"You'll Figure It Out,"
Or, how my nonreporting career at the Collegian prepared me to cover millage rates, tiki huts, and American Idol.When Writer-in-Residence Fred Kluge '64 picked me to be a Collegian columnist during my first month at Kenyon, he gave me some solid advice. I believe it was: "Try not to suck."
And so began my journalism career. Since graduating in 2000, I have written steadily for newspapers. I now work as the television writer for the Columbus Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio. And I'm still not entirely sure what a "nut graph" is.
I didn't choose Kenyon for its journalism program, and not just because it didn't have one. I wanted to make things up, not write stories with headlines like "Personnel Will Shift among College Poets." When I graduated, four years of reading stories on topics like shifting poets convinced me that, no matter what, I did not want to go into news reporting.
I had this fancy idea that someone would pay me just to muse on a range of subjects, hopefully including cafeteria food and fraternities, which I'd pondered as a Collegian columnist. Of course, this was stupid. But I thought writing about anything else was solidly out of my grasp.
Thus, when I improbably got a job at a community weekly in Florida and discovered that the job involved covering city council, I went to the wonderful woman who was making the offer and tried to talk her out of it. I pointed out that I'd never written a news story in my life and that I was clueless about the workings of city councils. If I'd known the word "lede," I might have tried telling her that I had no idea what a lede was.
She gazed down at my columns and my resume and the single freelance article I'd written. And she looked at me and said, "You went to Kenyon, you're smart, you'll figure it out."
At my first council meeting, as the members began to discuss millage rates, I felt my goal begin to change from writing the world's most gripping city council story to, again, attempting not to suck. Furiously jotting notes in the council chambers--why were they talking so fast?--I mentally reviewed everything I had learned about newspaper writing in my years at the Collegian .
One thing I knew was that I should never type anything onto the screen that I wouldn't want to appear in print. A Collegian reporter had learned this lesson the hard way when the paper actually printed the following sentence: "Griffin, who is also president of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Kenyon, emphasized that blah blah blah." In the next edition, the editors had to write a front-page apology explaining that the blah-blahs were temporary place holders--somebody was supposed to insert a real quote before press time.
My college career also taught me to fudge it when I had to. Column-writing reinforced for me the adage, "Write what you know." I took that to mean, "Write what you don't have to go look up." As a rookie news reporter, I applied this wisdom by artfully writing around concepts I didn't understand.
At the Collegian , high and mighty columnist that I was, I'd always pitied the poor reporters who had to crank out stories like "Library Media Lab Takes Steps towards Realization." (Just what was the media lab on the verge of realizing?) But I developed a retroactive respect for students covering self-aware media labs and shifting poets when it turned out that my biggest and, I swear, most engrossing story for the Florida weekly was about the controversy over a restaurant's outdoor tiki hut that went against code.
Another lesson: issues that seem trivial can stoke the hottest passions. In Florida, the tiki hut debate raged for months. I shouldn't have been surprised, because at Kenyon I'd seen the same sort of out-of-proportion anger when I wrote a column about fraternities, using a tone of gentle mockery. The frats took a decidedly different tone in describing my prose--and in describing me, in whispered epithets, when I entered Peirce for dinner.
That was my first experience in being hated by people I didn't know. It was good preparation for facing my daily e-mail inbox at the Dispatch . As I said, I write about television. Benign? Think again. While my readers don't quite rival harked-off frat boys, their vocabulary can come stunningly close. People feel very strongly about American Idol.
Every once in a while I get calls from high school students hoping to go into journalism. They ask me where I went to college and what I majored in (and then silently wonder to themselves how on earth I got my job). I tell them not to follow my improbable, poorly planned path--even though it has turned out that I'm doing what I love, despite the fact that I didn't mean to acquire the necessary skills while writing for the Collegian .
I do hope to find out what a nut graph is some day. Until then, I file my stories, drawing on all that I learned at Kenyon. And, of course, trying not to suck.
--Molly Willow majored in English and modern languages and literatures. This is her first piece for the Bulletin.
Do you have feedback on this page?