The Mitchell School of Journalism

In the Christmas movie starring every single well-known British thespian ever, Love Actually, Emma Thomspon’s character turns to her cheating curmudgeon of a husband, played by Alan Rickman, and says, “I love her, and true loves last forever. Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.”

Well, I love Joni Mitchell, too, Emma Thompson. She is the woman who taught this young journalist how to stay curious. I don’t think I could love a song more than I love “Both Sides, Now.” I texted this to my friend last night, after my Pandora station played the trilling song. Yes, I have a Joni Mitchell Pandora station. 

“But it’s so sad!” she replied.

“I guess,” I wrote. “But it’s so much more than that.” Swoon. *Pause for dramatic reflection.*

I never really did think of that song as being melancholy; it’s the juxtaposition of so many emotions that makes me love it so much. I know it’s not a happy song, but it was lesson one for me in the Joni Mitchell School of How to Live Life as a Journalist. Or, more appropriately, the Joni Mitchell School of How to Live Life. Maybe it’s better to describe this song as a prediction of what it would mean for me to be a journalist, from the beginning to the end of the journey. 

“Bows and flows of angel hair. And ice cream castles in the air. And feather canyons everywhere. I’ve looked at clouds that way.” 

“I’ve looked at Clouds from both sides now. From up and down, and still somehow, it’s clouds illusions I recall. I really don’t know clouds at all.”

These lyrics describe what it means to be a journalist, at least the way I see it. Maybe not everyone has quite so many “ice cream castles” and “feather canyons” in their depiction, but stay with me. When I started my journalistic career, I was 15 and a sophomore in high school and took myself seriously enough to say things like “journalistic career.”  I thought of writing as this marvelous way to prove that I was good at something. It was the “dizzy, dancing way” I felt “when every fairy tale comes real.” I swear no wine was involved in the production of this blog post.

Since beginning my career as a student journalist and a professional one in some aspects, I understand this song to be a lot like what it is when I start with a story. After the pitch, everything looks beautiful and perfect and maybe even like an ice cream castle. Then, an editor gets in there and reshapes the ice cream castle to look like a dog, or in some cases, a really nasty looking snake. And then my story’s world is blasted and I cry and listen to more Joni Mitchell. Let’s be honest, I probably turn on River despite it not being Christmas. And then I just want to go ice skating.

Then comes the realization that looking at a story, or sometimes even a source, differently can be the key to making it work. As observers and recorders, journalists are supposed to admit that we don’t know what’s going on or even understand them sometimes. The hardest part is admitting that an ice cream castle looks more like a dog or a snake, or maybe we don’t know anything about it all.

 I am aware that I am overusing these metaphors but I believe that metaphors exist so we can overuse them sometimes. 

The truth is that I just really love Joni Mitchell because she taught me how to stay curious in life and on the page. She taught me how to know when things are stories and to know when they can’t be stories, unless I look at them differently. And isn’t that basically how life works, too? 

Don’t worry; I’m not going to analyze “California” until I figure out what a “Sunset pig” is.

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On being necessary

Since my return from England, my aunt and I have been exchanging letters. We’ve tried this before (the first attempt was an email exchange when I was 11), but I’ve always been the one who allows the tradition to die.  We’re on a winning streak now; I’m working on my third letter to her and the fifth since we began in mid-July. I’ve come to rely on these letters as I begin my senior year of college, but their importance to my life spans much farther than how they affect me personally.

 This summer, during my last few weeks in London, I received a letter from my aunt written on a small card and spilling over several other pages. I’d decided to open the letter as soon as I boarded the tube from work. It always seems appropriate to read letters while in transition to somewhere else, and I’d been feeling the metaphor of transition rather strongly the past few days.

I scouted a seat on the train and slid the letter from the already torn envelope. In it, she described a period of several days, often stopping mid-letter and picking up on a different day. As I sat with my legs pressed between two other passengers on the hot, un-airconditioned train, I began to chill in the evening air of Bellingham, WA. After describing her recent days, my aunt told me about summers with her sister and brother (my father) and reading at night with my grandmother while the other neighborhood kids’ playful shouts could still be heard in the streets. She recalled chasing big trucks with mosquito repellent spray trailing behind them and the ecstatic joy she got from its misty release.

Through each jolt of the train, I hung on to every single detail in the letter.  As I brushed the tears from my face (only to find a judgmental tube passenger staring at me), I was suddenly aware of the importance of that letter to my life. It was important, I decided, because it contained story. It was important because that story contained detail, and that detail mattered. Stuck in the weird transition of leaving London and starting a new school year, I had been waiting for something that would grab my attention and allow me to belong to someone else’s life. I didn’t know how much I’d needed that escape.

 This brings me to the topic of detail. Detail, or the absence of it, dictates the fate of a story and its effect on the reader. For journalists, it’s truly a matter of choices. We are the only ones who know about the things we choose to leave out of the story, but we are also hyper-aware of how making the wrong choice could alter how others see our story. Speaking as a member of this hyper-alert breed of humans, I understand the anxiety that factors in to the choice of detail. To me, every detail in my aunt’s letters is perfect. They make up a story that serves the purpose of what I need every time I read them. I’m not sure if she agonizes about what to include or what not to include, but as a hyper-aware, semi-neutoric journalist, I do.

As I’m writing this letter to my aunt now, I struggle with how to say something to get the reaction I want. Yes, I even strategize theme and mood in my letter writing to family members. How sick am I? What will compel my reader to respond the way I hope she will? What details will make her understand my story?

 This letter writing might just translate even farther in my life as I begin my field stories for intermediate writing. For one of my stories, I am going to attempt to tell a story I’ve already written, but longer and for a different audience in mind. The first time around, I left out so much detail that I had at my disposal. I was mostly completely overwhelmed at the writing process, and totally unsure about where to begin or what to include. What I do know is that I want someone to read my story, with all of it details and descriptions, and say, “I needed that.” 

Enemy of the good

Last spring on one of my Vox portfolio reviews, Sara Shipley Hiles wrote, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Sara knew that I would poke and prod at a story until the very last second and would often be afraid to show her a draft that might qualify as simply “good” or even “mediocre.”

Anne Lamott calls perfectionism “the voice of the oppressor,” the “enemy of the people.” I guess some people caught on to this whole “perfectionism is the enemy” thing while nine-year-old Hilary ironed her dolls’ dresses and matched her nail polish to her outfits on a daily basis.

Even in elementary school, I never really noticed that my best work would happen when I would cross the perfect lines of the notebook paper and write a story that stretched the prompt, or was even a little messy. When I allowed myself to be as creative as I wanted, I could write or do anything. It was only when I thought about the task that I was soon constrained by the limits of having to be perfect.

This idea would send me into a nervous panic, and suddenly I’d be sitting in front of an assignment for hours. I was literally paralyzed by a fear of failing. My mother once sent me to the computer to work on a sixth grade report on Switzerland and found me six hours later, staring in front of a blank screen. I knew all about the chocolate and the clocks and Heidi, but I was afraid of writing anything that might have to be rewritten.

The interesting thing is that this fear of failure comes from a hint of success. I’d been told I was a good writer since I wrote my fist short story in the second grade.  All of the sudden, there were expectations. I had to be someone who was good at something. In high school, after months of training, I became one of the fastest girls in my track group. I was just enjoying the way it felt when my legs moved like that, but the first time someone said, “Hey, you might get a scholarship for this,” there was a sense of expectation. The next race I ran, I made it one lap around the track, saw that I was in the lead and jumped off the track onto the turf. The image of my competitors moving past me still turns up in my dreams sometimes.

As I look ahead to this fourth week of school and the challenges that always come after the bliss of late August and lazy Labor Day, I’m aware of the enormity of the tasks ahead of me. I think my biggest fear in all of this is that I will forget my purpose at this school and that I will forget why I love to tell stories. But when I think of a story through a “one-inch picture frame,” as Lamott suggests, I don’t have these fears. Picture by picture, still by still, I see my week start to take shape. I understand each step I have to take, but I don’t take it until I see it right in front of me. The product might not be perfect on the first try, but it will be the best “good” I’ve ever turned out.

Permission to write self

“Remember that you own what happened to you,” says Anne Lamont in the opening chapter of her instructional writing book, Bird by Bird. Reading this sentence was like getting permission to do something I’ve rarely let myself do as a journalist. To take one’s own experiences and use them when telling someone else’s story is a risk. As journalists, we are supposed to be the constant observers, those who stand silently by the wall and take in the events of other people’s lives. We are to be the studious stenographers and remain objective from the details that grab our hearts and remind us of our own experiences.

However, to achieve all of the dimensions of a story, to capture everything, there has to be a point where we let ourselves bleed into the story. Maybe this element is only visible to us, but it’s that element of personalization that makes a story whole.

When I was 17, I lost my high school journalism advisor to suicide. Nearly four years later, this event affects me more than I allow myself to recognize. A few weeks ago, I was having a parting chat with my editor at Nursing Times magazine in London, and I told her how concerned I was for my return home and for my classes to begin. In between spouts of these remarks, I apologized for taking my personal problems into the newsroom. She looked at me and said, “Let’s get some tea.” Tea: the British solution to all problems, and mine, too.

With the warmth of a cup of earl grey in hand, I proceeded to tell her about my previous semester and somehow ended up in October of 2009. I told her about my teacher, Bill Currie, his decision following our last phone conversation and the difficult year that resulted.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” I said as I tilted my paper teacup in an effort to avoid eye contact. “It was so long ago.” I watched the brown liquid slosh around and hoped she hadn’t heard the emotion catch in my throat.

“Well, obviously you brought it up not 20 minutes into this conversation,” Jenni said, reaching to steady my fidgety hand. “It’s something that’s still affecting you. It’s your experience.”

And that brings me back to what Lamott says. We own our experiences. I think that’s what Jenni was hinting at in our conversation, too. Being a journalist does not give me the license to neglect the personal, raw poignant events in my own life. In fact, telling my own stories will open me up in my ability to tell others’.