Famous writers on finding your path (and being young and stupid)

Mega-bestselling author Debbie Macomber at the San Antonio Express-News Book and Author Luncheon, which I crashed. (Photo by Kin Man Hui/San Antonio Express-News)

Mega-bestselling author Debbie Macomber at the San Antonio Express-News Book and Author Luncheon, which I crashed. (Photo by Kin Man Hui/San Antonio Express-News)

Lunch usually consists of me at my desk with a trusty pb&j. But last month I got to attend the San Antonio Express-News Book and Author Luncheon.

What a treat.

The event raises money for the clinical research program at the Cancer Therapy & Research Center at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio.

Each year six fantastic authors come to the event, where I’m sure they are astonished to see 1,100 people cramming into lines to buy books so they can have them signed. Viva la old media!

Here are some of the little tidbits I scribbled in a notebook – a reporter’s habit. I can’t listen to someone speak without taking notes, even when I’ve just been invited to sit at the company’s extra seat and enjoy. It’s a disease.

Most of what caught my ear had to do with how the authors found their way into the writing life.

Terry Thompson-Anderson, author of the new “Texas on the Table: People, Places and Recipes Celebrating the Flavors of the Lone Star State,” spent three years and drove 30,000 miles researching her latest cookbook. But she didn’t learn to cook until a talented mother-in-law taught her. Anderson said she thought she would have a totally different life path. She expected when she got out of college that she would write the Great American Novel straightaway. Easy.

“Before we can be old and wise we must be young and stupid, as was the case,” Anderson said.

Dana Sullivan was the creative director for Costco, a position that many people likely would settle into and just wait for retirement to roll around. But Sullivan itched to do something else – illustrating and writing books. It seemed impossible.

But he had good inspiration in his own family. His son had done some things that others might find crazy. He dropped out of school and worked to save money to go do worthy work in Africa. Then when his son came home from Kenya, he announced that what he really wanted to do was become a cowboy. Which despite having zero experience, he did immediately.

Sullivan, meanwhile, said he had thrown “the usual barriers” in front of his own dreams: “home, family, fear.”

“Your dreams are not always lighted with a path,” Sullivan said. He ultimately screwed up the courage to leave his job and decided to try finding that path anyway. “This was 2008. What could possibly go wrong?” he asked.

Despite horrible timing, Sullivan has since published “Ozzie and the Art Contest” and illustrated author Judy Young’s “Digger and Daisy Go on a Picnic” with author Judy Young. Sullivan’s new books are “Kay Kay’s Alphabet Safari” (inspired by a Kenyan orphanage, where some of the proceeds go) and “Digger and Daisy Go to the Doctor.”

Debbie Macomber, best-selling author of a jillion books (OK, 150 and counting. Honestly, when does she sleep?), said she was always inspired by a cousin who died very young from cancer.

If you have a dream, you don’t have much time to chase it. Hurry!

“You cannot push your dream into the future,” Macomber said. “If you want to be a writer, start now.”

The art of quiet

On the road somewhere in Zavala County.

On the road somewhere in Zavala County.

Quiet, quiet, quiet.

Those desperate words drift through my mind. A lot. Usually when the kids are screaming that the other one hit them, touched them, “aggravated on them” or simply exists. Or that a Band-Aid that they didn’t need anyway is falling off, or when they are losing at Uno. (This is stupid! I’m never playing Uno again! I’m never playing anything again!)

Work is quieter than home. But a newsroom is not a quiet place. It’s the kind of building where I’ve run into live penguins. In my college newsroom, it seemed that every single day that there was a shouting match between editors during the budget meeting that ended with one girl screaming, “Well, f— you, Kevin.” Which made things interesting if you were on the phone.

So when my car radio broke a few months ago, I thought, meh. Leave it. Quiet. A little bit of quiet is just what I need.

This radio breakdown was entirely my fault. After having a new battery installed, all I had to do was punch in the code to get the radio to work again. What code? My radio had a code? I was confident I knew it. So sure, in fact, that I typed in variations of my usual PIN numbers approximately 10,000 times until I jammed the whole thing up and it was as frozen as an editor’s heart. (Note to my editor if you’re reading this: I kid). The dealership told me to swing by for a quick fix. And I thought, whatever.

I drove for about two months in silence. This wasn’t exactly a spiritual exercise. I wasn’t meditating in a field of flowers as I drove to work, the grocery store or around South Texas going to various oil field sites.

But quiet is good. Quiet lets you think. Ideas can pop. Thinking is productive, but doesn’t look that way. But it’s not OK just to sit around and think or read at work because it looks like you’re not doing anything.

If you stare into the vacant beyond too long, your boss will give you even more work, and you totally don’t need that. So there are many blog posts devoted to the art of looking busy without actually being busy. “Sometimes you have to look busy so you can actually work on the things that matter,” according to Lifehacker.

This stupidity crosses all professions. We all know that bankers are supposed to work 20 hour days. So theiBanker details how to steal a few moments to walk around outside or talk with a friend at the coffee machine.

The solution is simple: 1) look busy and 2) don’t stay around the desk too long. You should keep a phone and some printouts at hand so that you can grab them and rush around the office saying fake, important-sounding things into your cell. And THEN you can go have some coffee. But you have to be ready to jog the office at any moment in case the boss is heading your way:

This is obviously stupid and insane. But hey, we live in a society. We don’t get to make up all the rules. To keep your sanity, you have to carve out quiet wherever you can find it. Slow it down for a little bit to let your mind rest.

If you’re a spiritual or religious person, you know that God is all over quiet and rest. God likely thinks it’s stupid that some of us must run with a phone pressed to our ears to take a 10-minute break.

“But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (Habakkuk 2:20)

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

But have you tried to be still and meditate? And if you have tried, have you not had at least one stupid thought – Why is there a crack in the wall? I should close my eyes. My toe itches. – zipping at you every nanosecond? Why is it so hard to be still and quiet?

“How are you?” I asked one of my best friends the other day.

“Busy,” she said. “So busy.”

We had been in a two-week round of phone tag because we are both so “busy” that we hadn’t been able to answer the phone – or even hear it ringing – when the other one called.

Busy. Too busy to talk to a friend of 20 years?

Quiet. I’m all over that.

Journalism training. Free!


I’m psyched this week to start two free journalism courses online. You can take them too.

The first is a month-long Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, from the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin called “Social media for journalists.”

If you’re a journalist, public relations professional or handle social media for your company, this could be a helpful class. It’s open to all who have “an interest in learning about the basics of using social media for journalism.” No experience needed. So, pretty much, come on down.

I’ve never taken a MOOC before, so this is new to me. But a big attraction is this: The coursework is asynchronous, so you can do it at your own time and pace, the magical period otherwise known in my house as After The Kids Go To Sleep. Also, it’s free, and you can’t beat free with a stick.

The teachers are an assortment of folks that you’d normally have to pay an expensive conference registration to learn from:

Ryan Thornburg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Sharif Durhams, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Craig Silverman, Spundge and Poynter’s Regret the Error
Daniel Victor, The New York Times
Amanda Zamora, ProPublica

There’s also a free online course this week through the Reynolds Center, a great resource for business journalists. The webinar is geared to reporters, freelancers and teachers. Participants have to hop online for an hour each day on Feb. 5 and 6.

Pulitzer winner Jacqui Banaszynski is teaching “Perfecting Personality Profiles.” She won the 1988 Pulitzer for “AIDS in the Heartland.”


Here’s the course description:

In the first hour of this lively two-part webinar, Pulitzer winner Jacqui Banaszynski will explore the characteristics of memorable and accurate profiles, as well as offer a range of profile approaches that can suit your purpose, publication and audience. In the second hour, on Feb. 6, she’ll dive more deeply into the reporting and writing techniques that can help any beat reporter pursue sparkling profiles.

Again, the price is right: free.

Did I mention you can learn from a Pulitzer winner for FREE? Here’s an interesting interview with her that looks back at her story.

You can register here. And here’s a list of all the upcoming training from the Reynolds Center.

Writing tips from Susan Orlean

I adore fabulous people who admit that they suffer the same self-doubting crapola as the rest of us.

Susan Orlean, author of many bestselling books and writer at the New Yorker, claims to have wondered, basically, what the hell she was doing, while starting work on her latest book “Rin Tin Tin.” “All writers feel a little bit like fakes. Or am I the only one?” she asked this summer at the Mayborn Conference, which focuses on narrative nonfiction.

I stumbled across my conference notes recently, and here a bit of what the luminous Orlean said about writing “Rin Tin Tin,” which took her into a new world of historical research.

“Everyone who was important to the story was dead. And the rest of them were dogs.”

Orlean said that even though she dove into the history of Florida land scams and the exotic flower trade for “The Orchid Thief,” she worried that she didn’t know how to do the research for a project where all of the main characters kept dying. Google alerts on various “Rin Tin Tin” actors kept her mailbox full of obituaries. (“Just the word ‘archive,’ is like, boring”). She told her husband that anyone could look up the information she wanted. He told her, “Anyone could look it up, but you’re looking it up.”

“It’s never about the exclusivity of the material. It’s about you choosing to tell the story,” Orlean said.

I love that.

If you don’t know anything about the subject matter, that’s fine. Embrace the ignorance. You just learn to the point that you can be a teacher, and carry readers along on the process of learning.

“I’m interested in the experience of being a student,” Orlean said. “Part of the journey of the writing for me is writing about something I know nothing about.”

Orlean makes it fun to learn alongside her. If you haven’t read her before, try the story she wrote about a taxidermy convention (http://www.susanorlean.com/articles/lifelike.html) and another one about Midland as the home of George W. Bush (http://www.susanorlean.com/articles/a_place_called_midland.html).

And some writing tips from Orlean:

  • Reading aloud. Stories need pacing and must be absorbing. Orlean reads hers aloud to see if it has the right rhythm.
  • First readers. Find one. Orlean’s is her husband.
  • Notecards. Orlean uses them to lay out the flow of the story. You don’t want to see the whole of the story at once.
  • Keep reporting. She doesn’t get writer’s block. It’s “reporter’s block.” Stop and go do more reporting if you don’t know what to write.
  • Be a confident learner. Confidence is important as a reporter.
  • Lose the nut graf. (In journalism, this is the sentence or paragraph that tells you the point of the story, and it’s usually close to the top). At the New Yorker, Orlean said, “If you wrote a nut graf, it would be removed.” It forces you to look at: What is the story?
  • Everyone needs an editor. “Editors always see the logical holes,” Orlean said. “What you get from a great editor is you get pushed to the next level.”

The University of North Texas’ Mayborn Conference is held every summer in Grapevine, by far the most horrible time of year to go anyplace near Dallas, or really do anything in Texas other than swim. But the speakers, like Orlean, are so interesting that you won’t want to leave the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel conference room anyway. So don’t let the weather scare you away. It’s a friendly mix of authors, journalists, academics, students and writers of all sorts. (http://www.themayborn.com/conference-and-competitions)

Where are all the women in sports journalism?

Anita Martini, the first female sports reporter allowed in a major league locker room. (Photo from the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame, of which she is a member).

Anita Martini, the first female sports reporter allowed in a major league locker room. (Photo from the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame, of which she is a member).

Last year after rookie sports broadcaster Jessica “Redfield” Ghawi died in the Aurora, Colo. theater shooting, her family and friends set up a memorial scholarship program in her honor.

This is awesome on many levels.

For starters, this is a great way to honor someone.

But this is also a scholarship – geared specifically for women who want to study sports journalism – that is sorely needed.

There are a lot of female journalists, but very few women covering sports. Like, practically none, which is nonsense. It’s 2013, and yet sports continues to be a very white, very male part of newsrooms.

How awful are the numbers?

The latest report card from the Associated Press Sports Editors (representing 150 newspapers and websites) shows that women make up 9.6 percent of sports editors, 17.2 percent of assistant sports editors, 19.6 percent of copy editors and designers, and 9.7 percent of columnists.

If you can believe it, these craptastic numbers actually represent an improvement from a few years ago. (The numbers for minorities are as dismal, though also improving by increments).

A 2005 paper by Marie Hardin and Stacie Shain published in the Newspaper Research Journal notes that “the sight of a woman in a sports department is still a relative rarity,” and “Many sports departments still have no women.”

The Hardin and Shain piece dives into the myriad roadblocks for women sports journalists, who are often viewed as outsiders by sources and colleagues.

They cite a survey:

“More than half of respondents reported that they had experienced on-the-job discrimination, and 72 percent indicated that they had considered leaving their careers… interviews with 26 women in sports broadcasting, published in 2005, indicated that there were few substantive differences between the experiences of women in print and those in broadcast; for instance, the female broadcasters interviewed expressed concern about their non-advancement into managerial ranks and “unfair treatment” that gave advantage to their male colleagues.”

So, clearly there’s a ways to go here, and sports is still not an open doorway for women.

I grew up admiring Houston broadcaster Anita Martini, the first female sports journalist allowed in a major league locker room – a huge barrier to break. People were losing their minds over the idea of Martini doing post-game interviews in the locker room – gasp! – with everyone else. She died in 1993 at a fairly young age, but was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. (Side note: Martini doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. And I am pounding my head on the desk now).

Ghawi was a young reporter who had moved far from home to chase her sports broadcasting dream – something I think that anyone who has worked in radio, TV, magazines or newspapers can appreciate. What she was doing is not easy. (And you can read a great remembrance of her in this USA Today story).

The scholarship for women studying sports journalism is managed through the San Antonio Area Foundation.

– Jen

Welcome, interns. (If you can afford it)

It’s that time of year, when hopeful interns arrive in newsrooms around the country.

I’ve been fortunate to get to work alongside some crazy-talented ones in recent years.

But there’s been a lot written lately about barriers to working in a newsroom. Many have cut their budget for interns entirely and provide no pay at all. So if you want an internship, you may have to be able to afford it, or be willing to go into debt. And we all know that what college students need most is more debt.

Here’s a really interesting commentary on that trend from David Dennis at the Guardian, called “Unpaid internships and a culture of privilege ruining journalism.”

In college, he was repeatedly told that to build his resume, he needed to work an unpaid internship in New York.

Which unless you’re rich, is like telling someone to go intern on the moon.

“And therein lies the issue with unpaid internships. The practice of asking recent graduates to spend their days working for free while paying rent and living in a city like New York is a barrier for entry to students from mid- to lower-class backgrounds.”

I don’t think journalism is really off limits to lower-income and middle-income students, although I agree you are unlikely to start your career at a fancy-pants publication unless you come from a fancy-pants background. I’m sure there are exceptions. But no matter what, it is definitely uncool to expect interns to work for free.

And here’s this story in the New York Times about interns (not in journalism) paying for jobs in China, which makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit. If that’s a trend, it’s not a good one.

– Jen

Mixtapes, where have you gone?

I miss mixtapes.
I went through some old boxes over the holidays and discovered a stash of cassettes. Most were circa junior high: Book of Love. The Thompson Twins, The Cure, New Order.
Much as I love my New Wave angst music, I’m not sentimentally attached to the tapes and tossed those into a donate pile.
But the few surviving mixtapes I found? No freaking way would I ever ditch those.
There was too much time, effort and emotion that went into making a mix tape. It was like a love letter – does anyone write love letters anymore? – even if you made one for a friend.
I remember agonizing over the play list, the order of the songs, the message they might send. There were rules, like you couldn’t use the same artist twice in a row. It was all very complicated.
It took foreeevvveerrr.
Here’s a gorgeous description of the painstaking completion of a mix tape from “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky (who is on Twitter). Charlie has picked a theme – “One Winter” and bunch of songs by artists like The Smiths, The Beatles, Nick Drake, Suzanne Vega, Smashing Pumpkins, U2 and Fleetwood Mac. But he’s decided not to hand color the cover (Another lost aspect of the mix tape – you sometimes decorated the cover. I think I favored collages of letters from magazines).
“I spent all night working on it, and I hope Patrick likes it as much as I do. Especially the second side. I hope it’s the kind of second side that he can listen to whenever he drives alone and feel like he belongs to something whenever he’s sad. I hope it can be that for him.
I had an amazing feeling when I finally held the tape in my hand. I just though to myself that in the palm of my hand, there was this one tape that had all of these memories and feelings and great joy and sadness. Right there in the palm of my hand. And I thought about how many peole have loved those songs. And how many people got through a lot of bad times because of those songs. And how many people enjoyed good times with those songs. And how much those songs really mean.”
So, basically, “Perks” is a completely wonderful book that got elevated a few notches just for those sentences.
“High Fidelity” by Nick Hornby is another great book (and movie) that extolls the virtues and rules of the 80s-90s mixtape culture. It’s even mentioned in this Wikipedia entry on the mixtape:
“To me, making a tape is like writing a letter – there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again.”
Is there a modern equivalent of the mixtape? Mix CDs never seemed quite the same, although I love them and have kept many of those along the way too.
I haven’t seen the “Perks” movie yet, but I really hope the mix tape is in there.
– Jen

Good coffee, good food, good reads


Here’s an awful cell phone photo of the library at Cafe Tutti. Trust me, it looks better in person.

I met a friend for lunch recently at a neighborhood spot I had no clue was in the neighborhood.

Great food. Coffee. Lovely, funky atmosphere. Nice people. A wall of books. What more could you want? How had I not found this before?

As possible, we loaded the kids into the double stroller and rolled ourselves back to Cafe Tutti, which is open during the week and on Saturdays.

We read a story, found on the bookshelf, about a princess who couldn’t bear to go on unless she had the perfect peach. I have no idea how it ends because the kids got antsy, the food arrived and there’s only so long a family can last, even in a friendly neighborhood place, before needing to get the hell out of there.

San Antonio – heck, anywhere really – needs more little gems like this, and it looks like my new favorite spot is getting good reviews on Urban Spoon. 1933 Fredericksburg Road, at the corner of Fredericksburg and Furr.

We’ll be rolling back soon for the delicious food and the ending to the story.

Do you have any neighborhood spots that combine good coffee, good food and good reads?

– Jen

Thirty days of thanks for procrastinators

A good friend of mine several years ago gave up complaining for Lent. She was an awesome, hilarious bitch-er of about things. Most of us doubted her ability to get all the way to Easter. Honestly, it was hard to imagine what she would even say if not complaining.

But you know what? She was true to her word. And it changed her for the better. Not complaining and saying thanks instead is so important.

I’m loving this November trend of people posting on Facebook and on blogs about what in their life they are thankful for, instead of the usually snark. (Here’s a great post from Another Housewife on the topic). Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday: A day that’s all about food, family and friends, but no worries about having to buy a gift.

Here are 30 or so things large and small I give thanks for, all at once, and on the last day of the month, with like 15 minutes left in the day. Because I need a deadline, people:

The weight of a baby in my arms; listening to my kids laugh together; a cup of hot tea in the morning; watching my kids play chase; having a job where I get paid to write; owning a house (well, the bank owns most of it now, but there’s hope); friends who will bake you a homemade pumpkin pie; smoothies for breakfast; the ability to run a half marathon (slowly); good health; friends who are beating cancer; working with so many crazy, creative people at the newspaper; curling up with a good book; that my 90-year-old grandmother is in good-enough health to enjoy Thanksgiving this year, after spending the last one in the hospital; holiday baking; healthy children; digging in the garden; food on the table; getting to see my parents be grandparents; my hideously ugly 70s afghan, crocheted by my Aunt Jennie a jillion years ago, which keeps me cozy in the winter; the library; listening to the birds while I pick up the paper in the morning; Texas sunsets; all months in Texas that are not August (okay, fine, not July or August. And maybe the early bit of September); rare naps; that I got to live in Hawaii for a few years; a great dad for my kids, who knows when I need a glass of wine; getting to visit a dear friend in Phoenix this year so we could let our little guys play together; our park.

Life has its pain-in-the-ass moments, but it is good. Really good.

What are you saying thanks for?

– Jen

Found: The Little Free Library

Here’s the Little Free Library at Big Apple Bagels downtown. It’s cuter than this crappy photo, though.


Ask, and you shall receive.

I was just bemoaning the lack of Little Free Libraries in San Antonio. And now I’ve found one.

It’s not the world map of such libraries. But it exists. It’s cute as hell. It gives me an excuse to buy bagels. I’m a big fan of carbohydrates and reading, so there are many things to like here.

My mom and one of the toddlers were playing recently at the San Antonio Children’s Museum on Houston Street downtown. I walked over to meet them and when I showed up, they were completely done. My kid had a goose egg on his forehead from taking a flying leap off of a set of stairs. The daredevil and Mom were hungry. Everyone was tired.

So we popped into Big Apple Bagels across the street to grab a quick bite.

And behold, the Little Free Library greeted me.

I couldn’t peruse it to see what sorts of goodies it held inside. You try to do that with a cranky toddler who is trying to drink your Dr. Pepper and eat the mini muffins before the real food arrives. It is not a situation conducive to leisure reading.

I did see some books for kids. But I didn’t want the inevitable meltdown scene when I took the book away, so I let my kid eat the mini muffins instead of reading to him. Sue me.

And an acquaintance who does a lot of volunteer work said there’s an effort afoot to get Little Free Libraries into San Antonio buses. Rumor alert: I have no idea if it’s true.

But how cool would that be?

– Jen