Category Archives: writing

Look what j-school did to me: journo training changed my brain forever

I just wrote a Facebook post sharing the video above. So did a colleague. Here’s how two people, one with journalism training and one without, see the exact same video with local news value:

  • TEDxAsheville Video time: ANOTHER outstanding youth presentation from TEDxNextGenerationAsheville. Ever heard about the alleged toxic spill IN ASHEVILLE? Studies are inconclusive, but there’s widespread sickness in a South Asheville neighborhood, and residents blame toxic groundwater. One young cancer survivor, Gabe Dunsmith, speaks out about alleged contamination at CTS Corp. Six-minute video.

  • TEDxNextGenerationAsheville Asheville LOOK at the spill that is happening in our own backyards. A courageous young leader, Gabe Black Walnut Dunsmith, is not willing to stand for innocent people suffering and dyeing. He’s taking a stand. Will you join him?

Can you spot the  writer who sold her soul to Edward R. Murrow in 2009?

Eh, I’m not sorry. A friend one told me that the way a scientist sees the world is the only way to see the world, and that stuck with me. I tried to learn to see the world as a scientist does, but I didn’t have the right mind. But when it comes to words and information, I’m your woman. Journalism is a magical combination of words and truth, and is its own royal road to discovery. A scientist, I suppose, finds new things, and a journalist interprets things to find a new truth, however humble. Both, when they do it right, chase something elusive and magical.

The mental paces a learning journalist goes through are the best exercises in fairness I have encountered, and freshman newswriting rewrote my writing mind in the best possible way (of all the classes I took in college, its the one that I think should be required for any writer). It taught me how to write with the truth in mind first, and the needs of the reader second, and gave me a formula to do that. Before, I was just regurgitating information onto a page.

I’m not saying my colleague was wrong and I was right in what she and I posted. Hardly. I’m saying there’s a place for both ways of presenting information. Passion and reason are excellent bedfellows.

Anyway. If you live in Asheville, watch this 6-minute video on what seems to me to be one of the most disturbing and under-reported stories I’ve heard in the 30 years I’ve lived here.

Best Word Nerd Cartoon Ever

Via Revenge of the Word Nerd, an Asheville blog I encourage my readers to check out:

(Dedicated to my friend CCR. Good luck with your job search!)

Confessions of an Unemployed Writer

I’m thinking of changing the name of the blog. :0)

It recently occurred to me that my problem this summer isn’t so much that work has dried up (though that has certainly happened; things seem tough all over right now), but that I find I don’t really care that the work dried up. If I cared as this crisis was coming, I would have headed it off. But I didn’t. What’s going on here, I think, is not so much that I am out of work, but that I’m starting to realize I need a break from freelancing, or at least from freelancing as I have known and practiced it for the last half-dozen years.

I remember reading about a fairly established actor who took a break from acting to wait tables, saying it was honest work and the break he wanted from the work he’d been doing. I remember not quite buying that. But I buy it now.

For a long time now I have had a job with great cool points and spikes of lucre. It was unstable but it could also be a lot of fun, and I almost always got to be myself while doing it, which is something that matters hugely to me. But the freelance glitter is looking a little cheap lately, and I am wondering if I have placed too much attention elsewhere, when (as is so often the case), things worth paying more attention to have been right in front of me.

I am the first to admit that I am changeable. It’s why I love writing, because there’s always something new to grab my mind and gorge on until I am sated with the delicious taste of information, and the equally delicious task of distributing and sharing it. But I am tired of freelance goals that are so nebulous and large. Science. Documentary scriptwriting. Things that reach out into the world at large. Lately I am thinking about reaching out into the world writ small. Lately I am thinking more and more about writing for and about Asheville.

This poor blog is always in transition (science blog, college blog, personal blog, music blog, food blog…), because it is a hallmark of my nature that I always am, too. And lately I find I want to constrict my focus into something less floppy and nebulous. Into something that feels more useful, more real, even more local somehow.

Next week I’m applying to be a GIS librarian (a sort of science researcher and librarian) at the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center here in Asheville, where my focus would be North Carolina earth science and local climate. The pay will not be anything like what I ordinarily command, but I’m starting to feel like a holdout, a snob and an idler for not seeking and taking appealing work because I’m used to the taste of a freelancer’s rates and the cachet of her cool points.

I applied to work at my local yarn shop because I frankly found the thought of downtown retail related to a craft I love more appealing than SEO and another conference call. I applied to work at a local organization hiring a writer/producer of science outreach material. I am about to apply for (freelance!) work as a craft book editor for a local publishing house, and have been paying serious attention to a friend’s repeated encouragement to pitch a knitting book to the publisher she edits for. (I am in the middle of designing my first wearables and tote bags, but that’s another story…)

And I’ve always got good old Blog Asheville, which I may well soon bombard with a series of articles on local things I just plain want to write about, like my two favorite West Asheville public gardens (the 1/4 acre Vance Elementary Peace Garden and Christopher Mello’s sculpture garden), local roller derby team the Blue Ridge Rollergirls, and why people don’t swim in the river in town (why????), but only in rural areas where I don’t know that there’s really a significantly different experience. I think about writing about these things and I perk up a bit, though I smell no money.

Only fun.

Is it true that the water’s deeper there by Harrin’s Sand & Gravel by Carrier Park? If you know, speak up or you shall force me to shave legs and don swimsuit and find out for myself and then tell you all all about it…

Maybe summer dragged because it took me two months to realize I had no appetite for anything in my usual workload. I knew I didn’t quite feel burned out, just unmotivated in a wholly unfamiliar way, as anyone who knows me I love and live to be and feel useful, busy and engaged.

I like being an implement. I like producing. I like working all day the in fields of the mindscape, so finding myself lazing uselessly around in its outskirts all summer is not me at all, and no fun. It’s not a rest or a break. It’s bloody uncomfortable and energy-stealing.

I wouldn’t say I’m dropping out. I’ll be a writer until the day I die. It’s my first, best thing and a fundamental part of who I am and how I interface with people and the world. I am, however, open to trying new things.

As soon as I figure out what they are.

Writing Samples Online

I just updated my “Looking for a Writer?” page to include some writing samples (though admittedly they’re all old and from the beginning of my career… I don’t write much that’s archived anymore). Here’s the highlights, IMO:

Charlotte’s Very Own Gay Soap Opera (Self-explanatory; alt weekly cover feature and my first big sale — I didn’t even know how to write a lead!)

Some old book reviews:

Bare by Elisabeth Eaves (stripping from a stripper’s POV)

Breaking Open the Head by Daniel Pinchbeck (“a psychedelic journey into modern shamanism”)

In the Shadow of Memory by Floyd Skloot (best memoir I ever read — Skloot’s a genius)

The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases, edited by Jeff Vandermeer and Mark Roberts (funny, weird, disturbing and wonderful fantasy book)

Tomorrow Now by Bruce sterling (“cyberfiction pioneer checks the crystal ball”)

Muphry’s Law

Not Murphy’s. Muphry’s.

From Threepenny Planet:

Muphry’s Law is the editorial application of the better-known Murphy’s Law. Muphry’s Law dictates that (a) if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written; (b) if an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book; (c) the stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault; (d) any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.

LOL I’m not sure about (b)-(d), but (a) is a classic truth that seems to be finding its heyday in the era of blogging.

Here’s a cute example from today’s AskMefi, in which the questioner asks readers to settle a spousal punctuation bet and manages to include a grammar error and a typo (click to enlarge):

Here’s Muphry at work in Freakonomics, and the apology. LOL BTW in the comments in the second article I learned that when someone incorrectly corrects something that isn’t wrong, it’s an incorrection.

My “Ask MetaFilter” Debut

I just got hooked on MeFi and Ask MeFi. I blame blogfriend Fliss.

Here’s my debut as commenter: Need recommendations for artistic non-fiction writing classes.

I’m looking for recommendations for low cost (e.g. community college) writing classes to improve the artistic aspects of my non-fiction (essay, blog entry, resume, website content, etc.) writing.

Click the link to read the responses, including mine.

I’m a Summer Science Screenplay Intern

Attention conservation notice: This is about my new summer internship writing science movies for NEMAC, a science outreach organization based in the campus of the college I attend.

From my NEMAC Student Researcher/Intern Project Description Form:

Jennifer is part of a 10-member team creating a series of all-ages educational science movies about water issues in Western North Carolina. Her team includes two animators, earth science profesionals, the French Broad Riverkeeper, a professional storyteller and an immersive cinema designer. Jennifer is a script intern helping create screenplays for four short films exploring WNC-specific water science and conservation issues including drought and the effects of runoff and impervious surfaces. This film series will be professionally voiced and animated and shown to people and policy-makers all over the area in an immersive half-dome cinema.

Check out the half-dome, yo:

Cool, huh?

The guy who designs these works not far from me. I have followed his career for years; my impression is that he’s really admired among Asheville’s technorati and new media types for running a successful and incredibly cool business involving the ground-up creation of immersive/unusual film experiences.

Check out his company’s amazing client list.

Anyway, he’s the one we are making the movies for in part, to showcase a half-dome cinema like the one above. We’re also educating people about water issues, a growing concern everywhere including NC where drought and record-breaking heat have hit us yet again, after a miserably droughty 2007. (We just went through a beastly bout of 90-degree weather that felt like the worst of August — and it’s still springtime.)

This internship started back in April/May when I was still in school, when I got an email telling me about an Americorps job working for The Media Arts Project, an Asheville new media organization that I have long admired.

But I couldn’t work full-time, much less at Americorps rates; someone with my level of experience deserves better pay. I deleted the email wistfully.

A few days later at school I decided to look over my required departmental competencies, a list of things students need to do or have before you can graduate that largely lie outside of taking classes. Stuff like having a portfolio and getting a two-week gig shadowing someone at work.

Lately my friends Rowan and Heather are really starting up the fascinating extracurricular things college students are SUPPOSED to do, but that older students make excuses to avoid. Heather’s doing medical volunteering and Spanish immersion in Bolivia; the world-famous Rosie is interning as the first person hired by a local hospital’s multi-million dollar alternative healing program, and came within a hair of traveling to Ireland to do research.

Me? I was planning to spend summer working and sitting on my ass in the evenings with a DVD and a string bag. It was time for me to do the things college students are supposed to do. All of them, like exploring new things and not getting paid much for it, all summer long.

An internship, a REAL one not taken to just check a box on my yellow competency sheet, sounded like exactly what I needed. I mean, traditional college students don’t intern so they can graduate. They intern to try something new, to go somewhere new, to see if they like something they think they might want to do forever. Without these experiences you might end up at the mall selling handbags. With them, you might end up blogging from an internet cafe in Bolivia about how now you are absolutely certain that medical outreach is what you want to do for the rest of your life.

I thought of The MAP and how they were hiring. I couldn’t work full-time…but did they need an intern?

I emailed the exectutive director of The MAP and said I was a professional freelance writer looking for an internship, and that my interests were in documentary screenwriting, scientific visualization and science writing. Her reply pretty much boiled down to “Have we got a job for you.”

When we watched the first movie the team had produced, it surprised me with how well-done it was. I had quietly expected local work to be sub-par, but it soon became clear that I was working with Asheville’s cool kids.

When I was in my early 20s a friend auditioned for a band. They were older than him and a lot cooler and a lot more experienced playing music. We called them “the cool dudes.” They tolerated my friend hanging around, but never asked him to play with them. At this meeting I felt like I had lucked onto the cool dudes, and they wanted me to play.

On my second day I met with the primary screenwriter, a professional storyteller. He knew so much about narrative and used intriguing phrases that made my mind explode with curiosity, like “charismatic image” and “involvement device.” At the end of our meeting he asked what I wanted to do and I said that I would just punch up what he was writing and since I wasn’t good at coming up with images, I would just write text.

He laughed. And he pointed out that people don’t do internships to stay in their comfort zone and do what they always do.

So that week I wrote my own screenplay draft, coming up with images, voiceover, the works. It was very well-received and everyone at the meeting loved it.

So of course at a later meeting my work was picked apart! No one was rude; I just got an honest critique of some very real problems with my work and got some serious insight about how not to present screenplay text.

It’s been awhile since I was an inexperienced newbie, and I was down all that day until I realized I was back at the start of a profession again, back to not knowing, fumbling, flailing, learning. And that there was no other way into these new things than to slog through ignorance, listen to others and ask questions, let myself be helped, be unexceptional.

At 39 I am an intern, a proper intern. I am being paid $10 an hour, having my picture taken for a bulletin board, turning in a bio, filling out a timesheet. I am new and I am allowed to be ignorant. It takes experience, confidence and competence to recognize that ignorance can be OK sometimes. This is one of those times.

I welcome my ignorance as part of giving myself a strange new skill in a strange new world where a writer is both robbed of her power by being forced to say less, but given a new and numinous tool: visuals. I am learning to write multiple streams for eye and mind and ear all working together.

I filled out my NEMAC paperwork with an absolutely beautiful tall woman in sandals who wore a long red scarf. She was intelligent and charming and genuinely concerned that I learn and experience new things. My whole intern experience has been permeated with a strange flavor that tastes of kindness and science and other new things I don’t always get to taste at work and had never expected to any more than I expected to find a $50 bill in my shoe this morning.

Walking out of the small NEMAC office it hit me what I was searching to understand, the strange new factor that was making this job so different: This is the first job I have ever had that is not driven by profit.

NEMAC must work to stay alive and thrive but its goal is not to further itself financially but to work with and impart scientific knowledge. The constant tension of money is here, but it’s not in every transaction of word and deed.

I walked down the hall of the chemistry department where NEMAC is housed feeling such a strong attachment to and happiness with the world of academia and nonprofit that for the first time UNCA started to feel like a forever place, like an intellectual base of operations one could base some of one’s life work out of.

I walked back to my car. Outside a summer downpour had begun, complete with crackling lightnings and such wet and pounding rain that it soaks the exposed part of my backpack not covered by my umbrella. The water rushes along the sidewalks and washes over my feet, covered only by flip-flops. As I walk, my pantlegs get wet almost to the knee from soaking up water from rivers of runoff I walk through, flowing over the campus streets and sidewalks.

I cross the street and stand in the middle of the road right on the yellow lines in the middle of a clear, shallow sea of rainwater that rushes at my ankles and thunders down the three storm drains I can see.

I am stilled here because the movies I am writing have let me know that the runoff that rushes down the drains is fast-tracked into my local river, the French Broad. This makes the river’s water level rise far faster than it would otherwise in a storm. Without the impervious surfaces of human life, rainwater falls on earth, leaves and branches and makes its way to the river very slowly.

But storm drains, the ones that choke down those silty orange rivers that flow down your street so deep you can barely drive through them, they send all that water to the river as fast as it can go.

Impervious surfaces and storm drains don’t cause flooding. They just give it a major artificial assist and deny the ground the water it soaked up for centuries before asphalt.

Knowing things I never knew before, I walk back to the car under my pink umbrella and drive home, kicking up orange rooster tails as I plow through the worst of the water, thinking of floods.

All-Asheville collaborators:

Klein Digital


David Novak, kind to interns

The Elumenati

The Media Arts Project


The Colburn Gem and Mineral Museum

Quote of the Day: Categorizing Writing and Writers

Categorization (women’s writing, gay writing, Illinois writing) inflicts upon art exactly what art strives at its best never to inflict on itself: arbitrary and irrelevant limits, shelter from the widest consideration and judgment, exclusion from general excellence.

– Richard Ford

(Come to think of it, I think this really does apply to art in general. I note that Ford refers to writing only in parentheses.)

A Writer’s Prayer

Leave it to Neil Gaiman to write a writer’s prayer made for a humble craftsperson and not some kind of Pegasus-mounting fool. I would add to this, May my deadlines not sting, and may those who draw those lines have warm hearts.

Writing is very cool. It is also a job of work like any other.

A Writer’s Prayer

Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too much;
who spreads himself too thinly with his words,
diluting all the things he has to say,
like butter spread too thinly over toast,
or watered milk in some worn-out hotel;
but let me write the things I have to say,
and then be silent, ’til I need to speak.

Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too little;
a decade-man between each tale, or more,
where every word accrues significance
and dread replaces joy upon the page.
Perfectionists like chasing the horizon;
You kept perfection, gave the rest to us,
so let me earn the wisdom to move on.

But over and above those two mad spectres of parsimony and profligacy,
Lord, let me be brave, and let me, while I craft my tales, be wise:
let me say true things in a voice that is true,
and, with the truth in mind, let me write lies.

Free Mp3 here!

And the Semester Wind-Down Continues…

* final Blue Banner article Turned out well. Turned in Sunday evening, as per my usual reporter’s deadline of Sunday at midnight.

* A 10-page (double-spaced) humanities research paper, 20% of my final grade Turned in this morning! A huge hassle over and done with!

This morning our instructor read the topics of the class’ freshly submitted papers from the thick stack we made on his desk. Burke and his God. The impact of the industrial age on health. Westernization in Japan.

Mine was Lin Zexu and traditional Confucian models.

To his credit, our professor seemed to look forward to reading them.

* My newswriting final project, an 800-1000 word news article on communal housing, is due Thursday at 9 a.m.

It’s going moderately well, with 800 words written last night, but no sources yet because I am having trouble tracking down interviews, and this article requires four.

But I got a nice flow from the information I gathered, and I am learning the trick of choosing a focus and writing economically to that focus, rather than writing a big sprawl and seeing where you focus lies as you finish your first draft.

Since I am wooly minded, I now write out my focus first thing, and write notes to myself IN CAPS to remind me what each transitioned paragraph is supposed to cover.

While both approaches may have their merits, a news story is the place for the former technique. And surely a timesaver overall.

* My humanities final is December 6 at 11:30 a.m. It is comprehensive. Which sucks because a few weeks ago I managed to lose my humanities notebook. I’ve looked everywhere. It’s gone. Note to students: Put your contact info in your notebooks. I wish I had.

* My political science final is in early December sometime. I don’t think it is comprehensive, but only covers Marx and Grieder’s/Hobson’s critique of global capitalism. No word yet from my professor as to when our final is.

Days left in the semester: 14