An old favorite

I tidied up my home office last week, discovering a small pile of books I forgot I still owned. One of them is a battered, neon pink copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Judging by the marginalia, it belonged to me in high school. I read it around the same time I first logged on to the Internet through some old-school chatrooms. I was excited by both the digital culture of the mid-1990s and by the philosophy in Zen. That’s probably why I underlined this paragraph:

Hatred of technology is self-defeating. The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.

#1: No really, I’m awake

The site of a workshop I attended about yoga, writing and meditation. Photo/Meg Heckman
The site of a workshop I attended last spring about yoga, writing and meditation. 

(This is the first of 50 essays I’ve resolved to write in 2015. To follow my progress, sign up here for the Inbox Essay newsletter.) 

I remember when writing felt easy, when I could effortlessly fill page after page. Spiral notebooks. Legal pads. Plush leather journals. Moleskines. There’s half a bookcase in my office packed with 20 years of this rambling writing. Twenty years of uninhibited discovery through ink.

My journaling habit is more sporadic now. I still write daily, on Facebook, on Twitter and on my blog. These online communities are exhilarating and have introduced me to people and ideas I’d never encounter in the physical world. But so many constant, jumbled connections have also made me blurry, impatient, unable to see bigger themes.

That’s why, six months ago, I went away to a seminar on writing, yoga and meditation. The name – Writing Through the Chakras – sounded over-the-top new age, but the subject matter was practical and profound. I’ve been pondering and applying it ever since.

I’ve been writing for as long I can remember; it’s how I understand the world. Yoga became a part of my life more recently. Seven years ago, a colleague’s wife started teaching vinyasa classes in a conference room at the newspaper where I worked. I loved them. Soon after, I wandered into the studio where I’ve practiced a sweaty, playful, spiritual brand of yoga ever since.

Reconciling these two parts of my life hasn’t been easy. As a reporter, I wrote about people who wanted to be president, local zoning squabbles and kids coming home in coffins from Fallujah and Helmand Province. At the studio, we chanted the names of obscure deities and learned how to stand on our heads. The breathing felt a little like those effortless journaling sessions, but I didn’t have time to think about why, to consider the interplay of my practice as writer and my practice as yogi. I was in a performance state – getting into grad school, quitting my newspaper job, churning out enough freelance assignments each month to pay the bills. Accuracy and clarity, of course and always, but not process. Who can think about process when there are so many deadlines to meet? When the Internet wants a perfect, share-worthy statement from me right now?

As my first semester teaching college journalism finished last spring, I decided to figure out how to live a sustainable, creative life in a digital world. The stakes were high. I can’t imagine not writing, but the process was so fraught that it made my days difficult. I was cranky. Distraught. Not much fun to live with. Yoga helped but also created more questions than it answered about how the writing actually works. So I signed up for the seminar and hoped for the best. The workshop was held at Kripalu, a brick and cinderblock compound in the Berkshires built for Jesuit monks and later converted into a yoga retreat. The place oozed serene joy. There was a lot of hugging and smiling and organic food. Even the rabbits on the lawn looked enlightened.

Our instructors were Dani Shapiro and Stephen Cope. Shapiro is an author whose recent work explores the intersection of writing and yoga. Cope is a therapist and yoga teacher who has written several books informed by his spiritual inquiries. We practiced some yoga, we breathed, we chanted, we scribbled. It was nice, almost fun. Both Cope and Shapiro shared their experiences with the creative process, how they work through their own anxiety and frustration. Cope also talked about his research into the science of meditation. People who meditate, he said, have more organized minds – minds that are more capable of identifying complex and subtle patterns in the world around them.

Complex and subtle patterns. New patterns. Things that hide in plain sight.

Journalism, at least the kind I practice, is a way of seeing, a way of thinking that reveals the relationships, themes, issues, patterns that draw communities together and threaten to tear them apart.

I tell my students that the first step in becoming a journalist is to open their eyes. My yoga teacher tells us that the only prerequisite to the practice is that you are awake.

Neither Cope nor Shapiro are renunciates. They are committed professionals, devoted to their personal quests, but they also exist – and write – in modern times. It’s not realistic to hide forever in some perfect little cabin devoid of technology. I can’t (and don’t really want to) abandon Twitter or Facebook or my iPhone. I’m curious about things like Big Data and Yik Yak and Bitcoin. I like kitten GIFs.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes something that translates loosely to “when negative thoughts arise, think the opposite.” It’s not an excuse to lie to yourself, but rather an invitation to reframe. And that’s what I’ve done these last six months. Technology is a tool of my practice, part of what it means to be a writer in the here and now, something else to make sense of word by word and breath by breath.

Resolve

I’ve made plenty of New Year’s resolutions in my life, pledging to eat more vegetable or run marathons or remove the coffee cups from my car at least once a week. (The first two were a success. The last one is, alas, a work in progress.)

This year, I’m trying something a little different and a lot more public. I’m resolving to make 50 essays in 2015 and share them with the world via an email newsletter. (Sign up here.) I’ll also post them here on the blog, but you should get on the mailing list anyway.

Why am I doing this? Because I like a challenge. Because I don’t like how easily my own writing drops to the bottom of my to do list. Because essays and newsletters were both Big Deals in 2014, and mixing them together for 2015 feels like the storytelling equivalent of pairing peanut butter with chocolate.

Much has been written about how good things are right now for the essay as a genre – although there’s still plenty of discussion around what that genre actually is. To me, an essay is like taking a road trip with a companion who’s chatty in all the right ways. Maybe she’ll tell you a story about herself, or describe the strange history of landmarks passed along the way. Whatever the topic, it makes you think.

I’m calling my project Inbox Essay, and here’s how it’s (probably) going to work: I’ll make roughly one essay a week. The topics will vary. You’ll read about current events, my thoughts on the creative process, random ancestors with interesting life stories, pop culture and food. Suggestions will be welcome.

Newsletters will come out on Thursdays. Each issue will contain an original essay, plus links to other things I’ve published, read or thought about that week. Most of these essays will be written, but I’m also planning to try other interpretations of the genre: audio, photo, video.

Please consider coming along for this adventure. You can sign up here.

The best Christmas story I ever got to tell

This was the type of bomber 1st Lt. Enoch Perkins flew to Europe in December 1944. Photo/Wikimedia Commons
This was the type of bomber 1st Lt. Enoch Perkins flew to Europe in December 1944. Photo/Wikimedia Commons

Seven years ago, I helped tell a Christmas story that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I shared it with my students earlier this month, and I now I’m posting it here.

I’d spent months working with my former boss Mike Pride to interview dozens of local World War II veterans for a series of stories that would eventually become this book. The project focused on the memories of people still living in our community, but we also pulled a handful of narratives from journal entries, poems and letters left behind by veterans when they died.

Such was the case with 1st Lt. Enoch Perkins, who took command of a new B-17 bomber in the final weeks of 1944. Perkins had died about a year before we started our work, but his daughter had a copy of his journal, and she wanted to share some of it with our readers. Perkins was a great writer, and he kept a careful, vivid account of his travels – including an unexpected stopover at Grenier Field in Manchester, NH

Before I go any deeper into the act of human kindness that makes this tale so special, here’s a bit of backstory:

Many of the heavy bombers that helped the Allies win the war were assigned newly-trained flight crews at air fields in the Midwest. Those crews would hopscotch the planes across the U.S., then north to Canada’s east cost. From there, they’d fly to cold, remote airstrips in Iceland and Greenland, eventually landing in Scotland. One of the last places these crews would land on American soil was Grenier.

Perkins remained in Manchester for several days longer than planned because his copilot needed to recover from an ear infection. While he waited, he worked with a few Red Cross volunteers to make sure his crew and, as it turned out, dozens of other airmen would experience some holiday cheer thousands of miles from home.

Here’s the full story as it appeared in the Concord (NH) Monitor. Please take the time to read; you won’t forget it, either.

Service, solutions and theology in local journalism

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I spend a handful of nights each winter in the basement of a downtown church, pouring coffee and passing out dry socks to men and women with nowhere else to go. I’m among the hundreds of volunteers who, for the last decade, have helped operate a cold weather homeless shelter in Concord, NH.

The people we serve there have been the focus of a sweeping collection of stories, photos, graphics and videos published this week by the Concord Monitor*The series, called Seeking Shelter, has given me a lot to think about both in terms of homelessness and the role of local newspapers.

I’ve learned a lot during my volunteer shifts at the shelter, but the Monitor’s series has taught me more. The city, write reporters Jeremy Blackman and Megan Doyle, is at an “unprecedented moment” in its history:

Concord’s homeless population has been growing for years, driven by a mix of economic instability, rising substance abuse and geography. State and local police have broken up many of the encampments in town, following a number of violent incidents and several deaths.

Community leaders have long discussed finding a more permanent solution, but they’ll need to act fast. Come spring, the shelter where I volunteer and a second one at a neighboring church will shut down for good.

The Monitor has addressed homelessness in the past through daily stories, photos and editorials. But this week’s series takes its coverage to a new level, one that bodes well for the practice of local journalism.

In his book The Wired City, Dan Kennedy** asks, “Can journalism have a theology?” He uses that question to explore the motivations and professional philosophy of Paul Bass, the founding editor of the nonprofit New Haven (CT) Independent. That publication’s journalism, Kennedy writes, is

based on a community-driven vision of conversation, cooperation and respect. It is a vision that sounds a lot like that of many religious communities, and it is the opposite of the top-down, we-report/you-read-watch-or-listen model of traditional news organizations.

I’ve been reminded of this passage as I’ve watched the Monitor’s series unfold this week. All of the players – social workers, policymakers, clergy members and the homeless people themselves – are portrayed as human beings facing complex challenges. Photographers Geoff Forester and Elizabeth Frantz earned the trust of the homeless community in a way that allowed them to document the lives of people who often prefer to remain unseen.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the Monitor has explored possible solutions and invited public conversation. Much has been written about the concept of solutions journalism, and the Monitor’s work this week is a good example of the genre. The newsroom also created the hashtag #homelessinconcord to organize online discussion. Tonight, the paper’s editors will host a community dialogue at one of the shelters about the issues raised by the series.

Not that long ago, traditional journalists may have labeled this as something too close to advocacy. It’s not.

Instead, it’s the kind of thing news organizations must do to remain crucial parts of the communities they cover. Kennedy makes this argument in The Wired City, exploring how local editors like Bass can foster as well as cover civic life.

The Monitor isn’t immune to the financial and existential challenges facing newspapers, but this series is an indication that, to the journalists in its newsroom, simple survival won’t be enough. Local news organizations should practice the kind of storytelling happening at the Monitor this week. It will be hard. It will consume scarce resources. And it must happen. No matter what.

Can journalism have a theology?

Yes.

And it’s embodied in the kind of collaborative, socially just and human storytelling displayed by the Monitor this week.

*I worked at the Monitor for many years, and was a consulting editor there this summer. 

** Dan Kennedy was one of several fantastic faculty members who advised my graduate studies at Northeastern University last year. 

Teaching without a net

When it comes to class planning, I’m rather obsessive. I have white boards in my office, a couple of spreadsheets on my hard drive and a notebook for each course I teach. I write detailed memos to my students and myself, and I spend a few days at the beginning of every semester wrestling Blackboard’s grade book into something that resembles order.

But, sometimes, it’s fun to toss all of that aside and just riff. That’s what I did today with a dozen of my journalism students here at UNH. My inspiration was Storybench.org, a new collaboration between Northeastern University’s Media Innovation program and Esquire Magazine. (Disclosure: I received my MA from Northeastern last year. More disclosure: I remain a UNH hockey fan.)

Storybench is as useful as it is gorgeous, jam packed with techniques culled from the front lines of digital creation. Headline generation! Google Maps! Charts and graphs galore! The site formally launched yesterday, and I knew I had to use it in class right away.

Even without a plan.

We’re near the end of the semester up here, and I’d promised my students something a little fun and little different from the usual rhythm of our writing workshop. I talked about the why and when of telling stories with data and showed them a few examples. While they worked on projects in Infogr.am (which I’ve used for more than a year), I announced I would race them to build something similar using Storybench’s instructions for Charted.co – a new tool I’d never touched before today.

We focused on data about where Americans purchase their Christmas trees. They pasted it into Infogr.am and, before long, were adding pictures and adjusting color palettes.

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I spent 20 minutes wresting with Google Drive before giving up and putting the .csv file in DropBox. By the time class ended, this half-baked graph was all I had to show:

chart

But the point of activities like this isn’t necessarily a finished project. What matters is introducing young journalists to the concept of real-time experimentation, showing them that it’s okay to dive into something new without knowing exactly where it will lead.

What I’ve been reading lately

I’ve embraced the intellectual chaos of the web these last few weeks, and it’s led me to some interesting pieces. Here are a few highlights:

The Harvard Business Review explored the art of follow-up questions, something I’m still trying to refine after more than a decade of conducting interviews. Here are some highlights:

The key to understanding people lies in the follow-up question…To ask a good follow-up, you need to pay very close attention to how the interviewee responds to your initial question, and then build on his or her answer. (Full story here.)

American University’s Jan Schaffer has a manifesto for modern journalism schools, writing that “we make the media we need for the world we want.” She also has a lot to say about the professional value of a journalism degree:

Sure, you might land at your local news outlet. But, armed with a journalism degree, infused with liberal arts courses and overlaid with digital media skills, you are also attractive to information startups, non-profits, the diplomatic corps, commercial enterprises, the political arena and tech giants seeking to build out journalism portfolios, among others. (Full story here.)

Speaking of journalism education, I picked up a new monograph about the history of j schools and spent some time skimming it during the Thanksgiving power outage. Not my usual kind of reading material, but still interesting — and a good reminder that there’s always been robust debate around  how journalism is taught.

The last few weeks, writ small

Someday (and I do hope it’s soon), I’ll figure out how to juggle teaching, freelancing and blogging. Until then, we’ll all just have to live with somewhat sporadic posting. Here’s a recap of what’s been going on in my world:

  • Dan Kennedy called me “smart.”  Kennedy is one of several brilliant journalists who guided my graduate studies at Northeastern University.  Earlier this fall, he interviewed me for this video about the future of local news.
  • One of this year’s most interesting Congressional races is unfolding in my backyard. The contest for New Hampshire’s CD2 is, in many ways, a microcosm of the narratives about race, gender and generational identity swirling around this election season. Here’s my story in the Boston Globe.
  • I got some student journalists hooked on politics. (#sorrynotsorry.) UNH co-hosted a debate between U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Scott Brown earlier this month, and a group of journalism students got an up-close look at what it takes to organize that kind of event. Here are a few of the students leaving the debate hall to interview the supporters outside:
UNH journalism student Tom Spencer leads his classmates through the crowd outside the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, NH on Oct. 21, 2014. Photo/Meg Heckman
UNH journalism student Tom Spencer leads his classmates through the crowd outside the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, NH on Oct. 21, 2014. Photo/Meg Heckman

As of this writing, roughly 36 hours remain in the 2014 midterm elections. Here’s hoping for a more regular blogging schedule after that.

Sigh

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This arrived in today’s mail. I can’t help but notice that an organization lauded for providing “invaluable inspiration to journalists and students reporters everywhere” couldn’t find a single woman to picture on the cover of its marketing brochure.