Saturday, February 27, 2016

Writers Share Their Passions at One River, Many Stories

Thursday evening I attended an unusual event, the first of a series of such called One River, Many Stories. The concept, as I understand it, is to generate stories by area writers about one theme, in this case the St. Louis River, a major feature of our Northland watershed. To prime the pump, a series of events have been created to make area writers aware of the project. And what better way to attract writers than to have other writers talk about writing?

The gathering was held in the new Ecolibrium3 building in Duluth's West End, constructed (or rehabilitated) using funds from the flood disaster that produced so much devastation a few years back. The working theme for the event was Storytelling Across Platforms.

Thursday's event consisted of a panel discussion about writing, featuring Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer Sam Cook, MPR's Dan Kraker and the enthusiastic Lucie Amundson of Locally Laid. Karen Sunderman of The Playlist served as moderator.

The 90 minute event was efficient and rich with insights about the platforms, processes and problems of being a writer in the 21st century. What a lively batch of thoughtful people spilling it out! The room felt electric. You'd never believe that just talking about writing could be so entertaining. But then again, writers are passionate people. They don't just sacrifice big chunks of their time to edit, revise and re-edit their prose unless it matters to them at some profoundly deeper level. Certainly this was evident in Thursday's gathering.

I myself took an ample quantity of notes and noticed a few others in the room with pads open, pens a-scribblin'. There was plenty of takeaway from what was shared and even as a standalone event it would have had value, but as kickoff for a series it was quite effective.

Here are some of my own notes from last Thursday...

L to R: Karen Sunderman, Sam Cook, Dan Kraker and Lucie Amundson.
After a brief introduction, Karen Sunderman asked what platforms the three writers use.

Sam Cook said his platforms were print, online, blog, Twitter, video. He began his career with the Ely Echo and the chief types of writing he does are news features and columns.

Dan Kraker has been with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) in Northeast Minnesota for the past five years. His primary platforms are radio, web, photography and -- reluctantly -- social media. His writing career began as an intern with the Utne Reader. He discovered public radio after college.

Lucie Amundson shared that her basic platform is creative non-fiction. She has been a writer for The Family Handyman among other things, and he book Locally Laid is just coming off the presses.

Sunderman: What makes a good story?

Amundson said, "Something has to happen." Kraker shared he likes action, but likes to include a little reflection at the end. Also there needs to be something at stake. He always asks himself, "Why should people care?" Interesting characters are also a part of it. Cook added that news stories "still need to be the inverted funnel." He elaborated on how he as a writer always considers his audience.

The 90-minute program was dense with great advice for young writers and reminders for veterans. Kraker mentioned the classic Hemingway observation that "you have to be willing to throw away your babies." But Amundson added that those babies can be put in a file and saved for later. She has a whole file of them.

Radio is a different medium and one thing Kraker noted was how well it can capture emotion.

Sunderman's next question pertained to interviewing.

Dan Kraker structures his interview in the straightforward who, what, when, where, why approach, but then drills down to emotion questions. Sam Cook said he consciously strives to establish rapport with a beginning set of questions, but the best questions come in response to things the subject says.

Lucie Amundson made the excellent observation that it's good to swallow your pride and be dumb People open up. Dan agreed and affirmed, "Silence is powerful."

Sunderman underscored this. "When you stop yourself and listen, amazing things happen." She's also made a career of interviewing.

Sam Cook shared that because he's written about fishing all his life people think he's an expert fisherman when in reality he's really too busy with deadlines and his writing objectives. "I don't care if I'm good at fishing. I want to be good at catching a story."

The next topic was humor. The author of Locally Laid exudes it, and explained how this aspect of her personality was formed while growing up with in a French Canadian home where the parents' English was not that good. Kraker said humor isn't his thing, but he tries to find joy in what he is doing. Sam Cook explained that he's not looking for humor but if it's there he might use it.

Sunderman next asked, "How much do you think about your audience."
Amundson says she just writes, but does think about tone. She writes for "someone who is curious. Someone who wants a good story." Kraker explained, "I think if it is surprising and interesting to me, it will be interesting to a wider audience." Cook said he very consciously thinks about a specific reader and not the masses. "I trust my gut." He said he pictures different individuals from the person who is walking out of McDonald's to the woman in the nursing home.

The last segments covered their processes, dealing with deadlines and early inspiration. For writers present it was a rewarding 90 minutes that flew by fast. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from this last section.

"Deadlines are tough, but without deadlines I wouldn't get anything done." ~Dan Kraker

"We're hardwired to respond to story." So true. But I failed to note which panelist said this. My apologies here. If you took better notes than I, send me an email and I will give proper atttirbution.

* * * *

The next meeting will undoubtedly be interesting as journalists discuss the challenges of writing about tough issues in the community. The controversial topic selected deals with the mining industry. The working title is PolyMet: How journalists report on tough issues in their community

The proposal for PolyMet Mining Corporation’s sulfide mine in northern Minnesota is only the most recent example of an issue that generates strong feelings and clear divisions in a community. When a controversial, local topic creates strong divides in a community, the job of the journalist gets precarious:
* How do journalists negotiate these kinds of stories?
* Do they take sides? Do they weigh in with their own opinion?
* Is it possible to be objective in a situation where choosing a side is sure to alienate someone?

One River, Many Voices has asked three veteran journalists — two of whom based in communities with deep roots in mining — to come talk about the role they see for journalism and how they are covering the PolyMet story.

The event is next Thursday, March 3, from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. It will again be at Ecolibrium3. I recommend coming early because the room will undoubtedly be packed.

You can learn more about the speakers and the One River, Many Voices project here.

Special thanks to Karen Sunderman who always does such a great job in moderating these kinds of things. Thank you to everyone involved in assembling this program. You've whet our appetite for more.

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