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  • asked in Humanities 4th Feb '13:

    The literary world has so many great authors as it does great characters. Whose legacy, author or character, inspired you to take up writing?

    Mariel Matze replied 18th Mar '13:

    The Real-Life Characters of Journalism

    I can only answer this question with my own experience, specifically as a nonfiction writer. I was inspired not by characters already woven into a narrative, but by people who I felt needed to become characters, people I needed to write about.

    For nonfiction writers, including journalists like myself, our characters are not our direct invention. We recognize them and translate them into a written (photographic, cinematographic) form, but they arise with their own stories.

    That's why I can tell you that my answer is my own characters: three Chilean high school students perched on chairs at the top of a thick wall in the cruel December sun. An orange construction cone on a string hung from their fingers, dangling in front of passersby on the busy Santiago street below. They called down politely, asking for donations. I called up timidly, asking for information. 

    We chatted for a half hour or so, calling back and forth on the street, both of us sweating in the heat. They lived at their school; they had for the past six months. What they wanted was free, universal public education through college and like many of their fellow student activists around the country they had taken over their high school to demand it. They ate what supporters gave them and slept on classroom floors. Their faces fell-- sad or scared I couldn't tell-- when I asked them about the marches in which protesters had suffered injuries during harsh crackdowns by the Chilean police. None of the three were older than eighteen.

    Finally, I dropped all my change into their cone and wandered away, feeling dizzy. How had these teenagers found something they cared about enough to chain themselves to as tightly as they had to their high school? I certainly hadn't. I was working as a fulltime waitress in Argentina, fed up with disrespectful customers and restless from the monotony of polishing plates. Both of us were young, bored, and tired. But whereas I was confused, they were convinced.

    I found a cafe and fired up my computer; I needed to tell my friends, my family, everyone I knew about this. I researched, wrote, edited, and reedited over the course of the next few months, on fire with wonder at these kids who had dismantled their lives for something they loved. The op-ed piece I produced was never published, but it was the writing sample that got me a reporting position at a news and culture publication in Buenos Aires. 

    As a journalist, it still works like this for me. Each piece gets done because of a conversation with someone-- a character-- who cares deeply about his or her cause. I dig into the research process until I can build a well-founded context because I am moved by their passion. I use their story to craft a vivid narrative through vignette. With an ear for both faithfulness to their message and for reader impact, I use their words to make a case for the issue's importance. 

    If we're really being precise, I actually wouldn't say that a character inspired me to take up writing. Rather, it's that when I write, I'm taken up by the character's inspiration. To write a version of his or her legacy is a charge I undertake and a privilege I am given.

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