Thursday, December 09, 2004

Of politicians, quality teaching and aerobatics

So for two hours today, it was university politics, with a state university trustee at the front of the meeting room and the usual annoying questions from me in the peanut gallery (aka Faculty Senate). But the fun of asking annoying -- and to the point -- questions, is what makes journalism fun for me. I knew that at least half of the answers were going to make their way into stories and the other half of the information would suggest things I should be writing about.

And, boy, are there things I should be writing about.

In the late 1980s, all we talked about at journalism conventions was how the new computer technologies were taking over the profession -- and we loved the new technologies.

But we stopped talking about ethics, morals and standards and I think the price we paid is now evident on television in places like the Fox Nut Network. Oops, I mean Fox News Network. In print, it's harder to decipher, unless you read USA Today.

So in the University setting, all we hear about is money and budget, budget and money. No one asks about how it is going in the classroom, or if we can accommodate the influx of students, or, most important, if the quality of instruction in the classroom is what it was, say, even five years ago.

The question isn't asked because the quality has slipped as faculty have become overburdened with too many students, too few resources and a bureaucracy that is numbing the number of arcane rules it imposes that result in the stifling of creativity and discourage faculty from doing the teaching that's needed.

Still, it was a good day, because my questions made a few people (faculty and administrators) think about the issue of quality instruction and what we have to do to preserve it.

And, journalistically, I picked up a couple of story ideas that I will publish to keep the fires burning.

That's a good day, for a writer. And a good way to avoid thinking about going up in a small plane in 36 hours to do a few barrel rolls.

Up, up and away, soon enough.

mjf 12/0/04

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Up, up, and away!

The end of the semester is upon me — and just in time.

All the deadlines for magazine articles, the endless grading of papers, getting ready for Mexico and trying to read the tea leaves about the future, are coming together in a crescendo that’s deafening.

Add to that that I just accepted an assignment to go fly in an experimental aircraft and you can understand why there should be Grey Goose in my glass right now, instead of two-buck-Chuck Merlot. (Mas vino, por favor, amiga.)

Saturday, in a small plane that has Plexiglas doors and roof, I will go catapulting into the air over the foothills in pursuit of a story about adventuring. I love adventuring. I’m not so keen on doing it at several thousand feet over rough terrain.

Still, earlier this week I attempted to convince a good student that she has all the ‘right stuff’ to be a journalist, that journalism and writing can be a lot of fun (despite all my in-class comments about how hard the work is).

Saturday, I get to live that advice and hope that Saturday night I still get to live the advice by writing the story about how the fellow who is piloting the aircraft gets his kicks doing barrel rolls.

Perhaps if I wasn’t so tired from a long semester — or had a career-making profile on deadline for next week — the prospect might not be so daunting.

Oh well.

Up, up and away. Just like Superman…

mjf 12/8/04

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Oh! A Christmas Tree!

First, Target and Mervyn's stores banned Salvation Army bellringers from their store sidewalks. Too many people soliciting they said. (And what, pray tell, do Target and Mervyn's do when they try to sell you all that stuff you don't really need? If that's not soliciting... but, well...)

Today, however, the news came hustling across the wires that in San Francisco, several dozen schoolchildren were hustled out of the Union Square park for singing Christmas caroles.

It seems one must have a city permit to do, well, just about anything.

And people wonder why I like Mexico so much?

mjf 12/5/04

Saturday, December 04, 2004

The writing juggernaut

As the semester closes, the best students come out of the woodwork, seeking advice and earnestly wanting to talk about how to write, how to make their writing better, and how to actually make a buck or two at this business.

I wish they would come to my door when I didn't have exams to grade and my own writing crises to deal with.

But in giving them advice, I find that it helps me refocus on what I'm doing. My advice to them becomes advice to myself. And sometimes I'm even correct in what I tell them.

This past week, I had a young man come in who wants to be the next Hunter S. Thompson, sans the drugs and alcohol. I pointed out that the myth of the drugs and alcohol is what makes Hunter S. Thompson so appealing. A lot of his writing is mindless drivel. Some of it brilliant. But I'll pick up anything he writes because it might be brilliant and the wild man personna is irrestible.

Writing is risky business, even for the pros because every time you stick your head up out of the trench and send a piece off for an editor to review you risk failure, embarrassment and a blow to the ego. But, as I told my student this past week, the beauty of writing is that you get to go to bat again, every day. You have to keep swinging.

Here's a quote from Andrew Sullivan, now a blogger, formerly editor of The New Republic:

"The dirty little secret of journalism is that it isn't really a profession. It's a craft. All you need is a telephone and conscience, and you're all set. You get better at it by merely doing it — which is why fancy journalism schools are, to my mind, such a waste of time." (From TIME magazine, Sept. 27, 2004)

Fire up the keyboards, time to get better.

mjf 12/04/04

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A writer's warm-up pitch

So this morning, after two hours of reading and researching, I'm about to start the first draft of a 3,500-word profile of a law professor (who is also the Chief Information Officer of the State of California) and a lot of other complicated things. I have pages of notes, a file folder of articles about him and sore eyeballs from reading.

But I'm using this blog to do what I tell my students -- limber up your fingers and your mind with other writing before you take on a big project (like a draft of an article that not only is long and complex, but which will be vetted by attorneys for the magazine, California Lawyer). If you get your fingers working and your brain in gear, sometimes the words flow faster.

One of Tom Wolfe's most famous dispatches was actually a letter he wrote to his editor, explaining why it was so hard to write the story. The editor took the letter, did some magic, and Voila! ... Tom Wolfe had a hit.

First drafts, for me, are a lot like when you take a multiple choice test: your first inclination is almost always the correct answer. So I rarely stress too much over the product of the first draft -- just getting those first few paragraphs down so that the story is interesting enough to drag readers along.

I've dragged you enough. On to J. Clark Kelso.

mjf 12/2/04