November 2005 | Main

December 19, 2005

My final say for COMP 5250

The North American news industry wants you to write by the rules. I teach the rules in college journalism classes. I follow the rules when I write news, which I’ve been doing off and on for more than 20 years. Now I’m writing with some new rules: some days with blog rules; other days with academic paper rules. In this class we’ve also played with ideas from OuLiPo – ever-changing rules we draw up for ourselves for kicks. And I had a revelation.

     
  The news rulebook is a bit OuLiPian. It contains a list of constraints for storytellers – I consider myself more a storyteller than a “journalist.” Writing with OuLiPian rules reminds me of writing with news rules.

In both cases you set up constraints that force you to manipulate what you would “naturally” write on the page. In news, most of the time, I’ve been given (or perhaps “dug up”) a set of facts and a set of quotations – blocks of words – that I must use as the raw stuff of my story. There’s no “making anything up.” I can use sights and sounds and smells, but I had to experience them while I was reporting the story. I can draw on my opinions in crafting a story – I must, of course – but I must not overtly state those opinions.

In a sense, the elements of a news story are puzzle pieces that I am free to move around, but I cannot reach outside the box of pieces I’ve been given. That metaphor is slightly off; I have to find the puzzle pieces, and no two reporters will come up with the exact same set of pieces for any given story. But once I’ve collected the pieces, the jigsaw puzzle analogy works.

For my final project I’ve been messing with these ideas. I created a blog that uses the news voice: The Harkonnen Chronicle. I’ve drawn the material for the blog from real news reports – but I’ve goofed with the facts substantially, changing names and places and some events. I’ve tried to give myself a realistic base of fact to write from, and I’ve written in the “objective” news voice.

I’m also writing three, not-news blogs. Citizen Raphael deals with the same block of “facts” as Harkonnen, but the reporter is limited to a set of fridge poetry magnets. “Raphael” does not worry about objectivity. On Dear Friends I write in the voice of Mrs. Hasselbeck, and I make allusions to the events discussed on the Raphael and Harkonnen but feel no obligation to capture them “truthfully” or to report them fully.

Finally, I needed a way to tie these together, so my third not-news blog is onandonandon, an already-existing blog. The author, Prolix, happens to be from Zemple, the town the other authors live in. Prolix is able to provide the backstory and serve as the entry point for the other blogs. He refers to the events mentioned in the other blogs – in a distinctly non-news voice – but only as a commentator and guide: “check this out, you won’t believe it.”
Prolix is now enveloped in the larger story, too – the narrative that binds the blogs together. This larger narrative is a not-news story.

I’ve cooked up some story lines in the tiny town of Zemple. I wanted to set up the characters for interesting entanglements later on. I don't know how all of the stories will end, but I'm setting them on a course to intersect. That's why Prolix mentions his grandmother in Zemple -- his grandmother who happens to know Mrs. Hasselbeck. It turns out that Raphael is also there in Zemple, and Dwight Harkonnen has recently returned to town. With Prolix making occasional trips to Zemple, and with him keeping an eye on the new blogs of his friends, there's room for many plot twists and turns.

I've also introduced a couple of characters who don't have blogs but will lurk in the comment sections of the other blogs. The mayor made some appearances, and Mrs. H's typist showed up, too. I expect other familiar names from onandondandon's comment section will also appear, as will a few more of the very-wired citizens of Zemple.

The story lines I see playing out in the immediate future are:
1. The mayor's predicament
2. The smoking ban debate
3. Dwight Harkonnen's place in town as a muckraker
4. Raphael's debut on the national stage (sort of) as a poet
5. The face-to-face meetings of the characters during Prolix's trips to Zemple.

As I write, I'm thinking about the differences between writing straight-laced news and writing without those news tethers. When I write as Mrs H she herself gets the good lines. There's no (theoretically) disinterested narrator there to set things up. It's Mrs H all the way. The same is true for Raph and his fridge poems. No third party intercedes; Raph talks to the reader. When I write as Dwight Harkonnen I use my news voice, which in my case, as least, means I try to give all the good lines to the principals in the story and I try to keep myself out of the way. The narrator's voice is still carefully written. I work hard on not being noticed. But there's a sense of being an assembler as much as a writer. In Dwight's posts the dispassionate narrator provides the framework for the spicy quotes from the principals in the story. That’s how I teach my journalism students to write.

In a real news story I'd aim to make up nothing. As I said, I would "assemble" what's there -- the facts, the voices, sights and sounds. It's still a creative act -- very much so. And it's still storytelling, if it's done well. But the source material is all "real" (of course, as interpreted by the reporter). The writer faces rules and constraints, and the whole game is wound up in finding creative, fun ways to work within those constraints.
News as OuLiPo? Well, sort of.


 
     

From “onandonandon?—
Thursday, December 08, 2005

Strong journalistic voice

And speaking of citizen journalists.

Well, we have spoken of citizen journalists in this very space, and here I am doing it again. My grandma lives in a little town called Zemple in northern Minnesota, and there's a cool guy in town whose blog I just discovered.
Dwight Harkonnen is a hometown boy who went off to the big city (Chicago and Newark) to do some newspapering. He took an early retirement and came home to fish and not get mugged. But he can't keep his hands off the keyboard, so he's launching a news blog about city government in Zemple.

So maybe you're not particularly interested in Zemple politics, but this guy's entertaining. You don't need deep roots in Zemple to get interested in his stories.

Well, that's one guy's opinion. Since I do have deep roots there, maybe I'm not the one to judge!

Posted by prolix

Comments
I'm amazed, Prolix. Who would have thunk you'd be reading my humble efforts in the Big City, or wherever you are?
Next time you're in Zemple look me up. We'll tip a glass down at the Sportsmen's.
Posted by: Harkonnen


From “The Harkonnen Chronicle?—
30 November 2005

Council mulls over smoking ban

     
 

The city council is once again considering a ban on smoking in restaurants. At Tuesday's council meeting, Dr. Curtis Maki made a presentation to council members and about 50 citizens. Dr Maki talked about “the dangers of second-hand smoke.?

“I'm asking you to pass a city-wide ban,? Maki said. “We have three restaurants in Zemple, and teenagers work in every one of them. It's criminal to force those kids to breathe someone else's smoke.?

Councilor Arelene Norsgaard said the city has no place banning smoking.

“I don't think our president would approve of this, do you?? Norsgaard asked Maki.?He'd say, ‘Let the market decide,' and I agree with him. Who's forcing people to work in a restaurant, or to eat there.?

“I see Josey Hutchins here,? Norsgaard continued, looking to the back of the crowded council room. “I hope she'll forgive me, but it's probably cheaper and healthier to eat at home than at her place [Josey's Cosey Nook] anyways.?

Dr. Maki replied that teenagers in Zemple don't have many choices for places to work.

“They can work down at Haney's [Greenhouse & Garden Centre] but that's only a few months out of the year,? Maki said. “And it's only a few kids. Realistically, some kids have to work at the restaurants.?

Maki went on to describe the potential damage to customers' lungs from second-hand smoke. He showed slides of two medical studies that concluded breathing second-hand smoke increases a person's chances for cancer and a host of other diseases.


"The is new age medicine,? councilor Norman Rathenberg scolded. “These are the same kooks who want to tell us that power lines make cows go crazy. Pretty soon we won't be supposed to do nothing.?

Rathenberg pointed a finger at Councilor Norsgaard.

“And I agree with Arlene,? he said. “Ain't nobody making nobody go into them restaurants and breathe, anyway.?

The only council member who voiced open support for the ban was Mayor Chuck Skuuba.

“I'd vote for this right now,? he said, “ but before I do that, I want to hear from the public.?

Councilors DeWayne Tremblay and Frank Rukavich stayed firmly on the fence. They said that second-hand smoke is a problem, but worried that a city-wide restaurant smoking ban might hurt some businesses in town.
Tremblay said a ban would probably be good news for the city's two bars.

“I figure the Muni and the Sportsmen's would see a lot more lunchtime business,? Tremblay said. “I guess the money would probably say here in town, but it'd be pretty hard on the restaurants all the same.?

Council members agreed to take up the smoking ban at next Tuesday's meeting. They scheduled a public hearing on the proposal for 7 p.m.

 

 

 

 
     

5 Comments -
Sue Lakosky said...

This country was founded on freedom of choice!! The city council should not take away the businessperson's freedom to run their business the best way they know how to run it! Just wait, soon they will be telling us we can't smoke at all, not even in our homes!!! They are trying to do away with Christmas, and now this! People are dying to fight for our freedoms every day! We need to stand up and fight for our freedoms at home, too!!!!
December 09, 2005

Skippy said...
Are you the same Dwight Harkonnen who went to Lindbergh and had photography club with Miss Artuchek?
December 09, 2005

Kyle Lowell said...
Man, this harshes my buzz. Why don't they make it ilegal to use your cell phone in a resteraunt or, put up farting and non-farting sections. maybe they should make people leave there kids at home so i don't have to see how they eat.
December 09, 2005

Dwight "Gets it Right" Harkonnen said...
Sorry Skippy,
I don't even know where Lindbergh is. But thanksfor stopping by.
December 09, 2005

prolix said...
dwight, i love this site. my grams lives in zemple and i spend a lot of time there. good for you for shining the spotlight on the old codgers down at city hall.
December 13, 2005

From “citizen raphael?—

city council talk s smoke

December 1, 2005

raph-smoke.jpg


From “Dear Friends…?—

December 01, 2005

mrs_h.gif


From “The Harkonnen Chronicle?—
07 December 2005

City split over smoking ban

Members of the Zemple City Council continue to discuss a ban on smoking in all restaurants. The councilors listened to more than an hour of public comments on Tuesday night; eleven people spoke in favor of the ban and nine spoke against. The councilors voted unanimously to table the ban until their next meeting in two weeks.

Two of Zemple’s three restaurant owners spoke at the hearing. Gary Eckles, who runs The Family Pancake Haus with his wife Jerri, told council members his business would lose money under the ban.

“Some folks need a cigarette to relax after a meal,? Eckles said. “Who am I to tell them they can’t have that? They’ll just stay home if we tell them they can’t smoke.?

Eckles said he’s already made accommodations for non-smokers. He had to under state law.

“We have a smoking and a non-smoking section,? he said, leaning into the microphone with both hands gripping the podium. “Some people will never, ever be satisfied, I’m telling you.?

Josey Hutchins, owner of Josey’s Cosey Nook, followed Eckles to the rostrum and she took the opposite view.

“I don’t see how we could make the playing field that everyone likes to talk about any more level,? Hutchins said. “If we all have a ban on, well, that’s fair. We might as well do this because the state is going to come down the pipe with a ban of its own pretty soon.?

Imogene Hasselbeck came to the podium and asked councilors if the ban would include pipes. Mayor Chuck Skuuba said the ban, as worded, would include cigarettes, cigars and pipes.

“I just can’t imagine what’s wrong with a pipe,? Hasselbeck said. “It’s not a filthy cigarette, at least. Mr. Hasselbeck used to smoke a pipe, and I still miss that smell. These young people growing up should get a chance for memories like that.?

Mayor Skuuba said the ban “needs to be comprehensive to work.?

“I can’t see the point of burning a bunch of loopholes into this thing,? Skuuba said. “Pretty soon it won’t hold water, and then it won't have any teeth.?

The councilors voted 5-0 to delay any action on the smoking ban proposal until their next meeting.

Other matters before the council included:

-The council approved an unpaid leave of six weeks for Harley Wiitaa, the city’s Street Commissioner. Wiitaa is traveling to Helsinki to work on a family history.

-The council approved a resolution making January 13, 2006 “Raphael Day? in honor of Al “Raphael? Carlson who was recently selected for inclusion in a book published by the American Poetry Society. Carlson’s poem entitled “Sssss,? will be part of a poetry collection published this coming spring by the APS. Some of Carlson’s poems are posted on his web site . His poems about the city council are posted on his web log .


From “citizen Raphael?—
December 07, 2005

thank s oh thank s to zemple

thx_2_zemple.jpg

From “onandonandon?—
Sunday, December 10, 2005

Raphael outted - an honored

Our buddy Raph has found his way into print -- as the subject of news, not just as a poet.

I say not just as a poet because he's getting into print that way too.

I was checking out The Harkonnen Chronicle that I mentioned a couple days ago, and there's a mention -- at the tail end of this story -- of Raph and his plans to be published nationally.

First Raph's web page, and then national recognition, now his blog! The sneaky bastard didn't even tell me he was blogging, but he seems to have gotten the bug from Dwight Harkonnen. Raph's doing his own coverage of city hall -- with fridge poems. Raph's nothing if not...weird as hell. And creative. He's just getting started, but you can take a peek at his efforts.

And while you're there, you'll see another pal of ours: Mrs. H. She makes a brief appearance in the same story that features Raphael. You go, Mrs. Hasselback.

Posted by prolix

Comments

Oh Prolix, you know Imogene Hasselback?

She's quite a lady, indeed. I see you posted some letters from her. Have you seen her blog? That's right: her blog.
She writes the letters and a young gal down at the Senior Center scans them and posts them for "Mrs. H," as you call her.

It's kind of sweet, and as my grandkid would say, it's kind of random.
Posted by: Harkonnen

From “onandonandon?—
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Holy smokes

Mrs H has her own blog?!

Hard to believe, but dang if it isn't true. Thanks to Dwight at The Harkonnen Chronicle for pointing it out in the comments to my last post. Dwight later sent me an email with a link to Mrs. H's blog, and since we might not be lucky enough to get her back here at onandonandon, I thought you might want to have a look.

Jeepers, sleepy little Zemple is on the digital map. They have a T1 line or some damn thing to city hall and it looks like the whole bloody town is wired with high-speed internet connections.

I have always thought about living there...
Posted by prolix

Comments
If I were you I wouldn't underestimate Mrs. Hasselbeck. I work at the Senior Center twice a week, and I help her with her blog. Really, I started it for her, but the ideas are all hers. She just doesn't do very well with a computer but she's old and that's how it is with lot's of old people. Anyways, she's a very smart lady and I respect her alot.
Posted by: Jessica | Wednesday, December 14, 2005

From “The Harkonen Chronicle?—
11 December 2005

Mayor nabbed after allegedly drunken car crash

Mayor Chuck Skuuba spent last night in the St. Louis County jail after a one-car accident on Highway 2 just outside Floodwood. Skuuba's car slammed into the base of a billboard after crossing the oncoming traffic lane and jumping the ditch. Skuuba required several stitches to his forehead, but the sheriff's office says the mayor's injuries were minor. A breath test performed at the crash scene indicated a blood alcohol level of .19 -- more than twice the legal limit of .08 percent.

Phone calls to Skuuba's house went unanswered today, but the mayor did answer an email.

"Give me a friggin break," he wrote. "I was at a meeting of small town mayors in Duluth and I had a few drinks. You'd have a few at a meeting like that, too! Don't tell them I said that."

The sheriff's office says Skuuba was "not very cooperative" at the scene of the crash. The sheriff's public information officer, Pat Sjolness said in a telephone interview that Skuuba seemed to be trying to leave the scene.

"Officer Tom Newstrom was the first to arrive," Sjolness said. Newstrom "reported that the individual at the scene appeared intoxicated and hostile and several times started to walk down the roadway toward the town of Floodwood."

According to the sheriff's report, Mayor Skuuba skuffled with Newstrom and a second officer before he agreed to get into a patrol car. Skuuba then consented to a breath test.

In his email message today, the mayor denies that he tried to walk away from the scene.

"You been to Floodwood?" Skuuba wrote. "It's more nowhere than Zemple. As if I'd start walking home or something. Get real."

The sheriff's office says the county will wait for blood test results before deciding whether to charge Skuuba. The blood test results won't be in until next week.

1 Comment -
Chuck said...

Goddam you Harkonnen, I'm never sending you another email as long as I live.

You hack.
December 14, 2005


From “citizen Raphael?—
December 11, 2005

y oh y chuck

Comments
What the hell, Al? Er, I mean Raphay Al. We just gave you you're own day, you jerk. Your mama should of told you not to kick a man when he's down, Al.
Posted by: Chuck | December 14, 2005

From “onandonandon?—
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The mighty have fallen...maybe

As luck would have it (good or bad luck -- you decide) sleepy little Zemple is all abuzz just in time for me to visit Grams this weekend.

On no -- they're not abuzz over me. It's the mayor.

The Honorable Charles Skuuba has been on the city council since, oh, about the time of the Crimean War. He's been mayor for about half that time. He sort of is politics in Zemple. And now he's gone and had a run-in with an ornery billboard on Highway 2.

Dwight Harkonnen didn't have a city council meeting to mess with this week, so he's on top of the story.
I thought that was pretty wild, but then I hopped over to Raphael's new blog (traitorous bastard) and I see that even he's getting on the mayor's case about this one.

There'll be plenty to chat about over weak coffee in Gram's Land o' Formica kitchen. And I might get some of the dope from Dwight Harkonnen himself. He's asked me to join him at the Sportsmen's for glass or two. (Well, he only mentioned one glass, but you never can tell in wild-and-crazy Zemple.)

If I can't keep up with Dwight I'm sure Grams and I will pay a visit to Mrs. H for a cup of tea. In one trip I can check up on all our former friends who've decided to make their own way in the blogiverse. Maybe I'll even see Raph, if he can pry himself away from the fridge for a spell.

Posted by at 3:01 PM

December 14, 2005

Interweaving on the web

I've had pretty good luck cooking up three new blogs. "The Harkonnen Chronicle," "Citizen Raphael," and "Dear Friends..." All of them took on life with ease. There's no great trick in concocting characters and writing in their voices. The challenge, for me at least, comes in building connections among these characters.

The connections need to manifest themselves in a few ways. First, on the blogs themselves I want at least some interplay among the characters. So I decided the characters should post to each others' sites. But Raphael and Mrs. H aren't likely to post on blogs. It's not allowed by their chosen media.

So there needs to be another kind of connection, too -- some central place that can steer a reader to all the blogs and provide some of the backstory. Enter Prolix and the onandonandon site.

As Prolix, I can keep tabs on all the sites and link to them. The characters have done some linking to each other, but those links are not comprehensive or systematic; a reader could stumble into one of these blogs and not figure out its relationship to the others. At onandonandon, though, I spell out the connections.

Prolix is now enveloped in the story, too. I had some ideas for story lines in the tiny town of Zemple. I wanted to set up the characters for interesting entanglements later on. I don't know how all of the stories will end, but I'm setting them on a course to intersect. That's why Prolix mentions his grandmother in Zemple -- his grandmother who happens to know Mrs. Hasselbeck. It turns out that Raphael is also there in Zemple, and Dwight Harkonnen has recently returned to town. With Prolix making occasional trips to Zemple, and with him keeping an eye on the new blogs of his friends, there's room for many plot twists and turns.

I've also introduced a couple of characters who don't have blogs but will lurk in the comment sections of the other blogs. The mayor made some appearances, and Mrs. H's typist showed up, too. I expect other familiar names from onandondandon's comment section will also appear, as will a few more of the very-wired citizens of Zemple.

The story lines I see playing out in the immediate future are:
1. The mayor's predicament
2. The smoking ban debate
3. Dwight Harkonen's place in town as a muckraker
4. Raphael's debut on the national stage (sort of) as a poet
5. The face-to-face meetings of the characters during Prolix's trips to Zemple.

Posted by at 6:57 PM

December 10, 2005

One difference

I'm thinking about the differences between writing straight-laced news and writing without those news tethers. Here's something I noticed as a put up my first round of posts.

When I write as Mrs H (here's here first letter on her new blog) she herself gets the good lines. There's no (theoretically) disinterested narrator there to set things up. It's Mrs H all the way.

The same is true for Raph and his fridge poems. He's posted one, also on the smoking ban brouhaha. No third party intercedes; Raph talks to the reader.

When I write as Dwight Harkonnen I use my news voice, which in my case, as least, means I try to give all the good lines to the principals in the story and I try to keep myself out of the way. The narrator's voice is still carefully written. I work hard on not being noticed. But there's a sense of being an assembler as much as a writer. In Dwight's first post the dispassionate narrator provides the framework for the spicy quotes from the principals in the story.

In a real news story I'd aim to make up nothing. As I said, I would "assemble" what's there -- the facts, the voices, sights and sounds. It's still a creative act -- very much so. And it's still storytelling, if it's done well. But the source material is all "real" (of course, as interpreted by the reporter). In a sense it's oulipian. The writer faces rules and constraints, and the whole game is wound up in finding creative, fun ways to work within those constraints.

News as oulipo? Well, sort of.

Posted by at 6:23 PM

December 9, 2005

Up and running

I'm starting to enter posts for my final project. Dwight Harkonnen covered a city council meeting in Zemple and he filed a story.

The story is based on real stuff. I pulled a couple quotes and the basic story line from a small town paper in northern MInnesota. I augmented and embellished and fabricated quotes and names -- but the arguments are ones I've actually heard in my work as a reporter (who got to cover several smoking ban debates).

Next, Mrs H will recount the story in her own way, and so will Rahael -- with magnets. I'll get right on it.

Then there'll be some interplay among the blogs, and some residents of Zemlple will make comments.

And then Dwight Harkonnen will file another story -- probably about the next city council meeting.

Posted by at 9:56 AM

December 7, 2005

back in the saddle

i have my nose above water again in my other classes (both as teacher and student) and i'm itching to put this last project together.

here's the plan

since i've been interested in the authorial voice and the credibility of blogs and all that rot i'm going to explore different ways of writing about an event. i've started three new blogs, one for each voice. the blogs will interact with each other, too.

who they are

all three voices live in zemple, a small town in northern minnesota. as a couple of events unfold in town each of these folks will write about what's going on.

dwight harkonnen is the reporter voice -- old school, just the facts, m'am.

mrs. hasselbeck returns -- she'll compose handwritten letters with her own take on the events in zemple.

and raphael will get into the act -- he'll comment on the same events in oulipian fashion; he's limited to his fridge magnet poetry words.

i don't have any posts up yet, but you can take a peek and see what the blogs look like.

Posted by at 8:17 PM