I know, I know, long time no post. As you may have noticed, UMagazinology went on an unplanned hiatus while Blogmaster D poured his limited attention span into his day job at Johns Hopkins Magazine and then traipsed up to Newfoundland for a vacation. Also, there was a bit of pondering whether the blog would continue. But I am back from vacation and fresh from a meeting in which management expressed enthusiasm for the blog’s continuation, so UMagazinology will resume regularly sporadic publication any day now. Glad to be back. More to come.
Five things I would not know had I not been reading the Spring 2012 issues of alumni magazines:
— Seventh-day Adventists eat haystacks. Lest you imagine some of the faithful grazing alongside the livestock, haystacks are, as best I can determine, Adventist taco salads: a carbohydrate, usually corn chips, topped by beans, sometimes ground meat, cheese, chopped vegetables, and maybe guacamole or sour cream. Source: “Needles in the Haystack” by Mia Lindsey in Columns (Southern Adventist).
— People once declared Neil deGrasse Tyson “The Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive.” Yes, it’s mean to, but still one has to ask: Was there much competition? Source: “Star Power” by Rose Cahalan, in The Alcalde (University of Texas).
— For the last few years, an anonymous alumnus of Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, has been sending $100 bills to random undergraduates just before Christmas. The students find the money in their mailboxes, with no clue as to the sender. Source: “Christmas Mail” by David Gutsche, in The Classic (Northwestern College).
— In Antarctica, astronomers launch balloons that carry telescopes to the edge of space. If the launch team succeeds in placing the balloon in a high-altitude wind pattern called the Polar Vortex, it will drift in a large circle and land, two weeks later, only about 100 miles from the launch site. Unfortunately, one telescope’s parachute failed to release and dragged the instrument for 150 miles, spewing pieces of it in a long trail of expensive debris until it disappeared into a crevasse. Source: “Balloon to the Edge of Space” by Kirk Warren, in Oberlin.
— Editor Maureen Harmon once kicked a puppy. She swears she didn’t mean to. Source: “No Miss Manners” by Maureen Harmon, in Denison Magazine.
Some of what I took away from the CASE Editors Forum 2012 in Atlanta:
Just did not seem like an Editors Forum without Jeff Lott and Tina Hay. Though Lott’s absence did mean I got more sleep.
The ever natty Shawn Presley’s opening presentation on getting some humor into our magazines introduced a phrase I did not expect ever to hear at an Editors Forum— “vagina cookies.” If you weren’t there, please don’t ask me to explain, but I will add that he was talking about actual baked goods. Presley, editor of the estimable Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin that has copped two of the last three Sibley awards, damn their eyes, argued persuasively that most of our periodicals need more wit, which works especially well in the front of the book. Kenyon mines Twitter feeds, campus events, the student newspaper, student parties, student interns, and bulletin boards for weird, quirky, funny, sometimes mildly raunchy bits that can enliven a page and remind readers that their undergraduate years were, among other things, great fun. Unless they attended Chicago or Johns Hopkins.
Editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovich, when he wasn’t drawing caricatures of Newt Gingrich or a nationally renowned blogger who shall remain nameless, said that by putting off everything until deadline panic forces an idea, he’s more creative. Don’t know about you, but I’m going to try that one with my boss.
Brown Medicine did a brilliant thing when it had to write the dreaded “we’ve got a new building on campus” story. It announced the new facility by producing a photo essay—portraits of the men and women who built the building. Boy, was that smart.
Tracy Mueller, managing editor at OPEN from the University of Texas’ business school, tossed out a great story idea from her magazine: students who are also parents. Could be especially good if you’re writing about undergraduates in that situation.
From the keynote: Sarah Vowell has one of the strangest deliveries in all of broadcasting/author appearances. From now on, anytime I read anything by her, I will hear her voice. (This also applies to David Sedaris.)
When it comes to a conference presentation, Tom French is a real pro. In his talk, sort of a highlight reel followed by some advice, he emphasized that the engine of any story is “what happened next?” He spoke of the “pleasure of unfolding” in a good story, and the necessity to zoom in: The more macro the topic, the greater the need bring your writing down to the micro. Another great piece of advice: As a writer, follow those who are never followed.
I came out of his session with an idea: Write about a single moment. A single moment in the lab. A single moment in a performance. A single moment before a crucial shot in a game. You are not to steal this idea. It’s mine. Mine.
Was not that impressed with Atlanta until a) I ate the fried chicken and corn pudding at Wisteria and b) went to the “From Picasso to Warhol” show at the High Museum. Lot of good pictures in a spectacular space.
Minneapolis next year? Really? I’d be very happy if the conference alternated between San Francisco and New Orleans, but maybe it’s just me.
John Nagy—hobbit, Carthusian, Baltimore Oriole wannabe—responds wonderfully to the UMag questionnaire.
How long have you been a writer?
I won a statewide high school essay writing contest and was so disturbed by the sense that I’d said all I had to say at age 17 that I put my pen down (it was blue felt-tip and a yellow legal pad in those days, see #4) and didn’t pick it up again until life required it 10 years later. That was the day I got three job offers and went home to learn that my wife was pregnant with our first child. The writing job, covering transportation policy and the environment for Stateline.org in Washington, D.C., was the one that offered comprehensive health insurance. Game on.
Of all the things you have to do to produce a story in the magazine, what do you enjoy the most?
The day after the agony that is getting started, trying to transform days, weeks, or months of reporting into something true that will snag minds and hearts. From then on, it’s shaping, crafting, clarifying, and making those connections that had been stuck upstairs for so long and now are down on the floor where I can play with them.
What has proven to be your biggest challenge?
Introversion and institutional politics. I’m a hobbit—give me an adventure, but hold the dragons. For a guy who dislikes conflict and tension as much as I do, I picked an odd profession.
For interviews, notepad or recorder? For writing, legal pad, typewriter, or computer?
Once upon a time I read guitar magazines where they’d get the rockers to talk about their equipment. Like, Geddy Lee plays a Rickenbacker 4001 bass through a pair of Ampeg SVTs? Cool! I should, too, and then maybe I will rock like Geddy! I’ve never comparison-shopped for the tools of my own work and no one has ever even joked that they’d like to write like me, but what I’ve fallen into is a both/and on Notepad v. Recorder and a choice between the desktop in my cube or my laptop at South Bend’s fine Main Street Coffee House for the writing. The Mennonites who own and run that place put something in the icing on the carrot cake that really opens the mind.
What do you wish you were better at?
Getting off my chair, cultivating sources, listening, asking good follow-ups, abstract reasoning, poetry, public speaking, distinguishing inside voices from outside voices, comedic timing, zingers, photography, multitasking, novel writing, hardball, and making a persuasive case to Kerry Temple to let me open a Virgin Islands bureau of Notre Dame Magazine.
What story are you proudest to have written?
My inner Carthusian, which sternly disapproves of my byline, is having a hard time with this question. I know the stories that so many of us did about the Haiti earthquake triggered some ethical introspection. In our case, I felt no qualms writing about a research program and staff whose 17-year, on-the-ground commitment combating an awful parasitic disease, lymphatic filariasis, put them in an extraordinary position to provide aid, comfort, and medical care to their city. The stories—we did two, one from campus and one from Leogane and Port-au-Prince—connected with readers and was a small part of an impressive followup effort that has faculty and alumni involved in Haiti in novel ways to this day. I’m proud just to know those people.
Who among writers have been your exemplars?
Ray Bradbury, Richard Russo. Flannery O’Connor. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Henry Taylor. We have published several pieces by an essayist named Mark Phillips who nails my heart to a tree in Western New York every single time. And then, Douglas Adams. Dave Barry. Life and death; absurdist humor.
If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be?
Dead heat among restoration architect, brewmaster, globe trekker, slugging, Gold Glove, career first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, and lead timpanist at the Olympics. Who doesn’t want to be that guy?
All of my friends agree: I have the perfect face for radio. Paul J. Clifford, president of the East Carolina Alumni Association at East Carolina University, produces the “Impact Alumni” podcast, and he was kind enough to interview me for the 31st episode of his program. We talked mostly about university magazines dealing with institutional scandal and controversy, especially The Penn Stater. The podcast runs about a half-hour and is safe for work—I went the whole 29:35 without a single vulgarity. And there’s no nudity.