A hero’s quest

Once upon a time there was a Journalism student.

She liked writing stories. So she decided to construct her reflective essay within the narrative mode. Also, for some bizarre reason, in the third person. She is beginning to think this might be a bit odd.

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Anyway, this Journalism student studies Writing and Editing at Rhodes University. Her name is Kerstin Hall, though she doesn’t like to spread that around on the internet. She is a little paranoid and prefers to be anonymous where possible.

As this is a fairly conventional story, there needs to be characters that fulfil certain roles. First and foremost, we need a villain. In this epic tale, the villain will be the prospect of failure. We shall christen him: “That Which Shall Not Be Named”. His fiendish minions are called Assignments, Deadlines and Procrastination.

Next. Our hero of the story, the aforementioned Kerstin Hall, requires a goal. In terms of Proppian theory, this would be the “princess” character. But because that’s a lot of patriarchal bullshit and the hero happens to be depressingly straight, the “prince” is now called December Holidays. Or possibly Future Employment. We shall see how this story progresses.

As this piece is going to follow the structure of the quest narrative, it would probably also be sensible to have a dispatcher character and a magical helper character. These will be Wise Sage Gill and Fairy Godmother Lyn respectively.

Once upon a time there was a Journalism student.

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She was already fairly accomplished as a hero, having survived the perils of first semester and the dangers of the Public Service Accountability Monitor course. However, when our story begins she was frustrated with her studies and with journalism in general. Kerstin Hall had a deep, dark secret – she wasn’t a very good journalist.

She was not committed enough to chase down big stories, when smaller ones would suffice. Easily bored and more interested in creative pursuits, she slipped apathetically along, getting sufficient grades and daydreaming. Other students passionately clashed with municipal officers over human rights. Kerstin Hall wrote about aquatic weeds. Other students found paying jobs at Eyewitness News. Kerstin Hall copped out and worked at Grocott’s for a week. Her heart just wasn’t in it.

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Every now and again, she would discover a story to be excited about. There was a real kick to be found in a successful interview. (Aquatic weed control is actually a fascinating area of research.) But the prospect of spending the rest of her life writing hard news stories about leaky Grahamstown plumbing filled her with a dull sense of dread. Yet that’s what real journalists did. Real journalists were cigarette smoking, hard drinking, take-no-prisoners and fight-for-the-truth people. Kerstin Hall very much wanted to be that cool, but didn’t smoke, drink or handle confrontation well.

Our world-weary hero entered the Lab of All Nighters at the beginning of this semester and sighed. What was she doing with her life?

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Into the Lab strode Wise Sage Gill, bespectacled and cheerful, a wizard of language. Kerstin Hall shifted in her seat and quietly sized up this newcomer. On first inspection, she was different from other Journ lecturers, a lot more laidback. It might be a façade, intended to lull the innocent, unsuspecting students into a false sense of security. Kerstin Hall frowned. Would this woman be a force for good or evil?

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There followed some exercises in free writing (which is not Kerstin Hall’s favourite activity) and a vague outline of how the course would operate. Our hero sat up straighter when she heard that the focus would be on developing writing skills. That sounded fun.

And then Wise Sage Gill told the students to write a story about their first lecture with her.

For a brief moment, Kerstin Hall was thrilled. A story? Those were her favourite things!

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But then came the self-doubt and page-fright. You see, Kerstin Hall did not mind if lecturers gave her unsatisfactory marks for the newspaper articles she produced. This was because she did not really care about writing newspaper articles in the first place.

But she did care, very much, about writing stories. Secretly, she liked to think that she was actually quite good at creative writing. And if someone told her she wasn’t, well, she would be sad.

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This was the first time in her university career that she had been explicitly told to write a story. After leaving highschool, education had become very academic with little room for self expression. Kerstin Hall felt panicky, because this would be the first piece of her writing Wise Sage Gill would read. What if it wasn’t any good? What if she wasn’t any good?

And because she was nervous and self-conscious, she played it safe and handed in something mediocre and forgettable. At least it was grammatically correct, she consoled herself as she walked off to lunch. It could have been worse.

Our hero had refused the Call to Action. But, as is the case with all heroes’ journeys, she was afforded another opportunity.

A week later, Kerstin Hall was told to write a piece on “Being a Writer”. And because the topic irked her, she took heart and wrote something with a little more flair.

“I am unfashionably pragmatic.” She began, smiling to herself.

And indeed she is. Kerstin Hall takes a decidedly no-nonsense approach to the task of writing. A few months later, she found a quote that accurately summed up her thoughts on being a writer/artist. She likes it a lot, although it is lengthy.

“Writer’s block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?

The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don’t want to do it, and you can’t think of what to write next, and you’re fed up with the whole damn business. Do you think plumbers don’t feel like that about their work from time to time? Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP…

Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.” ― Philip Pullman

She thinks Philip Pullman is pretty cool.

To her surprise, it conspired that Wise Sage Gill liked the piece she wrote. Particularly the hyperlinks, which subsequently became a standard feature in all of Kerstin Hall’s blog related writings (including this one). Wise Sage Gill also made the comment that she found Kerstin Hall’s work funny.

I’m funny? Kerstin Hall raised an eyebrow. This was not something she had been told before.

eyebrow raise animated GIF Bolstered by her success in the first assignment, she adopted a similar style for the next: an article about failure. She may have gotten a little carried away (and went off on a long tangent about human nature), but to her surprise, her classmates liked this one. It seemed that the juxtaposition of snarky comments with genuine feelings appealed to some of her peers.

“This is such a great piece. Not only does it resonate with me personally, but the writing style is amazing. As it is for all her other posts – if I didn’t think it would make me look really bad I’d reblog all of them. If all you do on my blog is follow this wonderful woman, then I will be immensely happy.”

Huh. Kerstin Hall shook her head. Okay then.

It was around this time that the preliminary results for a certain continent-wide short story competition were released. By some fluke, Kerstin Hall’s poorly written horror story had sneaked onto the list. After several calls to relatives and her best friend, she recommenced breathing and had a look at the other names on the list.

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Four Rhodes students. That was deserving of a story.

She tracked down the Knights of the Pen. They were willing to give interviews. All extremely different, but interesting in their own ways, she found that she related most to Brendan Ward. He was the least accomplished and possibly the most excited.

With her interviews conducted, she sat down at her desk and considered how to tackle the feature story. It was an intimidating beast, very large and temperamental. Taming it would require caution and thought.

Also, she had absolutely no idea how to integrate herself into the piece without sounding pretentious. It was an ethical problem. She didn’t want this is become all about her. Although she didn’t believe in objectivity in Journalism (or life in general), she also was certainly not a fan of blatant narcissism. It seemed more respectful to the Knights of the Pen to simply elide herself. Which she did. And she stands by that decision.

For the first time in years, Kerstin Hall was experiencing validation for her writing. Although she is very practical about the craft, she is not immune to crises of confidence. Self esteem is difficult to maintain in a practice that is so intensely subjective. And while it is all very well for your highschool English teacher to tell you that you are a special snowflake, the reality is that there are many, many more snowflakes that could be far more beautiful than you.

And then came Storify.

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This was Kerstin Hall’s personal demon. She loathed it. She wrote long essays (resplendent with .gifs) on why she loathed it. She practically foamed at the mouth on being told to use it. So, for fear of That Which Shall Not Be Named, she had a conversation with Wise Sage Gill.

“Wise Sage Gill, I hate Storify and don’t want to work with it.”

“Oh. Okay then, you can subedit other people’s work instead.”

“Thank you, Wise Sage Gill.”

And thus the demon was vanquished. Admittedly with considerably more ease than Kerstin Hall was anticipating. The ordeal had been overcome and the quest could continue.

Alongside her personal rantings and ravings on her own blog, Kerstin Hall was also a part of ArtBeat (formerly known as dartabase), a great and noble institution devoted to the arts scene of Grahamstown. Formerly a member of the Health Beat, Kerstin Hall discovered that being an arts writer was actually far more fun. It allowed her much more freedom to write in styles that suited her. She could use metaphors! She could be facetious! She could take lots of pretty pictures! This was great.

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One of her favourite ArtBeat stories was about an art exhibition by Minke Wasserman. She was supposed to be working with fellow Beat Warrior Dave. Kerstin Hall intended to take the photos, while Dave wrote the story. However, she was so inspired by the creepy statues, that she wrote her own Gonzo article to accompany her pictures.

At this point in the adventure, Kerstin Hall met Fairy Godmother Lyn. And it was this Gonzo article, “Darkness and the Bunnyman”, that FG Lyn first waved her magic wand over. As Kerstin Hall is not at all precious about her work, receiving sentence by sentence critique of her stories was a thing most excellent. She was extremely happy to have Lyn as a coach as she felt that their styles and interests were compatible.

Possibly for the first time in her degree, Kerstin Hall was enjoying Journalism.  She was producing articles over and above what was required of her. It was exciting and validating because she was receiving constant feedback. Before, it had felt like she had produced work in a vacuum. She never really knew whether it was good on not. A tutor would slap a mark on an assignment and that would be the end of it. But now, FG Lyn or WS Gill would tell her what was good or what could be improved. It felt like people cared about her.

Her confidence grew and she took more risks, giving the proverbial middle finger to That Which Shall Not Be Named. In particular, her reading reports grew to be a space that invited controversy. Kerstin Hall decided to centre her readings on a common theme: The Pestilence of Patriarchy in Popular Culture (side note: she derives pleasure from plosives).  She read articles and had aggressive opinions, which she framed within the sardonic mode. Lyn apparently found her uproariously funny; although the subject matter was really not that funny at all (trigger warnings for preceding hyperlinks). But Kerstin Hall believed that she could use her newfound humour to convey more serious meanings. Perhaps people would listen to her if she could make them laugh. It was a difficult balance, but she felt she was capable of the task.

It became an exercise in meaning making. Culture had been defined one way, but Kerstin Hall was trying to rewrite it in another. She was striving to reveal the inequalities and inconsistencies of a male-dominated culture and put it up on a pedestal for ridicule. From being a simple, on-the-side-activity, the reading reports came to dominate her blog. Despite an intense dislike of social media, she was surprisingly capable of utilizing the internet as a powerful weapon. She wielded the Interscalibur with dexterity, aided by her background in computer studies. Her timely application of .gifs was particularly good, if she has to say so herself.

The semester drew to a close and Kerstin Hall was able to look back on her achievements with pride. She thinks her blog looks lovely and well-populated. She knows she contributed more to ArtBeat than was asked of her. She has written a Mills & Boon of note.

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But more than that, she has gained confidence. She is less afraid of sharing her creative writing, the stuff she cares about, with other people. When writing articles, she is prepared to throw out the inverted pyramid handbook and simply craft the story in the way she thinks is best. Sometimes she makes jokes and that is okay. It doesn’t mean she can’t also be a serious journalist. She’s just coming at it from a different angle, one that suits her skills and tastes.

This semester has been pivotal for our hero. From feeling a mixture of dislike, frustration and apathy towards journalism, she has grown marginally more fond of it. She is now quite determined to hold on to arts journalism and never let go, at least not until she can find work in the publishing industry. And, to her immense surprise, she is actually looking forward to next year.

Of course, first the battle with That Which Must Not Be Named must be fought. There are exams and grades standing in her way. There is no guarantee that she’ll make it and win the reward of December Holidays and Future Employment.

But our hero feels she can win. After all, isn’t that how these stories usually go?

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