Advising day writers panel discusses beauty and truth when telling difficult stories

By Cassy Sottile and Erica Quinones

News Editors

A panel comprised of several artists was hosted at the Rose O’Neill Literary House on Nov. 6. 

The interviewees consisted of Sophie Kerr Writer-in-Residence and long-form journalist Jason Fagone, former NPR editor Neal Conan, viola de gamba player and author of the “Between War & Here” poetry book Carolyn Surrick, and former ABC and NPR war correspondent Anne Garrels. The panel was introduced by The Elm’s Editor-in-Chief senior Abby Wargo and moderated by Associate Professor of English and Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House Dr. James Hall.

With a room of authors, mostly journalists, Dr. Hall took the opportunity to ask about their influences and craft. Thus, he started at the beginning asking how each member got into their profession.

Most of their journeys had simple origins — Conan ran into his radio job while chasing girls, while Garrels stumbled into her job as a Soviet Union correspondent through an affinity for the Russian language and secretary school.

Surrick and Fagone had stronger ideas of what they wanted. Surrick said collaboration fueled her career in music and the creation of shows like “Between War & Here,” which was performed at Washington College later that night.

Fagone always knew he wanted to write. He was the editor of his high school newspaper and wrote for his college newspaper, so journalism was a natural way to prove he could make money and write.

How they write also came into play. The subjects were mixed between radio, television, and written journalism with some creative writing. 

When asked about why they chose their mediums, Surrick said she was simply “awful at prose.”

Garrels, who worked in television news, said she was equally unable to change parts of the story presentation. But medium is a huge choice as it can change the voice. Fagone had a slightly different take as he himself is still learning to cut down his long-form journalism stories.

Similar to Conan’s comment of “form dictates function,” Fagone said that if a story is not getting better when it is longer, then it should not be longer. 

This sentiment tied into another aspect they analyzed, the characteristics that writing required from them.

Fagone said that he experienced his career in reverse, starting off with long stories then learning to write shorter. So, he has to know what to cut from stories.

Conan said that working in a chaotic newsroom required him to learn organizational skills. 

Others, like Garrels, said her writing dictated she have a sense of curiosity. It was choosing interesting stories and new ways to tell news, like podcasts. 

Surrick also relied on human nature being her observational skills. She said she tries to absorb every detail of the audience during performances to see how they are affected.

Because most of the panelists are not just writers but journalists, how the truth is told was also a matter of discussion.

Generally, they were in agreement about the value of truth and beauty in writing, but the balance was a point of contention. 

Surrick said that “things that have to get out…must be graceful,” otherwise stories like those of wounded veterans are too bleak for most audiences. 

As a former war correspondent, Garrels said that it is important not to glaze over the terrors of war. She covered both incredible and horrible people, but said that “the joy of being a journalist is choosing stories with huge latitude.” 

Conan said that news should not be tarnished or made pretty. 

“It needs to be told. Truth is justice,” Conan said. 

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