Weighty Waves, An Impression (After William F. Woo)

By Geo Beach

Snow like light; white, crystallized rain dragging up the Eastern seashore. A short song, the Boston Herald truck spins out in front of the small store, still closed, early morning, that sells beer and lottery tickets later in the day. The sky falls down and the newsprint is wet and the weather collates the sections, news into sport -- an acrostic that deconstructs hard copy.

There’s a story still flying, created on earth and launched into the heavens above this fractured firmament. Radio tells the story. And indie Jay Allison has been telling public radio how to tell it since a friend loaned him a tape recorder one day in 1977 and he began collecting the voices of regular folks. Jay’s audacious vision -- or, audition -- helped launch transom.org, a place to learn to make radio, and prx.org, an online audio distribution system, tools that are transforming the methods and content of broadcast journalism.

Jay Allison is introduced, once, twice. Then the microphone is his.


He whispers. “We’ll start with a human voice.” There is a room full of journalists, and many eyes are closed. A 15-year old boy is talking to himself. A morbidly obese 15-year old boy in his “mood time”, 1:15 a.m., talks to himself. He wants to be skinny, he wants to eat the ice cream in the fridge.

“Radio likes the first person,” Allison can give a wry smile with his vocal chords. “It’s a voice in your ear.” He is irresistible. “We don’t have earlids.”

Jay’s First Laws of First Persons: Self-indulgent; no, too easy. Self-absorbed; no, too much. Self-aware; yes, that resonates.

Then like a bio-digital jukebox, Jay rocks through his countdown of Firsts: The Witness, The Guide, The Natural, The Forced Confession, The Buddy, The Explorer, The Diarist, The Reluctant Allison. This last by Jay, calling classified ads in Chicago, looking for a dog, maybe looking for friendship on a big planet, looking. Heads are cocked, listening -- “His Master’s Voice”.

There is a room full of journalists, and there is an odd air in the room -- a wonder, a marvel, a nonplussedness -- as if Allison might have come from outer space, or at least another place. More eyes are closed or askance, and pens laid down.

To Jay, “Do you ever miss the visual?”

“I miss eyes.”


“What you get with all the pieces is: you hear the hearts.”

The newspapers are wet. Somewhere a radio is playing.

Independent journalist Geo Beach contributes commentaries to NPR, columns to the Anchorage Daily News, and essays to TomPaine.com.

Posted in film & radio, memoir & personal essay, sessions.What About Me?, speakers.Jay Allison on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Five Ws and an H -- With a Twist

By Kathryn van der Pol

I was so glad to see Victor Merina’s name on the program. I first met him a couple years ago at a University of Missouri workshop on diversity. His writing had kept me spellbound then so it was with great anticipation that I went to see him at the Nieman Conference.

“Remind me if I walk out the door to take off my mic; a friend of mine at The New York Times forgot to do that and went to the bathroom,” he said, as began his talk on the personal essay. He reviewed reasons we may resist writing the personal essay, such as the fear that “nothing about you is interesting enough.” Or, “There’s not enough time,” to which Victor said, “Write faster!” He asked the audience to think. To think about what makes us angry, what makes us laugh, what makes us sad. This was a good exercise. After a few moments, he urged us to consider the 5 Ws and the H, but with a twist -- “Who are you thinking about? What does the scene lead to? Where were you when it happened? When did you first become aware of the emotion? Why does this scene resonate? How? could you convey this scene? Great questions. I was inspired.

What made his talk special, as I thought it would, was his writing. I have some great pieces he wrote about a 66-hour long bus trip across the U.S. Another on a failed conference in New Orleans to encourage writers to be more sensitive to diversity (failed because only six people attended). These are great pieces for me and my students. The audience agreed, spontaneously applauding.

Victor ended his presentation with hip hop. “The Shoop Song – A Narrative Writing Tip Sheet” was enthusiastically rapped to drum beats and maracas. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a personal essay published, but I know one thing. I am hooked on Victor.

Kathryn van der Pol teaches Latin and advises the school newspaper The Review at St. John’s School in Houston, Texas.

Posted in memoir & personal essay, sessions.Personal Essays in Daily Journalism, speakers.Victor Merina on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Narrative Tools: Old Newspapers, Private Records, Implicit Structure

By Bill Mitchell

Chip Scanlan has help for colleagues who are writing memoirs -- or are using the techniques of the memoirist in pursuit of stories of all sorts.

For openers, he quotes Patricia Hampl's observation that the real power of the memoir is not so much for reminiscence as for exploration.

For example, Scanlan says, "Old newspapers give me a window into my life when i was too young to understand it."

He has used the microfilm edition of the Greenwich Time, his hometown paper, to recreate the day his father died -- March 25, 1960. And he has used the microfilm editions of New York City newspapers to recapture his grandfather's role in the Tammany Hall scandal in May of 1932.

See also Scanlan's discussion of the ways private records can fill in the gap of a narrative. Example: his Dad's report card from 1933.

If all this research generates so much good material that you're struggling with its structure, Scanlan suggests looking within the material to see if "there is a structure implicit in the material itself."

Example: He used such newspaper section heads as Weather, Real Estate, Personals, Classifieds and Obituaries for his Reading the Paper piece.

Bill Mitchell works for Poynter.

Posted in memoir & personal essay, sessions.Reporting the Past, speakers.Chip Scanlan on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

A Narrative Scene That Worked

By Robin Sloan

In his Saturday session on personal essays, Victor Merina shared some great tips: Write with authority, but not arrogance; write with emotion but not emotionally.

He also shared a trip -- his cross-country Greyhound bus ride on Sept. 11, 2002, that was the subject of a story for the LA Times.

Victor read us a scene from the story, and I have to tell you, there was a change in the room as he was reading. You can sometimes almost feel attention -- and Victor had ours.

For his audience, Victor's work satisfied a definition of narrative that Chip Scanlan suggested earlier in the day: Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it made us want to know what happened next.

Click below to read the scene, and see if you agree.

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

From "Taking the pulse of a country on a coast-to-coast Greyhound bus trip," by Victor Merina, published in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 15, 2002:

Many people keep to themselves, but a few make an impact the moment they step aboard.

That's what happens at a small Arizona town when a tiny teenager in denim shorts and black high-tops steps aboard in the late afternoon. She looks to be alone and barely 16, if that. And when she immediately leans back in her seat, her feet just touch the floor. She struggles to unhook he carrier that holds her 2-month-old baby.

The young mother speaks to no one except her child even though other passengers have scrambled to help her stuff a box of toys in one overhead compartment, her bag in another and the baby's car seat next to someone else's feet. When people offer small talk, she is polite but taciturn, and her neighbors give up. She only has eyes for her baby -- and her Game Boy.

As the baby lies on the seat next to her, the young mother pats his stomach with her left hand while trying to play the game with her right. Eventually, she stops rubbing him altogether and merely coos, keeping her eyes on the tiny screen and using both hands to play her electronic game. After a few minutes, she puts her game down and snuggles her baby. Soon there's a pattern. Snuggle and play. Play and snuggle.

As night falls and the baby starts crying, the young mother's voice becomes less assured and more panicky. The person in front of her -- a newly married woman -- offers a blanket and even a can of formula she has been carrying in her luggage for the nephew she will visit in Oklahoma. The young mother accepts both, but her frustration mounts. She keeps trying to hold her baby and talk to him. She sings, cajoles, feeds him, begs him to sleep and tells him that she loves her baby, that she loves her baby.

It works for a while. But when the baby begins crying even louder, the young mother grows more insistent. Sleeping passengers awaken as the baby wails and the mother's voice becomes even more strident. Her lullabies now sound desperate, and the mother's words and her baby's cries fill the bus until, in the darkness, you hear her outburst of profanity.

Immediately, another voice can be head and an older woman is suddenly standing in the aisle next to the mother. She has walked from her rear sear and explains that she is a grandmother and offers to take the baby. The mother eagerly hands over her son, and soon the crying stops as the grandmother alternately rocks the baby gently and presses him against her. She turns on the reading light and shows the young mother how to hold her baby and what to say to calm him, and then recounts some of her own clumsy experiences as a new mother. For the first time, you can hear a teenager's laugh.

In the next seat, the young woman passenger who gave up her blanket joins them and tells the teenage mother to keep it for her son. "I take care of my nephew, and I want one of those some day," the smiling newlywed says, pointing to the now-sleeping baby.

The weary mother does not smile back. "Maybe you do," she replies. "Maybe you don't."

Posted in memoir & personal essay, scenes, sessions.Personal Essays in Daily Journalism, speakers.Victor Merina, travel on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink