The last class

April 28, 2010

I’ve announced this in class several times, but neglected to post it: we will not be meeting Monday, May 3. Today was the last class.

Some closing thoughts on the semester

April 28, 2010

If you’ve learned one thing this semester, I hope it’s that opinion writing that is persuasive grows out of factual reporting. As you grow as writers and readers, you this will become more and more evident. I have great hope for the Internet and the possibilities that it offers for individual writers to publish and maybe even make money. It helps that all of you will have access to relatively cheap video cameras and editing tools. The electronic book may have dynamic graphics and video interviews and lots of pictures.

See this post by Erika Moyer.

And Mildred Scott for art with a piece on national parks

Writers will need strong skills in order to make themselves heard and seen. Writing is not going away.

Some of the highlights of the class blogs:

Callie Thompson’s piece on HPV that was republished in the Houston Chronicle showed what an opinion writer an do by telling a personal story. She has also published two more pieces with the Daily Cougar.

Jose Aguilar’s consistent energetic blogging on gblt and Hispanic issues. Funny and informative and full of personality.

Gordon Furneaux on personal turmoil

Diane Burkett on family

Travis Masterson’s piece about the GI Bill 

Gisela Bueno with her consistent theme of Hispanic issues

Jared Luck’s book review of Motoring with Mohammed

David Brooks on the GOP

Cecilia Smith for attitude and title: “Black Irish Ramblings: The thoughts of a little mixed yellow girl.”

Gavie Valerio on adventures in a lingerie shop

Michelle  Villareal on the campus rape story

Closing to the finish line

April 26, 2010

What I’m looking for in the second half of the semester:

1) Two reviews. Could be of a film, a performance, a book, etc. Tell the story within the story.

2) Three columns. These should have some coherence or continuity. The subject matter should not be all over the place. First person can be used, but not for purposes of ranting. The columns should tell a story. Even better, they should tell the story within the story. 

Deadlines: The last date is Tuesday, May 11 at 2. That’s the final exam. I’ll be grading then.

Extra credit: 

Revise a piece that went poorly. Repost it and label it as a re-write.

More blog posts in keeping with your theme from the first part of the semester.

A sample column

April 19, 2010

The View from the Fifth Ward

Arguing for a cause through a personal story

April 14, 2010

Here’s Leonard Pitts on why he’s marching to help wipe out breast cancer. Like Callie Thompson, he tells a personal story. It’s a tricky thing to do. Most of us don’t have enough personal stories to sustain a column. But once in a while w personal story will be exactly the right thing to tell.

If it’s not a personal story, you need to tell a story that might be pieced together from the news. This is what Frank Rich is so good at. He watches the political stories and then weave them together as though he were watching a theatrical performance. As Jim Hightower said, “Politics is  show business for ugly people.”

What’s the story about?

April 14, 2010

Columns are like news stories. They must be sharply focused. You’ve got to tell the reader up high what the story is about. You don’t have to say everything that the story is about. That’s why you need several hundred words. But you need to signal what the story is about. We’ve got two interesting pieces about the helicopter gunship video in today’s Daily Cougar that have problems along those lines. One is a news story and the other is an opinion piece.

The news story is about a UH grad student who blogged about the leaked video.  His posting went viral, as the saying goes. 

Through these three pieces, we’ll get into what’s the story about.

One more word about film criticism

April 7, 2010

Jared Luck pointed out a good piece by the New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott last Sunday about the death knell of criticism. It tells the story of the failure of his television show with the Chicago Tribune critic, Michael Phillips, and the larger implications of the increasingly fractionalized audiences that writers try to reach.

“One minute for the cross-talk, guys,” the producer would say, using the show’s term of art for the back-and-forth that follows the scripted reviews. How can you do a movie justice in 60 seconds? You can’t, of course — or in 800 words of print or in a blog post — but you can start a conversation, advance or rebut an argument, and give people who share your interest something to talk about.

And that kind of provocation, that spur to further discourse, is all criticism has ever been. It is not a profession and does not stand or fall with any particular business model. Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life — a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them. As such, it is always apt to be misunderstood, undervalued and at odds with itself. Artists will complain, fans will tune out, but the arguments will never end.

Scott believes that criticism will persist in one form or another. I think he’s right. The arguments will never end.

On writing columns

April 7, 2010

For many reporters, getting a column is the pinnacle of a career. It didn’t used to be that way. Leon Hale started writing a column at the Houston Post in the late 1940s as a second task. His first priority was to cover farm news. As he went around the small towns gathering news he also listened to stories and started writing about people and places he knew and liked. The columns reflected the rural nature of Texas. Houston was full of people from small towns who could relate to Hale’s stories about growing up in various places around West Texas. He went to World War II, he came to Houston and married and started a family. He never wrote about politics. He never sold anything in his columns. I started reading him in the Houston Post in the 1950s. Eventually I wrote a profile of him for a magazine in 1984 when he was in his 60s. It’s posted at the right, under pages. Please pull it down and read it. I think it will give you some insight in writing. And I hope you’ll look for him on Sundays in the Chronicle.

Of course, times change and columnists change. Leon Hale was the right columnist at the right time. Houston was a much different city when he came here after the war. 

So what are you going to write for your three columns?

Pick a theme. Are you going to write about politics, sports, culture, ethnicity? Find a broad theme about which you know something. Read some columnists. Who are the best at what you’re interested in? You could write a column about why they’re good. I like Frank Rich, the former NY Times theater critic who has become a Sunday political columnist for the Times. Rich and his editors figured out that politics is a kind of theater, and that Rich can interpret the scripts and delineate the scenes in the national political theater as well as he could review the plays on Broadway. 

When Lisa Gray visits next Monday, you should have read some of her recent columns in the Chronicle. You will see her theme is the culture of Houston. She’s interested in architecture, the environment, the placeness of the place. Check out all the Chronicle  columnists here.

A courageous and generous opinion piece

April 7, 2010

Yesterday I e-mailed you about Callie Thompson’s piece  on sexually transmitted diseases in the Daily Cougar.  I copied my colleague David McHam about it. David does not throw superlatives around lightly. He write me back: “I think the piece in the Cougar today was the best ever since I’ve been here. And perhaps the best opinion piece I ever saw in a college newspaper. Please pass along my compliments to Ms. Thompson.” 

I did, of course. 

The courageous part has to do with writing about her own experience. The generous part has to do with sharing a personal story that would help others. But we should also look at how the story is put together. It is extremely well written, but not in a way that calls attention to the writing. It tells a story. And it gives a warning. It serves the reader.

Writing as architecture

March 31, 2010

Writing of any kind requires form. Think of it as architecture. If an architect designs a house, she usually includes certain fundamental things: a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and maybe a dining room, breakfast nook, patio, entry hall, garage and so forth.  Then the architect has to create a plan that incorporates these elements. Certain rules have evolved over the years. Often a bathroom can be found on the other kitchen, so the plumbing can be shared. The bedrooms are situated at the back of the house, away from street noise, and so on.

In your reviews you should concentrate on the architecture of the piece. You know you’ll need description. Think of description as a kind of quotation. Dialogue can be quoted, of course, as when the prison manager torments Cook Hand Luke after he escapes, and says “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Or when Harrison Ford tells the U.S. Marshal in The Fugitive, “But I’m innocent” and the marshal (Tommy Lee Jones) says, “I don’t care.”

But movies are more often about what happens on the screen: the shower scene in Psycho, the monster that bursts out of the John Hurt’s  stomach in Alien, and so forth. That’s why it’s so important to plan a descriptive paragraph or two for a review. 

Plan it as deliberately as an architect plans where to put the bedroom. 

This is the difference between writing and blogging. Blogging is more like a stream of consciousness, a stream, a river of thoughts, often quick and improvisational.

Writing for print requires planning and architecture. Form is another word for it. And the handiest form to use is the news story. Think about the form of the news story: 1) a lead that grabs the attention 2) background that amplifies the lead and 3) quotation. 

The quotation doesn’t have to be long, but it needs to be emotionally charged, like the quotation Gordon Furneaux used in his review of the HBO series on the war in the Pacific:

“For those of you who are lucky enough to get home for Christmas, hold your loved ones dearly, join them in prayers for peace on earth and goodwill towards all men, and then report back here, ready to sail across God’s vast ocean, where we will meet our enemy, and kill them all.”

So ask yourself. When you write, do you set out with a plan, or do you just improvise and hope something good comes out? Step back and sketch out a diagram or an outline for the piece. Take your writing to the next level.