Staff Q&A: Letting the story be the boss

Q&A with Maya Durfee O’Brien

I’m remembering that and I’m like, “Okay, well this story is just like going to take its form” and just kind of like letting it.

What is your story about? 

For the Utility section of the magazine, I pitched an idea to write about roommates and landlords. That was my original idea because I had a really terrible roommate and a really terrible landlord at the same time for two years. So it was something I had a vested interest in and I wanted to see if other people had similar experiences, like it’s hard to live with people and I feel like there’s a lot of bad landlords in the city. It started out as me trying to give help or whatever to people who maybe were having roommate issues, like a guide or something for people to follow.

What has been stressful during the reporting process of your story?

It’s changed its angle like four times and that’s been stressful. I had expert sources, one’s a therapist and one is a psychology professor. They’re telling me how to be a good roommate and what kind of ways you can make your living environment comfortable. A lot of their ideas or suggestions stemmed around communication and stuff like that, but the conflicting thing about that was the anecdotes I got from people because I interviewed people who had experienced roommate issues or unsavory living environments.
There’s the general theme of there was no way that they could communicate with these people. So they were trying to communicate, but it just wasn’t working. So I had these expert sources telling me like, “Okay, yeah, it’ll be fine. You just communicate.” But then I have all these examples of stories where it’s like, you just can’t communicate with a difficult person.

How many other sources did you talk to?

I talked to a lot of people about this actually. I talked to people about their landlords, so in total I talked to like five or six people. I didn’t use all of them in the story and I reached out to like plenty more, like posted in Facebook groups and stuff to try to get sourcing. I got a crazy amount of responses of people wanting to talk about their stories, which was cool. The coolest part of that was people’s willingness to share their experiences because sometimes like you don’t want to talk about something that’s uncomfortable. For me, the reason why I wanted to write this was because I had a bad experience and it was nice to know that I’m not alone and that people just generally kind of suck. So it’s like we’re kind of in solidarity, or like my situation wasn’t as bad as some other people. I had talked to one guy for over an hour. I just was amazed at all the stuff he went through with his roommate. So he would try to communicate with them, and then they just would get so defensive. And they couldn’t talk about it, so I guess the point is now that the story has changed its form a few times, it’s kind of about what do you do with having a bad roommate. You kind of just have to end the relationship. Sometimes like the experts are wrong. But we’re kind of all in solidarity and that’s how its utility. And I’m also going to talk to an RA. I’m talking to her about roommate mediations, too. Because I think that’ll be an interesting little piece that would probably be really helpful.

How do you feel about the story now?

It’s changed its form so many times that I’m kind of just rolling with it. So I feel confident in my abilities to get it done and it’ll be fine. But right now I don’t know what this other person’s going to say. It was kind of just like me accepting the unknown. [With one editor there was] a big sticky note on her desk that was like “The story is the boss” or something. I’m remembering that and I’m like, “Okay, well this story is just like going to take its form” and just kind of like letting it. I’m trying not to be too stressed. The piece itself has seen a lot of edits thus far and I’ve been working on it for awhile. It’s a big story that I didn’t think was going to be as big as it was. It was kind of one of those things where I was like, “Oh, this would be cut and dry.” But it’s okay. I’ll be proud of it when I’m done because I’ve been working pretty hard on it.