I’ve been a writer/editor for 25 years, since the day I walked up the stairs into the office of the diamondback at the University of Maryland. I’ve been freelancing for the past 12.
I’ve never, in all that time cold-pitched a story. That is, I have never sent a pitch into a magazine or newspaper. (Once, I sent in a letter to the editor of the Wilson Quarterly and the editor asked me to write a book review. That might count.)
I’ve always found work by first establishing a relationship and then finding projects of mutual interest – in other words, by selling myself first, and then finding the ideas.
So, here goes. I’m going to see if I can successfully pitch an idea that I’d really like to see in print. In other words, I’m going to sell the idea first — and then myself. Most of my work has been in business journalism, so this is a departure in that way, too.
I’ve been working on a novel on-and-off for about five years that’s based on a story in my family. My work on it is kicking into gear. So I’ve decided to try and freelance a story based on the book.
Normally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to share a pitch widely, because someone could rip off your idea. But in this case, the story is decidedly mine. And as we all know, ideas are great, but when it comes to writing or any kind of art or craft, the execution is almost the entire value.
I’ll follow my efforts here on 200k.
So, here’s my pitch. My first step was to ask for the advice of someone in my network on a target market. I thought of Ralph Eubanks, who just became the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He suggested the Atlantic, either online or print, so that’s my first target. I’m going to first dig around for the name of an editor to whom to send it. (I checked mediabistro’s how to pitch section, but they don’t have the Atlantic).
Almost 100 years ago, my great-grandfather laid down on the train tracks in Elizabeth, N.J. He left behind a girl in a coat with shiny buttons – my grandmother — to finish growing up without a father.
Roy Humphrey was one of a generation of forgotten men: His death was covered up in my family, called a heart attack or a fainting spell. I uncovered his story by researching old family scrapbooks and newspaper files. My hunt for the truth about his suicide and why he had killed himself led me to Lower Manhattan, where he had worked as a Barge Inspector, to old medical records in New York City, and to the scene of his suicide itself, in the heart of much-changed Elizabeth.
Eventually, I found his grave – with the name misspelled – at Arlington Cemetery.
During the Great Depression, the suicide rate spiked to more than 160 per million, the highest ever. Unemployment, though common, was a badge of dishonor that many men could not tolerate. “Every family had a story like that,” family friend in her 90s told me, in an interview in an old farmhouse in rural Virginia. “We never talked about them.”
The suicide rate also rose during the recent Great Recession, though not nearly as dramatically. Our culture has untied, to some extent, the link between work and a person’s value. This story will look at the relationship between work and a person’s stature in society.
This piece for the Atlantic will reclaim my great-grandfather’s story and examine the question of shame. I will interview experts on suicide, unemployment and the legacy of family secrets to add perspective.
Suicide remains one of the most despised acts. In the middle ages, suicides were buried at crossroads, with stakes through their hearts.
The essential attitude remains unchanged. In researching my story, I encountered sympathy for my great-grandfather’s act: “I’m sorry,” said the historian at the U.S. Customs Office, though I never knew my great-grandfather and could not have been grieving. She wasn’t sorry for the loss, but for the shame.
The end of my story is an act of remembrance: traveling to Arlington to honor my great-grandfather’s service in WWI, and advocating for a correction on his headstone.