Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Rules of Lazy Ball

Hula dog.
The rules of lazy ball are there are no rules. Needed: wiffle ball and bat, small yard, a couple of neglected outdoor chairs, a hula hoop, and that's it. Oh, bring along a batter and a pitcher. So the batter (generally, youngest goes first) steps into the hula hoop, which is first base, and gets to bat as long as she wants. If she hits the ball, she can run the bases, which are the chairs, or not. Or, she can choose to bat 'til the sun goes down. If she chooses to run, no warning is necessary. While the pitcher wanders off to find the ball, a runner can whip around the bases and dart for home regardless of whether the pitcher is ready. This usually sets the pitcher off in an ankle-twisting fury, but who cares? The pitcher, on the other hand, can throw the ball at the runner to get an out. It doesn't have to be the same ball as the one that was just sent across the neighbor's fence. It's the pitcher's one conciliation for being the only outfielder and having an extra ball handy. A run around the bases equals one point, unless the batter thinks the odds don't favor short legs and she scores it how she feels best suits her. No one wins; not everyone takes a turn at bat; and the dog is sometimes target practice.

The rules of lazy writing are there are no rules. Needed: pen and paper, small room, a couple of neglected outdoor chairs, a hula hoop, and that's it. Oh, bring along a dictionary and an object of distraction (smartphone, Ipad, good novel). So the writer (generally, the crazy one in the room) starts with the hula hoop to get the juices flowing. She can hula as long as she wants. If she gets tired, she can play Pandora until the battery goes dead on the smartphone, or not. Or, she can choose to scribble 'til the sun goes down. If she chooses to write, no warning is necessary. While the dog wanders off to find food, the writer can whip out 1,000 words, regardless of whether the dog needs feeding. The dog's whining usually sets the writer off in an ankle-twisting lurch for the hound chow, but who cares? The children, on the other hand, can throw the hula hoop around the outdoor chairs in the living room until the writer feeds them. It doesn't have to be the same hula hoop as the one that was stolen from the neighbor's yard. One conciliation for being the only writer in the household is having an extra crappy laptop. The laptop is equal in speed to dial-up, unless the writer doesn't use any programs except MSWord, and she curses when it best suits her because Word doesn't work either. No one wins in lazy writing; everyone takes a swipe at the writer; and the dog could care less.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

How Writers Snuck "I" Into Their Work

Roy Reed, a former teacher of mine.
My education is rooted in old school journalism. Many of my first college professors and peers were old newspapermen and women, the kind who covered beats and lived in foreign places and detested false titles (ie: philanthropist Bill Gates vs. Bill Gates, philanthropist). One of the rules that was hammered into me as a young journalism student was never to insert myself into a story. EVER. But times have changed, and the practice no longer seems to apply, even in hard news. I think my teachers would cringe at how commonplace it is for writers to refer to themselves in first person in news stories, particularly in publications such as the New York Times, where at least one of my mentors spent the better part of his reporting career (see pic R). But journalism today emphasizes self-importance, at least in the legacy publications and emerging online "markets" for news.

The POV (point of view) in fiction has veered in this direction, too. Not that there aren't great classic books in first person (Catcher in the Rye), but chances are good when you browse through a bookstore and pick up a new novel, it will be told in first person. Makes a writer go hmmm. There's a critique group in Portland, a highly revered one, whose founder prefers first-person POV at the table, almost to the exclusion of any other telling.

As for the trend in news, I think technology changed the intimacy gradient between writer and reader. I'm not fibbing when I tell you that my first college writing lab in journalism was taken on manual typewriters. The very next year, we had Macs. (Oh, how I wish I had one of those cute little boxy buggars.) Later, as a graduate student, I distinctly remember walking by the Reading Room (our J-dept still had one, with newspapers from around the state) and hearing a member of the graduate faculty twittering on about a fabulous new invention called America Online. Little did I know her twittering would catch on much later.

Brenda Blagg, a former mentor and colleague.
Today's journalists have to write for a web audience (and some static readers), and that's where I think the change has evolved. The web makes it easier for a reader to have a conversation, or argument, with the writer. Who can claim that a journalist recounts a story 100% objectively? Not possible. Fair, accurate, truthful, yes, but objective, never. No writer has a clean bias slate. Every nuance of the writer's upbringing, education, social standing, race, etc., is always in the background. Word usage and framing a story go through the filter. This doesn't make the news worthless; but it does make it human and fallible. Good readers know this and still see the importance of striving for objectivity. The difference in the last 15 years is that readers can call a writer out immediately and very publicly. And, unfortunately, viciously and anonymously.

Blogging is also a first-person show. Hey, it's all about me here, right? Do I appear genuine while I frown over a lost principle about objectivity? I'm inserting my views and mundane updates for whomever will take the bait. (PS-Why are you here?) Granted, my blog isn't a news website. Far from it. I'm sharing my journey as a writer and trying to make a deeper connection with readers. I also like to write. Part of me wants to share. I make my thoughts available with my name firmly affixed.

(Bonus question: How many times did I use the word I in this post, not including this sentence? The first to comment with the correct answer will receive a free bumper sticker!)

(Books in the pictures are Beware of Limbo Dancers: A Correspondent's Adventures with the New York Times by Roy Reed and Political Magic: The Travels, Trials and Triumphs of the Clintons' Arkansas Travelers by Brenda Blagg. No compensation or free copies of these books were provided as an inducement for their promotion or sale on this blog.)