In 2020, I had the singular pleasure of writing about Bob Keefer, himself a longtime journalist who has become a unique artist, taking black and white photographs and hand painting them, using a technique that was common in the era of black and white photos. Oregon Artswatch published the piece about Bob and they were a joy for a free-lancer to work with.
Last month, while Washington demonstrated its skills at epic non-compromise, I got to watch something magical unfolding in a local elementary school.
Groups of fourth-graders were discussing the merits of work.
The discussion was remarkable for the caliber of reasoning the students brought to the table: Is “thinking” work more valuable than “labor” work? Who contributes most to a community, the farmer or the poet?
As a reporter covering K-12 education in Eugene, Ore., I often get invited to classrooms to see learning in action. I say yes to these assignments as often as possible on the theory that the more I can show people what’s actually happening in our schools, the better they’re likely to feel. I know it’s true for me.
This year, I’ve seen amazing things:
- Students who created short digital stories about historical sites around town, then made the stories available via QR tags to people’s smart phones as a way of enhancing a walking tour of Eugene.
- Fifth-graders mentoring second-graders as a way of building community to reduce bullying.
- High school students running a catering business to learn both culinary and entrepreneurial skills.
Local educators draw my attention to the best stuff going on in their classrooms, but I’m in the schools enough to see the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. I’ve seen teachers so skilled in classroom management they can get 30 second-graders to settle down and pay attention in seconds. I’ve seen kindergarteners learning words that I’m sure didn’t come into my lexicon until junior high school, and middle school math students engaged enough to slow the teacher down and ask questions when they weren’t getting the algebra.
Which brings me to what the kids were doing last week: Led by University of Oregon philosophy majors, the children were engaging in philosophical discussions. The eight-week sessions pair university students with elementary school students in an effort to help them think critically about ideas.
Their teachers tell me that the students, in addition to learning critical thinking and reasoning skills, are also learning that ideas are complicated and questions sometimes have more than one answer. In that setting they are being taught to listen respectfully to each other, to rephrase what they hear their classmates saying to be sure they understand and reason their way toward answers to thorny questions.
I wrote my story for The Register-Guard, a daily newspaper struggling to make ends meet in an era when fewer people pay for the news yet more people are reading it for free online.
But I wish I had a bigger megaphone. I wish everyone in the country could have seen these kids.
They reminded me that we, meaning our political leaders and us voters, have an obligation to listen to each other with respect. We need to reason our way to good solutions for the country.
When the right paints President Obama as an evil socialist bent on destroying American values, and the left paints House Speaker Boehner as an obstructionist toady of the wealthy 1 percent, we stop any movement toward solutions. We all just treat the fight as the story. In our focus on winners and losers, we all lose.
We, the people, set the standard for tone in this country. The politicians have no reason to engage their colleagues in a civil manner. They’re reading us on Facebook and Twitter. They’ve seen our emails. They’ve seen the vicious ugly commentary that follows political news stories posted online. Why should they elevate the tone when the rest of us don’t bother to?
I don’t always agree with my editor about the scope or focus of a story or even whether something is a story. But he and I face daily deadlines. We have a product to put out, and we make our cases to each other. Through that process we often find agreement. Sometimes one or the other of us tires of the discussion and caves in. We get work done and on the whole, we do good work, though we might quibble with each other on any given day.
We voters need to respect that the elected officials we disagree with represent our neighbors and friends and family, people who want them at the table as much as we want our guys at the table.
And we need to stop assigning blame to whole swaths of the nation. The nation isn’t drowning in debt just because of corporate welfare or poverty welfare, but because of thousands of little decisions — and big ones — we all made. Two wars we didn’t have the cash to pay for probably had something to do with it.
The only way to fix this problem is for all of us, not just the politicians, but all of us citizens to respect the people at the table, to learn about the options, think about them, provide feedback to our representatives and expect them to listen to each other, embrace the best ideas, compromise and negotiate.
Let’s stop calling the other guy’s elected official ugly names. Let’s presume the best, not the worst about each other.
There’s a bunch of elementary school students in Eugene, Oregon, who could show us how it’s done.
Here‘s a succinct little essay on electronic publishing from the Atlantic, (thank you Alan Jacobs) that I love not only for its respect for the value of copy editors, but also because it introduced me to this great quote from Colorado College librarian Steve Lawson: “Publishers are scared that the Internet is going to disintermediate their asses into the dustbin of history, and the best response that many of them have come up with is to express their fear through hatred.”
Don’t know about that, but I do know that I will now be spending an inordinate amount of time trying to find a way to use “disintermediate their asses” in a conversation.
Writing is easy. You just open up a vein and bleed onto the page.
I’m paragraphing Moyle Q. Rice, an unparalleled professor at Utah State University who taught many things but who taught creative writing with passion and heart. I thought of him this week because someone reminded me that I have been making my living with words for 28 years now.
When I stumbled — hopeful and stupid — into his creative writing class so many years ago , he could well have quashed any glimmer of hope I had about writing. I was terrible. I still remember the red pen notes he wrote on my short stories. The first one said: “Don’t make a crusade of it, but brush up on the rules of punctuation.”
Isn’t that generous and helpful? As were all his red-ink notes. I looked forward to reading them because he was encouraging and direct. There are some who would take great pains to circle every comma-spliced sentence and misused semicolon, every overindulgent exclamation point and unfortunately deployed elipsis. Moyle, with his fey smile, had no interest in crushing souls.
He saw something in me and nursed it along, not as professor to student, but as reader to writer. He took his students seriously, although he was funny and ironic and took very little in life seriously. He nudged me toward the best in myself.
And he wasn’t the only one. USU in the those years harbored another brilliant soul, Kenneth Brewer who wrote and taught poetry and who knew that meaning is slippery and that words paired in certain ways could change everything.
I did not know before I took classes from Kenneth Brewer that trees could speak of heartbreak and birds could speak of leaving and that water could tear down the fabric of the soul. As a poet, he was a master of evoking mood in his own writing with nary an emotion mentioned and he was as nuanced in his teaching. He would hold back when you were broken, but push you hard when you were slacking.
They didn’t know, and neither did I, that I would become a journalist. But they laid the foundation. They gave me the tools. You wouldn’t necessarily think that poetry and creative writing come into play in journalism. But they do. The art of writing headlines corresponds with poetry. Meter and line length matter. And narrative arc matters in a news story just as it does in fiction.
Ken and Moyle have moved on to other realms. I miss them. And I salute all the teachers/professors/mentors out there who understand how to keep a student’s dreams alive, while giving them the tools to grow. It’s difficult, beautiful, worthy work.
Writing badly is easy. You just open up the mental spigot and words flow out of your fingertips and pretty soon you’ve filled a bunch of pages.
Writing well is hard. You open up the mental spigot and words flow out of your fingertips and pretty soon you’ve filled a bunch of pages and then a couple of days later you re-read those pages and find two paragraphs worth keeping or two fine sentences worth sharing or the germ of an idea worth developing.
And if, heaven forfend, you are trying to craft a novel, then there should have been time on the front end where all you did was ponder plot and story and character, so that when you do sit down to begin writing, the architecture can sustain and direct the sentences and paragraphs poring out of your fingers.
When I see people promoting the idea that a novel can be written in 30 days, I think to myself, yes, of course, you can open up the spigot and the words will surely flow. But a brain dump is not a work of art.
All of which is my way of reminding myself to be patient. I can’t push this river.
Robert McKee’s “Story” is my current best writing friend. It’s a book about how to write screenplays, but it is excellent as a guide to sorting out the architecture of a good story regardless of the format.
I love it for being pragmatic. Here’s an example: “Here’s a simple test to apply to any story. Ask: What is at risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants? More specifically, what’s the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his desire? If this question cannot be answered in a compelling way, the story is misconceived at its core.”
But I also love it for recognizing why we love stories: “We not only create stories as metaphors for life, we create them as metaphors for meaningful life — and to live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk.”
McKee makes me want to simultaneously write well and live well. How cool is that?
from page 149 of the 1997 hardback edition.
I have been thinking about “The Booker Rebellion” for seven years. I have been writing it in my spare time for five. And yesterday, a day of furlough from my newspapering job, I finished the final draft of the first chapter. It is good. It is pointing, finally, in the correct direction. I am easy in my heart.
I don’t know why I had to write so many bad first chapters (I think at least seven).
Now to overhaul the next 19 chapters. Yesterday, as I began examining how this rewrite will fit with the rest of the story, I could feel things falling into place, like the tumblers in a lock lining up at last because I found the right key.
Writers argue, always, about careful crafting on the front end of a project vs. headlong writing to get the story in place before fine tuning sentences and paragraphs.
Here’s what Annie Dillard said about that:
“The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses — to secure each sentence before building on it — is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop. … A pile of decent work behind him, no matter how small, fuels the writer’s hope, too.”
from “The Writing Life,” 1989 hardback edition, page 15
Of course, she says the opposite one page later, that a writer’s early strokes are useless until the whole arc of the story becomes clear.
For myself a need the hope that a well-crafted paragraph provides, even if it will be discarded once more is revealed.
The Logitech illuminated keyboard. Perfect for those of us who stagger from the bedroom to the coffee pot and then to the office for a bout of early morning writing before we go to our day jobs (where if we are lucky or perhaps cursed, we also write). The keyboard’s backlit, so you can see the letters in the dark. That means you don’t need a boatload of light in the room, which matters more than I can say. Small desk lamp, lit keyboard. It’s perfect. The keyboard is also thin, and I’m getting used to that. But the key action, sweet mother, it’s fine. I’m old enough to have started my typing life on the ancient IBM Selectric, and my fingers have rarely met a computer keyboard that did not offend them in some way. But this little hummer, it’s like tooling around for most of your life in a Honda Civic and then somebody gives you the keys to the Lamborghini. Fingers flyin’. Christmas gift from my beloved who knows technology. Probably not cheap.
In the newsroom where I work cost-cutting measures have led the brain trust there to buy the worst pens on the planet. Since I spend a big chunk of my work week furiously scribbling down what people say to me, I hate bad pens. You have to press hard. The ink often skips and you lose precious seconds while someone has moved on from one brilliant thought to the next, which you only caught half of because of the stupid pen. (Audio recordings require more time to transcribe, so reporters on tight deadlines don’t use them.)
I launched my own search for a decent pen and found a surprisingly good one. Who knew Sharpie, maker of those big fat markers, had a lovely little fine point? The pen feels good in my hand, the ink flows quickly and doesn’t skip. Sharpie’s claims that it doesn’t bleed through aren’t quite accurate. It mostly doesn’t.