Writing is a superpower

Every semester, on the day of finals, I ask my feature writing students to write a note explaining “Why I write.” I do it because they should know their motivations for writing. And every year, they bowl me over.

Interestingly, there are a lot more “I write because I can’t say it out loud” than I normally see. I’m not sure what that’s about, but I have my suspicions.

Some samples:

“I see writing as a way to snap the world into a specific focus–whether it helps a reader see someone/something in a new light, evokes a feeling, or gives them a story to carry with them. Stories matter. They can change someone’s mood or change their mind.

“And finally, I write because I cannot help it.”

************

“When I’m writing, I feel like when I’m writing something new, I’m carving my own unique voice, sharing a pastime that the greatest writers and storytellers that have ever lived have done. When I write the first word of a story, there’s no difference between me and Hemingway or Twain or Joyce. Writing offers limitless potential.”

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“I write music because there are songs that need to come out. I write fiction because I create stories that want to be told. I write poetry because there are words inside me that want to be heard. I write nonfiction because the lives of people around me desire to be shared. I write because what spills out cannot be wasted on passing ears. I write because I am an artist and art will come out whichever way it pleases that day.”

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“I write because I want to uncover stories that often go untold and overshadowed. I believe my purpose is to help others see the value in telling their stories.”

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“I write to be able to take a moment in time and keep it forever.”

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“It’s also something really satisfying in creating or telling a story and once you’re done writing it, you read over it and you’re like ‘dang, I wrote that.'”

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“My favorite films always rebel against established narrative arcs. They are moody and contemplative with no action to speak of. That’s the kind of writer I was trying to be, but really I needed to learn the rules before I could try to break them.”

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“Writing has the power to inspire a lot of good and change in the world, big and small.  I chose to become a writer honestly because I think it’s the best way I can use my passions to do some good in the world.”

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“I write because representation is important, and I come from a little niche of life that I think most people don’t understand or are afraid of. I write to show people my worldview, and the stories that are so big to me that others might never be aware of.”

*********

“I write because it’s powerful. Words can make people laugh and cry. They make people change their minds about things they’ve held as solid beliefs. It really is a superpower, and I hope to make the most of it.”

Why I teach

At the end of each semester, I show my class a video by Drew Dudley called Leading with Lollipops. It’s important, I think, that students know how important kindness and gratitude are, but more important, how important their impact is on others. I end it — when I’m in person and not on Zoom — by handing out a lollipop to each student and tell them that they’ve each given me a multitude of lollipop moments. And I mean it.

One of my students, Sami Snellings, collected appreciations from dozens — 43 — of my former students plus one of my daughters, Dean Susan King and Senior Associate Dean Charlie Tuggle about the teaching award I received. It’s taken me four days to get through because I am not the greatest in handling praise. I’m embarrassed by it, which a number of students noted. And because I have to stop to wipe away tears.

It’s humbling and fulfilling. I include it here not so much to share but to keep it for myself. There are some days when I need this.

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Sunday sampler

N.C.’s front pages today feature a lot of stories about schools not resuming and about people helping others. Those types of stories have tremendous value in their communities, but I’ve seen enough of them to not read them today.

Raleigh: Information counters ignorance and bias. Consequently, it has always baffled me why government veers toward secrecy. The News & Observer — through an admirable consortium of news organizations – published a piece about the lack of information about one of the petri dishes of the virus — nursing homes. “While DHHS is releasing the number of new outbreaks at nursing homes and other residential care facilities in counties across the state, the agency is not identifying which facilities have outbreaks or how large each outbreak is.”

Fayetteville: You’re a health-care provider in Fayetteville battling the coronavirus, your husband is on deployment. What do you do with your children? In many of the cases cited in the Observer, you send them to live with relatives…and you get to see them rarely. “Health care workers at Cape Fear Valley are dealing with the stress of being around patients who have the virus that has killed more than 260 people in North Carolina and more than 50,000 in the United States.”

Greensboro: The News & Record sends veteran photographer Scott Hoffmann into retirement in appropriate fashion: With a selection of some of his best work. He’s a great shooter.

Greensboro: Not on the front page but the News & Record published a good column by Hannah Lang, a student in my Media Hub class about missing graduation, hugs with friends and saying goodbye to four years of college. “My summer internship has been deferred, my graduation is postponed, and I’m looking for a temporary place to live in the Triangle. I’m applying to all the jobs I can: receptionist, grocery clerk, part-time copywriter. It is not the adulthood my seventh-grade self dreamed of. Looking back, there were so many times that I let my investment in a glitzy future take me out of the present. It seems pretty stupid, now that I realize none of it was ever a given.”

Someone should hire her.

‘Best of the best,’ part II

In January, I wrote about Cambria Haro, a student in my Media Hub class last fall, when she won first place in the national Hearst Journalism Awards for her work on television storytelling.

Hearst announced yesterday that Payton Tysinger, a student in my spring Media Hub class, won first place in the second round of the awards. Payton won the top honors from among 74 entries from 45 schools.

Apparently, this is the first time that students from one school have placed first in both the fall and spring competitions.

Not only that, Jilly Kuehn, also in Media Hub, won ninth place.

I take absolutely no credit for their successes. They’re naturals at TV. And while I know a little about storytelling, but the amount I know about broadcast storytelling and production values couldn’t fill a lens cap. (Although I have watched every episode of “The Newsroom” and HBO so I do know something.)

But I’m going to stand in their reflected glory for a minute and brag on them. This was a confounding semester because the pandemic closed the campus halfway through. Students were  discouraged from reporting “on the scene.” Interviews were conducted by Zoom and FaceTime; bedrooms became studios. It required patience and ingenuity — like real life.

Yet, they persisted, as did every student in that class.

View Payton’s award-winning work here, here and here. Jilly’s is here.

I won a teaching award

My Media Hub class

 

There’s a story about Dean Smith — maybe it happened, maybe it is apocryphal — that he was talking with a student in his office when his administrative assistant interrupted to say that the president of the United States was on the phone. Coach Smith told her to take a message, that he was with a student.

I think about that story as I teach at Dean Smith’s university. His emphasis on students  helped me figure out what type of teacher I wanted to be. It’s well known that he was always there for his players regardless of when they played. I had similar relationships with a few professors at my college. Could I do the same?

I’ve tried, but the truth is that my real motivation is the fear that I’ll be bad. I wasn’t an academic or have a degree beyond a bachelor’s in English. The students – or their parents – pay good money for an education I am supposed to deliver, and I don’t want to disappoint them. It has helped form my teaching philosophy, which is that I don’t consider myself successful until my students are successful. And that start with being in my class and never stops.

So, it’s such an honor to win the Chancellor’s Student Undergraduate Teaching Award, an award in which students select the recipients. I’m flattered by the award, but even more humbled – and overwhelmed – by all the attention and praise my students and former students posted on social media and sent in texts and emails.

That — hearing from current and past students — was the actual award. It’s always amazed me how tenured professors — I’m an adjunct — are able to handle May. I connect with students over the course of a semester or, if I’m fortunate, a couple of semesters. We work on stories together. I yell at them; they yell back. We struggle with tone and accuracy and stories falling through. We laugh at it all. Then they graduate and leave me.

This award and the publicity that came with it caused dozens of students I hadn’t heard from in a while to reconnect. My heart is full.

Here are some of the responses on Twitter; others appeared in texts, on Facebook and Instagram. And sorry if I didn’t post yours. I had to stop somewhere.

I’ll begin with a tweet from Caroline Bass, who was a student I got to know when we were both on a UNC trip to Israel last June. I suspect that Caroline orchestrated and championed my nomination.

https://twitter.com/C_Bass6/status/1250851675528728578

https://twitter.com/UNCHussman/status/1250858749977337857?s=20

https://twitter.com/sydneypersing/status/1250792998163668993

https://twitter.com/HaleyCGardner/status/1250857680480198656

And I saved the best for last! See how inspiring and encouraging I am!

Sunday sampler

The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer bring us 24 hours of coronavirus, and it’s a good look at a cross-section of how people are dealing. “We wanted to show you how starkly different life has become here, through the eyes of more than two dozen people from a variety of callings, cultures, and corners of the state, all captured over the course of one 24-hour day.”

And, on a personal note, Dr. William Sturkey at UNC-Chapel Hill speaks my mind: “I’m a type of person that likes to look a person in the eyes and connect on that basic human level,” Sturkey says. “It’s a struggle to have a good back and forth over Zoom or email.”

Fayetteville: I didn’t initially care much about the 1918 flu epidemic until President Trump continued – and still does – refer to it as the 1917 flu. “Unlike the current pandemic, in which older people with underlying health conditions are especially at risk, the 1918 crisis resulted in high mortality rates among people younger than 5, from 20 to 40 years old, and 65 and older as well.”

Asheville: I like Asheville; I used to work in Asheville. And like everywhere, it’s going to be hard to get back to normal, and because so much of its economy relies on tourism, it’ll be extra hard. “Optimistically, I hope it will pick up at least by the end of summer,” said H.P. Patel, president of BCA Hotels, which operates the Best Western and Glo Hotels in East Asheville. “Realistically, it might take a few years to get back to the occupancy levels we were at.”

Hickory: I wasn’t aware that, two weeks ago, there was an explosion at a hydrogen plant near Hickory. Am now. “Doris Bolick was standing in her living room when her door was blown open. ‘All the pictures started flying off the wall, light fixtures wobbling,’ Bolick said. “It was terrifying. I’ve never experienced anything like it before and hope I never do again.’ She described seeing a fireball and initially thinking it was a tornado. Now, she said the wind makes her jumpy.”

And because this is my blog, I’m going to feature stories by and about my current and former students that are published today:

Carteret: Blake Dodge was a high school and UNC track star, Morehead Cain scholar at Carolina, and a student of mine for a few short weeks. But we became friends. And the News-Times is happy she’s from Carteret County. She’s now a reporter for Business Insider. “There are elements of this that are not pleasant,” she said. “It’s stressful talking to doctors and hearing what they are going through. It’s hard to compartmentalize and keep it from your own life. But it also makes you acutely aware of people who have it a lot worse. Since I’m talking to frontline health care workers so frequently, I recognize how lucky I have it. They are really struggling. Some are dying because they’re exposed to the virus.”

Charlotte: Danielle Chemtob has been a rock star at the Observer since she got there a little over a year ago. Today she’s on the front page with a piece about the fear and, for some, resentment that essential workers feel, being on the front lines.

Charlotte and Raleigh: Molly Horak, a graduating senior at UNC, has a story about Peace Corps volunteers returning to the U.S. in both papers. You editors should hire Molly; she’s ready for primetime.

Sunday sampler

The idea that some people are insisting that they need to be in church to worship during this pandemic both fascinates and perplexes me. I understand the social and meditative role the church plays. I don’t understand why a person needs to risk their life and those lives of the people they come in contact with. There are many other ways to hear the word of God outside of church.

But that’s just me. Here are how newspapers in N.C. are portraying religious life on this holiest day of the Christian faith.

Raleigh: The News & Observer: “The Baptist congregation of Plymouth Church in southern Wake County would like to celebrate the resurrection of Christ this Easter Sunday as it has for as long as anyone can remember, with a sunrise service in the church cemetery. But with the governor’s order in place banning gatherings where coronavirus could spread, Plymouth’s pastor, Chris Partin, will broadcast a message of hope using Facebook Live instead.”

Greensboro: The News & Record: “On the rooftop patio of West Market Street United Methodist Church, the Rev. Jill Alventosa-Brown delivers her Easter message to a camera as the sun rises behind her. Joining her is the worship band.”

Statesville: The Record & Landmark: “The way Frank Turner sees it, worshiping the way it is right now is simply the way things were meant to be. After all, one doesn’t have to go far into the Bible to find just this type of worship happening. “If you go back to the early church, they all met in houses anyway, through the book of Acts,” he said.”

Hickory: Hickory Daily Record: “As a pastor, I know that Church happens outside the four walls. There wasn’t a “church” building on that first Easter. No choirs, no flowers, no cantatas or other pageantry. No, there was much more! God’s love was manifest in a miracle, being presented to humanity.”

Fayetteville: The Fayetteville Observer: “John Cook, senior pastor at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church, said someone suggested to him that the church might want to wait until the congregation can come together in person after the coronavirus pandemic passes to hold Easter Sunday services. But he decided against it. “I said to myself, ‘There is no way we cannot address Easter, especially when people need a sense of hope,’” he said.”

Winston-Salem: The Winston-Salem Journal: “Mack and several other ministers prayed and delivered sermons to drivers and passengers in more than 200 vehicles that gathered in the parking lot of Inmar Inc. for the church’s service on Holy Saturday. Church volunteers urged the attendees to remain in their vehicles, which were parked in every other space, and keep their windows rolled up.”

 

Tiny stories, for the win

One of the new assignments — thanks, pandemic — I gave my feature writing students at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media was to write a tiny story, modeled after the New York Times’ Tiny Love Stories. (The Times gives you 100 words; I gave them 150 because I wanted them to use some of the writing skills we talk about. I also didn’t put a restriction on the topic; the stories didn’t have to be based on love.)

I told the students to make me imagine and feel something. I was pleased with the results. The below is a selection, reprinted with permission.

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My grandpa’s favorite animal is a bluebird. He doesn’t love their color, he loves their love. They show off, he says, they court and protect and kiss and raise babies together. He smiles every spring when they come around. One morning, we sat on his sun-bleached porch and listened to the bluebirds sing in the early sunshine. He looked back at his wife, my grandmother who doesn’t remember either of us, and smiled. I wonder the memories he has that she no longer carries, the things past bluebirds have seen on their loblolly perches lining his yard.

“One day we will be bluebirds,” he whispers and winks. “Look for us every spring.”

— Katie Clark

****

I slammed my shoulder into the door and wiggled the handle just right so the key would turn. I heard rain from a cracked window on the walk up. By the third flight, I started to breathe heavier, a deafening sound broken only by my footsteps. Then the smell set in, must and candles, unpleasant but familiar. The last flight felt like Everest, and I paused outside the door, staring at the chipped red paint and the worn out, gold 6A. I shouldered that door open and you were there, smiling so big it felt like I was home again.

–Emily Siegmund

****

Our eyes meet across a crowded college dining hall. A moment like this will become a memory we will share with our grandchildren. But in the same instant our eyes meet, my heel meets, not the floor, but a rogue grape. I land in a denim-clad half-split that I will later be impressed with and wish the ground would swallow me whole. From his vantage point, it appears as if it has.

Two older girls with tight ponytails help me up. By the time I have thanked them and laughed off their concerns, his attention is decidedly elsewhere. The poets are wrong. Falling has no place in love.

–Anna Grace Freebersyser

****

Slip off shoes and socks, sweaters, shirts and long pants — anything that will add ounces. Take it off until it is just you and the scale, until it is routine. Tell yourself this doesn’t matter, lie if you have to. This number is not your identity; you mean more than it does. But then again, this number tells you if who you are is too much, and you never wanted to be “too much.” Step on, try not to shift your weight — try not to even think about your weight, except to will it away. Will it to fall off your bones and onto the floor like an oversized frock you can step over and out of, thrown away and forgotten. “Again?” she calls from the other room. Look down at the number, at who you are. “Yes, again.”

–Emily Siegmund

*****

I had to learn that she loved me back, even though she didn’t say it. I learned she was a warrior who shows love through battle scars. I learned she fought battles I’ll never begin to understand, so that I wouldn’t even have to. When the “I love you’s” came only after I left for college, it made me wish I’d left sooner. Sure, “mother knows best,” but it didn’t always feel that way—it wasn’t always that way. Unintentional insults became malignant; sitting on my mind and spreading to my heart like cancer. Regardless, I’m still here, and I’m glad she is too. Even if the love is toxic, is it still not love? With the bitterness that sometimes makes my tongue curl at the thought of saying “I love you” to someone so jaded, I think about how bittersweet it’d be to tell her from a grave.

–Jazmine Bunch

*****

“Jonny, I’m sorry we didn’t get you a costume, but you have to go to school.”

“I’m going to be the only one without an outfit!” I cried.

Cowboys and cowgirls lined the halls. “Cowboy Day” was the biggest day of kindergarten. Humiliation was an understatement. At recess, a car pulled up.

“Hop in.” I obliged, and sped off.

“Jake?” Mrs. Robbins called.

“Here!”

“Jared?”

“Here!”

“Jonny?” Silence.

“Where’s Jonny?!”

“He left in someone’s car!”

Panic. The faculty tore apart the playground. Within minutes, an amber alert circulated the city in search of a gray SUV.

Tires screeched to a halt in front of the school. Cowboy boots clacked on the concrete. With plaid shirt tucked into denim jeans, a 10-gallon hat lowered, I was a miniature Clint Eastwood. I walked into the chaos, beaming.

My father was Public Enemy #1, but his son was the #1 cowboy.

–Jonny Cook

****

The clock ticked. Darkness surrounded the empty train station in the small town of Hof, Germany. The aggressive overhead lights blasted down on me like the Eye of Sauron. There I sat. Waiting. The last train had long since departed and the next one was hours away. I was alone. In an unfamiliar place. In the middle of the night. With a dying phone. The loud tick of the station’s enormous clock every minute kept me from sleeping. I laid across the single hard plastic bench in the corridor to try to get more comfortable. Nope. There was no comfort here. Not in Hof. Only fear. Fear the next train would never come. Fear I would never see my family again. Fear I wouldn’t make it through the night. The clock ticked on.

— Chip Sweeney

****

There were 50 victims of the Christchurch shooting, so we laid out 50 prayer rugs, collected from various members of the Muslim Students Association. The on-and-off sunshower misted the plush fabric and the battery-powered candles we laid atop them. We worried that only Muslims would come. Thank God we were wrong. I think all of us, in our grief, needed to see that crowd, drenched in sunset, faces tipped up towards the ten of us who were board members as we took to the podium, thanked them for coming.

Maybe I needed it most of all. I’d told myself, I’m not gonna cry. I did anyway, on the gold-touched podium in front of those 100-plus people, as I told them that my eleven-year-old sister asks me when Islamophobia will end and I don’t have an answer.

They didn’t judge. They were crying with me.

–Safa Ahmed

****

The love shared between you two was rare. It ended when you lost your fight to cancer.

The week you were in hospice, my heart was breaking. I was like someone falling through thin ice, gasping for air, trying to make it back to the surface. I know that grandpa felt worse.

Six months later, he followed you into the gates of heaven. God knew that he couldn’t be on this earth without you.

When I think of you, I feel like I’m underwater again, so I reach for my bible. I breathe in the words of assurance. They make me feel close to both of you.

You’re together again. Your love story is endless.

–Savannah Cole

****

Since the day I turned 1, I slowed danced with my Dad each birthday. After the party, or dinner or whatever that birthday brought, that evening he would be waiting in the living room with Bob Carlisle’s “Butterfly Kisses” cued up. As a kid, I would laugh my way through the dance as we swayed side to side. As a teenager, I’d complain about how uncool it was becoming, despite secretly looking forward to it. We still danced through most of those years but at 18 we stopped. I guess he thought I had outgrown it. I’m 22 now but every birthday a part of me still hopes to hear the familiar beginning of “Butterfly Kisses” and see my dad’s hand out, waiting to take mine and dance with me.

–Samaria Parker

****

Proud of my plaid jumper and blissfully unaware of the resemblance between my pigtails and birds-nests, I bounced into the classroom marked second grade.  I hung my bag on the hook, walked to my assigned seat and plopped down.

I was ready for the day—excited to show off my spelling skills and less excited to struggle through arithmetic.  Until Ms. Jones pulled out the scale.

The glint of cold metal caught my eyes—fearfully widening.

The images of weight charts and the pointed fingers of pediatricians flashed in my head.

My face went hot and then the inevitable happened.

“Julia, I bet you weigh the most, get on!” said one, echoed by others.

The blue screen prompted my tears and everyone else’s teasing.

That day took my bounce and made the consumption of fat-free coffee creamer an event to mourn years later.

–Julia Masters

Sunday sampler

Coronavirus coverage still dominates the front  pages of N.C. newspapers today, as it should. But for the first time in several weeks, papers are publishing stories about something other than the coronavirus on their front pages. Examples: Climate change in Jacksonville; a whisky distillery in Hickory; a police-involved shooting death in Greensboro; a homeless center in Fayetteville; and the 20th anniversary of a woman’s death in Burlington.

What drew me in, though:

Raleigh: The N&O has a good story on deaths in jails, and it’s not pretty. “Dunn and Jackson are among a record 46 inmates who died in North Carolina’s jails in 2019 or in a hospital after becoming ill or injured behind bars, state records obtained by The News & Observer show. In at least 19 of those deaths — including one each in Wake, Johnston and Mecklenburg county jails — state health department inspectors tasked with making sure jails are safe found supervision failures. That’s a 41% failure rate for inmate deaths. That rate is worse than what The News & Observer discovered in 2017 after investigating five years of jail deaths — one out of three, or 33%, involved supervision failures.”

Wilmington: The Star-News examines the question, what if you have a hurricane in the middle of a pandemic? It’s a real possibility as forecasters said last week that four major hurricanes could develop this summer. “Much of what we use as baseline assumptions for emergencies will not work right now,” said Bryan Koon, a former director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management who is now a disaster consultant. “Natural disasters don’t care what is going on with human health issues.”

 

I cancelled the paper; I support four newspaper staffs now

For the first time in 45-plus years, I’m not getting a printed newspaper delivered. I subscribed when I was in college, when I taught junior high school, when I worked construction, when I was UNEMPLOYED, and when I worked for a newspaper and could get it for free.

It’s an odd feeling not to walk outside in the dark and pick up the paper, to turn the pages as I drink coffee and be surprised by a story.

I write this as layoffs, furloughs, pay reductions and elimination of delivery days are slamming the industry. The good folks at CJR refer to it as “America’s local newspapers confront an apocalyse.”

Indeed.

Now, I haven’t abandoned journalism. I subscribe to four papers online because I’m a news junkie, I can afford it, and I believe that journalism is one of the few things that keeps democracy rolling along. And I put the journalism produced by newspaper writers at the top of the list.

I subscribed to the New York Times and the Washington Post beginning in 2017 because I needed complete coverage of what President Trump and weak-willed Congress was doing to my country.

I subscribe to the News & Observer because it covers state government and statewide issues well, and I want to support its watchdog role.

I subscribe to the News & Record because it is my local paper and, even short-staffed, keeps me in touch with my city.

And this doesn’t even count my financial contributions to the Daily Tar Heel, which helps turn many of my students into “real” journalists.

So, yes, I’m paying more for four digital papers than I would be for one home-delivered one. But I like to think I’m helping to support four staffs of journalists. Besides, I’m not paying for them. I have asked for the subscriptions as birthday and Christmas gifts, and I have a generous wife.