Writing Down the Details
This is a guest post by Sara Fajardo, who is a multimedia storyteller based out of Lima, Peru. She first fell in love with storytelling when she was four years old and her family moved from Peru to the United States. Her father would send handwritten stories tucked into letters for her mother, to help bridge the distance until the whole family was reunited. She’s been using storytelling ever since as a means to explain the world first to her young self and now to others.
When you sit down and take time to speak with people and share in the quiet and small moments of their day it quickly becomes apparent that people around the world are driven by the same things: we all want more for our children; we all want to lead dignified and fulfilling lives.
I go into a story looking not to highlight differences but to emphasize commonalities. I allow myself to fall in love with everyone who shares a story. They open the door to their lives and I in turn look to find the telling details that reveal their humanity: the refugee who raises pigeons to beautify his camp; the community health worker who takes long detours on her way home to check-in on a depressed client, the Malawian farmer who was once too weak to feed herself and is now strong enough to host a wedding feast for 1,500 people.
When I first started covering humanitarian causes I made a conscious decision to emphasize empathy over sympathy. While it would be easier to write a piece that details a problem and covers the NGO solution, I feel that to leave it at that does a disservice to donors. It defines people by their hardships and not by the character with which they face them. I want to delve deeper and paint vivid well-rounded portraits of the people whose lives they’ve touched with their donations.
In order to do this I came up with a few tools to help me more effectively capture and tell the stories of the people I meet. We are all familiar with the five “Ws” in reporting: who, what, where, when, and why. These answer the questions that create the framework for any story. I build on this by relying on my five senses to truly bring to life the people whose stories I tell.
As I cover the basics I also fill my notebooks with such tidbits as the battery powered tiny LCD light a student unable to afford kerosene lamps rigged in his brick mud room so his brother could study late in to the night. Or the sounds of the lyrics a person hums as she works in her fields or the smoky taste of corn cooked over a wood fire. I time how long it takes for a woman to collect water and write down how a person can tell cattle came from another village because they are stained with a different color soil. I push myself to write down at least one detail for each sense and give myself a few minutes to simply sit, listen, and observe.
While taking notes I look for the intersections between life in the U.S. and what I’m seeing before me. I push myself to think in metaphors and jot-down every one that comes to mind. I compare the new fuel-efficient stove to a kitchen renovation. I write down the sounds at different times of day and use that as a tool to bring to life a village’s daily sound track.
I want my audience to travel with me, to meet and fall in love with people who are active participants in building their futures. I want my audience to be inspired as I am by the people who are willing to take a risk on a new crop, build a water point, or go door-to-door sharing health information, because they want more for themselves, their children and their communities. Through story I strive to provide a window for donor audiences to recognize themselves in someone half a world away. In so doing it is my hope that people continue to give because they are driven by the connection they feel to their fellow man.
Photo caption: Farmer, Gertrdua Domayo, walks past sunflower fields in her Tanzanian Village. As writers we should strive to take our readers on a journey that paints a picture of the lives they’ve touched with their donations. Courtesy of Sara A. Fajardo/Catholic Relief Services