A new home for my travel writing

Hello, all! As you may know, I once used this website to chronicle my recent travels around the country and the world. However, I recently decided to separate the personal from the professional — which means all of my travel writing has moved to a new website, everywherewoman.com. I hope you’ll hop on over there and subscribe so you never miss a post!

From now on, this website will serve as a mostly static online resume, with occasional work- and writing-related blog posts.

Cheers! ✌🏼

Recent work, 2020 edition

It’s been a while — five years, to be exact — since I took time to reflect on some of my favorite recent stories. I don’t often get a chance to look back on past work. As a full-time writer at Brown University, I’m always juggling a few stories each week. Most often, I’m immersed in the story up until the moment it’s published, when I immediately release it from my thoughts and pivot to the next item on the agenda.

But there are a few stories that stick with me for a bit longer. Sometimes, the subject matter is so engrossing that I keep reading about it after the fact. Other times, I’ll hit it off with an interviewee and I’ll get inspired to dig into their past work. Still other times, I’m just plain proud of my writing, and I spend a day or two basking in the glow of a job well done.

Here are a few of the stories I’ve enjoyed sharing recently.

Creating a lifelong singer

Choral music is a longtime passion of mine — I’ve been singing in groups since I was 13 — so I was thrilled when Chorus America staff reached out two years ago and asked if I was interested in contributing to their quarterly magazine, The Voice.

I was especially thrilled to write this article on how youth chorus directors can turn their singers into lifelong choir enthusiasts. My parents practically dragged me to my first choir rehearsal kicking and screaming, but not long afterward, I became a true believer. Singing in groups has had such a positive impact on my life that these days, when I move to a new city, seeking out a choir to join is my first order of business.

This wasn’t the kind of writing I was used to. Over the years, I’ve turned out hundreds of 500- to 800-word stories that draw from a small handful of interviews and other sources. But six-page features involving a dozen interviews and hours of research? That was unfamiliar territory. I’ve learned some valuable lessons about scheduling, outlining and planning from this freelance experience — and I’ve carried those lessons with me to my new job, where I’m often engaged in big writing projects with multiple stakeholders.

A year in Rhode Island & Two years in Rhode Island

The nearly three years I lived in Colorado were probably the healthiest, most balanced and most contented years of my life so far. Perhaps that’s why the transition from the Rockies to the Ocean State has felt, well, a little rocky. Ever since Ian and I arrived in Rhode Island in the middle of the 2018 bomb cyclone, I’ve had mixed feelings about this place — its weather, its people and its traditions. How can a place be so proud of its past, yet so mired in corruption? Why are its residents so devoted to drinking iced coffee, even in the depths of winter?  I had fun thinking about the many contradictions and colorful characters of this state as I reminisced on one year of adventures. Then, a year later, I reassessed my relationship with the state and found it had grown on me.

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RaMell Ross heads to the Oscars

In 2019, four of the 10 documentary films that were nominated for Academy Awards were created by people with ties to Brown University — proof positive that this school’s reputation for welcoming and nurturing outside-the-box creative minds is well earned. The documentary filmmaker RaMell Ross, who in 2019 was a professor of the practice at Brown, had a whirlwind year following the release of his “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.” I snuck in a half-hour phone call with him just as he touched down in Los Angeles for a week of talk show appearances, dinners, galas and meetings leading up to the Oscars. Given the weighty subject matter of his films, I didn’t expect to be laughing through the entire interview, but that’s exactly what happened.

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Students find contemporary connections to ancient text in ‘Antigones’ course

It’s been 10 years since I graduated from college, and I still miss the undergraduate experience every day. I was one of those students who loved learning for the sake of it. Even though I majored in journalism, I ventured far outside my course requirements for my own pleasure, dabbling in German, paleobiology, Russian literature and music history. Today, as a staff writer at Brown, I’m lucky enough to get to relive that student experience on a regular basis.

The comparative literature course “Antigones” was one of those courses I would have been dying to take as an undergrad. It involved a close study of Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old play, along with several contemporary adaptations ranging from graphic novels to experimental theater scripts. It culminated in a short performance of students’ own adaptations. I loved how their performances shed new light on the play’s timeless commentary on gender, social class and protest.

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Azulejos and calçadas: The story behind Portugal’s tile art

The tiles of Portugal have become Instagram darlings in the last few years. It’s easy to appreciate their beauty, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find out much about their history. I spent a few hours researching the Portuguese empire’s historical preference for tiles, which dates back to one leader’s love of Moorish design. Then, I went down a deep internet rabbit hole trying to find out more about the history behind the intricate tiled sidewalks all over Portugal and its former colonies around the world. Turns out they came into being as a result of a king’s weird obsession with white and a subsequent catastrophic earthquake. You know you want to click on that link to learn more.

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Students, alumni celebrate accomplishments, anniversaries in procession

Working at the 250-year-old Brown University has introduced me to a fascinating world of quirky, venerable traditions that didn’t really exist at the University of Oregon, my alma mater. At Brown, there’s an annual holiday concert performed entirely in Latin; students and faculty alike embrace the legend of the fictional Josiah Carberry, professor of “psychoceramics”; and the logistics surrounding the century-old Commencement procession are so wonderfully complex that they need an explainer page.

The procession, in all its sceptered and top-hatted glory, is something you really have to witness to appreciate — which is why I felt daunted by the task of bringing this tradition to life in a story. I’m proud of the way I made it work by weaving together university history, inspiring student stories (including a father-daughter duo who graduated and walked in the procession together!) and fun bits of color.

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Cyrano de Bergerac is the hero we need right now

I love interviewing professional actors. I find that they’re not only incredibly honest and passionate but also incredibly articulate — which makes sense, given it’s their job! For three seasons, I managed public relations for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and I had so many compelling conversations with its actors and directors. I was particularly taken aback by the honesty and candor of Scott Coopwood, who played lead roles in “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

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Notes from 1958

I was incredibly fortunate to be working for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival as it celebrated its 60th season and completed its second tour through Shakespeare’s complete canon of plays — benchmarks that few other American festivals have met. As we prepared to promote the season, I sifted through the festival history I could find — old programs, news clips and photos — and realized that many of the young actors featured in that first festival in 1958 were likely still alive today. I spent several hours tracking a handful of them down, and I’m so glad I did: They had some fascinating stories to share, and some had gone on to achieve monumental success. Over the course of the summer, I ran a short series of condensed interviews with the original cast and crew. I don’t know if they were my most widely read stories, but they sure were among the most fun to put together.

Boat Building GIF by Brown University - Find & Share on GIPHY

Boatbuilding course at Brown includes equal parts discussion and construction

Here’s another course I would have been eager to take as an undergraduate — although I’m not sure my construction skills would have been up to par! In “Boatbuilding: Design, Making and Culture,” students bonded as they read up on the history of boatbuilding and skilled labor and then made an actual wooden boat that floats. I loved that this course gave engineering students an opportunity to appreciate the role cultural context plays in the building process, while it gave students in the humanities a chance to work with their hands.

Mariners ArtsNight - by Jill Kimball for Classical KING FM

Recent work, 2015 edition

After a few years working in the arts, I’ve stopped thinking in terms of the calendar year. To me, the year begins in September and ends in May, rising and falling in tandem with the concert seasons I follow closely. The months in between are for projects, parties, and pontificating. Even though my life is about to change big time, I think September will always feel like a new beginning to me.

While the holidays (aka the summer months) are in full swing and we edge ever closer to New Year’s Eve (Labor Day weekend), I thought I’d do a year in review of sorts.

If there’s one word I can apply to the last year of my life, it’s “busy.” In the 2014-15 concert season, I juggled one and a half jobs, three ensembles within Seattle Pro Musica, service on a board, and lots of time with friends. I have a lot to show for my hard work, including a wide variety of writing, graphics, and fully realized ideas.

 

A THINK PIECE

Morlot, Mix-A-Lot, and music’s future
I shared my thoughts on Sir Mix-A-Lot’s controversial joint concert with the Seattle Symphony.

 

MULTIMEDIA PREVIEWS

Backstage at PNB’s last Stowell/Sendak ‘Nutcracker’
I took my phone and two cameras with me backstage during a matinee performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker. This was a special Christmas at PNB, as the company announced this would be its last year staging the ballet with the unique Kent Stowell choreography and Maurice Sendak sets.

At SIFF 2015, follow the music
Each spring, the Seattle International Film Festival sorts its films by genre. Quite a few delve into the topic of classical music. I did a roundup of movies about, or featuring, classical music for KING FM.

 

LISTICLES

13 Seattle concerts you should attend at least once
For about a year now, I’ve been attending monthly NPR Analytics meetings. I’ve used these to check in on the digital state of NPR affiliate stations, but I also use them for creative inspiration. In a round-up of some of June’s most popular NPR stories, the meeting panelists mentioned the popularity of the classic “bucket list” article. I thought, hey, I can do that for KING FM! And so I did.

5 Facts about Jean Sibelius
The Seattle Symphony celebrated Sibelius’ 150th anniversary with a month of his music, then we did a marathon broadcast of all those concerts. I thought I’d get to know the composer a little better.

31 Facts about Mozart
Every January, KING FM creates a 31 Days of Mozart Channel, where we play nonstop Mozart for an entire month. I wrote this listicle to promote the channel.

 

SOME ALBUM REVIEWS

Nordic Affect: Clockworking
Last week, I listened to some blissful Icelandic music that lands somewhere between Sigur Rós and avant garde.

Gabriel Kahane: The Ambassador
While I interned at Palo Alto Weekly in 2008, I was lucky enough to chat with pianist Jeffrey Kahane while he was in town for the Music@Menlo Festival. Seven years later, I reviewed this album by his genre-defying singer-songwriter son, and along the way I got a fascinating glimpse into the history of Los Angeles.

Maya Beiser: Uncovered
An edgy cellist with East-meets-West roots deconstructed her favorite classic rock songs on this album. In researching and reading the liner notes, I think I learned more about classic rock than I did about the cello.

Julia Wolfe: Steel Hammer
One of New York City’s top composers generated a lot of buzz with a modern requiem for John Henry, the fictional steel driver who became an American folk hero. I loved the beautiful vocals by Trio Mediæval.

A Far Cry: Dreams & Prayers
This was a small, young orchestra’s feverish attempt at conveying the spiritual meaning of performing together.

The Knights: the ground beneath our feet
This Brooklyn-based chamber ensemble’s lighter-than-air exploration of the concerto grosso form spanned centuries of music, from Bach to the present day.

Missy Mazzoli: Vespers for a New Dark Age
My favorite feminist composer turned a religious rite, the vesper service, into a secular art form more fitting for the 21st century.

 

INTERVIEWS

A Talk with Anonymous 4
My 13-year-old self, newly obsessed with choral music, squealed the whole time.

Eight questions for the King’s Singers
Um…ditto.

Derek Bermel’s Death with Interruptions
I previewed a world premiere set to kick off the Seattle Chamber Music Festival.

 

 

Confession: I Document Everything

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max's.

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max’s.

Six months into my college career, I came home for spring break and announced to a few of my friends that I was switching my major from music to journalism. I expected reactions of mild surprise, at the very least. Instead, I was met with impatient “duh”s and amused “I always knew it”s.

“That’s not a surprising revelation, is it?” They asked. “You always carry a notebook in your purse. You’re always writing down everything we say. You document everything. It’s actually pretty creepy.”

It was true. I could certainly save a lot of closet space by purging from my belongings a stack of 20 or so notebooks, some completely full, others empty, still others only partially used. I buy them habitually, whenever I head back to my old stomping grounds for a nostalgia tour, whenever I’m away from home and need to chronicle my frustrations somewhere, and of course whenever a notebook is too pretty not to buy.

I’ve never met anyone else who is quite so intent on recording anything and everything, but thanks to the power of the internet, I now know there’s at least one other freak like me: Alice Bolin. I’ve never met her, but her post on thisrecording.com makes me believe we are kindred spirits and were probably separated at birth. From the post:

I have in my pocket at this moment a note I don’t remember writing to myself that I found recently on my floor. It reads, “Landscape quote: O pardon me thou bleeding piece of Earth.” (Googling reveals this is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Also in my pocket is a note card where it says in my graduate thesis advisor’s handwriting, “Question / Is there a historical reason for the great number of rear/alley entrances/exits in Missoula bars?” Also: a stranger’s to-do list I found tucked in a book I ordered online; its only noteworthy item is “Return Cal’s pants!”

Similarly, I hoard written and verbal content constantly. I tore a page from one of my college legal pads that reads, in a list, “bastard food; misplaced football jerseys; acid dropping.” The Notebook feature on my phone offers this quote, squeezed between a flight confirmation code and a grocery list, with no context: “As soon as you’re sitting on a pokey thing, you’re like, damn, I’m sitting on a pokey thing.” And don’t even get me started on those little notebooks I used to carry everywhere from age 15, packed with funny-but-oft-nonsensical quotes from my closest friends, tales of strange adventures with acquaintances I no longer remember, and letters to ex-boyfriends. I once listed nearly 20 quotes from my college choir conductor in a LiveJournal post: “You need to get the L out.” “Make this violent word sound as sexy as possible.” “Sorry, taken over by an alien momentarily.”

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The height of my recording craze was my senior year of college, when my amazing group of friends would essentially recreate a Cheers scene at our favorite local hangout three or more nights a week. We’d while away the hours commiserating about our jobs and classes, watching football games, playing cards and winning prizes in pub trivia. I must have filled four notebooks with inside jokes and stories borne from our nights there.

“I misread your mustache, sir.” (Courtesy of someone who judged my friend’s political views by his facial hair.)
“It crashed and burned, and then a dinosaur stepped on it. And then it killed a puppy.” (A friend describes her day.)
“They’re like the tacos of the feet.” (Your guess is as good as mine.)

Why the constant urge to chronicle every last funny, interesting and semi-brilliant thing? I guess I’m just a nostalgic person. In certain life situations for which a comprehensive record exists–like the trip to Eastern Europe in high school, or the night the power went out during my winter break reunion with youth choir friends–it’s likely I wrote everything down for nostalgia’s sake. Back then, I believed my future self would kick my present self for forgetting the Best Inside Jokes Ever.

I think the particular affinity for quoting my friends in our last days of college may have been a self-preservational instinct, a desperate attempt to log the here and now in some form or other–because I knew that less than a year later, I’d be in a strange new city trying to find a job and a new set of bar buddies.

When I ran out of notebooks...

When I ran out of notebooks…

Why do I still do it? Because my post-college years thus far have been predictably tumultuous and subject to change. My entire world has changed almost annually as I’ve moved to new apartments, started new relationships, said goodbye to old friends and awkwardly courted new ones. As much as I try to live in the moment the way older adults advise, I can’t help but look toward the future to an older me, contentedly flipping through five thousand notebooks of strange memories.

The Book City

Even if you’re not attending the current AWP conference, and even if you’re not a writer, hop on over to The Stranger’s article about the average Seattle resident’s penchant for reading…and hanging out in places where reading material is purchased.

From the article:

Part of the reason I moved to Seattle from the East Coast was for the rain and the clouds. There’s nothing more annoying than the pang of guilt that comes unbidden when you choose to stay inside with a good book on a beautiful spring day. With its relentless cloud cover, Seattle minimizes the opportunity for that kind of guilt. In fact, it rewards people for reading and writing, which is part of the reason our city always hovers near the top of those (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) “most literate city” polls that circulate around the internet every year or so.

Whether we’re literate because it’s raining or the rainy climate naturally attracts bookworms, it’s a fact: Seattle loves to read, and it always has.

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Ever since my dad read novels to me at bedtime (Goodnight Moon got old fast, so we moved on to Watership Down), I grew up with my nose buried in a book. I started with classics, including the Nancy Drew series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. My childhood guilty pleasures included Animorphs and Sweet Valley High.

In high school, between the engrossing Harry Potter books, I devoured science fiction, fantasy, period literature and more, still discovering my literary tastes. During the week, I sat in English class wondering why in hell The Odyssey got top billing over The Aeneid in my classroom and a million others, while on the weekends I happily made my way through the 850 pages of Bleak House.

Then, in college, I discovered the wonder of contemporary fiction and its endless possibilities. There was nothing better than studying, discussing and writing about the books I would have read at home anyway.

Today, I miss the discussions and the feedback. Sometimes I convince a friend to read a book with me so we can get into lively debates like we did in college. In the last year, among other things, I’ve marveled at the Dickensian parallels in A Fine Balance, I’ve dissed Eugenides’ self-indulgent latest effort, I’ve read Zadie Smith at her best and her worst, and I’ve made it halfway through Colum McCann‘s canon.

It’s heartwarming to be reminded that I’ve done all this in a city full of like-minded folk, that I bought these books at some of the best book-buying institutions in the country…and that there’s so much more to discover.

On Being Real

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way my relationships with others have changed in recent years. I’m not a social butterfly, so I was glad to see Facebook’s continuous rise in popularity while I was in college. It was the perfect tool for those of us who wanted to keep tabs on old friends but lacked the courage to pick up the phone or even write an email often enough to do so.

But after more than seven years of Facebook use, I realize the site has not given me what I wanted. In Facebook I looked for insight into the daily ups and downs of those I used to see every day. It has instead provided me only with the highlights of my friends’ lives: the engagements, the exotic vacations, the new job announcements and the best home-cooked dinners.

I’m thrilled to see my friends doing well, but I know these updates don’t tell the whole story. In addition to their good news, I’d like to hear about their pipe leaks at home, their struggles at work and the recipes that failed. Balancing news of the positive with the negative, the quirky, the funny and the everyday paints a more accurate picture of someone’s life–a picture that does more to educate friends on one’s life rather than to simply induce friends’ jealousy.

This year, my life was filled with lovely sunsets, craft cocktails and exciting adventures. It was also filled with frustration, sadness, anxiety, confusion and sleep deprivation. And that’s okay.

I read a blog post last week that called for a New Year’s resolution almost all of us can keep. Rather than resolving to get fit, eat healthier, save more money or clean more often, we might first and foremost promise ourselves to be more honest with ourselves and with each other.

So in 2014, for better or for worse, I vow to stop Photoshopping my life. I’m done with humblebrags. I’m finished with heavily filtered selfies. I’ll leave the self-promotion at work, and I’ll spend more actual facetime with those whose friendship I value.

I’m ready to be real.

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The liberal arts factor

Some stereotypes are true. Most journalists, for example, possess thick skins, feel less empathy than the average person, don’t beat around the bush and enjoy the challenge of digging for well-hidden information.

Journalists are also notorious workaholics: their jobs follow them home, on vacation, to the gym, wherever they go. Reporters will pick up their phones in the middle of the night, on their wedding days and at funerals if the newsroom calls. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my peers and coworkers drop everything for a scoop. They’ve bailed on dates, classes, exams and parties to meet deadline or go the extra mile on a story. And although I believe hard work pays off–anyone who knows me can attest to that– I haven’t always supported their decision to skip out on everything else.

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I’m proud of my PBK key!

It’s true that getting good at one’s chosen profession requires focus, especially in journalism. But must focus translate to tunnel vision?

I remember some fellow students who pulled 50, 60, 70 hour weeks at the student newspaper. The work they did was incredible and invaluable. But their choice to work overtime for no extra pay was also a choice to skip classes, skim important reading and earn a degree with barely passing grades and nothing but minimum graduation requirements. Many of them told me they believed years of hands-on work experience was the most important (or the only) thing future employers wanted to see on resumes.

Like them, I made time for real-world experience. I had five summer internships, three of which were unpaid. I spent most of my college years working full time at the student newspaper, though my stipend covered less than half my rent. I always answered calls from my sources, even when they came at inappropriate times while I was in inopportune locations. I arrived at work too early and stayed too late. I put my life in danger to drive to work during a snowstorm. I left my own birthday party to investigate a mysterious death. (I don’t regret these decisions, but I don’t think I would make the same ones if I were to repeat my four years of school.)

I made all these sacrifices, but most of the time, I maintained much-needed separations between work, play and academics. While I took tens of electives outside my journalism classes, learned another language, contemplated a second minor and had the time of my life writing a thesis, my student newspaper colleagues were crashing on the newsroom couch and plotting how they might avoid their foreign language requirements. When we were all off the clock, my coworkers went home, reviewed notes on their steno pads and listened to the police scanner over a beer; I went to choir rehearsal, attended a play or read a novel. When I shared my hobbies and weekend plans with them, they stared with blank faces and went right back to their work.

I was, and still am, shocked at journalists’ blasé attitude toward non-news pursuits I consider important: a liberal arts education, cultural enrichment, a variety of personal relationships. I was relieved to leave the world of newspaper journalism and find a new company full of people with quirky hobbies, unique passions and different perspectives. These days, I have coworkers who appreciate my ongoing efforts to learn more and stay well rounded.

But these days, a well-rounded resume seems to be undervalued–and I think that’s a mistake on the part of employers. When I consider the leg up I had in stories that required a fundamental knowledge of history, literature or science, I wonder whether my laser-focused journalism colleagues were able to cover the story as thoroughly without a liberal arts education. I think about the friendships and relationships I maintain and wonder, when I’m having fun at a festival or a picnic, whether my old coworkers are still slaving away in the newsroom. When I absorb myself in choir rehearsal and forget about bills, task lists and arguments, I can’t believe underpaid cub reporters my age can cope without a hobby that provides an emotional escape from the stresses of adult life.

Perhaps the decision to broaden my knowledge base communicated a lack of pure journalistic commitment to some of the newspaper editors who saw my resume. But if a love for many things at once is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Writer’s Block

I’ve always been quite an enthusiastic writer. From a very young age, I kept journals that I sometimes updated multiple times in a day. I wrote about everything: things I learned in school, classmates I liked and disliked, life in after-school daycare, friends’ deep dark secrets I promised never to reveal, and of course my own deep dark secrets–usually involving a crush on a boy.

My motivation to write back then was a desire to resolve issues in my mind. Once things had been written down in a semi-coherent manner, I felt I knew where I stood and could move past whatever lingering anger, sadness or confusion I felt. There were times when I felt extraordinary euphoria and found immense satisfaction in successfully translating the feeling into words.

Beyond childhood, there were ever more motivations to keep writing well–to get good grades, to get admitted into high-quality colleges, to win debates, to stand out in the job applicant pool. Even though I still found emotional clarity after writing down my personal thoughts, I wrote increasingly less for purposes of personal growth as I wrote increasingly more in the name of professional growth.

As a result, I started experiencing something I once thought I was immune to: writer’s block. In college, I spent hours staring at a blank Word document struggling to find the words to start my term papers, even after I’d done extensive research and found a good thesis. Writing each sentence was as difficult as pulling frozen taffy.

It didn’t help that Gmail, Facebook and myriad news sites were just a click away, and so I assumed the presence of campus-wide Wi-fi was to blame for the writer’s block. I found I was slightly more productive when I moved from the library to a cafe, where I found a pleasant buzzing of white noise rather than crushing silence; when I took short breaks about once an hour for coffee or a New York Times article; or when I was running on an extra-tight deadline and had no choice but to work without stopping.

Still, I’ve wondered for years why I, the person to whom others turn for help with writing and editing, experience these extensive mental blackouts when in childhood I could write unceasingly for hours.

Today, I realized the answer could be as simple as this: In childhood I wrote on paper; now, I write on a keyboard.

It sounds like an oversimplification, I know…but something crazy happened to me today at lunch. Before I left, I opened up a document full of scripts I’ve been writing for KING FM’s next on-air fund drive. I got out my yellow legal pad to consult the informal list of script ideas I’d made for myself, found where I’d left off, and started typing. No more than two sentences came out…in a half hour.

So I tried something else: when I left to grab a quick lunch, I took the legal pad and a pen with me, thinking a little lunchtime brainstorming couldn’t hurt. I ended up scribbling furiously with my pen as I scarfed a sandwich. Thoughts came to me two at a time and my hand nearly cramped up as it tried to get everything down. In about 20 minutes, I had written three full pages of scripts.

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For no good reason, I find it less inhibiting to write on paper than to write on a computer screen. It makes no sense, because when I write something down in pen, it’s there forever, and editing is messy. On a keyboard, the backspace bar is a no-fuss editor. So it must have something to do with the fact that I associate personal writing, which no one but me can judge, with paper and pen, while I associate professional writing, which many highly influential people have judged over the years, with computers and typing. The content is irrelevant; the medium is what alters my productivity. For all I know, I could have started my first-grade diary in Word and never gotten past Page One; similarly, I could have started writing my thesis in a spiral notebook and finished within a week.

This revelation has motivated me to try using good old pen and paper whenever I get into a staring contest with my computer monitor at work. It has also illustrated the importance personal writing once had on my personal well-being, and has offered a completely free and relatively easy stress-relieving method I’ve dismissed for years. I know I always say I want to write more, but this time I really mean write–not type.

In Defense of Pinterest–or, Upcycling

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In elementary school, we learned the three phrases of sustainability–before “sustainability” was even a buzzword.

Recycle, Reduce, Reuse.

A couple of decades later, we on the West Coast don’t think of sorting our waste into three or more categories as a chore. It’s just what we do to make the world a bit greener.

And in the last decade, we’ve gotten much better at reducing our consumption and energy use, leaving as small a carbon footprint as possible.

In other words, we’ve long embraced the first two words in the mantra we learned a while back…but we’re still ruminating on that third word. Reuse.

It takes a little bit of creativity and extra thought to realize that lots of things we’ve finished using for one purpose don’t have to be thrown out–they can be reborn for another purpose.

Take food containers, for example. Old cream cheese and yogurt tubs make great Tupperware after they’re cleaned thoroughly–I’ve got a container of “strawberry yogurt” with yesterday’s dinner leftovers sitting in my refrigerator as we speak!Image

On my lunch break this afternoon, I walked by an apartment window ledge lined with reused pasta sauce jars. The apartment’s residents had cleaned the jars, filled them with soil and planted various herbs for cooking–basil, cilantro, thyme and oregano. Then they brushed the jar fronts with a little bit of chalkboard paint and labeled the jars with chalk–an urban inspiration!

Last week, I came across a blog where an Australian couple had created a similarly pint-sized ecosystem with cut-up milk cartons. They lopped off the carton tops, covered the rest with glued-on strips of their favorite fabrics, and stuck a dirt-filled can inside, ready to be filled with their favorite flower or herb plants.

The practice of taking something simple and seemingly useless and turning it into something fabulous, new and useful is called upcycling. At least that’s what it’s called on Etsy, Pinterest and countless blogs from creative types all over the world.

Upcycling takes a million different forms. Some people show off a project that turned an old pair of Levis into a handy denim purse. Others document their efforts to turn a horrible Coke bottlecap hoarding habit into a lovely windchime. Ever-resourceful girlfriends found that their significant others’ discarded button-down shirts made excellent pillowcases in a pinch.

While the artistic aspect of upcycling interests me greatly–mostly when it comes to ModPodged furniture–I’m most inspired by the way people in urban environments can easily and safely keep entire herb gardens inside, or just outside, their rented apartments by upcycling things they already have and would otherwise throw into their recycling bins. It demonstrates to this twentysomething urban girl that you don’t need a huge backyard equipped with a chicken coop, a compost bin and rows of handmade planter boxes to live greener.

But don’t get me wrong–someday, I hope I have a huge backyard with all those things, plus a couple of cats!

Clarity

Someone once challenged Ernest Hemingway to write a story in six words. Here’s what he wrote:

For sale: baby shoes, never used.

On Valentine’s Day, The New York Times posed a similar challenge to its readers: tell your own love story in six words. (I’m not clear on whether the challenge was Hemingway-inspired.) Not all were as tragic, but some were just as evocative:

Love hurts. Choose vodka or valium.

But our domestic partnership was notarized….

Note to self: avoid head cases.

It’s clear that few words are needed to tell a memorable story. In fact, some–maybe even most–stories are best told with clarity and brevity in mind.

This isn’t news to my fellow journalism school graduates, I know. But sometimes it seems like corporate America skipped that ever-important introductory college writing course.

William Zinsser, in his book “On Writing Well,” says it best: “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unneccessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon…But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

It’s weird for me, a noted Hemingway hater and a notorious lover of flowery prose, to sit here preaching clarity in writing. Let it be known, though, that I practice what I preach, even if my reading tastes don’t reflect it. I’m the biggest Charles Dickens fan the world has ever seen, but that doesn’t mean I want all the profiles I write to sound like Dickens’ study of the fictional Tommy Traddles.

Practicing clarity is important in journalism for a number of reasons. For one, it ensures that a wide variety of readers, viewers and listeners can understand what’s going on. For another, it minimizes confusion in a story–the kind of confusion that can lead to lawsuits against reporters or angry backlash from readers, viewers and listeners. But most importantly, clarity leaves no room for passive statements, reiteration of the same phrase using different wording or “beating around the bush”–the kinds of devices politicians use in writing and speeches to drive weak arguments.

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” George Orwell wrote in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” The “our time” to which he refers is 1946, but today, his statement rings just as true. He continues:

“Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.”

People can use passive voice and vague phrases to defend all manner of cruel acts. Switching to active voice eliminates someone’s ability to beat around the bush. In active voice, the population isn’t just “transferred”; a person or entity has to be named in connection with the transfer. And in journalism, the vague word “transfer” doesn’t fly.

Why must we live in a world where tax forms, employment documents and healthcare pamphlets require multiple read-throughs and double-takes to understand? Journalists, especially those covering the business beat, regularly act as translators for the general public. But why should we need translators?

I ask you–or rather, Orwell asks you–do you understand this sentence?

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

That’s Orwell’s slightly exaggerated modern-day translation of this verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here’s my own translation, as clear and concise as I could muster. “Life is all about luck and timing. Even the strongest, smartest and fastest aren’t immune.”