Tag Archives: California State University at Chico

Writing in a circle, from surprise start to ironic finish

For as long as I can remember, I knew that I would be a writer. I just did not think early on that I would ever make a living at it. I thought it was something that I would do on the side, for myself and no one else.

And, now after 22 years as a professional writer and editor, I may never write and edit for a living ever again simply because of the economic atmosphere in which we live.

Such are the circles of life, I suppose.

As a youngster, I wrote stories in a form that most resembles storyboards, sort of a cartoon or graphic representation of a tale. Storyboards are used to outline television commercials, TV shows, movies or other video presentations. My fictional stories – which included plots and characters plucked from the latest adventure television programming – were for fun and to pass away the time during long, cold winters in the North Words of Maine or long, rainy days during summer vacation.

Later on, my high school English teacher, Janice Webster, occasionally encouraged me to write beyond the journal entries she assigned. But a high school boy more interested in sports and girls was embarrassed by the recognition and I mentally shoved aside the idea of writing beyond regular English assignments. Continuing a private journal was one thing, but being a professional writer on any level was out of the question.

Besides, there were far more practical pursuits on which to concentrate – studying for a profession or vocation – but writing was not one of them.

But college professors at the University of Southern Maine where I attended from 1980 to 1983 also were encouraging in critiquing my written work for courses in various areas of study, including English. It was comforting, but it still was not enough to spur me to write more than what my college courses required or what I cared to jot down in my personal journal.

I still have some of those early journals and marvel at how utterly terrible some of my writing was then. There are times I have considered finding an open spot and torching a pile of those journals so that they do not fall in the hands of even mildly intelligent people who will recognize the writing for what it is – dung.

Going west

While I loved the University of Southern Maine and Southern Maine in general, I felt a bit adrift there after three academic years. I was not sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, let alone what I wanted to study to get there.

So, almost reluctantly, I took the advice of several fellow USM students just returning from the National Student Exchange program. The program allowed students to attend courses for either a semester or complete academic year at other universities throughout the country, and then return to the home university. I picked California State University at Chico in Northern California.

Chico is north of Sacramento, but still well within the state’s prime agricultural area. Besides agriculture, the economy was centered on the university, a nearby community college, a major regional medical center, retail outlets, and, because Chico is the county seat for Butte County, social services.

Modern-day Chico was founded by Capt. John Bidwell, who in 1841 travelled to the West and for a time worked for John Sutter. After the discovery of gold, Bidwell tried a hand at gold prospecting. He eventually bought and sold a couple of land grants, eventually buying the Rancho Chico, the basis for modern-day Chico. He became one of the state’s largest landowners and wielded his political influence running for several offices, including for president of the United States.

Bidwell’s mansion is a state historic park on the edge of the campus. He also gave the city land for what was then – and very probably now, as well – the third largest municipal park in the country. Bidwell Park is a lush sanctuary that starts near downtown Chico and meanders along either side of the Big Chico Creek into the lava-formed foothills. Bidwell Park has a couple of swimming holes, bike and running paths, horse trails, ball fields, a fairy tale-themed children’s playground, nude beaches, hiking trails and more. The city’s municipal golf course is in Upper Bidwell Park.

I have not been to Chico in years and that is a shame since it is a fantastic place.

I originally planned to attend Chico State for a semester and then return to USM to finish out my college career. But, as such stories go, I fell in love with a woman. The problem was, of course, she was not interested in me. So, I arranged to stay for the entire academic year, I suppose in the hope of winning her heart.

I did not win her heart, but Chico won mine. I fell in love with the university, the city, and the outdoor activities in and around Chico. So, I settled in and became a wildland firefighter for the summer following my first academic year at Chico State. I was a wildland firefighter for two more summers while attending Chico State, rising from firefighter/sawyer/swamper to squad leader to crew leader my third year.

I very nearly made firefighting my career and still occasionally feel regret that I did not give the idea more thought. By now I would have nearly 30 years in the fire service and would be planning my retirement, whether as a transition into another career or as a transition onto a tropical beach. That – and the fact that I did not really pick a major until they forced me to – might indicate how conflicted I was in trying to pick a career.

Picking a path

Yes, they forced me into picking a major. They forced me because I could not seem to do the deed.

My academic adviser John Sutthoff, a professor in the school of communications, finally put down his foot and insisted that I pick a major. He asked what I enjoyed doing. I thought about and said I enjoyed writing, because I did enjoy writing in my personal journal and enjoyed the positive feedback from professors when it came to writing for my coursework.

He said that the school had public relations and journalism majors and both required much writing. Not wanting to be a public relations practitioner, I said I would try journalism.

I was not sure even then that I would end up being a professional writer.

With several of the basic news writing and editing courses down, I ended up on the staff of The Orion, the campus newspaper. There was only a part-time staff writer position available, but I was able to get full credit because I also became an assistant to the production manager. That meant that I was able to learn a bit about being a reporter and a bit about physically putting together the newspaper, which was much different than it is done today.

Then, the story was reported, written, edited and outputted on a strip of photographic paper. That paper as developed, trimmed to the width of a newspaper column, waxed and then put onto a blue-line grid sheet matching the newspaper page. Headline, cutlines, photos and ads were done separately, waxed and then attached to the grid sheet in the appropriate places. A photo of the page was then taken by a large camera, the negative transferred to a metal plate that was processed and then placed onto the drums of the printing press. Pressmen, who to this day keep secret the exact manner for placing plates on the press and for weaving the web – the rolled paper magically threaded through the press that will become the newspaper – then run a section of the paper. That was taken by conveyor belt to the circulation department where the various sections were combined – either by hand or by machine – to form the complete newspaper.

Now, software allows for stories, complete with headlines, subheds, cutlines, photos and ads, to be placed on an electronic page and output to plating as a single page before converted into a plate, saving much time and effort on the editorial side of the production.

First big story

Even as a part-time staff writer, I ended up with some exciting stories. I was interviewing the campus police chief one day about crime stats or something as banal, when a campus police sergeant came in to update him on an upcoming operation. The chief introduced me and the sergeant asked if I was coming along.

I was stunned, really, because they had been talking in police-speak and I was not clear on what they were talking about. The chief told me a bit about what was going on and said it would be OK if I wanted to come along with a photographer.

As it turned out, there was a ring of Chico State and Butte Community College students who were going onto the Chico State campus and elsewhere to steal coins from vending machines. They also were stealing other property, as it turned out, including stereo equipment and bicycles. (Chico is a big bike town, especially for college students. There used to be an annual road trip to Davis, another bike-friendly college town, to, um, borrow bicycles from University of California, Davis, students. Davis students would return the favor, of course.)

One of the members of the ring, Chico State football player Steven Crittenden, was nabbed doing something else and he pretty much gave up his crew. Officers went to the apartment of the gang and found a pile of coins, bicycles, stereos and other stolen property.

That was my first big story. Front-page of The Orion with photos. It was fun, especially since I believe we beat the local newspaper, The Chico Enterprise-Record. I sort of caught the bug then.

[But the story goes on a bit. Crittenden, the guy who tipped off police about the vending machine thefts, later was arrested in a rape. And then charged, tried and found guilty in the January 1987 double torture homicides of a prominent Chico physician and his wife, Joseph and Katherine Chiapella, in their Chico home. Crittenden’s trial was moved to Placer County, where he was convicted and sentenced to death. He remains on California’s death row. Here’s a link to a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals response to a filing for an appeal in the case with a description of the homicides. WARNING: The descriptions and other factual information are fairly graphic.]

I was the editor of The Orion the next two semesters. I wrote columns and editorials, mostly, and made sure we had enough stories to fill the pages. It was an eventful two semesters, but I think I would have been better served if I had been a writer for a full semester instead of being the editor. Some of the other writers from that time went onto great things, from working in journalism to writing and producing television dramas.

The Real World

After graduation, I hung around Chico for about a month before getting a job as the editor of The Mendocino Beacon. That began my professional career as a writer and editor.

From Mendocino, I went on to be a staff writer at The Ukiah Daily Journal, The Woodland Daily Democrat, and The Reporter in Vacaville. I stayed more than 13 years in Vacaville, moving up to copy editor, assistant news editor in charge of special sections, columnist, and opinion page editor. In a desire to make more money, I moved onto The Record in Stockton to take a job as an assistant city editor.

I stayed with that a couple of years until a newsroom reorganization resulted in me being reassigned to being a staff writer on the newspaper’s website. I was disappointed. There was no other way to look at the reassignment except as a demotion, a demotion not because of my work, but because of someone else’s inability to lead.

However, the year or so I spent working on the website was very beneficial. My main duty was to update content on the newspaper’s website, send out news alerts to mobile subscribers, and write breaking news. It gave me many new skills and helped me refresh old skills.

It was going well – or so I thought – until I was laid off March 5, 2009.

As past readers will know, I have been looking for work ever since. I have been looking for employment in conventional newsroom settings and online news services, and writing and editing opportunities for the federal government, nonprofits, and green industries. So far, a couple of interviews, but no offers.

I know I will find a job – eventually. I just wish it would happen already, especially since I’m quickly running out of unemployment insurance benefits. For that reason, I may have to take any job, whether it is in writing and editing or not.

And that is why I feel that I may not write as a professional ever again. It just may not be in the cards for me.

Epilogue

Irony is wonderful, isn’t it? I wrote this mostly string-of-consciousness blog entry after starting to re-read Rene J. “Jack” Cappon’s 1991 version of “The Associated Press Guide to News Writing,” a manual on how to best write clear, concise news stories. The irony is, of course, that I wrote an entry that is more than 2,000 words; there is nothing clear or concise about that.

Writing a journal: It’s not as difficult as some think

A journal – especially for a first-time journal writer – does not have to be an elegant and expensive leather-bound tome. Start off with a composition notebook. You can buy a more expensive journal later one once you’ve learned if journal writing is for you. Photo by Keith Michaud

A journal – especially for a first-time journal writer – does not have to be an elegant and expensive leather-bound tome. Start off with a composition notebook. You can buy a more expensive journal later one once you’ve learned if journal writing is for you. Photo by Keith Michaud

[Author’s note: This entry is on general journal writing, the kind of writing everyone can do and should attempt at least once in their lives. This entry is the result of an email from a  reader who asked my advice about writing and how to get started. Writing a journal is the easiest way to write in a disciplined way, to practice the craft of writing, and for a person to get a feel for whether they would like to pursue writing as a profession. Below are some of my thoughts on journal writing and a few tips for those who have not written a journal before. – Keith Michaud]

A journal is more than a mere diary. A diary tells about what happens in a person’s life and how they feel about it. A journal is different in that it is constantly evolving as a document. It can do for a person what a diary does, but it can do much more.

A journal:

Allows a person to recall, rethink and analyze the events of the day, week, month, year, and lifetime;

Allows a person to work out decisions by providing a place to list pros and cons;

Allows a person to work out problems by providing a place for an internal discussion that is written down and analyzed;

Allows a person to express views they might not feel comfortable expressing in a more public forum;

Allows a person to draft letters – letters to family and friends, letters to the editor, letters to companies, etc.;

Allows a person to draft passages, poems, essays, etc.

Allows a person to doodle or sketch;

Allows a person to plot goals and aspirations;

Allows a person to plot the progress in achieving those goals and aspirations;

Allows a person a place to keep photos, papers, movie ticket stubs, postcards, letters, newspaper clippings, etc., that are personally important;

Allows a person to keep track of books read, movies seen, wine tasted, places visited, and more;

Allows a person a simple reminder to write, write, write.

To me a diary is written by a person about what has happened in their life. A journal is that, but more. A journal can be a place to put down on paper a more analytical view of things going on in a person’s life and around them, to add perspective to events in a person’s life. A journal can be used to work out drafts of passages or poetry, or to work on writing exercises, and to outline longer, broader works. Really, a journal is what a person decides to make it.

Keeping a journal can be incredibly cathartic and there are many reasons and motivations for starting and maintaining a journal. A traumatic event in a person’s life might spark in them a desire to put down on paper or on a memory stick feelings about that traumatic event. A person wanting to express themselves in words – prose, poetry, lyrics – might use a journal to organize those thoughts. A person setting goals or documenting accomplishments or jotting down information to be used later can do that in a journal.

I’ve written in a journal off and on for more than 30 years. And for that I blame Janice Webster, my high school English teacher. She had students in her class write in journals. She was supportive of my writing efforts and I just kept it up.

It wasn’t until I attended California State University at Chico, however, that I had an inkling that writing might actually be a career for me. It was there that I changed my major to journalism, it was there that I joined the campus newspaper, it was there I earned a journalism degree, and it was from there that I went on to work for more than two decades in small- to medium-sized newspapers in Northern California.

There’s quite a bit about journal writing on the Internet. Some of it is good information. Some of it is unnecessary for a typical journal.

Where to start

My personal choice is to write in a journal rather than tap out journal entries on a computer. I have a couple of blogs and do enough tapping on the keyboard. So the tips I’m giving are more related to old-style journal writing.

  • Picking a journal is a personal choice. It can be as simple as a composition notebook. It can be as elaborate as a leather-bound tome. I would recommend for someone just starting out in journal writing to go with an inexpensive composition notebook. I’ve used them before and work well for the task. If you take to journal writing – or if it takes to you – consider investing in a nicer journal later and after the composition notebook is filled. (The big bookstores – Borders, Barnes and Noble, etc. – often have journals on their sale tables. Look there before spending a lot of money on a leather-bound journal.)
Spend as much time deciding on a pen with which to write in your journal as you do on the journal itself. But go with black ink and go with a pen that writes smoothly. You can spend a lot of money on a good pen, but Parker retractable with black gel ink works very well. Photo by Keith Michaud

Spend as much time deciding on a pen with which to write in your journal as you do on the journal itself. But go with black ink and go with a pen that writes smoothly. You can spend a lot of money on a good pen, but Parker retractable with black gel ink works very well. Photo by Keith Michaud

  • The writing instrument is often overlooked when journal writing. It should not. It is incredibly important equipment in journal writing and some time should be devoted to selecting the writing instrument that is just right for you. Make that writing instrument your journal writing instrument. Do not use it to jot down a grocery list or things-to-do lists. It is for the journal only. I highly recommend black ink over all others; it’s the color of ink that writers use. I also recommend an instrument that deliveries the ink smoothly. I would go with a smooth ink delivery system over a flashy pen, unless you have the money for a flashy pen that writes smoothly. I use a simple black and silver Parker pen with black gel ink. It is not flashy, but it writes beautifully. (Some might think that fountain pens were made for journal writing. I have used fountain pens in the past. Two large problems: 1. the ink smudges easily; and 2. water can wash away the ink quite easily.)
  • Find the right place to write. It should be quiet, either a quiet corner in your home, a quiet corner of the coffeehouse, a quiet corner in a park. Find a place where you can concentrate on writing.

What to write

  • What a journal writer writes about in a journal is up to journal writer. There are several suggestions given above. But there are also several websites that provide ideas for writing. It might be as simple as describe a person’s earliest memory. It might be a list of goals for the next five years, 10 years, 20 years. Then write, write, write. Write about what’s going on in the world; write about things that bother you; write about something overheard in conversation; pets.
  • Write, write, write may be the best piece of advice. Writing will help improve your writing. Write, write, write.
  • Read, read, read may be the next best piece of advice. Writing is improved by reading what others have written. It does not mean reading Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Mailer … unless you want to read Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Mailer. Read about history and popular culture; read about philosophy and entertainment; just read. A person who reads a lot can write better than the person who does not read regularly.

A couple more tips

  • Always date each entry. Multiple entries on the same day might include a time or “Later” to help give context later. (One online article about journal writing suggested that the first few pages of a journal could be devoted to a table of contents complete with headers and page numbers. That seems a little much. If having a table of contents is so critical to a journal writer, using a computer and a writing software that allows for a table of contents seems a better way to go.)
  • Set a goal to write at least something every day. It can be a paragraph, a page, something. But write every day.
  • Journal writers should not become frustrated – especially when they first start – because they feel what they write isn’t very good. It will improve with time. And bad writing can be rewritten. Keep writing.
  • Go back every so often and scan earlier entries. The journal writer then can update progress made on goals that were set or update a life circumstance or simply update progress made in writing.
  • Find a special place for the journal and pen. A desk drawer or book shelf should do for most people. A more private person might want to lock the desk drawer or put the journal in another secure place. But put it in the same place each time and return it to that place after each use.

Really, there isn’t much more about journal writing that a new journal writer won’t learn along the way. Writing in a journal will lead to better writing and the germination of new topics on which to write. Just write, write, write. It will be worth it in the end.