OnPoint Radio Series on the Conference

Press Release From On Point

Earlier this month, some of the country's best writers met in
Cambridge, Massachusetts for the 2003 Nieman Conference on
Narrative Journalism to share their best work. As part of a
continuing tradition, On Point brings you a selection of their stories
from across the country, delivered in the authors' own voices. The
conference was organized by Harvard University's Nieman
Foundation for Journalism

In Part I of the series we hear from New Yorker writer Susan Orlean,
UC Berkeley's Cynthia Gorney, author and journalist Adrianne
Nicole LeBlanc, and Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Thomas
French, Sonia Nazario, Jacqui Banasynski and Victor Merina.

In Part II of the series we hear from independent broadcast
journalist and four-time Peabody Award winner Jay Allison,
Washington Post's Anne Hull, director of the Neiman Program on
Narrative Journalism Mark Kramer, co-founder of Mother Jones
Magazine Adam Hochschild, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
Samantha Power, writer Arlie Hochschild and Columbia University's
Patricia Williams.

Posted in about the conference, speakers.Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, speakers.Anne Hull, speakers.Arlie Hothschild, speakers.Cynthia Gorney, speakers.Jacqui Banaszynski, speakers.Jay Allison, speakers.Mark Kramer, speakers.Patricia Williams, speakers.Samantha Power, speakers.Sonia Nazario, speakers.Susan Orlean, speakers.Tom French, speakers.Victor Merina 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

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