Notes on Location: Newsrooms, Ruins & More

by Katy Harding

1. From Newsroom to Workshop

Can journalism and creative nonfiction come together in unity?

The panel From the Newsroom to the Workshop brings together four previous journalistic writers turned creative nonfiction converts to round table questions about creative nonfiction and the journalism world.

Each speaker has won numerous awards in the journalism community and covered a diverse range of topics from police reports to injured loggers.

One panelist describes his journey to creative nonfiction writer as a process of attempting to see if he could turn his journalist eye on himself. Another, when a child, was asked to draw what she would be when she grew up. She wrote “reporter.” She explains further that working in journalism helped her seek an answer to the question, “What’s the truth and how do we know it?” After writing long form journalism for years, she turned her life upside down and went deeper into her writing by pursuing her MFA.

Another journalist pursued her MFA after years of the desire to do long form “journalist” writing like Didion. The last panelist ended up on an island of a thousand people off the coast of Florida. She drove a golf cart across the island, and says that the time was some of the best experience she had. She echoes the theme of thinking moving up in journalism would mean the freedom to write, but found that wasn’t the case, which moved her to pursue an MFA.

Advice from the panelists:

Journalism, or good journalism, should have a longing for storytelling, not conform to the narrow minded definition that many people think of as journalism. Journalism can actually strengthen the quality of writing in a nonfiction writer’s work.

It is not important to emphasize the difference between forms of writing, but rather where forms intersect, and strengthen each other.

What impulses drive a writer to investigate the world? How do those impulses shape creative nonfiction writing in journalistic ways?

The process of writing is an art. Crafting the essay is typically the emphasis, but the process of uncovering the information is just as important as sewing the piece together.

Immerse yourself into the stories you write, find novelist details and write them.

Allow the personal “I” to play a role in your own writing, recognizing the importance of integrating yourself into your writing. Allowing that to enter into journalistic writing. The “I” can make your writing more personal and allow your writing to connect with other your reader, though it also makes you vulnerable.

A list of advice from one panelist:

  1. Everyone is one or two degrees from a storyteller

  2. No means not now

  3. Sometimes the best thing to do is show up unannounced

  4. Historical societies and archives are your best friends

  5. Sometimes you have to face past your internal censor

  6. Always have the sense that your work is public, even if you’re keeping your work in a bubble

  7. Be present in your writing

2. Relocating Dislocation

A woman in a yellow sweater opens. She is planning a trip to Montenegro; her first time flying across an ocean. She goes to find stories that don’t exist, to find family. In a sense, her whole family, is dislocated. She is going to seek information, beyond what she knows from stories her family has told her. She seeks to be located, again, back to her family. Through the feel of the streets under her feet, the smells coming from houses, and the sights of the cities her ancestors walked and talked and lived in.

Beth Peterson has been to Norway. She relocated to a small town in Norway. She went to write herself into a new place. She left Norway after a few months, but visited often for ten years. She is neither an insider or an outsider, but she recognizes herself as an unstable narrator. “We are all unstable narrators,” she says.

Eric Scott, he went to Iceland. He is studying a religion in Iceland the name of which is hard to type. It means “the belief in the gods.” Or something like that. They are building a temple in Reykjavik. Scott is not an Icelander, but he is a second-generation Wiccan. He describes his trip as a pilgrimage, one of solitude and connection, of holiness. Yet, looking back he recognizes that, in order to relocate you must know and be with those who are located, where you are dislocated.

Travis Scholl is from St. Louis, and, he has a love hate relationship with his hometown. August 9, 2014, Ferguson. He did not grow up in that suburb. He grew up in a suburb that St. Louis natives call “Soco” or South County. He moved back to St. Louis as an outsider, he feels like an exile, many days. He relocates his dislocation to the space of his writing. He uses the labyrinth to do this, at least in his first book.

3. The Essay as Ruin

“These places are often beautiful.”

The ruin and decay of places and cities is fascinating to humans, as bystanders. As we observe from the outside, but, we remain observers, not encompassing or entering into those spaces in reality. Sarah Levine speaks on how to write about ruin in places you are only seeing as a tourist. Not, as if you are part of that ruin; you experienced the decay, but rather as a watcher of an amorphous vapor, who sees ruins viscerally.

A multimedia essay by Kristen Radtke titled “Ruin,” follows. A brief history of ruins and human fascination with them. At one point, Radtke touches on ruins as things humans admire, because they are so unrelatable to our lives. But, ultimately, the decaying rooms look like our own.

Sarah Minor speaks about the multimedia essay on the plain of ruin: “The essay is something that breaks the plain of the text to involve images and design elements . . . [It] assumes a new kind of failure.” The essay leaves space for things to be subjective. Minor recognizes that essays are built on elements that ultimately allow the reader room for interpretation. This takes on new space in multimedia essays.

She concludes with a reading from an essay of her own, paired with images displayed by a projector. The images are cross sections, images of the insides of things, halved. Her essay also is a cross section of her family dynamics. Embodying new spaces, trying, entering into the ruin of life and writing it.

During questions, the speakers are asked to speak on finding the ruins of failed essays. Writing into those ruins. Sarah Minor speaks to writing in cross sections and allowing competing aspects of an essay to recede and find the direction of the writing.

Sarah Levine answers questions concerning ancient versus contemporary ruins. She speaks to the romanticization of contemporary ruins by humans. But also, to the closeness we feel to houses in ruins that look like our own, compared to the ruins of Pompeii, a distant and ancient ruin, intangible to us.

Notes on Location: Newsrooms, Ruins & More

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