A couple of months ago, science writer Jim Kling offered to share a story with TON readers about his unconventional path to a Science Careers story about a biologist who had learned to use her border collie not to herd sheep but to sniff out rare turtles as part of her field research. We were utterly charmed by Jim’s experience—and not only because it involved his life as a part-time shepherd. His story reminded us that for all our attempts to monitor beats and cultivate likely sources and the like, some of the best stories seem to just fall out of the sky.
This is something we’ve observed many times in interviewing writers for The Open Notebook: There was the Christmas card that set Michelle Nijhuis on a path toward a Smithsonian story on white-nose syndrome in bats, a story that ultimately won multiple journalism awards. Or the blurb inside a Montana newspaper that caught the eye of Paige Williams, who lives thousands of miles away from that paper’s newsroom, leading her to a blockbuster New Yorker story on dinosaur fossil theft. We’ve heard many such tales of story ideas that could not have been strategically planned.
We’ve also experienced it ourselves, across many aspects of our careers. TON co-founder Jeanne Erdmann tells this tale of good fortune:
About 15 years ago, I was still in the lab and trying desperately to get out so I could switch gears to science writing. As a start, I was working as a stringer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Metro desk. During the day, I stood at a lab bench that was covered in pipettes and test tubes, fussed over transgenic mice, or sat with my arms inside a laminar flow hood, working to decode the inner life of bone cells. At night, I’d grab a pen and a notebook and sit through meetings at city halls and school boards and then drive back home and file stories about lateral sewer lines and tax increment funding. I’d started this gig at the advice of a newspaper editor who’d visited one of my journalism classes, but it was such a different world than the sheltered life of academia. (In fact, I used to joke to my lab mates that I’d discovered a whole world of people who think cells are what you put criminals in.)
Sometimes, though, as I sat through yet another discussion of what should go on a particular city’s “welcome” sign, I worried that spending my free time in such a manner was turning out to be a mistake. But one night, while waiting for a school board meeting to start, I overhead the board president say that her son had just won the national championship in tennis wheelchair in the junior division. I told her that I wanted to do a story on it. Only later did I realize I’d never written about sports, not my favorite topic.
I went home and read a few stories in the sports section, wrote my heart out on the tennis wheelchair story, and then spent the next two months being ignored by the sports editor. I’d just about given up when I learned that Metro, the very section I was already writing for, was starting its own sports section. I sent the story to the new editor. She called me right away, told me she loved the story, and offered me a column on the science of sports. Now, I could write about how baseballs come off metal bats differently than they do wooden bats, and how some researchers used Froot Loops to train rats to run on treadmills.
I gathered those columns and pitched and sold my first real feature to the much-revered (now long-lamented) science website the HMS Beagle. My assignment was to write about what happens to bones in the microgravity of space. The feature was called “Heavenly Bodies” (and I was doubly proud that the editor kept my headline). The link is long gone but that story led to many others. It taught me that serendipity has a lot to do with faith. Faith in the story, and faith in yourself.
Siri Carpenter, TON’s other co-founder, also has a favorite serendipity story:
About five or six years ago, my mom suggested to my dad that they go see the movie Walk the Line. The fact that they had already seen the movie together, just a few weeks earlier, was … troubling. It wasn’t the first time my mom, who was 61 at the time, had seemed to have a worrisome lapse in cognition—of late, she often seemed forgetful or inattentive or lost the plot in conversations. Around that time, I was visiting my parents to help as my mom recovered from a surgical procedure. One day, preparing to bring her her regular morning medications, I found myself holding a cereal bowl full of dozens of pills. Holy shit, I thought. This can’t be good. I started to wonder whether my mom’s seeming cognitive decline—and maybe some of her other many health problems as well—might be related to the huge numbers of prescription medications she was taking.
After my mom and I visited a neuropsychologist who blew off that possibility—she maintained that that the fact that my mom was taking 21 different prescription medications couldn’t possibly be to blame for my mom’s fuzziness—I really wanted to investigate. I couldn’t find much of use online, so I decided to dig deeper. I hoped to gain access to doctors at top research hospitals who weren’t going to donate time to some random woman who wanted to talk about her mom. So I fired off a quick email to an editor at Prevention who I had worked with once before, saying, essentially, “Would you be interested in a story about overmedication, because I’m really ticked!?” I got the assignment almost immediately, and although I started out with the simple goal of finding a way to help my mom, pretty soon I was thinking like a journalist, wanting to find the bigger story. I learned a lot of important stuff, and I was able to find help for my mom through a consulting pharmacist who helped reduce her total number of medications from 21 to about half a dozen, leading to numerous health improvements. The story I wrote for Prevention was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had as a writer, and as a daughter (and months later I was also incredibly gratified when it was nominated for a National Magazine Award).
I used to feel perversely dejected that some of my best work came from serendipity. In the case of my mom’s overmedication story, no amount of journal-alert-surfing or conference-attending or scientist-schmoozing would have brought me to that story in that same way. The fact that the overmedication issue hit me on the head the way it did meant that there was no way I could replicate the experience. It was only with time and more experience—in particular, the experience of hearing so many other writers’ serendipity stories—that I came to appreciate the flip side of that equation: Stories are all around us, and you never know when one is going to hit you on the head.
Now that that idea has, in fact, hit us on the head—thanks to our very favorite shepherd—we’ve decided to devote a new series to it. Serendipity Stories will officially kick off tomorrow, with a charming story by friend-of-TON Cynthia Graber. From there … we’ll just have to see what drops out of the sky.