Spotlight on: Leisa Scott
“For me it was always about teasing out the humanity of situations. It sounds a little pat, but to look deeper into people’s lives, and to explore what makes us tick.” Leisa Scott on feature writing.
Winner of Print/Text Feature Writing Short (under 4000 words) category at 2018 Walkley Awards
Leisa Scott, Qweekend, The Courier-Mail, “Holly’s Choice”
Leisa Scott received strong and supportive responses from readers moved by the way she captured Holly Warland’s funny and self-assured personality, her great love story, and her right to choose when she no longer wanted to live. Since Scott’s piece was published, Holly, who has muscular dystrophy, has made a film about why she believes Queensland needs assisted dying laws — and why the young and chronically ill should have a voice in the debate. Holly’s video was shown at a Dying with Dignity campaign forum held at Queensland Parliament in June, although she was too weak to attend.
How did you find Holly and her story?
A former colleague who now works at the real estate agency that [Holly’s] father runs contacted us and said that she was a very interesting girl who was doing this Instagram thing, but really wanted to make her mark on the dying with dignity debate in the state. Holly was keen to let it be known that young people with disabilities shouldn’t be ignored in a debate about dying with dignity laws.
What did it take to get this story up?
The great thing is that Holly did want to talk. I had been working on a euthanasia piece in a fairly traditional style: speaking to someone in favour of euthanasia, then all the politicians and lobbyists. When I went to see Holly I had no idea about her relationship with Luke, no real idea of what she’d gone through, how big a fall in her expected career she’d taken.
So when I went and sat down with her, and I saw Luke lying on the bed beside her for the three-and-a-half hour interview, and saw the absolute love and affection between them, how he really cared for her, I saw that I had a real love story that I wasn’t expecting.
So often in euthanasia stories you’re talking to older people, people with terminal illnesses, and there seems to be a little more understanding from the broader community about their desire to access euthanasia. Whereas a young, smart, sassy girl whose illness is debilitating and chronic and horrendous, but it has no clear timeline on when she will die; to hear her talking about how she had assessed a lifetime of living with this disease and come to a conclusion is incredibly powerful.
One of the things I wanted to bring out in the writing of it was how young and thoughtful she was. And how she had the sass to say: “I’m an atheist, I’m a feminist, I’m left wing, I’m not cute and cuddly, I’ve got my edges and I want people to understand my point of view, and I’ll do whatever I need to even if I’m lying on this bed and largely captive to the disease.”
She’s got such a strong voice…
That was a big part of what I had to do in writing it, letting Holly’s voice come through. Sometimes as a writer you can try to sugarcoat things. Things like [Holly saying] “don’t ask if you can pray for me. It’s fine if you want to pray for me, but don’t impose your beliefs on me while I’m going through what I’m going through”… Maybe when I was younger I might have edited that out. When I left our interview, I think she said something like “don’t make me too wussy”! She gave me the ok to put her personality out there, which was something I really strived to do in the piece.
What impact did the story have?
She’s told me that having the piece out there, she got a lot of response and more followers. That has given her even more confidence to continue with the Instagram account and to be more assertive in her posts. So from under 6,000 she’s now got close to 30,000 followers from around the world. That’s her work. But the fact that the piece we ran gave her the impetus and the courage to keep going is to me the greatest result. Holly’s being true to herself. And if I’ve done a wee bit toward that, then I’m thrilled.
Holly also started a GoFundMe account, she wanted to raise $5,000 for MD, and she’s done that.
What made you want to be a journalist?
It was some sort of inherent thing! I grew up on a cane farm. Mum and dad didn’t read very much, although we got the Sunday Mail. But from the age of about nine I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I loved writing. I started handwriting letters to the editors of all the capital city and regional newspapers and radio stations when I was in Grade Nine. I sat at the table and wrote about 50 letters. I think I got the addresses from Margaret Gee’s! One of them was the Cooroy Bugle — I remember dad walking past and he said ‘no Leisa, I’ll send you to university rather than you go to the Cooroy Bugle’. And university would be quite an expensive thing for our family. Sorry to anyone from the Cooroy Bugle!
I wrote the letters again in Year 10, Year 11. In Year 12 I got an interview.
I remember sitting in front of the three scary men who were interviewing me, I was just 16. They asked me why I wanted to be a journalist. I said, “I like writing and I like meeting people”. That’s still what it boils down to today.
What are you most proud of about the stories you’ve told?
I did 20-odd years of news reporting and I loved it. It can be incredibly challenging, but I still find feature writing more challenging. I was never your classic fantastic investigative reporter. I love and admire those, but for me it was always about teasing out the humanity of situations. It sounds a little pat, but to look deeper into people’s lives, and to explore what makes us tick.
To be honest, to be accurate, I’m really a bit of a stickler for making sure that the facts are correct. And to use good, clear feature writing. I’m not a lyrical writer. I love reading the really lyrical, imaginative, incredible brains like Trent Dalton, who I just think is a magic person, but that’s not my style. I like to be clear, with flourishes! And with insight.
I think because of my deep grounding in news in the past, I like my features to have a good amount of information. My partner, who’s a brilliant feature writer, he always says information is the enemy, you have to hide it. We argue a bit about that, he’s a different kind of writer than I am. If I can combine information and learning with flair and attractive writing that gets you in, then I’m happy.
It’s bloody hard work to allow the writing to take flight, to allow your readers to sit back every now and then and picture it. Light and shade, tone and rhythm, it’s a balance.
Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t, sometimes the constraints are such that you’ve just got to get it down and you’re happy with a couple of flourishes here and there. Other times — and certainly Holly’s story was one of those — I decided to just abandon most of the information that I’d garnered from the interviews previously. When I came back from the interview I just said to the boss ‘she’s an amazing woman and this is a love story. And I need to write it. This is about writing a piece rather than giving facts and figures on euthanasia and various laws.
What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?
The same message I give my relatives who don’t quite understand either, who say ‘oh, you can get that news on Facebook’! It’s so important to a well-rounded society. To a well-informed society. But also one that understands the beauty of words, the beauty of a well-constructed sentence, sometimes just because it feels nice. Creativity is what makes us different from the apes, so we need to nurture creativity and good writing for that reason. But we also need to understand that the journalists who are writing these features mostly have had a lot of time doing news and working out the bullshit from the truth.
The good thing about longform work is that it can make people think, and can make hopefully society sit up and take notice. Because if it’s written in a clever way it should keep people engaged in what’s going on in the world. I fear that feature writing has taken a bit of slump in the way it’s regarded. I remember in the 80s and 90s it was what everybody, or at least a lot of my cohort, aspired to do. It’s become more news-focused in media at the moment.
But I honestly feel that that will change and that people will understand that a good longform piece, which teases out all the little tentacles of a story or issue, is so worthwhile and gets to the humanity or the social importance of something a lot more than a news piece. I think feature writing has such an important role in society.
What’s the best thing about receiving this award?
Definitely the endorsement of the writing. As long as I’ve known that the Walkleys existed… I don’t know if I knew they existed when I was in grade nine, I was from Bundaberg, I didn’t know about much — but maybe when I got my first cadetship, when I got to the big city and started loving journalism — I found my tribe when I began and I’ve never wanted to leave it, although it’s definitely had its ups and downs.
From the moment I knew the Walkley was something, it was something to aspire to. And the fact that my partner had two, was very much a driving force! That’s Frank Robson from Good Weekend. He’s a feature writer and I’ve learned so much from Frank.
I would like to say that I think we older ones should be nurturing younger journalists and showing them how feature-writing is different. I used to show Frank my copy and he’d just put all sorts of horrible lines on it, and cross things out, and say ‘you’ve buried your lead, kill off this darling’. That learning process is very hard. You think you’re fairly good, your teachers told you you were good at creative writing, but it’s all another learning curve to get that blend of news and information and nice writing. And that feels really good when you get the combination right.
I was so lucky to meet Holly. Because she was the type of person that I wanted to honour. It was a meeting of the minds or something! A symbiotic relationship that worked really well. I think she’s great!
Leisa Scott began her career as a cadet with The Courier-Mail in 1984, with stints at The Sun-Herald and News Limited’s Melbourne bureau and The Australian. In 2005, she became a founding writer for Qweekend. She was the 2014 Queensland Journalist of the Year. This is her first Walkley.
The 2018 Walkley Award for Print/Text Feature Writing Short (under 4000 words) was supported by Fairfax Media.