Yesterday I went to a day-long writing seminar sponsored by the Washington Post and the Poynter Institute called Write Your Heart Out, Washington. The Post speakers were David Finkel, Bob Woodward, DaNeen Brown and Ezra Klein while Stephen Buckley (Dean of Faculty) and Roy Peter Clark (Senior Teacher) of the Poynter Institute served as moderators. It was held at the Post headquarters where I had not visited in 15 years.
In a sense, I was revisiting the passion of my former livelihood, when I was a freelance journalist in Peru pitching story ideas and sweating deadlines. It reminded me that I really loved the intellectual challenge of explaining a country as challenging as Peru and finding news sources who could give a story an extra-dimension or a good quote. People and their lives were adrenaline for my beat. Anyone interested can check out some of my old stories on my other site, Peruvian Graffiti.
All the award-winning Post journalists spoke about their own work and how they developed their writing craft and story harvesting techniques. All but Klein were long-form (feature-length articles and books), and Klein, though a blogger by title, endorsed a more open format since article length is no longer dictated by column inch on newsprint. I learned something from each of them. Obviously, the seminar was a way for the Post to showcase its leading writers to an audience eager to know the Post and the journalism business more deeply.
However, compared to other courses offered by newsU.org, this one-day event was light on the red-pencil. rewrite-driven craft. Clark did an inspiring job of turning an hour chat into a romance with the inventiveness of the English language. He’s spent 30 years teaching writing and journalism so he knows how to turn lessons into morsels that can been absorbed and applied. It’s evident in the titles of his books, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer or Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. I am tempted to take some of the online courses to sharpen my blunted skills.
[Added May 20: And to top it all off, Clark posted a blog entry that summarized the four presentations.]
The seminar title itself somehow misses the mark. It made it sound as if the Post was trying to crowd-source its Metro section, encouraging new recruits to “write their hearts out.” The Poynter-WashPost event seems to be a periodical collaboration over the past few years. I suspect that the Post participants change from iteration to iteration, depending on who’s available. I suspect there were a lot of high school journalism teachers present as well as writer-reporters who publish in newsletters or magazines on their spare time.
For me, this exercise was an opportunity to re-examine what it takes to be writer, to employ reporting and listening skills to dig up the “best obtainable version of the truth,” as Woordward said, to make the interior haggling over wording and meaning a core component of my self-identity, and to light a fire in the gut. These days, from this keyboard, writing a blog can require the same kind of intensity and honesty as writing a news story. I guess that may have been the real topic of this seminar.