In this series, we interview some of Bittersweet’s long-standing and talented contributors about the art of storytelling. Bittersweet stories are only as good as the people who tell them, so in this series, we go behind the scenes to capture a glimpse of the faces behind the faces of our stories. From what sparked their interest in the craft to what makes a good story to why they contribute, these interviews delve into the personal, the professional and the transformative.
"Truth tells beautiful stories." – Jessica Mancari
Part II of this series features contributing writer Jessica Mancari. Jessica has written op-eds, speeches and articles on behalf of U.S. elected officials, CEOs, and Fortune500 companies, which have been published in outlets such as The Washington Post, US News and World Report, The Wall Street Journal, and Politico. She has also contributed to some of Bittersweet Monthly's most compelling stories. Read the full interview below to learn more about Jessica's writing process and her experience as a Bittersweet contributor.
What first sparked your interest in creative writing?
JM / I absorbed stories when I was a child, both in fiction and in real life. One of my favorite movie quotes is from You’ve Got Mail when Kathleen Kelly says, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way no other reading in your whole life does.” I think that’s true for me. I was fascinated by characters who lived in another time or in different cultures and who were doing brave things.
I experienced a lot of cultures and places first-hand as a child too. We moved around often, so I walked into a lot of new places and I always met fascinating people. I learned to observe the world around me so I could quickly learn the norms of whatever new place I was in.
I needed a creative outlet to express the stories I observed, so I wrote. My dad was an early technology adopter, which worked to my advantage, because I used to sit at his boxy MS-DOS Tandy computer and write…fictional stories, about my life, observations.
I can’t imagine a time when stories and writing weren’t a part of my life. That I get to write creatively now as my “grown up job” is such privilege.
What is the key to a compelling story?
JM / There is a lot of “how to” advice out there about structure and voice and story arcs, and it’s all important and good. But for me the key to a compelling story is finding the truth. Truth tells beautiful stories. And if you can find the truth that you are trying to share, then the story will resonate.
"I love the thrill of figuring out how to make sense of the chaos."
What is your favorite thing about writing?
JM / My favorite thing about writing is that I get to create order out of chaos. When I first get an assignment or an idea, it’s a complete mess. It’s hard to know where to start or what the truth is. I love the thrill of figuring out how to make sense of the chaos. The most satisfying feeling to me is feeling that I helped create something beautiful out of something that was once very messy or abstract.
What inspires you?
JM / I’m inspired by ordinary life and people who are doing brave things in the middle of their ordinary lives.
Why do you contribute to Bittersweet projects?
JM / I write professionally in my career. I work with CEOs and business executives, so it’s a very formal, buttoned-up environment. And I love it! But there is a whole other side of me that loves creative storytelling. There’s also a side of me that wants to help people and organizations who need it the most.
I love that when I work on Bittersweet projects, I can use this whole other part of who I am…this creative storyteller part that is so innate within me. It’s very fulfilling to feel that I can use my skills as a writer to serve these organizations.
"Listening is just as much a part of the storytelling process as sitting down and actually writing."
How do you approach a story?
JM / I go into each story collecting as much information as I can. Listening is just as much a part of the storytelling process as sitting down and actually writing.
After that, I lay all the components of the story out in front of me and look for themes. I start to sketch out a story arc. Once I have the story arc in place, I begin plugging in scenes and quotes and background, all with the goal of driving towards the bigger truth.
That makes it sound all orderly and neat, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. I don’t write linearly. My Word doc in the middle of writing is a big old mess.
Can you describe a time when you had to push yourself creatively?
JM / When we were working on the Project Hope Alliance story, we were limited to who we could interview. I was digging for a main character to serve as a focal point for the story. But the organization was protective of their students. We couldn’t use their individual stories or their images. We were working off of anecdotes and observations, but I didn’t want to just jump into the issue of homelessness cold. That’s when I decided to fictionalize the introduction. It also allowed me to elevate another character – the janitor – to show the truth: that sometimes the biggest needs are hidden in plain sight, and that sometimes the people who do notice are the ones who are often unnoticed themselves.
How does collaboration affect your creative process?
JM / One of my favorite parts about writing with Bittersweet is that it is highly collaborative. Writing can be a somewhat lonely process, but at Bittersweet, the entire story team is brainstorming from the beginning. We share ideas, talk about angles, and challenge narratives. We have to because the products of the writers, photographers, and videographers has to complement one another. But collaboration also sharpens ideas. I usually get to the point in my writing where I can’t wait to get it off to an editor.
Is there a person or character who stands out from one of the stories you have written?
JM / I will always remember Lao Wong from Morning Star Foundation. I was preparing to interview Lao Wong in Beijing. Meredith (the director of MSF) had briefed me on what to expect. The Chinese do not show emotion, she told me. She said I may have to rephrase my questions. Asking “How do you feel” wouldn’t likely get me the response I was looking for.
I remember talking through my translator. I decided to ask about feeling anyway. “How does it feel when the babies leave?” and “do you think of them often?” Lao Wong paused. Our eyes locked. Tears filled her eyes. I still struggle to give words to the expression on her face.
That’s when she said “Shou bu liao.” The expression in Chinese means in your heart, you just can’t bear it.
That’s when I realized what Lao Wong feels for those children is so very deep – so deep that cultural norms don’t even matter. The emotion of it all was just big. In some ways, that moment cemented the angle I wanted to take with the Morning Star story. I will always remember that.
Tune in next week for Part III in this series – an interview with Bittersweet Monthly contributing photographer David Johnson.