Aug 29

So You Want a BFA. . .

Young people considering writing careers sometimes ask about the BFA>MFA track and I tell them, "No! Anything but that!" And mean it. Biology! Classics! Business! Please, please use your undergraduate years to learn something besides creative writing! I know a New Yorker short-story writer who graduated from the Colorado School of Mines. The story that made him famous is about cavemen.

In my experience the best possible background if teenagers can't wait to see themselves in print before they're really ready is journalism. Journalism school teaches how to observe and write about something besides yourself. You learn to write hard news, features and profiles, all requiring fantastically different strategies and skills. You practice doing research, interpreting statistics and trends, doing interviews. I hope J-school still teaches ethics and accountability. It pushes you out on the street and tells you not to come back until you get and write the story.

That happens to be my own background. There wasn't a BFA in creative writing so I wanted to be an English major. My parents wanted me to learn a trade so I went to J-school and owe it everything. I was taught to write clearly and be responsible for what I wrote. Also, ultimately my work serves others, whether it's information or entertainment. All those apply to creative writing. I lived on what I learned in J-school while getting my MFA. BFA doesn't mean you learned anything about writing. Journalism means that you did. And you know the famous names who were journalists before they were novelists: Dreiser, Hemingway, and so on.

BFA>MFA>(and, oh no!) Ph.D in Creative Writing . . .and you'll still have to hand over your writing sample to answer, "Can you write?"
Apr 05

Why Katie Couric Didn't Wash

The journalism people take seriously nowadays comes from ordinary folks acting as journalists, posting videos and opinions, and the trick to their success is that they are unencumbered by a corporation's bottom line or the strictures imposed on the news by advertisers. They might be crazy but at least nobody controls what they do. When I worked on a dailly newspaper I was not allowed to cover a strike at Boston's biggest department store because it was a major advertiser. Everyone in town knew about the strike but the paper pretended it wasn't happening. My paper didn't even like reporters even to leave the office because they thought maybe we'd go to some bar and party, or otherwise stick it to the man. It's kind of hard to do good community journalism when you aren't allowed out of the building. We gathered information by phone or rewrote press releases and printed them as news. This was immoral. We had become journalists to serve the citizenry with trustworthy information. We had been trained to be personally accountable to the truth. We resented being treated as inmates and became cynical about the profession we had loved.

You can't have good solid serious journalism without journalists who love what they do and take it seriously and don't have to be people-pleasers. They must have freedom. The newspaper editorial was invented specifically so the suits would have their space to vent. Now they use the news to vent and we have what's disparagingly called "the media", very obviously brokers and spin doctors, and if nobody wants to read newspapers anymore or watch TV's nightly news, it's no mystery as to why.

Despite the serious, prizewinning work she had done as a journalist, America's former sweetheart Katie Couric was not taken seriously as a nightly news anchor and after five years -- granted, an era where nightly network news is no longer important -- is on her way out. It isn't her femaleness (although the cuteness she used to stay on top at Today works against her now). She's just no good at being stuck in front of a camera with nothing else to do, nowhere else to put her energy but her voice and determined facial expression, no one to argue with. It's the dullest, most "figurehead" of the high-visibility jobs. She's a journalist who wasn't creating, wasn't writing, wasn't free except to do the occasional special or interview (such as with Sarah Palin). It gave Couric a discomfited, even constipated expression. Who wants to watch that?