Monday, June 28, 2010

Writing Nonfiction: Creativity Without Compromise

Society of Professional Journalists award-winning journalist Jack Sheedy tackles tough subjects with a clear, creative touch.

AA: What was the award, and how did the idea for the winning story come about?

JS: Last year, I received an award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Connecticut Chapter, for a story in The Catholic Transcript (May 2008) about a Jewish rabbi whose 1993 book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus captured the imagination of Pope Benedict XVI. Because Rabbi Jacob Neusner was originally from the Hartford area, and since the Transcript serves the Hartford archdiocese, I saw a story there. I drove to Rhinebeck, N.Y., to interview [Neusner].

AA: How can nonfiction writer — a journalist, for example — be creative in a case like this without compromising good reporting or the facts?

JS: The interview was filled with theological terms, both Jewish and Catholic, and I was worried that my readers — for the most part, everyday pew-sitting Catholics — would be bored. I needed a strong headline and lead that would establish a local tie-in and stir curiosity. I wrote the headline, "Native-son rabbi 'talks' with Jesus." The story began: "Rabbi Jacob Neusner grew up in West Hartford, corresponded with the Pope and spoke with Jesus after the Sermon on the Mount. That last feat got everyone's attention. Especially the Pope's."

I could have begun the story another way. I could have written: "Is Jesus a fulfillment of the Torah, the Jewish law? Or is the Torah the final word? That's what Rabbi Jacob Neusner wanted to know when he set out to write about an imaginary conversation with Jesus." I'm bored already. Aren't you?

Visit Jack at Jack Sheedy.

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