Two Weeks In

18 Jun

I wrapped up week two of the internship Friday. It’s been an incredible two weeks that feel more like two months because of everything that’s happened.

The internship itself is going well. I typically work 10-6 each day and write about 3 or 4 stories a week. Though I’ve had four stories published so far, I made it into the print edition for the first time this past Friday. It’s quite something to think that your name is on 1.8 million pieces of paper across the country – and quite a deterrent to making mistakes.

On the weekends I’ve enjoyed traveling into the District to peruse Smithsonians and stroll the mall. The landmarks are so familiar that they almost don’t seem real. The abstract reality of the Capitol and the White House and the monuments looms so much larger in my mind than their physical reality that it’s hard for me to see them as objects. When I look upon them I see the hundreds of ideas and events and concepts they represent, not the chiseled stone buildings they actually are.

Though I enjoy it here, I particularly miss my family and friends, obviously. However, I also miss sunsets and being able to see the horizon and The Well and…driving, as odd as that might sound. All I can really say is that I hope I will continue to relish and enjoy my experience here while also looking forward to reunion with all of you back there.

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DONE

17 May

Just finished my last final of the semester.

So many feelings, my mind not really adjusting yet to being done. In time…

That’s all I’ve got.

Never Let Me Go

13 Apr

 

Monday and Tuesday were such bears of days that Tuesday evening I decided I needed a break so I found a RedBox and checked out Never Let Me Go on a whim.

I was vaguely aware that the movie existed (I think I saw a trailer for it and had liked the trailer) but other than that was a blank slate. Quite simply, Never Let Me Go proved that painful, evil things can still be beautiful. Or rather, that beautiful things can still exist amid insidious evil.

The story centers on the recent past in which a breakthrough medical discovery has significantly increased the life expectancy of most people. However, we quickly find out that this longevity has been bought through the creation of “donors.” The donors are people born and raised to young adulthood for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs for transplants. Each donor may be able to donate two or three organs before dying in their twenties.

The film follows the lives of three donors who grow up attending a boarding school for donor children. Here they are educated while being kept in pristine physical condition. The film follows their story as they mature, the ensuing complex love triangle and as they eventually move out of the school to begin their donations.

Watching how their mostly normal boarding-school childhoods increasingly confront the evil (is there a better word?) of what was to happen to them was particularly jarring.

The old school house, the English countryside and children themselves are all so beautiful. Yet, beneath the facade of beauty and goodness, lies something truly terrible. As if to acknowledge this, the colors of the film are muted, the green of the countryside turns a bluish-tint under overcast skies. The whole film feel cool to the touch.

And it is painful to watch the characters strain to develop the characteristics of a normal life – with passions and interests and loves – knowing that it will all be snuffed out so soon.

Yet the evil of it all that had me wanting to scream at the screen during various scenes was only nominally felt by the adults in charge and by the non-donors. It was an abstraction to them. Indeed, the teachers question whether the donors even have souls. The donors have been other-ized. Made to be less than human.

We may not harvest people for organs, but the film made me ask where we’ve done the same thing.

Never Let Me Go is the kind of film that haunts you long after the credits roll.

 

 

Fiction Writing and Me (Synthesis vs. Description)

4 Apr

School stretches on forever. At least that’s how I imagine the next few weeks will feel.

The first half of the semester flew by, through part adrenaline and part movement – I think I went home every other weekend for a good six or seven weeks. But now, during April, I face probably the longest uninterrupted stretch of school I’ve had in a while. No breaks, days off or going home until Easter.

I’m fine with that, though. After a much-needed spring break, I was ready to get on with it.

Over break I had the chance to work regularly on a fiction project I’ve been tackling since the fall. No, I’m not going to divulge details, I’m not there yet. And while it’s a bit of a truism that most journalists four or five “first chapters” lying around unfinished and neglected, I’ve gotten much farther in this project than any other previous long form attempt I’ve made.

That being said, I’m still plagued by an inability to add to it consistently. The drive to work on it comes in spurts, usually for a couple weeks and then recedes for maybe a month or so before coming back.

I’ve been reflecting on why this is and I have a couple observations about the difference between writers (or any artist or creative) who deals in creativity of synthesis and those who deal in the creativity of description.

1) The creativity of synthesis. These are the fiction writers. When I write fiction, I’m engaging in synthesis to create something new. I’m taking elements of truth, sometimes miniscule things I see – a personality trait, a physical detail – to big things – whole people, situations, events – and combining this with the power of imagination to synthesize something new.

As I’ve looked back at when I’ve found the constitution and drive to write fiction with any regularity, it’s been those times when quite frankly I’m almost bored. It’s also been those times when I’ve noticed I haven’t had as much social interaction. Not that I’ve been a hermit, just a little less than usual.

Why is this? I think it’s because while conjuring the real-life elements needed to make for good writing is somewhat easy (you need a good memory and a life full of experiences, something many people have) the synthesis part is incredibly taxing. The part where you have to invent and imagine storylines and plot and dialogue in convincing ways, that’s difficult.

Doing this well requires going into yourself, immersing yourself in your own imagination and your own created world. The reflection and immersion required doesn’t translate well into my everyday life, which is probably why it’s usually during breaks and the rare times when school is boring that it’s easier to sit down and write fiction.

2) The creativity of description. This is how I would classify my journalism and any of my non-fiction writing, such as this blog post. The creativity is not in invention, but in how best to use the tool of language to communicate the world you see around you. That’s where the creativity is. The creativity is in the technique, not the content. The content is the world as I’ve observed it, recorded it, talked to other people about it.

In contrast with fiction writing, my journalism is often best when I’m most immersed in the world around me, the time when I’m least aware of myself. So these are the times when I’m generally happy (but not estatic), and am not overly-stressed by school but am not completely bored either. In short, it is those rare moments when everything seems to be in equilibrium.

The whole enterprise is outwardly focused.

So is one mode of creating better than the other? No. I think there’s value in practicing both types from time to time, even if one has a clear strength and favorite.

I would have to lock myself in a room by myself for weeks on end if I was ever going to be a novelist. I wouldn’t want to do that. As refreshing as the introspection that fiction requires can be, I am too curious about the world around me to focus my curiosity inward for too long.

But, for those times every so often when the mood strikes, my project will be there, waiting. And that’s enough for me.

Friday, Rebecca Black and Virality

17 Mar

If you haven’t seen this yet, good for you. I’ve just ruined your life.

Yes, it’s absolutely awful.

But…

I think there’s an insight into how memes work that we can see on display here.

First, the video has been on YouTube since February 10, yet it just took off this past weekend. It didn’t go viral by itself. The material itself did not spread only through person-to-person media. It took off after a Comedy Central show gave it a shout-out last week.

It got enough steam to be noticed by mainstream media, but it didn’t take off until given a mainstream media boost.

This whole situation will probably be used as an example of virality, and it is. But in this case the mainstream media still played a boosting role. The MSM was not just an observer, but was a player.

This is important because it shows that the relationship between relational and mainstream media is more complicated that observer/creator. There are creators and boosters and observers.

I think this situation should serve as a warning for mainstream media outlets that view themselves as viral observers instead of viral boosters. Instead of waiting for a meme to explode and reporting on it, discover what the next memes will be. Be a place where your users know they’ll see the next big thing.

Grenades or Smoke Bombs

20 Feb

Great journalism should be greatly creatively, right?

Right. But it doesn’t always work out that way. The point has been hammered home in the last several years (by people such as Jeff Jarvis), most fervently during the mid 00’s that journalism’s initial failure to grasp and adapt to the internet in the late 1990s and early 00’s led to the disastrous predicament that newspapers find themselves in now.

Journalists hung onto their established methods and resisted change. And death came upon them. In some cases the resistance came from the corporate level and highest levels of editorship. In other cases, shoe leather reporters were the worst offenders. In any case, the market (the advertising market, that is) is speaking, and innovaters, sensing weakness, have injected a stagnant field with creative juices.

Nick Denton, the founder of uber-popular gossip site Gawker, strikes me as the archetype of this new breed of innovators. He disdains questions about whether he’s a journalist. He’s abrasive. He’s British.

The very idea that he would forge a media empire and have a nonchalance about whether or not Gawker is journalism is perhaps the most jarring thing about the man. Media execs, journos and to a certain extent myself have spent the better part of the last decade arguing about what the word journalism means.

To see someone come along who doesn’t even care has shocked me.

Shocking in a good way. In a way that’s disturbed me.

The journalism world has spent so much energy arguing about what journalism is, in the hope that having a good answer would help us in the quest to move forward. We didn’t even stop to think about whether that debate was even worth having.

Even as the profession tried to have debates, to decide between what we think to be bold, new directions (“why yes, maybe bloggers can be journalists”) others like Denton and Arianna Huffington come along and utterly unconcerned by this brooding, press on into territory we haven’t even thought of yet.

Now that’s creativity.

Denton and others have been able to escape from the narratives of how we view the profession. It’s something we need to be able to do. Not abandon the narratives (truth, right to know, public interest, information greases the wheels of democracy, excuse the metaphor) but to look outside them and see what exists outside of them that might be of interest or helpful.

Don’t get me wrong, Denton’s not a saint of good practice. Gawker isn’t exactly a bastion of high brow or ethically pristine material, but it is creative and it does have an impact.

I see several parallels between the education field and journalism. I’ve even explored a few of those parallels before.

Watch the video above. Sir Ken Robinson speaks about creativity and education. He strikes me as a Nick Denton figure of education. So does Michelle Rhee – people who when you throw them into education act like grenades. They explode the systems around them, hopefully allowing new systems, new methods, new ways to emerge in their place.

From my own lay observation of education, it appears there’s been a greater willingness to throw grenades into education in the last few years. And it seems to me when those grenades are actually allowed to explode, the results can be good. But it’s also apparent to me that for every grenade, there’s also a number of smoke bombs: they look like grenades, but ultimately they just create a smokescreen and nothing actually changes.

Individual educators and the education establishment are having to decide whether they’re interested in grenades or smoke bombs.

And so are journalists. Nick Denton is a grenade. Arianna Huffington is a grenade. Jeff Jarvis is a grenade.

But others are smoke bombs. Rupert Murdoch is a smoke bomb. The Washington Post Company as a whole is a smoke bomb. They can look like grenades at times – heck, it’s hard not to feel like a rebel when you watch the intro video for Murdoch’s iPad Daily. But when it comes down to it, the flash tends to mask just how un-innovative they are.

We have to ask ourselves who we want to be?

Grenades or smoke bombs.

Away We Go

5 Feb

When I first discovered Away We Go last year, I was skeptical. Just from the packaging alone, it looked like the kind of film that I could easily pass by without harm. It had all the hallmarks of an indy film: line-sketch looking fonts for titles and credits, attractive yet normal looking characters, bright color packaging that blends real life images with mural imagery.

It appeared to be just another indy movie, or faux-indy movie, of which there are many these days. There’s a formula to them and they tend to center on middle class and privileged twentysomethings adrift in the post-college landscape and their search for meaning. That’s not to say that the narrative is not compelling, because it is. That’s why there’s so many of them. I’ve seen many of them. And some of them are good. Some very good.

Adventureland, Juno (more of a teen story, but still), and Garden State are a few examples of good films that have come out of this narrative impulse. In an economy that is increasingly brutal to even college grads and a society with a lot of social anxiety about the roles and responsibilities of young adults, it’s only natural that film would adapt to speak to that situation.

But it can be overdone. These indy (or faux indy) films that desire to give voice to the lives of regular people living regular lives sometimes create characters that become parodies of themselves. A down, to earth, conscientous guy can become a neo-hippy, emo, granola-man who wears birkenstocks and plays ultimate frisbee with his eyes close. There’s a tendency to push character types to extremes.

That’s why I was skeptical of Away We Go, even before I had seen it. From appearances, it looked like one of those films – same story, characters pushed to extremes.

But I was persuaded to view it and I ended up … loving it. It’s the reason why I was so eager to view it again with some very old and close friends this weekend.

Away We Go, as far as I can tell, breaks new ground in the indy-style by pushing the subject matter forward several years. It’s not a story of twentysomething angst; It’s the story of thirtysomething anxiety.

The supporting characters still suffer from extreme qualities, but the central couple is strikingly normal.

Away We Go centers on a committed, unmarried couple who’s getting ready to have their first child. She’s six months pregnant, and when his nearby parents decide not to stick around for their coming new grandchild, the couple embarks on a search for a new home, visiting friends and family nationwide to find a new place to settle down.

It uses the indy style to address the concerns of an audience of filmgoers who’s getting older and maturing. It also suggests that the indy style of film isn’t going anywhere anytime soon if it’s able to adapt to the changing life story of a changing audience.

In the same way that I found films about the college experience especially compelling in high school and films about young adulthood compelling in later high school and the early part of college, so now films about the late twenties and early thirties are more compelling to me. They are windows into a world I’m not a part of but will be eventually. And love it or hate, the indy style does as good of a job as any genre at describing a life stage in a honest, humble way.

Eventually, I’m sure, there will be a glut of indy style films about the thirtysomething experience. But hopefully Away We Go will be remembered as one of the first to do so, and perhaps, one of the best.