Steamboat Springs I had heard the presentation at least twice before, but this time was different. Less than 30 of us gathered in a sunlit corner meeting room on the second floor of the Brown Palace hotel in downtown Denver to listen to Jim Sheeler talk about the art of storytelling and, significantly, his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Final Salute" series.
As they had previously, Sheeler's words - both spoken and written - brought me to tears. The occasional sniffle or wiped eye told me I wasn't alone.
For those of you who haven't seen or read "Final Salute," the stories and multimedia packages still are available on the Rocky Mountain News Web site. You won't regret it.
Here's the overview: Sheeler and photographer Todd Heisler spent a year following U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Steve Beck, whose job it was to notify families about the death of their loved ones in Iraq. Sheeler and Heisler gained unprecedented access to a heart-wrenching process that, as Sheeler wrote, "begins with a knock at the door."
Sheeler is what most reporters and writers dream about becoming - a master storyteller with a gift for uncovering the details that make a good story great and a great story unforgettable.
As he addressed the small gathering at the reporting and writing workshop that was part of the annual Colorado Press Association Convention last weekend, Sheeler shared some of his favorite passages from "Final Salute," which he since has published as a book. Emotion overcame him on more than one occasion as his written words took him back into the lives of the people he met during the year-long journey.
Between passages, audio recordings and photo slideshows, Sheeler shared with us the things we should look for when on assignment. And as I listened to him and scribbled notes in my legal pad, it became obvious that Sheeler's advice transcends journalism. Here's just a sampling:
- Be human. Showing compassion and being flexible can go a long way toward helping you achieve your goals without compromising the desires of those you interact with.
- Look at things in a new or different way. Approaching work or life the way we're used to doing it doesn't leave much room for interpretation. Ignore your preconceived notions and be adaptable.
- Recognize what's special and unique. Special moments happen all the time, but you have to be there to experience them.
- Everyone has an interesting story to tell; take the time to hear it.
The last one is particularly important to me these days. My only living grandparent turns 90 this year, and as hard as it is to think about life without her, it's compounded by thinking about all her stories and memories going untold - or worse, forgotten. So I call Grandma every time I think about her, and I try to remind myself to ask about her childhood in Minnesota or what my dad was like as a kid.
The stories are there, and they come easily. I just have to take the time to hear them.