Bro’ing down: Chris Thile on sincerity and the creative process

Photograph by Meredith Roller from FloydFest 2012

Photograph by Meredith Roller from FloydFest 2012

I sat in on an hourlong master class recently with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile because my 15-year-old musician son had a school conflict and couldn’t make it. (Someone had to do it!) About five minutes into Thile’s funny, intimate and totally revved up pre-concert talk about what gets him jazzed about music — what makes him really want to bro down with the work, as he put it — I realized I should take notes not just for my son but for all my creative pals.

Here are some Thile-isms, fresh from the mouth of a current MacArthur Genius. Thanks to the Music Lab at Jefferson Center’s Dylan Locke, who let me sit in on the talk and who elevates everything he touches — by making sure the musicians passing through Roanoke pause to pass some of what they know on to our kids.

Sincerity has to be foremost in any creation. Which explains the meteoric rise of Adele: She may have a stunning voice, but her music is technically and artistically meh. What Adele provides in spades is what people crave most these days, Thile said — the fact that she’s “a shining beacon of sincerity.”

In an age where friends gather only to spend half the time talking/texting to people who aren’t in the room, the Adele phenomenon is a symptom of the “huge gaping hole in our society of human connection,” he said. Asked to name musical examples of the intersection of sincerity and virtuosity, Thile raved about  The Beatles and Radiohead.

And then, in an astonishing display of singing, mandolin-playing and mile-a-minute talking, he was kind enough to break down what works about one Radiohead tune here in a nine-minute riff. (Thanks to Tom Landon for recording/editing/uploading it to youtube for me.)

Writing takeaway: Readers crave connection. Find the stories that are equal parts head and heart.

Study the work of others, always asking: Why does this piece work? Or why exactly do I hate this piece? Sometimes you don’t like something because it challenges you, and that honest self-reflection can lead to challenging new insights about your own process. Articulating why you love/hate a piece of music will help develop the sound of you.

Writing takeaway: When something wows you, read it again and again until you really know it. Go the extra step of articulating why that combination of words/sentences/observations/rhythm works for you. As the journalist Pete Hammill once said: Study the work the way a magician susses out a new trick. Figure out: How did he saw that man in half?

Develop your own voice, even if it means initially just imitating the people you admire, said Thile, who later played every note of Bach’s “Sonata No. 2 in A Minor” without a piece of sheet music. (He’s been studying Bach half his life, according to my colleague Tad Dickens, who wrote a fabulous review of his concert that night.) “You’re the only person in the world who likes the combination of things you that you like,” Thile told the students.

Thile gave a one hour master class to the students at the Music Lab, then gathered for pics after his concert — that's my bass thumper, Will, on right.

Thile gave a one-hour master class to the students at the Music Lab, then gathered for pics after his concert — that’s my bass thumper, Will, on right.

Imitate the works you love but with the goal of striving for something that’s brand new. “If you pay attention, you can  figure out where you might take the music, where you can change the moment and go your own way with it. It’ll get so you’ll hear this thing, and you wish that something else was there instead — then, go write that thing.”

Writing takeaway: Originality can transpire from copying the masters, obsessing over the work and debating it with your friends. Develop a passion for it, in other words, because it’s important, and you love it, and you can’t imagine doing anything else. Try to be brave enough to give the masters a nod while at the same time taking the work in your own direction.

What works for Thile may not necessary work for others, though. How had Thile, at just 32, managed to develop such confidence in his process, I wondered? I didn’t get the opportunity to ask, but fortunately Thile was in town the same time another creative genius was all over the news. Canadian short story writer Alice Munro seemed genuinely shocked when an NPR reporter called to ask her what it felt like to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Often compared to Chekhov, Munro maps the complexities of rural women in Canada, exploring how they cope with the quotidian of “food and mess and houses.” The story sent me to a Paris Review interview, in which Munro explained that she studied Southern women writers like Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers because they gave her the idea that it was OK to write about women who lead marginalized, small-town lives.

Damn what’s fashionable, write about what you know, all the while protecting your own creative space. “When you live in a small town you hear more things, about all sorts of people,” Munro told her interviewers. “In a city you mainly hear stories about your own sort of people.” Munro ended up creating a territory uniquely her own, and she stuck by it in her own quiet, persistent way.

Unlike Thile, Munro spent more of her career steering clear of the New York literati and does not bro down often with her writer brethren. She told one interviewer that it would have intimidated and, ultimately, distracted her. Instead, she found her own quiet path down a  country road, far from Thile’s hipster Brooklyn scene.

Writing takeaway: Both geniuses found their unique pathway into the pantheon of artistic genius. They never try to write, sound or act like anyone other than who they actually are.

 

       

There Are No Great Stories in the Newsroom (or on Twitter)

jmu cover1HARRISONBURG, Va. — They had just returned from mostly unpaid internships, two or three months of working for free. The managing editor told me she posted to her student newspaper’s website between assignments at the entertainment weekly where she worked. A diner in town had closed, a James Madison University institution, and she’d read about it on Twitter, then posted a brief story to the site.

My talk was supposed to be a back-to-school pep talk for the editors and page designers at the student newspaper, The Breeze, to remind them why journalism matters. I was about to turn in the revisions on my 110,000-word book, “Factory Man,” and I was incredibly tired of sitting at my computer for 12 hours at a stretch. When it came time to prepare my PowerPoint for the talk, it hit me that I could avoid technology (sort of, if you count scissors, tape and a phlegmy sounding scanner on its last leg) and get my main point across at the same time.

I love technology and use it all the time. Especially Command-F on my Mac desktop when sifting through my 530-page manuscript for some hard-to-find detail.

But my main message to the neophytes is that you can’t truly provide the  civic connective tissue that your readership deserves if you only talk/Facebook/tweet with the same people you already know. Too many reporters, young and old, rely on technology as a crutch.glue

Technology bridges geography and time zones, but it is no substitute for wandering around a community you don’t already know. Talking to a grieving mother about her son, who overdosed on heroin, then talking to the mom whose son is about to go to prison for selling him the drugs.

“You have to be there,” says the master, Gay Talese. “You have to see the people. Even if you don’t think you’re getting that much. … One of the problems of journalism today is how we are narrowing our focus and becoming indoors in terms of internalizing our reporting. The detail is what I think we’re missing.”harry

I’d all but finished my book reporting on the hollowed-out factory community of Martinsville and Henry County when a friendly source took me on one final tour. I’d already written about the demolished factories, but it wasn’t until I actually saw Harry Ferguson on his backhoe, burying the last literal chunks of the last factory in Bassett, that I understood it viscerally: “If you’d told people in Bassett 10 years ago that I’d be up here today burying this factory, they’d have said you were a complete fool,” he said.

So I attended my own makeshift factory funerals. I journeyed by kayak down the Smith River, the reason the factories were built where they were. I trounced through an overgrown, chigger-filled cemetery searching out the overturned graves of slaves-turned-sharecroppers-turned-furniture factory finishers. I talked to dozens of the 20,000 people who’d lost their jobs to globalization and offshoring over the past 15 years, and still had a palpable, almost desperate desire to tell me what it was like trying to live on $8.50-an-hour part-time jobs with no benefits, and the indignities suffered in line at the VEC.

Get away from your damn Smartphones and computers, I told the budding journalists — some of whom were live-Tweeting my talk! — and go back to the basics: paper, scissors, real people. Be the glue, as the great reporter Mary Bishop once taught me, connecting stranger to stranger, if only for an instant.mentors

Find mentors at every stage in your career. Feed the friendly photog, who is your extra set of eyes and the best on-the-scene collaborator you’ll ever have. (My book would not exist without the keen eye of freelance photographer Jared Soares.) Seek out the kind of tough editing we all require and deserve and that secretly drives us crazy; that red pen-wielding hardass who sends you back to your subjects again and again — until, finally, you understand what it is you’re trying to say.

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When a student wanted to know how to show diversity among the largely white, upper-middle class population at JMU, I told her about my first tough editor, Wendy Zomparelli (we called her editing sessions Zomp Stomps), who used to send my features back to me if they didn’t accurately reflect the diversity of our city’s population, down to one-quarter of  our sources being African-American to reflect Roanoke’s 25 percent black population. Every single time. It was the greatest training a young reporter could have.

Stories are everywhere around you, and things aren’t as simple — or as lily white — as they look on the surface, I reminded her. What about the men and women serving your lunch in the gourmet cafeteria? What about the student down the hall whose parents are renting out their newly spare room to pay for your $20,000 state tuition and room and board? What about the uptick in college drinking, opiate abuse in the suburbs, campus rape? Subjects that are all grist for digging beyond the obvious, life-is-good Twitter/Facebook feeds. Ask around. Be genuinely curious. Be friendly. Be skeptical. Above all, keep digging.the book process1

It’s the trust-building and context-layering that require the most attention, I added, showing them the holy mess that turned into my 28-chapter book  — complete with a brick from the demolished Bassett furniture factory that Harry Ferguson handed to me. Between all those arrows and statistics; between the numbers,  timelines and literally hundreds of interview notes — that’s where the magic lies.

Focus on the people, especially those whose voices aren’t typically heard.

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The Book Slog Blues (Part II)

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture's rub room in the late '20s or early '30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture’s rub room in the late ’20s or early ’30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

The more I learn for my book-in-progress, the more I am humbled by how stupid I was when I wrote my proposal for “Factory Man.” I actually told my editor at Little, Brown & Company that I was halfway through my reporting, when in fact that figure was probably closer to 5 percent.

I wasn’t lying when I said it. I had just forgotten the central tenet of good writing: It’s all about great reporting. The more you learn, the more you realize you didn’t know anything before.

What do I wish I’d known before I started writing my book five months ago, after 20-some years of pining to land a book contract?

The connection-making mind needs frequent breaks. It needs mid-afternoon walks up Mill Mountain and breaks to make chili verde, and it craves any help and inspiration it can unearth along the way.

So I tape things to my computer, and atop the notebooks I carry with me on interviews. I write down nice things my book writer pals say to me, such as these aptly incongruent affirmations from Roland Lazenby: “You’re fucking fearless” and “Don’t be scared.”

I read and reread things like this partial paragraph from a profile of hip-hop pioneer Ahmir Khalib (Questlove) Thompson, written by New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger:

 . . . He had an unending appetite for pop culture, a prodigious memory for dates, and a compulsion for cross-referencing them. He can tell you, for instance, that Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE headquarters on May 13, 1985; that Tony Orlando guest-starred on “Cosby” that month, and that “Soul Train” was a rerun that week.

Stand back and look at the contextual heavy-lifting accomplished in just two sentences. Marvel at the astonished, easy tone. Count the status-defining details — where the subject lived, what he watched, who he listened to and what it meant to live inside his brain in the spring of 1985.

John Updike once said we like characters like Becky Sharp and Mr. Quilp because “what we like is life — and if the character is alive, we don’t apply any other criteria.” That’s another inspiration I’ve clipped, with thanks to Martin Amis, who recalled it in an interview with Vanity Fair writer John Heilpern.

The deeper you dig into a subject’s history, the tougher the material-culling will be. I’ve never spent this much reporting time focusing on one industry through one person and, the truth is, we might both be suffering from interview fatigue.

In a one- or two-shot interview, you save the tough questions for the end. But what do you do when the interviews are spread over more than a year? You spread the tough stuff out and hope for the best.

I’m not writing a hagiography, I remind my main character. I’m not writing a biography. So let’s put an end to the embedding jokes about Paula Broadwell and General Petraeus right now!

I’m writing a book about globalization in which he is a heroic main subject but he’s not a saint because, let’s face it, he’s colorful, he’s clever, and he seems to genuinely care about the plight of his factory workers. But he ain’t a saint.

When I worry that maybe I’m stirring up stuff that should remain hidden in history’s dusty archives, I turn to the new U.S. poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, who said this in a recent interview:

It is better if we grapple with [history]. Openly and honestly. And include parts that are difficult. … When the Birmingham church bombing convictions came down, people on the radio were saying, why open old wounds? The problem with that thinking is assuming those wounds had healed. Some bones broken will forever be weak. They will ache and cause pain. The best we can hope for is acknowledgment. What drives me crazy is when people don’t want to acknowledge!

I try to keep central in my mind: I may be writing about wealthy CEOs, but I’m also writing about their impact on tens of thousands of displaced factory workers whose stories are too rarely told.

“Factory Man” contains both history and current events, encompassing a decade of double-digit unemployment in Martinsville, Va., the recent sweatshop fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and what life was like for a bunch of hardscrabble sawmillers in 1902. The subject is as deep as it is wide and meandering, and that’s what keeps me awake so many nights because I know that finding exactly the right narrative, and the right tone to tell it in, are crucial.

So I write and, like the old sawmillers-turned-furniture men, I try to cull the good wood from the bad. I talk to people on the phone and I visit people, and then I talk to them again on the phone. I’ve driven from nursing homes to trailers to communities so exclusive that they purposely don’t show up on GPS.

I read through court transcripts, annual reports and simplistic old newspaper clippings.

I love, love, love the librarians and the curators, especially Pat Ross at the Bassett Historical Center, and Bill Bishop, the genius at the International Trade Commission who returns my late-night emails — by 6:45 a.m. And people like Bassett barber Coy Young, who just happened to have a stack of archival photos from Stanley Furniture during the Depression.

I really love, love, love my across-the-street neighbors Scott and Jean, who just yesterday brought me a mixed CD and homemade chicken soup to cure my strep.

My husband, Tom, is so patient with all my non-cooking and non-hygiene, he’s the real saint of my book. My son Will comes into my office at the end of his school day and still, at age 14, beams, “Hey mom, how was your day?”

Same as it ever was. I practice Ass In Chair and, for several hours a day, I try as I type to weave story from facts. I rarely take showers or leave the house, except to walk the dog up the mountain. I haven’t seen my hairdresser in six months and it shows.

I worry because I know what Robert Caro says is true:

There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts, and the more facts you manage to obtain, the closer you will come to whatever truth there is.

 I was lucky to stumble into coffee not long ago with Internet journalism guru Clay Shirky, whose parents live in Roanoke and who very kindly offered to read my draft and give feedback. Just as I’m lucky to call on writers like Roland, Annie Jacobsen, Bret Witter and Andrea Pitzer, who advised me to “start recruiting readers now!” — among many other useful things.

Such has been the ongoing lesson I’ve learned from this project, this career, this life: The more exceptional the individual, the more generous they tend to be in sharing what they know.

It had been awhile since Shirky’s heralded book, “Here Comes Everybody,” was published by Penguin, and initially Clay said he had no advice to offer. Then he remembered a tip, a nuts-and-bolts editing suggestion that is applicable to both writing and life.

When the publisher’s copy editor sends his or her edits, simply click “ACCEPT ALL.” It saves time in the long run, and if you stumble on a change you don’t like as you’re reading, you still have time to make that sentence sing.

I’m not sure my ego will let me ACCEPT ALL blindly without previewing the changes first, but if it gets my butt out of this chair a moment sooner, it could be just the thing.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They're all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They’re all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.

A** in Chair, Audra and Advice from the Other Side of Publication (Part I of II)

ImageMy friend Audra Ang came to visit recently. She’s a former Beijing correspondent for the Associated Press, and a fellow Nieman who is as committed to eating good food as she is to getting the story exactly right. We were happy those two things converged when she came here to read from her brand-new book, “To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China” (Lyons Press, 2012).

In the spring of 2010, I witnessed the moment when the idea for the book first floated from her mouth, at a brainstorming session that was part of a book publishing conference organized by our narrative writing teacher, Connie Hale, at Harvard’s Lippman House. (Connie wrote a wonderful post about her own book tour trials here.) So it was fitting that Tom and I hosted Audra’s first reading, a gathering that probed everything from the wonders of hotpot to the paranoia of reporting in a society where the press isn’t exactly free.

The audience was rapt, especially when she read about covering the earthquake.

The audience was rapt, especially when she read about covering the earthquake.

A Western-educated Singaporean of Chinese descent, Audra is someone who makes everything look easy, from her “dude”-peppered speech to her Michelle Obama arms. It’s also one of the wonders of reading her book, which flows seamlessly from scenes of her walking over earthquake rubble in Sichuan, knowing that dead bodies lie beneath her, to choking up as she shares a meal with earthquake survivors. For people who don’t know much about the world’s most populous nation and its next superpower, her book is a fantastic introduction to all things Chinese.

Now halfway through my own book project, I had hoped to suction some lessons from my Nieman pal since she’s a year ahead of me in the process. What did she wish she had known in the beginning that she only came to learn through 12 tactile months of Ass in Chair days that usually began when she awoke at 2 in the afternoon and went to sleep at 8 the next morning, with food and yoga/kickboxing breaks in between?

“Dude, writing a book aged me,” she said. Hauling around seven years of notebooks on multiple trips between the Bay Area and Singapore didn’t help her back, either.

Then came the worst news of all from the Other Side of Publication. Audra suggested I back up my material up on multiple spare hard drives as well as in the cloud. (Yep.) Keep copious track of my copious notes. (Yep, I was doing that already, too.) And find early readers who are brutally honest about what works and what doesn’t. (I’m  jealous that she had Ted Anthony, AP’s feature writing guru, to call on for help — though I’m grateful that journalist-writer friends including Clay Shirky, Andrea Pitzer and Leigh Anne Kelley have already volunteered their red pens.)

It was my worst fear realized. There are really no real magic bullets beyond sitting my ass in my chair, followed by more Ass In Chair, interlaced with copious amounts of hand-wringing and back spasms. And remember the way the old-fashioned typewriter used to sound when you dinged the carriage that final time on an article? (For you young folks, you know, like the secretary babes do on Mad Men?)

Duuuude, it’ll be a year before you even get to imagine hearing that sound. (I’m not sure what Audra did for her sore back, but I recommend those peel-off icy/hot pack stickers and, if you have one, a nightly hot tub accompanied by a book that has nothing to do with what you’re writing about so you won’t find yourself dreaming about, in my case, legal transcripts from the International Trade Commission.)

I read on a hand-me-down Nook my aunt gave me, which is backlit — great for night-tubbing — and mostly impervious to steam, as long as you hold it an inch or so above your head. Sadly, this does not take the place of a daily shower. There was a week not long ago when I wore the same sweaty yoga pants for four days.

Writing her book on the heels of a rigorous six-year reporting stint in China wiped Audra out so much that she’s happily taking a break from journalism, working as a senior development writer at Duke University — and still eating unseemly amounts of food in a single setting, though the potstickers and pork belly have given way to buttermilk biscuits and Cajun-infused deep-fried turkeys.

She's not joking when she says she eats unseemly portions in a single sitting. Where does it go?

She’s not joking when she says she eats unseemly portions in a single sitting. Where does it go?

We had the privilege of introducing our foodie pal to our favorite restaurant in the world, a hillbilly-Asian place that is a tiny speck of funk in the rolling hills of Tazewell County. Cuz’s Uptown BBQ co-owner Yvonne Thompson took us on a serious food bender that included Rappahannock oysters, crab cakes with chili hollandiase, Thai seafood curry, plate-sized prime rib and coconut crème brulee — and that’s literally only about half of what we ate. When we left our Cuz cabin the next morning, we carried baggies of leftover country ham.

Dude, welcome to the South!

Audra claims she’s stuck a fork in her storytelling career. This, from a reporter who once offered to cut off her arm in exchange for a tour of an illegal noodle-making operation. But that’s her story right now, and she’s sticking to it.

(I’ll post Part II of my Advice from the Other Side of Publication — featuring more advice I’ve been collecting from  writers — in a few days. Meantime, if you have your own book-writing tips to share, please chime in.)

Prologue to the prologue: The agony of organization

I’m sure I’ve written 90,000 words before in my career, but never all in one contiguous line. I’ve just signed my name to a legal contract with Little, Brown & Co. swearing to deliver nine-ty freak-in’ THOU-sand words by  June 3, 2013. Lord help me.

I feel like I did when I returned from cholera riots in Haiti in November 2010 and could not stop obsessing over my three notebooks full of interviews. If I didn’t type them up immediately in my sleep-deprived state, the house might burn down and I would lose them. (As if I wouldn’t then have a slightly bigger problem at hand.)

All my life I’ve wanted to write a book. It took me two decades to find the right big subject — globalization of the furniture industry — and the right main character, John Bassett III, the man from the storied furniture-making family who fought to keep his Galax workers employed.

If all goes well, “Factory Man” will have historical heft and contemporary relevance. Heroes will appear, and villains, too, along with my usual cast of underdogs — barbers, librarians and filling-station attendants; men and women who toiled in finishing rooms, glue stations and a place furniture folk call the “rough end.”

My book will come to a rough end if I don’t figure out how to manage the growing stacks of archival pictures and interviews and clippings I’m amassing by the day. Before I wrote my first word, I felt exactly like I did post-Haiti: freaked out about my material — how to keep it safe and manageable, how to remember what it is I already know.

Like most anxiety episodes, this one made little sense but did serve a purpose. Fretting over how to organize my stuff gave me pre-writing focus, something beyond, holy crap Batman, how am I going to write 90,000 words?

Luckily, my editor, John Parsley, suggested I call another of his journalist/authors, Annie Jacobsen, for tactical advice. Annie’s writing her second book, on the heels of her bestselling “Area 51,” and she didn’t answer my strategy questions so much as she intuited exactly what I needed to hear, beginning with: “You’ve got tons of time!” and “Take a deep breath!” and “Trust me, you’ve got the absolute best editor in the world.”

Organizing the material would come to me organically, she promised, and it was OK if I didn’t take the time to transcribe every word of every interview I recorded (but it’s good to notate my handwritten notes with recording time stamps for fact-checking later ).

Those books I’m reading and Post-It noting to death? It’s OK if I don’t type up every underlined word. Annie spends 12 hours a day in a room with Nazis — the subject of her current book — who appear to her in marked-up books, inside file folders of declassified military documents and on a screen full of digital rectangles. As with my project, some of her material is in computer files (she raves about Lion, the new Imac search engine), and some of it’s in the swarm of papers surrounding her desk. Among her tips:

• Footnote the hell out of your material as you write — whether you plan on keeping them in the final product or not — so you remember from whence every fact came.

• Break down the number of words you need to write weekly and assign yourself mini-deadlines, leaving a full month pre-deadline to edit and rewrite.

• By the time you get to chapter 18, you’ve been writing for so long that “all that typing pays off and you’re writing really well, and all your experience catches up with you, and it’s a gift from the heavens,” she told me. “In that regard, the rewriting and editing becomes actually really joyful.” Oh, how I hope.

Most importantly, she said: The more you write, the more you know where you’re going. The more irresistibly original facts you uncover, the better the bones of the book. “I’m constantly charging through my material looking for the single detail that’s going to make my chapter. Then I reverse-engineer from that.”

Upon Annie’s advice, I stopped reporting and started writing, after spending a fruitful couple of weeks in Bassett, mostly at the fabulous Bassett Historical Center, where librarian Pat Ross is  my new best friend. (Who else would know that the large building on the right of this picture is the old Riverside Hotel, and that innkeeper Miss Mattie Smith used to sell bag lunches for the train passengers when they stopped at the Bassett station?)

I also took time to set up a chapter-by-chapter filing system for notes, sources and text, suggested by my Nieman Fellow pal Shankar Vedantam, who wrote “The Hidden Brain.” I owe Shankar a huge debt for suggesting a work strategy I have come to think of as “Shankar Five Years From Now” during one of our Nieman seminars in 2010. It involves waking up at 5 every morning to work on personal projects before you go to your day job — the idea being that, if you work very hard, the personal projects will become your day job. That method echoed loudly last fall when my Roanoke Times colleague Ralph Berrier (“If Trouble Don’t Kill Me”) baited me into writing the proposal for this book, explaining that he’d written his while working full-time and with a newborn baby in the house. “Write the damn thing, Macy. Just do it!” (We Midwesterners are mightily swayed by guilt.)

I’m only halfway through my second chapter. Not that I’m counting or anything, but I’ve written and rewritten 4,000 words. Many of them will get deleted and reworked, I know, and there’s a good chance I’ll get to the end before I realize that the beginning is glaringly wrong. E.L. Doctorow once said that book-writing is “like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

In other words, focus only on what’s in front of you, do that, then do the next little bit.

My groovy financial planner Tom Nasta e-mailed a version of the same advice last week. When we bought our first-ever new car last year, Quaker Tom reassured me the money was well-spent: “It’s OK. Jesus would have driven a Subaru!” Tom’s latest nugget is a quote from the writer R.H. Blyth: “Think of Zen, of the Void, of Good and Evil, and you are bound hand and foot. Think only and entirely and completely of what you are doing in the moment and you are free as a bird.”

Now that I’ve stopped fretting over where to put stuff, I’m actually writing my book. The recipe is sure to change, but for now it’s deep breath followed by juicy detail followed by deep breath. Repeat 90,000 times.

Old-school lessons for the new-media generation

I spoke to a wonderful gathering of journalism students recently at the Ferrum College Women’s Leadership Conference, which gave me a chance to think about the things I’ve learned about journalism in 25 years — mostly by trial-and-error. By screwing up first, I mean.

I was also able to work a very important fact into my talk: Sources say that, apparently, I smell quite like Beyonce. (Sorry, the Internet does not provide scratch-and-sniff services at this time.)

Here’s the speech:

Journalism professor Lana Whited has asked me to talk to you today about being an intrepid paper girl in a multiplatform world. In the past year, I’ve blogged, shot video and posted it online, posted pictures to Facebook, used Facebook to find sources and keep in touch with them, written stories that have appeared in both newspapers and magazines and a trade journal — both in print and online.

But here’s the thing I’m discovering about having one foot in old media and the other in the new: The story is still the thing. Social media is well and good, but without the ability to go out and really engage with people who live outside our social and virtual worlds; to talk to them about their desires and fears and memories and dreams and to REALLY LISTEN to what they have to say— we aren’t helping connect people to one another in a way that helps them understand the larger world.

Take, for example, this photo, by my former colleague Josh Meltzer, taken on the first day of school for a group of Somali Bantu refugee kids. Assuming you’re not yourself a Somali Bantu, is this an image you would have seen on your Facebook page or twitter accounts? Doubt it. But underneath that beautiful picture – of kids clutching their teacher’s hand on the way to their very first sip of water from a drinking fountain – lies one heckuva story.

It’s not going to present itself to you on a social media platter, though. To get a story like this, you have to go out and engage with the real world.

As Ursula LeGuin wrote: “The story is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

Eons of genetic and cultural programming compel us to narratives with moral lessons, to stories with beginnings and endings.

Today I’m going to meld my own story in with five lessons I’d like to impart to you — themes that I wish I’d known when I was your age and just starting my career, back when I had no idea what it meant to be a “working mom” or wife or journalist/writer/teacher.

The first point comes courtesy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that real courage is having the guts to do the thing you haven’t before done.  In other words, take risks.

So picture me in the fall 1982, in the flat cornfields of northwest Ohio. I’m 18, and my Mom is driving me to college for the first time. We’re in her rusted-out Mustang with my life’s belongings — my Neil Young album collection, my stuffed Ziggy, my clothes jammed into milk crates I’d filched from behind the Dairy Queen.

My family is so poor that I qualify for full financial aid, which covers my tuition, room and board. Heck, if I put in a few hours each week mixing chemicals for the photojournalism department and writing briefs for the public relations office, Bowling Green State University is basically paying me to attend.

When I first got to college, I felt like a food-stamp recipient in the checkout line at a Whole Foods. But I quickly became a master at the fine art of fitting in. The one thing I’d NEVER talked about with my friends, though, was my Dad, who had died, of lung cancer and alcoholism, the year before. Then a feature-writing professor gave us a class assignment to write a personal essay and send it off to a real publication. I was nervous as a wet cat about sharing the complicated story of my relationship with my Dad, but I wrote, I gulped several times (and cried a lot), and I sent it off.

When the piece was published in Seventeen magazine, I got letters from people all over the country, saying they had been there, too, and thanking me for inspiring them to forgive.

I realized then what writers had the power to do: to make people understand themselves, and each other. I also realized, probably for the first time, that poverty wasn’t something to be ashamed of. It made me a more empathetic journalist, drawn to telling stories of the voiceless, and it gave me good material to draw from — if only I was willing to take risks and tell the real, unvarnished truth.

I moved to Roanoke in 1989 to write features for the Roanoke Times, and I’ve worked there on and off ever since. Last year, I was lucky enough to win a Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard, where I had the privilege of getting to know some of the finest journalists from across the globe: a British war photographer who covered conflicts from Cambodia to Iraq and who was kidnapped in Gaza; an editor who covered the end of Apartheid in South Africa; a BBC reporter in Zimbabwe keeps her work secret from the government; a science writer from the Washington Post who recently wrote a book called “The Hidden Brain.”

Some of them wanted to know why I stay in Roanoke when there’s such tragedy and intrigue going on in bigger cities and far-flung locales?

The answer is: There’s tragedy and intrigue going on here, too. But you have to work harder to find it.

This brings me to my second major piece of career advice: Find mentors — no matter what level you’re at; no matter where on earth you are — and never stop growing.

I was lucky to latch on pretty quickly to one of my first journalism mentors, a reporter named Mary Bishop who covered minority affairs, neighborhoods and the environment for our paper. Mary had been a Pulitzer Prize-winning Philadelphia Inquirer reporter before she moved to Roanoke to be closer to her parents, and I consider it my great good fortune to have been able to talk out my problems with her in person, on the phone and over e-mail for two decades. She’s coached me on problems with stories, problems with relationships, problems in life.

Mary taught me a lot of nitty-gritty things about reporting — that the kitchen is the best place to do an interview at someone’s house, for instance. But she modeled for me two far more important things. The first I discovered in the early ‘90s when I dropped by her house on Christmas Eve to give her a gift, and I couldn’t find her anywhere. I later learned that she’d been out all day driving around — delivering Christmas gifts to some of the needy people she’d written about that year.

Mary showed me that it was OK to care about the people we write about. She also taught me that, while Roanoke might not be a place for big breaking news, there was definitely news there. You just had to dig a little harder for it.

For one thing, race scholars have deemed it one of the most segregated cities in the South, a fact I’ve seen play out again and again — in terms of housing, schools and a disproportionately small black middle class. In the mid-90s I wrote a series that examined why we had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state.  In a story about how teen pregnancy had become destigmatized, I focused on a pair of teenage best friends who were both 16 and both pregnant. “If she was pregnant and I wasn’t, I knew I’d have to be,” one of them said.

I was away on vacation the week the story ran, and so I wasn’t around when the headline writer labeled the story “Pregnant and Proud,” and chose an almost clowning picture of them for the lead photo.

The story generated so much response that the editor actually had to call in extra editorial assistants to answer the phones. It made the national talk radio circuit. A lot of folks were calling me racist, saying I was intent on destroying the girls I’d profiled. A social worker wrote: “The girls could not have known the impact this would have on their young lives; this newspaper could not have not known.” Other critics said I glamorized them.

Finally, after more than a month of daily letters to the editor — nearly all of them critical — someone wrote in and said:

“You would have thought that Beth Macy had personally impregnated several minors from the responses you’re getting. To fix a problem, you first must see it.” That series won statewide public-service journalism honors and a Southern Journalism Award for investigative reporting, and it sparked the creation of a citywide task force that led to a city office dedicated to prevention.

But it also taught me to think harder about how I presented people — and what impact my words could have on their lives. The girls dropped out of school soon after the story ran. I learned recently that, 16 years later, one of them just got out of jail, and the daughter she was pregnant with when I met her 17 years ago has already become a mother herself. The other woman is doing well, working as a fast-food manager-in-training. (And I’m in the process of trying to do an update story on her now.)

Whether or not there’s a direct correlation between the story and some of the bad things that transpired for these two, I have no way of knowing. But it has weighed on me over the years.

Which is another thing about being a reporter in a mid-sized city. Make no mistake: You WILL run into the people you write about at the grocery — one way or another you WILL be accountable. Some people will ask you to write their obituaries when they die; others might even think to call you when they’ve just invited their well-heeled friends over for ladies’ bridge club luncheon — and a rat turns up uninvited. I like that.

My mentor Mary was an unintentional model for the third point I’d like to get across to you today: There’s a big world awaiting you outside of work. No matter what field you go into, make time for friends and family.

This is something I still struggle with when I find myself in total stress mode about a story. Mary herself got so worked up over big projects that she used to develop an eye tic — and once stashed a bottle of whiskey in her desk drawer to calm her down enough to write. I can get so ratcheted up when I think I’m sitting on top of a great story that I can’t sleep until I nail down the first draft.

Both of us have struggled to find balance in our lives. It’s a trial-and-error thing for me that continues to evolve. I happen to know that I get a little nutty if I don’t sweat every day. In the winter that means going to the Y every morning before work. When it’s warm, my husband and I climb Mill Mountain in the predawn, while the kids are still asleep. I spend more time outside weeding and planting and replanting than is probably healthy for me or my plants.

I try to spend time cooking for and talking to and laughing with my kids, now 12 and 17. I try to always have something we’re looking forward to doing together, whether it’s looking at colleges with the teenager or going into debt for our upcoming, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa.

When a story drives me crazy, it helps to talk it out with people I trust — friends like Mary, or my husband, or an editor. I’ve learned that I work best when I stay organized. Here’s a picture my husband took when I was trying to make sense of some 50 interviews I did for a 2010 series on Lyme Disease. Note the dog, Lucky, who has a knack for being exactly where you don’t want him to be no matter what you’re doing. It looks messy but, trust me, this is Martha Stewart neat compared to what our newsroom looks like — and I actually know where everything is.

What I’m describing here is a life of trying to balance family with work; balancing taking care of others with taking care of yourself. It sounds simple and reductive, like one of those how-to guides you read in women’s magazines.

But it can be tiring and guilt-inducing (especially the parenting part), and often you feel like you’re not doing a great job at home OR at work. Bad things will sometimes happen, depressing things — teenagers, for instance. As Anne Lamott writes: “Life with teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection. It hurt, but you had to tough it out.”

When my kids were little, I left the paper for three years, during which time I taught writing part-time at Hollins University and Virginia Western and did a little freelancing during the day — while hopefully the kids napped. I ate a lot of really bad Whopper Juniors with cheese in the play zone of the Burger King on Franklin Road. On a good day, I could get an entire class of English comp papers graded while my little ones ate greasy chicken nuggets and disappeared in those primary-colored plastic tubes.

When I returned to my newspaper in 2000, I didn’t set out to focus on outsiders and underdogs, but those were always the stories I wrote best: The lawyer with stage-four melanoma who bucked her doctor’s two-month prognosis and, instead of getting her affairs in order, ran a marathon.I wrote about an important antebellum-era black educator  whose story had never been told, even though she’d been a huge influence on black Roanokers, including Oliver Hill, the architect of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation lawsuit.

Research for that piece led me to the Gainsboro Library, which gave me a wonderful glimpse into the history of black Roanoke. . . and introduced me to a 16-year-old wunderkind, who reshelved books. Salena Sulliva had grown up in the projects – but, with the backing of a powerfully strong African-American community at this library and a devoted single mom, she got a full ride to Harvard.

Which is another huge perk of staying in one place. Not only will your pal the librarian call you to say that Salena’s about to hear from colleges, and you really need to be there if you still want to follow up.

But when a plane full of barefoot Somali Bantu refugees lands on the airport tarmac, the head of the local refugee office will tell you that a helluva story awaits.

My husband and I had been mentoring a family of Liberian refugees, Zeor and Tailey Dolue – helping them fill out forms, teaching them to drive, taking them to job interviews and to Wal-mart, the only place they could buy “fish with heads.” I’ll never forget watching Zeor squeal with delight at the sound of a Diet Coke can clunking from the machine.

“There is a person inside that machine!” she said.

I was too close to Zeor to write about her — she has a niece in a Ghanian refugee camp right now whose name is Beth Macy Glay. But knowing Zeor made me realize that I wanted to help readers see themselves anew, somehow, through these new immigrants’ eyes.

Photo by Josh Meltzer | The Roanoke Times

So back to the Tarmac, and the shoeless mother. That was the starting point for a 2005 series on how these new African refugees were assimilating — or not, as was sometimes the case — into our midsized city.

I wasn’t sure how to frame the story at first. But my longtime collaborator, photog Josh Meltzer, had noticed that many of the Somalis were living in a single apartment complex — along with Cubans and Bosnians and working class whites and blacks.

Now even though Terrace Apartments was located not more than five blocks away from my own house, I’d never really seen it the way Josh did: as the most diverse nine acres in one of the most segregated cities in the South. Which brings me to my fourth lesson of the today: Embrace collaboration and change.

Josh’s curiosity drove me to see the place as the vehicle for telling this complicated but classic immigrant story. It was the first of three big multimedia projects we worked on together — each of which won national awards and brought us accolades and led to good things in our career. Josh won a Fulbright and then landed a full-time professorship; I went to Harvard, which has helped usher in new opportunities including freelance writing and a little bit of international reporting. In November, I won a travel grant to cover a medical mission in Haiti, a trip sponsored by the Dart Society for Trauma and Journalism in conjunction with the Nieman Foundation.

So no matter what field you go into these days, especially if it involves online communication, you are going to have to collaborate. Which is a business-y way of saying: Share your toys. Build meaningful friendships with colleagues that hinge on trust, honesty and mutual respect. Drink hoppy beer with them and make them meals when their wives have babies and, above all, wish them well. Your work will be better if you do.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on some groundbreaking projects as journalism has had to sail through some pretty rocky shoals in order to reinvent itself. The story is still the thing, yes, but I’ve had to learn that I’m not the only one charged with telling it. Whereas it used to be just me and a single photographer on assignment, now I’m also working with videographers, multimedia producers, computer animators and data editors who use numbers to map out demographic trends.

I’ve learned to write and record narrative voiceovers for online slideshows; to be interviewed myself for television, radio and Web sites. I’ve learned how to set up and run my own blog for both personal and career use. I’ve used (and admit I’m a little addicted to) Facebook as a way to communicate with readers, solicit ideas and help get my stories out to a wider audience. Oh, and to post videos of my 12-year-old son playing his first jam session with a group of real musicians. The song was The Beatles’ “Come Together,” and I recorded it (shakily) on my phone.

In Haiti — where you can’t count on anything — I was supposed to cover a Salem-based medical mission in Port-au-Prince. But when the cholera epidemic broke out, the medical team was flown via U.N. helicopter to Northern Haiti, where we spent four days in the midst of heartbreak, chaos and life or death decisions.

One woman showed up at the hospital with two sick children, having walked in from the countryside. Her husband and mother had died on the way there, and she’d had to leave them by the side of the road — or risk losing her kids, too.

I kept in touch with readers back home via a newsroom blog and Facebook, trying to describe scenes like this:

Sounds from the cholera shelter: The slap of a doctor’s hand on a child’s arm, trying to raise a vein. A baby whimpering. An old man in a cowboy hat humming his wife to sleep. A young man with Dengue fever and legs afire who wants me to know, in perfect English: “I am a teacher.”

The photographer was unable to accompany us at the last minute, so I was suddenly charged with shooting pictures and video while taking notes for the print narrative I would write after we returned home.  I even set up and gave an interview for a report on Public Radio International’s “The World” from the hospital where we were based. Talk about multiplatform!

As rioting broke out around us and we found ourselves trapped for a day by the very people we were trying to help, I kept on reporting: madly note-taking, audio- and video-recording, taking pictures and sanitizing hands. It was one of the toughest, scariest and most exhilarating days of my career.

Which brings me to my last piece of advice: Always, always follow your gut. In journalism, it’s that flicker in the back of your head that seems to be telling you: This is a story worth pursuing. This is a person I need to keep in touch with because I have a feeling the story’s not over yet. (It rarely is.)

This is one of the best perks of being a journalist: Not only do you get to spend much of your time away from the office, you get to know people in the midst of amazing perseverance, tragedy and triumph. You get to listen. You get to be curious. And if you do both of these things with the purest of intentions, not only will you get to produce a good story that can educate or entertain or maybe even enlighten readers. But you yourself can be moved. I still have days where I can’t believe they’re paying me to do the job!

That scared 18-year-old who got to go to college on a full Pell grant? I actually got to meet Senator Claiborne Pell in 1998, for a series of articles I wrote about the erosion of federal need-based aid.

The 10-part series on caregiving for the elderly that landed me the Harvard fellowship? It all began in 2006 when I ran into a recently retired copy editor who happened to live next door to my babysitter. We were at her college graduation party when Lynn Forbish came up to me, her auburn wig askew and a glass of chardonnay teetering in her hand: “I retired because I have dementia — in case you didn’t know!” she said.

She asked me to write her story before she forgot it as a way to help other families struggling with caregiving and dementia. I knew I was sitting on top of a good story when she said, “Some days I can’t remember whether my bra hooks in the front or the back.”

More than a dozen articles later, I have an essay about Lynn in the March issue of Oprah magazine.

The story in Haiti came about because I got in touch with the Salem missionary I’d written a 2009 Mother’s Day feature about when the earthquake descended on Port-au-Prince some eight months later. Nearly a year after that, I found myself running a series of roadblocks run by machete-wielding thugs. I found myself in a cholera-ward overflow tent, holding my headlamp in the dark so a doctor could see to insert an IV. 

Not long ago, I was riding a school bus for immigrant students in Roanoke when up climbed a little girl named Jamika, a kindergartener who spontaneously gave me a hug. Then another. Then another.

“You smell good, like Beyonce,” she told me. Then she said: “You a little bit old —but I like you.”

I got the bus driver to take a picture of us and posted it, immediately, on Facebook. Of course.

I’m not rich by any means, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences for all the six-figure salary jobs in the world.

So remember these hard-earned lessons: take risks, find mentors at every stage of the game, make time for friends and family, embrace collaboration and always, always go with your gut.

You could end up in a Third World cholera ward. Or at a marathon in Big Sur. Or you could end up on a school bus in Southeast Roanoke, smelling like Beyonce and laughing so hard you think you’re going to cry.

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