Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Murf the Nerf Misses the Final

I don't think I've ever told you the story of Murf the Nerf--so-called because he was about the soft-headedest football player ever to be awarded a scholarship. Total wastoid, this guy. Barely showed up for the Intro to Mass Media class (big lecture gang-bang with over 100 kids in the room on a good day). Never uttered one blessed word in the whole semester. Slept on the back row with his cap over his eyes.

For every class, I require one one-on-one meeting, prof to student. It can be five minutes or 30, depending on time and the student's conversational skills.

Murf never set up his meeting. He was throwing for a loss the whole semester. Didn't turn in all the papers. Missed a few quizzes. Got a C on the mid-term, which was so screamingly easy that some students made more than 100 points on the thing by simply filling in the extra credit question.

Comes the day of the final and Murf is a no-show. It's an 8 a.m. test, three hours allotted. Most students finish the 100 multiple choice questions in under 90 minutes. A few of the anal retentive ones stay a bit longer to quadruple-check their Scantron sheets and sharpen their Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils a few times between test sections.

Don't ask me why but I was feeling generous as I sat in my office that afternoon, grading the exams and totaling up the final grades on the computer. Murf's last name popped up and I thumbed through the alphabetized exam sheets to see if I'd misplaced his. Nope, wasn't there. Oh, boy. The kid probably overslept. If he misses the final, he'll flunk the whole course. It's 30 percent of the total grade.

I look up his phone number on his grade/attendance card and punch it into the greasy beige office phone. "Hullah," he answers sleepily. It's after 1 p.m. by now.

"Mr. Murfree? It's your Mass Media teacher. Did you know you missed the final exam this morning?"

"Huh?" Coming to consciousness now. "Shee-it, I thawt it was at 2. It was at 8? Shee-it."

Shee-double-it, kid.

"Mr. Murfree, if you can get to my office in the next half-hour, I'll give you the exam. If you don't take it today, you're going to fail the course."

"I'll be there," he says shakily. I can almost smell the flop-sweat beading up on his low-hanging brow.

He ambles in about 20 minutes later, wearing droopy shorts, flip-flops and a Senor Frog t-shirt from Spring Break in Cancun. I set him up in the conference room next door and give him the exam stuff and a Scantron sheet. He has to borrow a pencil. Didn't even bother to bring a pencil.

Every 15 minutes or so, I check on him--the rest of the building is nearly empty--and he seems to be clicking along slowly but steadily. Takes him about two hours to get it done. He shuffles off down the hall and I start grading. By the end of the first section, I can tell he's going to muff it pretty badly. He places the invention of the phonograph in the 1700s and identifies "MPAA rating" as the "Thumbs up or down given by critic Roger Ebert" (one of my so-easy-it's-idiotic choices among answers). A monkey throwing darts at a Scantron would have better odds of picking better answers than the Nerf. But somehow he pulls a D on the thing, giving him a D in the course overall.

The grades go up on the computer system that students can check within hours of my posting them. You can usually tell when the grades hit the cybersphere because the phone calls and emails start coming in.

Mr. Murfree is one of the first. "A D? How could I get a D?" he asks, his voice rising with indignation. He protests heartily and asks for a meeting in my office to discuss it. They always want the meeting.

The semester is over, I tell him. The building is locked up. No meetings. The grades are final. And BY THE WAY, BUDDY, I did you a big, fat favor by letting you TAKE THE EXAM, which you SLEPT THROUGH.

Now comes the sob story part of the show. He's about to lose his scholarship. His girlfriend is pregnant and her parents kicked her out so she's living with him. His parents are divorcing. His mother's an alcoholic. Four great excuses and he uses them all.

My ears turn to lead as he prattles on and on. The grade is final, I keep telling him. You were lucky to get the D. YOU DESERVED AN F.

He will call and email me constantly for the next two weeks.

No good deed goes unpunished.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Writing Workshop Week 14: The Wind-up

Last day of class, writerlings. All assignments have been turned in and everyone's ready for the long break.

So a few things before we finish our little virtual workshop. First, thanks to everyone who played the home game. Your contributions were extraordinary. I'm inspired by your energy and your ways with words. Here's my final "lecture."

Learn to love writing. Better, learn to love your own writing. When you find your voice as a writer, you'll find yourself brimming over with ways to use it.

Keep thinking like a writer. Story ideas are everywhere. All you have to do is keep those antennae up and the world will deliver the messages.

Keep living like a writer. That means making time for it every day, no exceptions. Even if it's just 10 minutes.

Don't get stuck. I've never believed in writer's block. But when the muse ain't talking to me, I get creative in other ways (taterquoise jewelry, anyone?). I had an art professor in college who used to say "listen to the clay." If the clay doesn't want to be a flowerpot, then it will crack in the kiln. She'd also say "Clay doesn't want to be square" to anyone trying to make a four-sided baking dish. Words are your clay. Listen to them. If they don't want to be a short story, make them a play. If they aren't working as a poem, make them a song. And if they don't work on the page, paint them in giant letters on a canvas (worked for Ruscha).

Accuracy counts. Your credibility lives in your accuracy. That applies to literature as well as email. Kids, when you email a prof, CHECK THE SPELLING AND GRAMMAR. You'd be surprised how much of an impression your most casual communications can make. (Ditto profs, when you email back to the students. Set an example!) When you submit your work for publication, check it, double-check it and don't count on SpellCheck to do you any favors. If you have to, find a professional proofreader and pay her or him to read your work to catch errors.

Don't be afraid of your audience. Whether you're stepping up at a poetry slam or putting yourself out there on a blog, don't let the "aginners" scare you or discourage you. Remember, the dogs bark as the caravan passes by.

And I'll leave you with these words of advice that I used to tell every class on the final day: Besides becoming good writers, you should learn to do some other things before you get out of college. Here they are.

1. Learn to change a tire.
2. Learn to make cornbread from scratch.
3. Volunteer to help others who need your help.
4. Get to know your grandparents. Very often, by the time you have time to spend with them, they're no longer able to (for whatever reasons). When you're young, they still are, too. So whether it's by phone, email, letter or in person, learn who they are. Get their stories down. Appreciate them. They love you already. Become interested in them and you'll give them the thrill of their lives, I guarantee. When you're their age, you won't regret a minute you spent with your elders.
5. Become transparent. By that, I mean be honest in your writing, in your business and in your personal life. When you love, say it to the person loved. Don't be afraid of speaking your feelings. Or writing them. Open up. Lighten up. The light within you is great. Let it shine.

I hope that over these past few months you've picked up a few tips you can use as writers. Maybe you discovered a new creative channel or felt a tiny spark of inspiration. Maybe you just learned, at last, when to use who and whom.

I'll keep blogging new stories, news and tidbits. But for now, writing class is dismissed, y'all.

I'd love to hear what you're writing right now. Leave some tantalizing examples in comments, if you dare to. Or just write whatever you want. How about your ideas for what everyone should know before they grad-jee-ate?

Write on, my friends! And when you see me in the bookstore, say howdy.

Monday, November 28, 2005

At Last! Career Options for College Cheer-tators

From the NYT comes this story about the perfect career for those perky college cheerbabes.

College Newspapers Go Big-Time

Or so says Newsweek.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

If You've Ever Taught Athletes ...

...and wondered why they're illiterate and yet have full scholarships, read this.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Go, Columbia!

Check this out. And as the blonde said on Laguna Beach, "What comes before Part B?"


Word Nerd 13: The New Horoscope

Whether you believe in them or not, reading horoscopes is a guilty pleasure. Haven't we all checked our sign to see if the traits match our personalities? I'm a Scorpio--stealthy, curious water sign with a penchant for shopping, soft porn and spicy food.

Just for fun to see Jack run (as my grandma used to say), invent some new signs of the Zodiac. Give them appropriate personality traits. And tell us what other invented signs they might be compatible with.


Anesthesio: One of the medical signs of the New Zodiac. Symbol: The Syringe. Hard to rouse from deep sleep, persons born under this sign seem to live in a netherworld just short of being fully alert. Slow-talkers, they find it hard to follow some conversations and often have to be reminded where they are and sometimes who they are. They prefer darkness and tend to work in undisclosed locations when given a choice. Can be cruel when crossed. Cranky between full moons. Appropriate professions: Security guard, spelunker, vice president of the United States. Most compatible with those born under Barbitura (symbol: The Little Blue Pill).

Bimba: Sign of the bottle blonde. Symbol: Two half melons. Pretty, breathy and fun, this sign loves the color pink and the sound the ATM makes as it spews new 20s by the fistful. You can tell a Bimba by how she reads--moving her glossy lips with the words and following along with a perfectly manicured forefinger. Favorite phrase: "For ME?" Appropriate professions: Movie star, romance novelist (with a ghostwriter), trophy wife, future litigant against Bob Barker. Most compatible with Trumpies, the money sign.

Your turn! Oops! Almost forgot to mention this week's prize: You very own stuffed green flying monkey courtesy of Elphaba from the Broadway hit Wicked. It's hideously cute.

Writing Workshop Lesson Lucky 13: Stories Not Written

If this were real school, you'd be hard at work on your final feature stories right now. After some brainstorming with the students, I usually assign these longer-form stories in a way that takes students out of comfort zones. It's the religion major who has to write about fraternity hazing. The pure-bred, W-lovin' sorority princess who has to investigate the growing omnipresence of on-campus security cameras and their impact on students' right to privacy. And the townie gets to look into unreported crimes in the dorms.

Sounds simplistic, but you wouldn't believe the scaredy-cat-itudes that budding journos display when they have to go ask questions of strangers or paw through crime-report files in the security office. I always say, the toughest part of being a journalist is having to cold-call strangers. Every. Single. Day.

This assignment is the most in-depth reportage students do in the beginning media writing class. The feature story requires at least five sources, interviews done in person, back-up statistics and verifiable research. They must come up with story pitches that are relevant to current campus life and culture and that haven't turned up in the student-run newspaper. Most important of all, it has to read like a story--compelling lead, meaty middle, satisfying conclusion.
Around this time of the term, I also like to introduce the topic of under-reported stories in national media. Why do some issues and events get scant coverage when other seemingly trivial matters, like Christina Aguilera's wedding and the latest model to enter rehab, seem to be ubiquitous across all media?

Project Censored is a great place to go to see what the experts regard as the most under-reported stories of the past year. Here's this year's list.

No. 14 is of particular interest to us who bridge academia and media: "New Bill Threatens Intellectual Freedom in Area Studies." The Yale Daily News and The Christian Science Monitor reported on the subject, which was widely ignored by other MSM. Here's an excerpt:

The International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003 threatens the freedom of education and classroom curriculum. In 1996 the Solomon Amendment was passed, denying federal funding to any institution of higher learning that refused to allow military recruiters on private and public university campuses.

Click here for the rest....

No. 16 is Law Enforcement Agencies Spy on Innocent Citizens. Excerpt:

Several police departments have increased surveillance and intelligence gathering activity against innocent citizens exercising their constitutional rights to participate in religious and social protests. The Denver Police were collecting criminal intelligence data on American citizens participating in “political, religious and social gatherings. The Denver Police Intelligence Bureau has conducted infiltration and observation on groups such as: American Friends Service Committee, Citizens for Peace in Space, and Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission. Records on participants of these events were filed and shared between undercover police groups in Denver and national agencies....

Click here to read more....

So here's your assignment this week. What stories do you think deserved more and better coverage in the past year? Are you in a Katrina-hit area that was ignored by national media (not to mention FEMA)? Are your local schools doing something, either good or bad, that you believe deserves media attention? Social issues, trends, disasters, the economy -- what stories would you like to write if you were an investigative journalist right now? Leave your suggestions in the comments section here.

ALSO, what stories do you think were flogged to death by mainstream media? Let's see, we could start with the Michael Jackson trial, the Natalie Holloway disappearance in Aruba and any other topic that gives CNN's Nancy Grace a hour's worth of breathless palaver even though nothing newsworthy has happened. Post those suggestions, too.

OK, more later. But if you're traveling out of blogworld for the holiday, don't forget to eat a little mince pie. It's the most under-eaten dessert of the season.

Monday, November 21, 2005

End-of-term madness

It is panic season. With the wonky academic scheduling, there are only two classes left -- the Tuesdays before and after Thanksgiving. Then finals.

Right about now you start to wonder how you'll grade all those research papers. Two classes --one with 22, one with 64. Why did you assign such long papers? At least a half-hour per to read, mark and figure out the grade. Shoot me now.

Right about now the worst students go into full-on breakdown mode. The dreaded emails arrive, always leading with chilling words: "Can I schedule a meeting with you...?"

After four months they finally have awakened to the fact that failing is no longer an option. It's a certainty.

Warned a few weeks into the term that they should drop the course because they're already behind, they stubbornly dig in their Ugg-shod heels and swear they'll catch up. But they don't. They come to class and doze. They shrug off deadlines and skip exams. They just shuffle slower and slower toward the inevitable.

What can I do to pass this class?

Invent a time machine, set it for mid-August and start all over. That's about the size of it, kiddo.

I had a lot of problems this semester. I'm seeing three counselors. I'm on medication. My asthma. My peanut allergy. My colon. My migraines. My parents. My boyfriend. My girlfriend. My roommate.

The excuses blend into a chorus of desperation. Sung in a minor key.

If I don't pass this class, I have to stay another year! If I don't get a B, I'll lose my scholarship!

You steel yourself against them. Rules are rules. You read my syllabus. You had the schedule. There are no makeup exams. There is no extra credit. You cannot do another paper.

My group kicked me off the project. I had a car accident over the weekend. My computer got fried. My backpack was stolen.

And inside your head, bees swarm.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


Two college girls chatting at Celebrity Bakery (that's really what it's called).

First girl: "So when is your birthday again?"

Second girl: "Four days from now."

First: "Twenty-one!"

Second (picking idly at cranberry-orange muffin): "Yeah, finally."

First: "What're you getting from Momzo?"

Second: "Botox treatments."

First: "Coo-uhl. You're so lucky."

Second: "It's what she gave me last year though. So, like, blah blah whatever. I'd rather get a nice watch."

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Scions and titans and heirs, oh my is running a weeklong look at what’s wrong with American universities. Interesting series. But their writers haven’t addressed what I think is really going on with college education right now. It’s not about overhauling the majors or “morality-based learning” or rediscovering “great books.”

No, like healthcare and air travel, the higher ed system is ailing. And it’s going to take a long time to heal it.

What infected it? To start with, money. To get more of it, universities adopted the corporate model. They sent their professors and administrators to the sorts of idiotic, rah-rah management training seminars that corporations used in their attempts to re-focus employees on what was really important—the reaping of higher and higher profits. And what “profits” are these non-profit schools looking for? Money in the form of wealthier students, donors with deeper pockets, corporations willing to fork out millions in return for a “branded” department or a new building with the mega-corp’s name in big gold letters facing the campus.

I sat through a two-hour seminar last year at which the names of “peer universities” (schools about the same size) were flashed on a big screen, along with their hefty endowment figures. Our campus’ endowment was too far behind them, we were told by the provost. We needed to rev up revenue to catch up to our fellow private schools. This was the only required-attendance meeting for faculty last year (as I recall). No mention was made of inspiring students, engaging in meaningful research or anything having to do with actual education. It was all about dollars and the getting of more of them.

I saw newspapers do it in the 1980s and 1990s. No longer was it the goal of the reporters and editors to get the truth and print it to serve the readers. The goal was shifted to profits. The content of newspapers was redesigned to save money on production (trim the staff to bare bones, shrink the size of the pages to save dollars on newsprint, cut down on expenses for reporter travel and out-of-city bureaus). To boost advertising, reporters were dissuaded from writing stories that would offend the department stores, car dealers, grocery chains and other mainstays who bought the biggest chunks of ad space. To fool the readers into thinking they were getting more when they were really getting much, much less, papers promoted themselves in ad campaigns touting the thinner, less informative product as “new and improved.”

Shifting to academia, I have seen the whole scenario play out again. The tuition goes up and the breadth and depth of the education gets narrower and shallower. The university’s website touts “a private university in the heart” of the best neighborhood in the city. The “liberal” disappears from “liberal arts” because it scares away the right-wingers.

Early in the fall semester, departments throw tailgate parties and homecoming brunches to attract more students as majors. These are fun things to do and being a “fun major” is emphasized above all else.

Too much course work isn’t fun. Assignments and exams too numerous? Get rid of finals. Eliminate Friday classes. Dumb it all down and they will come. It will be more fun. Go drinking with your classes. Order in pizzas. Give more “group project” assignments that will let the strong lead the weak to higher grades. That's fun.

Having fun insures good word of mouth among the students. The more majors who sign on, the more money from the university coffers will be assigned to the department. The bigger the budget, the more “instructor lines” will open up. The more instructors, the more classrooms can be requested. The more classrooms, the more urgent need for a stand-alone building or separate wing to house the department. And above all, the higher the departmental profile in terms of money donated, the more powerful the department chair will feel.

“We need to brand this department,” the chair I worked for said in a faculty meeting. “Find a donor who’s willing to give us $10 million and we’ll put his name on the building.”

To find that donor, we professors were encouraged to exploit our contacts in media and big business. A bogus “Board of Advisors” for the major was thrown together made up of executives from public relations, marketing and advertising firms. Dinners were catered for them, at which the most attractive students and glad-handy professors were put on display as evidence of the department’s greatness. (More than once, one of these “advisors” told me privately that they knew they were being used and it didn’t matter because they were only agreeing to be on the “board” as a resume-fattener for themselves. None of them ever really did much “advising” and their revenue streams toward the department were little more than a trickle.)

In the never-ending search for funding, even we adjunct slobs were told to comb our class rolls looking for scions of the rich and powerful whose parents could be tapped by our chairperson for checks with many zeroes.

Scholars, be damned. Heirs, come here.

The effect of all this is that money talks and education walks. The constant emphasis on money redefines us teachers and forces us to act as profess-whores.

Don’t even get started on the research grant-grubbing (which leads to dubious research in the name of corporate branding), the textbook racket, the fluffy “courses” that require students to take expensive trips to D.C. and Manhattan, where they are trotted in front of well-heeled alumni and then awarded hours of credit for their efforts. (Instructors are paid handsomely for chaperoning these trips.)

Before World War II, only the upper-crusters could afford to send their offspring to college. The GI Bill changed that, allowing ordinary Joes to get degrees and move into professions. In my day, government grants and low-interest loans helped working-class students like me pay college tuition and expenses. We earned degrees and repaid the government from the meager earnings of our first jobs. And we were happy to do it.

Now with the government grants dried up and even state universities charging tuitions and fees more than double what we paid for a private university education in the 1970s, we’re seeing the working class, financially strapped students getting shut out of higher ed all over again. Sure, they can do community college and hope for a two-year scholarship for junior and senior years. Yes, they can work full-time and get through in five or six or seven years. But it's more of a struggle than it used to be. Way more.

It should not be this way. Universities shouldn’t be selling themselves to the Mercedes-and-merlot crowd with the same marketing strategies used by high-end resorts and gated communities. But that's exactly what's happening. Get the rich kids in. They can pay their own way. Make sure not to flunk them, because they're cash customers and we need to retain, retain, retain. Let them buy a degree on agreeable terms and as alums they’ll endow chairs and stick their names on buildings. It’s good business. It's investing in the future. What future is there in a scholarshipper who wants to go into the Peace Corps?

A new workout facility recently opened on the campus where I taught. It’s a marvel, complete with skylights, indoor climbing wall, indoor lap pool, water wall, state-of-the-art weight machines. You name it, they have the dernier cri of health club paraphernalia. To pay for this thing, the school raised tuition 6 percent over the past two years.

Elsewhere on campus, in many of the classrooms, students still sit on cracked plastic half-desks purchased in the 1960s. Ceiling tiles are missing in every building except the very newest. Water fountains don’t work. The main library is beset with mold and mildew. Air-conditioning and heat sputter under the cutting edge technology of the Reagan era.

But those things sit low on the list of repairs when surveys of prospective students reveal that a slick health club-like facility for doing squats, lunges and sit-ups a few times a week is a high priority when the country club kids are deciding which school to attend.

If students really do haul their tight tushies over to use all the stuff in the new “Center for Lifetime Sports,” they will be healthier than ever.

It’s college itself that’s looking a little pale.

Word Nerds, We Have a Winner

Lucille wins the most recent Word Nerd challenge--creating new slogans for cities and towns. We had many excellent entries but Lucille got me with Chicago: Porkchopolis. And the rest of her list is just as good.

So, Lucille, send me your snailmail address ( and I'll zip you out a "taterquoise" bracelet as soon as this batch is done.

I'm behind on Word Nerd Quizzes this week because of travel, but I'll catch up.

Saw this neighborhood sign: "Big Graj Sale."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Rocking South Beach

I'm back from my long weekend in pastel-washed/Art Deco'y/super-gay Miami Beach. Leaving 90-degree sunshine and landing in 50-degree blustery Dallas was a shock. I was still wearing flip-flops! With sand between my toes!

Conference-wise, kind of a letdown. But who doesn't have a good time in South Beach? Stroll, eat at a sidewalk cafe, hit the beach, check out the bods (topless sunbathing! by ladies in their 70s!), shop a little, stroll some more, stay up late under the full moon on the beach. What a life.


I interviewed Eve Ensler while I was in Miami (for an upcoming column in Dallas Observer) She is there through Nov. 27 performing her new show, The Good Body, at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. (It opens in Dallas Dec. 6.) As a sort of older-wiser follow-up to The Vagina Monologues, The Good Body is Ensler's one-woman rant about her flabby stomach. But it's much more than that. It's about women's conflicts over body image. It's about media's mixed messages about beauty. It's angry and funny and political. Ensler is a dynamic actress with a real knack for impersonation (she does dead-on Helen Gurley Brown and Isabella Rossellini). The show has a great message for the thin-obsessed young women like the ones who kept fainting in their desks from hunger in my college classes. And she speaks to older women depressed at the sad, saggy things that happen on 50-year-old physiques. Great show. Great woman to talk to. More on that later.

Will catch up with gossip, lessons and some new college stories over the next couple of days. And I'll post the winner of the last Word Nerd contest as soon as I can make up my mind. Thanks to all readers for playing the home game.

Great to be home! And if you're anywhere near South Beach, eat at Big Pink (Collins Ave. between 1st and 2nd). It's open 24 hours. As is the rest of the town.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Prof Rides Again!

One quick post before I wing off to South Beach for a long weekend conference thingy.

To answer some emails: Yes, more stories are to come about uni-life. But between my freelance assignments (some really juicy ones have come my way), the public speaking I've been invited to do, dealing with the book and all that -- my blogging has slowed down. Sorry about that. The blog must be fed! And sometimes I don't even get to the computer until midnight or after. Since my obsessive need to complete five or more games of Scrabble Blast! online kills a large chunk of the nighttime, it's often the wee-est of hours before I start the bloggage. You know how it goes.

Two news items to report:

I have secured a teaching position for the Spring 2006 semester. Another adjunct job (is there any other kind of college gig these days?) at a lovely local campus. I'll be teaching film criticism. The people there are kind and generous. The students are great. I've guest-lectured several times there, which is why I got the offer. I won't mention where it is exactly because of the little gremlins at my former campus who seem determined to toss great lumps of merde in my path everywhere I go. Have I mentioned the harassing phone calls? And that the student making them is so dumb (and probably drunk) that she doesn't realize her phone number pops up on the Caller ID everytime she punches in my digits?

Second item--I've been invited to join a panel on women and blogging at the South By Southwest Interactive festival (aka SXSW) in Austin next March. More details to come on that. Looks like a fabu weekend down there and I'd love for some of y'all to attend so I can meet you face to face.

Please leave the merde at home, though.

Oh, yeah. I had a great lunch with "Dr. March." Away from campus, he's really funny and relaxed. We yakked about politics and ate French food at a sunny sidewalk cafe. Couldn't have been nicer.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Writing Workshop Lesson 12: Stacking the Quotes

Howdy, writerkins! Sorry class is late this week. We're winding up our lessons on how to get and write interview/profiles.

Long ago, all on my own (since I didn't go to journalism school), I figured out the "recipe" for writing the interview/profile feature story. By taking scissors to stories in People magazine, Vanity Fair and other pubs, then cutting the stories apart paragraph by paragraph and outlining the order that they were in, I discovered that most celebrity interview/profiles (as opposed to the Q&A format) followed pretty much the same template.

Here it is:
1. Opening scene. Describes where the interview is taking place (location, time, day, season of the year... as in "Close to 4 p.m. on a warm autumn day, Jennifer Aniston sweeps into the tiny cafe just off Sunset Boulevard...). Written in the present, active tense, this opening paragraph pulls the reader right into the story with a "you are there" immediacy.

2. Introduce the subject. Here, the writer describes the person being profiled. Who they are, what they do, what they're wearing at the interview (don't forget accessories!) and whether they're early or late for the appointment (almost always mentioned, don't know why).

3. Let the subject start talking. The first big hunk of quote-age by the interviewee is usually something colorful, slightly revealing, maybe a little cheeky. A nice anecdote is good, if your person is capable of relating a good anecdote (watching Ms. Aniston on umpteen talk shows this week, she obviously isn't).

4. The news peg. This is the "What are we here for?" paragraph that provides the "plug" for whatever movie, book, CD or sex tape the celebrity is pushing at the moment (and thus is sitting for interviews).

5. The bio. Somewhere toward the middle of the story, the writer gets in the wayback machine and rehashes the life and career of the celeb. More quotes are interjected. Quotes from other published profiles can show up here (fully attributed, of course). Ex-wives' names are mentioned. Stints in rehab are chronicled. The rehash should move in chronological order up to the present and right back to...

6. More about the current movie/book/CD/sex tape. They get another plug right about here. Some quasi-fascinating discussion of character, co-stars, director, etc. You know, a mention of "Oscar buzz" or "stretching with this character." Blah, blah.

7. A look toward the future. This is where the subject talks about what he or she is doing next or wants to do next. Don't spend a lot of time here. Just a sentence or two.

8. Back to the scene of the crime. Wind up the story with another "setting the scene" description. "As the sun sinks slowly into the west..." or "Draining the last droplets of dry martini from the finger-smudged glass..."--man, writers just love stuff like this. This paragraph sort of escorts the subject and the reader out of the restaurant (or wherever) together.

9. Walkaway quote. Usually these stories give the subject the last word. Keep in mind throughout the writing of these pieces that it's up to the writer how to "stack the quotes." You don't necessarily (and rarely will) place quotes in the order in which they were said. It's kosher to "juggle quotes" within a piece to make the story flow. Just be sure you stay honest and keep the quotes accurate. You'll frequently hear the "walkaway" while your subject is talking. Make a note to yourself right then that it would make a good "snapper."

10. The end.

Here are links to three interview/profiles from the Guardian newspaper. Although their writers tend to use "I" a little too often (so much nicer when the writer in a story remains "invisible"), they do follow the template fairly closely. Profile of Jake Gyllenhaal. Of Kevin Spacey. And Donald Sutherland.

Questions? Leave them in comments here. Or give us links to pieces you find in your reading that either follow the template or bust it in some interesting way.

You don't have to write by the numbers, you know. This is just a surefire way to get started when you have one of these stories staring at you on deadline. Like any recipe, it's a basic list of ingredients that welcomes creative improvisation.

OK, kids! I'm off to a conference in Miami and won't be blogging again until after November 15. But keep in touch and I'll answer all email when I return. Write on!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Friday classes? Quel horreur...and why are the locker handles so sticky?

The NYT reports that colleges want Friday classes back. What next? Compulsory final exams?

As though by an occult hand (an old phrase journos used to sneak into copy), college admissions folk are sussing out the "too polished" essays. Here's another NYT story.

Remember high school woodshop? Well, that has a whole new meaning at some high schools, according to the Washington Post. And all I can say is, ewwww. (WP does require registration. Sorry.)

Thursday, November 03, 2005

"But you can't destroy my dream!"

"Could I talk to you about my grade?"

"Sure. Come on in."

"I know I haven't been doing too well this semester and I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to get a B in this class. I have to get a B, actually a B-plus, or I can't be accepted into the major."

"Hmm, looking at your grades here. We're 10 weeks into the semester. We have about five weeks to go. You have one major assignment left and then the final presentation. You have a 61 average. Looks like you failed to turn in one whole assignment. And you've missed a lot of classes."

"I know. My family made me come home that week because my brother was in the hospital."

"Anything serious?"

"Um, he needed an operation...for a hernia."

"And you had to be there? Are you a surgeon? Sorry. Just kidding. So you missed one of the six assignments and you skipped a whole week of classes. Not good."

"Is there anything I can do for extra credit or anything?"

"Not really. Your best bet is to drop the class now before the final withdrawal deadline. You're looking at a D at best. And that's only if you ace the final two projects."

(Tears appear.)

"But I have to pass this class and get into this major! It's my dream!"

"Your dream is to major in public relations?"


"Judging from your work so far...."

"You can't destroy my dream!"

"Tell me something. Did you work on your high school paper? Do you keep a journal? Have you been over to the campus paper to get reporting assignments? Covered any on-campus events? Are you doing any writing at all outside of class?"

"I really haven't had time this semester."

"Name anyone who's well known in the field of public relations."


"Anyone at all. In PR."


"Tell me in a few words what `public relations' is."

"Well, um, I think it's like you work for companies and help them do events and parties, right?"

"No, that's catering and party planning. For that you go to catering school. Look, if you came to me and said your dream was to be a chef and you had never studied cooking before, never cooked a meal, didn't know a wok from crockpot, couldn't pick Julia Child out of a lineup--and you were flunking Intro to Kitchen Basics--how serious should I think you are about your dream?"


"So there's nothing I can do for extra credit?"

Fundraising vs. academic credentials for college prezzes

More college presidents from outside academic ranks
(AP) -- The outgoing president of Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, Roger Martin is an Oxford-trained church historian. His successor is a career fundraiser who brought in about $3 billion for his last two employers.
The appointment last week of Robert Lindgren to lead the small, 175-year old liberal arts college about 15 miles north of Richmond is the latest example of a trend in higher education: Schools are looking for more than a scholar these days when they hire a president.
Lindgren fully grasps Randolph-Macon's academic mission, said search committee chair Harold Starke. But, he added, "fundraising was certainly high on the list (of criteria), as it would be for any college of any size today."

The rest of the story here.

Word Nerd Challenge #11

A creative endeavor this week. So gather your monkeys and your typewriters and see if you can come up with some new city slogans and nicknames. Like we know New York is "The Big Apple" and Chicago is "The Windy City" (even though it's been proven that on average, Dallas is much windier -- today we have 45 mph gusts that will really play havoc with a wrap skirt).

Pick five cities, large or small, famous or un, and give them new slogans or nicknames. Be funny, be mean, be creative.

I'll start.

Los Angeles = Lo-Cal So-Cal.
Dallas = Big Hair and Bad Air.
Plano = Make It a Habit (for you out-of-towners, Plano, just north of Big D, frequently makes headlines for the rampant drug usage in its affluent high school population).
Cincinnati = Where Homophobia Starts at Home.
Waco = Open 24/7 for Jesus.

I know you'll do better. This week's winner (as determined by yours truly) will receive his or her very own handmade (again by yours truly) "taterquoise" bracelet. Spud jewelry! Post your answers in comments here. Get a-writin' right now!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

CNN picks up on HP "Thug Day"

Looks like Cable News Network spent some time in Highland Park today taping a story on the high school's "Thug Day" incident. (See post below for details.)

And "Dr. March" emailed me this morning. He thanked me for the post (again, see below) and invited me to lunch. I tell you, the man is a prince.

Writing Workshop Lesson 11: One Last Question

Some of the best stories I ever wrote made it into print because of something I learned long ago. It's this: that an interview doesn't end until you're in the car, tape recorder off, driving away from your subject. Remember, if you're talking to a reporter, you should assume you're always on the record, even if you're standing in the parking lot after the formal part of the one-to-one chat has ended. A reporter is always in "record" mode, even if he or she isn't even taking notes.

Making sure to ask that one last dumb question has resulted in some of the best answers I've ever gotten. Like the time I was assigned to interview a longtime anchorman on a local TV station. He didn't give a rip about doing it and had scheduled only a 12-minute chat in the lobby of the station. We didn't even sit down. I kept my overcoat on.

Clearly, the guy was suffering career burnout after 30-something years on the air doing the 6 and 10 newscasts. Whatever I asked about his career, he ended up moaning and groaning about the work habits of his co-workers, whom he considered lazy and sloppy. He hated that they called a newscast "the show" and he grumbled mightily about budget cuts by the station's network owners. The whole biz had gone to hell in a handbasket, as far as he was concerned.

As he steered me toward the door, all I could think was, jeez, what could I get out of this? The story was meant to be a tribute to the man and all he'd done was complain. Almost reluctantly, I resorted to my usual "one last question": "Is there anything you'd like to tell me that I didn't ask you about?"

It's as ham-handed and sophomoric a question as any journalist can ask. But you'd be amazed sometimes... like, this time. Retiring Anchorman paused a moment, visibly relaxed and answered, "Well, I only cried twice on the air in all these years."

OK, now we have a story. Tape recorder still running, I merely said, "Tell me about those times." And what he told me made for the entire 50-inch piece the next day. First instance, he visited an American military cemetery in France to do a live report on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. He couldn't help choking up in such a place. The second time was more dramatic. He'd just started co-anchoring with a 23-year-old journo-grad. It was her first job and she was trying hard to succeed. She showed up early every afternoon to prep for the 6. So when in her second or third week she wasn't at the station by 5 p.m. one day, the anchorman and the news director were concerned. They sent a staffer to her apartment to check. Tragically, she'd suffered a cerebral hemmorhage and died. The staffer found her body and called 911. Word came back to the station just moments before airtime. It was left to the anchor to explain to viewers what had just happened. He openly wept as he shared the sad news.

And with that, I had a real story, one that humanized the guy and made viewers really sorry to see him retire. He had the send-off he deserved.

One last question can make all the difference. Don't be afraid to ask the dumb question, the obvious one, the "Is there anything I haven't asked you about?" question. I think now that the veteran anchorman had really wanted to tell me those things and that last question was the opening he needed. Since I hadn't lived in that city at the time of those incidents, I wouldn't have known to ask about them specifically.

The "one last question" gambit has worked in interviews I've done with Julie Andrews, Jerry Seinfeld, Mark Burnett and so many others. And with celebs, that final shot is often the toughest question in your arsenal, the one you've built up to during the entire interview.

Do you have a "last question" story to share? I'd love to read about it in comments here. Or if you have a question about asking questions, please post that, too. I'll do my best to answer in a timely manner.

Next week, I'll share the surefire template for how to write an interview/profile story. From People mag to The New York Times, it's a recipe that never fails when you have lots of quotes to juggle and no idea where to start.

OK, more later. Keep reading! Keep writing! And go see some art, wherever, whenever.