Following the Answers Home

In writing it’s called the turning point—the resolution of the plot crisis.

It begins as a problem and, after any number of twists and turns, culminates in the main character resolving the conflict.

For me that turning point came with the answer to a simple question.

A couple of years into my position as an assistant professor in journalism at University of Illinois, I was teaching a news editing class for college seniors. Unfortunately, the stories that I had collected for my students to edit were having the unintended effect of leaving them discouraged with nonfiction writing.

“Is there any good writing out there?” they wanted to know.

Clearly a change in content was in order. As a graduate of the University of Oregon’s Literary Nonfiction program, I knew the answer to the question was a resounding, “Yes!” I dug into my files to find work by emerging writers that would inspire these young editors to continue.

The next class, as I was explaining how the writer and editor on a particular story had worked to make one paragraph deftly flow into another, I swept my hands high over my head as if conducting an orchestra. “It’s a symphony, and you have the baton,” I said, pointing from one section of the room to another. “You, as the editor, are responsible for making sure that the cymbals that the composer included in the score crash together right on time!”

In the silence following my dramatics, a timid voice.

“Do you miss working with writers?”

My shoulders sagged.

“Every single day,” I sighed.

It was not the politic answer in a department where my responsibility was teaching editing; it was an instinctive answer. How could I not miss it? I loved it. That’s why I had been hired to be in this classroom — to teach young journalists that same passion for writers and their words.

At the end of the class, another student, Meghan O’Kelly asked me whether I would be willing to work with her on a story she was writing for the student newspaper.

“Absolutely!” I said.

Two months and ten editing sessions later, O’Kelly’s story was the front-page centerpiece of the student paper. By year’s end, it had earned a Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Third Place Award and inclusion in the Associated Collegiate Press contest for Story of the Year.

The week that Meghan sent me an email about her awards, I happened to be in New York on my way to have a beer with a former student from the University of Oregon. Joel, who is now a senior associate editor at Best Life magazine, had won awards as editor of UO’s Flux when I was the faculty adviser.  After giving me a hard time about how many edits I had once put him through, he asked, “Don’t you miss working with writers?”

There it was again: The question that wouldn’t go away.

“Yes,” I said, again. “I miss it every day.”

And with that answer went my teaching career —halting abruptly in one direction and accelerating at warp speed in another.

Within months, I decided to resign my secure, lucrative faculty position in Illinois and point myself in the direction of home. I was determined to re-engage with writers, in particular writers who are inspired by the landscape of West.

Some people might be anxious in these economic times to strike out in pursuit of passion, but since answering that question, I have found myself both exhilarated and inspired.

I remember why I started writing in the first place, the power of storytelling, its ability to lift people up, and the transforming force it can be in our lives. It is in times like these that people’s stories are most needed. And for those of us inspired by that creative passion, the symphony is too compelling to ignore.

In September, I’ll start teaching nonfiction writing workshops in the Rogue Valley through my new endeavor, Trillium Creek Studios.

Proving yet again that if you are willing to answer truthfully the questions the universe throws at you, the outcome can be dramatic.

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