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What We Can Learn From Imma Vitelli
Bryna Shuman, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
February 23, 2015

Since I was 14 years old, I have only ever wanted to be a travel journalist. It seemed like a dream that someone might one day pay me to travel to exotic destinations, meet wonderful people and write pieces about it. Therefore, it was a shock to me when Imma Vitelli, a vivacious war correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine with a monthly column in Marie Claire, started her recent dialogue at La Pietra Dialogues ‘The Border Chronicles’ by trying to dissuade the audience from becoming journalists. It was, she said, a constant struggle and unless you are prepared to put in a lot of work you should not put yourself through it. Yet, by the end of her dialogue, I didn’t feel any hesitation about my chosen career path, but rather an overwhelming urge to begin working right away. Imma Vitelli’s passion for her work and advice on how to succeed in the field of travel writing inspired me to aim higher and try harder. Throughout her talk she shared key lessons that she has learned over the last ten years and how they made her the strong journalist she is today. 

Know yourself: One of Vitelli’s most adamant pieces of advice throughout the evening? “Get a shrink.” Despite the audience’s laughter at her bold assertion, Vitelli insisted that talking with a therapist was a defining moment in her life. Unless you know why you do the things you do, she argued, you are never going to wonder why the people in front of you do the things they do. 

Take risks: To live your dream and be a writer you have to be a little bit crazy. Vitelli took a gamble when she quit her desk job in a newsroom after eight months to move to the Middle East. “If you want to live your dream, at a certain point you need to take a risk,” Vitelli said, “You will be sustained by your passion. It is the passion that drives you.”

Become an expert: To be a columnist, you have to be an expert on something. Vitelli pointed out that you can be an expert on anything, from tomatoes and fashion to ISIS and the stock market, but that you have to be someone who masters it. Read everything you can on the subject and read every day.

Listen: One of the biggest struggles that Vitelli had to overcome when she first arrived in the Middle East was to learn the importance of real listening. When her postman first introduced himself she was so distracted by the fact that his cousin was an infamous terrorist that she failed to realize the real story should be about the man in front of her. “It was the reporter inside of me, writing a news story instead of a column,” she explained, “I should have asked him so many questions about his family, and how he grew up, and how he ended up being a postman. That was the column, but I didn’t listen.” 

Gain trust: According to Vitelli, the most important thing for a journalist to do is to gain trust. When speaking with the commander of a group of women fighting ISIS, Vitelli kept her notebook in her bag for the first hour, understanding that the woman was still evaluating her. Only after the woman was more at ease did Vitelli ask if she could take notes. “You need their trust, because it is the only way people will truly talk to you,” she explained.

Find the goosebump moments: “If you’re getting goosebumps when you listen, it needs to go to your copy,” Viselli asserted. Human stories are the most important to tell because they speak to our hearts, and these emotions are universal. Vitelli recommends closing your eyes and remembering the moments that gave you goosebumps when trying to write your column. If something gave you shivers, there’s a good chance that it will give your reader shivers too.

 
 
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