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Writing is storytelling no matter the genre

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 1:33 p.m. CST

Editor's note: This column originally published Oct. 15, 2015

Journalists are first and foremost story tellers. The stories we gather and pass on to our readers are sometimes routed in fact, numbers, and sound bits from “authority sources” but they still tell the story of our community and surrounding world.

So when the Nobel Prize in Literature was given to Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich last week, some where surprised but I was not. The award was for her work “Voices of Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” telling the stories of survivors of the nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986. When I heard a journalist won the prize, I had to pick up the book.

Alexievich’s selection can and should be interpreted as a political statement by the Nobel committee against a recent show of military force by Russia — antagonizing the western world. But that fact should not diminish the journalist’s worthiness of the prize as an excellent writer and story teller. Although the committee rarely honor’s non-fiction writers with the prize, the narrative struck in “Voices from Chernobyl” reads like a dark novella. If you’re looking for some not-so-light, chilly evening reading to consume your October, I highly recommend it.

The way she told the tales of the survivors and their escape from the area was both chilling and hopeful. No writer should expect their work to win awards, but it’s a great feeling when someone at the peak of your profession is honored with something as prestigious as a Nobel. It gives you a sense of purpose through the everyday, deadline to deadline grind.

What we do as journalists in this community and what news gatherers do throughout all communities in the free world should never be taken for granted, and should not be taken lightly.

Journalists are writing the first draft of history, and I remember that when I walk into the Newton Daily News entryway every week and see archive issues of Newton milestone — some melancholy and some triumphant — framed on the walls of our historic office building.

How journalists tell tragedy is important because it can have a profound affect on how people react to the rough days in their own lives. The stories Alexievich gathered from Chernobyl tells how ordinary people fight through extraordinary situations. The depth of detail and dialogue, which explanatory journalism needs to read like a novel, is worthy of this top prize in world-wide writing.

Contact Mike Mendenhall at 515-674-3591 or mmendenhall@jaspercountytribune.com

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