Thursday, October 3, 2013

Talking to the Rotary Club: My Mouth Can't Stop

(The following is the text of a talk I gave to the Rotary Club in downtown Roanoke yesterday.) 

I'm slightly out of focus for my talk.
Good noon to you, lovely people. I hope your lunch was as delicious as mine and I know you look bright and shiny. Except for one of two of you.

Dina Bennett, bless her heart, invited me to talk “about anything you want to talk about” and that was not much of a help. It’s a big world out there and sometimes narrowing things down gets you two thirds of the way to the finish line.

I recently wrote a story for Virginia Living magazine on my friend Anne Adams, a publisher in Monterey and one of the smartest, most courageous people I’ve ever known. The assignment was for 1,300 words. By the time I had finished exterior interviews, I had 7,800 words written for the story. And I hadn’t talked to Anne. Soooo. Narrowing the focus became more important than pearly prose. I submitted 1,313 words at 50 cents a word and I can tell you I undersold those babies by 85 percent because they were so difficult to come by.

I once had a writer who suggested that I edit her too-long story by “taking out the vowels.” I considered it.

What I came up with as a topic for today is a direct result of the world of communication we live in at this moment, with all the newbie ways to deliver information. I went to Facebook and wrote this: “OK, boys and girls, a little help here. I'm speaking at the Rotary Club at noon Wednesday and I need a topic. No politics (this is basically a conservative group and I want to live through the talk), but I've been given carte blanche otherwise. So, what would you suggest (20 minutes of silence is not an option)?”

Dina, if I go overtime, just stand up and run your finger across your throat. I’ll smile sweetly and shut up.

Here are the responses (and my observations) beginning with a guy named Jay Trout, a conservative who just loves to be as nasty as he possibly can when he disagrees with me:

So what you're saying is, that you're afraid to spew you're liberal B S to a group that can and will refute the lies and half truths that you liberals hold so dear. That comes as no surprise. My response: Yep, Jay. That's it in a nutshell. Hope you'll be there to set them all right. I'll save you a seat.

Jay also came up with this: How about what we can do as a community to create a more appealing valley with more social events and venues to keep our youth from moving away? Thus ensuring future development for generations to come.

I believe we’ve done a lot already. As I keep saying, if you’re not busy, you’re not trying. There are hundreds of options for children, young adults and the elderly (of which I am one). I recently did a series of stories for The Roanoker (read it in January) on the state of the arts here and I can tell you it’s as good as—if not better than—it is anywhere else in the country our size. Our theater options are simply astonishing. Marriage. I’ve started a 12-step program that seems to be really helping. I haven’t been married in over a year and haven’t felt that pull lately.

Decline of the newspaper business.  We could go on and on about this one because it is one of the tragedies of our time if you want to look at it that way. I don’t. It is simply part of the evolution of communication. Newspapers are a delivery system, like French fries for catsup.

Journalism isn’t going anywhere. We simply have new ways to find the information we need and we are learning how it will work best. If you’re in the information delivery business—regardless of format—this is a difficult, exciting time.

We’re trying to figure out how in the hell we can get people to pay for online information, which they have not been doing, because without money coming in, the info will cease going out.

Back to newspapers. This is an industry that grew fat and lazy with 14 percent profits and more dollars than sense. When change came suddenly, it didn’t adjust. When it finally started adjusting, it was so far behind new formats like HuffingtonPost that it might never catch up.

HuffPost’s business model is brilliant, if dangerous: it steals from everybody who’s paying reporters, posts their stuff and pulls in tons of advertising dollars because HuffPost has such great content. Based on theft from people who are trying to do it right. I’m not certain that business model can be sustained, but shoot, I didn’t think Congress could get through a session with no deaths in its halls, either.

Newspapers in their current format are done. You can simply write that down and put it in your safe deposit boxes. Magazines, because of their narrow focus, have some time left and if they go online-only, they can survive. It means change, but not change in the journalism. Change in the format.

Magazines—especially local magazines—have already begun a massive bastardization of the journalism that used to drive them. They often trade news stories for ads. I can’t tell you how often at FRONT and the BJ we sat down with marketing people who said, “Well, Bella offered us a full-page story for a full-page ad” or “CITY magazine says we can write the story on ourselves if we’ll buy an ad. What can you do for us?” Our answer: “News and advertising are separate issues and we don’t do those kinds of trades.” We almost never got the ads and that was crushing to the kind of journalism we wanted to practice.

It’s about money. Don’t ever forget that. And money is much more profoundly influential in journalism today than it ever has been because of corporate ownership. So now I shut up about that.

I know you have some great stories about your experiences as a writer. Let me suggest that if this interests you at all, you read my memoir Burning the Furniture, available at in both paper and e-book versions. I think you can get for a penny, plus shipping. I don’t get any of the penny, nor any of the shipping, but you may enjoy the book. It has sold well and I’m actually updating it. One of the primary problems with memoir as a form is that you aren’t dead when you finish it, so the book’s not finished, either.

Social media and its affect on the evolution of language. This message was followed by this one: the d rugs that are being sold near the RESCUE MISSION.THE PEOPLE THAT HANG AROUND AN TAKE THERE DEAR OL TIME CROSSING THE sT. It took me a while—and a later comment by somebody else—to determine that “d rugs” was “drugs.” “An” is “and”, “there” is “their” and “sT” is “street. “Ol”, of course, is “old.”

I can’t tell you how often I have to write this sentence to otherwise intelligent people: “I don’t understand what you are writing.” Of course, the respondent gets made, calls me a “language Nazi”, folds his arms and sticks out his tongue. I am not a Nazi, language or otherwise. I do insist that people communicate with me in a way I can understand, not in lazy, stupid, nonsensical sentences that are understood only by them.

Lawyers and sociologists have been doing that to language for many years, but they have a goal: not to be understood. To muddle and muddy, to obfuscate. If they are clear, they are committed to a point and they don’t want to be nailed down on anything. “Maybe” is a word they love because it doesn’t mean anything at all. Nothing. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Where did that take us?

The internet didn’t cause this. Program writers didn’t cause it, either. Our natural inclination toward laziness, I think, bears much more responsibility for taking the easy way out. Texting doesn’t help much because it limits language. The ease and speed of communication are not a benefit.

I have a friend with a master’s degree in English whose e-mails are almost unintelligible. She forgets all punctuation and doesn’t even use capital letters. She writes in a single sentence, no matter the length of the correspondence. Her response to questions about this: “It’s just easier that way.” It’s also easier to cause a war with a misplaced comma than it ever has been.

Sports as it relates to the fall of society. I’m not sure I know what the hell this is about. Sports at its highest levels is not causing anything, save for bad joints, splattered brains, a sense of entitlement among the elite, rape, drug use, bling and misspent lives. At lower levels, say high school and junior high, Title IX has allowed girls to become more involved and the result of that has been that girls who play sports don’t smoke as often, take drugs as often, become engaged in sexual activity as early, don’t drop full letter grades every other semester and don’t withdraw to the drawing room to hover over a computer dating site. They feel—and are—fuller human beings.

Boys have known that for years, but the emphasis on sports as a full-time, well-paying job has distorted its intent and its effect for the boys. Girls don’t those goals—because there’s no NFL or NBA sitting there waiting to suck them up the moment they show promise.

Let me mention one little sports dealie that really angers me: the baseball draft. High school boys with absolutely no chance of ever making the majors are drafted in order to fill up the rosters in lower A ball from which they will never emerge, wasting what could be their college years and often foregoing college scholarship offers because “I got drafted by the Braves!”

Even the NBA drafts very few high school kids and those are generally beyond gifted. Professional basketball has, however, distorted college basketball by drafting players in their freshman year when they could simply have drafted them out of high school and sent them to the NBDL.

How about something about having the courage to speak your mind tempered with a "do no harm" goal? I think that speaking your mind is a requirement of our form of government and is not something we should do because it requires courage. We need to say what we think, but we need to be informed. One of the real destructive issues with the internet is that it allows people to be anonymous and post anything they want, no matter how outrageous and hurtful.

At FRONT and on my personal blog, I require people to sign their letters if those letters criticize any human being other than me. Unsigned letters are a sign of cowardice and our nation is full of cowards, as we all know.

How to have decorum in a polarized environment from my buddy Thomas Becher, a PR/marketing guy. The simple answer is this: Thomas, I don’t have a clue.

Nook or book? Discuss the demise of libraries. I have a Kindle, but have given Nooks and books as gifts. I occasionally read books, when I don’t have a choice or when the book is written by a friend and signed by that friend.

I don’t see well and the Kindle allows me to adjust type size. I don’t have to hold the book open. I don’t need excessive light. I turn the page—and it stays turned—by clicking a button. When I finish the book, I don’t have to store it. I also can’t loan it (most of the time). But it’s cheaper and the writer makes the same amount of money. The electronic book is environmentally friendly.

I have never been a friend of the library because libraries buy one book and cost the writer a lot of sales because it loans the book to those wanting to read it. If you’re trying to make a living writing books, it’s already hard enough without public institutions buying one copy of your work, then giving it to people who want to read it. That’s theft in my mind.

Talk about why you are glad to live in the Roanoke Valley. The people, the special places, and the events. There are more and more opportunities to meet folks, or to get involved with community. And the weather is great. Cold enough for lilac and warm enough for crepe myrtle! My hometown is Asheville, the city Roanoke loves to say it aspires to be. Roanoke is fine just the way it is and has no need whatever to be Asheville or anywhere else.

I can’t tell you how many times in the last few weeks and in the months and years before that I have said to people, “We live in one of the best places on earth.” If you can’t find something fun and wonderful to do in this valley, you are not trying. If you can’t find a satisfying job, it’s because you aren’t looking hard enough, preparing well enough, making the right connections.

They’re there and if they aren’t, you have the option of becoming an entrepreneur and creating the career you want. The SBDC will give you all the help you need for free and my experience is that if your idea is good enough, you can get it funded because there are people around who will help you. This is one of the best places in the country for entrepreneurs.

I think you should touch on the Roanoke Regional Writer's Conference! In the interest of self-promotion, I will do that. The next one, Jan. 24-25 at Hollins, is the seventh. Five have sold out and the other didn’t have a cap. Two days, three keynote addresses, 24 classes, lunch, coffee, wine reception and it costs $65. How do we do it? We don’t pay anybody. The teachers volunteer and any money we make goes to a scholarship for two Horizon students, often single moms. Last year a woman called and asked me if the $65 included a hotel room. I said it depended on what she was used to.

How Virginia is really four states. In one! I don’t know which four states by buddy Tracy Tryall means, but I’m afraid one could be Mississippi if we’re not careful in the coming elections. I do see four geographic regions, lots of varied opportunities, various levels of economic security, a business base that is as broad and deep as anybody’s and a high quality of life that is being threatened at every level by a General Assembly that believes a tax rate as close to zero as possible encourages good education.

My buddy Arnette Crocker asks this one: "The Age of Relevance" - At what age do we become relevant and at what age does our relevance decline. Relevance doesn’t have an age. I know people of all ages who have a range of effectiveness. My two-year-old grandson Oz has influenced a lot of people with his extraordinary courage and sunny outlook. This little kid nearly died about a dozen times in his first year, has breathing treatments daily, has some kind of tube inserted in his ear and still has the brightest, twinkling eyes I’ve ever seen and a level of mischief that makes Dennis the Menace look comatose.

And I’ve seen lazy, stupid people sit in front of their computers for hours on end criticizing everything they see and doing absolutely nothing about any of it, except making empty, bellyaching, uninformed noises. I’ll take Oz’s approach to relevance.

How about you talk about the state of volunteerism in the area (actually pretty good thanks to a lot of very compassionate folks). The Rotary motto is "Service Above Self", something that is missing in some quarters these days. This is something that will resonate with any true Rotarian (and remember there are a few of us progressives hiding in every club). Well not really hiding; service is the common ground we share with our more conservative friends. We did a cover story a little over a year ago at FRONT with George Kegley on the cover talking about the state of volunteerism in this region and the conclusion was that it was in extraordinary shape.

The people here are good and generous and care about each other. They work hard and give their time, which is often far more valuable than their money. I’m talking to a room full of them, so you don’t need for me to tell you volunteerism’s value.

Karen Hall suggested this (and answered her own response): Talk about how the Rotarians at the turn of the century in the Roaring ‘20s connected with each other to expand business. They helped each other out. Became friends and lived in different towns.

And, finally, there was this from Wayne White: Tell them how to pay it forward. Give them real-life examples. I don’t have enough time to even begin this one except to say that I strongly believe in this wonderful concept. My most significant personal nod this way is in working with young writers/reporters. I had a superb mentor as a kid ("I taught you everything you know, but not everything I know") and I've been trying to pay that back for a long time. I'm also an AA drunk (19 years sober) and if you want to talk about debts owed, that's an overwhelming one that I try to repay on daily.

No comments:

Post a Comment