From AJR, April 2000 issue
Can I Survive This?
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
WHEN MARIE COLVIN failed to keep an appointment for an interview in February, a secretary in the London Times newsroom offered to track her down. Two days later, frustrated and apologetic, she admitted, "To be honest, we donšt know where she's off to. Marie just disappears sometimes."
"Disappearing" is a way of seeking a safety zone for the reporter, who returns from near-death experiences, such as the one she recently endured in Chechnya, physically and emotionally spent. Instead of rushing to share war stories with other foreign correspondents, she heads to a circle of friends in London she calls "family"--a poet, a novelist, a film producer. That, she says, and her favorite pastime, sailing, keep her from becoming "obsessed" with her work.
Colvin describes herself as a "not particularly fit" city girl who smokes too much, consumes vast amounts of coffee, and, at times, drinks too much to let off steam. She entered Yale with dreams of being a marine biologist--Jacques Cousteau was her hero. By the time she graduated in 1978, she had discovered John Hersey and a passion for writing.
There is no doubt that she gets a buzz from being in the thick of the action. Surviving danger, she says, "gives you an adrenaline rush. It's more exciting than sitting in London wondering, 'Did I pay my telephone bill?'
"The point is, can I survive this? I try not to get in situations that are stupid. You also have to be brave enough not to worry about being called a coward," she says.
Colvin credits a philosophical stoicism with helping her through moments when she truly feels her luck has run out. For instance, when Russian warplanes are buzzing, she calms herself by thinking, " 'You got yourself into this situation. There are no excuses. You now have to get yourself out.' It's stamina more than any kind of physical training," she says.
"It's a human mechanism. You put on hold your fear, you put on hold your emotions. When I'm on a story, I'm firing on all eight cylinders. When I get out, I face, not depression, but an emotional tiredness," says Colvin, who for 10 years was Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Times of London. One thing she knows for certain: "Everybody prays under shell fire."
When she's traveling in conflict zones, she keeps notebooks in a "diary form," recording everything from what the dawn looked liked to descriptions of the people she meets along the way. When she's ready to write, she culls out what she plans to use on a separate sheet of paper, a "kind of prompter," she calls it.
That technique "gets it back in my head in a more headline, point-by-point form. The hardest thing for me is the lead. I can agonize for two days about how I'm going to open a story," she says.
But she has no uncertainty about why she does what she does. "I believe it's important to write what war is really like," she says. "It's not a video game. War is slogging through mud, freezing cold, people suffering horrific injuries or death, moments of terror and bravery. It's easier to feel comfortable about waging a war when all you see is a video that shows a little x where a bomb, dropped from 20,000 feet, hits its target."