Clean out my sock drawer? Search for those long-lost family photos? Finally read “Moby Dick”?
After almost 40 years at the Observer, I'm retiring. By the time you read this, I'll have been gone from the newsroom for a week, suffering from separation anxiety, no doubt, but taking my first steps on answering the “What's next” question.
I'm optimistic, looking forward to a new phase of my life. I've got a book I've been working on, a wonderful wife and family to love even more and a hankering to spend more time outdoors after decades breathing the office's recycled air.
I can't go without sharing a few thoughts with you, dear reader. We've been talking for a long time and it would be impolite to just run. I want to share the joy I've taken in our relationship.
On April 4, 1969, I came to work at the Observer, and, after working through the homesick feelings of a Yankee down South, plunged in. Over the years, I've written mostly about the arts, lately about visual art and architecture, and about a subject I call “what makes Charlotte Charlotte,” looking for stories about red clay or South Boulevard as a way to explain this transient place to itself.
I've always seen myself fundamentally as a reporter, which is a great thing to be.
Here's how it works:
You show up in the newsroom, always an exciting and stimulating place, and you get an idea – or are given one by an editor. Something has happened, or you've seen a change out there, or heard of one, or learned of someone who might have a story to tell. Pen in hand, you grab a notebook and head out.
You meet people and talk with them, and this is the best part. To get them to open up, to tell their stories, you open yourself to them. There's nothing phony or manipulative about it. If you try to fake it, it won't work. You can't pretend to be interested. You have to listen, to pay attention, and share something of yourself.
If, as happened to me once in an interview with an elderly man reminiscing about his life, your subject begins to weep, you don't retreat into reportorial objectivity. You put your arm around him.
People talk and you scribble as fast as you can, and you can feel – and I've always loved this part – a story starting to grow inside you like a tree.
That is the fundamental transaction of newspapering, the act from which everything else flows. You're out there, your editors trust you to get it right, you operate with a sense of responsibility – and you bring to it a good deal of joy. A hundred times, grinning at a great quote or bit of description, I've exulted, “They're paying me to do this?”
Back in the newsroom, you try to get it all down in words to give the reader a sense of what was said, how it felt, how it looked, sometimes even how it smelled. As you work, you have the pleasure of joining with talented colleagues – editors and designers, copy editors and photographers – who add their own ideas and make what you do better.
In so doing, you become part of the great conversation that's going on in this community.
We're all seeking answers to this question: “What is it like to live in this time and this place?”
Behind that is another question: “What is it like to be human, right here and right now?”
And then there's the ultimate question: “What does it mean to love?”
What do you take from the story of someone who is down and out, of an artist trying to put her life on canvas, or of an athlete who has triumphed or failed? What does their struggle have to do with you – and with your struggle?
It's hard to keep your eye on these questions, especially that last one, when the world is spinning and the newspaper is changing with new technologies appearing almost by the hour. But the importance of people gathering information honestly and sharing it with readers will never cease.
The Observer has given me a chance to be right in the middle of the conversation, to ask questions, propose ideas and tell stories that I hope have given all of you a chance to talk to each other.
As I go out the door, I'm honored to have been part of that.