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Is one lesson of Matthew Power’s death that we need to slow down?

That was the take-away question for me after I read Brad Wieners’ “No Way Is Matt Power Gone” tribute and report in BloombergBusinessweek earlier today.

I didn’t know Power personally, as several of my friends did, but his death was unsettling for all the obvious reasons: He was young. He wasn’t, by any accounts I’d read, interested in derring-do for derring-do’s sake, and, of course, it meant the loss of a gifted storyteller. But after reading Wieners’ piece, Power’s death felt unsettling for another reason: Unless there were underlying medical issues that no one knows about, it might have been an evitable death.

Wieners explains that Power flew from 20-degree Farenheit New York City to Uganda, where the temperature, according to a companion, was between 100 and 113 degrees. His plane landed and he hit the ground running, as most all of us who do this kind of work do. Wieners writes:

“Matt may have been a free spirit, but he paid a New York mortgage and worked hard to afford it. Reviewing Matt’s itinerary—red-eye, trans-Atlantic flight followed by a seven-hour drive to the trailhead the day of his arrival, then joining the expedition on his second day in country—I got a shiver of recognition. I’d have made the same mistake. Not just failing to give heat the respect I do altitude. Failing to give it more time. Departing from New York, where there is never a moment to lose, there’s no way I’d think to schedule an extra couple of days—much less the week Casa recommends to top athletes—to let my body adjust. No one has that kind of time.

[emphasis mine]

I had a shiver of recognition, too. I’ve left frigid, wintry New York for tropical climes–Belize, Suriname, Cuba–and have pushed on upon arrival despite feeling less than ready because, it seemed, there wasn’t any other choice. I’ve taken ridiculous, self-abusing flight itineraries because they were cheaper than the alternatives. I’ve packed my daily schedule from morning to midnight because if I’m going to the expense of on-the-ground-reporting, I want to make the most of it. Writers don’t build a rest day or two into our schedules because we can’t afford them–literally–and rare is the case where a publication is footing the bill for us to have a day or two to acclimate to a different environment. I’ve yet to meet an editor who has said, “You know what? We’re going to spring for an extra night in a decent hotel so you can get your bearings and rest before you go out and report this piece for us in top form.” In fact, I’ve yet to meet an editor who has paid expenses adequately, period.

The idea that Power didn’t have to die is one that enrages. And yet, in a publishing world that’s driven by a news cycle that’s way shorter than 24 hours and balance sheets that favor other priorities over paying for good reporting, it’s not surprising and it’s not likely to change.

Public Service Announcement: One Week Left for SATW Lowell Thomas Award Entries

If you’re planning on submitting entries for The Society of American Travel Writers Foundation’s Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards, heads up: you’ve only got one week left to enter.

This is not the year to procrastinate, folks; SATWF has moved to an online submission manager for entries. While the system is ultimately loads faster than the manual completion of forms and printing and posting of multiple copies of articles, it takes a bit of navigating to figure out. Plus, you have to register for a free account and get approved to enter the contest before you can upload your submissions, which can take up to 24 hours.

So get on it! All of the instructions can be found here.

Last Call: Deadline for South Carolina Writers’ Residency Approaches

You've got two weeks left to apply for this residency.

You’ve got two weeks left to apply for this residency.

True, I’m not exactly the biggest booster of my hometown–after all, I left for college and have never entertained the thought of moving back–BUT (and it’s a big “but”) there are a lot of interesting things happening in and around Spartanburg, South Carolina (I just wrote about one of them for The Magazine), and the folks who are responsible for this residency are also behind many of those other exciting projects.

Actually, there are two residencies–a summer residency and a nine-month residency; it’s the application for the former that’s due on April 1. If you’re interested in the longer residency, the deadline to submit your application is June 2, 2014.

Information about both residencies can be found on the Hub City Writers’ Project website.

Worth Reading: “Yellow Prose of Texas: Dueling Fracking Stories Raise Plagiarism Questions”

I’ve told you a dozen times that I intend to write a post about a phenomenon I refer to as “derivative journalism,” and I still intend to do so.

The problem is, every time I sit down to work on said post, yet another example of the varied forms derivative journalism takes pops up and distracts me. It’s a big subject and, sadly, one that’s becoming more common and more complex.

In the meantime, I want to share an article worth reading that addresses one facet of the phenomenon. “Yellow Prose of Texas: Dueling Fracking Stories Raise Plagiarism Questions” was published in the print issue of The New York Observer on March 3, 2014. Unfortunately, the version published online is not the complete article as it was published originally. In the print piece, journalist Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke details how a 10,000-word feature by Bryan Mealer, writing for Texas Monthly, was seemingly appropriated by a reporter for USA Today– by appropriated, I mean that the USA Today reporter sought the same primary source as Mealer in the same small Texas town, to tell, essentially, the same (albeit condensed) story.

Unless you’re a writer yourself, you may not realize how (increasingly) common this kind of appropriation is. It’s happened to me and it’s happened, more recently, to a colleague; both of us had gone to a hard-to-reach place and talked to a variety of disparate, far-flung sources about a topic that, at least in my case, was fairly specific and niche (scientific research on the military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba). It was clear that our work had been picked up by another person and “remixed” as their own original reporting. Sadly (and frustratingly), editors failed to catch the intellectual theft and, in my colleague’s case, at least, weren’t well-read enough to have even realized that the topic had been reported on–originally–by someone else in another publication (editorial myopia being a topic for a whole other post).

There are a number of points in Bloomgarden-Smoke’s article that are important and merit wider conversation, including these stand-outs:

-The initial exchange that occurred between Mealer and the USA Today writer took place on twitter. For me, at least, this raises the question: Was there an attempt to address the grievance before it was moved to a public forum? (If not, my opinion is: understandable frustration, but poor form).

-The initial exchange that occurred between the publications’ respective editors also took place on twitter. In my opinion, twitter doesn’t seem like the proper forum to address or correct these types of grievances, tempting as it is to sound off about them.

-A source Bloomgarden-Smoke quotes in her article says something that I think should be obvious, but clearly is not: “[T]he best policy is to be liberal with acknowledging previous reporting,” the journalist summarizes, citing the source by adding, “It doesn’t cost anything to be generous with credit.”

Finally, I think it’s worth reiterating an idea you’ve heard me hold forth about here on more than one occasion: Why can’t these writers find their own stories? Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery, at least not in journalism. Whatever interested the USA Today writer about Mealer’s story could–no, should– have prompted him to take Mealer’s story further, to find an aspect of the story that hadn’t been told. Instead, it was apparently a rehash of Mealer’s original story, passed off as his own sui generis reporting. To me, this is the saddest form of writing: the kind that lacks any impetus originating in the writer’s own curiosity.

Have you had any personal experiences with this kind of derivative journalism? Do you consider it a form of plagiarism? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

What We Can Learn from Laura Ingalls Wilder and John Steinbeck

A couple months back, when my kids and I were visiting my mom, Gigi began reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, the first in the “Little House” series, to Mariel. I had started reading Ingalls Wilder’s books by the time I was in first grade, after my grandmother began giving the hardcovers to me for my birthday and at Christmas.

I was thrilled that my mom was picking up the tradition and introducing the “Little House” books to my daughter. I was (and remain) a voracious reader, but I have never had the best memory for what I’ve read. Ingalls Wilder’s books were an exception. I remember entire chapters and scenes that, read nearly 30 years ago, retain vivid detail for me: Christmas in the Big Woods and making maple syrup candy; bolts of calico fabric and barrels of dry goods at the general store in town; dolls made out of corncobs; the description of Sundays, trundle beds, and Jack the brindled bulldog.

When it was time for us to fly home, I brought Little House in the Big Woods with us so I could pick up reading where my mom left off. And each night, as I read to Mariel, I feel the same wonder and excitement I felt reading these books as a child. I feel, in short, as if I am in the Big Woods, living alongside Laura and Mary and baby Carrie in their log cabin.

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Why do these books stay with me decades later?

There’s the nostalgia factor, inarguably; my grandmother gave me these books and so they had a particular significance. They were my books. With each gift, I grew closer to having my first collection of books, and I treasured them. But as I reread Little House in the Big Woods now, reading, as I do everything, as both a reader and a writer, I think there’s something more than that, too. Ingalls Wilder’s prose isn’t astonishing, but it’s straightforward, even simple, and above all, extremely descriptive. The green buttons on Ma’s delaine dress, the way Pa cleaned his gun… Ingalls Wilder’s eye for details and her ability to convey those were so sharp. There’s no artifice in her writing, no clever conceits or sophisticated techniques; there’s just good, unhurried storytelling.

We could stand for more of that today, if you ask me.
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A few months ago, a man who recently emigrated from China asked me, upon learning that I am a writer, how he could write better essays. He told me that he’d been told about the inverted pyramid style of writing, but he seemed unsatisfied with its basic principles. “I know a piece of writing should have a beginning, middle, and an end,” he said, “but…” he trailed off in frustration, not having full command of the English vocabulary to express what he wanted to say.

I told him that there are many ways to write. I wanted to elaborate, to explain some of those ways, but I wasn’t sure how. What kind of writing did he want to be doing? Writing for work, say, can be considerably different than writing a personal essay. I ended up telling him that reading was the best way of learning how to write, that by reading widely, he’d pick up on different styles and techniques, adopting and adapting the ones that felt most comfortable to him. He liked that answer and asked if I could recommend some American writers.

“Steinbeck,” I said, without thinking it over too much. I happened to be reading Cannery Row, which I’d plucked off our bookshelf for no other reason than the fact it wouldn’t weigh down my backpack. But reading it, I was reminded why I like Steinbeck so much, and it’s for the same reasons I like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Steinbeck isn’t overreaching; he’s not trying too hard, as so many writers are, to be a good writer. In fact, I’d read shortly before I picked up Cannery Row some criticism (can’t remember who wrote it) that Steinbeck’s problem was that he was too simple, too straightforward among his contemporaries, not sophisticated enough.

Maybe, but who cares? The guy had the ability to visualize a scene and make it real, to make it seem as if the setting was a place you recognized… or at least you could if your life circumstances or place in time were different. His observations, his sense of human emotion, were astute. And, like Ingalls Wilder, there’s zero artifice in a Steinbeck novel. He wasn’t sitting around trying to gussy up his writing by deploying a literary device that wasn’t really necessary. He used simpler techniques, like lists, to establish a sense of place and personality. And that was enough.

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I love the complexity and near impenetrability of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which I don’t think I would have understood or enjoyed in the least had I not lived in Mexico City. I love the metaphors of rage in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the allegories and pages-long sentences of Jose Saramago’s All the Names. These are books that, each in its own way, have stayed with me. Each of these authors was deft in literary maneuvering, each mastering his own style, a style that is truly inimitable. But too many writers, I think, try too hard to achieve this kind of adeptness, and it shows. Simplicity, direct observations, a keen eye for small, rich details… these need not be confused with superficiality. Sometimes, a writer needs to know when to work a text less, to let it carry its own weight and not force upon it a device or meaning that it’s not intended to have.
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How about you? What books have stayed with you over the years, and why? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Everything You Needed to Know about Being a Better Reader, You Learned from Your Mom

My mom didn’t invent this saying, but she sure loved it:

“If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

Maybe your mom said that to you, too. Maybe it was when you complained about the one part of dinner–beets or broccoli, say–that you didn’t like rather than focus on the other parts of the meal that you really loved and for which you were grateful. Maybe it was when you said something unkind about another kid, even though you’d experienced the sting of being wounded by someone else’s words yourself. Whatever the scenario, I’m sure your mom pulled that stock phrase of parenting out of her play book and used it on you at least once.

I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot this weekend, as I process some of the criticism of my long-form feature on Roads + Kingdoms and Slate (a longer post about that coming soon) and as I’ve serendipitously come across some posts by other writers who have been feeling the sting of impulsive reader comments, like this one from The Joy of Cooking website. That post really resonated with me because the writers explained so personally and passionately the pain of working their asses off, spending lots of their own money on their work, and being as meticulous as anyone can be, only to receive sniping email comments about how the site could obviously function better or why in the world wouldn’t they post the recipe for chess pie? (Answer: Because they’d actually like to make a living by selling their cookbook).

I don’t want to be overly pitiful or pitiable about this–I’m fully aware that the hazards and downsides of most other jobs are far worse–but one of the most frustrating aspects of being a writer is that the reader almost never knows what happens in the making of an article or essay. They don’t know what you have to leave out, nor do they know why. They don’t know what gets changed along the writing-to-publication trajectory. They don’t know that you can read your own writing two dozen times, have two editors review it meticulously almost as many times, and still write “flaunts” when you meant “flouts” because, well, we tend to read what we meant to write, not what’s actually on the page. But the reader, of course, catches it, and then seems to think he needs to track down your email address and school you on your wrong word choice. (Yes, that happened.). And in most cases, they don’t know your larger body of work and they don’t know you, so they’re ever so quick to make assumptions about things that aren’t even related to the piece of writing they’re criticizing… like how much you’ve been paid to write the piece (and they always assume it’s been a lot).

Now I want to be clear: I am not against being critical. Criticism is good. It’s important. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more critical of herself and others than I. But I don’t know anyone who likes being on the receiving end of criticism that isn’t framed thoughtfully or which is presented in a sneering, hostile, or arrogant tone. Listen to Mom: If you can’t frame your criticism constructively, step away from the keyboard.

There’s another facet of this, too. Don’t just feel compelled to comment when you’ve got constructive criticism. Reach out to writers to let them know when their work touches, informs, or inspires you. I’ve been doing this more lately–even if it’s just to give a quick “Hey, thanks for your article about widgets” shout-out via twitter–and it feels good. I’ve taken photos of writers’ books I’ve seen on bookshelves in places where I’m traveling and sent them a quick note: “Hey! Look what I saw at the Hudson News in the Memphis Airport- your book!” Writers love this. Writers need it. It turns the line that runs between the writer and reader–often completely invisible– into a circle. It breaks the isolation that often traps the writer behind his or her byline. And often, it starts a conversation, relationship, or quick exchange about shared interests. It makes the writer feel good, and trust me, writers need to feel good because there’s a whole lot about our career that attempts to chip away at one’s sense of self.

What Are Your Writing Goals for 2014?

I used to think the last two weeks of the year were a frightening time for a freelancer: editors gleefully set their “On vacation! See you in the new year!” e-mail auto-responses; accountants throw their hands up and say “Screw it!” to whatever writer invoices remain unpaid once the clock chimes 5:00 pm on December 23; and the writer’s to-do list, meanwhile, becomes a tedious menu of tidy-up tasks. Which articles were accepted but haven’t yet been published (and why?). Who still owes me money? Close out receipts for the tax year. And so on.

I’ve always thought I’d like to take those last two weeks of the year–or a good two days, at least–and head off on a retreat, just me, myself, and I. (My husband laughs. He thinks I’m joking). The goal wouldn’t be to get spiritually centered, though that’s not a bad idea, but to get professionally focused by taking stock of the nearly 12 months behind me. What did I do right? What did I accomplish and of what did I feel most proud? How did I do financially? What could I have done better? Did I work smarter or harder (maybe both)? What did the answers to these questions tell me about how I could strategize for the coming year?^ In the absence of retreating, I do what most working parents do: keep changing the diaper, stirring the soup, and wiping a runny nose while thinking about these things in between preschooler questions like “Mom, what is a bullfrog?” and “Why is an egg called an egg?”.

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All things considered, 2013 was a pretty successful year. My friend Lisa Rogak reached out to me to work with her on the Pope book, and as of this writing, it has been (or is slated to be) published in 14 countries. I broke into some new outlets (Bespoke, Delta SKY, Emory Magazine, GOOD, Outside.com, Porthole, and Relish) and strengthened editorial relationships and my portfolio by expanding work with other outlets (The Latin Kitchen, National Geographic Traveler). I landed a contract to solo author a guidebook and I did just the right amount of traveling. I’d sold more of mine and Francisco’s work as a package. Editors reached out to me several times rather than the reverse, and I had a steady amount of editing work straight through December 31. I’d referred several friends to editors for work and some got into new outlets or landed choice assignments as a result, which always makes me happy. In the midst of it all, I managed to send one child off to pre-school (in NYC, this is far more complicated–and expensive–than you might think) and to give birth to another one (in other words: Mama’s got to keep the cash flow, flowing). And I won a Society of American Travel Writers Lowell Thomas Award for an article I’d written. So yes, I was happy with the year, particularly since the last two weeks of 2013 signaled plenty of promise for the beginning of 2014, too. By the end of December, January’s work slate was full and several solid publications (another piece for Porthole, a feature and profile for The Magazine, a feature for Roads + Kingdoms, and articles for National Geographic Traveler and Saveur) were pending. And I was grateful.

That didn’t mean, however, that I didn’t see room for improvement. I was still spending too much of my life at the keyboard, when I wanted to be playing with my kids or having a meaningful conversation with my husband beyond, “Hey, could you pick up a package of diapers on your way home?” We were doing better financially, but not well enough to feel like we could move to a bigger apartment. I was still (at least in my mind) doing too many service pieces and not enough of the meaty, nuanced, and better-paying features I wanted to be doing. And I was still spending too much of my own money (though I had gotten much better about this) on research expenses. How could I better manage these aspects of the freelance life in 2014?

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I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer that question definitively, but I started by making a list of the features I wanted to investigate and write in collaboration with Francisco, as well as the potential outlets where they could be a good fit. We’d had a few projects in mind for a long time, but hadn’t pursued them because the cost of doing so seemed a barrier or because I thought we didn’t yet have the portfolio to be able to pitch to the kind of outlets where these pieces could be published. The money was a reality; the portfolio excuse was just what recovering addicts would call “stinky thinking.” We clearly had a solid track record (and that’s why it’s so important to maintain a running list of your published work).

I got rid of the ineffective excuse, then, and started focusing on the money. I didn’t want to keep putting these projects off until some outlet came along, offering to pay expenses, and I didn’t want to bet possible future returns against research expenses accrued now… I’m not a good gambler. Then, a friend’s post about fellowships and grants for reporting popped into my inbox and the answer–so obvious it was embarrassing– was there. A lot of institutions have a lot of money for underreported stories. There’s a lot of competition, too, of course, but if Francisco and I could pull together proposal templates for a few of our top-pick projects, wasn’t it worth the possibility of having funding to spend some time filing applications? The process of doing so has been valuable in its own right, bringing the strengths and gaps of our ideas into sharper focus and helping us get structured and organized for future research and reporting. Soon enough, we’ll see whether the stories we think are important seem of significance to other people, too.

The lesson for you here is simple: Take a minute to take stock. What do you want out of 2014? What do you have to give? What have you been putting off pursuing in your writing or photography career… not because you’re not ready for it, but because you perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that some barrier prevents you from realizing a particular goal? How can you kick that barrier out of the way? Who and what do you need to support you?

Don’t just answer these questions in your head, though that’s a fine place to start. Put them on paper. As with your publication goals and financial goals, which I also recommend writing down so you can see them visibly, physically map out some of those larger project goals and put them in a place where you can see them. Keep yourself focused and reach out for help when you need it. A year passes so quickly. What do you want to be able to say about your work at the end of 2014?

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For one excellent take on a freelance writer/photographer’s taking stock strategy, please see my friend Lola’s pie chart assessment of her pitching and querying from 2013. She has been tabulating the outcomes of her pitching processes since 2008 and her reflections are insightful.

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