One of the great things about writing for a living is that you get to nose about in other people’s worlds and ask the questions everyone else wants to. Professional Nosey Parkers, paid for rooting around in other people’s business. But sometimes you don’t just get a check, you get an invoice—by which I mean you don’t just get to tell an interesting story about someone else, you have to add a chapter to your own.
This happened to me when I was invited to help John Goodfellow tell his remarkable life story some years back. Raised in the British Midlands, he’d chased women, drink, and drugs hard. He’d partied, fought, and stolen, leaving a trail of broken hearts and broken noses.
Then he’d gotten some madcap idea to find spiritual enlightenment in the Middle East, but made it only as far as Amsterdam. There he met a group of young people who talked about Jesus as if He was alive, not just the figure on the crosses in the churches John had been dragged along to as a kid.
John surrendered his life to Christ, and decided to take Jesus at His word. Looking to live up to his last name, John read in the Bible how after Zacchaeus chose to follow Jesus, the repentant tax collector went and paid back what he owed. Good enough, John thought.
So he went back home to England, and made a list of all the places he’d stolen from, as best he could remember. Then he went around to them, asked to speak to whoever was in charge, and told them what had happened. How he had become a Christian, and wanted to say sorry for what he had done, and to make everything right. He paid off his debts over a period of time.
This biblical principle of restitution was a thread through the book John and I collaborated on, Streetwise. And I was fairly pleased with myself for how we’d presented this same challenge to readers—until I realized it lay at my feet, too.
I’d been part of the newspaper world during its craftsman era, before it became a bit more of an elitist profession. Wages were typically modest, but there was an accepted way around things. So, on applying for a jobs, you’d be told, “Well, the salary is x, but the expenses are y.” This meant you could inflate what you got paid for your just-the-facts reporting duties with some creative writing: fictitious out-of-pocket costs. If you telephoned someone who lived in the next town, you’d claim the mileage, for instance.
Having become a Christian during my time in the news trenches, I’d already been convicted by the sometimes double-standard of some hard-drinking, hard-living journalists holding other people to account for a certain standard of behavior while excusing themselves. Now I realized, like with Nathan and David, this story (of John Goodfellow) was for me.
I wrote to a previous newspaper editor. Explained that I’d become a Christian, been doing some life evaluation, and realized that I’d been dishonest in my practices while I was there, and could I pay the bogus expenses money back? The reply was a masterclass in avoidance. He appreciated my letter and my concern, and while he was unfamiliar with the system I spoke of, if I felt that I wanted to do something by way of personal repair, I could perhaps make a donation to the newspaper’s favorite charity?
Signing the check, I knew that the Streetwise writing project had paid dividends in a way I’d never expected. And while I’m still always looking for the best way to tell a story for others, I try to remember to have half an ear open for myself.