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.

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.

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.

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.