Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Breathing lessons: in deep and out wide

glen_helen_gorgeIn April of 2007, the paper advertised for a corps of correspondent columnists to supplement the staff. I had been out of university for two years and blogging for three months by that time. The publisher was clear there was no glory and the compensation would be modest. It probably sounds crazy for someone who had once studied journalism. But my long-term goal wasn’t strict journalism.

Paid to learn

I saw an opening to write on a weekly deadline and be read by a couple thousand people in the area. People reading my blog was already creating shifts in my writing style, grammar and usage. But I still wasn’t telling stories and from my journalism background I knew soft news was a form of shorthand storytelling. So within the paper’s agenda I developed my column style from a reporter’s internship perspective. This meant I showed up to take my own notes and photographs whenever possible.

Actual internships tend to get a bad reputation. They’re temporary and restrictive so interns don’t get grounded nor do they get to shoulder much responsibility which is where the learning happens. At the paper I have a declared geographical area where anything not hard or breaking news is fair game. So I had to get grounded, recruit my own sources, and take responsibility for the coverage and the content. The buck stops with me.

Move forward

Of course the reality of news is changing, even for small print-in-the-hand communities like this one. The occasional memos about budget restrictions have been changing and the tone seems to indicate the future of the correspondents could be in jeopardy altogether. That would be sad for the communities who have grown fond of their columnists.

Even though I have never expected it to be permanent, I would miss it and the people and groups I cover. But for some weeks I have sensed that it was time to move beyond interning; that I should step out and do something with what I have learned from writing and telling stories every week. And this amazes me because four years ago I wondered how that would happen.

First go deep, and then go wide…

This was a “charge to the graduates” talk I heard in 2005. The audience was made up of honors graduates at Wittenberg University. The speaker was physics professor Dr. Dan Fleisch.

These talks, given to such an illustrious group of students, must be accompanied by a great deal of pressure for the speaker to urge them on to further achievements in their post undergraduate careers. Dr. Fleisch though took a more basic approach; he just talked to us.

Dr. Fleisch talked to this assembly of overachievers about a handful of remarkable things; the two I remember were the Power-I football formation, and a space antenna in Columbus. Then he talked about how these were developed by seemingly everyday people. Those people, he stressed, first studied what their predecessors learned before they tried to improve or change it.

The heart of his charge that day (paraphrased in my journal notes even though I use quotes here for emphasis) was to “First go deep; and then go wide. Learn as much as possible about what is already known (in your field); and then see what you can do with it. And anybody can do that.”

Transferable concepts

The application was clear in the examples he gave. By studying some football formations that didn’t work a coach developed a new one. A radar physicist studying waves and how they behaved created new antennas that could “listen” for noises across the universe that were otherwise unknown.

But I wanted to write. I had just spent three years studying communication and crafting the technical aspects of the writing process. In every sense I was straining at the starting gate that would soon open; and here was one of my professors suggesting that my education had given me a set of tools but I needed to break them in first.

And really, I knew he was right. While I wanted to write, to tell people’s stories, I hadn’t the slightest idea where or how to do that. Now, having written every week for nearly three years about this neighborhood, coupled with writing on my blog, has given me not only well-sharpened skills but insight on how to find the stories and who needs to hear them.

So this is in thanks to Dr. Daniel Fleisch whose short talk was long on wisdom.

Now it's your turn. As you transition through your life or career, has someone's support or insight helped you move toward your aspirations? Have you let them know?

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