September 16, 2014
How To Like It
by Stephen Dobyns
These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let’s pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let’s dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn’t been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let’s go down to the diner and sniff
people’s legs. Let’s stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man’s mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let’s go to sleep. Let’s lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he’ll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he’ll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let’s just go back inside.
Let’s not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing. The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let’s go make a sandwich.
Let’s make the tallest sandwich anyone’s ever seen.
And that’s what they do and that’s where the man’s
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept—
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.
September 13, 2014
I’m walking from the subway, passing through Fort Greene Park on my way home. This park is my favorite thing about where I live. It’s a two-minute walk from my apartment and has a runner’s loop that seems to have been made for me; a playground made for children but that I like to pretend was made for me; and, arguably, the best sunset views from this side of the Manhattan Bridge.
I just “pulled over” to write these words, because that’s what happens when it’s a Friday evening in early autumn and you can’t help but write it out. I spent the morning reading and studying in NYU’s main library. When afternoon hit, I walked across the street to Washington Square Park to lie in the grass, under the sun. I tell myself I’ll keep working but as soon as I close my eyes and begin listening to Friday in New York City unfold around me, I am pulled in to the worlds of the students, the sunbathers, the lovers, the locals, the tourists, the musicians—even the well-trained and almost cute pit bull playing with a Gatorade bottle next to a man who is clearly not his owner. The man is deeply tan and wearing a Speedo, so he’s probably a German tourist, but he seems unfazed by strange dogs, so I can’t be too sure. This city is full of nuances that challenge every small thing I thought I knew about the world to this point. I think this is a good thing, but time will tell.
There are already small piles of leaves building up under the trees that line my daily walk to and from my Brooklyn apartment. I wonder how these trees will change during my first autumn, winter, spring here. I wonder how I’ll change during my first autumn, winter, spring here.
Walking these streets that comprise my new home, I can’t help but feel something close to whole. Last year at this time, I didn’t quite know up from down. Today, though, I’m composing poetry in my head. I’m reeling from graduate school classes, books I already can’t put down, conversations I could stay up all night having. There’s a bar—called “Bar”—two blocks from my apartment that serves the best egg-white-whisky-sours I’ve ever had. Every few days I buy fresh fruit from three different street stands because I don’t have to pledge loyalty to just one, not just yet.
I say “thank you” often enough that people can tell I’m not from these parts. In the notebook I carry around, I’ve started a list titled “Strangest Things I’ve Seen in New York.” I don’t understand the classifications of grocery stores—convenience, deli, bodega, market, “that corner one”—and I have yet to determine how to exit the subway station at West 4th Street without walking for ten minutes through a creepy underground tunnel maze that I’m pretty sure is a setting in a John Grisham novel.
But, there’s this: a slice of NY cheese pizza in my bag cozied up to a bottle of Montepulciano wine. A stranger asking for directions because he’s sure I know my way around. And this whole grad school thing, which is both harder and more thrilling than I anticipated. It’ll be a challenging, uphill climb for the next two years, but I am exactly where I am supposed to be. And that, more than anything, is why I’ve been grinning this entire walk home.
July 26, 2014
You would have been 96 years old today. You wouldn’t have wanted to celebrate, but you probably would’ve wanted an extra dessert after dinner.
Last year, we celebrated your 95th and Dad’s 59th with a small party at Mom and Dad’s house in Virginia. What a special celebration that was: family, friends, memories, and many extra desserts.
I sat down to write you a couple of nights ago. It was pouring rain, and I had seen the storm coming in. I was standing outside of the grocery store; drops were falling. I wanted to be dancing in the storm. I should have danced in the storm. In the car—the car that you drove up until a few months ago, the car that still smells like you—Gillian Welch’s silky voice sang about peach trees and Mama’s wedding gown. Somewhere that night, there was a delicious bottle of Grüner Veltliner being passed around.
I want to dance in this rain.
I’m not dancing in this rain.
It’s summer, it’s raining, it’s North Carolina. It’s all these silky tunes and maybe, maybe, all I want are the people I lost this year.
A year ago today, I returned to the States after almost a year living in Sri Lanka. I remember wanting to touch ground on your 95th, knowing I’d be celebrating with you and seeing you as soon as I could after I landed. I was welcomed back by everyone I called home; it was one of the best homecomings I’ve ever had. You kissed my cheek when I greeted you and told me you were so glad that I was home.
I was in Ireland when you died a few weeks ago. I was in a pub in Cork, watching the U.S. get beat by Belgium in the last game we’d play in this World Cup. The morning after you died, I visited Blarney Castle and kissed the famous Blarney Stone. I spent the afternoon in the beautiful gardens surrounding the castle, breathing in the flowers and touching the trees. I sat under a huge oak tree for hours, relishing the peace and quiet of this tucked-away sanctuary in southern Ireland.
You died 5 days after your wife—my Grandmommy—did, 21 years ago. You died 2 days before what would have been your 68th wedding anniversary. You died 25 days before your 96th birthday. You died at home, in your own bed, with family around you. You died how you wanted to die.
What a rich and fulfilling life you led. 95 full years. You gave and provided so much. You loved and were so loved in return. And now, you’re reunited with the love of your life, after so many years of being apart.
I’m going to miss your stories, Granddaddy. I’m going to miss your laugh and your slightly off-kilter jokes. I’m going to miss how you held your cigarette while you were driving and how you took your hot tea with lemon: at IHOP, at Bob Evans, at Outback, at all the places we had our dinner dates and caught up over the years. I’m going to miss your advice about tires and courtship and love and the importance of hard work. I’m going to miss how you always called it “coca-COLA” and how you insisted I follow your fail-proof rinsing regiment when I washed your dishes. I’m going to miss your always capable hands. Hands that helped move your family into numerous homes over so many years; hands that fixed appliances older than I am; hands that traversed six continents; hands that held my face when I kissed you goodbye, and goodbye, and goodbye.
Your hands are home in Nebraska. Nebraska has you back now.
I read this at your burial service in Lincoln last weekend:
What if it rains the whole time you bury him?
The world buzzing with a dull roar, soft like suds
in your ears. You’ll wonder how to keep moving
when ninety-five years of life have just
stopped. You’ll watch the dew drip
down a single blade of grass on the family plot,
a tiny, spiraling snow globe holding the morning.
What if the sun breaks through the dark sky
the whole time you bury him? I’m ready
to be with the love of my life again, he said to you,
tears in his eyes and a cigarette dangling in his hand.
Ashes dropped to the ground, embers glowing
until the very end. In Wyuka, notice dandelion seeds
germinating according to the wind’s whims—
dust-inspired goodbyes, nature always taking back what it gives.
Remember these things when you leave Lincoln
for the first time, or for the last time,
traveling the battered highways
cracked, dry, and wanting. The late afternoon
sun will drip and rest easy on Nebraska’s hayfields—
hayfields he plowed, hayfields that are home to the bones
of so many who helped give you life—
and you’ll realize how some things fall so simply
and what it is to be laid down in the copper-colored earth.
Woah. This might be the longest my blog has gone without any action.
I love posting here, visiting these cabinets of wonder when I feel so compelled. Before I start typing a post, I try to take a moment to remember why I began this blog, what it’s given me over the years, and what others so kindly tell me it’s given them. I made sure to do that tonight, because it’s really been a while. I can’t believe how busy life has been lately. But it’s the kind of busy that has had me wholly embracing the ups and downs as they’ve come, and reflecting privately on the written page instead of publicly, here. And that felt pretty good. But: hey there, wonders. It’s a pleasure to be back.
So. Here are some things.
In anticipation of moving to one of the most expensive cities on the planet, I started (and have since stopped) working at a restaurant. It was quite the experience, which, along with some fast cash, was exactly what I was looking for. The server who trained me (and who quickly became my best restaurant friend—those of you who have waited tables know the kind of crucial ally I’m talking about) said he’d never seen someone scribble so many notes while he was speaking. What can I say? I’m a student at heart. And I enjoyed learning the ropes at this neighborhood pizza place. During shifts, my mind filled with conversations with customers, the ever-changing draught list, orders of tiramisu and goat cheese pizza and echoes of “extra olives, please.” It was a great gig that left me feeling satisfied in the way that only jobs that work you really hard can leave you feeling.
The cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. bloomed especially beautifully this year. In late April, I took an afternoon to have an adventure in the District: just me, my camera, and a few thousand tourists. It was lovely.
It’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate this country’s capital and living near it for many years. I don’t think I would have gleaned that appreciation and that fresh perspective on D.C. had it not been for living here for the past several months. I have a great group of Elon friends living downtown, and it was so fun spending time in the city on a regular basis. I’ve never been one to really believe that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in this case, it just took a few months getting close to the city and an afternoon of blossoming cherry trees to convince me that the D.C. area is a pretty great place to be from.
In April, near the end of my best friend Maggie’s first year of graduate school, I visited her in Pittsburgh. It was so great to see her life up there, meet her grad school friends, and hear her read part of her thesis at a reading at a delicious whiskey distillery. Being surrounded by words, whiskey, and writers is always a good thing. These particular writers said interesting things, like: “Friends, I want a cider and a giggle.” (Don’t we all.) They spoke about making interesting things, like homemade garlic butter biscuits, wooden structures, and tasty beer. And some of the very poignant ones got me thinking about interesting things (which is ultimately what we want from writers, right?), like my what first grasp was, and what John Krasinski looks like while he’s brushing his teeth, and who around me might have a heart heavier than all the bricks I’ve ever seen.
It’s always a privilege to read and hear Maggie’s words, and it was a very special weekend. And it was made even more special by the fact my other best friend, Julie, came to hang out with us for the weekend, too! Many of you know that my most favorite thing in the world is when my favorite people come together and our worlds collide. This was that. And it was dreamy.
Speaking of favorite people coming together: for a few days in June, our family was together in Virginia. It’s a rare thing for all of us to be in the same time zone, much less the same house. (As I type this, the five of us are in three different time zones. Somehow, we make it work.) It was so great to be around my siblings again. We’re all “launched” now and enjoying our separate life adventures, but I not-so-secretly love being squished under one roof with my parents, big bro, and little sis. Ben gets me up at the crack of dawn for workout sessions and if I’m lucky, Katrina lets me crawl into bed with her to watch movies and snuggle before falling asleep at night. What more could a middle child want?
And, in July, our family had the pleasure of meeting Ben’s girlfriend, Ali: a wonderful woman and such a light in Ben’s life. They were recently introduced by mutual friends who told each of them beforehand, “You have to meet this person. They’re your soulmate. Just wait and see.” Doesn’t get much better than that, huh?
Last weekend, one of my closest friends from Elon got married. (Rach, it feels like just yesterday we were traveling around the U.K., eastern Europe, and west Africa together!) I don’t know if I’ve ever been in the presence of such joy and selfless love as I was during Rachel and Jason’s beautiful wedding reception. I think it’s fitting that the words we use to describe this kind of bliss revolve around light: radiance, glow, brilliance. The night and this couple was all of that emanating light and more. It was a wonderful evening in Massachusetts with our close friends and with Rachel and Jason’s close-knit families, and I’m so glad I was able to be there to celebrate them and the amazing shared journey they’ve just begun.
A definite highlight of the past few months was spending four days in Putney, Vermont in late May. I was there for training for one of my summer jobs, as a leader for a National Geographic Student Expedition in Ireland. I’ve never been surrounded by such like-minded people as I was in gorgeous Putney. I was blown away by how much my fellow leaders had traveled, all the languages they spoke, and how much they enjoyed their jobs as writers, photographers, teachers, and—naturally—as globe-trotters. I wasn’t the only new leader this year, but there were only a handful of us, and so it felt like I was one of the new relatives at a very close-knit yet welcoming family reunion. And it was awesome. I’m so happy to be a part of this clan, and I look forward to hopefully spending my next many summers leading trips for Nat Geo!
Which brings me—by winding way of so many other things—to the present moment! I am sitting in a roomy apartment just off famous O’Connell Street in Dublin, Ireland. I’m listening to a super fun song, have a few tealight candles lit, and am about to go for a pint at Dublin’s oldest pub. I arrived in Ireland a week ago and spent most of last week adventuring around the south and southwest parts of the country, enjoying some travelin’ alone time before returning to Dublin to begin Nat Geo duties. It was a great few days of backpacking, and I’m amazed I actually made it to Ireland in the first place. More on those adventures later :) But I’m very glad to be here in this spacious apartment, complete with huge windows, a lovely desk, and—I can barely believe it—a spiral staircase.
I just finished selecting a few famous pieces of Irish literature to share with my students on our first full day in Dublin. I can’t wait to write with them, guide them, and explore with them. The students and my co-leaders arrive tomorrow—I’m so excited. We’ll be exploring and writing our way through Dublin for a few days before heading west to Galway and the Aran Islands. 24 creative writing and photography students, 3 trip leaders, and a whole lotta exploring to do—here we go! Follow us on our National Geographic blog over the next two weeks for some poignant photos and powerful prose.
It’s been a very busy and sleepless weekend running around Dublin, and I doubt I’ll be blogging here again until I’m back in the States and have managed a full-night’s sleep (what’s that feel like again?) But how nice to be back on what my good friend Sean calls “the Interwebs” again, sharing with family and friends. How nice to take a moment in the middle of an incredible summer to reflect a bit and find a comfortable nook in these cabinets of wonder. Maggie recently wrote to me about how life often seems to be a constant negotiation between all the varied and sometimes dissonant parts of ourselves, our loved ones, our duties, and everything else. Even when it feels impossible to slow down because of how much there is to do or say or feel or think, how comforting to know that, as Mags said, there is a wholeness—even though so much else feels fragmented. If we can lie down at the end of the day and know that we’ve spent our time investing in the things we care most about and being true to what we love to do—even when there’s so much chaos or confusion or uncertainty that it hurts—than we’re okay. We’re more than okay. We’re exactly where we need to be, being intentional and true amidst the craziness.
So: cheers to the craziness, friends! Talk to you soon.
May 21, 2014
I wrote my first story when I was seven years old. To be precise, I wrote it on June 25, 1997—probably right around the time I was learning in school how to write the date (and record it on every piece of paper I encountered). It was a story about the kinds of things most seven-year-olds are consumed by: an adventuring brother-sister duo and enchanted woodland creatures. Reading it again now, I’ll say that the dialogue needs some work but the spelling is—for a seven-year-old, at least—excellent.
Seventeen years later, I’m on the cusp of beginning graduate school, where I’ll formally study writing at an advanced level and learn, among other things, how to make enchanted woodland creatures really come alive on the page. I’m headed to New York University this fall to pursue a master’s in journalism, and I’m so, so excited. It has not been a straightforward or consistently smooth path up to this point, but it has been peppered with question marks and exclamation points, short and sweet sentences, and fewer full stops than I imagined. It’s been a path distinguished by stories and adventures, by people and experiences. These days, I am at a beautiful juncture—turning on the balls of my feet to begin down this fork, I feel its shift, the significance of this new chapter. But before I begin walking (let’s be honest—I’ll be skipping), I need to say thank you. I am deeply grateful for everyone and everything that has led to this new chapter, to all my chapters. So, allow me to stretch this writing metaphor to its breaking point so I can say: thank you, thank you for shaping my narrative.
I learned a few things while visiting graduate schools and having interviews last fall. I learned there are many, many people out there who care about compelling storytelling and powerful writing. I learned that journalism is part philosophy, part science, and all about the art of the question. I re-learned that listening is supremely underrated. I reluctantly learned that, like it or not, it’s time for me to join Twitter (you can find me at @natpatlamp). But what I really took away from my visits and learning about journalism programs is that I cannot WAIT to be in an academic environment surrounded by storytellers. And while I am for the most part confident in my potential as a writer and journalist, I am aware of my inexperience. But it’s an invigorating awareness, and I am ready to jump in, make the mistakes I am usually so uncomfortable making, and have my writing and ideas torn apart and then built back up, becoming sturdier, smarter, and more clear.
Throughout the day I spent at NYU last fall meeting with professors and students and sitting in on classes, my brain was ON FIRE. I could barely sit still, I was so excited by everything I was hearing and seeing. I couldn’t take notes fast enough. (Note the “[omg]” in the top corner of one of the pages in my Moleskine…)
“It’s a tough time to be a journalist,” my father’s friend says to me when I tell him about the master’s program I’ll soon be starting. “Seven Reasons For Optimism About The News Business,” the Wall Street Journal informs me. “What if you don’t make enough money to travel?” one concerned friend—who knows my top priorities in life—asks me.
Sometimes, when I hear these things, I turn to my favorite hackneyed spin-off of the famous WWII morale poster:
I’ve done a lot of writing since the days of my “Magic in the Woods” series. In my college writing classes, most of my pieces that went through workshop explored real people and places, and I quickly gravitated toward narrative nonfiction writing. From my thesis research in Ghana to writing personal essays to authoring articles, I was learning that the best writing communicates true stories that capture people’s imaginations and use information to enlighten.
I had my first taste of reporting as an intern at The Vienna Review in Austria during the summer after my semester in Ghana and before my senior year at Elon. The highlight of that experience was covering and co-authoring a front-page article on the XVIII International AIDS conference. I’ll never forget running around Vienna, covering the story alongside my good friend and reporter Hannah as we got caught up in the excitement and optimism that was palpable amongst these doctors whose work was contributing so significantly to finding a cure for AIDS.
Journalism is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Good journalism, I believe, is a kind of public service; reporting the news truthfully and effectively is a privilege. I feel so fortunate that the thing I am most passionate about in this world is writing. As a journalist, I’ll be able to couple that passion with my desire to be part of something bigger than myself—to report the truth in a compelling way, to tell stories that need to be told, to be a voice for others.
And journalism inspires change. Sometimes it’s a small change, a shift in a paradigm of thinking or a fresh perspective on a current event. Other times it’s huge, structural change, the kind that impacts a broken system or a corrupt government or a group of people who are finally being heard. Making known what was unknown can be powerful, and telling people’s stories in order to improve a life or lives is, I think, an honorable duty.
Take, for example, a few of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners and nominees. Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia of the Tampa Bay Times relentlessly investigated and reported on “the squalid conditions that marked housing for the city’s substantial homeless population, leading to swift reforms.” Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for “their courageous reports on the violent persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar that, in efforts to flee the country, often falls victim to predatory human trafficking networks.”
And then there’s Mark Johnson’s evocative piece about a group of first-year medical students in their anatomy class and the relationships they develop with one another and the nameless corpse on the table. The story was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing this year. Enhanced by multimedia elements, it’s emotional, thought-provoking, and full of detail. “What a remarkable achievement in storytelling,” wrote Wanda Garner Cash, a professor at the University of Texas School of Journalism, about Johnson’s piece. “This will be a textbook example of how to use varied platforms to inform—and enthrall—readers.”
As I read and become so absorbed in these kinds of incredible stories and impressive writing, I am reminded why I love this craft. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given is this: “Do the things that incline you toward the big questions.” (And it wasn’t even directly given to me. It was given by George Saunders to the 2013 graduates of Syracuse University. But when I read those words, they resonated so much they felt like this revered writer was sitting across from me, squinting as he peered into my soul—“that luminous part of [me] that exists beyond personality”—before telling me exactly what I needed to hear.) I’m still figuring out what my big questions are. But I’ve found my means of arriving at them.
A different kind of NYU adventure
When my father was in his late thirties, he spent two days a week commuting from Columbia, Maryland to New York City. He had three small children and a wife who worked part-time for the government. When he wasn’t working for a Fortune 50 company in the DC area, he was in NYC getting his LL.M (Master of Laws) in Tax at New York University.
“It was absolutely insane,” my father says when I ask him about this period of his life. “I’d never do it again.”
On the mornings he would head to NYC, Dad would leave our home in Columbia, Maryland at 5:00 a.m. He’d drive his ’65 Mustang to the Amtrak station, park, and make his way to the early morning train.
“I’d have to spend the night in the city,” he recalls. “So I’d have two huge shoulder bags—one had a rolled-up, deflated air mattress and my green Army blanket. The other held thousands of pages and forty pounds of the Internal Revenue Code. I carried those two bags around with me all day and night.”
When the train stopped in Philadelphia, hoards of people got on. “I would permit myself to have breakfast and read the Wall Street Journal until we got to Aberdeen,” Dad says. “Then I’d start studying. When we hit Penn Station, I’d lug myself to the subway, take it to Union Square, get to NYU and be in class by 9:30 a.m.”
Dad says it wasn’t easy being a part-time graduate student (and by this point, he had already earned both his J.D. and M.B.A.—as a full-time student). On the nights he had class at 9:00 p.m., he would have to take the 3:00 a.m. train back to Maryland. “I’d go next door to one of the NYU graduate dorms,” he recalls. “On the first floor, there was a student conference room. I couldn’t lock the door, but I’d go in there and set up my air mattress and sleep until 2:30 a.m. My little alarm clock would wake me up and I’d pack up and jump in a cab from Greenwich Village to Penn Station. I’d fall back to sleep on the train, arrive in Maryland at 5:30 a.m., get home while it was still dark, shower, have breakfast, and leave for work.”
Even though it wasn’t exactly an easy period in his life, Dad tells stories about his NYU days with a smile. Education is extremely valued in my family, and it was hearing stories like this one growing up that helped instill such values in my siblings and me. I feel so fortunate that I’ll be able to be a full-time graduate student at NYU and only sleep on conference room floors when deadlines are looming. And Dad’s just glad I don’t already have three kids in another state to commute home to.
Literary Reportage & “Pearls Before Breakfast”
NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute has ten concentrations; the one I’ll be in is called Literary Reportage. As a journalism graduate student, I’ll spend two years studying and authoring literary journalism and narrative nonfiction writing. More specifically, I’ll be producing a body of work—profiles, essays, articles—around a certain idea or subject that I’m particularly interested in and passionate about (more on that in another post). That was one of the major things that attracted me to this concentration—a significant amount of time to work on a project, take chances, fail, rework, and shift direction without it being a waste. Lit Rep students are asked to not just cover beats, but create them; we’re urged to participate in our stories and to experiment with different forms.
I’m excited to learn about the different forms my writing can take. Radio, for example, is a place where you can tell a certain kind of story in a certain kind of way. What constitutes a phenomenal NPR piece? What literary and auditory nuts and bolts are in play there? And I’m fascinated by the way long-form journalism is creating a name for itself on the Internet—publications like the New York Times and National Geographic, among many others, are producing incredibly visually appealing and well-written long-form pieces that pull readers into the story and keep them there, scroll after scroll. (This piece and this piece and this piece are great examples.)
And I’m looking forward to being trained in the basics of reporting and research. I so enjoy the research process and learning the background, facts, and figures that provide valuable context to narrative. I’m also looking forward to learning more about how ethnographic and anthropological methods can inform literary journalism.
In terms of form, I’m most interested in feature writing, magazine writing, essay writing—similar forms, different names. Many writers out there have strong opinions regarding what box to put variations of long-form writing in, and the writers reading this will understand the blurry line between creative nonfiction and literary journalism and why this genre of writing has been the subject of much discussion and discourse lately. In his keynote address for the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Finland last year, Robert Boynton told a story about when he found this kind of writing, “a form of journalism capable of bringing the ideas I loved to life.” (Disclaimer: Robert Boynton is the head of the Literary Reportage journalism program at NYU and will be one of my main professors.) He says he knew then that “whatever this writing was, it was what I wanted to do.” The labels for this kind of writing are not as important as what this kind of writing does, or attempts to do; how it operates, what it communicates, how it is effective and significant.
The best way I’ve found to describe the kind of writing I will be focusing on for the next few years is by naming authors and publications. Think Truman Capote, the New Yorker, and Joan Didion. Think Erik Larson and Katherine Boo (especially Behind the Beautiful Forevers). Think Harper’s and Gay Talese. Remember that interactive New York Times online piece “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” that took readers by storm (no pun intended) in 2012? Or that lighter piece, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” about a world-class violinist who, as an experiment, played beautiful music in a D.C. subway station filled with unheeding commuters? (That piece won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.) What these writers are known for and what many of these pieces have in common is how they combine the best of standard journalism and prose fiction. How they convey extensively researched and detail-oriented reporting through an elegant, stylistic lens. Literary reportage—or whatever you want to call it—is accurate and compelling, as delightful as a short story and as informative as hard news. It’s a kind of intellectual and emotional writing communicating stories that connect readers to things larger than themselves.
So, that’s the kind of writing I’m captivated by and will be delving into while at NYU—and beyond!
The end. And also the beginning.
This was a lengthy post, and it was a long time coming. But you know what? This really isn’t the end or the beginning of anything. They say it’s a journalist’s job to go out and learn something new every day. That’s pretty much all I need in a job description—or in life, really. From that first short story I wrote as a dimply seven-year-old to studying journalism as a graduate student to whatever may come after that, this is all part of what I hope will be a life full of writing and inquiry. It is here that I’ve found my home.
Robert Boynton, in his aforementioned keynote address, so perfectly explained it like this:
“When I greet the new group of Literary Reportage students, the first thing I do is welcome them to the house of journalism. It is a big house, I explain, with many differently shaped and designed rooms. The rooms have names like ‘blog post,’ ‘feature,’ ‘essay,’ ‘foreign report,’ and ‘book,’ and the house seems to grow by a room or two every year. In order to have a long and enjoyable career, I continue, they must find one room they truly love, and decorate and design it so that it reflects their very best attributes. In addition, they need to find a few other rooms where they feel comfortable, since one can’t live in a single room forever. Each of the rooms has a different function, and must be maintained in a way that makes sense for it. Sometimes we move to the living room, invite our friends over, and have a noisy party. Other times we want to be alone, so retire to the study to ponder a single subject in peace. And then there are times when we have a small dinner party, and then retire to the porch to continue a particularly intense conversation with a single interlocutor. The variations are, potentially, limitless.”
Thank you, readers, for being here. I can’t wait to have you over to the house.
May 5, 2014
It’s a beautiful spring night. I live for these kinds of nights—warm air, chattering crickets, the smell of blooming trees and sun-soaked asphalt and cut grass. What is it about the coming of spring, summer, the change of seasons? I’ve got adventures on the tip of my tongue.
There’s a poem I love reading when I’m feeling this good about life, and tonight, I just really want to share it with all of you.
by Billy Collins
You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don’t hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.
For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts of love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else’s can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o’clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.
Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.
March 21, 2014
The tap water might be the best I’ve ever tasted. The public transportation is on par with Germany’s and that’s saying something. The air is crisp and clean. It was a sunny day and now it’s a clear night and is there any better way to see a city than from a wheel in the sky? The coffee shops offer almond and rice milk in addition to soy milk. I can’t get over how friendly people are. The lady selling donuts who throws in an extra glazed, strangers on the sidewalks pulling up maps on their phones to help me with directions, the waiter putting his hand politely on my back while entertaining my many questions about the sushi menu, the homeless man holding a sign that reads I Need $ For Weed! telling me I have very nice teeth. It’s been a day of people watching and I see diversity and a city full of so many sorts of people. This is my kind of city.
This is a startling city. A man falls off his seat on the bus and rolls around on the floor for a few seconds before getting up. A woman drops what looks to be an expensive fifth of whisky in the middle of the street and it shatters, amber drops airborne before sinking into the stone. In an upscale bar, there are backpacks and crop tops and rain boots. I really can’t get over how nice everyone is. Taking a ride on the Great Wheel, I see the water and the buildings and the lovely, interesting people from the best seat in the house. Snow-capped mountains and sunsets over rolling hills. Like a first date that leaves only good impressions, this first day in a new city leaves me curious and wanting more. The attendant at the wheel and the waiter at dinner both ask me, “Are you flying solo tonight?” I smile. I am. It’s just Seattle and me and I very happily am.
The twenty-something man sitting next to me on the plane tells me that the first girl he had a crush on was named Natalie. “We worked at Sonic together. I was sixteen. I liked the way she wore her skates.” I smile politely and turn to look out the window. When we land, he points out a store in the concourse selling fresh popcorn that he says is his favorite. The caramel and cheese popcorn will my first and last taste of Chicago this week—I’ll buy another big bag before my flight home.
Above the bottles of liquor at this corner neighborhood pub, in big, black letters: C-H-I-C-A-G-O. The Bulls are playing the Spurs on the television, Bruce Springsteen is playing on the speakers, couples are playing around me. Candles burn, the bartender pours, I watch. Will I be moving to this city in five months? Outside, the sky looks like it’s been shut for a long while, but in here, light glows. I was warned about the wind, but—as I tend to do when I don’t really want to believe something—I’m not prepared for it. There is a gentle hardness to the city, a feeling that all can be welcome here but maybe not right away. There is strategy to this city I want to figure out. Walk on the outside of the sidewalk, trudge through slushy, dirty snow. Walk on the inside of the sidewalk, risk getting struck by ice falling off buildings at unpredictable times. Learn the neighborhoods. Learn the pizza. Eat all the pizza. The sky will open when you least expect it and it will pull you in, in, in.
A man is standing outside Boston Children’s Hospital. Or maybe it’s one of Harvard’s medical school buildings. The inscriptions on the granite buildings are so high I have to shield my eyes from the winter sun to figure out what is what. Walking down this street, I am struck by how many sick people are in the buildings all around me. And how there’s nowhere else in the world they have a better chance of being healed.
I’m sitting in a Starbucks. It’s fifteen degrees out and this side of the street is not in the sun. The man is wearing a heavy green coat and holding a sign. Iraq war veteran. Father of 3. Out of work. Anything will help. I watch him from my bar stool, looking out the large picture window. I can’t not watch him, really. If the glass were not between us, I could reach him in two big steps. He has a rugged, handsome face. Kind eyes. A reddish beard, well-trimmed—the kind I’ve been noticing lately. What would it be like to kiss a man with a beard like that? Not this man. Maybe this man. Father of 3. A woman stops to give him a cigarette, passes him her lighter. Anything will help. They both exhale and the smoke is indistinguishable from their cold breath. She walks away and he looks up, sees me watching. He steps to another part of the sidewalk and turns his back. In this town, on this street, he can’t be smoking a cigarette while he’s asking for money.
It’s Halloween and we’re in a dive bar called The Cubbyhole. The streets are crowded with adults in ridiculous, ingenious costumes and kids trick-or-treating their way down cobblestone lanes lined with brownstones. This city is weird and intoxicating and I definitely arrived on the right day.
It’s a weekend of food—my favorite kind of weekend. Friday night jerk chicken and plantains and a bottle of Carmenere at a truly hole-in-the-wall Jamaican restaurant with my best girl. Saturday home-style brunch complete with breakfast tacos, mimosas, and a bunch of Brooklynites. Saturday night is the best Italian restaurant I’ve been to (outside of Italy) thanks to the perfect lighting, perfect pasta, and perfectly delightful waiter who reminds me that delivering specials is an art. Sunday: spicy Thai homemade soup. I consider seconds and go for thirds. Monday, warm up before a long stroll in Central Park with potato pancakes and pierogi and borscht. “Here ya go, sweetheart.” All weekend, the people making and serving the food are as good as the food itself. Every corner, restaurant, and borough is bursting at the seams with personality and taste.
Will I be moving to this city in five months? It’ll take me a long time to learn my way around. I’ll get my groceries at one of the corner mom-and-pop shops and spend my Saturday mornings studying and writing in a coffee shop where I’ll become a regular. I’ll go to school but mostly I will eat. I’ll get lost often. I like the idea of getting lost for a little while. Maybe New York will accept me into its folds like the millions of young, uncertain people who came before me, I read once. Maybe so. I’ll certainly know where to eat.
March 7, 2014
“I want to know how people did what they did. And I want to know how that compares with how I did what I did. That’s my whole life. It’s not really a life. It’s a life of inquiry. It’s a life of getting off your ass, knocking on a door, walking a few steps or a great distance to pursue a story. That’s all it is: a life of boundless curiosity in which you indulge yourself and never miss an opportunity to talk to someone at length.” –Gay Talese
I am walking up the walls in inspiration. Everywhere I turn lately, there is something incredible and jaw dropping going on in the world that I want to discuss and write about. Things that I want to be on the front page of the newspaper I wish I delivered to doorsteps on my bike each morning. Things I would tweet about if I used Twitter. Things I would write to you in a letter if I still regularly wrote letters.
I’ve never been able to keep my mouth shut. I remember what the rush of sharing gossip felt like as a young teenager; the glean in someone’s eyes when I shared a secret that was not my own was a kind of guilty pleasure. While I think we’ve all experienced that feeling at some point, my curious, eager-to-please personality meant I crossed those lines more often than others. It’s not something I’m proud of. But I see traces of that young girl who loved being in the know and understanding the web of people and things around her in the writer and aspiring journalist I am today. Maybe being nosy and being inquisitive are two sides of the same coin. And now, as a young adult, asking questions is where my writing starts and adventures begin.
I sit down to write because I have ideas in my head that won’t go away. I share my words because I hope they might influence others in a positive, valuable way and maybe make a piece of this world more interesting or complicated or at least worth paying attention to. And sometimes I come across things that I want to share with everyone I know. So today, I’m opening my big mouth to tell you about things that I hope will have you, too, walking up the walls in inspiration. Today, it is my pleasure to gossip about a handful of things that truly matter.
• Maggie Pahos’s essay, Love Your Space and All It Holds. It’s such a privilege to know the woman behind these words as well as I do. I’ll sit there in the quiet and wonder: if the place I came from is gone, is part of me gone, too?, Maggie asks in this deeply moving essay. If you click on only one link from this blog post, make sure it’s this piece.
• Elif Shafak’s TED talk, The Politics of Fiction. This talk is poetry infused with political commentary and begins with, “I’m a storyteller. That’s what I do in life.” Shafak talks about a woman who uses coffee grounds to see the future; local versus universal stories; and what being a “representative foreigner” entails. She says (and I wholeheartedly agree) that stories transcend borders, fiction is flowing water, and we all like not knowing what will happen ten pages later. There are so many great TED talks out there, but this one’s a real gem.
• A tiny house that was conceived halfway around the world and is now a lovely home. For those of you who haven’t heard about tiny houses yet, you will soon! I’m going to write a feature on the tiny house built by my friends, Annelise and Jake—and the tiny house movement in general—here on the blog soon. Stay tuned.
• The Horizon, a vehicle currently in development by Outrider USA. Committed to innovation and sustainability, Outrider builds ultra-light adventure vehicles that are fast, safe, and—I can say this because I’ve had the pleasure of riding one—more fun that you can imagine. The Horizon is geared toward people with a wide range of physical abilities, including paraplegic and quadriplegic individuals, eager for the excitement and freedom of riding a bike on almost any terrain. A vehicle that makes adventures possible for those who aren’t ready for their adventure days to be limited or over? Heck yes.
• Writing the Lake Shore Limited, an essay by Jessica Gross that was inspired by a free, cross-country train trip. Train time is found time, Gross writes. Writing requires a dip into the subconscious. The lockbox, at times kept tightly latched in our daily lives, is pried open, and things leak onto the page that we only half knew were there.
The writing is beautiful, and the story behind the free trip is pretty lovely, too. During an interview with Pen America, novelist Alexander Chee said he wished Amtrak had residencies for writers. Fellow writers immediately took to Twitter (a place I’m quickly learning offers one of the most sure ways to get the attention of a famous someone or something—for better or for worse) and in fantastic spirit, Amtrak reached out to one of the writers who tweeted, Jessica Gross, asking if she wanted to go on a “test ride.” The residency program is now in development and Amtrak’s social media director says writers can apply for the program simply by tweeting at the company’s account.
I think I just found my reason to begin using Twitter.
All of these things were created or carried out from a place of passion, commitment, and desire to contribute something good and important to the world. When I look at this group of inspiring things, I see the past and the future; I see weight and speed. I see boundless curiosity. I see light in the spaces between the words and the railway tracks. And I see the innovation and opportunity that is in every crack of wood and meaning.
That Paris Review train essay really got me going. I know my fellow train-dwellers out there were moved as well—is there anything better than getting paid to travel by train, explore and adventure, write about it all, and then get published and inspire others to go on their own adventures?
No, there is not. Unless you throw in a handsome stranger and triplet Goldendoodles and a glass of Brunello di Montalcino, there is not.
It’s been a while since I’ve traveled by train, but I have been on a fair share of planes lately. 2014 has been busy and exciting (for me, excitement usually means travel, and I’ve had a lot of that lately): a weekend in Charlottesville with my mom and sister; a relaxing stay in northern New York with my sister and grandparents; a weekend in Boston visiting my good friend Rachel from Elon; a weekend snowboarding and sledding with Fulbright friends in Pennsylvania; and a week in Seattle at the annual AWP conference (a huge event for writers, authors, publishers, and presses) with Maggie—and 13,000 other writers.
I have tons to share about AWP, so that’s coming soon. But one reason the conference was so rewarding was because I was able to attend knowing that I’m staring graduate school in the fall—because I found out in mid-February that I have been accepted to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism! And that I’m being granted a McCormick Scholarship! Medill is known as one of the top journalism schools in the country, and the scholarship is named for Robert R. McCormick, former owner of the Chicago Tribune. Six Medill applicants receive the full-tuition scholarship each year. Both the acceptance and the scholarship are great honors, and I was pretty much speechless when I got the call.
Visits to Northwestern and an admission decision from the other graduate journalism program I applied to are coming up, so I’m not in decision-making mode yet. But I’m so excited. And I’ve been overwhelmed by the congratulations and support from my friends and family and mentors. To hear the people I admire and respect most in the world telling me how proud and excited they are for me is the best feeling in the world. They say it takes a group to raise a writer, and while I think it takes a group to raise pretty much anyone, I am over-the-moon grateful for all those who have raised (in all senses of the word) and influenced me.
I’m also thrilled to share that I’ve accepted a position to lead a National Geographic Student Expedition this summer! I’ll be spending two weeks in Ireland, co-leading a creative writing field workshop for high-school students (mostly from the U.S). The National Geographic expert joining the trip is Chris Rainier, a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine. I’m so excited for this opportunity—travel and writing are pretty much my two favorite things, so to be able to help cultivate those things for students is an honor. And I can’t wait. I really can’t wait.
I began this post with things that have inspired me over the past month. I want to end by thanking those who have inspired the opportunities I am so fortunate to have had and be having. I would not be who or where I am today without the support and encouragement from “my people.” So thank you, family and friends, for inspiring me, for pushing me, for helping me lead what Gay Talese calls “a life of inquiry and boundless curiosity.” Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
January 18, 2014
On a particularly humid morning in Colombo last June, I was on the bus headed to work. It was one of my last days teaching at the university and I was already starting to miss my sweaty, crowded, hour-long daily commute. (There is just something about listening to the voices of NPR telling you about the world as you watch a bustling city yawn, stretch, and go about its morning.) I was listening to a Radiolab podcast and was treated to a gorgeous short story—one that I would listen to again and again over the next few months. A History of Everything, Including You is a powerful piece of prose by Jenny Hollowell (published in this anthology) and I enjoyed putting some of my photos to her reading of her story in the video below.
I encourage you to take a few minutes, connect your headphones, and sink in.
story // jenny hollowell
photos // natalie lampert
[all photos taken in sri lanka and turkey in 2013]
*for better viewing on your computer, press play and then select the 1080p quality setting by clicking the gear icon in the bottom right corner of the youtube video player. then, watch in full screen mode.
January 2, 2014
I was reading a friend’s witty, poignant blog recently and was inspired by a post of “last year” sentiments she wrote a while back. I told her so, and we talked about the kinds of creativity that are often sparked by getting lost in someone else’s words and world for a little while. With her format in mind, I got to thinking about what last year was for me.
Last year was so much.
Last year was transatlantic flights and a delightful number of window seats. Last year racked up my frequent flyer miles and strengthened my resolve to (but really this time) start traveling much more lightly. Last year had bear hugs and heartbreak and the best gelato I’ve ever tasted. Last year was so many narratives, so many stories, so many beautiful places. Last year saw confused commitment and the utmost respect. Last year, the Indian Ocean was my backyard and for ten days in April, I lost and then found myself in silence and solitude.
Last year had distinct chapters and tough transitions. There were reunions and rekindling and so many goodbyes. There were bumpy bus rides and leaning out of trains as I gripped the rails behind me and stuck my chest into the wind, rain sprinkling on my face. Last year had so many good books and a record number of favorite songs. It had the best visitors and Post-it notes of love in all the right places. Last year was living in a crowded, chaotic capital city in south Asia and camping on riverbanks in a few different countries. Last year made me believe that impossible things somehow happen and imagined things sometimes stay that way—fairy dust ideas and the puff of air blowing out candles on the cake, birthday wishes that don’t come true.
Last year was bumping elbows with disappointment. It was the kind of laughter that had me throwing my head back and showing the world my silver fillings. Last year was soft flannel and sarees, running shoes but mostly bare feet. Nights sleeping in my underwear beneath my mosquito net and mornings herding cockroaches out of my room and onto the balcony. Last year was aches of missing him and her and them. It was tears of gratitude on plane rides. It was being welcomed back with handpicked flowers in a Tropicana bottle and homemade macaroni and cheese in a casserole dish. Last year was words. There were hours of writing and plans for a first book. There was poetry and handwritten letters and notes on napkins, chalkboards, and the back of my hand. Last year was the opposite of being sheltered. It saw some painful growing up and too many expectations. What last year lacked in cheese and ice cubes it made up in pol sambol and popcorn. What last year promised to be was all that and more but also somehow less.
Last year was fulfilled dreams and the privilege of working with eager, curious students. Last year reaffirmed my passion for teaching and convinced me to absolutely give all I’ve got to all that I love, even when it’s exhausting, even when I have no idea what it’ll amount to. Last year was a full passport and feeling ready to stay in one place for a while. It was a year that taught me humility and a special kind of grace. It showed me the crucial difference between naïveté and vulnerability. It had the best hike, kiss, and breakfast of my life. Last year was drinking out of coconuts on the sides of dusty roads and picking mangoes off trees in the backyard. It had decadent amounts of baklava in Istanbul and beer in Berlin. Last year was delicious.
Last year was humid and sweaty and, later, crisp and cold. It was surfing in the sea and building fire pits in the fall. Last year had stunned awakenings and the kind of hurt that makes you sick to your stomach. But it also had moments of intimacy so electric I forgot to breathe. It had vibrant connections and that feeling of being truly seen and understood. It had the fullest sky of stars I’ve ever seen.
If last year was a teetering seesaw, I hope this year is a rickety swing. The kind that an adult might eye with skepticism but a child runs toward with glee. The kind that promises moments of uninhibited joy if you accept the risk of falling, bruising, and maybe breaking bones. The kind that leaves you grinning and soaring, feet outstretched, ready to fly.
‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.