It's been a marathon of interviewing. Three last night and one this afternoon. In each case, a 40 or 60 minute phone call on speakerphone while I type (horribly) to keep pace, and try not to miss promising conversational openings and inroads. Then 90 minutes of cleaning up those notes, making words out of things like "jumco" (Humboldt County, missing the "h" by one key) and "dractions" for creations (just a flustered keyboard thrash).
People can speak a lot faster than I can type...
I have to do the clean-up right away. Not merely because I'd never remember what "dractions" meant if I came back to it the next day, but because I have a gift for mimicry; I can hear people's phrasing, hear their word choices, and if I read that bad transcript right after our talk, I can make complete sentences out of their notes in ways that sounds like their voices. When someone reads my interviews, people who know the subject will often say, "That sounds just like her." I couldn't do that a week later.
So I did one interview yesterday at 5:00, another at 7:00, and a third by Skype at 8:40, with the fourth this afternoon at 1:00. The back of my neck is sore. And I have about 25 pages of notes that add up to... what? Cliches, more or less. The power of these stories will come through their words and experiences, but the "big themes" are the same we've always known. Limited careers and limited ideas in the small town, fast pace and stress in the big city. The appeal of magical landscapes, the sheltering of physical isolation. The need for transition after high school. The city for the young and on the make, the small town for raising the new family.
I met John McPhee once. He said that when he came back from one of his research trips, he often fell into a deep depression. Not merely was the excitement over and the adrenaline dying down, but he felt like his notes were empty, like he'd missed the story and had nothing to say. And after two or three weeks of fretting and grasping, one day the first 2,500 words would come to him all at once, and "the rest is just mechanics." I have eight days, and I only have 4,000 words total. And right now, I have nothing. But at some point in the next few days, the frame will appear, and the article will write itself after that.
I have to believe that, right?