For 25 years, I’ve written for newspapers — mainly The Roanoke Times. I’ve also been published in a variety of national magazines ranging from Garden & Gun to PARADE to American Journalism Review to O, the Oprah Magazine.
During my 2010 Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard, I studied long-term care issues at the Harvard School of Public Health. During that time, I followed a former story subject, Lynn Forbish, to her bittersweet end, culminating in this March 2011 O magazine story, “Before I Forget.”
I’ve written for PARADE magazine as well, including this recent piece — a how-to guide for families trying to determine if loved ones may be the victims of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
JOURNALISM ABOUT JOURNALISM: I’ve written several articles for Nieman Reports, Nieman Storyboard, Poynter Online and for American Journalism Review, but my favorite story about journalism by far is a September 2008 piece called “Notice What You Notice,” about finding inventive story ideas. It begins with an anecdote by New York Times urban affairs reporter Sam Roberts about one of his favorite stories — on the lowly semicolon. Not only had he witnessed one (used correctly) on a New York subway sign, but he noticed that he noticed it — and then thought to write a very charming story about it.
My work for The Roanoke Times has been anthologized in “The Best Newspaper Writing” series. My winning story featured Rocio Ortiz, a woman who worked her way up from illegal immigrant and meat-plant assembly line worker to plant manager — but at great personal expense.
When my kids were little, I taught nights and did freelance writing while they napped. I wrote a series of articles on the erosion of need-based aid — all of it inspired by a fellow teacher’s off-hand slam against Pell grant students. (I had been a very grateful beneficiary of the grants myself, and plenty of my best students were also.) These stories appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon and the Christian Science Monitor, which called me “Pell’s Poster Child.”
Years later it hit me: I’m drawn to these stories not just by personal ethics, but also by a subconscious need to mine my own story — again and again. I don’t set out to write about outsiders and underdogs, but the truth is, those are always the stories I end up writing best.
I tell my students to figure out what moves them so they’ll more effectively move their readers, too.