What makes something worth writing about?

I’ve been thinking this morning about what it is that makes a subject worth writing about.

When I was a staff reporter at The Canadian Jewish News, it was easier to know what to write than it is as a blogger. For one thing, many stories were assigned to me, although I also initiated a good number on my own.

Some of the criteria were easy to recognize – if a subject fell into one of my beats, for example. It also had to be relevant to readers. The best stories were also important, compelling, engaging, thought-provoking, and/or entertaining when appropriate.

Some stories – my own and other writers’ too – had a bit of magic for me, when a subject I didn’t expect to be very interesting turned out to be exceptionally absorbing.

I used to tell student columnists to write about subjects they found compelling, and about things they found themselves discussing with their friends.

It always caught my attention when a subject arose two or three times in quick succession – either an issue people were talking about, or repeated stories that had significant points in common. Often, that was indicative of a trend or issue, and turned out to be the springboard to a story.

I was pleased to read CJN editor Yoni Goldstein’s column in this week’s newly redesigned paper about the “journey” to a new CJN, and the vision for the paper as it moves forward. I’m excited to have an article (about the Ontario Jewish Archives and its new website) in the first new paper.

Yoni’s references to asking tough questions and providing solutions to them – as well as including uplifting stories, and issues that have been swept under the rug – indicate there will be much in the paper that is worth reading.

 

A taste of freelance (writing) life

It’s official, I’m freelancing. Last week, I interviewed Rabbi Miri Gold for The Canadian Jewish News. I just found the article online this morning.

Rabbi Gold – Miri – is the Reform rabbi in Israel who launched a 2005 court case seeking salary payment from the Israeli government, a benefit previously accorded only to Orthodox rabbis.

The interview is my first article since I was downsized last June, aside from a column I wrote a few months ago for my former CJN colleague Sheldon Kirshner’s online journal, about the role of Jewish food in my life.

In the weeks and months after being downsized, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do next. I set up this blog partly to help me figure that out, and I looked at a lot of job postings.

As time went on, I leaned more toward the idea of freelance work, combined with work on my blog and my book-in-progress. I like the variety and flexibility, and I’m willing to live with the uncertainty that goes with it, at least for now.

I couldn’t help thinking back to my first assignment as a CJN freelancer, before I joined the staff in the early 1990s. A couple of things were different this time: I wasn’t nervous any more (experience makes a difference!), and I didn’t have to run out to the local bookstore to see my article as soon as it appeared.

My interview last week fell into one of my former beats (religious issues), so it was easy to get back into reporter mode. I re-familiarized myself with the issues, changed the battery in my tape recorder, and bought a new notebook. I was all set.

But there was one thing I hadn’t thought about. When I asked Miri for her business card, I realized I no longer had one to give her in return. I guess I should put that on my list.

 

Whoa! Big changes at The CJN

Ever since I was downsized six months ago, I’ve thought of myself as being in transition. The Canadian Jewish News, where I was a reporter for 22 years, has been in transition too – streamlining, moving to a new office, and searching for a new editor.

But at the same time as it’s been moving forward, it’s also been in a holding pattern, publishing a more-or-less familiar paper under the guidance of interim editor Joe Serge.

It looks like that’s about to change big-time.

The paper announced in a front-page article this week that former CJN columnist Yoni Goldstein, 33, will take over as editor January 6. As well, new CJN president Elizabeth Wolfe spoke of plans to change the look and format of the paper to something a bit “edgier.” The online component will continue to be upgraded too.

Goldstein’s initial editorial, which also ran this week, marked a new direction in both language and perspective for the paper. Whoa!

Not “Whoa!” in a negative way, but “Whoa!” as in “Wow, this is going to get people’s attention.”

The forthright column, titled “Netanyahu’s Lame Excuse,” dealt with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s absence from Nelson Mandela’s funeral. I hope that Goldstein’s fresh voice will spark lots of dialogue, helping to create a vital new CJN – both for readers who agree with his views, and those who don’t.

In the article about his appointment, Goldstein credited his predecessor Mordechai Ben-Dat for allowing him to develop his “voice,” and to develop as a journalist as well. He also said he intends to give voice to all sides.

When it looked like the paper was about to close – before a community outcry led to its rescue – it became apparent that one of its roles was to bring together different voices of the Jewish community.

Speaking personally, I missed Toronto’s Jewish diversity and resources during the year I spent in an American college town in the 1980s. But living in a place with only one synagogue – and a Jewish population of about 1,000, including students – taught me the benefits of being part of a more connected community.

Best of luck to Yoni and the CJN team. I look forward to reading upcoming issues and online posts.

Leaving Anatevka

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into my former editor when I was shopping, and this past weekend I saw my former news editor unexpectedly.

It’s still strange for me to think that my former co-workers – my second family for 22 years – are not part of my day-to-day life. I’m starting to feel like an immigrant: surprised, happy, and a little wistful when I unexpectedly meet people from “the old country,” landsmen, to use the Yiddish term.

I think the analogy comes to mind because in June – for two weeks, as the final day of work approached for those of us who were downsized at The Canadian Jewish News – two people mentioned that the situation reminded them of the villagers preparing to leave Anatevka, the fictional shtetl in Fiddler on the Roof.

It was important to me to have that time before I left – tying up loose ends, deciding what to take home and what to leave behind, and bonding with my co-workers over coffee or tea, along with a seemingly endless supply of junk food and snacks in the office lunch room.

In a way, it provided closure for me, and helped me prepare to move forward.

As I fine-tune my resume in preparation for a job fair next week, I think about the  writing and journalism skills I honed at the paper, but also about the intangibles I gained – many of them in the lunch room, where there was, in addition to food, a seemingly endless supply of good conversation and lessons about life.

 

Thoughts on celebrity, and Dr. Ruth

I had a few ideas for what to write on my blog today, but scrapped them when I read Judith Timson’s column in today’s Toronto Star. She wrote about the influence celebrities have on our lives – a timely topic, prompted by the buzz around the Toronto International Film Festival, which ends on Sunday. But it was Timson’s own thoughts as a journalist that struck a chord with me. “Up until this year, as a journalist, I did not have one picture of myself with a celebrity,” she wrote. She now has one, which she has “shamelessly” framed.

As a reporter at The Canadian Jewish News for 22 years, I never asked for a picture of myself with a celebrity (it doesn’t sound like Timson did either), but I do have one or two.

In 1999, I interviewed Dr. Ruth Westheimer at her hotel over tea, when she was in Toronto for the Canadian Booksellers Association trade show. We talked mostly about her then-newest book, Dr. Ruth’s Pregnancy Guide for Couples, but I ended the article by writing, “Unlike some celebrities, she loves bme & dreing recognized. ‘It’s nice to be Dr. Ruth,’ she said.”

The world-famous sex therapist, a child survivor of the Holocaust, was a delight to interview – articulate and candid, with things to say that were worth hearing. Her trademark giggle and impish humour made her a lot of fun to talk to. She told me at the time that she wasn’t computer literate yet, but I googled her this morning, and see that she is now on Twitter.

I believe she was the one who suggested taking a picture of the two of us, although it could have been one of the hotel employees. If she didn’t suggest it, she definitely encouraged it. Who was I to argue?

Before we sat down for our interview, a passerby recognized her, and requested a picture of the two of them together, which Dr. Ruth cheerfully agreed to. “You’re an icon,” the woman said.

I didn’t shamelessly frame the picture of me with Dr. Ruth – it’s in an album – but I am (shamelessly, or not) including it in this post.

 

Websites of interest

Last week, I finally figured out how to add a link on my blog so that it opens in a new window. It’s not difficult, once you know how.

Now that I’ve (more or less) mastered that, I thought it would be fun to practise by including some links that I’ve found interesting.

Not long after I reported in the mid-1990s about the new “information superhighway,” I discovered the website of The Jerusalem Post.  I liked it for its news, but also – thanks to the time difference – because I could read tomorrow’s news today – for real!

The New York Times wedding section has also held my interest for a long time. I admit to being drawn by the feel-good stories about the featured couples, but I’m also interested in the implicit social commentary – the number of ceremonies officiated by friends instead of clergy, the rise in same-sex ceremonies, and the mix of innovation and tradition.

When it looked like The Canadian Jewish News was going to shut down, I couldn’t help thinking of the classic final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I watched the first half and the second half on youtube when I got home the day the announcement was made. I still can’t watch it without Kleenex. Like the fictional characters at the WJM-TV newsroom, I was fortunate to work for years with a wonderful and sometimes quirky group of co-workers who became a second family.

Although these days, I am more likely to access websites via Twitter, Google or Facebook, I go straight to snopes.com whenever I’m skeptical about the truth of an email or email attachment. Very useful site!

Now that I’m reaching the end of this blog post, I realize that it wasn’t just practice for me. I previewed the post, and tested the links to make sure they worked. Groan! About half of them didn’t. It turns out that writing this entry has been a learning experience too.

My Little Orange Notebook

About a month before I lost my job, I bought a little orange notebook that has kept me on track since I stopped working.

In April, after the president of The Canadian Jewish News announced that the paper would cease publication, neither I nor my co-workers knew what was next for us. As it turned out, many of them are still at The CJN, because the board reconsidered its decision following a public outcry. The paper is being published again after a six-week hiatus, but about a third of the staff lost their jobs as part of a restructuring to make The CJN financially viable.

Meanwhile, I’ve filled 26 pages with ideas, as well as a post-work “to-do” list that I’ve been adding to as I go along.

Yesterday I spent time looking through my notebook. It’s a good yardstick for me, so that I can see how far I’ve come.  It also prompted me to dredge up some of the older items and give them higher priority on my to-do list.

My first entry, dated May 12, had to do with my new LinkedIn membership. “Add experience [to my profile],” I wrote.

“Start a blog,” was another entry.  I’d forgotten how much research I did before taking that step. I looked at the pros and cons of various blog hosts, and examined food blogs and writers’ blogs. I found out what I could about blogging, in general.

I considered various names for my blog, some of which were taken, but in the end opted just to use my own name.

The notebook also has entries related to a book that’s been percolating in my head for the past few years, and even a couple of ideas for more books.

As well, I have entries related to courses that could help me in my job search.

My biggest fear about losing my job was that I would have too many hours to fill, and I wouldn’t know how to use them well. My little orange notebook is helping to ensure that isn’t the case.

 

Serendipity, Jane Lynch, and me

It’s a long time since I’ve had to look for a job. Before I joined The Canadian Jewish News in the early 1990s, I was a stay-at-home mom hoping to find time to write the occasional freelance article.

To be honest, serendipity had a lot to do with my career path. “Full-time staff reporter” wasn’t a job I applied for, or even one I thought I’d be able to fit into my life. I had written a total of four freelance articles for The CJN over a period of several years when I heard then-editor Patricia Rucker speak at my synagogue. I approached her after her talk, and she invited me to send her a copy of my CV. One thing led to another. I was asked to cover an event, then a second one. I became a regular freelancer for the paper, then a once-a-week proofreader as well. A reporter job became available, and it provided me not only with work I loved, but the flexibility to carpool my kids and be available for them when they needed me, as long as I covered some weeknight and Sunday events.

That’s why I was intrigued by a quote in a recent Toronto Star article by Richard Ouzounian. He wrote about Jane Lynch, aka Sue Sylvester on the TV hit Glee:

“Ask Lynch where she wants her career to go next, however, and the answer is surprising.

‘I don’t make lists. I don’t have aspirations. It’s served me well. I do all the footwork and then I allow the universe to roll in at my feet. I make good decisions when they’re offered to me, but I don’t go looking for them.’ ”

Lynch’s philosophy resonated with me. I’m brushing up my resume and looking for work, but I’m also hoping to create a bit of serendipity – networking, and reminding myself to stay open to possibilities.

Cooking and writing

My friend Brenda suggested that on my last day of work I cook a yummy dinner and surround myself with family. Coincidentally, that’s exactly how things played out on the day I learned I’d lost my job as a reporter at The Canadian Jewish News. It was about a month ago, on a Friday, and I’d already invited my mom, my sister, and her family for Shabbat dinner. It turned out to be just what I needed.

Long story short, the president of The CJN had announced in mid-April that the paper would cease publication on June 20 – an apparent casualty of digital competition. But after a public outcry, the paper was saved in June. As part of a plan to ensure financial viability, the staff has been downsized. (The online edition can be seen at www.cjnews.com, and the print edition will resume August 1.)

I’m starting this blog as a way to keep writing, bring some structure to my day, and figure out – or evolve into – what’s next in my life.

I intend to blog about food as well as writing/journalism and career paths. Cooking, like writing, brings me pleasure and fulfils my need to be creative. Brenda’s prescription was therapeutic and enjoyable, and I want to indulge more often.

At the same time, I’ve started to network, look at work opportunities, and consider what it would be like to be self-employed as an alternative to a conventional full-time job. I’m also thinking seriously about writing a book.

But for now – to end, and begin, on a sweet note – I’m returning to the food theme. Our friends Sheldon and Marlene (who, like me, has a taste for chocolate) gave us the Baker’s Best Chocolate Cookbook many years ago as a gift. They were coming over for dinner on Saturday, so I pulled out the cookbook when I was planning our meal. I opted for something simple: Baker’s Classic Brownies. I also found an easy-to-prepare chocolate glaze online at http://www.food.com/recipe/lee-lees-famous-chocolate-sauce-for-ice-cream-19678.

With a small serving of vanilla ice cream, the rich, chewy brownie and warm chocolate glaze hit the spot.

chocolate brownie