Cheers to a semester of writing, learning and growing.

Voice. It’s been on my mind since I started Intermediate Writing this semester. It’s the free, sarcastic tone I take in this blog, the tone I still can’t quite infuse into my journalism. But I’m working on it. And the stories I’ll publish in a couple weeks are my best examples of it so far.

Voice was the topic of class this week, and my takeaway was that it’s not something you can happen into over night. “You know it when you see it, you know it when you hear it, and you stumble into it when you write it,” my teacher/editor, Jacqui, said.

Here’s what voice isn’t:

  • Grammar
  • Syntax
  • Style
  • Using big or little words

Voice, ultimately, is what happens once you master your craft, or at least begin to master it. Once you’ve internalized the skills necessary to be a competent writer and journalist, it’s easy to lose your voice when focusing so intensely on craft skills. I feel like this is the stage I’m at. I’m learning so much about writing and reporting that I can hardly figure out my own take on it in the midst of the opinions of so many excellent writers and journalists. We will, Jacqui assured us, gain our voices back in time.

That said, during our last round of edits for my field stories, Jacqui asked me what I thought my voice was. Admittedly, I had a very hard time answering that question. I can quite articulate it. The best that I could offer was that I think I’m funny, so I usually try to play that up and include sarcasm. I have a wry kind of wit, if I do say so myself, and I think I turn to that because I’ve heard those kinds of sentiments my whole life.

My father is a teacher, and a well-liked one at that, so I could count on any combination or iteration of these statements when visiting him at a speech tournament or school play: “Your dad is so funny!” “He’s a riot, is he this funny at home?” “Mr. C. is so cool, he’s always cracking jokes at practice,” and so on and so forth. His sense of humor is a mix of wit, slight self-deprecation, well-timed comments and sheer performance. The older I get, the more I hear his humor in my voice, both on paper and in person.

My mother is sharp and passionate. She was the one who’d always take on unreasonable teachers who accused my sister and me of asking too many questions, and similar instances of injustice. Those of you familiar with my caustic remarks and shrewd rebuttals in arguments would be able to see them mirrored in her own behavior.

So I guess you could say I inherited my voice from my parents. I’m still trying to get it to match up with the voice I have when doing journalism. During our meeting, Jacqui gave me some insight into what she thinks my voice is, or at least how I portray it in my writing.

She says I’m precise and very explanatory, even to the point of over-explaining. I don’t use very many metaphors or similes, and my voice sounds  educated with high-level language. I write cogently with many prepositional phrases.

I can’t say I was very surprised to hear her summary. My dad is a teacher, my mom was one, and both my parents are educated and have a deep appreciation for literature. I read all the time and have ever since I learned how before kindergarten. None of Jacqui’s comments are inherently bad or good, either. She said it’s just a matter of understanding when those traits add positively to my writing and when they are negative.

Last semester was easily my best reporting semester; I talked to so many people and made sense out of a hugely complicated issue. This semester is easily my best writing semester. I’ve paid more attention to how I write and why I write that way than I ever have before. I’ve learned so much, but more importantly, I’ve learned the skills to make sure I can keep improving long after this class.

If any of you Mizzou j-schoolers reading this are looking for a challenging but completely worthwhile elective for next spring, take Intermediate Writing. This Tuesday is my last class and I’m sad to see it go.

Look for my culminating stories in the Missourian during the second week of May.

Until then, cheers, and Happy Writing!

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Putting it all into perspective

Many of you who read this know me personally.

So you know I’m a little high-strung.

And you know I can get a little ahead of myself.

Clearly, this semester and Intermediate Writing was no different. Every since I registered for this course I had a picture in my mind of the type of writer I wanted to turn into, the types of choices I wanted to make, and the types of pieces I wanted to publish. Everything I’ve done so far has been in an effort to get to that point.

Well, it’s almost that point. With just about two weeks left in the semester, I got to sit down with Roy Wenzl, a reporter from the Wichita Eagle who came to our class this past week to sub for Jacqui and impart some wisdom. During class, we talked a lot about his series for the Eagle about Father Emil Kapaun. Much of the story was recreated scenes from Roy’s interviews with former POWs from Korea. It was amazingly descriptive and a beautiful, engaging narrative. It’s the kind of piece we all hope to be able to write someday.

Roy was generous enough to use his free time on Wednesday and Thursday to meet with students from our class and talk with them about their stories or whatever was on their minds writing- and reporting-wise, really.

I was very humbled to hear that Roy liked my drafts; it’s one thing to get feedback from professors and Missourian editors, but it’s a nice change of pace to hear from someone who isn’t familiar with your work and only judges what you put in front of them, not past history or personality or anything else.

But aside from that, we talked about maturing as a reporter. In my head, I’ve always thought there was this switch that flips to turn you from a “nuts and bolts reporter,” as Roy termed it, to a “narrative reporter.” Either you have it, or you don’t, and getting there is a challenge regardless.

As a quick rehash, I feel pretty confident about my ability to lay down all the nuts and bolts. I explain things. I could definitely learn to do it better, but for now, that’s where most of my comfort is as a reporter. I don’t think I’m a great writer, and for whatever reason, I feel inhibited in my ability to become a good narrative reporter.

But Roy gave me some much-needed perspective. It doesn’t just happen like *that*. To become a different writer, a better writer, a more mature writer, you have to live. You have to read constantly. You have to take risks and try new things, even if it’s just a little bit at a time.

After a semester’s worth of hard work, I’m still not the writer I eventually want to be. And that’s OK; I’m 22, and I’m off to a good start. But I still have a long way to go, and that will happen as I write more and work more places and try different stories. “Duh, Shaina,” you might be thinking, but I can’t express how much of a wake-up call our conversation was.

Sometimes it’s nice to let go of the expectations of perfection we have for ourselves. It feels like a tight spring in my chest has uncoiled, and it’s freeing me up to take edits more easily and less personally. In two weeks I’ll publish these stories, confident that it’s my absolute best work and best writing to date. I feel more capable and competent with every project I report. From the initial learning to the last-minute polishing, I can see myself grow each time.

Above all, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made, even if I haven’t accomplished every single goal. If I did, there’d be nowhere else to go and no way to move forward. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is how to keep learning and  improving my craft.

And if that’s all I walk away with, it’ll be more than enough.

Endings: How to get there without pushing your readers off a cliff

Between drafting and editing and graphics-ing and, you know, living, it’s been a busy first week post-spring break.

On Tuesday, we talked about story structure, specifically as it pertained to the ending of the story “Netherland” by Rachel Aviv.

While many of us agreed that the subject matter was fascinating and her access brought about stories from compelling characters, we talked a lot about how she ended the story and how the whole piece was structured. The ending showed a scene where a formerly homeless young woman was comforting a friend by telling him everything would work out and be OK. Generally, my classmates had three views of it:

  1. It was ironic given the fact that not much had worked out for her.
  2. It was a glimpse into her new role as the caretaker of her street “family.”
  3. It was abrupt and felt resolution-less.

The third one was where I set up camp. Although I can see the problem with ending every story tied with a nice bow, in a piece wrought so full of problems, I wanted some more closure, or at least more time to adjust to the character’s new life before we left her.

Jacqui imparted this writing adage to address closure and how to take your subjects gently to the end: Long sentences read fast, and short sentences read slow. Basically, be aware of your pacing when you write and develop your structure. Don’t plop readers down in front of a cliff and expect them to walk off happily into the sunset. Approach the edge carefully, being mindful of words and phrasing and sentence length, so that when you leave your readers, they understand how they got to that point and why.

Generally, she advised, longer stories should pick up the pace in the last third or so. This can happen with more “muscular” and quicker scenes and action, but that should not change the fact that a good, satisfying ending still needs a lead-up.

From there, we moved on to overall structure and how to lay out a road map before you write. Somethings to think about:

  • What are the topics and sub-issues that need to be included?
  • How might they group together to form a natural structure, or at least, bigger sections?
  • How can I juxtapose scenes against the issues I need to illustrate?
  • How can I include multiple characters?
  • What pegs or mile-markers do I need to leave my readers so they can follow along comfortably?
  • What do I need to be reporting on so I have options if my structure needs to change?

All of these questions can help guide you toward an understanding of how to start placing parts of your story. For more complicated narratives, Jacqui introduced us to the braided narrative, which looks something like this:

  • Lede with all your characters, quickly and concisely.
  • Give a strong nut and summary section.
  • Drop back in with each character in scenes, showing one aspect of an issue they need to illustrate especially well.
  • Go back and forth with the characters, showing where they meet and connect with each other.
  • All throughout, weave in summary information and general or background information that works with the scenes.

Two of my favorite books, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and “The Devil in the White City,” make use of this structure. In the former title, the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman whose cancer cells spawned a tidal wave of change in the medical field, is juxtaposed against Rebecca Skloot, the reporter who wants to finally get the real story about HeLa cells and where they came from. In the latter book, the professional trials of Daniel Burnham, an architect who organized the building of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, is juxtaposed against the sinister life of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a man who became notorious after the fair for killing as many as 100 women in the hotel he built.

I’ve found just through my own recreational reading that the braided narrative makes for a very exciting, slightly suspenseful story. Because you’re usually always taking parts from one subject’s point of view or set of experiences, it can make what is usually drier information captivating because it is highly relevant to the character it’s connected to. Braided narratives with multiple characters work so well because our lives are little more than the connections we have with other people. What better way to tell a story than through those connections?

In the vague way we try to quickly sift through the hundreds of books we’ve read, I get the sense that I’ve happened across the braided narrative many times, but I never considered using it for my own stories. I suppose part of that is subject matter; there’s usually no “gotcha!” at the end of a school board story. However, I could try using the technique to reveal telling details and connections even if they don’t have that element of surprise. It doesn’t hurt to practice for when that “gotcha!” moment finally does arrive.

Up next!

Stay tuned for my post next week on my first editing session (took place this past Friday) and my rewrite experience (second draft due this coming Friday). The tentative title: My first editing session: In which I realize I might not be nearly as boring a writer as my journalism would have everyone believe.

How will I fix ALL the problems?

How can I eliminate ALL the jargon??

How should I rewrite ALL the nut sections???

Excited? Good, me too.

What matters in writing a ‘moment’ is whether it feels real

This week our class was cancelled because of (more) snow. So while I can’t draw on class discussions for this post, I have been thinking a lot about how to write “moments,” or small, descriptive narrative scenes.

I’ll start with some moments I stumbled across this week in leisure and schoolwork that I found especially moving. I have taken out some block quotes from the stories, but please read them in their entirety with the links provided:

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From an August 8, 2012, New York Times story by Ruth Padawer about boys who fall somewhere in the middle on the gender spectrum:

“Toward the end of the first week of kindergarten, Alex showed up in class wearing hot-pink socks — a mere inch of a forbidden color. A boy in his class taunted, “Are you a girl?” Alex told his parents his feelings were so hurt that he couldn’t even respond. In solidarity, his father bought a pair of pink Converse sneakers to wear when he dropped Alex off at school.”

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A reference to “My Struggle,” a book by Karl Ove Knausgaard From a February 28, 2013, New Yorker story by Sasha Weiss about those who criticize Anne Hathaway’s unapologetically cheerful demeanor:

“Karl takes his little daughter, Vanje, to a classmate’s birthday party. She is a shy and introverted child, but she longs to play with other children, and looks forward to the party with a mix of trepidation and eagerness. She chooses to wear a new pair of sparkling golden shoes. When she arrives, she is thrust into a room with other children, who are all playing wildly. Karl watches her as she tries to figure out how to break in:

For a while she stood observing them. Then it was as if she had decided to take the plunge.

‘I’ve got golden shoes!’ she said.

She bent forward and took off one shoe, held it up in the air in case anyone wanted to see. But no one did. When she realized that, she put it back on.”

♦♦♦♦

I saw a film called “The Garden of Eden” that made its North American debut during the True/False Film Fest yesterday evening. The film’s director is Ran Tal, a native Israeli who grew up near the Gan Shlosha, a state park known as “Sakhne.” (Trailer from the film’s website, linked above. See its facebook page here.)

I can’t show you this moment, but in one scene an older man told the story about how he left his home in Germany during World War II to move to Israel. He talks while we see him calmly swimming and bobbing in the rock-surrounded waters Sakhne. Right at the end of his monologue, the man tells us that he knows his brother worked in the crematorium at the concentration camp Bergen Belsen. Having this job meant his brother knew the day his father had died, and by passing on that information the man can observe his father’s yahrtzeit (memorial of the day of his death).

I can’t do this moment justice with such a plain description, but watching it brought me close to tears. (I highly recommend you see this film if you get the chance.)

Tal talked about how he got the scenes for his documentary. In some cases, he filmed the swimming scenes before he did the personal interviews (often at the interviewees’ homes), but sometimes it was the other way around. In every case, the “action” was separate from the interviews.

It was done this way, Tal said, so that he could have more personal conversations with each subject. He wanted them to open up to him about their lives and stories of separation, which could be best accomplished when they trusted and liked him and felt comfortable.

Tal said he had to sometimes go back to an interviewee for further information. The stories were edited together in a monologue format, but nonetheless, they felt genuine.

♦♦♦♦

What I’m learning about moments is that what makes them special isn’t some kind of extraordinary action or especially powerful prose. When we include these moments or “scenes” in our writing, we’re giving the reader a taste of honest, human feeling.

I don’t relate to the little girl with the gold shoes because she’s a fascinating character study or a tragic hero; I relate to her because I know what it feels like to be unabashedly happy about something and have that joy met with uncaring stares from others. I know how it feels to have my feelings hurt in such a way that I can’t bring myself to even tell anyone else. And I know how much it means to be able to properly mourn a loved one.

When I go about my reporting, I want to capture these moments that will resonate with my readers and make them remember how they’ve felt in similar situations. They can be long and full of dialogue, or short, sweet glimpses into someone’s day. I’m telling myself to be open and focus more on the quality of what I find, rather than the quantity.

My observations (should) begin soon, and having come across such beautiful examples of scenes this week, I’m more excited than ever to get the chance to practice.