Best of 2020 Q&A: Jody Porter

Jody Porter appears on our Best of 2020 list for the piece “Pathfinding.” You can read it at Maisonneuve Magazine.

GCL invited writers on the list to answer a questionnaire to give us further insight into their work. The following are Jody’s answers:

How did you start working on this story?

I’d been thinking about my experience covering Chanie Wenjack’s story and Gord Downie’s Secret Path for several years, trying to figure out if it was the peak of my career as a journalist, or the moment when I most obviously failed to do my job – to speak truth to power, even when that power was a beloved, cultural icon, with a terminal disease.

But after more than two decades of reporting mainly on Indigenous issues, I was also wary of taking up more public space as a non-Indigenous person to work through my own feelings. Then I met journalist and scholar Minelle Mahtani at a dinner party where I told a version of my story, and she encouraged me to write it in hopes of providing insight for journalism students and others. That was the permission I needed to move forward. I am so grateful for it.

How long did it take to write this piece?

About five months from the beginning to submitting it for publishing.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

The honesty it required. It is the most true thing I have ever written. My friend and Anishinaabe Kwe journalist Jolene Banning read an early draft and pushed me to be more honest about my sense of being a white saviour and I cried my way through a rewrite of that section.

Another friend and fellow writer, Susan Goldberg, read what I thought was my final draft and suggested that the piece would be stronger if I included a reference to my own sexual assault. It was not advice I wanted to hear. I thought it was too big of a risk to make the piece so much about me.

I resisted the change and set the piece aside for about a month, figuring that I had taken it as far as I could. Then, slowly, the wisdom in Susan’s advice sunk in. I started to work on it again, including my own victimhood, surprising myself as the meta-narrative – the inherent power of telling one’s own story – emerged.

Do you have a particular writing ritual?

For most of my writing life as a reporter, I have had a daily deadline as the only motivation I needed. But this piece was much different. It haunted me for a while as I struggled to find a way in. Then I set myself a schedule of writing for an hour a day – whatever I got down on the page – and then leaving it until the next day. That carried me through to a first draft.

What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?

More than the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, the BLM resurgence that followed and growing awareness of racial injustices across North America in 2020 made me feel a particular responsibility to write with care; to honour the courageous work of Pacinthe Mattar, Denise Balkissoon, Christine Genier and many others who are exposing the limits of the way journalism is practiced in Canada and lighting a way forward.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject, during the process?

That there was a great relief, when it was finally done and published, after the deep pain of finding the right words and my path through them.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

I’ve been overwhelmed with positive responses from people I’ve known or worked with in the past, as well as from complete strangers, and, delightfully, the former head of my college journalism program.

I’m also humbled by the fact the piece has been added to the reading lists for some university courses, was referred to and footnoted in Denise Balkissoon’s Atkinson lecture on objectivity and garnered me an interview with Jesse Brown on the Canadaland podcast.

For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favorite writing tip to share

Write to find your own answers. Rely on friends/fellow writers to help you keep you honest, then blaze your own trail to the truth.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’ve had to stop writing for a bit as I resume active cancer treatments, which limit energy and play tricks on the mind. But I expect as my ultimate deadline approaches, I may find I have a few more things to contemplate, and share, in writing.

Find Jody on Twitter: @cbcreporter

This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.