“Ungrateful” young writers: borrow a soul

The book is due out on January 11th

Today I’m borrowing pieces of Roger Rosenblatt’s soul.

The prolific writer, without being “the least bit facetious” has asked that young writers try this, and effectively disregard more conventional counsel to simply be ourselves.

To be clear, he didn’t say “emulate me, specifically,” but rather suggested that:

“… if, upon examination, you find your soul inadequate to the task of great writing, then improve it, or borrow someone else’s…I say, be someone else, if that other self is superior to yours.”

Of course, this proposition is out of context here, but Rosenblatt elaborates in his forthcoming book, “Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing.” The text is based on his experience as the instructor of a graduate level writing course.

I’ve decided, after reading an excerpt,  that I wouldn’t mind mimicking his style as an experiment, especially because it is quite different from my own. In the selections below, for example, he does not shy away from longer sentences and statements that may be described as grandiloquent. But since I’m going to privately craft my pastiche, I’ll leave you with the words of the man himself. If you like this sample, please feel free to read the full excerpt, and look for the book itself in January.

Highlights from Rosenblatt’s letter to his “ungrateful students” of 2008.

Oh, read it anyway. You may not need this postscript as much as I need to give it to you. But there is something about writing I haven’t told you, in part because it smacks of the sentimental and abstract—two of the monsters I’ve hoped to drive from your work. And yet, if I fail to give you this final piece of information, if I let you stride toward that desk of yours thinking that good writing consists only of precision and restraint, and of the right words in the right order, and using anticipation over surprise, and imagination over invention and the preference of the noun to the adjective and the verb to the adverb, and a dozen other little lessons, however helpful they may be, you may conclude that once you’ve nailed these ideas, well, you’re a writer.

Well, you’re not. Not yet.


For your writing to be great—I mean great, not clever, or even brilliant, or most misleading of all, beautiful—it must be useful to the world. And for that to happen you must form an opinion of the world. And for that to happen you need to observe the world, closely and steadily, with a mind open to change. And for that to happen you have to live in the world, and not pretend that it is someone else’s world you are writing about.


How can you know what is useful to the world? The world will not tell you. The world will merely let you know what it wants, which changes from moment to moment, and is nearly always cockeyed. You cannot allow yourself to be directed by its tastes. When a writer wonders, “Will it sell?” he is lost, not because he is looking to make an extra buck or two, but rather because, by dint of asking the question in the first place, he has oriented himself toward the expectations of others. The world is not a focus group. The world is an appetite waiting to be defined. The greatest love you can show it is to create what it needs, which means you must know that yourself.


The trouble with much writing today is that it has been fertilized and nurtured in classrooms like ours, where the elements of effective writing have been isolated and studied in parts. No teacher of writing, myself included, dares speak of the subterranean power available to every writer, if that writer will but take the time to brood on the matter and unearth it.


If I have taught you only to write so that your contemporaries may say nice things to you, I have failed you. I should have been teaching you that the one goal you must aim for is the stunned, silent gratitude of history.


You must write as if your reader needed you desperately, because he does. If, as Kafka said, a book is an ax for the frozen sea within us, then write with that frozen sea in mind and in view. See your reader, who has fallen through the ice of his own manufacture. You can just make him out, as he flails in slow motion, palms pressed upward under the ice. Here’s your ax. Now, chop away and lift him up by the shoulders. And what do you get out of this act of rescue? You save two people:  your reader and yourself.

From time to time, during the months we have been together, it may have seemed that I expected too much of you. In fact, I have expected too little. To be the writers you hope to be, you must surrender yourselves to a kind of absurdity. You must function as a displaced person in an age that contradicts all that is brave, gentle, and worthwhile in you. Every great writer has done this, in every age. You must be of every age.

The full except, without my arbitrary highlights, is available here. You can also read Rosenblatt’s 2008 piece in the New Yorker, “Making Toast.”


If you listen to no other podcast this year…

Stephanie Nolen - graphic adapted from a Toronto Life photograph by Hannelie Coetzee

Stephanie Nolen - graphic adapted from a Toronto Life photograph by Hannelie Coetzee

… you have to listen to Stephanie Nolen’s speech for the 2010 Dalton Camp Lecture in Journalism.

If you’re a student of journalism, it’s basically a moral obligation.

Last night I finally tuned in as I lay in the darkness of my room. To be honest, I could barely keep  my chest from heaving, and I had to press on my eyes to stop the tears.

This woman astonishes me, and her speech — like much of her harrowing prose — pushes my empathic capacity to its limits. She has seen things I cannot fathom, and conjures up emotions in me that I can not describe.

Yes, it was difficult to hear and shaming at times, but I can’t believe I waited this long to slow down and digest this speech. If you’re also late in listening (the talk came out in late November), don’t worry: it’s timeless, and you can and should listen now.

But don’t stop there.

Despite her skepticism with view to journalism’s new bells and whistles, Stephanie Nolen’s work is easier to share than ever before.

One of the her most powerful pieces, for me, is Rwanda: Surviving Rape (April 2004).

I can’t even bring myself to include excerpts, as I normally do, because this is long-form at its finest, and I urge you to commit to it.

Ms. Nolen often leaves me profoundly unsettled, but we need more of that in this desensitized society. She seems to have no sympathy for the Western sensitivities, and will not coddle her readers by leaving out the most nauseating details.

The young intern version of Ms. Nolen — notes one Toronto Life profile — said she got into journalism to “change the world.”

She wasn’t being precious.

“Citizenship is a tough occupation which obliges the citizen to make his own informed opinion and stand by it.” – Martha Gellhorn (Stephanie Nolen’s “patron saint”)

Screen grab from the CBC website. Click the image to go to the original.


No Sane, No Gain

These are some of the signs being voted “most sane” in the lead-up to Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity (an effort to “take it down a notch” for America). I had a good laugh browsing the gallery today.

The top-voted sanest signs

Here’s one I quite like:

It’s funny ’cause it’s true.

In fact, many of the most popular signs are reassuringly reasonable…like the classic:
“I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.”

Check out the full gallery at http://saneornot.com/sane

(For the record, there’s a typo in sign #4. Seems the sane also misspell things from time to time.)

Spinning Climate Change

How does evidence of climate change come to matter for different social groups?

I’ve posted this video as a follow-up to an earlier post.
It’s the end result of filming and editing a lecture delivered by my thesis supervisor.

Video synopsis

UBC  journalism professor Candis Callison delivers her lecture “Spinning climate change, vernaculars and emergent forms of life.”
The original event took place on Oct. 7th, 2010 at the Green College coach house on UBC campus.

In her talk, Prof. Callison complicates the notion that scientific information will straightforwardly inspire action to counter environmental problems. Her research provides insight into how Americans within five distinct social and professional groups are translating, transforming, and re-articulating climate change for a diverse citizenry and wider publics.

“More information is not the point. You’ve got to find ways to link [climate change] to what people already care about.”

Speaker: Prof. Candis Callison, UBC School of Journalism
Venue: Green College, UBC
Date: Oct. 7th, 2010
Filming and Editing: Fabiola Carletti, Journalism grad student and Green College Resident

Measuring my life in tomatoes

"My tomato timer" by Flickr user Melly ♥ Kay

Let’s see if I can get this blog post done in the span of one tomato.

(It’ll make sense soon . . . stay with me on this one.)

Quick background: I’m part of a small cohort of people at Green College who pledged to keep track of their daily activities in order to answer a simple question: “Where does the time go?”

About 20 of us signed up — probably to boost our productivity — while other residents dismissed it as a masochistic little experiment.

We started last week . . . and by the end I had to admit to my brethren that I had epically failed. But it wasn’t because I wasn’t keeping track of my time. Actually, I failed because I’d kept a ridiculously detailed log, and it slowly degenerated into excuse-making on my own behalf. (I’ll be honest: it got weird.)

By the end, it was impossible to sort the minutiae into the standardized hour-long blocks, as the group had set out to do. So, on Sunday, I started using a different system.

A friend suggested I try the pomodoro technique (“pomodoro” is the Italian name for tomato), which I’m finding really effective for keeping track of work that is untainted by what the Green College experiment calls “low work.” (That is, pretending you’re working while checking Facebook or going down a YouTube wormhole.)

The Pomodoro technique was named after the inventor’s kitchen timer, which was in the shape of a tomato. The official website explains the time management strategy in five simple steps:

  1. Choose a task to be accomplished
  2. Set the Pomodoro (tomato timer) to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then write down what you accomplished
  4. Take a short break (5 minutes is the standard)
  5. Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break (30 minutes is the standard)

That’s it.

I know, it sounds so unimpressive that you may wonder why I’m bothering to blog about it. Here’s the thing: it works.

Example: I usually slack off something serious on Sundays…but I got addicted to collecting these tomatoes and ended up being reasonably productive (remember, I’m only counting periods of totally focused work):

sunday 19 Sep. 8 finished tomatoes

  • 23:06 – 23:31 Read class notes and 14 more pages of Schudson
  • 18:00 – 18:25 Read 20 more pages of Schudson
  • 17:12 – 17:37 Read 18 pages of Schudson
  • 16:13 – 16:44 Read 10 more pages of Dewey
  • 14:20 – 14:45 Read 12 pages of Dewey
  • 13:47 – 14:12 Watched Al Jazeera Listening Post on Wikileaks and took notes
  • 13:13 – 13:38 Finished the Quebec reading.
  • 12:39 – 13:04 Finished the multiculturalism reading.

This list made itself when I used this free online timer designed in Pomodoro style. (I should mention that you can pay for the official timer and booklet and what-not, but you can also find ways to be a broke student and still take advantage of this simple work rhythm.)

Apparently there’s also an app for this.

Obviously, people at the college were skeptical at first . . . but many have since come up to me and told me that there’s really something about 25 minutes that just, well, works.

Anyway, there’s no harm in getting a taste for it.  Personally, I’m kind of addicted to this friendly little vegetable, not to mention the joy of accomplishing something in under 30 minutes.

Speaking of which, I’ve finished this post AND my timer says…


Quest toward a new kind of university

"Squamish Chief" by Flickr user BigA888

I’m not going to lie, I originally signed up for an autumn weekend in Squamish, B.C. because, well … have you ever seen  pictures of Squamish, B.C.? It’s I-must-be-hallucinating stunning out there.

But scenery aside, the real point is that a small group of Green College residents (myself included) will venture up to Squamish on October 1st to meet Quest University‘s first graduating class.

In case your eyebrow just shot up, no worries, I had never heard of Quest University before today. More importantly, I’d never heard of a Canadian post-secondary school like Quest either.

Turns out it’s Canada’s very first independent, not-for-profit, nonsectarian university of the liberal arts and sciences.

It offers only one degree, a Bachelors of Arts and Sciences, and has been specifically designed to challenge the mass model (or diploma factory) style that many universities employ. (And the only kind I’ve ever attended, by the by.)

Quest undergrad students have had 20 person classes for their entire post-secondary career. I didn’t have classes that small in my fourth year seminars at York University. They also focus on one topic area at a time instead of balancing five different courses every semester.

We’re going to talk to Quest students about “interdisciplinary pathways inside and outside the academy,” as Green College principal Mark Vessey so eloquently put it. We’re also going to eat, hike and hang with them. I kind of wonder what the catch is, seriously.

“Quest U is a radical experiment in post-secondary education, not without affinities with Green College,” Vessey explained in an email invite. It was founded in 2002 by former University of British Columbia president Dr. David Strangway, who was also one of the founders of Green College.

As a member of the mass-educated crew, I’m excited to spend some time with students who have never made “just a number” jokes or devoted expletive-laden Facebook groups to hating their school.

Are they mountain-top flower children or trail-blazing academics? Stay tuned…

Check out the comments below for a bit of nuance!