Recent work

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.

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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.

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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.

Hard news, soft news–it’s all good

Western Washington University students work on the Viking 45, their entry in the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. The car gets 100 miles to the gallon. Photo: Sophia McCloy.

This job is the first one in which I’ve truly been a general assignment reporter. Before that, I always had a certain beat. At the Santa Cruz Sentinel, my first internship and my first time working in a newsroom, I was supposed to cover everything but ended up mostly writing feature stories. At the Oregon Daily Emerald, I covered crime and health. At Monterey County Weekly and Palo Alto Weekly–two newspapers at which I worked simultaneously two summers ago–my clips were mostly of the arts and entertainment variety.

So when I got to the Seattle Times and in my first week alone covered four beats–science, crime, health and obituaries–I knew this internship would be an entirely different experience.

The subjects I cover have only increased since then. I’ve worked on stories about land usestate and federal politics, the environment and education. I couldn’t be happier. I always thought beat reporting was more interesting and more rewarding, but I should have known better. Even as a kid, I loved learning–not necessarily in-depth learning about one specific subject, but instead learning a little about a lot of things. As early as high school, I waxed poetic about the benefits of a well-rounded education. In college, while so many around me believed a liberal arts education was overrated and specific technical training was more beneficial, I maintained that I had an edge over other journalism majors with my multiple interests and varied extracurriculars.

It makes sense, then, that I so enjoy general assignment reporting. I get to learn something new every day. It matters little whether I’m calling the police station for information on a shooting in a state park or whether I’m visiting sleepy, pleasant Bellingham to chase the heartwarming story of some college kids who built a car from scratch and may win $10 million for their troubles. I always walk away from my workday satisfied.