‘Take it easy on the -ings’

Do you find yourself using the same writing tropes over and over? Once a tendency comes to my attention, I see it everywhere. A former colleague always caught instances of “that” when the word should have been “who.” Once I learned the distinction between passive and active voice, I noticed improper usage everywhere.

As I read Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer,” I am overwhelmed by usage–or improper usage–of the tools he details. This week, my journalism students read tools five and six, “watch those adverbs” and “take it easy on the -ings.” They then edited one of their recent stories to reduce the number of -ing words, and I did the same.

I struggle to avoid discouragement with such reflection. I would like to think my work is awesome as is, but the truth is, I want to grow. This process can be uncomfortable, but it moves me closer to my end goal.

My most recent email newsletter including 41 -ing words. Forty one! I’ll admit, I didn’t edit the newsletter before I sent it, but I was horrified by that statistic. (I didn’t count words such as “thing.”) Four of those 41 were part of proper titles, so I couldn’t edit them out.

A quick edit, though, reduced -ing words to 19. That’s still a lot, in my opinion, and I retained some to indicate an ongoing pursuit. But I think the end result is stronger. You can read the original (and sign up for the newsletter) here. Here’s the edited version:

 

MailChimp has been good to me. I’ve used it for more than two years, and I registered in preparation for my first book’s release. Self promotion doesn’t come to me naturally, but publishing and sales go hand in hand. I sucked it up and launched an email newsletter.

Two years later, I’m not any more comfortable with this promotion. Email newsletters intrigue me, but mine has made me feel like I’m in sales mode. (There’s a reason for that.)

However, I subscribe to a few writer newsletters that rely on TinyLetter. These newsletters are text based, simpler than the flash-and-dazzle of so many others. I appreciate MailChimp and subscribe to a number of newsletters that use that service well. But TinyLetter, which is a MailChimp product, feels truer to my writerly ways.

That inspired me to shift formats. I don’t have a new book to sell you, but I do believe there’s value in an email newsletter. Moreover, I benefit from the act of writing this thing. So welcome to “Read, Write, Breathe (repeat).” I intend to send this thing weekly, but we’ll see. It will be a way to share what I read and write as well as things that help me breathe more easily.

Let’s get started.

READ
Charlotte Donlon’s “The Three Rs” is one of the reasons I’m now on TinyLetter. Charlotte’s weekly newsletter highlights reading, writing and arithmetic from her days spent as a writer, MFA student, wife and mama. I’ve never hit reply on an email newsletter as often as I have on hers, and it’s been a great way to peek inside my friend’s process.

Three Cents by Manjula Martin leaves me with so much more to read, I don’t know when I’ll get through it all. (That’s a good problem to have.) She focuses on creative work, money and love in this monthly-ish newsletter. I don’t know Manjula personally, but I sometimes feel as though I do, thanks to these emails. I’m ridiculously excited for the January release of her book, “Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.”

On a similar note, I’ve preordered “Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace.” I’m resisting the urge to repeatedly email my local bookseller and ask if it’s arrived. (The book doesn’t publish till Sept. 13. Patience, CJ. Patience.) Need a healthy dose of feminism to tide you over? I’m reading “Rad American Women A to Z,” and it’s awesome. Think of it as a children’s book about women who make a difference. I bought it in the fine Asheville, N.C., bookstore Malaprops, and it originated with the lovely San Francisco bookstore City Lights. That’s an awful lot to love.

I finally read Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.” I bought the book upon its release a decade ago, but I’m prone to collecting books faster than I can read them. I picked and chose and a few chapters to teach from last semester. This semester my University of Alabama students will read most of the book during class. I have told them repeatedly, this is a book I want you to keep. It’s a treasure of writing insight and exercises.

WRITE
I believe so strongly in “Writing Tools,” in fact, that I’ll spend this semester completing the homework I assign. I wrote about that on my blog, so I won’t repeat myself here. I’ll add, though, that life as a professional writer sometimes means I focus more on inching forward than I do on the craft itself. (Sad, but true.) This is part of why I teach.

In recent weeks, I’ve poured most such energy into my journal. Journal writing used to be my favorite form of therapy, but I’ve gotten away from it in recent years. Now I start each day with 10 minutes of writing, and I haven’t yet found the words to explain how glad I am. (I’m working on it.) This Dixie Chicks blog entry is one result of that morning exercise. I’m sure some of my journal entries will end up online, but it’s beautiful to create space in which I can ramble without worry.

But of course, I still write to live, and you can find a few recent examples in reviews of “I’m Still Here” and “The Dollhouse.” As for my “real” job, I’ve spent my recent days on others’ columns and my podcast more than writingYou can find those podcasts here. I also used my recent trip to see the Dixie Chicks in England as inspiration for the travel story “How does Birmingham, England, compare to Birmingham, Alabama?”

BREATHE
Fall draws closer, but it’s still about eleventy billion degrees in Birmingham. Sitali breath is an antidote to the heat, as well as any anxiety you might face. I taught it in Friday’s class at The Yoga Circle, and I ought to incorporate it into my pre-sleep rituals. Learn more about that breath from Yoga Journal.

Thanks for reading. Based on the word-count indicator at the bottom of my screen, I had plenty to say!

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Do as I say, and as I do: Why I’ve assigned myself a semester of homework

Yes, I still prefer to write by hand. I wrote this week's homework in my journal before typing it for this post.

Yes, I still prefer to write by hand. I wrote this week’s homework in my journal before typing it for this post.

Even teachers have plenty to learn. Last week I began my seventh semester as a college instructor, and my third semester teaching advanced news writing and reporting.

A pattern has emerged over the years: The first time I teach a course, it’s a little bumpy. I’m excited but adapting to new curriculum and expectations. That semester is always special because I’m learning how to teach the course as the students learn from taking it.

The second time around, my confidence grows. I have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. The course is a bit stronger than the first time out, and there’s some magic that comes from that alchemy, too.

But there’s a danger in returning to the same material. When life and my “real job” demand more of my time, I’m tempted to coast in the classroom.

That’s a double-edged sword, at least in my opinion. A stronger command of the material means I’m better prepared to pass the knowledge onto my students. But I can’t check out of the process. Every job has its ups and downs, of course, but I want to be all in with my students every semester.

They teach me, too.

Students motivated me to join the Society of Professional Journalists, a move that paid for itself with the first event I attended. Now I serve as my chapter’s president. Thanks, students. That move bettered my life and career.

This semester’s class will add another layer to my learning. I spent the end of the summer revisiting past lesson plans and evaluating how I could improve the course. (My spring students sparked this process with helpful suggestions in the end-of-semester evaluation. We really do read those things.) I read the textbook, Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools,” and selected exercises for homework and in-class assignments.

As soon as I finished my reading, I began again with page one. I’m going to spend the next three months completing homework assignments alongside my class.

I’m prone to climbing on my soapbox, especially when it comes to writing and reporting. To me, journalism is like breathing, a sentiment I shared in the first class period. And so I’ve also lectured the students about the value of this book, and why I hope they’ll hold onto it long after semester’s end. I purchased my copy a decade ago, although I’m sorry to say I’m only now beginning to take advantage.

We read this week about beginning sentences with subjects and verbs; ordering words for emphasis; and using active verbs. We’ll discuss those tools at some length in tonight’s class, but I asked the students to complete a private assignment for tool 40, “draft a mission statement for your work.”

They emailed those mission statements to me, and I’ll use them as a reference point throughout the term. I’m copying my own statement below. It’s imperfect–everything is–and basic. I intend to return to it and refine it throughout the semester and my career. But I hope it’ll serve as a touchstone as I navigate my job, and some sort of accountability as these 16 students and I grow together.

Features are sometimes seen as puff pieces, strictly positive and shallow depictions of topics meant to entertain, not inform. There’s value in pure entertainment, but I want more. My goal is to report on stories that help readers understand their communities. That may mean a deep dive into an arts organization’s value, or a news feature that adds context to a breaking story.

I am to do this using the medium best suited for the story. That may be a traditional news article–my specialty–but could also take forms such as audio, video, slideshows, lists or social media. I want to maximize the available tools.

Because my beat is broad, it can be difficult to home in on specific assignments. Therefore, I’ll set aside time at the end of each month (perhaps two to four hours) to examine opportunities in the month ahead.

I also hope to rely heavily on a narrative approach and refine my use of writing tools, such as those outlined in Roy Peter Clark’s book by the same name.

I intend to write about class throughout the semester, both to create transparency for my interested students and to hold myself accountable as I seek my own growth. My goal is to continue growing as a reporter even as I encourage others on their paths.

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Who’s never left home? Who’s never struck out? An ode to the Dixie Chicks

“Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about?
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own,
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone?”
–Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces”

Sometimes a song can serve as an anthem or a guiding light. The Dixie Chicks were (are) that way for me.

In reality, the band’s four albums were released over the course of eight years. But I think of them now as a soundtrack to my college experience, as though they stacked upon each other to represent each class of the traditional four-year education.

The Dixie Chicks always take me back to the decisions and risks of early adulthood. Moving from my parents’ house in Jacksonville, Florida, to Dorman Hall, 177 miles away in Tallahassee, wasn’t a risk by most measures. I had a full scholarship, so I knew how my bills would be paid. Mom and Dad pledged another $300 a month for food and gas. I was on their cell phone plan.

But I didn’t know who I would meet when I arrived, besides the girl I’d soon call my roommate, a girl with whom I’d discussed matching comforters, a microwave and a shared disinterest in a television. I didn’t know who I would become.

I’m not certain now whether it’s reality or my memory rewriting history to fit a narrative, but I believe the Dixie Chicks must have been my companions on that two-and-a-half hour drive. I assume “Wide Open Spaces” was a declaration for many 18-year-old women who set their sights on new faces in the late ’90s. It was our anthem of independence.

The Dixie Chicks remained with us throughout college. My best friend and I belted out “There’s Your Trouble” with men in mind. The band’s second album, “Fly,” was released weeks into freshman year, and “Cowboy Take Me Away” became the anthem for love we hoped to find. We choreographed a line dance to “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” unaware that we’d be the only karaoke contest entrants to sing country instead of rap. It didn’t matter; the truth is, some days you do have to dance. The crowd loved us, even if the judges didn’t.

Coming to you live from atop a double decker bus: American tourists! 🙌🏻 #londonbaby

A photo posted by Carla Jean Whitley (@inkstainedlife) on

“‘Cause when the world doesn’t make no sense
And you’re feeling just a little too tense
Gotta loosen up those chains and dance”
–Dixie Chicks, “Some Days You Gotta Dance”

I gave away Dixie Chicks tickets my sophomore year. I don’t remember how I came into them, but it was a street team-esque set up. If you volunteered before the show, your admission was free.

Passing on those tickets remains one of my great regrets.

But I had regrets yet to come. That’s surely typical of decisions made at 19 and 20. At that age, I was convinced I should leave college and set out for the great unknown as soon as possible.

But I couldn’t do it without the Dixie Chicks to send me on my way.

The band’s third release, “Home,” was the only Chicks album that didn’t immediately grab me. There were tracks that did; “Long Time Gone” and “Truth No. 2” had instant appeal.

And as I prepared to leave my college town, just three years after enrolling, another song grabbed me. I know it first as a Dixie Chicks song–my lack of back catalog knowledge is embarrassing–but whether it’s the Chicks or Stevie Nicks singing, “Landslide” brings me back to the transition between college’s adulthood incubator and the rest of my life.

“Well I’m afraid of changing ’cause I built my world around you
But time makes you bolder, children get older
I’m getting older, too”
–Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide”

Through jobs and moves, cross-country road trips and existential crises, the Dixie Chicks’ music has carried me. Each album feels as fresh now as it did on release. I’d argue some songs even improve as I age.

But I still hadn’t seen the band live. The comments that sent them into a tailspin before the United States declared war in 2003 significantly reduced future opportunities. The band toured in favor support of its fourth, and, to date, final, album, but they didn’t come my way. I thought my dance had ended.

But 15 years after I gave up my chance to see the Dixie Chicks, they announced a European tour–and I decided to go.

I had never visited Europe. That, too, was one of my great regrets; if I had a college do-over, I would’ve stuck around for a fourth year and studied abroad. When I bought a pair of tickets for the band’s Birmingham, England, show, I still wasn’t sure I’d see the other side of the pond. But I could always sell the tickets if I had to. How do you put a price on a dream, anyway?

Somehow the pieces fell into place. Thanks to a friend’s Sky Miles and careful AirBNB selections, I traveled overseas with my college roommates for less than $700 each. For them, the trip was about more than a concert. And OK, it was for me, too. But the show was at the heart of my trip.

From Birmingham, Alabama, to Birmingham, UK #dixiechicksbham #londonbaby #theotherbham

A photo posted by Carla Jean Whitley (@inkstainedlife) on

The Dixie Chicks are still as high-energy and spirited as they ever were. It’s as though a decade, births, divorces and public outcry never occurred. Well, as far as their stage presences is concerned, anyway; were it not for the backlash to Natalie’s George Bush comments, some of their best material wouldn’t exist.

It was funny to see them in the country where the incident occurred. I looked around the 15,000-seat arena and wondered how the scene compared to that 2003 performance int he more intimate Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Was the crowd as reserved then as the people gathered in Birmingham? Or did the room ripple with energy?

The quiet Birmingham crowd didn’t stop us from singing every word. When “Ready to Run” was accompanied by a video mocking the U.S. presidential candidates, we joked to the Brits seated beside us that we were on our “Ready to Run” research trip. Later, when we finally rose from our seats for “Wide Open Spaces” and danced to “Sin Wagon,” one of those seemingly reserved Brits leapt to her feet as well.

I’ll see the band again this weekend, and if the North American tour had been announced sooner, I may never have made it to Europe. The trip unwound my two greatest regrets. It was a dream 15 years in the making, even if I took a round-about route.

“Well, I never seem to do it like anybody else
Maybe someday, someday I’m gonna settle down
If you ever want to find me I can still be found
Taking the long way
Taking the long way around”
–Dixie Chicks, “The Long Way Around”

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Filed under Autobiography, music, Travel

Yoga + cats = CJ, or, my epic 35th birthday party

New life goal: Become a full-time cat yoga teacher. #latergram #catsofinstagram #catsofbham #yogaeveryblessedday

A photo posted by Carla Jean Whitley (@inkstainedlife) on


There are two ways I could tell this story: by pontificating about stress relief and low blood pressure, or by telling you the truth.

OK, there’s some truth to both approaches. But let’s be real:

Birthdays merit celebration, and that’s a mission I take seriously. My expectations are especially high for milestone birthdays. I spent my 30th at a lake house with close friends and my parents, and my 18th at Walt Disney World. (By contrast, I still mourn my 21st, when I was lonely at a summer camp, and my 25th, which is the only birthday on which I worked.) And so the self-imposed pressure was on for 35. I wanted to celebrate with something I would remember.

I posted a challenge on Facebook, crowdsourcing party ideas as any social-media savvy person would. The ideas were all over the place: pajama-and-black-tie party. A 35-mile hike. (If I wasn’t born in July, I could get into that.) A death-match tournament in a bouncy boxing ring, with fighters costumed as superheroes.

But when my friend June chimed in, the answer was obvious:

June “won” herself an invitation to my birthday party.

I’d heard of cat yoga in other cities, usually at shelters. But as much as I love my city, Birmingham isn’t typically on the forefront of these trends. I thought it unlikely that I would find a place that would agree. I soon learned I had underestimated the Greater Birmingham Humane Society.

GBHS staff was thrilled by the idea; it turns out, they’d considered cat yoga already. I brought them a focus group (16 of my closest friends) and they provided eight cats.

It was everything I dreamed of.

I grinned as I walked through the room, guiding my friends through a toned-down version of my regular core strength vinyasa classes. Arm balances were out. Cat-snuggle breaks were in. The atmosphere was jubilant, and I was among some of my favorite people, my favorite animal and my favorite physical activity. (At one point, I announced, “You know you’re in a room full of people you feel safe with when you start prancing.” And prance I did.)

There’s no eloquent take-away here. But I have a hard time letting go of not-so-great memories and unmet expectations. These near-perfect moments, however, are something to cling to. I don’t believe perfect exists, but when life comes close, it’s a reminder of how much joy exists.

The prancing begins around the 36-minute mark, if you’re interested.

Join me every Friday at 4 p.m. for core strength vinyasa at The Yoga Circle in Birmingham. Find my complete yoga calendar at carlajeanwhitley.com/calendar.

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Why are podcasts still so hard to make?

Good question.

Last year I began dabbling in podcasting. Earlier this year two friends and I launched Triple Take, a podcast about the books, films and albums that shape us. Along the way, we’ve taught ourselves virtually everything we know about podcasting. It gets easier with practice, but editing each episode takes time.

This week my cohost John sent me a Medium piece, “Why are podcasts still so hard to make?,” with the hope that the app it described would cut down on my audio editing time. It won’t; what we aim for with Triple Take is more sophisticated than that app, Bumpers, can produce.

But if you’re looking for a simple way to produce a one-off audio project or a basic podcast, Bumpers may be your answer. I think of it as Videolicious for audio; you don’t need much understanding of technology or editing, but your musical options are limited.

I tested the app out by talking about one of the highlights of my week: I’ve just scheduled my cat yoga birthday party. (Yes, seriously.) Hear it for yourself below. And hey, subscribe to Triple Take in iTunes or the podcast catcher of your choice. It takes time to make, but it sure is worth it.

https://bumpers.fm/e/atip2ds5ih9g00pv8sn0

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Stop, drop and yoga (or sleep)

Yoga doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Recently an AL.com colleague, Social Media Manager Elizabeth Lowder, asked me to Snapchat a few poses for the company’s account. I selected five simple postures with end-of-day relaxation in mind. Enjoy!

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May 1, 2016 · 8:30 pm

Bend, don’t break

Camel for HellaWellaOver the years, I’ve had a few occasions to be interviewed by reporters, and let me tell you: Being on the other side of the notebook will leave you compassionate for your interview subjects. It’s both strange and flattering when someone takes interest in a journalist’s work.

My most recent experience, though, wasn’t focused on my writing: It was all about yoga.

Jennifer Dome King interviewed me about yoga poses that will alleviate pain in various parts of the body, and it was a blast. We met in Birmingham’s Railroad Park for a combined photo shoot and interview, and I love the results! (The camel photo is my favorite. That pose feels blissful to me.) Read all about it at hellawella.com. Thanks, Jen, for reaching out.

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Art shapes us. How has it formed you?

Triple Take BraggIt started with a text. My colleague John Hammontree (pictured above) messaged Edward Bowser and I in January, suggesting we collaborate on a podcast about books, music and movies and how they shape us.

John’s message was probably just that long, with few details. But it struck a nerve, and later that week we sat around a coffee-shop table to hash out what such a project could entail.

We recorded a test episode, which was a great way to confirm our hunch that we’d work well together–and that we needed to improve our audio setup. That took some time (and money) to figure out. Then we needed to book our first guest.

If we’re going to make something of this, let’s swing for the fences, we thought. We hit a grand slam when we interviewed Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, bestselling author, writing instructor and magazine columnist. I’m delighted by the results.

You can read more about the podcast and stream the first episode here, or subscribe (please subscribe!) in iTunes. We intend to release two episodes per month, and we welcome suggestions for future guests.

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We all have stories, and I believe yours matters

“Morris liked to share the books with others. Sometimes it was a favorite that everyone loved, and other times he found a lonely little volume whose tale was seldom told. ‘Everyone’s story matters,’ said Morris. And all the books agreed.”

I read “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” to my Avondale Elementary students during my final visit of the year. Once a week since October, I’ve visited them to encourage a love of reading. After the week’s book, I would distribute prizes–books!–earned by reading and completing a report on a book from their Better Basics-provided classroom library.

Two days after that classroom visit, I was to speak to a group of creatives about story at Birmingham Creative Roundtable. A light bulb went off: I should begin my talk with William Joyce’s book.

I’m passionate about story. That may be an obvious statement from a writer, but let me elaborate. I believe storytelling goes beyond the written word, beyond an oral tale. It shows up in nearly every aspect of life. Whether they were in photography, web design, branding, coffee or some other area, I told these creatives, storytelling is part of their work.

You can watch that talk in the video above, and work through your own story with guidance from this handout.

The event also motivated me to retell my own story. I focus more of my energy on telling those of others, and the about page of this site had become woefully out of date. I chose a career in writing as a child, and my motivations have been shaped by experience. (You can read more about that here.) Life as a storyteller is a step-by-step journey, and I hope my walk doesn’t end until I reach my grave.

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Filed under Autobiography, Journalism, Reading, Soapbox

The art of storytelling (and how to tell yours)

More to come soon, y’all, but I wanted to get this handout up for all those who I spoke with this morning. Thanks to Birmingham Creative Roundtable for the opportunity to share my story.

The Art of Storytelling

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