spin the truth. They set out to alter opinions. They obfuscate. And nothing will make a trained-journalist-turned-marketer feel the weight of the black hat more than returning to the land of the white hats. 

That is, after all, a good part of why I went back and got my MFA ... so that I could begin to bridge my way back to a white hat. It's also why I am much more comfortable working under my own name ... so that I have some control over the companies with whom I collaborate as a marketer and can don a semi-altruistic grey hat.

And with all of those thoughts swirling in my head, I prepared to set off into the depths of Swedish Furniture Disneyland in search of my multipurpose shelving system. It could be a bookcase. With the right pieces, it could be a hutch. Or a sideboard. Or a room divider. Possibly a Murphy bed. It could, in fact, be hacked into all sorts of furniture and decorating solutions.

Professionally, I think, that's me. I span the gamut. Bridge the gaps. Combine skills and experiences, theory and knowledge. And offer something not just general, but in fact, able to be reconfigured and redeployed in all sorts of situations and circumstances. I am, perhaps, a human IKEA, in the sense of writing and content. I just smell less like plywood and particle board.