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Posts Tagged ‘writing’


Business North Carolina magazine recently voted downtown Lenoir’s motto as the best in the state.

I had thought that “Together We Create” was a great motto the first time I read it, blending both the area’s focus on the arts and the city’s manufacturing legacy, so it is nice to see it win acknowledgement from the high-powered marketing and communications experts who did the judging for the magazine.

To be fair to most of the rest of the state, though, it seems that most places didn’t have a motto in the running. The magazine says “roughly 20” entries were received, and from those it selected the top five.

And it would seem that many of those that were sent in don’t exactly sing. The motto voted fifth-best was “Well-centered.” I can imagine the session that came up with that:

Group leader: “What does our town have to brag about?”

Member one: “Well, we’re kind of smack in the middle of everything.”

Member two: “The schools are OK. Well, my nephew isn’t, but I think that’s on him.”

Member three: “The meth use seems to be dropping.”

Leader: “Let’s go with the first.”

Maybe most of the towns around the state don’t have a motto. That could be on purpose. Adopting a motto can be a perilous thing. The chances are very good that the motto will come in for ridicule.

I remember nearly 20 years ago when I was living in Winston-Salem and that city adopted the motto “O! Winston-Salem: Now that’s living.” The city spent $65,000 for that, according to an article in the Winston-Salem Journal, but few people liked it, and it mostly faded away.

It didn’t help that around that time a doctor in the city made national news for a medical treatment he developed for women that turned out also to have a genital-stimulating side effect.

Most elected officials don’t want to spend taxpayer money to come up with a motto that everyone may hate anyway.

So in the spirit of the “infinite monkey theorem” – which says that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type any given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare – here are some free suggestions for county and municipal officials around the state to consider.

“You could do worse.”

“Our town appears on all quality maps.”

“What you see is what you get.”

“You may not like us now, but wait until you get 20 miles down the road.”

“If that’s your attitude then just keep driving.”

“Misery loves company.”

“At least as honest as the median town.”

“Most likely above average.”

“Better than you’ll remember.”

“Better than good enough.”

“When it’s time to settle, we’re the place.”

“Wake up and smell the coffee.”

“When your dreams fade, we’ll still be here.”

“Keeping up appearances.”

“Closer to paradise than you deserve.”

“Few regret staying.”

I’ll keep working on the list. They may be terrible, but at least no taxpayer money was spent to produce them.

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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.

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“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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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