On Journalism: My College Writing Experience

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“The Bluffer” staff (Poplar Bluff High’s high school newspaper). My dad is the one with the glasses in the back of the room.

There’ve been times I’ve wondered if I’d gotten on the newspaper staff in high school (rather than the yearbook) if I would’ve decided to major in journalism (rather than the culinary arts, which was a colossal waste of time). I don’t even remember seeing our high school newspaper around, except once (for fifty cents or a quarter), and I thought, We have a newspaper?

Even though there was a permanence about the yearbook (encased in hardcover, like a coffee-table book), the staff meetings were just another class to me. What’s more, I don’t even have any of my old yearbooks. I’m a nostalgic, sentimental kind of girl, but not for my high school days.

Maybe it was because I was shy and didn’t have any school spirit (I always begged my dad to check me out of the pep rallies, because why should I cheer for a bunch of misogynistic athletes?). Though I was involved in the Art Club and “The M.O.B.” (Ministry of Believers), I often found myself feeling like I was stuck in hell for seven hours a day.

I remember writing stories for the yearbook, but I don’t remember what any of them were about. Because my creativity wasn’t nurtured or appreciated, I thought any writing career other than being a poet or novelist wasn’t for me.

My dad was the sports editor of the Poplar Bluff high school newspaper staff (see above photo) from the fall of 1968 to the spring of 1969. I asked him what it was like back then. He remembered the girls far outnumbered the boys, and that one of the girls was what they called a “morgue editor,” meaning she cut out articles and pasted them into a book. Then, for the Christmas issue, the whole paper was printed in red

Being the family historian, I record not only my memories, but the memories of others. I love to document, and newspaper article writing does just that. Through writing features, I record other people’s experiences, but in writing a humor column, I’d be documenting my own in a way that would resonate, or connect, with people.

A couple of days ago, I texted the Editor-in-Chief on The Corsair (our college newspaper) that the only way I’d ever become a journalist would be as a humor columnist, reason being that I’d never get accused of disseminating fake news. (Advice columnist would be second best, and I wouldn’t go all “Judge Judy on people. That is one rage-filled lady.)

Through my run (so far) of being on the paper staff, I’ve found what I not only love to write the most, but what I’m good at, too. (Books by Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck are next on my library list.)

Ernest Hemingway and Margaret Mitchell started off writing for newspapers—maybe writing for one of them (a newspaper) one day is in my future. (I’m trying greeting cards, as well, even though most English professors think they’re %@#$.)

Though I don’t love interviewing people (people are like a box of chocolates—some are Roman nougat, and some are orange cream, which are slightly less horrendous as peanut butter kisses), I enjoy talking to them, and have learned a lot from doing so, whether it be other opportunities or good life advice. I wouldn’t have met many of the people I have if it hadn’t been for interviewing them for The Corsair.

Though I’m not majoring in journalism (and you don’t have to, to write for a newspaper), my journalism experience has helped me become a better writer, for all writing experience is valuable experience. I’ve learned, through analyzing my blog statistics, that my non-fiction posts far outpace my fiction ones, which is why I’m going to pursue the technical writing program at University before the creative writing one.

But what I’ve learned the most is that every time I think I have it all figured out, I learn something new that changes the trajectory of my life. I guess that’s what makes life interesting.

~

For more articles on what I’ve learned through my journalism experience:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/tuning-up-volumehow-ive-fine-tuned-my-ear-editor-sarah-richards/?trackingId=OoPJ6YprK%2F93UtZ3XVQ3TQ%3D%3D

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/editing-my-way-through-collegeone-less-word-time-sarah-richards/?trackingId=1OTyfkzaGFdb%2FwMiSk95oQ%3D%3D

https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/04/feature-story-ideas-for-a-college-newspaper/

https://sarahleastories.com/2017/10/27/journalism-101/

https://sarahleastories.com/2017/10/29/journalism-conference-notes-my-conclusion/

 

Journalism Conference Notes

The Not-So-Great Missouri Robbery

So I’m in Dallas at a journalism conference (being not just the copy editor, but also an article writer for the student newspaper); I’ve always believed that a news story lasts a day, but a book lasts long after the writer’s body and soul have separated.  I remember in one of my English composition classes, my professor asked us to name a news story that changed our life; no one spoke up.  He then asked us if we could name a book that did, for which several had answers.

That said, I like to believe some newspaper articles mean something to someone (besides the writer), so I try to write them with that in mind.

My parents saved every article I was ever mentioned in, which I’ve scrapbooked.  Some articles do stand the test of time, if for no other reason than a person’s name is mentioned.

*

The above article, written in May of 1981, for the Daily American Republic of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, wasn’t very well-written.  But, like a snapshot, it captured a memory (one my parents would rather forget, I’m sure); I have an interest in it, because my mom was pregnant with me when she and my dad were robbed at gunpoint.  (But that’s another story for another day.)

I’m glad my parents kept this little write-up, for thirty-six years later, it gave me the idea I needed for the personal essay/narrative category I entered in this year’s college writing contest, entitled, “It Happened One Night in Poplar Bluff.”

*

So I’ve been poring over college newspapers from all over the country, and it’s amazing how much I learn from them.  My head is so full of ideas, it’s hard to take it all in.  I’ve also been attending different speaker sessions, and am supposed to leave with ten takeaways.  (I already have quadruple that because I pay attention and take notes–it’s as easy as that.)  What’s interesting isn’t so much what they say, but how what they say sparks ideas.  I’ve been outputting so much lately, it was time to get some sauce for my noodle.

I’m learning about layout and design (not my strong point because I’m already in front of a screen enough), photography (again, not my forte, unless it’s taking pictures of my daughter or pretty things I’ve baked), and that’s because I don’t have a very good camera; I don’t have the proper tools.  It’s like trying to bake with a crappy oven.

For now, I really like being a copy editor.  I feel like I’m the finishing touch fairy, and one great piece of advice I got when we got our paper critiqued was that with copy editing, “the eye is good for catching grammar, the ear, for content.”  Read everything you write out loud, because your eyes will fill in the blanks.

*

I was in Dallas with one of my fellow journalists yesterday when President Trump came to town.  Downtown Dallas is like the city of rose gold, a veritable concrete jungle; I stood out there in the dry, Texas heat for almost two hours among protesters and beating drums, with cops surrounding us (that I don’t mind–I felt much safer), as well as the local news gal in her royal blue dress and flip-flops.  All this we did, just to catch a flash of what we thought to be the car President Trump was in disappear into what we assumed to be an underground garage.  I was thinking, I am so not this kind of reporter.  I am such a columnist!

Being a weekly humor columnist would be my dream job.  It’s hard to know what you want, not knowing quite how to get it, but I know I will always be doing what I love, and that is writing, no matter what job I get (whether it be copy-editing or medical whatever).

*

Even though I’m not cut out to be an editor-in-chief (I don’t want it badly enough) or a hard news journalist (I prefer a little more creativity and not “just the facts, ma’am”), I am learning how to become a better writer by writing all kinds of stories–from volunteer columns to book and restaurant reviews to human interest stories.  That said, the only type of article I’ve yet to write is a sports piece–the thought of which makes me cringe, because I loathe sports.

However, if ever there’s another Intramural Archery session I can cover, I’ll make that the one sports story of my life.

Once, and done.

The Processes of Seed and Clay

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In the process of moving and going through old boxes, I found a medal I’d won my eighth grade year for “Excellence in English,” and I thought, Just when was it I knew I wanted to be a writer?

Paper had always been such a part of my life.  Before I was old enough to draw, I spent hours cutting it up.  (I believe snowflakes were my favorite creation.)  Once, while my dad was asleep, I cut up every paper in the house, causing him to throw my red Roger Rabbit scissors against the Butano heater in our Spanish apartment, breaking them.

As my brain developed, I began to illustrate the stories in my imagination, my fascination centering around the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (especially the Hanging Gardens of Babylon).  Then, my third grade teacher, Ms. Cahoon, had us keep journals.  I always wrote about my summers in Poplar Bluff; I was never interested in keeping a diary (I preferred to write creative nonfiction without the gushy stuff.)  I didn’t like writing about my feelings, save through the medium of poetry, so that no one could read this or that and say for sure, “That’s Sarah.”

Through poetry, I could reveal everything in plain sight.

I don’t know when it is that we know what we want to be–whether it’ll be in athletics, academics, or the arts.  I only remember my parents’ encouragement, never their pressuring me to be interested in any one thing (though my dad would only help me with history homework because it interested in him; if it was math or science, I was on my own).  Mom and Dad simply exposed me to what they could afford to; lucky for them, I was always drawn to books, such as the Berenstain Bears, Encyclopedia Brown, The Baby-Sitters Club series, and any books by Roald Dahl, as well as all the Newbery Medal award winners.  Books were my way out of poverty (literally and figuratively).  For years, I fancied myself as Francie Nolan from the movie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; I could write lies that weren’t lies because they were stories.

I am so grateful that my parents just let me be (I call it the Libertarian approach), which is why most of my daughter’s playtime is unstructured.  I see how she ignores the television (thank God) unless there’s music, during which she is immediately transfixed.  Maybe that’s why I enjoy singing to her so much (though it does get a bit daunting trying to come up with a different melody for every nursery rhyme).

When she starts kindergarten, I’ll enroll her in piano lessons (as music works every part of the brain).  My husband prefers classic instrumental, though I always balk a bit at that, because I’m a writer, so of course, lyrics matter (though I wanted only “Canon” played at my wedding).  I see lyrics as telling a story, the melody, making you feel that story.  With classical music, there is no story–you just feel. 

Poetry, for me, is the flip side of instrumentals.

Everyone should have something–something that encourages mindfulness, something that draws them outside themselves.  My craft does that for me; I will lose myself in it, yet I will find more of myself I hadn’t known was there.

Because I know how much fuller my life is with writing, I want my daughter to have an outlet (so far, it’s ripping up paper).  Children come to us a blank slate, and it’s our job, as parents, to shape them as if they were clay–to mold them into good human beings–but they’re also seeds that need to be watered with nurture so they can reveal what they are meant to become.

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The Magic of Childhood

Me

So I’ve been working on a piece to enter in this year’s college writing contest (which I plan for a year in advance, except for the nonfiction portion, just in case it had a theme). I’d already had a piece picked out–a personal narrative about my childhood summers in Poplar Bluff; however, it was too long, so I wrote a new piece, built, in part, from secondhand memories.  Writing it made me think of this foreword I’d written a few months ago for that too-long piece–a foreword which I’d like to share now.

Childhood memories are some of the strongest, for we don’t have other memories competing with them.  Everything is new, magical, and exciting.  It is why I am often nostalgic when I smell bacon grease or when I hear the “Bewitched” theme song.  I’ll never forget the day my husband was cooking bacon in the oven and I walked back in from the patio and I was hit extremely hard and incredibly close with walking into Grandma’s kitchen with the white porcelain and white-painted cabinets.  Sometimes, I imagine when I smell a smell like that, it’s almost like the spirit of a loved one, letting me know they aren’t really gone.

There have been times I’ve talked to a stranger longer than necessary, because they remind me of them.  My husband laughs like my granddad sometimes—a cross between a chortle and a snicker—and it gives me a chill.  

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that memories such as these become more real, my short-term memory becoming an unreliable narrator.  Memories help shape us into the person we become, and I believe those summers I spent in P.B. showed me that contentment—that spending a summer afternoon on a screened-in porch, chatting away the day—was its own sort of magic.

Writer’s Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt #397: Land of (Blank)

If a New York minute is thirty seconds, then a Southern minute is ninety.
–from “Poplar Bluff: A Memoir”

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The Land of Dixie

Selling their messages on street corners are
Bible-bashers, cardboard-carrying hobos,
and dancing people wearing sandwich signs,
while cars plastered with Bible quotes
or slapped with a COEXIST bumper sticker,
coexist on the streets,
passing the temples of capitalism,
the cross-bearing churches that
capitalize on the guilty man’s soul,
seeking deep, silver-lined pockets.

The rapture’s coming soon for some
in this land of Deep South Protestantism,
where hearts are blest,
where everyone’s either saved or going to hell,
or just plain don’t know what the hell’s going on.

Pensacola Beach is the jewel,
set in fool’s gold turning green,
with its sand like ground pearls,
water vacillating between
emeralds and sapphires,
and homes the color of Jordan almonds.
The flip-flap-flopping of their footwear is their answer
to Australia’s slip-slap-slopping,
beating a rapid tattoo on the boardwalk.

Such paradise is everyone’s playground,
home to the earthly blest,
where few transplants are rejected,
their organs pumping the lifeblood
into the economy,
for which the tourists are both
donors and recipients.

I look around at my side of town,
at the heat waves shimmering off the asphalt,
the mud-filled potholes,
the never-ending road work;
I still see conflict and war,
deconstruction alongside reconstruction—
a rebirth of conservative nationalism.

I am home.

Note: Slip-slap-slop is a real thing: http://www.sunsmart.com.au/tools/videos/past-tv-campaigns/slip-slop-slap-original-sunsmart-campaign.html

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 397

For more on Pensacola:

https://sarahleastories.com/2014/02/19/daily-prompt-west-end-girls-2/
https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/10/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-9-theme-work/
https://sarahleastories.com/2016/11/23/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-23-theme-when-blank/

Summer in Spring: Love in the Afternoon

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Though I love the holiday season with all its glitz and glam, it is the warm season I long for, with its relaxing vibes.  I like to say eighty-two degrees with a breeze is my ideal.  I spend at least three hours a day outside during the summer.  If I could, I would live in a bikini, cover-up, and flip-flops year round, with my hair thrown up into a messy bun (the other kind makes me look bald).  I like not having to warm up the car, or bundle up before going outside, or having to worry about blow-drying my hair after a shower.  Summer is low-maintenance.

I guess you could say I have spring break fever.  I spent the late afternoon sunbathing on a sand-colored fleece blanket on our weedy grass, my neighbor playing “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack on the radio.  The late afternoon sun waned as I waxed philosophical, thinking about life’s unanswered questions (like “What exactly is a peanut-butter haircut?” and “If the whole world was naked, would we be skinnier?”), while my  three-year-old daughter fed sticks and leaves to the A/C fan unit.  It was the ultimate relaxation, saturated with sunshine that turned my creamy skin into brown butter.

So often, I’m doing, and I forget to just be.  I didn’t even bring a book to the blanket.  I don’t need constant stimulation.  I was letting myself have some quiet time and my daughter, some unstructured play.  I delight in the way she loves the outdoors, though she still turns into a glassy-eyed zombie with a hearing problem when she plays with our old cell phones.

I suppose that’s why I love the warm so much, because when it’s cold, I don’t spend any more time outside than I have to.  Even bundled up, it’s not comfortable to be wearing so many layers, and fun in the water is out of the question.  I love the season of chocolate bars melting before you get to the car, of ceiling fans cutting through our thick, humid air, and stroller walks at twilight, the smell of meat grilling on the back porch.  As I walk through our neighborhood and pass each house with a lighted window, I think of them as their own separate universes–our neighborhood a solar system.  It’s like walking in space.

While I walk (today, it was while I sprawled), I thought about a butterscotch milkshake I had once.  It was at Spencer’s Drive-In in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, but the place is just a memory now.

 

When my daughter and I went back inside, I take a cooler shower than usual.  When I dry off, the smell of bleach from my white towel makes my nostrils smart.  (Bleaching whites are part of my spring cleaning routine.) My face feels deliciously tight, and I am ready to make my kitchen cabinet casserole (what I call spring cleaning the fridge) while my daughter, freshly-bathed and smelling of lavender and innocence, jumps on my grandmother’s love seat with the cushions out.

All is calm, all is right, until she sneezes, and I am running from the next room, scrambling around to find a wipe while begging her not to touch “it.”

 

Creative Writing Prompt: The Object of the Story (or the story behind the object)

One thing I wanted to do on this blog (at least for the month of January) was to share some of the creative writing prompts I participated in last semester’s creative writing course.

That said, the following prompt was inspired by a scholarship essay contest.  I had to write about scanners (of all things), and I thought, as I wrote, one could take any object and write a story about that object.  I could write about the remote control (and how my husband always manages to be in charge of it; I finally had to say something about him skipping over all the contestant interviews on “Wheel of Fortune”).  I could write about my car, and all the freedom it affords me .  I could write about my Michelle, the red-headed Cabbage Patch of my childhood, who I would drag around by the hair (my parents said I liked to “cuff around” all my dolls and stuffed animals, lining them up and yelling at them).  The possibilities are endless, for an object has little meaning, except for the meanings we attach to it.

So, when I had to write about scanners, I got creative, and ended up telling a true story about a childhood memory.

I would also like to hear from you–what objects (maybe in 140 characters or less) you would write a story about, and why.  (Looking at old photos can help with this.)

Scanners:  Reality in Real Time

The sometimes staticky crackle of police scanners brings back memories.  When I was a little girl, I spent every summer with my Grandpa and Grandma Booker in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.  Every night, my grandfather, who slept downstairs in the basement, would have the police scanner on—
what I like to call “blue noise”.

Poplar Bluff was a relatively small town back then (it still has only one high school).  I would sometimes open the door at the top of the stairs and listen to the sounds that made me think of walkie-talkies.  Sometimes, his snoring that was loud enough to wake undead would drown out the dialogue, or the cuckoo clock would pop out like an angry bird, scrambling my ability to decipher what was going on in the wee hours in P.B.  Listening to the scanner was like trying to see past the snow that clouded the premium channels.  It was a small source of fascination for me.

Turning the scanner on before bedtime was Grandpa’s nighttime ritual, like boxing and St. Louis Cardinal games were his entertainment during the waking hours; like watching the lightning bugs with their greenish-yellow glow in the evening, and noting the goings-on at the Slinkard house across the street in the afternoons.

Scanners are like an inconspicuous way of snooping one one’s neighbors—a gift for the lazy Gladys Kravitzes of the world; for ambulance chasers, and for those who like true reality, rather than the manufactured fluff, the alternate realities, made up for television.  What we hear on scanners is gritty, raw—like listening to a 911 tape.

My dad still remembers some of the stuff he heard.  There was a woman in Poplar Bluff who always spoke in a monotone and said, “Won’t start”, whenever a car had to be towed.  She would recite the address and that would be the end of it.  Sometimes there would be a weather alert.  There was also woman named Miss Wiley who was known at the time for always contacting the police about a prowler, the cops saying sarcastically, “Someone’s out there.”

Dad and Grandpa would listen to the Missouri Highway Patrol give license tags, always saying “B-as-in-boy” (I guess B-as-in-badass wasn’t acceptable), and, once in awhile, they’d hear the paramedics in ambulances give blood pressure readings (which seems like an invasion of privacy now).  Most of the time, scanners were a comforting background noise that didn’t distract like a television, flickering red and green instead of black and white.

Sometimes Dad would be lying in bed and the scanner would be completely silent, and then suddenly a BOLO alert would jolt them, startling them out of sleep or hurtling them out of semi-consciousness.

I remember when I came upon my grandpa’s old scanner with the silver antennae, and how I could make it go quiet when I pinched it between my fingers—that eerie sound of silence, like a blackout.  Scanners were as much a part of my childhood as Nick-at-Nite block party summers and the Hits Countdown with Casey Kasem.  Maybe someday, in my advanced age, they will become my white noise, lulling me to sleep.

Me and Michelle

Me and Michelle