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8 March 2007
Independent Journalist's/Media Blogger's Coverage
of the Ayers Lecture on Narrative Writing at JSU


"I declayah" a love for the south
By Wendy Hoke(Wendy Hoke)
Hardy Jackson of Jacksonville State University, John Fleming and Chris Waddle of The Anniston Star. Their conversation was so lyrical and colorful and filled with euphemisms I don't understand but which sound lovely to.
Creative Ink -

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"I declayah" a love for the south

I am a fish out of water in some respects, a Yankee surrounded by southerners. At our lunch table I was seated with Rick Bragg, storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham of Selma, Dr. Hardy Jackson of Jacksonville State University, John Fleming and Chris Waddle of The Anniston Star.

Their conversation was so lyrical and colorful and filled with euphemisms I don't understand but which sound lovely to the ear. Talk about kin and "my people" and being "tired" but not in the sleepy sense.

I am infatuated with the south and not only because of the sunshine and temperatures hovering around 70 degrees in early March. The people here are warm and wonderful and engaging and brilliant conversationalists and terrific listeners.

One beautiful example is Kathryn Tucker Windham who turns 89 in June. She spent 40 years as a newspaper reporter and is a storyteller in the oral tradition. For nearly an hour without a podium or microphone she mezmerized the audience over lunch, holding even the wait staff in rapture for the duration. She talked of the markers of southerners: "We eat off each othah's plate, we announce when we're going to the bathroom and we trot out our peculiah kinfolk."

She has a lovely gentrified southern accent that drops the Rs as she refers to the "suthun" tradition of sitting on the "poach" following "suppah." "I grew up in a time when we took the time to talk to each othah," she said.

Her father, for whom she spoke so lovingly, used to say that you have two ears and one mouth and they ought to be used in that proportion. She spoke of listening to the morning, listening to the sounds of the birds chirping and paper being delivered and the coffee brewing and the house coming to life. As she spoke of stories that made us laugh uproariously and touched us deeply, so many ideas from my own life began to creep into my head. Ideas for stories or essays or books or I don't really know what. The mind was open and the ideas were flowing.

Over dinner tonight at Betty's Barbecue, where they serve "home-cooked food from 4 until it's gone," a large group of us gathered at the recommendation of Rick Bragg. We enjoyed pulled pork, fried chicken, catfish, okra and fried green tomatoes. But mostly we shared stories together and laughed and laughed.

Joining us at our table was former U.S. Congressman Glenn Browder and his wife, Becky. The former congressman asked each of us at the table about our writing dreams. Not one of us hesitated and interestingly our dream writing involved some aspects of our families or ancestors.

This is what I love about these kinds of workshops and conferences, the chance to meet with people all over the country who are as passionate about good writing, good books and good reporting as I am. We connected as people who share a desire to make their communities better by telling stories that matter.

Kathryn Tucker Windham told us that you can never truly hate someone with whom you've had a good laugh. Not that any of us would hate each other. It wasn't about hating or not, it was about friendship and camaraderie.

More from the Storytellers

When I was in Alabama last September touring the facility where I sit, Chris Waddle from the University of Alabama and The Teaching Newspaper was asking about my writing. I went through the abridged version of the bio and then mentioned KnowledgeWorks. I said to him: "They call us storytellers" and then I went on to explain our role.

He stopped me and in that wonderful smooth southern voice said, "Now that makes a good name for our conference." And so it has, especially when Chris says it: "They call us storytellers." We're nearly at the half-way point and the storytelling has been terrific.

Rick Bragg is speaking now and Gay Talese, for whom I just fetched coffee—a task only usually performed for my dad or my husband—is seated in the audience. He's staying with us through lunch, featuring Kathryn Tucker Windham, an author and storyteller in the oral tradition.

There is no substitute for being there, says Talese. You have to be in contact personally with the people about whom you're writing.

For example, he was wondering aloud why the Walter Reed story wasn't done sooner. It will probably win its reporters a Pulitzer Prize and rightly so. But what took so long?

The journalism establishment has lost touch with what's important. Thousands of Washington Press Corps journalists gather socially and spend their days as the unelected cadre providing commentary and reportage on the federal government. "They didn't know about a hospital a few blocks away called Walter Reed."

"If I could fulfill a fantasy I would break of the Washington Press Corps." In its place, he would send those reporters into the 50 states to find out what's really going on in this country. "We'd get a better sense of the nation and learn people's attitudes and thoughts about war, poverty, dreams and possibilities."

When asked what he reads for inspiration, he mentioned the usual things such as The New Yorker and short stories, but he also mentioned that he reads a lot of fiction.

I'm all over the place and rushing through my notes, but time is short and I'm trying to post regularly. Many people have asked about reporting "The Kingdom and the Power." He told, rather eloquently, of sitting in the NYT managing editor's office to interview him for the book. He looked at the photos of other MEs lining the walls and realized this story was about them, too. "I had to make the people in those photos come alive."

In my notebook I have scratched down, "Just wanted to be there." I can't remember if that was in reference to working at The New York Times or in reference to reporting. What it means to me is that there is no substitute for what you can obtain by hanging around and interviewing someone in person.

I'm planning to duck in to hear Rick Bragg in a bit (there's a lot of laughter coming from the room). I've already asked him for an interview and he's graciously agreed. How often do you get to interview a national writer in person for a $150 story that goes to 9,500 people? I'm here and I'm going with it.

A day with Gay Talese

Gay Talese has a great fondness for Alabama, home to the University of Alabama, which he claims was the only college that would accept him back in 1953. His affection for the state and its people is genuine and was first glimpsed during a luncheon yesterday.

Annually The Anniston Star has a banquet celebrating its "star" writers of letters to the editor — a positively wonderful idea. Part of the lunch program included reading of excerpts from letters this year. As Editor Bob Davis later explained to me, the letter writers who are honored have received a star by their letter based on clarity and a number of other subjective factors.

As Gay Talese got up to give the audience a little glimpse of his lecture later in the afternoon he captured the theme of his visit here and the secret to his writing genius:

"My debt to Alabama has not been stressed enough," he said. As he listened to the letters written from people in little towns all over Alabama, he was reminded of driving his old Desoto all over Alabama. And he was reminded of "the forthrightness of people who would not otherwise be in the news. Letter writers are essayists. They state their position and then go on to sign their name and put their town on these letters."

He called them "voices of the south." But then he went on to engage those who were in attendance, asking them about their first letter that was published, what drove them to write, how many letters they get published, what they're working on now. It was a fascinating exchange and showed his skill as an interviewer. It should be noted that whenever someone stood to ask him a question, he first asked their name and where they are from.

(As an aside, I re-read "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" on the plane ride to see if it still holds up today—and it does, emphatically.)

The last letter writer talked about the need to get out of the war in Iraq. Without engaging in a political discussion, which he made clear is not his thing, Talese told a story from his arrival the day before at the Atlanta airport.

"I got on the train and road six stops to baggage claim. And while I was on the train to baggage claim—that sounds like a musical—I saw a young soldier, hanging on to a pole. He was deep in thought. An elderly man got up and said, 'I just want to shake your hand.' He did so and went back to his seat and I went on to baggage claim."

He guessed the elderly man was probably a World War II vet and that he's probably remembering a time when everyone cared about the war and there was so much support on the homefront as well as the battlefront.

Talese is a master of observation, but he is also able to take what he sees and write about it in a way that puts you on the train to baggage claim or in a smokey bar in LA.

He was referred to as a dandy, and he is impeccably dressed in a gray three-piece suit. His double-vented jacket is cut beautifully and he later reveals that all his clothes are made in Paris by his cousins. He is the son of an immigrant tailor. The suit he was wearing is 28 years old. "It still looks great, doesn't it?"

While his fashion sense was honed by his father, Talese learned about talking to people through hanging around his mother's very successful dress shop in Ocean City, N.J. "She was selling herself as much as her dresses. She had a way of asking questions without being intrusive or nosey. She was seriously curious. As a boy of 10, 11 and 12, during World War II, I would hear my mother talking to the women who ran the society of our town."

He regaled us with the story of his first visit to The New York Times, a bold yet naive move suggested by one Jimmy Pinkston, who claimed to be related to the managing editor. And of his job as an office boy that allowed him to get a visual sense of the paper, shuttling information from foreign correspondents to the foreign editor, managing editor, Sunday editor, Week in Review editor, publisher and ad manager.

"Why is this important? I wrote a book in 1969 called 'The Kingdom and the Power' about the New York Times. I would not have been able to write it unless I had the picture of how it all works," he said.

During Bloody Sunday in Selma (March 7, 1965), Talese spoke about realizing that television was telling this story to the world in a way that print journalists could not. "Those cameramen who caught that clobbering of demonstrators brought to the whole of America the pervasive, powerful injustice of America. Selma was only the scene. In the aftermath I wrote more about who was not hurt, not who was hurt. I went to Selma Country Club and talked to those on the putting green."

It was one of the last stories he wrote as a journalist. "I wanted to write more deeply and my books are grounded in journalism. I'm an old-fashioned reporter who loves to write and to get to know people. I thank you for being so nice to me when I was first a student here and for being so nice to me now at 75."

Monday, March 05, 2007

Storytelling in Alabama

I'm on the road again this week, flying out early tomorrow morning to Atlanta and then driving over to Anniston, Ala., for a narrative writing workshop.

They Call Us Storytellers: A Celebration of Narrative Writing is a joint program of The Anniston Star, The Teaching Newspaper, University of Alabama and Society of Professional Journalists.

The event begins tomorrow afternoon with a lecture by Gay Talese, who is a graduate of the University of Alabama.

Wednesday and Thursday programming will feature Rick Bragg and Gay Talese on narrative writing. In addition, we'll have breakout sessions that include:

Rick Bragg on "Writing in Color"
Wilson Lowrey "Is Digital Journalism Community Journalism?"
Andrew Grace on "Documentary Storytelling"
Butler Cain on "Telling Stories with Audio: Small Ways to Make a Big Impression"
Hardy Jackson, head of the history department at Jacksonville State University and other of "Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State."

I'm equipped with the iPod digital recorder and will be recording audio of programs to post to SPJ Web site.

I'll try to do some live blogging, if time permits; otherwise I'll do some nightly roundups.

About the Writer

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Wendy Hoke

Wendy Hoke is a Cleveland-based writer and editor covering education reform, personality profiles, religion and lifestyle. Her work has appeared in The Plain Dealer, The Columbus Dispatch, PAGES magazine, Quill magazine, Smart Health, Cleveland Clinic Magazine and Catholic Universe Bulletin. Her first assignment for Continental magazine appears in the October 2006 issue.

Her writing also includes primarily longer pieces for nonprofits, including small school transformation for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. She recently completed a ghostwritten book on pain management (publication date: February 2007) for Cleveland Clinic Press.

The Ohio Society of Professional Journalists honored Wendy’s writing in 2006 and 2004, and she is a frequent speaker on the business of freelancing. She speaks annually at the Ted Scripps Leadership Institute in Indianapolis and spoke about new media and news coverage at the 2004 East Asia Journalists Forum in Seoul, South Korea.

View her complete profile

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