Hunting the elusive story
Learning to do journalism, one “no” at a time
February 3, 2022, 9:31 am ASTLast Updated: February 3, 2022, 9:31 am
When you hear the word rejection, what do you think of? Perhaps something personal, like an unsuccessful job interview. I associate rejection with fear. Fear that things won’t turn out the way I hoped. Fear that everything is going to go wrong.
This, of course, is something journalists need to learn can happen.
In my first two months as a journalism student, I considered myself lucky. Although a couple of story ideas fell through, nothing felt impossible. Finding a story idea was more challenging than getting people to speak to me.
Entering a new course in November, I felt this was how my life would continue. But writing narrative nonfiction is a completely different craft.
I walked into the first class to find chairs placed in a circle. Eventually the empty spaces filled up, and conversation started. The class consisted of ten people – none from the fourth-year honours program. A one-Year Bachelor of Journalism student, I was the outlier.
During that first class, a bag of fortune cookies got passed around, leftovers from a quiet Halloween. My cookie was empty. We all laughed it off, but have you ever opened a fortune cookie with no fortune?
This class was unlike the first two months of J-School. Instead of writing short pieces and conducting small interviews, we were learning how to write a profile. The aim is to craft a narrative; a story that people can not just think about, but feel. It would require four weeks of fieldwork, at least. We needed to repeatedly meet with our story subject – to do interviews, to carefully watch someone at their job, to absorb the details of their world. This sounded daunting, but the thought of spending four weeks embedded in someone’s daily life was also exciting. I couldn’t wait to find the right person and bring their world to readers. The first hurdle was simple: convincing someone to let me in.
In week one, evenings were spent wondering who – or what – to approach. Journalism school so far hadn’t provided many opportunities to get acquainted with the city beyond a handful of assignments. I scrolled through FaceBook’s list of upcoming events. Most were Christmas-related, like craft fairs and choirs. Eventually, something piqued my interest – Halifax Queer Hockey. the first-ever hockey tournament between members of the city’s LGBTQ+ community. This had potential – the game was on the Nov. 27, which meant there were four weeks to get to know the players, choose one as a main character, and get to know that person deeply. And because this game was the first of its kind in Halifax, the story came with a clear challenge: would it be successful enough to become a regular feature of city life? If so, what preparation and care went into its success? That could be the angle.
I finally got in contact with the FaceBook group’s administrator, Jaylen McKellar, at the end of the first week. It wasn’t until following Monday that he could talk over the phone. I felt confident that the call would result in attending a practice by the middle of the week. But five minutes into the conversation, McKellar dropped the bombshell. “We don’t really have anything going on like that. We’re just meeting the day of the game.”
My heart sank. The story I had envisioned didn’t exist.
So I let it go and moved onto the next possibility. My laptop consisted of a stream of open tabs, one of them offering directions to the Board Room Game Café. Downtown on Barrington Street, this business mixes retail, a restaurant, and role-playing games. Unlike Halifax Queer Hockey, there would be daily opportunities to meet people face to face. An hour before Wednesday’s class, I took the chance and rushed downtown in the pouring rain.
The Board Room is in the basement of a government building. The only indication of its existence was an orange sign hung inside, visible through round windows facing the sidewalk.
The retail side was a cramped storefront, while the café occupied the back section. All available wall space was filled with shelves holding dozens of board games just begging to be pulled out and played. Among them were Yahtzee, Wingspan – a bird-collecting game – and a party game aptly called Geek Out!
You could smell food from the kitchen even with a mask on, but I had no time to sit and order from the menu. I quickly asked for the manager, and a young woman with aqua hair approached me with a smile. Her name was Brittney McIsaac.
“I’ve never been written about before,” she said, a little uncertain. Being at the centre of the action she might be the main character, but I emphasized that the story was more about her environment and experiences than just her.
“The players would love to be interviewed, too,” she said. The cafe’s most popular game is Dungeons & Dragons; a Halifax FaceBook group boasts more than 1,000 D&D players. “I always make sure I’m working on Tuesdays,” McIsaac said, “because it’s a lot of fun.”
We agreed to meet one-on-one on Friday after lunch. On Thursday, though, my phone buzzed with an email notification under McIsaac’s name. Surely it was just to double-check the time, right? Shaking away anxiety, I opened the message.
“Unfortunately, I won’t be able to participate after all. After some discussion we decided it might be too distracting to have someone observe us in this way.”
At that moment, I really could have used a hug from my cats. It’s too bad animals aren’t allowed in dorm rooms.
I was onto the next possibility. Shakespeer – its un-Googleable name is a mix of milkshake and “peer” – is brand new to Halifax. Managed and owned by a father-daughter duo from India, it sells candy and drinks in Park Lane Mall. I made some notes and psyched myself up to go introduce myself in person again. On a chilly autumn night, walking over fallen leaves on Spring Garden Road, I called my mom to calm the nerves.
“Someone has to talk to you eventually!” she said. I desperately wanted to believe her. Once I reached the intersection – full of construction signs and idle machinery – I said goodbye and took a deep breath. The mall was just a few minutes away; there was no more time for stress.
Most businesses were closed for Remembrance Day, but Shakespeer was open. It’s at the back of the mall. They certainly had variety – Japanese KitKats, coffee bean soda and spicy jalapeno cotton candy are among the exotic treats that fill the shelves.
I approached a short, friendly woman at the counter. She introduced herself as the manager, Ruhi Kazmi. She talked happily, and suggested we set up a time to meet as soon as possible. The store had only opened one week ago; she was excited to be profiled. I asked if writing a story would be something the owner would agree with.
“You can ask him yourself if you want, the CEO is right over there,” Kazmi said. An older man arrived to join us in the conversation. “Just tell her what you want to do and then she’ll tell me,” he said, turning away as quickly as he came. Hmm. That exchange was a little awkward, but this had to work. I sent a follow-up email – describing the plan and providing my availability for our first one-on-one meeting. I went to bed feeling confident.
The reply arrived the next day while I was drinking a post-lunch coffee. I rushed to open the positive news.
“Unfortunately, we have decided to move on because we are just setting everything up,” it read.
When McIsaac had cancelled our plans, it felt like a fluke. Now, two more people had decided against being profiled, one after the other. It was impossible to ignore the pressure.
We were now nearly halfway through the workshop, and all the boxes on my calendar were still empty. Gathering more story ideas felt like walking through quicksand: every time I reached out, acceptance slipped away. I reached out to new possibilities at light-speed. Woozles, a children’s bookstore in the process of moving to a new building. Trapped Halifax, an escape room business. My Mother’s Bloomers, a well-loved flower shop in the North End. Nothing worked out.
It started feeling like businesses were cursed, so I tried elsewhere. First, I called the Halifax Veterinary Hospital on Quinpool Road and asked if they could give my contact information to any of their clients who had become dog owners during the pandemic. I contacted public relations for the newly elected MLA for Halifax Citadel-Sable Island, Lisa Lachance. Both fell through.
Lastly, I circled back to businesses and made my way to Halifax Paper Hearts, a greeting card store near the busy corner of North and Robie. In the beginning, I tried to do a lot of preparation before meeting new people. Now, I was rushing from place to place on yet another bus moving in the dark. Travelling to another unfamiliar place.
Halifax Paper Hearts is a tiny store on Willow Street. They sell cards for all occasions, jewellery, and Christmas ornaments. Since I was there, I bought a birthday card with a grumpy cartoon dog for my father. It was placed inside a small paper bag made of recycled newspaper. The clerk offered a cautious “maybe” and contact information for the manager.
The next morning two tasks were on the agenda: email the manager and investigate more possibilities. But when the alarm rang in my ears, I struggled to find the energy. It felt demoralizing to have heard “no” over and over again – enough times to break the class record. Maybe that empty fortune cookie really was a sign.
As I sat in bed, that dreadful email notification sound buzzed. It was from my professor, explaining that he had a new idea. I pushed through my anxiety and called his number to discuss the next possibility.
“Why not write about getting rejected?”
Finally, I had my story.
But it came with a challenging wrinkle. If being rejected was my subject, he said, I had to go back to the places and people I had dreamt about getting to know.
And so I returned to the Board Room Game Café, fearing that Brittney McIsaac would be uncomfortable talking to a journalist she’d already declined to work with. Luckily, my fears were unfounded.
“You were great. I just didn’t want to over-commit myself,” she said. With one down, my confidence grew. I travelled back to Park Lane Mall to reconnect with Ruhi Kazmi at Shakespeer the next day. Weeks ago, I had responded to her by explaining that being the manager of a brand-new business was exactly why I wanted to write about her. In the daily news cycle a short piece about another new candy store would get lost in the mix. Long-form narrative, though, could give readers a real full person for Haligonians to know and understand. Readers would learn how difficult it is to start a new business right before the holidays.
Kazmi now explained that that difficulty was simply too large to let me in. “We want to wait for everything to be smooth before reaching out to journalists, social media influencers and everything,” she said.
Before parting ways, I bought some candy and an iced coffee. “I’d love to read your story when it’s finished!” Kazmi said, handing me the drink.
At times during the course it was easy to get caught up in negative emotions. Each time a person said no, it felt like I had done something wrong. Trying to profile a stranger over four long weeks was unchartered territory for everyone in the class. While others eventually found the right person, I never did.
Classmates, friends, and family were all surprised that I hadn’t given up. But, in truth, it was necessary to learn to face and move through rejection. In this case, being rejected was just a different end to the same story. A story that brought me to corners of Halifax that I’d never seen before, that had me thinking of story angles that would have never been reached if things turned out as intended. My mind had even wandered at work, desperate to find the inspiration that could result in a profile.
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is on the Halifax waterfront. I’d never been inside it before I started my job at its gift shop. The shop sells clothes, ship models, and lobster plush toys made from Nova Scotia tartan fabric. Near a door to the shop is a huge, lifesize model of a lighthouse lens. It’s shaped like an egg and made of sheets of glass that reflect the museum’s overhead lights with shimmery rainbow colours. The light is the only thing visible from where I stand behind the cash register. Sometimes during slow periods, I take notice of a sound from behind the lens.
“See ya, Merlin!”
“See ya, Merlin!”
There stands the museum’s parrot, Merlin. He’s wheeled out every morning and rests on a wooden perch in front of his cage for several hours. My first day I was told that parrots need a certain amount of interaction every day or else they get sick. Like humans, the isolation brought upon Merlin due to the pandemic wore him down. The museum workers all walk over to him several times a day to shower him with affection. Then the museum closes, and he is wheeled away inside the building.
One November Saturday at work, desperate to find someone who would finally agree to be profiled, I suddenly had an idea.
“Maybe I should talk to the parrot?”