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How “Bus People” inspired me to become a better writer

Last summer, during my internship with The Tennessean, I got many opportunities to grow as a writer—both in a journalistic sense and in a creative sense.

Initially I wanted to get in as a sports intern, because sports writing, at this time, was probably my biggest passion; my dream was to one day become a beat writer for one of my favorite teams.

However, life doesn’t always work out that way—in fact I would say life throws curve balls more often than not. And I was denied a position.

A few weeks later, an editor at The Tennessean contacted me and asked if I would be interested in working in features. I jumped on the opportunity because, at least in my collegiate experiences, features were always more fun than hard news anyway.

I met many people who I couldn’t ever imagine crossing paths with, even as recently as weeks before the internship started. But, for the most part, they all had an overwhelming positive impact on my development as a writer and as a human being.

Obviously my editors, fellow reporters and interns had an impact on me. What I didn’t expect is that some of the people I met in the process of writing stories would have such an impact on my life.

Bus People

Mike Pentecost is an interesting person, in the most genuine sense of the word. He is a graduate of the University of Kentucky (his degree is in business management) and he is an ordained Presbyterian minister who walked away from the church to pursue writing.

He was fascinated by the people who used the bus as a form of public transportation, and he felt that many of these people had some of the best stories never told to the general public.

This is why he embarked on a 30-day journey, riding Greyhounds from city to city throughout America, which he logged down on his blog, and later turned into a book titled “Bus People: 30 Days on the Road with America’s Nomads.”

To my knowledge, Mike first contacted Jessica Bliss, a very talented reporter (and someone who became somewhat of a mentor to me) in the features section at The Tennessean, hoping for some coverage of his book.

He was in luck, as The Tennessean was in the process of launching a new page every Sunday that was dedicated to books.

the-tennessean

At this time, I was finishing up my first two stories as an intern: a piece about underprivileged girls receiving free swim lessons so they could compete in a triathlon, and a story about the long-time drummer for Michael Jackson, Jonathan Moffitt.

Jessica asked if I would like to work on something else, something a little different. Of course I jumped on this, regardless as to what the story was. I was hungry to write. I was just getting my first taste of what it meant to be a professional journalist.

And I loved it.

She explained that the paper was launching a new book page, and that they needed content in advance, to already have things booked weeks ahead of time so that focus could go to other areas, where this sort of timing was not a luxury.

This meant that, as the intern, I would be doing most of this work. The other reporters in the department were working full-time jobs doing their respective gigs; they didn’t always have the time to spare to take on too many extra projects like this. I didn’t question it. I enjoy reading, and I enjoy being a journalist, so this was something that I could get excited over pretty easily.

I was effectively the reporter in charge of the “book beat,” for the next few months. I don’t think that I need to say it, but I was on cloud nine.

My first task was to get back in touch with Mike Pentecost and set up a time to interview him for a Q&A that would run in the paper (a PDF of the article can be found here: Author_Q_and_A_June3_Jake_Old).

Greyhound-bus

When Mike talked to Jessica, she explained to him that I would be covering his story. So he knew going in that I was an intern. But this didn’t really faze him at all.

I didn’t have to read his book. All that was required of me was to skim through enough of the book, and do enough research on him, to come up with some pretty good questions to use for the interview.

So I looked at the back cover and flipped through some pages and started reading. I looked up and 15 minutes had gone by. I didn’t have to read the book; I wanted to read it.

The internship was unpaid, so saying that I was “on the clock” would be a bit disingenuous. But I was supposed to be coming up with questions to ask Mike, so I put the book down for a minute and did some good, old-fashioned Google research on him, which is how I discovered his blog.

Seeing this, which was almost like a teaser to the book itself, only made me want to read the book more. I decided I should call him to set up an interview.

Mike had a good sense of humor about everything I spoke to him about, both during this conversation and during future conversations we had. He would crack jokes about himself and his experiences, as well as various other topics that came up (college is one thing that comes to mind).

We set up a time to do the interview and I felt good about things. In my world, this is how things went. When you interviewed people or called people about your prospective stories, they were great, intelligent, interesting people who were just waiting to open up to you so that you could turn in a fantastic story.

I didn’t realize that, generally speaking, this is going to be a huge, huge exception to the rule in journalism.

On my lunch break that day, I took the book with me and read a couple of chapters. I usually hated eating alone (which would happen when the other interns were busy with something and our schedules just didn’t mix right), but it was more than welcome on this day. This book was phenomenal.

I took it home with me that night and read some more of it. I was excited about it, told some of my friends about it and that they should go buy it and read it. I told my parents how cool the idea behind this book was and—as much as I had read to that point—how well it was executed and put into writing.

pen-and-paper

When it came time to interview Mike over the phone, I was a little restless. I hadn’t finished the book yet, even though it’s a fairly short read. I knew that I didn’t have to read the entire thing, but I wondered if something crazy happened that I would want to know about.

I told him that I hadn’t read it, as I wasn’t required to, but that I had started reading and was fascinated by the collection of stories from the people he met. He was flattered, but I wasn’t sure how much he believed me (to be fair, I was just some random intern).

I asked him a few questions, but really the most effective thing I did was to just tell him to let me know what he thought people should know about his book. I got a ton of great information from him, and I know that he could talk about the book for much longer than the time we had.

There is something to be said for a person’s enthusiasm for the success of a somewhat off-the-wall idea they have coming to fruition. Mike told me stories that didn’t even make it into the book—stories that had to be kept off the record, of course.

He told me that, more than anything, he just wanted to be a voice to the voiceless; so many of these people are out of sight for the majority of America. Buses are, essentially, a transportation relegated to the lower socioeconomic class, because those with means will use a car or a plane to travel.

But just because these people are out of sight and out of mind does not mean that they are not important, or that they cannot provide insight to us about the human experience.

storage-unit

A few days after the interview, I was practicing with my band at a storage unit we were renting out. We were practicing for my brother’s wedding, which we were going to perform at on the following night. It was Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and my brother was getting married on Sunday night.

It was great spot to practice, because it was pretty far out in the middle of nowhere, so we didn’t have to worry about disturbing people with our loud music. The downside to this is that my cell phone didn’t get great reception. I felt it vibrate while we were playing a song, and I stepped outside to take a look at it.

I didn’t have any missed calls, yet somehow I had a missed voice mail. It was Mike, wanting to follow-up on our interview with something he had forgotten about.

I called him back, with the not-so-faint sound of bass and drums from my band mates running through a song without me blasting 20 feet away.

He asked if it was a bad time, a good question given the fact that he could probably hear bits and pieces of incredibly loud music. I reassured him that it wasn’t a bad time, and he let me know what he left out.

He was doing a book signing the week after the story was supposed to run, and he thought it would be great to run with the story. I concurred and told him I would leave a note on the story and give my editor a heads up, but that I couldn’t make any promises. But why wouldn’t anyone want it to run?

books

When I got back into the office at around 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the first thing I did was open up the story folder and made the change to the story. I then left an email for one of my editors (neither were there yet, and I did so just in case they weren’t going to be in for awhile and I let it slip my mind or something).

Within a half-hour, Mike called to make sure I hadn’t forgotten. I reassured him and told him that it would most likely be in the final version of the story. I let him know that I had finished the book and that I thought it was one of the best books I’d read in a long time.

He half-joking told me that I should do a review of the book instead of just a Q&A article. I agreed, but it simply wasn’t in the cards.

recycled-newspaper-crafts-1

The day the story ran, I noticed that the last little bit of information wasn’t in the print version. There wasn’t enough room for everything (in fact, much of the text had to be cut out, and some of the other things in the side-bar were cut out), so it was relegated to the online version of the story.

This didn’t really bother me as a journalist; I got it, there’s only so much room for everything, so you have to print the things that are of the most importance. It bothered me more because I know that somewhere in Nashville, Mike was a little disappointed that it didn’t get in.

And, although I don’t actually know if he thought I forgot about it or didn’t push hard enough to get it in or anything of that sort, I was the only person that he could tie to the story.

Fortunately, he called me again to thank me for doing the story and to tell me that he though it turned out great. I couldn’t agree more.

busses

If it weren’t for the happenstance that landed me at this specific desk at The Tennessean last summer, I wouldn’t have known Mike’s story or read his really compelling book. And for that, I am endlessly grateful.

If this post hasn’t sold you on the book yet, then here is one last attempt to do so. It’s a serious look at the lives of the people who use (and sometimes live on) the bus every day, yet Mike has a great sense of humor, so while he recounts the stories he has heard, he include some witty remarks alongside.

The passion that Mike had for his book was something that moved me. I’m also a writer, and someone who values my creative works. So I admired the energy he put into getting his book out there, getting people to read it.

The way he wrote that book, and the way he wanted other people to read it—not just because he would profit from a book sale, but because he genuinely wanted the stories of the “Bus People” to be told—it some somewhat eye-opening to me.

Whenever I get to a point that is anywhere as similar to where Mike was, whether it’s within journalism or if there are stories that I want to tell in a different form, I want to use his lead as an example.

I never knew the “Bus People,” and I probably never will. I never actually met Mike in person, either. But I enjoyed his book more than I have enjoyed most works of non-fiction in recent memory. And it really inspired me to think about the world that exists outside the walls of my own experience.

Hopefully something I write someday will spark that sort of inspiration for someone else.

[For reference, Mike’s blog can be found here. You can purchase “Bus People” on Amazon here. A PDF of my original article, as it ran in the paper, can be found here: author_q_and_a_june3_jake_old.pdf.]

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