Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Young life unfolds in essays

While clearing out emails about a week ago, most of them spam, an unexpected name popped up.

It was a young cousin – very young, a high school senior, making her about 37 years my junior. I had seen her in person perhaps 10 times since she was born, and other than exchanging “hi,” I’m not sure we ever spoke. She and the other cousins about her age popped into the room, awkwardly said their hellos and ran outside to play. I knew her primarily as a young girl, and now a young woman, with movie-star good looks in her mother’s photos on Facebook.

She emailed to ask me to review the drafts of her college application essays and make suggestions. I had done the same for her older brother a couple of years ago.

The experience was not quite like reading a young woman’s personal journal, but her conversational writing style felt almost like hearing her speak, and the essays in many ways fleshed out a picture of someone I would not have recognized as matching the Facebook photos.

This beautiful, dainty-looking girl turns out to love power tools and construction, things she was introduced to on church youth group mission trips.

“I happened to have a knack for the power tools!” she wrote. “I became proficient in using the table saw, circular saw, nail gun, and my personal favorite, the chop saw.”

I pictured her in goggles, heavy gloves and a hard hat, her blonde hair tied up tight in the back while she – petite and thin, perhaps weighing 100 pounds, perhaps not – wields a nail gun.

On one mission trip to Laredo, Texas, she chose to work outside on construction with the boys, the only girl not to choose indoor work teaching Vacation Bible School. Outdoors, in summer heat reaching over 100 degrees, her group nailed siding to a building and drilled a new well.

Now I added to my mental picture dirt streaks on her cheeks and sweat soaking her shirt and hair. Such a different look than I saw on Facebook last spring, when her mother showed off her prom dress.

Her construction work on mission trips got her interested in taking drafting classes in high school. She took all three that her school offered – the only girl in all three classes. Before long she realized she knew about as much about construction and drafting as the boys. She also experienced the sexism that women in a man’s world so easily still find.

Further running counter to all the girly images from Facebook, I learned she has been working as an intern at a veterinary hospital. But this is no pet-the-kitties gig.

“I have learned how to squeeze anal glands, conduct heartworm tests, analyze fecal samples, etc.,” she wrote, and now I may never be able to unsee the mental pictures that sentence brought to mind. “In addition to this, I have gotten to watch surgeries, including spays and neuters.”

Of course, what these essays really showed me was a series of snapshots of the blossoming of a soon-to-be-adult, full of complexities and experiences that defy your expectations. She’s not fully there yet, but she’s well on the way.

Read Full Post »

“When John Smith stopped at the convenience store with two friends, he never thought he’d be hit with a rock.”

That’s a type of lead I try to beat out of reporters (figuratively) early on. It reminds me of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch. It is never news that someone never expected the unexpected. That’s why it’s unexpected. “NO ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!” If that’s the best you’ve got, you don’t have a story. And it’s never the best you’ve got.

The true news would be if he had a suspicion he was going to be hit with a rock but went to the store anyway. That would be a story.

Same story, another bad practice: The first quote in the story is not from John Smith. John Smith is the only person named so far. Who is it then? What voice should the reader hear? The reader doesn’t know until two sentences into the quote. Oh, it’s John Smith’s wife. Now the reader goes back (if the writer is lucky) and re-reads the quote now that there is context and at least the mental version of a voice to go with the words; it’s a woman’s voice, someone close to John Smith. (If the writer is not lucky, the reader gives up on the story and moves on. Every time you present a bump in the road to reading comprehension, you set up an off-ramp where the reader can veer away from your story.)

Read Full Post »

nora
I don’t remember who told me I should write about Nora McGee.

I remember it had something to do with the 81-year-old woman’s woodworking, that she had taken it up as a child in an age when grown women rarely did that work. Among other things, she built several floor-to-ceiling cabinets for her kitchen. I remembered the feminist gist of what she told me about growing up as a tomboy in the early 20th century, but until re-reading the story not the wonderful phrasing she used.

“Back in my day, women weren’t supposed to do that,” she said. “I just decided, instead of knitting when I didn’t want to, I would hammer when I wanted to.”

I liked doing stories of women striking out into men’s territory. Around the same time, 1987, I wrote about the only four women in Lenoir who were criminal defense attorneys. It’s still a men’s field – I think I have seen more women at the Caldwell County Courthouse working as prosecutors than defense attorneys in the past three years.

Until a relative of McGee’s sent me a photocopy of her story recently I didn’t remember her name, but when that relative mentioned McGee’s name to me a week or so earlier I wondered if that was the woman I wrote about who did the woodworking. It sounded familiar.

When the photocopy arrived in the mail I recognized it, and yet it differed from my memory.

I shot the photo the News-Topic ran of her moving wood on a saw, but I remembered shooting it at a different angle. I remembered she wore a dress at the time, and I would have described it as sort of dark and plain, yet when I saw the black-and-white image I could tell it must have been gray or, more likely, light blue with a simple floral pattern. As I sat at home Saturday morning thinking about writing about the difference between my memory and the photo, I thought her hair was darker and longer than it actually is in the photo.

We all like to think of our memory as a video recorder. Everything that goes in is played back reliably and the same way every time, unless it gets erased. Then it’s just gone. But what we recall, that’s what was. That happened.

With rare exceptions, though, we have fluid memories. Even in the events we remember, details change. People change. Some things fade out, while new details may emerge.

I remember from that group of women defense attorneys just one name, Nancy Epstein, maybe because that stood out as not a local name. I remember I thought she was attractive. Maybe that’s the only reason she’s the only one I can remember – or maybe I have told myself she was attractive because hers is the only name I remember, and I can’t think of another reason I would forget the other three.

Or was her name Nancy? Google can’t find her.

Were there really four women in that group? Maybe there were three.

I don’t have the newspaper clipping of that story, only the memory of the photo I shot, the women standing together somewhere in front of the courthouse.

Maybe I was meant to work as a reporter because even as a teenager I knew that memories weren’t always reliable. I often said when telling people what I recall, “If I remember accurately …”

In a poetry writing class in college, one of our assignments was to describe our earliest memory. Mine has always been a few moments in a medical setting when I must have been an infant. I wrote my description of it as best I could but couched all of my details with qualifiers, saying that this is how I remember it, and pointing out the gaps that I didn’t remember. The professor read each student’s submission without telling who wrote it, and after reading mine he told the class he knew exactly the procedure being described – one that, as he talked about it, I had no idea existed. Then he declared that the careful insistence that the memory’s details might be flawed clearly indicated that the entire thing was a work of fiction because no one said things like that when describing a memory.

No one knew I had written it, so I could not feel humiliated at being called a fabulist (I should note I got a good grade in the class – lies in poetry are not a bad thing, apparently). Mainly I wondered: Had I learned about that procedure at some point and forgot about it? Had I seen it on TV and internalized the imagery? I’ll never know.

The memory feels as real as my interviews with “Miss Nora” and Nancy Epstein. That’s why I have to couch my words. That’s why we all should.

NOTE: After this was published, a reader emailed me and said I probably was thinking of Nancy Einstein, who now practices law in Morganton. She was correct.

Read Full Post »

When they asked me to speak at the convention, they told me I should tell a story about the candidate. It should be something with real emotion, the candidate’s campaign manager said as we stood at my front door, the limousine parked with its engine running in my driveway. It should be something that would humanize the candidate.

I blinked and tried to think of something. “It would be a lot easier,” I said, “if the candidate were a human.”

“Ha ha,” the manager said. “You’re only the … (pausing while flipping through a small notebook) eighth person today to tell me that.”

The limousine driver honked. The manager raised a finger toward the car and told me, “You’ll go on the middle of the second night, with other old friends.”

“Who else?” I asked.

The limousine driver honked. The manager looked over, and a back window in the car rolled down a tiny crack, enough to shoot a look at the manager.

I knew that eye. “Oh, hey!” I waved. The window rolled up.

The manager began to turn. “We’ll be in touch. Think of a story.”

I watched the limousine pull away, my mind a blank. A story with real emotion.

I went inside. My wife was waiting in the kitchen. “What was that about?” she said.

“I’ve been asked to speak at the convention.”

“Won’t that get you in trouble at work? What will your boss say?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t see how I could turn it down.”

She poured me a cup of coffee. “What are you supposed to talk about?”

“I’m supposed to tell a story with real emotion that would humanize the candidate.”

She looked at me blankly, then crossed her arms. “That would be easier if you were talking about a human.”

“Yeah.” I sat down with my coffee.

She looked concerned and brushed my arm. “Do you have a story?”

I shrugged.

I thought and thought about it. I thought all day, and when I went to bed that night I stared at the ceiling thinking. That’s when I thought of something. I got up, went to my laptop and wrote the whole thing down, with much more detail than I thought would be needed in a speech, but I wanted to be sure I got everything down.

A couple of days later the manager called to check on my progress, and I said I had a story that I thought would do a lot to humanize the candidate. I told the whole thing.

Silence on the phone.

“Hello?” I said.

“That’s a terrible story.”

“Why is that a terrible story?” I asked.

“You end up bleeding all over a police officer. It sounds like a testimonial for the police officer.”

“But it’s very emotional.”

“Only because you’re crying almost the whole time.”

“But –”

“Nevermind. We’re running out of time anyway, so we won’t need you. Thanks very much for your efforts, though. We need your vote.”

And that was that.

I really should call to check on that police officer again. She was so kind.

Read Full Post »

This is a follow-up to the previous post and was written to run in the News-Topic.

It takes a special kind of jerk to respond to a young person’s exuberance with bitter cynicism and bile.

That would be the kind of person who, seeing a young boy cheerfully walking along with a helium balloon, pulls out something sharp. Best to pop the balloon and make the child cry – after all, life is hard, and you better get used to it.

There is a financial writer named Felix Salmon who is one of those people. He works for a website called Fusion, and last week he wrote an article with the headline To all the young journalists asking for advice …. From the way the article starts, I take it that Salmon regularly receives email from young reporters asking for tips on how to get into the business, or into Fusion itself, and saying how much they would like to talk about it over coffee if they could. That’s the kind of thing that the job-networking website LinkedIn and other places that give job-hunting advice recommend that you try to do – reach out to someone working someplace that you would like to work, ask for advice, try to meet for coffee.

Salmon illustrates two pitfalls of that strategy. One is that the advice is now so widespread that anyone a young job-hunter may contact might just be tired of all the unsolicited attention and requests for advice and coffee. The other is that the person you email out of the clear blue may be a bitter, old fart who’s more likely to insult you than to try to help.

Salmon’s “advice” was discouraging, to say the least. Not only that, it was contradictory.

“In fact, life is not good for journalists. And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse,” he wrote, immediately after a paragraph that ended, “I think this is probably the greatest era for journalism that the world has ever seen. I also think that some of today’s fast-growing digital companies are going to become the media behemoths of tomorrow, making their owners extremely rich in the process.”

In other words, despite all the positive things he sees going on, his takeaway on the world of journalism is “Life stinks and then you die.”

Way to be a Debbie Downer, Felix.

Journalism is changing, which is true of a great many occupations – and always has been. Do you see any businesses around here that sell horse-drawn carts? That used to be one way to make a living. When cars came along, carts and buggies went away. But even cars aren’t constant. A couple of years ago I did an interview at a business that used to be a car dealership – for the Hudson Motor Car Co., a brand of car that most people now have never heard of. Remember when furniture companies started moving jobs to Asia? They’re never coming back, everyone said. Now a number of those jobs are coming back. Things change.

A lot of the upheaval affecting journalism and news organizations is related to the Internet. But the Internet is not a monolithic force. Things change there too. Remember Friendster? Probably not. It was Facebook before there was a Facebook. It got replaced by MySpace, which got replaced by Facebook.

How does the Internet come into your house? It used to be that the only way anyone got online was with a modem that dialed a phone number. Companies that made those modems have had to either quickly adapt as technology changes or go out of business.

Dell Computers built a production plant near Winston-Salem 10 or 15 years ago to make desktop computers – and within a few years it was obsolete because people started buying laptops instead.

Things change. What’s important is what you want to do. What do you like? What sort of work makes you feel creative or productive and fulfilled? In the case of those young people writing to Salmon, it is writing and reporting – telling stories. The technology of doing that is changing, so the details of doing the work is changing. The revenue of some parts of the business, such as newspapers, has declined, and maybe will keep declining – or it might stop. The things that make the work appeal to certain people haven’t changed that much. No one ever got into writing for the money.

Better advice was once given by David Carr, a prominent reporter for the New York Times who died Thursday:

“Being a journalist, I never feel bad talking to journalism students because it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. That’s not gonna retire your loans as quickly as it should, and it’s not going to turn you into a person who’s worried about what kind of car they should buy, but that’s kind of as it should be. I mean, it beats working.”

That’s the kind of advice young people deserve to hear.

UPDATE: Another good one to read on this topic. Sample: “I was disappointed about how I had been taken in by someone projecting his own feelings of discouragement onto a group of people younger than himself.”

Read Full Post »

I haven’t met Dylan Howlett, but I hope I will because his recent blog post, Advice for Felix Salmon: Stop giving advice, is very well written. In case you don’t have time right now to go read it (find the time eventually, please) or the piece it refers to, here’s a summary:

Salmon wrote an article, To all the young journalists asking for advice …, not only discouraging anyone from trying to pursue a career in journalism but insulting them for thinking of it. Howlett responded smartly and hilariously, calling out Salmon’s bitterness and the massive gaps in his argument.

Howlett aptly sums up why I stay in this business. It’s true that after I was laid off in 2012, I looked for an exit ramp to something else. My thoughts at the time were not as dark as Salmon expresses, but they were in that general path.

But my previous job in journalism wasn’t very rewarding, emotionally. The one I have now is. No surprise, I now work directly with reporters and their writing and do a fair amount of writing of my own. And you know what? It’s nice to be in love. It’s true of people and it’s true of whatever you do.

Also, this, from Salmon: “And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse.”

That reminds me of this: For more than 20 years, I worked for Media General. When I started, the company’s stock was trading somewhere in the $20- to $30-a-share range. At one point in the early 2000s it got to over $70 a share. But then much of the media world started getting “disrupted,” and the stock dropped. A few years ago it got down to around $1 a share. Along the way, a lot of people decided it was never going to get any better — prodded by some stock analysts who predicted the company was doomed — and they dumped all their stock. Today it’s trading for over $15. Obviously, $70 a share was ridiculous, but so was $1. Yes, Media General is now a TV company with no newspapers, but that’s the point: Who saw that coming? A point that Salmon, oddly enough, makes unintentionally by pointing out developments in journalism that came out of nowhere.

There’s a saying related to stock trading: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Salmon, despite his financial-reporting background, seems to believe otherwise — which is all the more puzzling, given that he admits “I’ve also never really had a career, in the sense of a planned-out sequence of jobs, each one slightly better than the last, working my way up towards some grand ideal position. I arrived where I am randomly, and I could not have replicated it if I tried.”

That pretty much sums up the career of almost everyone I have ever met.

Here’s my advice: If you fall in love, follow your heart.

Read Full Post »

Am I necessary?

I am an editor, and the main thing I do every day is change (a little or a lot) what other people have written. That’s not all I do, but that’s the part that other people seem to focus on, such as in discussion of changes like the ones under way in Gannett to reduce the ranks of editors.

Writing for Gawker, Hamilton Nolan seems to make the case that editors do nothing but hurt the writing they touch and make it worse. I’ve heard that before, indirectly. A reporter of mine about 15 years ago was working at the General Assembly in Raleigh, talking casually with other reporters, and the subject of editors came up. One said that he had never written a story that was improved by an editor. Others agreed. My reporter said she didn’t agree, and when talking to me she actually sounded stunned, and saddened, that the sentiment was so widespread.

I wasn’t that surprised.

It’s true that if you are a really good writer, the odds that your editor will improve your writing by much are small.

But it’s also true that if you think you are a really good writer whose work is so good it doesn’t need editing at all, you’re probably wrong. You might be right, but the odds are against it, partly because you probably are not as good as you think and partly because even good writers have blind spots and weaknesses – and if they are lucky, they are aware of that and seek someone else’s perspective.

As an editor, working with a good writer is a pleasure not because there is nothing to do at the end of the day but because from morning to evening you get to focus on what can elevate that person’s work. Maybe that’s in the writing or an angle of the reporting, but maybe it’s in the headline, the presentation, the art, a sidebar that can be drawn from a small but interesting element in the story.

One of the best reporters I ever worked with knew he needed an editor for one simple reason: He couldn’t stop himself. He would write 40 inches of copy because he felt the need to write everything he gathered, but he knew the average reader would never plow through it. Some editors couldn’t trim his stories well. He thought I did and that I made them better. He also liked to have a trusted ear to bounce ideas off of, someone who could challenge them or add to them.

Some of the most important work an editor does is editing the idea for a story, which happens in talking with a reporter about the story before or during the reporting process. I would hope this is not the “looking over their shoulder” that Gannett feels its papers no longer need, but it sure sounds like the part that “listening” to readers and data will replace.

In truth, a good editor – like a good reporter – is always listening to readers, whether or not corporate says to, with whatever tools are available. The question isn’t whether listening is good, it’s what do you mean by “listening.” If it’s, “Stories about neglected dogs get a lot of traffic and comments,” and the intention at corporate is to then produce a lot more stories about neglected dogs, then that isn’t a helpful definition of listening. If the intention instead would be to look seriously not only at neglect but at the issues surrounding, contributing to and spinning off of it, that could be a good thing.

And maybe that will be what Gannett’s “content editors” do — Kate Marymont, Gannett’s VP of news, told CJR’s Ryan Chittum: “We certainly are not looking for clickbait. We’re not trying to drive empty clicks. We’re trying to build loyal returning customers by giving content we know they want by following over period of time.” — which would make the elimination of assignment editors just another bit of corporate double-talk to justify cutting the editing ranks.

But whatever you call it, can fewer editors improve more reporters’ storytelling skills across platforms? It doesn’t seem likely.

Coaching is actually more time-consuming than simple editing. That’s why any discussion of coaching usually starts at the assigning stage. If you are going to coach-up someone’s storytelling skills, that person has to enter the reporting process with a sense of what exactly he or she is after; otherwise the coach can only point out after the fact what would have been nice to have so that next time the reporter gets it.

No, by sharply cutting editors to maintain reporting strength the calculation clearly is that content by itself is the main value and that the value-added benefit of most editing is, considering continuing decreases in advertising revenue, expendable; that you have to maintain your content level, but you have to cut expenses, so you keep the content-creators and cut those who enhance it. Then you hope that whatever errors and omissions result don’t undercut too seriously the perceived value of your product.

This line of thinking would be equivalent to a furniture company keeping the factory workers who produce the furniture but no longer selling it stained and finished; it’s still sturdy furniture, just as well made, but more raw. (The thinking is incorrect, because editors do some of the furniture making, not just the polishing, but that would be the equivalent.)

And to some extent, especially in larger markets, that kind of thinking may work out for a while.

But good writers (or content creators) do not just appear in a publication’s newsroom like driftwood carried in on the tide. If they did, no one would need editors at all. Someone hires them. And while some very good writers may truly believe their talent is self-evident to all, that would tell me they haven’t spent enough time around people who don’t know good writing when they see it.

Thinning the ranks of editors necessarily increases the dependence on the talent-evaluation skills of whoever is left.

All the way around, it’s a thinner margin for error.

Ideally, that higher dependence on more talented individuals – each reporter standing more on his or her own, each of the remaining editors or coaches responsible for that much more – should translate into higher pay in order to retain and reward those who are capable of maintaining quality in a more high-stakes environment.

But it won’t. Don’t get me started on that.

UPDATE 8/25/14: From a related post by Ken Doctor:

“Sure, we can add in coaching — mentoring has always been a key ingredient in the best newsroom cultures. Coaching and editing, though, don’t equate, especially in newsrooms increasingly populated by underpaid, relatively inexperienced younger journalists. Even as we recognize the value of the more amorphous community intelligence, and attempt to add it to the news report, greatly diminishing editorial intelligence is a recipe for disaster — and business failure.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »