A Writing Life

When I started my career as a journalist I did so as the co-founder/editor/features editor/managing editor (depending on the issue and the circumstance) of Emergency Horse, a monthly tabloid-style magazine in Oregon. I started from day one with an approach to the kind of articles it would contain and how the publication would be structured. A story had to have facts, analysis and personality. It had to physically take the reader into the real world of the topic. If you wrote a profile on the film-maker Robert Rodriguez, I had better be able to picture him. If you wrote an article on the Pine Ridge mission, I better be able to smell the smoke from woodstoves in winter. Additionally, the well as a whole had to also have three things, three different elements: local, national and international, after my belief, which I retain to this day, that those are the interlocking levels that every person lives on.

This experience led to a gig as a writer for The Rocket, a Seattle music magazine with a lot of local star-power, that later gained a national reputation for breaking grunge to the world media. For The Rocket I wrote portraits of Northwest bands, locating them in a cultural milieu and in musical history, as well as reviews of bands from every pop style. The portrait allowed me both the structure of form, and the freedom, indeed the duty, to develop a personal writing voice. When Grant Alden, the editor of the magazine, took a job at the national music magazine Huh, I began to write for him there, doing larger-scale features on pop culture topics like amateur wrestling, robot wars and the relationship between rock music and violence.

At the same time I began writing business for Oregon Business and economics and culture stories for Oregon Quarterly. I was able to explore the union of economics and statistics with culture and real, lived life. When I wrote my first large-scale article on the politics and economics of the Confederate Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation I discovered something that until that time was largely theoretical to me: The economics and politics of an area, the decisions made and actions taken in these areas by politicians, business people and others, have a pronounced, vital and tangible effect on the citizens of the area, whether that’s a reservation, a county or a city. It seems like common sense but it hit me with the force of a revelation.

In an era of celebrity fetishism, and of increasing belief in historical mechanism, this realization had the effect of re-humanizing both my job and me as an individual. As journalists and publishers, there are elements of literature and elements of entertainment to what we do, but there is also the important but workaday task of clearly communicating information and providing rational analysis to people who need it. Whether it’s a piece on beaches, Judaism, police abuse or the Hawai’ian independence movement, writing is where news meets life. It is news with a doorway.

Since that time I have written on international trade, business, entertainment, pop culture, the outdoors, development, politics and travel. I have written and reported for Newsweek magazine, the Reuters agency, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the ten papers of the Examiner-Independent Newspaper Group, the New Times chain, Salon, the Seattle Times, NPR affiliate KLCC and others.

As far as my interests go, I remember reading about the composer John Cage coming out of a performance one evening. A journalist was outside and asked him, as he left the hall, “Did you enjoy the performance, Mr. Cage?” Cage responded, “I enjoy everything!” That’s my motto. I have found a story in everything I looked at. I have found something interesting in everything for the simple reason that every story consists of a person acting in a place for a reason. I’m interested in people, actions, places and motivations, which is probably why I am a writer and editor.

That established, it would be disingenuous to maintain I enjoy everything equally. I have found particular personal and artistic rewards in writing about minority-majority cultural relations, the economics of culture, the outdoors, land-use conflicts, music, the theatre, travel and discoveries in the humanities (archaeology, history and so on). In these areas specially, I have found that I either possessed enough of a charge to light up my own feelings about it or that the topics themselves allow the human drama to act itself out. I would enjoy writing more about theatre and doing more explicitly activity-oriented outdoors stories, where I unite land-use/economics writing with participational activities.

My work as a journalist, eventually led to communications work in the corporate world. When I first started, I had little interest in business. I always thought of business as a realm of money without the distraction of anything interesting. My experience at Ask Jeeves (now Ask.com), as its ninth full-time employee, changed that forever. I discovered how rewarding it could be to exercise a direct, tangible influence on a growing company.

Since Jeeves, I found myself implementing projects, developing and supervising teams and building content departments for a large independent video game developer and publisher, PBwiki, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ask.com, Trumba, iKarma, Sproutit, Entopia, Autoweb, eLance and others. I have enjoyed both the strategic communications elements of the job, such as assessing communication needs, drafting written strategy strategy documents and helping excavate messaging, as well as the organizational elements, like assembling personnel, setting dates and work budgets and liaising with senior management.

My relationship with social media is, of course, a direct result of the foregoing activities as a journalist and corporate communications professional. On the one hand, those experiences gave me the encouragement and challenges that deepened my love of writing and on the other hand, it introduced obstacles that blogging and related activities gave me a way around. I started my blog Morpheme Tales in November of 2004. I am the founder and director of the non-profit The Committee to Protect Bloggers and the project director of Spirit of America’s Anonymous Blogging Campaign. I co-founded the blogging-for-others project, Blogswana, and developed the Zimbabwean democracy blog, Enough is Enough.

My activities in the CPB led to my developing skills in a previously undeveloped area of communications, public relations. I have been interviewed, sourced, quoted and invited to write on blogging, employment and human rights issues by the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Village Voice, National Post, PRI’s The World, BBC News Online, BBC Radio 5, Oakland Tribune, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sacromento Bee, National Law Review, American Bar Association Journal, Overseas Press Club of America, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, CNET, Smart Money, Columbia Journalism Review and others.

I’ve purposefully chosen not to restrict this outline to my work as a professional communicator. I will mention, briefly, however, that my writing life started in childhood, as far as you can get from any kind of “professional world.” I wrote stories about spaceships and used writing to puzzle out my thoughts about a complicated world, to make it less chaotic and painful. As the English poet John Donne said, “Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce, / For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.”

Shy of passing away, I’ll never put down the pen. (Yes, pen. The right technology for the right job.) My professional life may end some day. My writing life will not.

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