One of my recurring assignments at work is to write pieces for a monthly intranet series (which I created, NBD) that focuses on specific job roles around the hospital system: what does a physical therapist actually do? How does a surgical instrument cleaner support our overarching mission? I consider the stories “creative non-fiction,” because they’re less straight-forward than a typical news story and give me lots of freedom to be descriptive. It’s a well-read series that generates lots of positive comments from readers.
This month’s story focuses on financial counselors. I recently shadowed an employee to learn about what she does. This is my story’s lede:
Jane’s desk is awash in paper – stacks of sheets cover the surface, three calendars (set to different months) decorate her cubicle walls, lists containing a mind-numbing array of numbers are taped to every surface and neon Post-It notes are tacked here and there. Nestled amongst all that sits the most important piece of paper: a patient’s thank-you note Jane keeps handy for tough days at work.
“Words can’t even begin to express our thanks,” the card declares in loopy handwriting. “The things you did for us made [my husband] so happy and relieved, which made me even more grateful. Thanks to you, everything has gone great.”
The note is just one way Jane keeps her patients at the very heart of everything she does.
I emailed the story draft to the employee yesterday, hoping she would appreciate how I demonstrated that she truly cares about patients. Instead, she was offended, angry that my story “implies that I spend all day at my desk, when I don’t. Please take out that entire part.”
After about three email back-and-forths of me defending the lede, I kind of lost it. I was annoyed that she felt she could writer better than I could. I was upset that she thought I would ever purposely defame her in print. I was sick of feeling like people constantly doubt my professional opinion.
I sent her a sternly-worded-yet-complimentary email to the effect of, “You need to trust me to do my job, which is to make you look great. Because you are great! But I can’t simply say that, I have to show it. That’s what writing is all about.” I went on to explain the concept of literary devices and the necessity to be more abstract than she prefers. it wasn’t insulting, but it was written in frustration.
As soon as I hit “Send,” I felt bad. Why couldn’t I just change the stupid lede to make her happy? Why do I have to take her criticism personally? Was I being as overly sensitive about my job as she was? Why do I have to fight about everything? The Minnesotan in me felt terrible for speaking my mind. Expecting a backlash, I prepared a mea culpa.
To my surprise, she emailed back 20 minutes later and agreed with the points I’d outline. She agreed to let the lede stand.
This morning, I received a voicemail from her boss, apologizing for the hullabaloo. “I think the story is wonderful; I just wanted you to know that. Thank you so much for writing it. Please don’t change it.”
And then, when I sent the draft to my editor for final review–without enlightening her about yesterday’s drama–this was her reply:
I love how you started out with her environment, and noticing the note nestled on her desk. Sums up her work in a nutshell. Nicely done.
There are so many awesome things about this situation: my annoyance was vindicated, my talented was recognized, I received an apology (how often does that happen?) and my story remains the way I intended it–i.e. the way I know it should be.
But mostly, I learned a lesson: a lot of times, I get annoyed over stupid things that don’t deserve my energy. But if I’m passionate enough about something to stand up for it in the face of potential workplace ramifications, maybe it’s worth fighting for. Maybe I need to trust my gut a little more, and not just assume that I’m “flying off the handle.” Maybe sometimes, arguing is the right thing to do.
Maybe I’m a little bit smarter than I give myself credit for.