Category Archives: Journalism

Learning lessons through Sweet Home History


I love a good story, and as a result I’m a sucker for history. But that’s a love I didn’t discover until my mid-20s. I’ve spent the decade since alternately lamenting that we’re taught history before many of us care about it and catching up on all I have to relearn.

But Alabama history was never part of my formal education. Because I grew up in Florida, I studied that state in fourth grade. I left that state at age 21. Now, my bookshelves are filled with books about Birmingham and Alabama. My family has been in this area for two centuries, and I’m eager to understand it.

That’s why my friend Rachel Callahan asked me to help with her daughter Ali’s Alabama history curriculum. We brainstormed reading material over coffee, but soon another idea developed: What if I joined them as they traveled to historic sites from the state’s past?

Last month we launched Sweet Home History, a part of AL.com’s Southern Girls Project. I’ve gathered snippets from the articles published so far in the StoryMap above. Join us as Ali, Rachel, 5-year-old Noah and I learn about the state we call home.

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Filed under Autobiography, Journalism

‘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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Filed under Autobiography, Journalism, Teaching

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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Filed under Audio, Journalism

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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SPJ and I are serious

image

Swearing-in selfie

Last year I shared why I (finally) joined the Society of Professional Journalists. Last month, I became vice president of my local chapter. This is the text of my “acceptance speech,” which I sent to chapter president Meredith Cummings via text message. Want to get involved? Learn more on the chapter website and like the chapter on Facebook.

I, Carla Jean Whitley, do solemnly swear to uphold the bylaws of the Society of Professional Journalists Alabama chapter and the powers invested in me as Vice President. I will write all emails in AP style, and will fight with autocorrect but eventually give up when it insists on capitalizing things like Vice President. I will fulfill the duties of the office to the best of my ability, even if it means emailing from bed while running my essential oils diffuser and drinking herbal tea to stave off allergies. I will let Meredith know if we need to dial it back because we’re overextending ourselves, and I will discourage her from taking on any additional Twitter accounts. In the names of Pulitzer, Bernstein and Woodward, Strunk and White, amen.

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What I’m writing: April 2015

You may have noticed that my “what I’m writing” posts have dropped off. I’m not going to catch you up on everything I’ve written since (although I’ll offer a few highlights), but there has been a lot happening since my last such post in November.

Birmingham Beer title pageFirst, I wrote another book. “Birmingham Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Magic City” releases July 27. Although it’s available for pre-order via Amazon and I always appreciate your support, I’d love for you to wait and buy it from your (or my!) local bookstore. Keep more of your money in your local community. I’ll certainly update as the publication date draws near.

But more importantly, I changed jobs. After eight years at Birmingham magazine, I was ready for a new challenge. So I said my farewells, packed up my boxes and moved … across the hall.

Since late February, I’ve been a features reporter for The Birmingham News and AL.com, two of the magazine’s sister publications at Alabama Media Group. That’s probably the biggest reason I won’t link you to everything I’ve published since we last spoke–there’s simply too much of it! I’ve gone from planning, managing and editing a talented team of freelancers to chasing down stories of my own, and I couldn’t be happier.

Bottletree Cafe (art by Greg Smith, #Bham52)This return to reporting has allowed me to follow up on a Reddit post that led me to an Alabaster resident’s weekly depiction of Birmingham and write a thank-you letter to one of Birmingham’s beloved music venues. When we received a press release about an architecture art exhibit, it sparked a trip down memory lane to Birmingham’s Terminal StationI’ met the youngest musician in the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and learned how the organization is working to attract millennial patrons.

I also expect the future to include many stories in Birmingham magazine, where I most recently wrote the January cover story.

The Promise of the $20,000 HouseOf course, I continue to freelance a bit, which always results in something worth talking about. January’s Paste magazine story allowed me a mental field trip to Seattle, where I’ve enjoyed the city’s many delicious breweries, and Boston, which is high on my to-visit list. BookPage offered me the chance to interview Judith Claire Mitchell, author of the hilariously dark “A Reunion of Ghosts.”

And February brought my most popular article ever, “The Promise of the $20,000 house” for The Atlantic’s CityLab.

Y’all, I’m living the dream. And I suspect there’s still more to come.

Want more? I try to keep my “What I’m Writing” Pinterest board up to date even when I’m not sharing it here. 

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If I knew then what I know now

It’s possible I’m too honest with my students.

Before I handed back graded assignments tonight, I addressed a common error throughout. But even as I explained why it’s so important to keep an eye out for this issue, I offered a confession: “I suspect some of this is a result of end-of-the-semester busyness or laziness. I get that. I would do the same.”

The truth is, I was a mediocre college student. My grades weren’t bad–I was an A/B student and would have lost my scholarship if my GPA dropped too low. But I wasn’t particularly concerned about my grades, I skipped as many classes as possible without academic retribution and I often thought I knew more than my professors. (Oh, the ego.)

So I can understand where my students are coming from when they get a little lax with AP style. But if I had it to do over again, I’d try to be more like the kids I teach:

I’d show up to every class and ask tons of questions.

I’d stick around after class to show the teacher my resume and ask how I could improve it.

I’d ask professors with experience in my field about how they built their careers.

I’d figure out whose career path looked most like what I wanted, and I’d study his or her work.

I’d use my class assignments as opportunities to further those end goals.

I figured a lot of that out by the time I entered grad school (and the fact that I was bankrolling that degree didn’t hurt). But the kids I work with are several years younger, and they consistently impress me. They’ve got their strengths and weaknesses, sure, and not everyone is taking each of these steps. (Then again, not everyone wants to follow my career path.) My goal as a teacher is not only to impart knowledge according to the class syllabus, but also to encourage my students to get as much as they can out of their college careers.

But if I had it to do again, there’s at least one thing I surely wouldn’t change: I’d still prioritize life experience over grades. After all, no one cares now about my GPA.*

 

*If you’re wondering, I finished my bachelor’s with something like a 3.4, and my master’s with a 3.6. But if I, the girl who can still rattle off her SAT and ACT scores and takes pride in her GRE logic score, am not confident in those numbers, it probably says something about how much your GPA matters down the road.

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Filed under Be true to your school, Journalism

Abandon perfection

Fallen star and the first amendment, just for funsies

Fallen star and the first amendment, just for funsies

As I wound my way through rows of bodies bending and waving through a non-pose called ninja lunges, I reminded 16 yoga students that this shape wasn’t supposed to look like anything in particular. “Perfection is a myth,” I told them. “Seek the stretch and benefit your body craves today.

That’s the deeper truth that calls me back to my yoga mat, day after day. When I’m moving through the postures, I’m acutely aware that today’s crescent lunge isn’t as deep as yesterday’s, or that my tree may not be as stable tomorrow. Yoga stretches my expectations and pulls me away from my normal OCD, to-do list mentality.

And then I quickly return to my type-A, follow-the-rules career. Journalism appealed to me over fiction because the rules are well established and the stories are there for the asking. I love the blend of science (the rules) and art (the telling).

I often let the rules–or a fear of not following them to a T–keep me from taking challenges with the art. Please don’t mistake me, guidelines help us refine and focus. But a story without heart isn’t much of a story at all.

I invite my yoga students into the release of perfection I’ve found. My journalism students, however, need the same freedom.

“Both require a commitment to practice rather than perfection; reward risk-taking rather than hesitation; flourish with timely but limited suggestions that encourage rather than frustrate; are active all-at-once activities that are learned by doing; and remain difficult no matter how long you’ve been doing them.” —Megan Fulwiler, “On Yoga and Teaching Writing,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education 

It’s not as though I can abandon grading rubrics and expectations, deadlines and AP Style quizzes. Those are requirements of the job for which I’m preparing them, and this is a college class, after all. But as I’ve spent more time practicing yoga, my desire to share its benefits with other writers has grown. These aspiring journalists, especially, crave encouragement and guidance. Even while I cover their work with red ink, I hope I can bring some of my yoga practice to the page.

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