Friday, May 15, 2009

Ready, set, go!

There is nothing like a broken leg to keep you in one spot, staring at the computer screen, and KNOWING with every fiber of your being that you should be WRITING. One of my biggest excuses for not getting that book on paper is "I'm so busy training, I just don't have time."

Now, it is gone, my bike is parked for the summer, and all I can do is stare at this computer, which reminds me every day that I should be putting words on "paper" and using this time wisely. I've always been a multitasker, juggling two or three to-do's at a time, always in the middle of a cleaning project, constantly taking on more volunteer or paid work than I actually have time for.

Now, my days -- especially when the family is gone and it's just me and the animals -- tick by agonizingly slow. I've watched movies in the middle of the day -- how absurd! -- devour books like candy (even the really bad ones), call long lost friends to see what's up. In my good moment, I'll hobble down to the kitchen to try to tidy up or crutch down to the basement to put a load of laundry in. But those chores are painstakingly slow on crutches, and eventually I retreat to the couch or bed or whereever it is I can put my foot up and ease the neverending throbbing.

But: Enough whining. The reality is (after watching "Wendy and Lucy" on pay-per-view, which I swear is my last daytime movie!) I knew I needed to get busy.


Officially opening a document, I started writing. It's likely all gibberish and will end up the victim of the delete button, but for one hour, I just sat down and considered the words. Pounding them out one after another, I still am not attached to the story, but it's a beginning. Maybe it will evolve into something that makes sense. Maybe it will be a small part of something completely different.

It's just that after sitting around for three-plus weeks reading books while I'm laid up, I'm finally bored. I look at the "About the Author" pages and peer at the pictures of these people who just made it happen. They all look normal enough -- why can't I do it too?

Anyway, this post is a bit dull -- I know, maybe my lively story-telling abilities can only last for an hour at a time. But this is a start, and I hope not a stop. You've got to begin somewhere and why not now, with a dead-end story and a laptop easy enough to haul around while on crutches?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Missing in Action

Taking care of a blog is sort of like remembering to bathe your dog, and let me tell you: MY PUPPY IS DIRTY!

Now for the excuses: Life is in turmoil. About three hours after my husband decided he couldn't take it at his job anymore and told his bosses "no more" (I was SO proud of him!), I crashed my bike, broke my leg, underwent surgery to put it all back together, and have been recuperating ever since. It has been a monumental challenge because I am naturally the sort of person who likes to have about 25 things going on at once, and thrives under pressure.

Now I'm spending my mornings watching "Regis and Kelly" and feeling like my grandmother. A trip to the bathroom is a trek, and going downstairs to put the laundry in is an outback adventure. I need full hours to recuperate after these forays around my house.

As for my so-called Deadlines and Stopwatches, well, they really don't exist anymore. I still have some writing to do, but the training is kaput for the season. I won't see a bike again until fall at least. The races are all swiped off my calendar, the backpacking trips canceled, the campouts postponed. I don't want to think about it too much, because it's all too depressing.

Still, it's not the end of the world, and I know it could be worse. My injuries will heal -- maybe not perfectly, but I WILL ride again. And there will be other summers -- hopefully as beautiful as this one is starting off to be. I've got my family, and my friends' commitment to helping me overcome this challenge -- from cleaning my house, to cooking meals to ferrying the kids where they need to be -- has been humbling. In a way, really, this ordeal has taught me to look outside my own selfish needs or wants and realize how lucky I am.

And if I'm really honest with myself, it has brought me a level of contentment that I didn't realize could exist. In my mind, I've thought "FINALLY." It's a gift. And I treasure it more than anything. I don't want to lose it again.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where has journalism gone?

I'm sitting here, pondering the downfall of the print industry -- well, let's hope it's not that bad, but to be sure, newspapers are struggling in a way I've never seen before -- and wondering what we writers can do about it. The thing is, the newspaper industry as a whole has blamed things like Craigslist, online advertising, the immediacy of online news, and even things like this little blog, which spits out opinions along with millions of other bloggers, for the struggles they are having now.

I agree that some of that -- a large portion of that -- is probably true. But I also wish to hell that the industry would quit whining. Because during my 18-plus years as a reporter, here's what I saw -- even when times were good: management grew, grew, grew; time and resources for reporters shrunk, shrunk, shrunk. Good journalism, it seemed, became fewer and far between.

Now that's not to say there aren't great writers out there. In my Alaska world, I can count several whom I think still maintain that level of integrity that put them in a class their own. And they do it despite the constraints put on them by their employers.

But here's what really made me start thinking about all of this the other day, while talking to my other half, who's also in the print industry, about it. And it has nothing to do with shrinking budgets and expanding management. The question is: "Where did the REAL stories go?"

He and I differ on this subject quite a bit, and I don't think there's a right or wrong answer. Or, maybe there is and I'm completely blind to it, but it is one of the reasons I decided I needed to write on my own, choose my stories and follow my interests, which (in my mind anyway) would lead to a better product.

Let me explain. I think I'm beating around the bush too much. My question, when talking to my husband about all of this, is "Should newspapers write the 'he said-she said' version of every story -- you know the line we all hear as journalism students -- "Be fair, two-sided, let the reader decide after reading the facts, etc..."

Or "Should newspapers have their belief system -- be it conservative, liberal, economic, environmental, whatever" -- and then defend that stand to all ends?

Both sides make sense, but they also represent potential problems. Writing the two-sided story is, as a human, impossible. That's just me talking, and maybe there are scores of other journalists out there who would disagree and call me crazy. But my argument is that we are all human, we all come with our inner values and beliefs that no matter how hard we try to keep out of our "writing lives" must surely seep in. Even the way in which we interpret a comment from a source can be skewed in ways that are completely unconscious.

I can honestly say that when I worked as a newspaper reporter, I thought every single story I wrote represented a fair and equal side to whatever the issue was I was reporting on. I talked to those "for" an issue, and scribbled down their quotes dutifully. I talked to those "against" it, and did the same. In the story, both were quoted.

However, ask the readers and I'm sure you will get a different story -- "She was way too liberal on that!" they might say, "Or she totally misinterpreted what I meant!" another might accuse. Even the placement of each person's views within the story surely, somehow subconsciously, sent the reader to the path that was most aligned with my beliefs. Or, on the flip side, in an overzealous attempt to "hide" my beliefs, I'm sure there were times when my stories led readers down the opposite path.

And you know what? They believe what they are saying as much as I believe what I wrote.

And therein lies the rub (one of my most favorite but hated cliches of all time -- what EXACTLY does "therein lies the rub" mean, anyway?!).

The thing is, we all perceive life and events through our own filters, developed around how we grew up, the people around us, the places we've been, what we've experienced, and how we view the world. Asking a human to take those filters away is damned near impossible, and when newspapers claim to have fair and two-sided coverage of any event/aspect, etc., I think they are thinking much more highly of themselves as they have a right to -- somehow transcending human nature to provide the "facts." Give me a break, oh, lofty newspaper that you are.

So, you can see where I'm going with this. For me, writing is MOST honest, MOST fair, when written from the perspective of the writer -- i.e. scenario No. 2: "Newspapers should have their belief system -- be it conservative, liberal, economic, environmental, whatever, and then defend that stand to all ends."

Think about it: That is why blogs, online news, Twitter, texting, my-spacing, Facebooking, and all the other nonsense out there on the Internet is so popular -- we can't get enough of it. It's like the ultimate "chatting over the backyard fence with your neighbor." These kinds of conversations are what interest people because they are about real people.

Newspapers, in an effort to be so two-sided, lost sight of that a long time ago, and it's a shame because they just aren't interesting anymore. And now, as newspapers lose more and more revenue, they're doing the worst thing possible, which is to cut the lifestyles, local sports stories and real-life accounts of regular people doing regular things in favor of a condensed jumble of whatever is the news of the day. Furthermore, they're cutting staffs in such a way, that noone has time to be excited about thei jobs anymore. It's a survival game.

Through all of this, whatever the scenario, I still and always will believe that newspapers must print facts - I'm not at all saying that gossip and shoddy reporting should rule the industry. I just think newspapers have lost their personality in the struggle to keep readers, and that's where they are losing sight now -- ignoring that the readers won't care unless the newspapers really have something to say.

Consider this: You're at a party, and have two conversations. The first is with a perfectly friendly acquaintance who nods and smiles and agrees with everything you say. They don't talk or add to the conversation, but whatever you say, they just pleasantly take your position.

Before long, you're looking in desperation for the bar or a friend, or the bathroom -- anything to rescue you from this utterly B-O-R-I-N-G person.

You escape to the other side of the house and there collected around the fireplace is another acquaintance, talking about the latest "issue" of which you happen to have an opinion. He is speaking earnestly and respectful of others' opinions, but can answer every question with a fact or figure that supports his side of the argument. You find yourself drawn into this conversation, because it is making you rethink your position. You may not change your mind, but you've been challenged.

And by the fireplace you stay until the conversation ends.

Friday, March 27, 2009

No more lollygagging

Back from Mexico -- which was so incredible, I'll have to definitely fill you in on soon (by the way, humboldt squids apparently aren't all man-eating after all). But for today, here's what's on my mind, for whatever reason:

This time of year reminds me of my life a whopping 16 YEARS ago -- wow, I can't believe it's been that long -- when I was just a young thing, hiking a long trail with my crazy dog. We started the day after what the weather people called "The Storm of the Century," which dumped more than 3 feet of snow on the east coast, from Maryland to Georgia. For we Alaskans, this is just another snowstorm, but there? It stopped everything. Power outages, school closures, infinite accidents, blocked roads, etc. You name it, the weather did it.

Still, my plan for hiking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail had been in the works for months, and I was not ready to give up. My start date -- March 17, 1993 (St. Patrick's Day, and now, coincidentally, my daughter's birthday) -- was delayed by one day, but I made it to north Georgia on March 18, ready to begin the six-month journey toward Baxter State Park, Maine. My partner was my 2-year-old German shepherd-greyhound mix, Ruby (Trail name: Order; I was Chaos, for obvious reasons), and we were accompanied by a guy from Michigan, also starting the trail, named Mark. We planned to hike together until we both were comfortably acquainted with trail life (which turned out to be about 10 days) then move on at our own paces. I never saw him again.

To this day, I'm still not real sure what my parents thought of the plan. I was out of college and had a good job at the Roanoke Times, the regional newspaper. Why then was I dumping everything to live out of a backpack for six months? I'm sure they thought I'd lost my mind.

The story is complicated, and involves a lot of soul-searching on my part, but the short answer is this: I didn't want to be one of those people who let life pass her by. I wanted to see what was out there, and I was afraid, at that point in time in my life, that if I kept on the working-woman routine, I would find myself confined to an office with no windows in just a few years, looking around me, going, "What happened?" eating Little Debbie snack cakes and shopping at Wal-Mart.

Life was too short -- I knew it.

So off I went.

Appalachian Trail thru-hikers call this time of year "Springer Fever," because with spring there also comes that restlessness that makes one want to get moving. Even here in Alaska, where I'm watching snow fall heavily right now -- winter is still here despite what the calendar says -- I'm getting that itch. I want to do something different, shake up the pot, see what comes tumbling out. My god, one can only do so much laundry and wash so many dishes before they become invisible.

All romance and adventure aside, though, hiking the Appalachian Trail was a tremendously difficult mental and physical undertaking. While hiking is not, say, as adrenaline-rushed as blasting down white-water or climbing inverted rock faces, it is most definitely an endurance event. Every day, from March 18, 1993 to Sept. 11, 1993, I had a goal, a purpose and a reason to keep going. It was simple, really, and even on the days when I "lollygagged" -- only hiking three or four miles because I just couldn't muster the willpower to go more (or, more likely, because I was enjoying a good book, or time with friends I'd met along the way, or just taking in the scenery) -- the fact is, life was simple. Hard, but simple.

I yearn for that now, and I get frustrated when people say, "It's different, you have kids, bills to pay, 'responsibilities.' " What the hell are "RESPONSIBILITIES" anyway? This is a rhetorical question -- of course I understand what I need to do to raise children who can add to society, become functional, compassionate adults. I just question the "getting-there" process that seems so wrapped up in money, status and possessions. Can't my family and kids learn this a little differently?

My mind is wandering like a heavily braided river right now, and I'm not exactly sure why, but I know a good portion of this blather has something to do with the arrival of spring, and that "Springer Fever" itch I'm feeling to make more of our life than the monthly mortgage and homework routine to which we so easily fall back on. To instill in our kids a sense of adventure -- and confidence to follow-through with it -- is much more valuable to me than making sure they have the latest "whatever is in style" these days. It's a balancing act of earning enough to provide this (which is why we spend more money on travel than we do on home, possessions, etc.) while still inserting some sort of sense of normalcy (although normalcy is much overrated, but that's just me....)

I could've driven the Interstate from north Georgia to Maine, checking out all the cool places along the way, making a wonderful vacation of seeing the towns and meeting the people through each of the 14 states through which the Appalachian Trail passes. The end destination would have been the same.

Still, I believe the route is the key. In fact, it's not the same trip at all.

And I don't want to lose sight of that now, when all the pressures of the "must-haves" seep in to today's life.

Friday, March 6, 2009

We will return after a brief message...

Just a quick update -- we're here in sunny LaPaz, Mexico, enjoying an awesome beach, snorkeling, and , beginning tomorrow, a weeklong kayaking/camping trip with the kids. Just got back from a nice long run the malecon, right along the ocean.

Anyway, I thought I'd get a chance to write before leaving, but, of course, it didn't happen amid all the chaos of packing and organizing the camping gear.

Will write more when I get back -- enjoy life, read lots of books, write *no matter what!* and get in a good run or two!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Practice makes perfect....

The first story I ever wrote – about an effort to build a school in a sister city overseas – appeared in 1991. I had been working at the regional newspaper for about a year and had worked my way from editorial assistant to full-fledged reporter, and I was shaking at the thought of my words going out for the whole world (well, at least about 90,000 southwest Virginia readers) to see.

All of a sudden I had gone from the relative anonymity of public service announcement writing, compiling wedding listings and school lunch menus to putting something out there that had my NAME on it, undeniably me, for better or worse.

It’s sort of like standing naked in front of a doctor, all vulnerable and nerve-wracking. Worse though, your critics are anonymous, letter-writing people who never have to make their jabs up close and personal, like a doctor.

That was some thousands of stories ago – I long ago stopped keeping track of the stories I’ve written – and it has definitely gotten easier. But there’s always a part of me that still quakes a little with every published piece.

And to be honest, I think that is as it should be. While I’ve gained a lot more confidence with my writing over the years, I also am keenly aware of my very “human-ness,” and the reality that mistakes will happen. It keeps me honest, one my toes, when writing, and that is probably a good thing.

It seems that no matter how hard one tries and no matter how meticulously one thinks they have worked on a story, there will be times that mistakes will happen.

They can, and do, happen to us all, and the degree of mistake varies as well. I’ve made errors ranging from the omission of a letter that creates a misspelling (“She hats that soup” vs. “She hates that soup”) to the misspelling of a name (an egregious mistake because Rule No. 1 in journalism is “Always doublecheck spellings of names.”) to getting dates, phone numbers or other critical information wrong. They were honest errors everyone and all journalists make from time to time – don’t let anyone tell you they don’t, either.

The challenge, of course, is to always strive for that perfection, to approach each story as if it will be flawless and most of the time, that’s exactly what happens.

But those aren’t the stories worth telling. It’s the cringe-inducing “How could I have done that?” stories that, as we say in the writing business “Make the Headlines.”

Worst error from my rookie years: I was writing about a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), an antiquated posse of old ladies who get together to relive the glory years of pre-computer, pre-teenage angst, pre-automobiles, shopping centers, McMansions on the hill (other than the plantations of course...). Other than that, I'm not exactly sure what they do.

So these women were already intimidating enough, looking me over (I was just 24, straight out of college and very wet behind the ears as far as journalism goes), approving or disapproving of my outfit, watching my every move for signs of "good breeding." It was all very uncomfortable, but I managed to smile and nod and scribble furiously the notes in my reporter's notebook.

I rushed back to the office to write up the story, feeling accomplished and successful at a long day' worth of work. I doublechecked spellings of names, made sure the facts were correct and filed the story under the old computers we used for publishing at the time.

Then I drove home, probably went for a long run or relaxed on the front porch and waited for another day.

It came -- all too soon. No sooner had I woken up when my home phone rang unforgivably early (reporters generally don't even start their work day until 10 a.m.). I answered, bleary eyed and half awake and was immediately taken to task by a very old and angry sounding woman who was none too happy with my story.

I will spare you the excruciating details of the rest of my day, as the phone rang at the office repeatedly, each one an angry spinster scoffing at my ignorance. A few of the calls even made it to my editor, the daughter of a Daughter of the American Revolution, who, thankfully, took pity on my stupidity and chalked it up to experience.

The mistake: In my zeal to get every fact, name, date, etc. correct, I swiftly wrote a sentence in the story about the people for whom the Daughters of the American Revolution hold their meetings. But instead of calling them the "ancestors" of the DAR, I called them the "descendents." Stupid mistake, the result of a mind typing faster than it edits, but it made it into the paper, past the editors, past the copy editor, and now I looked like the moron I felt I was.

Fortunately, this was a minor error in the big scheme of things -- I didn't defame anyone or create huge legal problems for the paper. I'm sure I've made worse errors since.

But that one scarred me for life. Because I know there are (or "were" -- this was many years ago, after all...) a bunch of casserole baking, gray-haired women out there in a certain region of Virginia who shake their heads and cluck at "stupid kids these days."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

No more mystery letters

Hey, Kristy, this note is for you. Check out the "comments" section -- you should be able to post now without that annoying "identify letters-spinning forever" thing happening. Let me know how it works! Best to all you hard-working writers out there. Keep it coming, word by word...