The Way to OK

This is going to be a blog post about adventure. It’s a blog post about going off the beaten path and finding something beautiful and having a lot of deep thoughts about it afterward. Wow. Original. Enlightening.  Whatever. I’m doing this.

Last night my friend Jessica and I went to McBaine, Mo to find “Big Tree.” As a mid-Missouri native, I’ve never had much interest in taking part in typical tourist activities such as finding a large tree and taking photographs next to it. For a while, this used to be a result of living in Seattle for a year, where mountains and water are only minutes away.

My snobbish Northwest-girl notions were squelched as soon as we pulled up to the tree. I wasn’t even sure we were in the right season anymore. The leaves were still spring green, and were specked with bits of blue from the 5:00 sky. We took our obligatory photos and listened to some girls perched on a nearby SUV discuss the popularity of the Kardashians and which one of the sisters they thought would have a body weight issue next.

Jessica found a Missouri green stink bug, named him Burt and accidently decapitated him when he tried to suction his slimy body to her hand. Devastated by the loss, we got back in my dusty burgundy 1998 Toyota Camry and headed for Eagle Bluffs. My dad had told us that we could find some real Missouri beauty there. Sure, Dad. But I packed my Washingtonian friend up, plugged in some Joni Mitchell and took off down the gravel road to the Eagle Bluffs Conservation area. We travelled for about 15 minutes and stopped by one of the ponds, just as the sun was setting. Jess decided to take “edgy” photos of me by the water and claimed I looked “so hipster.” She also claimed that one of the pools labeled “pool 8” is where they would drop the bodies in an Alfred Hitchcock horror flick.

We laughed as loud as we wanted and we kicked the gravel dust around us to the clouds swirl around our figures as we danced in the dusk fog. This all sounds so poetic and ideal, but it was. It really was.

Last Friday in class, we talked about writer’s block and how it affects each of us differently. For me, the writer’s block comes when I let my environment concave and unsettle me. I’ve felt like that for a long time. It’s always one of those moments when someone asks, “Are you ok?” and I answer “yeah,” but that’s not what I want to say.

 Last night, I went on a trip to the middle of nowhere with my best friend. We kicked the dust around and found bugs and took edgy photos by small conservation ponds. And I was OK. 

To go, to be, to love, to hate: the life of a verb in my life

When we learned that the theme for last Tuesday’s class was verbs, I almost sprinted out of the classroom and made a clean break out of Lee Hills Hall for the day. Verbs had been on my mind for the past two weeks in magazine editing, and I was not pleased at the thought of discussing them any further. “Thanks but no thanks, Jeanne,” I thought the moment after my intermediate writing instructor announced the days’ activities.

Once she caught the eye-rolls and throat clearings, my professor announced that we would not be doing anything even close to parsing or diagramming verbs, as she knew we had been doing in our editing class. We were going to play a game. Whoever could come up with the best verbs the fastest won a prize.

Intrigued but still skeptical, I pulled out my blue lined notepad and began scribbling down every verb that came to mind. Not surprisingly, the first that came to mind brought about images of pain; I had just been thinking about parsing verbs, after all.

As the class period progressed, I began to realize how much I truly love verbs. We just had a little falling out for a few weeks when they decided to be difficult little traitors glaring at me from lines and lines of text.

Verbs are what take stories from mediocre to fantastic. An example of this is a story I read this weekend in Esquire called the Flight from Dallas. In it, the writer, Chris Jones, tells the story of the five hours following John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, specifically the flight on Air Force One.

This was the first time since class on Wednesday that I notice how verbs propel (isn’t that a good one, Jeanne?) a story to excellence. I was so excited I took a pink highlighter to the story and coated every shining verb with a layer of neon approval. My highlighter practically went in a frenzy of color when I found this sentence: “Other passengers have spent the entire flight with their foreheads cupped in their hands, disappearing into the universe, invaded only by the occasional sob from elsewhere in the cabin and the chugging of typewriters.”

“Chugging of typewriters”? Oh, I have so much love for that compound sentence composed of a dependent clause that is proceeded by another dependent clause and an independent clause. Ah, there you are again, magazine editing. 

Another mentor

I’ve loved Anna Quindlen since I first saw the 1998 film One True Thing,  a family drama based on her book. It’s the first idea I had of the great power that comes with telling others’ stories through the empathy of one’s own. In the story, Quindlen, describes the life of a family whose mother has been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Quindlen’s own mother died from ovarian cancer at age 40. A few weeks ago, my aunt asked me if I had liked the story and would recommend it. I warned her of its immense emotional effect but told her what a fantastic story it was.

A few days later, she texted me and told me she had finished it…and she wasn’t going to watch the film for a while. I’d expected this. Quindlen’s empathetic power translates to her readers. This is why, as I’ve been researching her for my Women and the Media research paper, I’ve been intrigued by her journalistic work.

Quindlen is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the New York Times and Newsweek.

What intrigues and fascinates me about Quindlen is that she still manages to tell her story through her columns. I’m reading her 1993 book Thinking out Loud, in which she discusses the journalistic process as just that, thinking out loud.  She talks about her need to be transparent in her columns, and in doing that, she points out the necessity of talking about her role as a woman in journalism. She talks about being the sole female in a room full of “good old boys,” and the necessity of evoking her experiences through journalism. In high school, I encountered Quindlen’s stories, and now in college, I encounter her process. I want nothing more than to learn from such a brilliant pioneer of the written word. 

It’s OK to say the f-word

This weekend I went to heaven. I went to feminist, film-buff, artistic, hipster heaven. This weekend I went to the Citizen Jane Film Festival.

And then I had to go back to earth.

At least I came back a more enlightened woman and journalist. I also might have returned with the confirmed notion that I probably belong at a liberal arts college on the east coast, where I can be free to don my long floral skirt, exercise a bra-optional policy and make independent short films with Lena Dunham.

Disclaimer: I do realize that not all women at these colleges fit this description. It’s an exaggeration. Go with it in the spirit of feminist satire.

I’m going to add to this charming introduction to say that this is the first time I have identified as a feminist on my blog and directly in any online social medium. I’ve always been careful to keep my biases clearly hidden as a reporter and am so careful as to what I consider a bias. For a while, I was afraid to show photos of my dog on Facebook for fear that a cat-lover wouldn’t want accept an interview with me (a slight exaggeration perhaps). Ah, the neurotic first few days as a reporter.

This semester, I’ve realized the types of issues that are important to me as a journalist. I’ve found a specific calling to report on women’s issues of equality and domestic abuse, and in doing so, I have wanted to explore how I identify myself as a woman storyteller. As a journalist obsessed with long-form narrative, I’ve always had an appreciation for well-known women writers, many of whom I’ve mentioned on my blog before. I made Joan Didion my laptop screensaver for a while so I could think,”Joan’s watching” every time I sat down to type out a story. Talk about pressure. Also, talk about seriously creepy.

When I think back to my childhood, it’s the women in film who first really grabbed my attention to the importance of storytelling. It’s no secret to any of my friends that I adore Meryl Streep. What they don’t know is that my love for her work is really just an admiration of her ability to tell someone’s truth so perfectly every time. She’s quoted as saying, “What really makes me feel so good is when I know that I’ve said something for a soul.”

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I’m fairly certain women everywhere, regardless of their political views,
thought this selfie taken circa December 2012 was possibly the best one
ever taken by two human beings.

When I think about my purpose as a journalist, regardless of my gender, that’s really what the goal is, right? I want to be able to tell someone’s truth and do it flawlessly with each execution.

The label of “storyteller” always comes first in my career ambitions. Secondly, I choose to factor in the “woman” part in my goals as a journalist. I want to be able to say something for women, to tell their stories and tell them well. Just like every woman who presented a film at Citizen Jane this weekend, I want to be able to represent something to other women.

And that is my reasoning for saying the f-word.

To me, feminism is the cognitive choice to consider my place as a woman in my industry, to factor it into what I do. So many women whom I admire set an example for me without ever once rolling out the “big f.” You don’t have to be a feminist to attend film festivals like Citizen Jane. Additionally, everyone’s definition of “feminism” word is different and shaped by their own lives. My feminism is printed neatly on my imaginary journalist contract, reading: “I Hilary Weaver, am a feminist journalist.” Experiences like Citizen Jane teach me that I don’t have to keep this contract secret. This weekend, I learned that the f-word is OK for journalists to say out loud.

On thinking twice

It’s a Saturday afternoon in the last weekend of September, and I’m curled up in a fleece blanket with little Mizzou Tiger emblems all over it.  Rain is beating against my window screen and the warm light of my lamp spreads over my lap and the 110 pages of court records that accompany me. 110 pages of details to a story I’ve never seen until now. 110 pages of people’s lives, and I’ve got them spread over my couch just like I would my favorite Nora Ephron or Joan Didion essays. I’m reading the transcript of a very serious encounter that affected a family’s life forever, and I’m just supposed to weave it into a story because I can.

 I pause at page 44 and rest the pages on the coffee table.

“You were right,” I text to the professor supervising me on the story. “These records are intense. I’ve had to take so many breaks just to get through!”

 “Yes.Tough stuff – and all we have to do is read,” she texts back.

I look at the 66 unread pages on the couch and I know she’s right. All I have to do is read these pages. The people whose names are on the pages had to live through these tragic events. All I have to do is read. As I pick up page 45 and begin to highlight and circle once more, I know that’s not the whole truth, because it’s almost October. And October means dredging out my own 110 pages of tragic details.

***

“When your rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I’ll be gone. You’re the reason I’m travelin’ on. Don’t think twice, it’s alright.”

25 days from tomorrow, I’ll get up at 6 a.m. and walk to the journalism arch with a red balloon. On it, I’ll write a quote from a famous journalist and I’ll send it into the sky. Then I’ll walk away and move on with my life and won’t think about it much until next year. This year, however, I don’t think that last part of the plan will work. In March, when I first delved into the unhappy details of this story, there hasn’t been anyone whose advice I wanted to seek more than my high school journalism advisor, who committed suicide on October 26, 2009. And every time that I look at those 110 pages, he’s the one I think of. 

I’ve written before about bleed of journalism and personal life, but this story has been one that has taught me more about how triggering my profession can be.

“But I wish there was something you could do or say that would make me change my mind and stay. But we never did much talking anyway. But don’t think twice, it’s alright.”

I think it’s fitting that I will work on this tough story in October. In all honesty, there’s more than one professor supervising me as I write it. Bill Currie is the reason I stayed with journalism and he’s the reason I am choosing to devote my life to it. I used to get mad when my dad would give Mr. Currie the credit every time I made an academic gain or got a compliment from a J-School professor. Now, I welcome that praise. Mostly I welcome it because I know it would drive Mr. Currie crazy.

“I’m dead,” I can hear him say. “Why the hell are you thanking me?”

In the past, I’ve thought of all of the reasons of why I would thank the grizzly hippie. As I enter this fourth year without him and start to explore more serious stories, I’ve got a new reason.

I’ve learned how to empathize with stories of loss and see their contents as more than details. Because of Bill Currie, I have to stop and pause and think about what something means to me as a journalist. For someone who didn’t want me to think twice about his departure, he still gets me thinking twice about a lot. The only thing I don’t have to pause about anymore is the thought I might not be able to do this journalism thing without him here in person. This year, on October 26, I know what I’m writing on that red balloon.

 

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