‘Writing is my normal’: How to stay resilient and become the glue for communities in crisis
The National Press Club Journalism Institute hosted a virtual Q&A Wednesday with writers Connie Schultz and Jon Mooallem to discuss how storytelling builds community during difficult times.
Throughout the 30-minute conversation, Schultz and Mooallem answered questions ranging from what inspires them to how to avoid writer’s block and the role writing can play during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Writing is my normal,” Schultz said. “If I can get myself in the chair, it seems to help me feel like I’m still doing what I’m meant to do.”
The event is part of a series of community conversations about covering the pandemic called “Writing Through.” It was moderated by Jim Kuhnhenn, the press freedom fellow at the National Press Club Journalism Institute.
Schultz and Mooallem said journalists are the links that connect people with information during times of uncertainty. Mooallem’s most recent book explores the devastating effects of the 1964 Alaska earthquake and the journalist, Genie Chance, who helped put the community back together.
“Having reliable information and having honest information… became the glue that held people together,” he said.
Both writers were adamant that journalists can never have too much information heading into the writing process. They emphasized that believing in yourself is the most important step.
“The first person who needs to acknowledge that you are a writer is you,” Schultz said. “The biggest challenge for any writer is to believe you are a writer.”
Among their other insights:
In a time of crisis, somebody needs to tell the story
Mooallem: One wrinkle of the [earthquake] story which I did not really understand going into it was the way that having reliable information and having honest information, having reporters there telling the community what was happening and what needed to be done, really became like a glue that held people together.
We need that kind of communication. We’re seeing a real lack of it now, I think, which causes a lot of confusion and uncertainty and fear. And we need those people to feel like the civilians of the general population can be trusted to know what’s happened.
Schultz: The process of writing helps us figure out what we’re feeling and thinking in the moment… I also know the value of interviewing others…including grandparents who you can’t see, siblings, loved ones. Interviewing them is good for you, because it keeps you finely tuned to the world around you, what people are thinking and feeling, and it’s wonderful for them because seldom does anyone ask what they’re thinking or how they feel. And there’s an honor in that as well. And that’s what I would encourage right now in terms of the resilience of a community and using writing to help with that, because… who tells this history? Who will be the storytellers this time. And you may think we’ll never forget this moment. We’ll remember the history of it, but we won’t always remember how we felt in that moment
Look for an emotion that motivates the people you write about
Schultz: I would say fear is one of the things that most intrigues me, because fear is always about something else. … So much of what has intrigued me over time is what makes people afraid. And can we get to the other layers of that so that we can, first of all, understand that better. And secondly, perhaps to silence it somewhat in ourselves to live our bigger lives.
Mooallem: I’m drawn to people who feel frustrated or thwarted in some way. I also just think that when someone is feeling frustrated, it means they’re probably in a pretty fascinating predicament. There’s a good story there to tell. It brings up questions of, how do they think this thing should be going, and what idealism is inherent there. It’s sort of their vision of how things should be meeting a clumsier version of reality.
Do the research to establish a sense of place
Mooallem: I was lucky that I found a main character for the book, Genie Chance, this reporter who had left behind just a tremendous amount of documentation, recordings of radio broadcasts, letters, diaries… 40 boxes of stuff in her daughter’s basement starting with the lock of her baby hair.
I just found that I had to focus on the stories for which I had the best information. And that meant leaving other really interesting things and people out, or pushing them more to the side of the story. But that was just the way that I really wanted to tell a story, in a kind of intimate detail.
Schultz: My novel spanned six decades. And so I needed historical touchstones for myself… Some of them were physical, like a train case that factors throughout the novel through three different generations of women. and I actually found one that was for sale in the 1950s, I bought it on eBay, and I bought it because I needed to see it, feel it, touch it, smell it. So I have that.
I have old recipe books, because I wanted to make sure I had the right kind of meals happening in the working class. I have a Spam recipe book which actually belonged to my mother.
If you’ve ever seen these stands in greeting card places… they have these pamphlets of the year you were born. I have them for every year from 1952 through 1996. It was actually quite handy because it tends to be the popular references: most famous song, most popular car, what was the most popular food or the mixed drink at the time. It really helped me anchor it [in] that time. And also a bunch of old Life magazines were very helpful that my father had saved.
University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication students who participated in the program shared these takeaways:
I’m so appreciative of the guidance these two successful writers were willing to share. I think some of the tips they gave could apply not only to writing but also to many aspects of everyday life. When Connie Schultz said, “The biggest challenge of any writer is believing they’re a writer,” that resonated with me because I still don’t really consider myself a writer, even though I find myself wanting to do it so much.
— Jacob Berglund, student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
Connie Schultz and Jon Mooallem… described the importance of documenting everything that’s going on in the moment as we won’t necessarily remember those feelings in years to come. It’s crucial to get as much detail from a person because, without those specifics, these stories will be lost.
– Hailey Dunn, student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
My biggest takeaways from the Resilience and Community event today are simple. Write everything down and acknowledge to yourself that you are a writer.
— Samantha Fariss, student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
The discussion Connie Schultz and Jon Mooallem had about being a writer and what type of stories they are drawn to made me look at storytelling in a different way. I never thought of linking the types of stories I am personally interested in covering to a specific emotion such as fear or frustration, which Schultz and Mooallem gave as examples.
—Morgan Guynn, Student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
As a journalism student who is entering the journalism world in a chaotic and tumultuous time period, it was refreshing to see two seasoned journalists sharing similar feelings of fear and discomfort. It was a wonderful reminder of how resilient journalists are, even in the face of uncertainty.
-Grace Murray, student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
Feelings and thoughts often fade away after experiencing significant moments in our lives. A valuable lesson that I learned from this event is to always write things down and to always interview people, because those stories that get told can paint a full picture of a moment in time.
— Natalie Myking, student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
Watch a press conference, attend a virtual lecture, read the governor’s new order, write an article, take a quiz, fact check, drive your girlfriend to the airport so she can attend her aunt’s funeral, edit and submit. Being a student and reporter recently has been draining. But, when Jon Mooallem said Genie Chance was providing the reliable information that acted like a glue holding people together through a crisis, it was a reminder of the importance of what we’re doing and the people who rely on us.
-C. Francis O’Leary, student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
As a young writer, I found great inspiration in the message that Connie Schultz gave to new journalists. I have a newfound motivation to write both for the benefit of the community and for myself in an increasingly uncertain time.
— Jennah Pendleton, student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
I thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of learning from a couple of established and experienced writers about being resilient through journalism and community. It was reassuring to hear Connie talk about how the younger generation of journalists will define the stories we tell about the pandemic because of its novelty and obvious impact, and I have decided to take her advice and start an in-depth daily journal.
— Dylan Reubenking, student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
During troubled times such as today, it is important to hear how to continue creating great work. Journalism is all about pushing through the adversity and providing insight into the events unfolding, and the advice from both Connie Schultz and Jon Mooallem was very valuable.
— Corvo Rohwer, Student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
Connie Schultz mentioned how you’re the first person who needs to acknowledge that you’re a writer, and that gave me confidence about pursuing journalistic writing as a career. I again felt assured because I related to Jon Mooallem saying he felt he was observing life and now has a job doing just that.
— Johanna Roseberg, student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
Emotion is something that the general public seems to look down on when it comes to journalism, but the seminar really hammered in how important it is to capture the emotion we are all feeling, especially during a national crisis like this. We might remember the overarching story of COVID-19 twenty years down the line, but it’s important to note the emotions we’re all experiencing as well.
— Billy Spotz, student, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
Watch their conversation here:
This program is one of an ongoing series of free conversations. Click here to see our upcoming programs, or to watch a recording of a previous event. Please contact Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos with questions.