Category Archives: Writing

ICMA Day 2: American Heroes


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Art Cullen, Iowa´s most recent Pulitzer winner.

Art Cullen certainly cuts a dashing figure for an old man—and I can say that as a man of approximately the same vintage.

The editor of “The Storm Lake Times,” Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last year, and spoke to the INA and ICMA conventions Friday. He won the prize for a series of editorials hat attacked Buena Vista County, of which Storm Lake is the county seat, for secrecy in a legal fight with the Des Moines Water Works over nitrate pollution.

As Cullen says, it´s pretty self evident that Iowa´s waters are badly polluted, but it takes some courage for a small-town journalist in Iowa to point out that unpleasant reality. In that place, it´s a gutsy thing to do.

Cullen represents a pure view of what a journalist is and does. He and his brother John, who publish the paper, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, although Art noted he handles more of the afflicting. “I am the bad cop, he is the good one,” he said.

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Art Cullen.

Bravo for Art and his little paper. But even with a Pulitzer Prize, he notes his readers care more about whether he has spelled their daughter´s name correctly. And he says the challenge for the Times is to figure out how to appeal to a growing Hispanic population in the paper´s market, or it will be game over in five years.

I hope he manages it. He´s a heroic journalist, and I wish him the continued success he deserves. Watch for his book, coming out this fall.

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MMU Times Editor Connor Mahan listens to Art Cullen speak.

A somewhat different brand of courage was on display in the morning, when Jim Olson, a retired CIA spy from Iowa, entertained the INA and ICMA crowd with his tales from his exciting careen. Olson noted that spying is an important service to the country, and one that will always be needed. But, in response to a question at the end, he also noted that our current president is doing a great disservice by attacking the intelligence agencies because he doesn´t like some of the information they are finding.

Sure, the memo, but that´s fake vindication from a lying party. I would dearly love to hear what Art Cullen says about that.

The new motto of “The Washington Post” is that “democracy dies in darkness.” In their own ways, I suppose, both Olson and Cullen worked to dispel darkness, but I do have some fondness for Cullen´s way of serving the country. It is easy to honor a public servant like Olson, but there is the complication that not everything our government did or does is honorable. Of course, not all journalists are honorable, either, but the way Art does it, journalism is.

We finished the ICMA convention with ice cream. Instead of attending a final session, I offered students with me a chance to go tour the Iowa Capitol. Which we did, and we had a great time.

It felt like a fitting end to our ICMA experience. Now, it is time to get back to work, to again start comforting and afflicting, each in our own way aiding democracy.

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As Art Cullen speaks, Brian Steffen of ICMA and Simpson College, covers the event on Twitter.

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Fairy Tales and Poignant Memories: ICMA Day 1


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MMU Times Editor Connor Mahan and Managing Editor Madelyn Orton at ICMA conference.

We had some great presentations on the first day of the Iowa College Media Association Convention in Des Moines. The most memorable moment came after the ICMA awards ceremony, when the state media’s association annual Eighmey Award, for a person in Iowa who has aided college media, went to Pat Pisarik of Loras College in Dubuque.

The award was voted on before Oct. 30 of last year, when sadly and unexpectedly, Pat passed away. His family was there to receive his honor. And ICMA renamed it’s “student journalist of the year award” as the “Pat Pisarik Student Journalist of the Year.”

It was a touching event, and his family received a standing ovation from the association.

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Son of Pat Pisarik at ICMA ceremony.

Earlier, Tim Harrower, a national icon in the world of newspapers who wrote the classic text on design and also a popular text on reporting, gave ICMA’s keynote address.

Using a fairy tale theme, Harrower retold stories such as “Chicken Little” to be entertaining fables about modern journalism (Chicken Little ends up working for a conglomerate that produces fried chicken and finds “another way to serve readers.”).

In his version of the “Fox and the Grapes,” the fox gets angry that too many grapes lean left, so Fox plants his own vineyard where all of the grapes lean right.

Yes, I loved it. A keynote address full of the kind of “dad jokes” that make my wife and children chuckle or groan, but it was also full of insight and wisdom.

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Hand of Tim Harrower.

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Tim Harrower.

Harrower had us all raise our hands and swear never to lie lest we be eaten by wolves. In today’s world of social media alternative facts, it’s more important than ever that journalists be truth tellers, even if the audience seems to be struggling to distinguish truth from Fake News of the kind perpetrated by Foxes and fake presidents.

At one point, Harrower gave advice to students on how to land a job. He noted that he was in a position to hire for the largest paper in Oregon, and he confessed he never cared about GPA nor even which school an applicant came from. There are two keys to landing a media job, he says: “10 great clips and a pleasant personality.”

“I’ve talked with a lot of talented geniuses that I would not hire because I didn’t want to have lunch with them,” he said.

As a professor, I would hasten to add that grades matter to some employers, and certainly have some impact on scholarships and recognition, so don’t totally relax too much, students. But the importance of grades really is whether they are symptom of learning—if they show that you got out of each experience what you could. Because, frankly, Harrower is right—they may be part of some employer’s screening of applications, but for the most part, they don’t really matter in terms of getting a job.

It’s more than journalism. For PR, graphic design, technical writing, TV, radio—any form of professional communication, remember his advice. The “clips” may be a photo gallery or web site or audio stories or a demo “tape” (we really have to work on updating that language, even “clips” these days are usually PDFs), but you land that first job with a smile and conversation and 10 great samples of what you can do.

And samples from student media, the MMU Times, and an internship or internships, always mean way more than any class work.

So what do you with the advice? Mr. Harrower offered further words.

“When a good story comes along, jump on it with both feet,” he said, adding that you report the heck out of it and produce a great story, great pictures, an online video, etc.

“That gives you one,” he noted, going on to repeat that you need to do it nine more times.

For me, the great disappointment of the day was that MMU did not win any ICMA awards. I need to find out what happened—I’m hoping there was not a glitch with our entries, but I am suspicious, because we’ve never been totally skunked in the past and there were good stories and materials in our contest entries. In particular, the winning front page displayed at the contest was, in my very biased opinion, not better then the page we had entered. Assuming we were in the running for awards, that there was not glitch, however, the take away is that we need to up our game, especially online.

Earlier in the afternoon, we participated in a media tour, and chose to go to the Register’s downtown newsroom. I had been there before, but it was worth seeing their Star Trek like control area and the banks of desks with a window view of the Capitol’s golden dome. The students who were with me really enjoyed it.

And one of our tour guides was Kyle Munson, whose “Kyle Munson’s Iowa” is one of the highlights of The Des Moines Register. I got to take a picture of him perched on a chair in a hallway to speak to an ICMA crowd. It was a totally fan boy moment, and I loved it.

All in all, day one would have been better with a few awards for Times staff writers, but it was still a day with many outstanding events. I’m glad we came, and I have just one thought about the contest: 10 great clips—we need to produce multiple, better stories. Students, they can get you a job, and, it is to be hoped, they can get your newspaper some prizes.

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Connor and Maddie listen at ICMA.

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When a Student Teaches the Teacher


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Jennifer Perrine speaks April 6 at Mount Mercy.

When writing professor Jennifer Perrine read some of her poetry tonight at Mount Mercy University, one student surprised her a little with some discerning observations—about, for example, how two of Perrine’s poems seem connected, one being a bit of a sequel to the other.

It was a connection the poet had not intended, but recognized when the student asked about it.

“You’re teaching me things,” Perrine said. “I enjoy that.”

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Detail of cover of Perrine’s book, “No Confession, No Mass.”

I enjoyed Perrine teaching us some new things in her poetry reading. I like clever use of language, and I felt many of her poems contained interesting and provocative verbal juxtapositions.

She noted that she when she began writing poetry, it was often about love, and one of her poems was written to a lover who was a tooth grinder. She called that act a “meditation on the erosion of the body” and noted how “we learned to sleep with that hum of friction.”

In years of writing love poems, she noted some themes echo—one being the lover as a magician or con artist. In one poem, she said: “I trade my bones for your balm.” That’s a neat line.

One form of poetry she has explored is the “aubade,” the morning love song. “If we can’t hold back the morning, we will lean into it,” she wrote. Also, because when a lover has to face the separation of another work day there is always some regret: “We invent new languages where every word means ‘night.’”

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Author’s hands holding her book as she reads.

These are just snippets of poems, I know, but I appreciate the way in which the words are layered, sounding and working together to create lyrical, interesting thoughts. I’m a strictly prose writer, so a poet has some challenge in holding my interest, but by that narrow standard, Perrine was a winner.

She also noted how, early in her writing career, she absorbed what she said was the wrong message: That a poet should not write about politics. She read from a poignant poem that spoke of her celebration of her 21st birthday in a gay bar the same day that Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming. Shepard, targeted for the killing because he was a homosexual, was himself only 21 when he died.

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Perrine signs books.

The poem, she noted, was partly fictional, because while she did celebrate her 21st birthday in a gay bar the day he died, she did not learn of the murder until the next day. Still, she captured the kind of shock a crowd can suffer when unexpected bad news spreads. In her imaging of a bar crowd’s reaction to the murder, a TV is turned up and the crowd falls silent: “A chorus of coughs trudges uncomfortably around the room.”

It was an interesting, enlightening night. And at the end of it, when students were asking questions, one asked her what she likes to do when she is not writing—a question that took her a little aback. “That is a good question,” she said. “Nobody ever asks me that.”

She hikes and she gardens. Well, those sound like good things, noted the man whose blog is partly called “garden.”

After the program, I returned to my office to pack some things for the ride home. As I headed outside to unlock my bike, I turned on my bike helmet headlight to see. As I was standing in the shadowy spot where the bike rack is located next to Warde Hall, I heard furtive, slightly nervous laughter.

“We thought you were a ghost,” said Mary Vermillion, English professor who was returning to Warde Hall with Perrine. “We were just talking about the paranormal.”

I’m not a ghost yet. But I would gladly play one in a Perrine poem, if it came to that. And I don’t aspire to always be normal, so I’ll take the “para” as a compliment. Somehow, it seemed like the right note to end the night on, so I hopped on my bike, partly packed with petite fours I had absconded with for my wife and daugher. I pedaled off into the night.

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I’ll Admit I Was Distracted By Their Shoes


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Mary Vermillion, professor of English at Mount Mercy University, speaks at the Writers Resist event at Coe College.

I attended an interesting event Jan. 15 at Coe College. It was “Writers Resist,” part of a national movement. The day before Martin Luther King Day, writers gathered to “defend the ideas of a free, just and compassionate democratic society.”

Donald Trump was never mentioned by name, but he was sort of the patron nemesis of the event.

The first writer to speak was Mary Vermillion, one of my faculty colleagues at Mount Mercy University. She read a poem she recently wrote, and then a prose piece that described her coming out in the early 1990s.

One powerful part of Mary’s prose piece, I thought, was the connection she had with her father, who shared some of his Korean War experience to her as a way of trying to be authentic with who he is, just as his daughter was being honest about who she is.

I didn’t take notes during the writers’ readings, but I did feel like I was among kindred spirits. They read some Whitman, some contemporary poetry, some original works of both prose and poetry. One Coe student sang a song she had written the day before.

One reaction I had to the event was a sense of hope. Even as the culture cools to change, these people aren’t going anywhere. They are steadfast in standing up for expression and honesty and tolerance.

And they wore an interesting variety of shoes, too.

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A Heart Breaker Warms Our Hearts


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“I wanted to break your heart.” Cristina Henriquez, author of “The Book of Unkown Americans.”

Cristina Henriquez, the author of “The Book of Unknown Americans,” is up-front about it. She says she was inspired to write the book because, when immigration became a horribly hot political potato several years ago, her mother remarked to her that “no newspaper is going to call your pop about his story.”

And, she thought, as a storyteller, a fiction writer with an MFA from the University of Iowa, she could do something about that—tell a story about people who live lives like her father’s, who immigrated to the U.S. from Panama.

So she wrote “The Book of Unknown Americans,” and sent a copy to her mother.

Who called her up and asked: “Is something wrong with you?”

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The book.

I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it, but the book does not end happily for all of its major characters. And many readers struggle through tears at the end as tragedy strikes.

But, Henriquez says, that means she did the work she wanted to do as a writer. She wanted to write a book that would make people feel the human experience that immigrants have. And, speaking for herself, she says she enjoys the emotional release that many works of fiction provide when the end isn’t sweet.

She says a happy ending wouldn’t have suited this story. And, she said several times during her appearance Oct. 6 at Mount Mercy University: “I wanted to break your heart.”

image-of-logo-colorThe English program at MMU sponsors an annual visiting writer series, and this year, chose a writer who is also part of our Fall Faculty Series: “Building Walls, Building Bridge: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation.”

I was fortunate enough to attend both her author talk about writing at 3:30 p.m. in Betty Cherry, and her book excerpt reading at 7 p.m. in the Chapel of Mercy. My wife and I required the novel in a class we teach this fall, and we were thus invited to a dinner with the author, too.

Well, it was a pretty fantastic day, so full of interesting conversations, quotes and excellent points about writing that I almost feel at a loss to sum it up. But Cristina advised that she sometimes just writes not to tell the story, but to find the story—putting together one sentence at a time. I’ll try to take that advice and at least cover some highlights of her heart-warming visit to MMU.

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Cristina Henriquez speaks in Betty Cherry Heritage Hall at MMU.

So, on with some random impressions and thoughts from the afternoon and evening:

The novel Cristina wrote is narrated by various characters, primarily Alma—a Mexican woman who has just come to the U.S. with her daughter Maribel and husband Arturo—and Mayor, a 16-year-old resident of the apartment complex in Delaware that the family moves to.

The novel is partly a love story between Maribel and Mayor, but Maribel has suffered a brain injury, and while she improves during the year the novel covers, Cristina said she didn’t think Maribel was ready to narrate her own chapter. Instead, she serves as the center of the story, the thing around which all of the other characters and plot revolve.

My wife was with me at the evening reading, and wrote down on my notepad something Cristina said of Maribel that she stated was in an early draft but didn’t make it into the final novel: “Life is a party, and she (Maribel) didn’t realize she had been invited to it.”

Cristina dedicated the book to her father and was inspired by him to write it, although the story it tells is very different from her father’s experience. During her evening reading, it became apparent it was partly personal to her life, too. Of the four excerpts she read, three were narrated by Mayor, whom she described as her favorite character—and the original character of the book, the one who narrates its opening line where the writing of the book began.

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Mary Vermillion. At one point during the reading, the author struggled where to find a passage. “It’s on page 251,” Mary said. And she was right. An English Prof with super powers.

I’m paraphrasing here—I don’t have Mary Vermillion’s knowledge of the book, and the family copy my wife and I read is in her office somewhere—but Cristina said one excerpt from Mayor had what she considered the most personal line of the book. Mayor, it turns out, is stuck between cultures, an American boy who isn’t allowed by American culture to be fully American, a member of a Panamanian family who had too few memories from his early life in another country to really be Panamanian. “I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt, and I wasn’t allowed to feel the thing I could claim,” Mayor sort of said (again, paraphrasing from notes without the book in hand.)

It turns out that passage, which sent a “jolt of electricity” through Cristina when she wrote it, described a key part of her life. Growing up the daughter of a Panamanian father, Cristina from an early age frequently visited Panama and even gained Panamanian citizenship. Nonetheless she was really a Delaware girl whose high school peers on the East Coast often derided and teased her for being “foreign” even though she’s as thoroughly American as Joe Sheller or Donald Trump.

Her American cohort teased her for being Panamanian. Her Panamanian cousin told her she was a “gringa.”

I suppose most of us in our teen years struggle with fitting in, with understanding who we are and what our place is in the world. But one reason to recognize that we aren’t past a few hard conversations about race and ethnicity in this country is simply this: In unsubtle ways, too many White Americans instinctively think of White as American.

Hence the unknown Americans.

Well, I don’t mean that the sessions about this sometimes sad novel were themselves heavy or sad. Quite the opposite—the voices that the book is written in are actually pretty bright and conversational, and, as it turned out, that seems to fit the speaking style of the author of the book, too.

It was easy to like Cristina Henriquez. I can tell her novel already won over my wife, because there are several other Henriquez books that suddenly showed up in our bedroom “read” pile—when my wife likes a book, she tends to find and buy other books by the same author, which is usually a pretty good strategy.

And my wife and I were both almost bubbly when telling our daughter of the day’s events after we got home. Cristina’s warm and genuine stories clearly appealed to both of us.

Henriquez had plenty to say about the writing process, too. Her book went through something like 20 revisions over the course of five years. When she wrote it, she didn’t clearly know what would happen in the story, and she says that is the way she does her best writing. If it’s all mapped out before the writing starts, the results tend to be a bit artificial and lifeless, she said.

She urged students to write not to tell stories, but to discover stories. She said it’s like having the courage to jump off a cliff, but the results are worth it.

She also noted that once you create something and release it into the world, it becomes the world’s.

“It’s not mine anymore,” she said of her book. “What happens to it now is beyond me.”

Well, one thing that happened to it is that the book did touch many hearts in Cedar Rapids, which explains why the events today at MMU were so packed. See more of my pictures here. Well done, heart breaker, well done.

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Connor, an MMU student journalist, gets a copy of the book signed.

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