Tag Archives: writing

a return of sorts

Last year, I wrote a story about a strip club off a highway in rural Missouri. It was dark and grimy, the only building for miles.

As a five-foot-tall woman in her twenties, it probably wasn’t the wisest idea to go alone at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. But I wanted the story. So I went anyway.

There were two men who did business at the place, and two women who danced. They were suspicious of me. The second time I visited, the bartender asked me if I wanted to strip down and dance for the customers sitting just below the stage, all of them men, gawking at the dancer as if they were a single unit, a single man in his dirty jeans with a collective pair of eyes. But of course, they weren’t one man, but three different individuals, each who had driven to this club on his own, each watching the dancer on his own, and I both resented them and felt sorry for their loneliness.

The bartender’s question — when he asked whether I wanted to go onstage and have my turn at the pole — was a joke. I think. But I was already uncomfortable, and my hands began to sweat after he asked. I tried to hide how scared I was, so I smiled and declined and laughed it off.

When I left, the bartender walked me out to my car.

“It’s not safe for a girl like you to be out in the middle of nowhere,” he told me.

I wanted to tell him that I only felt unsafe around him, but I didn’t say anything.

“I did some research on you,” he said just before I opened my car door, and I think every muscle in my body froze when he did.

“Oh yeah? What did you find?” I said.

“You’ve written about some… pretty controversial stuff,” he said.

“I like writing the tough stories,” I said.

“Your family is from all over the world,” he said, and after a pause: “Your grandmother died last year.”

And that’s when I discovered that he’d found my personal blog. It terrified me to know that this potentially dangerous stranger knew so much about my private life. And I knew the bartender’s words were a subtle threat.

Since then, except for little essays on Instagram, I haven’t shared much of my personal writing online.

The stakes are higher now that I’m working as a professional journalist. I don’t want to give too much of myself away. But I want to write, and I want to share what I write. So I’m going to try to blog this summer, but it’s a struggle to mark a line between my public and private persona — a line that I suspect doesn’t actually exist — and try not to cross it.

The goal is to publish at least seven blog posts this summer. Hold me accountable, internet.

(I drove off after that conversation, by the way, and I wrote the story, which you an read here.)

Until next time, xoxo from South Carolina.

Processed with VSCO with g3 preset

Advertisements

mimicking the masters

You know when you visit an art museum and you see an art student sitting down with her own easel and paintbrush, copying the brushstrokes of Degas or van Gogh or Michelangelo? Mimicking the masters. Imitating the greats. Practicing on others’ paintings before she finds her own voice, so to speak.

In January, my professor recommended that we journalists do this too. Take a great piece of narrative nonfiction. Copy it straight out of the book, magazine, newspaper. Pay attention to diction, syntax, how the writers connect words and use imagery.

When I have writer’s block, as I did last night and, well, still have today; when I’ve got the ideas but the language gets stuck in some cortex of my brain, that’s when I mimic my masters.

Except I copy poetry. Not journalism. Can’t escape my B.A.

It isn’t to be pretentious — I have a genuine, nerdy love for poetry. Some poems I read over and over again, and I cry the good kind of tears, the kind of tears that remind me that I am human and so were Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman and John Keats and e.e. cummings, and feeling defeated or paralyzed by emotions is so normal, so, so normal. Even on the shit days, you exist on this earth, a part of a large and beautiful ecosystem. It’s the type of crying that comforts.

Plus, writers of any sort (journalists included) can learn a whole lot from poets. Relying on their senses. Concise diction. Playing with language. It’s a comfort, sure. But it’s also inspiration.

Since it’s World Poetry Day, I thought I’d share a few poems that I’ve copied down to try and heal my writer’s block. I only took my Derek Walcott and Anne Sexton collections off of my bookshelf, so the poems come from those writers.

Here you are. Have a good cry.

Love after Love (Derek Walcott)

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bead. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Endings (Walcott again)

Things do not explode,
they fail, the fade,

as sunlight fades from the flesh,
as the foam drains quick in the sand,

even love’s lighting flash
has no thunderous end,

it dies with the sound
of flowers fading like the flesh

from sweating pumice stone,
everything shapes this

till we are left
with the silence that surrounds Beethoven’s head.

Anne Sexton’s re-writing of Cinderella (but just the end, as it’s very long)

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

 

 

 

 

pierogi in greenpoint

It’s Dec. 27, 2014, which is almost 2015, and I’m ready for it. 

I carved out a bit of time in my break for filling out internship applications, and instead I’m sitting next to a pile of Hershey’s Kisses wrappers with my dog at my feet and I’m blogging instead. Go figure. 

I don’t like to forget things, but I often do. That’s why I try to scribble my thoughts down whenever I can. Even if it’s not well-written, or if it’s one giant rambling mess, at least it’s been recorded. So I’ve decided to share a memory from 2014. Read if you want to, or not.

Let’s start with New York.

Two days after I arrived, I decided to skip out early on the mixer for the business journalism conference I was attending. I was ready for dinner, and after reading novels and stories and blog posts about New York, I knew exactly where to go: Greenpoint in Brooklyn.

Greenpoint is one of the few Polish neighborhoods in the States, and I was eager to eat authentic pierogi. Roll your eyes at me if you must, but America is full of sickening pierogi imitations. It had been two and a half years since I had last visited my grandmother in Poland, so two and a half years since I had tasted real-life, actual, laboriously hand-made, cheese-and-potato peasant pierogi.

Thank you, God, for smartphones, I thought as I found my way to the G-Train. I was still dressed in the outfit I had planned for my New York Stock Exchange visit earlier that day, complete with a pencil skirt, blazer and oversized black heels. When I got off at the subway at Nassau Avenue as dusk fell darker and darker into night, I felt completely out of place.

Just walk around like you used to in London. I thought. You’ll find a place to eat, easy peasy. 

Except for a few things. I knew London fairly well. This was the first time I had ever set foot in Brooklyn. I was surprised to see that the streets were almost completely deserted. I saw a few mothers with strollers head inside their brownstone homes. Gentrification had taken over the Greenpoint of my imagination. Silly.

I walked into the first restaurant that I saw. It was a narrow place decorated with Polish memorabilia  with a bar up front and booths in the back. The bartenders and waiters were dressed in traditional Polish costumes, and although I’ve never been crazy about cheesy tourist vibes, I was too comfortable in the heated restaurant to consider walking back out in the cold. So, I sat down at the bar, ordered a bottle of Tyskie–my uncle’s favorite beer, which has an okay taste, not great, but I didn’t know of any other Polish beer–and opened the day’s Wall Street Journal so that I wouldn’t be bothered.

Wishful thinking.

Not ten minutes later, I received a glass of red wine.

“From the man sitting behind you,” the bartender told me in Polish.

A few things you should know about me before we move forward: I’m 23 years old, and I’m small. Five feet tall on a good day. I’m the sort of person that grandmothers look at and ask, “Well aren’t you terrified to be out in the city on your own?” And the truth is, maybe I should be, and sometimes I am, but I often feel at my most comfortable when I’m on my own and exploring. That is, until I get unwanted attention from men. Like, for instance, the 60-something year old man who was eyeing me and who had apparently sent me that glass of wine. Oh God. 

This was the first time I had been to a bar on my own, and it also happened to be my first time in New York. I had no idea what proper protocol was for this situation, so I smiled at the old man politely and took a sip of the wine. He then came over to sit next to me. I felt terribly awkward and was totally sober. I was going to have to sip on the wine a lot faster.

“Cześć,” he said.

“Dobry wieczór,” I replied with a formal “Good evening.”

Then he got real personal, real fast. He told me his name, and the fact that he hadn’t been to Poland for thirty years, but he was going to go back in a couple of weeks because he had cancer and that’s why he couldn’t drink alcohol, you see, and it was a terminal illness and that’s why he wanted to die in the country where he was born and grew up.

I felt bad for him for a moment. And then he said, “That’s why you must live in the moment, you know, and live without regrets.”

I’ve been hit on by enough slimy men to know exactly what that meant. So I breathed a sigh of relief when my pierogi–my gorgeous, delicious, authentic piegori!–were placed in front of me.

“Ah, I’ll leave you to your food,” the man said. “It was lovely meeting you.”

Saved by pierogi!

Except not.

I was just about to pay the check when he came back over. He had a beer in his hand.  The wine and beer had gone to my head a little bit, but for not being able to drink alcohol, this man now appeared flat-out drunk.

“You look so young, you know? Like no older than 19,” he said.

Whoomp, there it is. I assured him that I was 23 and spit out that memorized joke about how lucky I would feel in ten years. But he didn’t laugh politely as everyone else did. Instead, he asked where I was staying.

“I’m all the way in New Jersey,” I said. I got out my phone and began to draft a text to my friend Kouichi. Hey, we need to meet up.

“New Jersey? Cholera. That’s not New York. Come with me, I’ll show you around in my car,” he said.

“Oh, no, I–”

“Why not? Live in the moment, Kasia! This is New York City!”

He was leaning in closer to me, reeking of beer. I implored Kouichi to text me back, hoping that he would connect with me on some trans-city brainwave.

My phone buzzed. Yeah, let’s meet up! I’m in Times Square. Where are you?

“Actually, my friend–he knows New York well–he was going to show me around. He’s in Times Square, so I better leave–” I was thankful for Kouichi, but scrambling for words.

“I can take you there!” the man insisted.

“No, that’s all right. I’d rather just take the subway…”

“Well at least take my number.”

Now, that I could deal with. And that’s how I ended up with “Tomek Brooklyn” in my contacts.

The pierogi, by the way, were totally worth it.

office space

Sometimes you try to write what’s assigned, and it just doesn’t work. The words are forced, artificially connected by too many conjunctions. When you’re a journalist, though, you’ve always got to write that story. Meet the deadline, even if the article is boring and you’d much rather be finishing up that investigative piece into which you’ve invested a semester’s worth of time. Meet the deadline, even if you’ve got a list-of-things-to-do afterward that will keep you up all night.

I’m sitting at my designated chair in the office at Jefferson City. In front of me, stacked legal pads scribbled with my notes, today’s New York Times, my planner which induces panic attacks when lost, a bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper Cherry that isn’t mine (although I tried it anyway, and then remembered how much I hate artificial sweeteners), a dictionary that probably weighs as much as I do, with yellowed pages, open to page 1027 which ends with the word “hand-minded.” I’m not sure why it’s in front of me. When I want to confirm that I’m using the right word, I’ll look it up on Merriam Webster online. That physical dictionary sits open, though, thousands of pages. An ancient relic.

There are no windows in this office—or there were, at one point, but they’ve since been “walled over,” apparently. The sports writers sit behind me. They are pretty fond of expletives.

Right now, it’s November and a cold front has made its dramatic entrance in Missouri. It’s cold inside the office, too. I’m wearing my red H&M coat to keep myself from freezing a terrible and avoidable death. I’m always cold.

This post isn’t written for anyone but myself. I don’t want to forget this space, not because it’s glamorous or exciting, but because it’s a physical place where I once worked and learned and avoided writing one story by writing another story and that means something, probably.

BOOM (a comparative study in reporting)

*Note: another blog post brought you by graduate school! Too blessed to be stressed, everyone.

Take a look at two different articles on Texas’ natural gas boom, and chances are, you’ll be first be struck by the photographs. Both stories are visually stunning, even though they are printed in different platforms.

The piece in Texas Monthly, called “‘Y’all Smell That? That’s the Smell of Money’” has photographs taking up entire pages. You can see oil rigs and pump jacks juxtaposed in front of blank blank blue skies, or maybe a sunrise lighting the landscape in gold. It’s a compelling contrast–nature and machine, that is–and there’s something beautiful about it.

Copyright Jeff Wilson Photography

Copyright Jeff Wilson Photography

Now, turn to the piece from the Center for Public Integrity. The portraits are grim, people staring solemnly into the camera. One woman holds up the mask that helps her breath. Machines make an appearance in this photos too, but the sky is no longer painted in blue or gold; it looks more like mud than anything else.   The Center for Public Integrity makes great use of multimedia on the web, showing different frames that move as you scroll down. There’s a horse galloping behind dead trees. There’s a rusty swing in an empty playground. The visitor can’t help but wonder, ‘where are the children?’ Perhaps the title of the story will clarify: “Big Oil, Bad Air.”

Copyright, Center for Public Integrity

Copyright Center for Public Integrity

You don’t even need to read a single word before you realize that these two stories have very different takes on the oil boom.

…But you do decide to read the stories, after all, because you’re curious. Good. The differences don’t stop at the photos.

Bryan Mealer, the author of the Texas Monthly piece, does not just report the facts. He writes from the first person and doesn’t shy away from a literary style of narrative. Mealer begins with his own experiences with the oil boom as a child, but remains a part of the story arc throughout the duration of the article. It’s personal, but not self-indulgent, which adds to a sense of suspense.

Mealer interviews several people who have received the financial fruit of the boom–oil men, people who found work after years of being unemployed, others from the Hispanic town of Cotulla who finally saw money being poured into their schools. It’s a celebration economic prosperity! When Mealer does interview people who have been negatively affected by the boom, it seems to be more of an obligation or an afterthought. “Oh, by the way, this person lives in a tent. The wealth gap is growing increasingly large. But, you know, winners and losers, right?” This isn’t to say that Mealer’s story is completely without nuance, though. After he begins with story of his father losing  his wealth after an oil boom, the whole article gives off a foreboding feeling that those indulging in oil-soaked cash are gambling with their livelihoods.

Let’s switch gears and consider the research piece from the Center for Public Integrity (CIP). It begins with an anecdotal lead too, but in a completely different manner. There’s a distance between the narrator and the subject–that’s called third-person narrative voice–and it gives a sense of authority over the entire article. Once you’ve finished the lead, you might notice something else that sets it apart from Mealy’s story: the content.

Sure, both are about the oil boom in Texas, but the CIP story (authored by three people) is focused on a consequence of the boom that Mealy barely mentions: the environmental impacts, both immediate and long-term. CIP is highly critical of the environment policies of both Texas and oil companies. Yet it manages to avoid moral judgment and prop up its sense of authority by providing statistics to back up its research. The article has breadth and depth, covering  both the science between the detrimental environmental effects of the industry and the regulation of the industry (or lack thereof). CIP interviews numerous people suffering from the immediate health consequences of the oil boom. Further, any dissenting viewpoints seem only to be included in order to sharpen CIP’s own argument rather than offer a legitimate perspective.

But that’s all right, I think. CIP is not trying to avoid debate; on the contrary, they are trying to stir up objections from the dominant ideology. Plus, with such thorough research, CIP does make a convincing case.

So, which story is more persuasive? You should read them and decide for yourself, Reader. You could even learn something new.

look up, look up!

Anonymity is contentment.
When I was studying abroad in Cambridge, on a given lazy Sunday I would take the train on my own to London. Then I’d take the Tube to whatever stop seemed compelling: just me, my Oyster Card and a city running on the energy of millions of strangers.

Self-portrait in Hampstead Heath, London. January 2012. Feeling content.

Self-portrait in Hampstead Heath, London. January 2012. Feeling content.

On a cold but crisp January day,
Walking with feigned purpose,
You can see the whole of London on Parliament Hill.
It’s crowded,
But the people don’t recognize you.
They don’t even look.
How refreshing, how energizing
To observe an entire ecosystem of humans
And languages and words
And trains, boats, buses
And trees, bushes, ponds
To feel like you’re involved in it all, but removed from it too.
No need to live up to expectations in the city.

First time in London, and I found myself properly lost on Abbey Road. I didn't mind. September 2011.

First time in London, and I found myself properly lost on Abbey Road. I didn’t mind. September 2011.

In high school, I had a fantasy that I would move to New York City. I’d go in college, of course, as any respectable eighteen-year-old would do. I had never been to the Big Apple before. This wasn’t uncommon in the Ozarks. People didn’t have a lot of money in that neck of the woods.

But I didn’t move, of course, because reality stopped by and forced me to look down. My feet were planted firmly into the Missouri soil, and I couldn’t afford to relocate.
(Technically, I couldn’t afford to attend a small liberal arts college and spend an entire year abroad, but I suppose $30,000 in student loans is better than $100,000.)
The desire to live in the city–to look up at a skyline of glass buildings instead of looking down at dead grass–never left. What a thrill it would be, to live in a space miles larger than I am, made of multiple histories, cultures, lives, stories. The thought scares some. It vitalizes me.

In two days, I’ll finally be in New York City. I’m going for a conference in business journalism, and I’m eager to learn what I can. But I’m also pining for that city sensation,
the paradox of being both a part and apart.

let’s talk leads

Today’s blog post is brought to you by: Blog Posts I am Assigned to Write in Graduate School! Read on if you’d like to learn a thing or two about journalism and the art of starting a story, because I’m about to deconstruct three leads.

Lead Numero Uno: 

You and your wallet have a big stake in huge tax-dodging deals being crafted by big American companies, like Burger King merging with Tim Hortons, the Canadian  coffee and doughnut chain.

From David Cay Johnston’s “Corporate Deadbeats” – Newsweek, 4 Sept. 2014.

Well, look at that. No time wasted getting to that second person pronoun “you.” Not a typical move by journalists, but a good one for Johnston to make. This article is about a merger, and most of us lay people who don’t have a degree in finance start snoozing at the first sign of a business story. Business a tough beat because it involves so much specialized knowledge and vocabulary, and many average readers are turned off by that. Right away, though, Johnston implicates the reader, tells her why this story is so important. Just because you don’t understand the legal lingo of a merger doesn’t mean you’re not affected, Missy. In addition, Johnston spends the rest of the article effectively arguing his point–that the average person’s wealth is tied up with these giant corporations.

Verdict: A+. A good start.

And on to Number Two: 

Barely a year removed from the devastation of the 2008 financial crisis, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York faced a crossroads. Congress had set its sights on reform. The biggest banks in the nation had shown that their failure could threaten the entire financial system. Lawmakers wanted new safeguards.

From Jake Bernstein’s “Inside the New York Fed: Secret Recordings and a Culture Clash” — ProPublica in association with This American Life, 26 Sept. 2014

This lead starts a fantastic story about Carmen Segarra, a former bank examiner and current whistleblower of the New York Fed. She made secret recordings of conversations between executives, who spoke about how “perceptions” are more important than the realities of the banks they were supposed to be regulating. It’s a fascinating piece of investigative writing… but does the lead live up to the rest of the article?
Close, but not quite. It sets up the scene and an intriguing conflict right away, as any good story should. But remember that bit about business reporting I wrote earlier? This lead doesn’t necessarily draw the typical news reader in. It sounds like a business story, directed at business-oriented readers, which is a shame–this is a story that everyone needs to read (or hear, if you prefer). If an organization like ProPublica aims to democratize the news, they should write in a way that does so.

Verdict: B+. Good writing, but keep the audience in mind.

Final lead:

“It’s a funny day to be on the air,” mused 96.5 The Buzz morning host Afentra on Monday.

From Tim Engle’s “96.5 the Buzz hosts ‘thrilled’ to have jobs after $1 million ‘porn star’ verdict” – Kansas City Star, 29 Sept. 2014
This lead is different from the first two for several reasons: it comes from a straight news story, it’s from a local newspaper, and it’s about porn stars. Two morning show radio hosts were sued after they put together a list of Kansas City’s porn stars–except that one woman, the one doing the suing, wasn’t a porn star at all. (I would know. I went to college with her.) She won her case, and now these radio hosts owe her $1 million in damages for defamation.
But what’s even more shameful is that the Star began their article with a quote. To make it worse, the attribution of choice was “mused.” Mused? What’s wrong with good old “said?” Here’s the real problem with beginning a news story with a quote–besides the fact that it sounds clunky, instead of inviting the reader, it confuses the him by making him guess who’s speaking. If the quote had more of an impact, it’s okay to break the rules–but here, the quote is seriously lacking in punch.
Verdict: D. Sorry KC. I’m still a devoted reader, anyway.