Hat trick

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Monday, June 27, 2005: Representatives of Highfill, home of Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, should mosey down to Grapevine, Texas, and take notes, themselves. This town has created a historical district, which on some holidays and by request (such as for visiting columnists) puts volunteers in early 20th-century costume and gives them scripts to tell passers-by just how things were, a long time ago.

Or not. This made for a pleasant couple of hours, but, you know, any burg could do this. Many have. Not the walking actors so much as renovate downtown, clamp some zoning restrictions and promote it as a tourist destination. Here in the Ozarks, Rogers has done this beautifully, well surpassing this Grapevine village (named for wild mustang grapes found here but never harvested or fermented; wineries arrived as part of the tourist draw in the last decade or so) in rehabilitated historic handsomeness. The Bentonville Square doesn’t quite have enough to be worth a full afternoon, and my downtown Fayetteville uses all its buildings for residents and their commerce, naturally drawing visitors, as opposed to tourists.

Springdale? Like Rogers and Grapevine, it doesn’t have a square — is that because their central business districts were strongly attached to train stations? — and Springdale’s facades along Emma Avenue (the true Main Street, although it does have a Main Street) is firmly 1950s in tone if not architectural precision.

But Rogers has “it,” and it’s always a treat to walk there and poke your head in the shops and restaurants.

The flaw in Grapevine for me is 90 years ago isn’t old enough to be captivating.

What made our trip a trip, outside of the conference (housed in Grapevine’s year-old Gaylord Texan Resort), was spending Thursday, June 23, in downtown Fort Worth, specifically at the Kimbell Museum of Art and the Japanese Garden of the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens, which are a half-dozen blocks apart.

I moved from Dallas-Fort Worth in June 1985, to Little Rock, and for all the warnings about how much it’s grown and changed since my four years there in suburban newspapers, I stopped getting lost when I discarded the maps and the Internet road-direction printouts and followed my memories.

Was that truly a geographic sense-memory? In part, sure, but I think that all those years ago when I was driving I was hardly looking at fields, subdivisions or shopping centers but just at road signs, intersections and freeway exits. That a pasture is now a mall wouldn’t throw me because I didn’t need to implant that in my brain.

Seeing the cultural district of Fort Worth was my second priority. Actually it alternated in the last 12 months with my first, a shallow desire.

That first priority was a 20-year-old ambition to revisit the Resistol hat factory in the Dallas suburb of Garland. In the early 1980s I dropped by its outlet store a couple of times because it had top hat brands because the corporation that owned Resistol apparently owned other classic lines including Stetson and, I think, Dobbs. Between Google and phone calls, I got the store’s location (it had moved a block away), hours and directions. Unfortunately, it was a good hour’s drive from the hotel.

Fortunately, I called a day ahead. Unfortunately, it was closed for inventory. But, hey, it would be open Saturday so I made plans to skip the Grapevine history tour and drive there then meet the gang at the Sixth Floor Museum in downtown Dallas. Saturday morning I called the store; it was still closed for inventory. Forget it.

My third non-columnist goal for this trip was just a drive through Irving, home of my first job in the area. As it happened, our NSNC buses took Carpenter Freeway (Texas 114) for our field trip to the JFK museum. In the seats behind us, a couple from New York City were trying to tell their little girl about landmarks but this was their first trip. As I told my wife things to the effect of, there’s the first buildings of Las Colinas, I realized I had a bigger audience. The husband was particularly interested in the Dallas Cowboys’ Texas Stadium. My geographic memory kicked in so I could say, see that tower? That’s the University of Dallas, a Catholic school. Right after that is the stadium.

Thankfully I was right. This felt like a nervous guess as I was making it. Other times during the long weekend I spoke too soon or too much, but this wasn’t one of them.

Postscript on the Resistol. Part of my research centered on making the shopping excursion effective, in case we only had a half-hour there instead of an afternoon. To that end I visited a chain Western store in Springdale. Surprisingly, this one has two older gents who are real cowboy hatters, complete with steam hoses, old but working tools and an aluminum head form for stretching hats.

These fellows are kind and generous with their advice. Another plus was the full range of prices of the hats. The day after our return, I went in and bought a traditional Western straw and also a comic sidekick’s “cowpoke,” both Resistols.

I’ve grown weary of my Australian style and European derived hats and caps. I have been seeking toppers authentically and democratically American. The finer Resistol looks sharp, too. -30-

Lessons from Pete Hamill

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Saturday, June 25, 2005: The columnists had a great afternoon at the Sixth-Floor Museum meeting with three eyewitnesses to the JFK assassination and-or its immediate aftermath. But the focus of this entry is a morning session led by New York writer Pete Hamill. My longhand notes are fine as records now. I do want to put the cream of the cream of the cream here. (If cream of the cream is butter, then the next is clarified butter, or ghee?)

Mr. Hamill, being the careful journalist, attributed most of his remarks. It might have sounded like name-dropping but he was being deliberate and exact.

I missed the name, but he noted that proteges treat their mentors in these four stages: imitate him or her, emulate, equal then surpass them.

He emphasizes not just active verbs but also “concrete nouns,” spending almost too much time on the current bureaucratic ploy of turning nouns into verbs, such as “impact,” “transit,” “reference,” “exit” and the like.

Irish saying: “Contention is better than loneliness.”

We must not dumb down or “make readers dumber,” as media execs advise but “make them smarter. People want to know more.”

Read widely, Mr. Hamill advises, and not just of our genre, though when we do, just the greats. Read fiction especially short stories, and read poetry. These do not have to be classics but whatever grabs you.

Habits, tricks, memory are all unconscious and all bedevil the artist. He quotes the book “Ways of the Hand” by David Sudnow, a pianist who found that it was not his mind so much as his hands that retained memory of classical style, which made it nearly impossible to play jazz. To this end, when Mr. Hamill writes fiction, he starts with 6-7 pages of longhand before going to the computer keyboard. (This also showed the breadth of his reading.)

Mr. Hamill also keeps a journal, using it for all its various purposes: recollections, eavesdropping on strangers, lassoing subjects then perhaps a little development, and copying over someone else’s good paragraph to see what makes it work.

Another way to stay fresh is to ensure you have some alone time. You do not always have to eat lunch with others. Several times a week, go off by yourself. Galleries too: “If you go to a museum with someone then you perform your responses to a piece of art rather than just have them.”

He gave the address after dinner as well. There he noted the country’s main problems do not come from the left or the right but from the growing use of “baloney,” only he didn’t call it that (but I see baloney as being exactly the same as b.s. and intend to use “baloney” instead of the expletive, myself.)

He had lots more to say and was happy to spill it. -30-

Couple columnists hit a bar

Two columnists walk into a bar

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Friday, June 24, 2005: A temptation is to write rather complete articles from the notes I took at the just-completed conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, meeting in Grapevine, to the northeast of Fort Worth and northwest of Dallas.

But what I would prefer getting typed up are just the highlights of various speakers, their particular remarks that speak to me as a journalist, as a newspaperman, as a writer of columns.

From Keith Woods of The Poynter Institute. While urging moderation (topic: The Writing in Column Writing), Mr. Woods said, “Don’t be afraid of your ‘I’s.'” He likes first person (compared to several editors I’ve dealt with, as has he, who blame the I for everything). Rather than simply say, “use action verbs,” he said, “Let verbs carry the action, tone and theme.” He favors repetition for emphasis, which like the anti-I rule, has come to be despised by so-called experts. But Mr. Woods likes repetition to tie elements together. Giving analogies then referring to them also unifies a piece, as does hyperbole.

Quoting good writing experts, he says “stick the landing,” which makes little sense to me, though the definition does. Mr. Woods says the end of the sentence and the end of the whole piece carry the most weight.

As said later but a little differently by York (Pa.) Daily Record columnist Mike Argento, Mr. Woods prefers developing small incidents to stand for big developments rather than summarizing large ones. Mr. Argento would cover a trial by focusing on a bystander or the circus outside, rather than the proceedings.

Next up Friday morning was Tim Bete, director of the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop at the University of Dayton, Ohio, on “Writing Funny in Serious Times.”

Bad question, he says, noting both tons of writers’ adviceand a book “The Truth About Writing” by Michael Allen (this is a British book; the publisher has posted excerpts online). Writing is like brain surgery, Mr. Bete says, you do it every day whether you feel like it or not, and as good as you can. Successful writers practice “realistic optimism.”

Mr. Bete can quote the late Mrs. Bombeck like no one’s business, and she says, “Inspiration is a luxury,” and “Writer’s block is another name for putting it off.” (This is interesting because having been a judge for his workshop’s writing contest for the last three years, I can see how Mr. Bete must struggle continually with writer wannabes.)

He does answer the title: All times are serious. You find humor in the impulse all writers have, that urge to share knowledge and stories and empathy that you, the reader, are not alone (in these serious times). He finds this said best in Vonnegut’s Timequake.

Paula LaRocque, an often-published and well-travelled journalism writing coach, talked mostly about mechanics, and delivered little new. Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, a former investigative columnist herself, was candid, which apparently has been her trademark, but also surprising: She likes being mayor more than being a journalist and if she knew then what she does now she would have been a nicer reporter to her subjects.

Friday afternoon had the society’s first breakout sessions, four one-hour periods with three different sessions each hour (well, 45-minute sessions with 15-minute breaks).

I have ordered a CD-rom of all sessions so I can hear what I missed, and relisten to the likes of Pete Hamill. At the conference, I chose which to actually attend, based on the likelihood my next column will have reportage and no longer be 100 percent essay.

(A part of my mindset still is sure that reporting is for reporters, both on principle and because that’s what newspapers need readers to expect, while columns are for analysis and reflection and other subjective but necessary mind exercises, such as ridicule or criticism.)

Mr. Argento was one of three columnists considering column-reporting on deadline. Another was Dan Bernstein of the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise. Mr. Bernstein strives not to write the “best column ever,” although later, Pete Hamill would say that’s been his daily goal, but Mr. Bernstein simply gets them out by striving for the “best column for tomorrow.” Mr. Bernstein’s three tips: Find your angle at the scene (don’t get there with a preconceived notion). Trust your reporting skills for the angle and for good details. And “dump” your notes into the computer a.s.a.p.

The last I learned reporting for the Irving (Texas) Daily News. Write or transcribe all into the computer, sure, but I would sit in the car immediately after a meeting or other event and with a different color ink or a pencil annotate my notes. Then drive to the newsroom. That would bring back details I would forget in another 20 minutes as well as stray words left out of direct quotes.

Bob Hill of the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal relies on passion to keep fresh after 35 years in the column saddle. He gets passion, or as he puts it “anger,” by going on site. “It’s the outrage that gives you energy to put it out.”

Playing good columnist – bad columnist, Bill Tammeus of the Kansas City Star and Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News, respectively, compared how they regard “friends” in doing their columns. For all of Mr. Bykofsky’s urban sarcasm and Mr. Tammeus’s gentle musing, they did agree on being tough. These “friends” want to use your platform for their purposes: “It’s business,” Mr. Bykofsky said. Be skeptical, not cynical, and you’ll get the job done and some of these people will “pleasantly surprise” you by being sincere, Mr. Bykofsky said.

Mr. Tammeus noted you do not write columns for people to like you. When writing critically about people you know, be reasonable and be fair, he said.

Dave Lieber of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram had his editor, Lois Norder, speak about editor-columnist relations. She packed lots of details into a multipage outline. It was easy to summarize: Editor psychology is just like that of any manager, and almost any good job book will provide similar coping strategies. Ms. Norder did say, interestingly, that “high-positive reporters and columnists usually come with high negatives.” I may need to borrow that someday, as my excuse.

Mr. Lieber ran a session on breaking news columns on deadline. Main tip was to use librarians, either the community’s or the newspaper’s, for your initial research, for efficiency of time. Mr. Lieber gave me a good answer to my badly worded question: Use your editor to run interference with other editors or fellow reporters. -30-