Thursday, June 10, 2010

DCMM: It's Hard to Be a Journalist Without Talking to Anyone

When I applied to journalism school, I was drawn to the idea of immersing myself in dawn to dusk work to to cover important events and take part in history. I badly wanted to be part of the media mix. I may be the only person who was admitted to journalism graduate school by citing Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 as an inspiration.

However, it only took a few courses and a few stressful interviews for me to realize that my extreme social anxiety and inability to effectively schmooze might keep me from my goal of being a world-class journalist. Seizing on my task- and detail-oriented abilities, I veered into the world of copy editing instead. If I couldn't report on history, I could at least make sure it was spelled correctly.

After I got my master's degree in print journalism, I had a lot of jobs. Some of them had to do with print journalism, many of them had to do with dogs (a stint as a vet receptionist and a worker at a doggy day care among them). I have since returned to writing through blogging, but have shied away from interviews, as they are one of my biggest anxiety triggers.

Since I started writing about autism in my online column, Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities, I've had several recent opportunities to interview people for profile pieces. There are people I want to talk to and write about, but it is difficult to do so without communicating with them. And unfortunately, most of these people want to participate in telephone interviews rather than email interviews.

The first telephone interview I conducted recently was with a neurodiversity rights activist named Jonathan Mooney. As his primary disability is dyslexia, I wasn't hopeful that he would take me up on my half-hearted suggestion of an email interview. Sure enough, I was given a phone number and escalating panic as our agreed upon call time got closer.

One of the problems with this particular interview is that Mooney intimidates the hell out of me. More than anything, I didn't want to sound like an idiot when I interviewed him. It didn't help that I was out of practice either—or that the interview was over the phone, because along with my many other neuroses, a phobia of the phone ranks high. I'm much better in person. Usually.

As the hours, minutes, and seconds before our interview slipped away, my nerves got exponentially edgier. I started to wonder if I could plead sick due to my increasing heart palpitations.

Fortunately for me, my drive to be reliable is stronger than my near-paralyzing panic. At the appointed time on the dot, I made my phone call and croaked out my introduction. Listening to my recording later, I realized that I sounded about six years old when I started.

Thankfully, I was prepared, having done my homework and written out questions ahead of time as well as having set up a call recording system so I didn't have to worry so much about taking notes. As the interview progressed, I think I started to sound less like a nervous nelly, although I really do have to work on blathering less in my questions.

In the end, the finished piece was well worth the stress that went into the process. Plus, I conducted another phone interview the following week with a substantially smaller pre-call freak out. Just this week, I was able to chat on the phone with a source while simultaneously ignoring my melting down child, who was mad because he had been sent to his room. I'm getting better.

I'm still not ready to schmooze on a regular basis, and I'll never be someone for whom interviews, particularly phone interviews, are easy, but it's kind of fun to be back doing the things at which I once hoped to kick ass.

This is an original DC Metro Moms Blog. Jean blogs at Stimeyland because she can talk and talk and talk, without actually having to TALK to anyone. She also runs an autism events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont. You can find her babbling to the universe on Twitter as @Stimey.

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