Research Reflections, and other thoughts

Hope all of you are managing your projects well. I anticipated some of this, but it’s been striking to me how much research there is for us to do. I feel like my topic is a little broad, so I’m focused now on trying to do as much research as I can without biting off more than I can chew and overwhelming the project. To do this, I wonder if I can come up with a reasonable, representative sample of sources, become an expert in their philosophies through reading their insight and glean some overarching themes from their work. So far I’ve gone mostly to longform journalists, but my next task is to dive into the Paris Review’s series of interviews with fiction writers to see what interesting things they have to say. And, I’m finding it helpful to use sources to get to more sources. For instance, one first-person essay I read praised the teachings of John Franklin in the book Writing for Story, which was a source I already planned on investigating, so writers’ knowledge of other writers has proven useful. If any of you have ideas about where to go for good advice from writers on writing, I’d love to hear them.

One challenge I’m facing now is the introduction. The structure of my writing will consist of first an introduction, in which I explain what this project is about; followed by alternating sections, half with stories and half with assessments of other writers’ stories. I have a good story planned as an example that kind of served as the inspiration for this project — one that I experienced while reporting a story but that I never got to tell because of space constraints. I was originally thinking that would be the first story of my project, coming right after the introduction. But then I thought it might be good to include it in the introduction so that readers understand my purpose for this project and what I mean when I talk about stories. So I tried the draft of the introduction with that story in it, and I think I’ll sleep on it and see what I think about it.

For Blog Roundtable 2: The Story of the Circle of Life

I’m going to see the musical The Lion King with my sister this weekend at the Detroit Opera House. The Lion King almost certainly won’t make it into my project, but I was thinking about it and thought I’d take a few minutes to analyze how the bare story elements of the musical might help me in my project. Perhaps as I’m watching it, I’ll be paying attention to what about the story is so intriguing. Is it powerful because of one of the themes, such as “The Circle of Life,” that illustrates that things (families, regimes, organizations) go on throughout time, no matter how much they may evolve? Might I simulate that with the story of some group that has proceeded even after the demise or retirement of a central figure, such as a teacher, coach or even a U.S. president? Or is the story powerful because of the conflict between good and evil forces Simba and Scar, and the ultimate triumph of the former? Maybe I could tell a similar story about a similar battle that I’ve seen play out? Perhaps the story appeals to people because of the strength of family. In that case, I could tell a story about family, around which so many stories are structured.

Maybe in the end, the story is meaningful for any one of these reasons to all different people: those who have dealt with trying to be the successor to an important throne; those who have rooted for good over evil; those who are close to their families. Maybe each story captivates a different person in a different way. I had already associated this as part of my project, and I think it’s something worth exploring in-depth. When I listen to and read the advice of the writers I’m going to consult, the main question I want to think about is how to make these decisions. How would Eli Saslow’s (my Patronus) piece on the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting been different if he had centered it around the reform effort, or revisited the day of the shooting more, or profiled several families as opposed to focusing the narrative on one? And why didn’t he? I think any story lends itself to several different perspectives, and the fact that each person could take something different for that adds importance to the value of thinking about how we tell these stories.

Blog Roundtable 1 – West Wing Weekly

I love Aaron Sorkin, so I really enjoyed hearing in this podcast about his writing process, and I’m hoping to hear your reactions to his thoughts. Three of Sorkin’s notes stick out most to me. He talks about the importance of writing something, anything, every day. This is a technique I’ve heard from other people, too, similar to reading. I’m wondering whether you are able to do this. If so, what kinds of topics/styles do you write every day, and do you ever have trouble finding the time to do it? Sorkin talks about how he tries to write every day even when he has time off—I also like how he breaks down his schedule. What is your style like? Do you outline thoroughly before you start, or do you jump in and write a full piece all the way through, or do you start writing and then organize your thoughts for a bit? Along those lines, Sorkin made the comment that it’s much better to be on page 2 then on page 0 (I can’t remember the exact quote). This is something that I identify with, because the toughest part about writing for me is definitely starting. I really struggle to write anything unless I think I have something that will stick, which I know is not usually the right approach. How do you both attack writing when you’re just starting out with something? I’ve been thinking about lots of these subjects over the past few days, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of them.

The final product

ePortfolio captureWell, that’s a wrap. My ePortfolio is polished and ready to go. Here’s the link:

I really enjoyed this assignment because it allowed me to take a look back at everything I did during the course as a whole. Individually, the work seems a bit disjointed: one project on why I write, one project that totally repurposes another piece of writing and one project in a completely different medium.

But when you stack it all up on my ePortfolio, it’s really cool to see what we accomplished this semester. We dove into so many different parts of our writing and improved it in so many different areas, and we’ll be able to apply that in all kinds of ways in the future.

“It’s Worth It” would be an understatement

I love writing, and I love learning about it, so when I entered the minor in Writing program this fall, I thought I’d enjoy it. But to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect beyond that.

I ended up with a great group of classmates, a profound improvement in my approach to writing and even a different understanding of what writing is.

I do a lot of work at The Michigan Daily, so a lot of my writing is on deadline, when I don’t have too much time to think about it. Much of it is structured, where I write about something specific. And much of it has rules: third person, no opinion, no exclamations, questions, unfounded statements, and so on, and so on, and so on. I love it, and it’s my favorite kind of writing to do, because it has a clear purpose and gives me an avenue to tell the stories I want to tell.

No matter what kind of writing you enjoy–even if you don’t prefer any particular form at all–the gateway course changes how you approach writing.

On the first day of class, each student had to answer one or two of a number of questions, and one of the questions was, what is your favorite part of writing? Some said starting, some said finishing, some said any number of parts in the middle. The gateway course helped me get better at each of those parts by thinking about how I approach each of them. No matter what I do, I’ll always be able to say that.

State of the Project: Getting there

I’ll be off to Brooklyn in the early hours of next Monday morning, so I’ll miss class on Nov. 24, when we would be presenting our third projects. That means I’m both fortunate and unfortunate to have to do it before I leave. On the plus side, I’ll be forced to get a head start on it (I know that if I weren’t leaving, I’d be scrambling around to put it together late Sunday night). But it also gives me a little less time than everyone else.

So here’s what I have so far: I created a rough storyboard of my “30 for 30” documentary trailer. I selected the interview footage I wanted to use off YouTube and learned how to import it into the video editing software. I arranged the footage where I thought it logically should go. And, of course, before doing all this, I had to become familiar with the format, so I looked at a couple of old ESPN ones to learn how it should look.

Now comes the final stretch, but also the toughest part: I actually have to do it. I’ll be going to a lab soon to start cutting video into the documentary format, and I’ll have to come up with some narration too. I’m in a race against the clock, to some extent, but I’m really enjoying all of the new experiences I’m having in this project.

Things I never tire of

To me, the descriptions “things I never tire of” or “things I’m grateful for” don’t accurately describe things. When I think about living without certain things, it sounds terrible, yes; but living without certain people is something I can’t even imagine.

First and foremost, I don’t know where I’d be without the endless life lessons I have learned from my mom and dad. There are old proverbial expressions, like “Don’t cry over spilled milk.” There are life skills, like how to tie a tie or how to bake a pie. There are lessons of how to treat people, like by remembering that you never know what someone else is going through at any given time. And there are the little things: underdogs, sunny days, walks to school, the list goes on.

I also don’t know where I’d be without the countless number of teachers and instructors who have guided me along the way. Joe Grimm, my journalism instructor at a summer program, who told me he wanted my stories to run on 1A, not page one of the sports section. Dr. Steltenkamp, my high school English teacher, who was always willing to give some words of advice when I needed them about anything. Coach Smith, from whom I’ve learned several life lessons just by being around him.

All of these people, and so many more, have taught me so much and will continue to teach me so much, that I don’t know how I could be here without them. I think of them as indispensable, much more than any object I’ve ever owned.

My pet peeve, the Oxford comma

As a writer, I have all the typical grammar pet peeves: your vs. you’re, then vs. than, their vs. they’re vs. there. But there’s one that really gets my blood boiling: the Oxford comma.

Also known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma comes after the second-to-last item in a list: “I had eggs, toast and juice” vs. “I had eggs, toast, and juice.” (Merely typing the Oxford comma in that last comparison bothers me.) The AP stylebook, the Bible of journalism copy editing, says not to use the Oxford comma. I learned from that a couple years ago and have been steadfastly against it ever since (though in large part out of stubbornness, some might say). Slowly, the alliance of Oxford comma opponents is dwindling as people go into the dark side. I am one of the lone holdouts.

It just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s totally unnecessary. The “and” takes care of all the separation you need. The comma is a redundant little mark plopped down in the middle of the sentence.

Sure, people will point out instances where leaving out the comma creates ambiguity. But in all of those instances, simply rewording the sentence could do the trick. The most outlandish example I’ve seen is a news alert that reads “Top stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage…” Perhaps this was a result of an unfortunate break in the text—it was just a mobile alert, after all. But you could also say “Top stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, same-sex marriage and Obama-Castro handshake.”

It’s really only in news style that I sniff out Oxford commas and decry them. I’m a traditionalist—I’ll admit that much.

Talking About Practice

All throughout my childhood, my dad taught me how important it is to practice. When I struggled at baseball, he told me to practice. When I didn’t do well on a test, he told me to study harder for the next one. So when I became an avid writer, and my dream of becoming a professional writer became more and more realistic, I knew I should heed my dad’s advice.

So I wrote as much as I could, and—perhaps more importantly—I read as much as I could. I read magazines and newspapers, and I surfed the Internet for everything I could find in every major publication. From there I learned to write: I would read what I liked, and try to do what those writers did.

Still, today, I don’t read as much as I should, and I don’t write as much as I should. I’ve heard many professional journalists say that a good way to become a better writer is to write every day, and I don’t normally do that. I write a fair number of sports stories and do a fair amount of writing for class, but rarely do I write, say, for all seven days in a week. Even if it’s just a short piece on an event from the day or something cool that happened to me, I agree that it’s valuable to write every day. I think so for the same reason my dad always gave me: you always get better with practice. Writing is no different—I think the more you sharpen your skills, the better you get.

First, you generally learn more about yourself and your style. I believe the best writers of all genres have their own distinct style, something that makes their writing theirs. If I picked up, say, a Gary Smith profile on the ground without a name, I would know Gary Smith wrote it. Writing every day helps you find your voice that you can keep consistent.

I also think it helps you stay “in shape.” Like anything else—playing the trumpet, shooting a basketball, painting, singing, golfing, reading—writing is a skill that needs to be maintained. It’s not like riding a bike, where, as the expression goes, you learn how to do it and then you know forever. If you don’t write consistently, you lose touch with it. If I didn’t write all summer, I would have been a worse writer when school started in the fall than when I left in the spring. Writers—again, like trumpet players and golfers—go through slumps and surges, and I think staying in tune helps minimize those slumps.

Finally, you learn what works and what doesn’t. You might get to break the rules every so often, and that’s a good thing. You can try opening with a question, or writing a whole piece full of rhetorical questions. You can try opening with a quote, or writing a whole piece without even one quote. You can write long, winding paragraphs with complex diatribes, or you can break up your writing to keep the reader on his or her toes. Even just small devices—parallelism, metaphor, avoiding clichés—get tightened up. Everything is on the table, and when that’s the case, you can zero in on what works best.