This morning, I woke up and the first thing I did was to check my inbox. I anticipated an email. There it was. It made me quite nervous with no subject, just a sentence asking me to see a file attached.
I tried to stay calm and opened the file, which read “I recognize and appreciate your hard work on this story. It also shows in the details that make the story compelling. This piece is highly professional in its structure and approach. You should try to sell in your query. Let me say, too, how much I admire and respect your work ethic. It is a treat to have you as a student. There is great detail and professionalism exhibited throughout this piece. Words can be fine-tuned. Only the reporter, however, can report.”
That was the email from the feature writing professor who said last Saturday that he would deduct a grade from my double-grade profile story because I submitted it three hours late. Saturday afternoon, one hour before the 5 p.m. deadline, I emailed him and said I would be unable to submit on time because I got messed with my story and I would need another three hours to restructure it.
His email ended with a grade that I never thought of.
That was the most challenging and longest story I ever wrote in my life. I devoted nearly a month to it.
It was the story that took me to Washington twice, to New York twice and to Connecticut once.
It was the story for which I had to interview people not only in the United States but also in Vietnam and Australia.
It was the story for which I had to interview more than ten people, setting my own record of talking to the most people for a story. Among them were one movie star, two lawyers, four professors and one maestro who is 94 years old.
It was the story for which I had to ask a Fulbright fellow of mine to connect me with his former boss and a famous musician in Vietnam.
It was the story that made me feel I was a real investigator. At least one person felt a bit uncomfortable about my in-depth questions. But guess what, right after that interview over the phone, he emailed me and said he liked the way I asked him, very professionally. He did one thing that I didn’t expect: referring me to two experts familiar with the issue I was writing.
It was the story that made me cancel a planned lunch with my Fulbright fellows in Washington D.C because my subject returned to New York right after the screening there.
It was the story that I forced myself to be a translator because the interpreter who volunteered for my subject, the chairman of the Institute for Vietnamese Culture and Education in New York, couldn’t make it at the last minute and he asked me for help. That was a bad experience because I didn’t prepare nothing and have no knowledge of those for whom I interpreted.
I found it very challenging to feature my subject about whom Vietnamese newspapers wrote a lot. At least one person I interviewed asked why I still wanted to write about him while he was already featured in the Vietnamese media. I said I wanted to feature him on my own and the outlet for my story would not be Vietnamese newspapers but an American one. When I proposed to write on him, my professor asked me where I wanted to publish the story. I answered it would be The Christian Science Monitor which just accepted me as an intern next Spring.
I have been thankful to Emerson professors for pushing me hard. At Emerson, I always believe that when I try my best, my efforts will pay me off. After more than a year here, I feel more confident in reporting and my writing has improved much more than I expected. I know it’s not easy to become a professional journalist but now I know I can become a professional reporter.
My professor’s compliments reminded me of what the editor I interned for in the summer said to me once.
“You write with a journalist mind Chau.”
Like my professor’s words, his was an invaluable reward to me.
(November 14, 2012)