Editing the Guardian experience column: 'It's about profound moments of discovery'

Editor of our real-life experience column reflects on what it’s like to share the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things

The Sanders family
The Sanders family - twins who married twins and had two sets of twins. Photograph: Robert Seale/2020 Robert Seale/www.robertseale.com
The Sanders family - twins who married twins and had two sets of twins. Photograph: Robert Seale/2020 Robert Seale/www.robertseale.com
Sam Wolfson

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 08.31 EST

I find it difficult now to hear any anecdote that’s just a bit too arresting. Someone can be telling me the most terrifying ordeal of their life, but in the back of my head I’m thinking: this could be one.

Experience, a column of extraordinary stories told in the first person, has appeared near the front of Weekend magazine for more than 20 years. It was often the first thing I read when I got the paper on a Saturday. Like most people, I wondered how on earth they found these stories: the 8-year-old girl who pulled a sword from a lake, or the man who had an erection for three weeks. When I joined Weekend in 2019 and was charged with commissioning the column, I realised I would have to work out how for myself.

Having now commissioned more than 60 of them, I’m still not sure what the secret is. I was hoping for a little hack or an internal repository of people with extraordinary life stories. Instead I’ve spent many hours scouring newspapers, social media and medical journals. I’m mostly trying to find stories that make you think: what must that have been like to go through.

Often I panic, thinking we’ll never get a good one again and then one of our fantastic roster of writers – Deborah Linton, Candice Pires, Chris Broughton and many others – will email with something incredible, a man whose house was demolished by accident, or a young woman in Barnsley who became pen pals with Tupac Shakur. They tend to interview the subject and then work with them to tell their story in their own words. Many of the experiences are about profound moments of discovery and life-or-death scenarios, and their sensitivity and understanding when interviewing these subjects is phenomenal.

Often I work backwards to try to find the person to meet the story. I had been reading about a rare condition found in just a few humans, in which their gut essentially acts as a brewery turning yeast into alcohol. I asked Candice to see if she could find any real-life examples but had no idea we would end up with quite such an incredible tale. Donato Giannotto was arrested for drink-driving, unaware he had the syndrome. He was a fantastic character and insisted on wearing a Mr Potato Head costume in the shoot.

Donato Giannotto in a Mr Potato Head costume
Donato Giannotto, who suffers auto-brewery syndrome, photographed in his home in New Jersey. Photograph: Christopher Lane/The Guardian

At the end of each column we invite readers to send their own stories too, and we’ve got some wonderful ones from the inbox, including this tale of a man who helped a snail find love. I must admit, however, the emails I most enjoy are from readers sharing quite unremarkable events: the day they almost missed the train, or nearly mistook someone for their partner. These stories, often told at some length, are not always suitable for publication, but they do bring me a huge amount of joy and I make sure to tell the authors so. I notice BBC4 has taken to showing footage of three-hour train journeys in prime time under the banner of “slow TV”, so maybe one day we need to do a special issue of very ordinary happenings.

One of the amazing things about doing this at the Guardian is the incredible network of photographers we have access to. Louis Siroy, who commissions the photos, will occasionally give me a withering look when I tell him where the latest round of subjects are based (recent shoots have taken place in a small town in Florida, a Russian village and the Australian outback), but he always finds someone for the job, usually an award-winning photographer more used to photographing heads of state. It’s wonderful getting the photos back, often the people are quite different from what you had expected when you first read the pitch – it’s the closest you can get as a journalist to being a judge on The Voice.

Unlike when I write articles myself for the Guardian, the feedback from readers is extremely positive. I get a lot of messages from English teachers, particularly those who teach English as second language, who say they discuss them in class. I suppose they are quite traditional stories in a way, with a beginning, middle and an end.

The experience we’re pitched most often is someone who had a terrible accident or trauma but then went on to perform a feat of sporting endurance. While these ultra-triathletes are inspirational, they don’t always make for the best stories.

The ones that work best are experiences you haven’t heard before – or ones you think may have only happened to a few people in history. People who have cheated the odds in some way or were witness to extraordinary historical event, have a fascinating job or are just one of life’s eccentrics. They don’t always have to involve near-death drama, either – some of the most popular experiences have been funny stories, such as the man who awoke to find someone asleep in his living room or this wonderful curmudgeon in Liverpool who has written to his local paper every day for 40 years. But big or small, suspense is important – you don’t want to know how everything panned after the first sentence.

Mostly it’s just an extremely fun part of my job. I loved getting the pictures back from the photographer Robert Seale, who took the photos for the story about twins who married twins and had two sets of twins. The way he’d arranged the family members made by brain hurt for a moment.

Sometimes, though, it can be extremely affecting. The most difficult one I’ve worked on was published just last week. Chris Broughton had found the powerful story of a couple: James and Emma. James had been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer last year and hospitalised soon after, meaning they had to cancel plans for a small wedding in Hove town hall. Eventually, the staff organised for the wedding to take place across the road from the hospital, with the couple having less than an hour to make their preparations.

After doing the interview, James’ condition worsened considerably and we asked whether they still wanted the piece to run. They were both very keen that it did, as a record of everything they’d faced together. Terribly sadly, James passed away between the issue going to print and appearing on newsstands.

It was a reminder that these stories are very real, and the subjects are incredibly generous putting themselves forward. When they take the brave decision of being in the magazine we all get a chance to be awed by their incredible lives.